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In Development – Tensions in Sideboarding

 

The memory of my first competitive misplay is still vivid, some fifteen years after the fact. I was on the play, with an opening hand whose salient cards were Scrubland, Island, Underground Sea, and Counterspell. I led with Scrubland and immediately realized that wasn’t right. My opponent declined my request to let me take that back and play a different land, and then went ahead and Bolted me on his first turn. I belatedly played my Underground Sea, then watched as he played land, Mox Ruby, Channel, Fireball.

And me with a Counterspell in hand. Tragic.

That tournament preceded the invention of mulligans, meaning you could expect to lose a reasonable slice of games to weak opening hands. It was also before sideboards, so if you ran into a bad matchup, that was another chance for an automatic loss. It was, naturally, also single elimination. You can retroactively sympathize with my pain, if you like.

Although this ancient tournament was rich with the tension of walking into an unpreventable loss due to bad hands or bad matchups, it lacked the kind of positive tension that makes modern Magic such a good, competitive game. Do you keep that shaky opening seven or gamble on picking up a better opening six? Which matchups do you try and address in your main deck, and which ones can you safely relegate to the sideboard, or ignore altogether?

The three key tensions we enjoy during the deck design process are the decision points of (1) which deck archetype we choose, (2) which seventy-five cards we bring, and (3) how we distribute those seventy-five cards across our main deck and sideboard. Notice once again the specific phrasing I used there, as it plays directly into the idea I’m about to present about sideboard design in general, and the construction of full, sideboard-ready versions of the Nayamorphic and Ascension Pulse decks from last week.

Building a sideboard is building a deck

I’ll preface this section by saying that many readers should have seen this idea before. Indeed, the last time I saw it written about in detail by someone other than me was in an article by Zaiem Beg. If this is a refresher for you, that’s great. If not, I encourage you to read the following section and take a shot at making a tournament-ready deck following this method.

For many of us, the intuitive, default way to decide on the actual seventy-five cards we’ll bring to a tournament is to come up with a core sixty for the main deck, and then to find another fifteen cards to staple on to try and shore up specific matchups that the main deck can’t handle. This isn’t the worst way ever to build a deck, but it’s also not great, and it discards some of the advantages that we can gain from thinking of our tournament deck differently.

The basic concept is this – you are bringing seventy-five cards to the tournament, from which you get to deploy sixty at a time.

We put this idea into practice by drafting several versions of our deck, then using those versions to guide our decisions about which seventy-five cards to bring, and which ones to place in the initial main deck or in the sideboard. This helps disconnect us a little from the initial, conceptual sixty we came up with during the design process, which in turn can open us up to design opportunities that we might have otherwise missed. When we approach sideboard design as a separate opportunity to staple fifteen cards onto an extant deck, we’re far too likely to get stuck on those cards we chose when we were drafting the core idea. The process of designing variants of a deck for specific matchups can help avoid this issue of being over-wedded to specific card choices, and that in turn leads to more successful design.

This will be clearer as I put it into practice with the Nayamorphic and Ascension Pulse decks. In both cases, I’m working from the conceptual core sixty cards I discussed last week, but as you’ll see, I don’t approach this stage of deck design by thinking of cards being added to or removed from that core.

Making Nayamorphic tournament-ready

In designing the Nayamorphic seventy-five, I continued to build toward a gauntlet of opposing decks featuring control variants (mostly with Baneslayers), cascade decks, fast-aggro in the form of mono-red, and the combo outliers. I’ll discuss some of the specific Red Team decks I’m using a little later on in today’s column.

Versus Control
Addressing the control matchup, I’m basically satisfied with the creature base I outlined last week, with its decent curve and the late reload offered by Bloodbraid Elf. We also need to have a full set of Path to Exile, as this lets us take out critical blockers such as Baneslayer. Similarly, I like the mixed reach package of Naya Charms and Elspeths. I also took this as an opportunity to try an approach I broached earlier of packing a full four-of of Luminarch Ascension into the deck for this matchup, where it has the tremendous advantage of putting even more pressure on do-nothing control decks that have trouble actually damaging you rather than simply killing your creatures. In the space left, I choose to run four copies of Burst Lightning, as this card can take out early problem creatures and offers a significant reach advantage over Lightning Bolt in the late game. This gives us a deck that looks like this:

Nayamorphic against Control (not recommended)

Note that I’ve started to tag those decks that are developmental examples so that folks who like to skim articles for deck lists aren’t confused.

For the Cascade matchup, the concerns are actually quite similar to those we have for the control matchup. We need to be able to reload our board, and we need reach in case the board is bogged down. In contrast with the control matchup, however, we can’t rely on the opposing deck doing nothing while we’re going for the win, and we have a clear need to be able to point more spells at creatures. Incidentally, two things I picked up while testing the Cascade matchups were to always Bolt the Cobra, and not to sandbag Burst Lightnings in hopes of using them kicked later on. We win a lot more games where we just burn out the opponent’s creatures immediately and keep attacking. Here’s the Cascade list:

Nayamorphic against Cascade (not recommended)

For the mono-red or other fast aggro matchup, we no longer need our reach package. In fact, our concern here is that even if we’re Pathing and Bolting their dudes, the current incarnation of mono-red aggro can pump out so much damage that we can still be burned out despite packing, say, twelve removal spells. As a consequence, we’d love to have four more spells. In fact, it would be great to have four copies of a Lightning Helix that also draws some fire away from us. Here’s how that works out for us:

Nayamorphic versus Mono-Red Aggro (not recommended)

Yes, Ajani Vengeant slides in here at the four-slot, taking out the occasional opposing creature and pumping our life total while simultaneously presenting a second target for our opponent’s aggression.

Finally, we have a sort of catch-all category for dealing with unknown builds, with a specific eye toward thinking about possible combo opposition. In testing to generate this build, I used a Warp World deck as my default opposition, since it’s a good example of a “random” deck that attempts to win through a method that’s orthogonal to any of the other game plans we’re attempting to use or block. Here’s the build we have for this case:

Nayamorphic versus Random (not recommended)

A great “side effect” of this process of tailoring a concept to individual matchups is thinking in more depth about individual card choices. Although the Control and Cascade matchups were pretty straightforward and went quickly, I considered a wide range of card choices before settling on Ajani in the Aggro pairing, covering everything from Captured Sunlight through Behemoth Sledge. Unpairing this portion of the design process from our original core deck idea helps free us up to consider these options. In my case, it definitely makes me more likely to do something like add four copies of a “big card” like a planeswalker that are, in the end, likely to live in the sideboard much of the time.

Now that we have four deck lists, how can we think about them coherently and come up with a final seventy-five, and a final main deck? Here’s what I do:

[Updating editors note: unfortunately the spreadsheet in question is no longer supported by the website, and is lost to time].

 

This is a spreadsheet, but you can just as easily do this on a piece of paper with a highlighter. I’ve written up each variation on the Nayamorphic deck in its own column, making sure that the same cards in each build are on the same row across the entire spreadsheet. I then highlight the cards in different colors that match the number of builds they appear in. In this case, cards appearing in all variants are colored green, cards appearing in three decks are colored yellow, cards appearing in two decks are colored something that Excel tells me is pink but which to my eye is magenta, and single appearances are in blue. This gives me a high-level, at-a-glance understanding of how my various builds might possibly combine into a unified design.

From here, the temptation is to make the green cards the core deck, then add other cards to the main deck in proportion to how often they appear in the various builds. It’s critical that we realize at this point that these options are not all equally important, and should not be weighted equally. For example, if your FNM environment is rife with aggro and has a dearth of Baneslayers, you may not want to give as much weight to the fact that Elspeth and Naya Charm appear in the Control variation of the deck, and may need to place significantly more value on the need for Ajani Vengeant, perhaps even up to the point of maindecking one or more copies of the card. Going into an environment blind, I’d put significantly less weight on the “Random” category, most likely relegating its specific cards to the sideboard, and effectively reducing the weight of the appearance of Lightning Bolt in that build.

In moving from my spreadsheet to a final, unified Nayamorphic design, I’ve chosen to assume a roughly equivalent distribution of Control, Cascade, and Aggro builds, and as a consequence I’ve placed equal value on those three categories. In contrast, I assume that “Random” decks will be infrequent opponents, and as a result place less value on them. The upshot of all of this thought is that my optimal main deck for game one has four Bolts, two Charms, and two Elspeths, but no Acensions or Ajanis.

The cards left behind include the Ascensions, Ajanis, and Oblivion Rings, giving us twelve sideboard cards. This happens sometimes, although I usually take it as a sign that my knowledge of the environment, or perhaps even the environment itself, is underdeveloped. Absent any additional information to make me want to build more variations, this is a good opportunity to ask myself what other seemingly random designs might pop up. The first that came to mind was “Soldiers,” so I put in three copies of [card]Earthquake[/card], as that’s likely to be much worse for them than for me, overall.

The end result of this process looks like this:

Nayamorphic

This is the seventy-five card build I’d take with me to a Standard tournament today if I felt like running the Nayamorphic concept. Astute observers may notice that the main deck ended up being the same as the conceptual sixty from last week. This can happen, but is not necessarily the expected result.

Making Ascension Pulse tournament-ready

Now that I’ve introduced the spreadsheet format, I’ll start by showing my set of Ascension Pulse variations, and then discuss some of the thought that went into them:

It’s likely a feature of control decks in general to have more variability across tailored builds than aggro decks, as the overall control component of the deck’s game plan can appear in a wider range of incarnations, and the core “win condition” element takes up less space in the deck.

In the Control matchup, the slower pace of the game lets me relax the need for earlier removal, favoring Pulses and Judgments as a means to deal with opposing Baneslayers or Ob Nixes. This, in turn, means I can run a full quartet of Bloodwitches to stymie the expected abundance of white-based point removal, and three copies of Identity Crisis to wipe opposing hands. I have two copies of Liliana here as an effective multiplier for all my utility cards in the late game, or as a card advantage machine in those cases where I don’t need to be tutoring things up. Clearly, this deck is tuned for a slow control matchup and would die horribly against any aggro variant.

For the Cascade matchup, we need some more low-curve removal as well as something to demolish one of those big turns that Cascade decks can serve up. Thus, we have four Paths and one Martial Coup. The two Lilianas stay in, since I’ve found that, once again, it’s helpful to have two “wildcard” slots so that you can get the Martial Coup at will, but otherwise spend time just grabbing utility spells you need.

The Aggro variation took the most time for me to figure out, and required the greatest divergence from the conceptual sixty I started with. Continuing with today’s theme, there was a great deal of interesting design tension in trying to figure out how to deal with aggro’s early game. Cards I considered included Knight of the Reliquary, Knight of the White Orchid, Grizzled Leotau, Vampire Nighthawk, and Doom Blade. The two Knights didn’t make the cut by dint of being boltable and not doing enough to affect the relevant value – my life total. Nighthawk is an exciting option since it can trade with anything and dig you out of a hole, but early double black is not something this deck can serve up reliably without mutilating its mana base. Doom Blade is good because it can kill a Ball Lightning, but is a little slow. Finally, I found Disfigure, which I’d initially overlooked because it felt too limited, but which actually fits the bill amazingly, as it’s active immediately and it kills every relevant threat in the aggro matchup. A similarly extensive search for life gain finally netted me Wall of Reverence, which also led to an overall reconsideration of how these games are playing out that saw me cutting all the copies of Day of Judgment.

The Random category focuses on adding in more disruption and trying to race a little bit better.

Once again, going in blind, I’d weight my choices evenly across the first three categories. Looking at them, it was clear that I’d generally need Paths and Judgments, so those made it into the main. Following that, I leveraged the “wild card” value of Liliana in making my remaining decisions, letting myself be satisfied with a single copy of Identity Crisis, and two Bloodwitches. This time around, I was left with a surplus of potential sideboard cards, and had to cut five to get the final sideboard you see below. I chose to cut the cards that were dedicated to the least likely matchup, meaning that the anti-combo Knights, and one of their companion Duresses, left. Here’s the final build:

Ascension Pulse

 

Hopefully this has been a clear introduction to the idea of building to the whole seventy-five, as well as an interesting exercise in breaking away from our preconceptions about how close we do or do not want to stick to our “conceptual sixty.” I think the sideboarding decisions that are intrinsic to the Ascension Pulse versus fast aggro matchup are particularly interesting, as they required the greatest willingness on my part to throw out elements of the deck that could, at a glance, seem fundamental to its identity.

 

A snapshot of our target

The pool of decks we test against is necessarily a moving target. In the future, I’d like to address how I generate that target. In the meantime, in response to a request from last week, here’s a current sampling of actual deck lists that I’ve been testing against. I’m not responsible for making any of these, and will be crediting their creators accordingly.

Baneslayer Control by Manuel Bucher

 

Mono-Red Aggro by Josh Utter-Leyton

 

 

Warp World by Josh Silvestri

 

 

 

Jund Cascade by Jack Wang

See you next week.

[Updating Editors note, yes thats a 16 card Sideboard on Jund.]

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