Sideboarding is an ever changing process, there’s no formula. This article was inspired by the sheer volume of people I have had ask me about how to sideboard with my Mono-Black Devotion deck in Standard and the answer is always the same: there is no solution.
It is extremely difficult to have a sideboarding plan be 100% correct unless you knew exactly how your opponent was going to sideboard. Assume you have a “deck” that looks like this
You play an entire rock-paper-scissors tournament and every player has the exact same deck list. How do you sideboard?
How I sideboard depends wholly on how I think my opponent will sideboard. If I had Telepathy in play in this hypothetical tournament and I could see how my opponent sideboarded every round, I could sideboard in a way that gave myself the best chance of winning.
But seriously, how do you sideboard?
The Mono-Black Devotion mirror is a tough nut to crack. With a card like Hero’s Downfall, its value fluctuates wildly based on what you think your opponent may have and how they may sideboard. Hero’s Downfall is at its best if you know your opponent will have both Nightveil Specter and Desecration Demon in their deck after sideboarding—this gives the Downfall a good number of targets that are otherwise tough to deal with. If you play an entire game 1 and you see a Lifebane Zombie or two, this makes it less likely they will have Nightveil Specter in their deck and on top of that they could sideboard out their Desecration Demons. If this happens, Hero’s Downfall is terrible.
Additionally if I ever play against an Orzhov midrange deck I always have a tough time knowing exactly what to do with my Downfalls. They are a great answer to Desecration Demon but that is basically it. If my opponent’s main game plan is to beat me with Blood Baron of Vizkopa and Underworld Connections then it’s clear that Hero’s Downfall is an atrocious, reactive card to play with. On top of that it’s a really poor card to have in your opening hand—it does nothing to help your own game plan and detracts from hands that focus on Underworld Connections or go for the old faithful plan of Thoughtseize into Pack Rat. I have run in to trouble sideboarding out all my Hero’s Downfalls entirely, since you become susceptible to Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. I like to think that having 4 Thoughtseize as well as the Gray Merchant of Asphodel plan is enough to stop the planeswalker, but it’s the single card I lose to the most often so I think I need to rethink my strategy.
If you see a Temple of Malice you can be reasonably certain that your opponent doesn’t have Pack Rat in his list and adjust accordingly, this means side out your Bile Blights. This can be risky because if they do have Pack Rat then you just made a huge error, but if you could somehow know exactly how your opponent’s deck is configured you can make a great improvement to your deck.
A clear instance of great sideboarding is when I used to (and still do) sideboard in my Lifebane Zombies against a Mono-Blue Devotion deck. It’s a clear-cut example of finding a weakness in the opposing deck and exploiting it. I didn’t put Lifebane Zombie in my sideboard for the purpose of attacking for 3 against a deck with Thassa in it, I put it in my deck because it’s extremely powerful against white and green creature decks.
Once I sit down for the match, I don’t need to consult my sideboard guide that has the Lifebane Zombie penciled in for the white weenie and Jund monsters matchup—I can just look at it and see its power in any matchup. It takes a true understanding of the matchup to prefer Lifebane Zombie over Underworld Connections based on the way the games play out. It’s a race, and tapping out while reducing my own life total for long-term card advantage doesn’t interest me in the slightest. Lifebane Zombie, on the other hand, supplements my existing game plan extremely well and adds a new threat to my arsenal. I like having hands that have all removal spells and a quick clock, and Lifebane Zombie provides the clock.
Duress is a card I have a tough time figuring out exactly what to do with. In the mirror match Duress, can be great at both removing the opponent,s Underworld Connections, which is the most important card by far, or removing a key piece of removal before casting a threat. The mirror match can appear very random, and playing the games feels a little helpless, since I feel I’m just always at the mercy of the top of my opponent’s library. When your plan is just to hope that the opponent doesn’t draw Underworld Connections then Duress is very attractive, it gives you the ability to control that aspect of the game.
I like Duress but it is not without its faults. First, it’s hard to get a really strong opening hand when you have both 4 Duress and 4 Thoughtseize because you have fewer threats. I also dislike the fact that if my opponent and I both strip each other’s hand into oblivion then I have so many useless topdecks in the form of the discard spells. Additionally, if you have Underworld Connections in play, it is essential to make sure you have good cards to draw in to—too many times have I fallen for the trap of all card advantage all the time and I play a Divination only to draw two more Divinations and I die to a Grizzly Bears.
It’s also really hard to know how your opponent will react to commonly known information. In Modern, I frequently run into the problem of my opponent dodging my sideboard cards. I will add Grafdigger’s Cage against Birthing Pod decks, but the smart Pod players take out all their Chord of Callings and side out one or more Birthing Pods to make it so when I draw my Grafdigger’s Cage I just effectively mulliganed. At the last Pro Tour I played 1 copy of Grafdigger’s Cage and 1 copy of Torpor Orb, and in both my matches against Melira Pod decks I lost the first game and drew the Grafdigger’s Cage after sideboard while my opponent both drew zero Birthing Pods and drew their 1 copy of Shriekmaw. If only I could have had the Torpor Orb instead, things would have looked much better for me, but maybe I just got outplayed in sideboarding as they likely removed many of the cards the Cage is at its best against.
At GP Atlanta a few years ago I remember playing a Faeries deck in Extended that had an amazing sideboard coupled with a solid plan for almost every matchup.
For this particular event Faeries was on everyone’s radar and they came packing with Volcanic Fallouts. I felt like a genius each time I played a matchup and would sideboard out my Spellstutter Sprites for Vampire Nighthawks that were just out of range of those Fallouts and hard to remove or race. In fact, most people I played against either just died to the Nighthawk straight-up or had a Path to Exile to remove it, ramping me into my much-needed 5th or 6th land to power out one of those Wurmcoil Engines in the sideboard—the true trump card in the matchup. I’ll admit that it’s silly to have ever played Mistbind Clique over Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but where I failed to do that correctly, I had the rest just spot-on and the deck was totally busted for the tournament.
It’s a true skill in Magic to know an effective sideboard card in a matchup as opposed to a sideboard card that is commonly played and simply doesn’t do the trick. I’m reminded of people who try to beat Dredge with Surgical Extraction—trying to patch a bullet wound with a band aid. Even trying to beat Sneak and Show by just putting Ashen Riders in your deck might win you a few games, but you’ll look foolish when you draw your sideboard card and it does nothing against an opponent who puts Sneak Attack into play and kills you with an Emrakul.
I understand that much of this article is just saying when a certain sideboard can be good and when a certain sideboard card can be ineffective, but the big takeaway is that the power of any Magic card is contextual and you need to constantly reevaluate how you look at each card. If I knew my opponent would have 4 Dark Betrayal in his sideboard I would do everything in my power to have all my Duress and zero of my Desecration Demons.
Sometimes sideboarding can be very hard—You have to learn how your cards interact with each other and how they interact with your opponent’s cards in game one and against what you expect them to be bringing in. I change how I sideboard all the time and I can’t claim to be correct all the time but I do my best to try to give myself the best chance of winning. Luckily for me much of the time it’s clear cut like when you can play against a Mono-Black Aggro deck and side out your Doom Blade which has no targets for a Dark Betrayal which is awesome.
This last weekend I played Reanimater and I loved it. In one round I would sideboard into a deck with 4 Show and Tell and beat people who had untapped Deathrite Shaman and a Surgical Extraction in their hand, just proving that I had a superior strategy. Other rounds I would go into game 3 and I would have adjusted my deck exactly zero cards. This came up when I played against a deck that had Thoughtseize and Cabal Therapy as well as Spell Pierce in their deck, and I knew they weren’t trying to aggressively fight my graveyard but rather they were trying to fight my spells as I cast them and redundancy is what I needed to win, my plan A was good enough and there was no reason to deviate.
“Just cut the do-nothings and add the do-everythings” – Gabriel Nassif
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