Last week, I set out to explore the relationship between “hate cards” and the linear strategies they combat. Specifically, I looked at how hate cards for artifact-, enchantment-, and graveyard-based strategies have evolved over the years as a response to power-creep and synergy. Now it’s time to branch out and explore the evergreen and abstract ways the sideboard has been utilized throughout history and across different types of matchups.
“Hate” Cards Existed Before Sideboards
Before there was ever a sideboard to tap into there were “hate” cards. When Magic was initially released it didn’t come equipped with elaborate tournament floor rules roughly the length of War and Peace, rather it came with a tiny pamphlet explaining the basic rules:
As Magic‘s popularity grew during its first year and people gathered to battle one another, it became clear standardized rules for matches, tournament play, and deck construction were necessary to keep things fun, fair, and fresh.
The Duelist Convocation International (DCI) stepped up and defined guidelines for tournament play, many of which we still adhere to this day! For instance, a limit of four copies of an individual card, a Banned & Restricted List, and the use of a sideboard to alter deck construction during a match are examples of added rules that significantly shape how we play decades later.
From the oldest copy of the DCI floor rules I could find:
“5. Players must use the same deck they begin the tournament with throughout the duration of the tournament. The only deck alteration permitted is through the use of the Sideboard (see Deck Construction Rules, rule #1). If a player intends to use a Sideboard during the course of a match, they must declare to their opponent that they will be using the Sideboard prior to the beginning of that match. Players may exchange cards from their deck for cards from their Sideboard on a one-for-one basis at any time between duels or matches. There are no restrictions on how many cards a player may exchange in this way at any given time. Prior to the beginning of any duel, each player must allow their opponent to count, face down, the number of cards on their Sideboard. If a player’s Sideboard does not total exactly 15 cards, the Referee or an Assistant Referee must be consulted to evaluate the situation before the dual can begin. If a player claims that they are not using a Sideboard at the beginning of the match, ignore this counting procedure for that player, but no deck alteration of any kind will be permitted by the Referee for that player for the duration of that match. Any violation of this rule may be interpreted by the Referee as a Declaration of Forfeiture.”
The creation of the sideboard increased the value of a subset of narrow but powerful spells, and hate cards now had an established space—the sideboard.
Magic‘s first release, Alpha/Beta, contains a massive swath of hate spells that punish a player for relying too heavily upon a specific angle of attack (color, land type, or card type). In fact, it has a higher concentration of hate cards than any other set! In addition to having a ton of hate cards, the first core set and pre-tournament era expansions included answers to all types of cards:
We overlook how strategically balanced early design was, at least in terms of providing counterpoints to existing strategies. It may seem counterintuitive to identify balance as a strength of early sets’ known broken and undercosted designs, yet as we look to context it becomes clear Magic wasn’t conceived as the competitive tournament game it grew into.
In tournament context, it mattered that certain cards were disproportionately efficient for their cost. It’s obvious from interviews with early playtesters in the Pocket Player’s Handbook (which discusses early design and is an extremely interesting read) that Magic wasn’t intended as a competitive tournament game at the time of its conception or initial release.
There is clear acknowledgement Black Lotus and Ancestral Recall were overpowered compared to other cards, but this was to be balanced out in a couple of ways. First, early designers assumed that playgroups would be confined to limited card pools and balanced by redistributing powerful cards within the playgroup via wagering an ante.
The area with the greatest amount of unbalance was blue’s slice of the color pie and the cost of its signature spells:
Blue was simply deeper and had more powerful, more efficient spells to choose from which explains its dominance.
While the Pocket Player’s Guide doesn’t overtly mention it, making the clearly most powerful cards in the game “rares” incentivized players and collectors to buy more product, which is a design tactic we see in Magic to this day, i.e., most planeswalkers are mythic rares.
Either way, the early designers and playtesters appear to have seen Magic as a game played at the kitchen table and not as the expansive, international, competitive tournament circuit it ultimately became.
The disproportionately high power level of the “best cards” created serious obstacles that would need to be overcome by the DCI’s tournament rules. For instance, decks such as this one:
Humbled to be able to play this today at the Wizards tournament. All of my opponents have been great sports. @mgdelaval was able to thwart a first turn Victory by playing Twiddle on both Vises! pic.twitter.com/msG7mQbjOl
— Stephen Menendian (@SMenendian) April 18, 2019
I came to the tournament to play Magic and whatever game you are playing doesn’t feel like Magic!
Card limitations and restrictions dramatically reigned in broken strategies and sideboard play provided players answers to the most popular and powerful decks. We also see a more consistent power level of cards released and designed with the aid of the DCI Tournament Rules as a guideline for tournament play. We see a sharp departure from cheap card advantage, free mana like Moxen, and broken lands like Workshop, Strip Mine, and Library of Alexandria.
The DCI also split tournaments into two types: Type 1 and Type 2 (which would later become Vintage and Standard), Type 1 allowed for the broken cards to be played with a one-copy-per-deck restriction and those cards (mostly eradicated from the 3rd Edition card pool) were outright banned from Type 2 (Type 2 also had a Restricted List at the time which included Balance and Sol Ring!).
With the amount of broken scaled back to a manageable level, the sideboard became an important fixture of tournament play.
The Elemental Blasts (and close on their heels, the Ice Age functional reprints) are relics from a time when costs and effects were still being balanced, and tournament Magic and sideboarding were just emerging. The Blast cycle saw reprints and was a defining feature of how sideboard play worked early on. Obviously, Red Elemental Blast seems tame compared to Ancestral Recall, Mana Drain, or Time Walk.
The Blasts remain fixtures of Eternal formats like Vintage, Legacy, and even Pauper because there simply hasn’t been a more powerful design in terms of flexibility-to-cost printed since, and that’s probably a good thing!
I also have to make note of another huge innovation in sideboard cards that is directly linked to being “more efficient.”
REB and BEB are the template for narrow but more efficient permission. Unlike the Blast, which can only hit blue and red spells, these cheap countermagic variants have different conditions but are not limited to only working against specific colors, which makes them more useful against a wider scope of strategies.
These spells allow players to pick and choose exactly how they want to interact with different types of decks and create a lot of potential decisions both with regard to deck construction and gameplay.
There was a time when if your opponent didn’t have UU up, it almost certainly meant your spell would resolve if you had Force of Will to back it up. The creation of these spells certainly complicated how interacting on the stack would work!
Even Force of Negation can be lumped into the lineage of cheaper, narrower, more efficient sideboard interaction.
In a world where 1-mana interaction was scarce but fast decks still existed, one of the best ways to ensure not getting run over by combo was by picking away their key cards. 1-mana hand disruption such as Duress or Thoughtseize has played a big role in slowing down combo and creating immediate interaction with the opponent.
A recent beefed-up Elemental Blast variant that also draws a card has proven problematic for tournament play across formats and has already been banned in Pioneer and Standard, proving that overpowered sideboard cards can affect a tournament format as adversely as proactive threats do.
It’s also interesting how old designs often emerge as the premier answers to new designs in the present they were not intended to answer. Red Elemental Blast’s stock as a sideboard card has only increased over the years since it is the best possible answer to blue planeswalkers—on the stack or in play.
Pernicious Deed is another example of a great card that got significantly better based on how it lined up with powerful new types of cards.
The wording of P-Diddy allows it to sweep up artifact lands for 0 mana, which made it The Rock’s premier weapon against Extended Affinity decks.
Context determines so much of reality, and this is especially true in games of Magic. The difference in gameplay, between a limited card pool at the kitchen table for Ante, and mix / maxing the most powerful combinations of cards in tournament play clearly dictate two different styles of Magic. In a Tournament Setting, one of the most important contexts that will dictate how games of Magic play out is how mana can be produced and how it can be used. It’s a critically important dynamic that impacts how sideboarding worked in the past and continues to work in the present.
Land Ho! vs. Land No!
Mana production, consistency, and superiority have always played a role in tournament Magic. A handful of sweet spells doesn’t account for much when they can’t be deployed in time.
Mana is the building block from which all strategies take shape. It has always been important, and the relationship between what we pay and what we get plays a huge role in determining how effective a strategy can be in relation to other strategies.
It’s also clear that how mana works and how we interact with it has undergone an evolution over the years. The further back we venture into Magic‘s history, the more powerful the mana denial designs:
While these cards are off the charts, it’s also important to understand the context:
One’s ability to generate mana and cast spells was less reliant upon having a bunch of physical lands in play than it is in modern Magic.
So, while land destruction was more powerful, there were more ways around it. As design moved away from fast mana for tournament play, it was clear that how we interact with an opponent’s mana also needed a reboot.
Basic Lands Are Sacred
Nonbasic land hate became the future of Magic in the pre-Modern era.
The DCI floor rules identified a difference between basic lands (unlimited copies in a deck) and nonbasic land (restricted to four or one copies per) but Blood Moon was the first of many designs to bring the distinction into the actual gameplay.
The idea of addressing powerful nonbasic lands, without simply rendering an opponent manaless in a post-Mox world, is a trajectory that began with Blood Moon and plays out to this day. Albeit, Blood Moon is effective in many scenarios at rendering an opponent sufficiently mana screwed with many lands in play, but “hey, you chose to play all those nonbasics!”
After Blood Moon, there is a gradual shift where much of the land destruction is directed at nonbasic lands:
I said there was a trajectory, but it’s clear that in the pre-Modern world these cards were highly effective at potentially mana screwing an opponent who relies too heavily on nonbasic lands. Basics were protected like an endangered species.
While blowing up an opponent’s lands (especially after sideboarding) has always been a thing, so was taking preventive countermeasures to protect your mana!
When you know that people will be trying to blow up your mana left and right, it makes sense to ensure your mana stays in play. I used to play Sacred Ground religiously in my sideboard during the era of powerful mana denial.
Another neat example of a card specifically designed to curtail mana denial:
Before Teferi became synonymous with card designs many would describe as playing solitaire, he was the patron saint of niche scenarios. Teferi’s Response was an answer to a dominant mana denial card:
The pre-tournament mana denial designs functioned as templates for scaled-back tournament variants. Wasteland is a Strip Mine that can’t hit basics. Ruination is an Armageddon that can’t hit basics. Choke is a Tsunami on a Null Rod. You can’t blow up all the lands, but you can attack specific subsets of lands directly.
With that said, 8th Edition is an interesting cross-section of pre-Modern design that continues to exist in the modern world.
Just be thankful Armageddon wasn’t in 8th Edition!
In the Modern era, we see a decisive shift away from designs intended to directly mana screw an opponent into submission.
These modern designs allow players to remove a specific nonbasic land from play all in a way that doesn’t set the opponent back a land drop in the early turns of the game. Often the opponent is able to search their library for one of those sacred basics to replace the slain nonbasic.
These types of cards are important Modern counterpoints to powerful lands such as the Urza Tron cycle, also a relic from early design that was shoehorned into the Modern format via 8th Edition.
One of the reasons Urza Tron has carved out such a nice niche for itself in Modern is that the types of mana denial designs from the pre-Modern Era that historically kept these types of nonbasic land strategies in check (by hardcore mana screwing them) do not abundantly exist as a supported type of Modern card design.
The irony of not being allowed to mana screw Tron decks, as they mana screw me with 7-drop ‘walkers and 10-drop Eldrazi on turns three and four is palpable.
The important thing that all this background informs with regard to sideboarding is how the sets included in a format inform the ways we can interact with our opponent’s mana, particularly when it comes to angles of attack that rely on mana screwing an opponent and taking away their ability to play spells, i.e., locking them out.
Post-Sideboard Mana Warfare
Dedicated land destruction decks are a direction of design and play that has been largely abandoned in the past decade. To be fair, decks that are designed to outright mana screw an opponent don’t typically foster the most entertaining and interactive gameplay. With that said, we players find creative workarounds when they crop up:
Outside of the many corner-case scenarios where decks are able to build combos to attack mana, it is much more common to achieve mana superiority through efficiency rather than outright mana denial.
Red Deck Wins is a great example of a highly mana-efficient strategy. It can often win simply by deploying its threats with a speed that puts the opponent off balance and unable to keep up. It creates a window of opportunity and climbs through.
“Ramping” is another way to win a battle of mana efficiency and various decks can ramp a little or even a lot. Different strategies are hoping to achieve a critical mass of mana at various points in the game and utilize different tools to do so.
The flavors of mana accelerators often dictate the best strategies! Developing consistent mana production is what allows decks to do their thing and win the game.
An Affinity deck, for instance, wants to make 2 mana on the first turn or 3 mana on the second turn.
A Primeval Titan deck wants to make 6 mana on turn four.
A Collected Company deck wants to make 4 mana on turn three to cast its namesake card.
A Tron deck wants to make 7 mana on turn three to cast a robot.
When we sideboard, it’s important to think about where our opponent’s mana is coming from and how they intend to use it against us so that we can reposition our strategy to interact on the most meaningful axis possible.
Crumble to Dust, in the abstract, is a great card against Tron. The tactical problem is that it is a 4-mana answer in a world where you need to interact by turn three. It’s a much more effective tool in a deck that can Disdainful Stroke or Negate the turn-three Karn, untap, and fire off a Crumble. With the London Mulligan rule firmly in place to ensure decks have more consistent starts, it has become even more important to anticipate how mana, threats, and answers line-up in real time.
Bolt the Bird!
“Bolt the Bird!” is an interaction as old as Magic itself. In the Modern era you are largely prohibited from going after the opponent’s lands directly in the early turns of a game, but mana dorks and mana rocks are fair game.
The types of mana accelerants allowed in a format dictate what the most effective answers will be after sideboard.
What is better than trading 1-for-1 at even cost? Trading with upside! Gut Shot allows a player to exchange 2 life for a mana dork and thus frees up resources to make other plays more quickly. Twisted Image has long played a role in mana denial, since many of the best mana dorks have zero power and die of embarrassment when forced to do the twist.
Cheap favorable exchanges with mana dorks are a great way to jump-start your offense while restricting your opponent’s ability to rev their mana engines, but a broader approach can be equally effective.
Cheap sweepers provide a way to win the early stages of mana development, as well as mana efficiency, by clearing away multiple cheap creatures at a bargain basement price. Not only are such plays highly efficient, but also create the potential to generate card advantage.
The contents of your deck will often dictate which approach works best when trying to sideboard against a fast creature deck. Obviously, a deck that plays its own cheap creatures will not risk putting them in the path of a Pyroclasm, which makes options like Gut Shot, Dismember, or Twisted Image a more natural fit.
If your opponent’s mana development relies heavily upon Moxen, artifact lands, or mana rocks, you can attempt to set them back by attacking those resources as well.
Attacking the means through which an opponent generates mana is one way to win a battle for mana superiority, but another way is to bring in specific ways to out-mana an opponent early on:
Carpet of Flowers has long been a way for combo decks to jump start their mana against blue control decks. A resolved Carpet will generate so much mana that it’s difficult or impossible for a blue deck to put enough interaction onto the stack in time.
Less absurd than Carpet of Flowers, Modern designs afford ways to jump-start mana while shoring up some other problems. Glazer played a role in Simic decks against both Esper Control and mono-colored aggro by getting lands onto the board more quickly and laying down critical blocks against Thief of Sanity or aggressive clocks.
The examples thus far are obviously about mana because they involve cards that either make mana, or answer cards that make mana. What if we are playing decks that don’t use mana accelerants?
We can win mana exchanges by becoming more efficient. One of the best examples of this dynamic I’ve experienced is sideboarding with Jeskai Snow against Mono-Red Burn in Pauper.
The red deck’s pure efficiency and consistency to deal damage made it difficult to win pre-sideboarded games where my opponent drew a reasonable ratio of spells to lands. Burn’s ability to deploy threats quickly outraced my ability to come up with answers. In particular, there were choke points in a match where I needed to take the shields down to deploy expensive cards in order to make plays that my opponent could easily exploit for advantage.
I played four copies of Blast and it dramatically changed how games played out. A redundancy of cheap, flexible ways to interact took away Burn’s natural advantage of mana efficiency and allowed me to interact early and transition to the midgame where my card advantage shined.
As a rule of thumb, when I sideboard I almost always tend to lower my curve.
The thing about “rules of thumb” is that they don’t always hold true! There are plenty of cases where the best possible ways to win a matchup revolve around cards and strategies that don’t necessarily make your deck sleeker.
A matchup between two controlling decks often creates a dynamic where both players are more efficient at answering threats than deploying them. In these instances, it’s often ideal to bring in threats that are difficult to answer.
If the plan you decide to execute involves substantially raising the curve of the cards in the deck, it makes sense to also reconfigure your mana base to accommodate the changes. There’s nothing worse than drawing a third Carnage Tyrant and not having a sixth land. It’s a recipe for disaster!
Slow control mirrors with more answers than threats tend to break down into a play pattern called “draw-go” where nobody wants to be the one to play the first threat (since it will undoubtedly be met with a counterspell, giving the opponent a chance to untap and play their own threat while you are tapped out).
Often, what dictates who will have to make the first move depends upon who starts missing land drops first. Not only will they fall behind in the battle for mana superiority, but will also be forced to discard to hand size. Boarding in additional lands for a matchup like this helps insulate you against missing land drops and falling behind.
In Eternal Formats, where Old-School Mana Denial is alive and kicking, it can also pay to bring in extra lands to help avoid being mana screwed.
I’ve played Vintage Mishra’s Workshop decks that have played as many as eight lands in the sideboard. Additional “strip lands” helped to ensure that I’d be the one with lands left over after several strip exchanges had played out. The strip effects are also quite useful against Bazaar of Baghdad.
How mana production works from one matchup to another is always variable, but it can be redefined via the use of the sideboard. Some matchups reward you for speeding up, some reward you for slowing the opponent down, some reward you for going bigger or smaller. The important thing is to be aware that it matters and to think about ways to approach matchups where you can use your mana to present an effective, efficient, consistent plan of action.
With that said, tune in next time when we will take the fundamentals we’ve explored (and how they have changed over time!) and pinpoint some of the most exciting and innovative ways they’ve been used to break matchups wide open.