Sideboarding is one of the most important skills to master if you want to step up your game. Because matches are best-of-3, the majority of your games will be post-board, yet people tend to forget that. You will frequently see people like Ben Stark or Frank Karsten completely rebuild their deck after game 1, sometimes even change one of the colors. Why? Because they have a tremendous amount of experience and can recognize not only what exactly they need to do in order to win the match, but also which cards will have little to no impact against their opponent’s deck, even if they are normally fine playables. If I feel like my game 1 deck will not be able to get there, I have to find another way. Otherwise, I’m basically admitting defeat or just hoping to get lucky.
Limited used to be harder, but simpler and more fair at the same time. Every card mattered, so choosing to be on the draw was fairly common. Creatures have gotten better and have more abilities, so these days it’s almost always better to play first and try to press the advantage. I can’t even remember the last Sealed format where I would choose to draw without a lot of cheap removal.
In the past, you would often splash for a third color to be able to play all the removal you could get your hands on. Not just when you had the right fixing, mind you, but with the good old 7-7-3 mana base. There were less unbeatable bombs and games were mostly decided by card advantage or choosing the right moment to use your pump spell or removal.
These days, we are used to playing against unbeatable planeswalkers, cards like The Immortal Sun or mythic (and sometimes rare) creatures that are not only very hard to beat by themselves, but also wrath your board when they enter the battlefield, discarding your hand or refilling theirs. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to tell you how to always beat those cards, but I can try to help you win the fair fights.
I got the idea for this article earlier during GP Amsterdam. The format was Team Sealed and we built three decent decks: R/B Tetzimoc, W/B Vampires, and W/G/r Dinosasurs. I know Ixalan Limited is a dead format now, but the cards themselves aren’t important—it’s the general idea I want to talk about.
This was our G/W Dinosaur deck splashing red for Raging Regisaur. Nothing spectacular, but a decent amount of synergy, removal and finishers.
Petr only lost game 1 against a U/B Control deck. It was a fairly long game where his opponent eventually killed all of Petr’s relevant creatures and buried him under card advantage with cards like Arch of Orazca and Recover, and won with some big flyer. These are some of the cards his opponent played.
Take a moment to look at these two decks and try to imagine what needs to happen for him to win.
I’ve got nothing. If both players have a normal draw, he will lose. Their cards match up well against his. Their 2-drops trade for his 6-drops. Sailor of Means makes them a Treasure, helping cast more expensive spells while blocking almost everything in Petr’s deck that costs less than 5. He is trading down on mana and he’s seen more removal spells than he actually has ways of winning.
Having three fight spells in his deck is also not where he wants to be against blue-black. Not to mention that if the game is in a spot where they are just looking at each other without anything relevant in play, the opponent is the one with card draw to make sure they draw something first. Basically, if Petr submits this deck against what we have seen in game 1 from his opponent, who, on top of all that, is most likely to bring in more slow cards like Cancel, then he is basically just conceding the match on the spot. Sure his opponent could stumble on mana and he could win with his expensive monsters before they draw a third land. But that’s unlikely. Hoping that your opponent mulligans into oblivion is never a winning strategy.
Petr looks through his sideboard and it looks pretty hopeless for him. He has more green and white cards but nothing that would help him swing the matchup. Plummet isn’t going to do it. He doesn’t have any noncreature ways of getting ahead or creating advantage that would dodge their removal. There’s a Woodland Stream and two Negates, so he can definitely bring those in with an Island and hope to counter one of their more expensive removal spells, trade up on mana that way, and hope to protect one of his big guys. But that still won’t prevent from Dinosaur Hunter trading with his Colossal Dreadmaw. The problem is that most of his support cards and early-to-mid-game creatures just don’t matter against them. What good is Kinjalli’s Caller when the expensive creature it helps you cast a turn earlier is going to get killed anyway? Hardy Veteran, while having purpose in the deck because of the three fight spells, is blanked by Sailor of Means.
That’s when he realizes that he can just try something completely different. If you look at the decks again, Petr isn’t playing blue at all. He looked at Merfolk during deck building but it was mostly just underpowered creatures without any of the bomb uncommons or rares. It’s Team Sealed—Mist-Cloaked Heralds and other cheap evasion creatures will only get you so far without Merfolk Mistbinder and Hadana’s Climb.
But that’s exactly what he needs, to flood the board with cheap evasion creatures. His opponent’s deck is trying to play a long game where they will eventually win with card advantage and where they always have answers to his expensive finishers. If he can make them use Contract Killing on Mist-Cloaked Herald, then he is getting somewhere.
Look at this deck.
Now this deck is by no means perfect or what I would want to play all day in an 8-round Team Sealed tournament where people’s decks are built out of 12 packs. But it has the tools you need to turn this match into a fair fight. Instead of their creatures basically ignoring yours, you now have a bunch of small evasion guys that don’t care about Dinosaur Hunter or Sailor of Means. They just keep chipping away through them.
You don’t need removal because they don’t have creatures you absolutely need to interact with. Their Contract Killing will always cost more than you paid for your creature. If you look closely, most of your creatures even dodge Walk the Plank. I even cut Ghalta from the deck. It’s one of the most powerful cards in the entire set, and I would almost always first pick it out of any pack, but it just matches up so poorly against what our opponent is doing that I’m not afraid of cutting it.
You need to be able to imagine how exactly the game will go, and do everything in your power to have it go that way. We’re going to need every card in the deck to push through damage as fast as possible and keep swarming the board with little evasion creatures. If Petr’s opening seven has a Ghalta that he won’t realistically be able to play before turn 6 to then have it killed immediately, that’s not going to help us get there.
Now I wish I could tell you that there is a happy ending to this story, but Petr still lost. The problem was that we didn’t have this deck prepared. We had to build this deck on the spot in two minutes, ask for basic Islands, de-sleeve, and sleeve again. During this process we even forgot about a Woodland Stream in the sideboard so our mana was strictly worse.
Always be ready for this before it happens. Don’t get lazy. Try different builds of your deck between the rounds when you are just killing time with your friends. Not just the main-deck configuration, but also the deck you can sideboard into if the time is right. Have the right number of basic lands ready in your deck box. Get more sleeves. Don’t give away what you are doing by doing all this in front of your opponent.
At GP Bologna last year, I opened a pool that basically contained two good decks that didn’t share any cards. I started game 1 with a U/B control deck with two Rags // Riches, a lot of removal and countermagic, and very few win conditions.
For game 2 my opponents went deep into their sideboards, took out all of their defensive cards and irrelevant early game creatures for countermagic of their own, discard spells, or Naturalize effects for my Drake Haven and Lay Claim.
You won’t always have the luxury of doing something similar, but you need to take full advantage of the times when you do. Magic is a game of small edges and it’s important you take them when you can.
In Team Sealed, it’s even more important to prepare for all of this in advance. Think about the problems your decks could get into, how you will be able to fix them after sideboard, and make sure the right decks get the right cards. This will usually mean being able to transform an aggro deck into midrange when your 2/1s are getting stopped by their 1/4s. Or board in tools for control mirrors. Be able to completely change your game plan. Know which deck will need Negates out of the sideboard the most if your fixing allows you to splash them in all of them.
Imagine you have to divide your white cards into W/B Vampires and R/W Aggro. You have one Pious Interdiction and one Ixalan’s Binding that you want to split between both decks. How do you do it? This one should be pretty easy. Boros Aggro wants to close the game as fast as possible and will usually find itself in a racing situation. For that reason, getting rid of a blocker while also gaining 2 life in the process is exactly what you are looking for. Meanwhile, Vampires will usually end up playing a longer game where you are trying to outgrind your opponent with card advantage from Legion Conquistador or kill them with 2-power flyers. So it’s much easier to see yourself getting into a situation where your opponent will have the time to play something like Zacama, Primal Calamity or an ascended Twilight Prophet that you will want to get rid of completely, not just take out of combat.
Knowing which cards to cut is also important. Imagine that you are playing the Dinosaur deck above against W/B Vampires and the problematic cards you saw were at least two Luminous Bonds and some flyers. I want to bring in Slice in Twain and Naturalize to surprise them in combat by freeing my creature from their Luminous Bonds, and Plummet to kill their flyers. I’m going to cut both Hardy Veterans because they match up poorly against cards like Martyr of Dusk and Exultant Skymarcher, and anything that has 1 toughness because Vampires always have a bunch of tokens lying around.
Sometimes sideboarding requires thinking outside the box. A lot of people were (rightfully) complaining that they lost to Tetzimoc. How that card ended up being a rare I’ll never understand, but I digress. My deck was a perfect example of Tetzimoc control. I had Forerunner of the Empire to help me find Tetzimoc and a bunch of early interaction to make sure that I stayed alive long enough to play it and clear my opponent’s board. If that wasn’t enough, I had a Recover to do it all over again. It was usually pretty frustrating for my opponents, as there wasn’t really much they could do outside of trying to close the game before turn 6. After sideboard, there were some obvious cards you could bring in like Cancel or Dark Inquiry.
But how many of you thought of this card?
Tetzimoc’s reveal ability is an activated ability, and Sorcerous Spyglass stops that. You will still have to fight through a 6/6 deathtouch, but that’s easier to do when it doesn’t Plague Wind your board. And if your opponent’s deck is built around one card you can’t beat, turning it off can give you the time and space you need to execute your game plan and win. Now, for some this may be obvious, but I can guarantee you that most people thought “oh wow, another unplayable rare” upon seeing this card and threw it in the pile of unplayables when building their decks.
Sideboarding in Constructed
In Constructed, sideboarding can sometimes be even more important, especially in Standard. We’ve seen formats where both players sideboarded Anger of the Gods against each other. Clearly, one of them had to be wrong. If you took out Goblin Rabblemasters for Elspeth Sun’s Champions and you turned their Angers into dead cards, you were doing it right. If your opponent saw you do that in game 2 but they still left in their Angers, then it felt like you almost couldn’t lose.
Recently, I’d find myself playing Sultai Constrictor against U/B Control after sideboard. I Duressed my opponent fairly late into the game and their hand would frequently be something like three Moment of Cravings when I had a Gonti, Lord of Luxury, Bristling Hydra, or Carnage Tyrant ready to play. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of bringing in too much cheap removal when your opponent is planning on doing something bigger. Similarly, many times I’ve regretted bringing in Doomfall the second I drew it because my opponent made their deck faster or changed it in a way I did not see coming and turned my Doomfall into an overcosted Cruel Edict.
Make sure you know all your matchups and study what other decks are trying to do after sideboard. Don’t be lazy, and play with your Limited decks between rounds. Try to find the best configuration and possible sideboard plans, even if it means boarding into a completely different deck. It’s hard to get an edge these days, whether in Constructed or Limited. Turning your opponents’ cards into virtual mulligans helps.