Insider: The Art of Sideboarding

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As I touched on last week, I'm not huge on sideboard guides that treat the process as a science. I have a lot of reasons for believing this, even though I will admit that a strong argument can be made in certain situations that one route is the de facto "best" sideboard strategy.

That said, a lot of strange things can happen in a match of Magic, and being able to sideboard well in oddball scenarios has a lot more upside than being familiar with how to sideboard against carbon copies of last week's tech. For the purpose of this article, I'm going to highlight some of these strange things, and some insight on the question "What do I do when...?"

I Really Don't Know What My Opponent is Playing

This one doesn't happen too often in Standard, but that's not to say that it doesn't. If you've spent any time in the Modern queues on Magic Online or if you've played even a single match of Legacy, then you've had this feeling.

Sometimes it's because they mulligan, sometimes it's because they draw a lot of one-ofs in their deck that otherwise operates differently, and sometimes they just don't draw cards that do much of anything.

Recently I played a match of Legacy where I scooped on turn one of game one. I was on this hand on the draw:

My opponent's turn one looked like this:

He named Brainstorm.

Being left with three lands and a Stifle my opponent knew about didn't seem like a winning proposition, so I packed them up before revealing and moved on to game two. The only issue was figuring out how to sideboard.

Cabal Therapy doesn't show up in a ton of decks, and many of the decks that do play it aren't going to have Verdant Catacombs and basic Leechridden Swamp. A Storm or Esper deck would likely play a different fetchland, and a Young Pyromancer is unlikely to even include either of those lands. This turn one line screams Nic Fit--that and I had seen my opponent playing that deck before.

I sideboarded the way that I would against Nic Fit, but my opponent's sideboard decisions were a bit tougher. Let's take a look at a sample Nic Fit 75:

It's hard for me to think about a Nic Fit decklists without wondering Why am I playing any of this nonsense?, but I'm going to try and be objective:

I cast Cabal Therapy naming Brainstorm against seven cards. I would say that it's extremely likely our Cabal Ritual was hitting at least two Brainstorms, as it's hard to imagine anybody scooping to a Cabal Therapy that was hitting one card... or missing entirely. Unfortunately I don't have a sideboard guide for "how to beat Brainstorm decks", so I need to speculate on what those other cards might be.

Given this small amount of information, I think that the best we can do is try to determine if our opponent is on a fair deck or a combo deck. A fair deck is generally going to struggle more than a combo deck in the face of discarding 2-4 cards on turn one, so I'd be inclined to believe, if not be entirely certain, that the opponent is on some kind of fair deck.

Most combo decks in Legacy that feature Brainstorm will be able to wait it out and try to draw out of being hit hard by a Cabal Therapy. I would think that a two card combo deck like Sneak and Show would certainly stick it out. Alternatively, a deck like Storm is going to want to have more cards in hand to actually win a game, so it's possible that the opponent is on Storm.

More important than the possibility of Storm is the fact that Nic Fit tends to have good matchups against fair decks, while it struggles against Combo. Even though the opponent is unlikely to be on a number of the combo decks in the format, those are still the decks that we really don't want to be sideboarded incorrectly against for game two.

Of course, given the contents of the sideboard here, it's tough to sideboard completely against a given combo deck. Surgical Extraction and Slaughter Games aren't going to excel against every combo deck, though they are going to be part of your game plan against most combo decks. It would be outright embarrassing to bring in those cards just to have the opponent play a Stoneforge Mystic or Delver of Secrets // Delver of Secrets though.

Ultimately, the decision is going to hinge on how good your odds are of beating a fair deck game three on the play or how much Surgical and Slaughter Games help you on the draw in game two against combo decks. It seems to me that Slaughter Games is very commonly going to be too slow on the draw, so I'd probably leave them on the side.

I would confidently bring in the Thoughtseizes as they're unlikely to be terrible, and maybe some number of Surgical Extractions just to hedge a little against combo without impacting my game too much against anything else. The most important thing here is not to overboard given minimal information and punt a game that could have been won by sideboarding more minimally. You could always mulligan yourself out of game three, so playing it safe in game two is wise.

I would also assume that the Carpet of Flowers come in against a large number of Brainstorm decks, and I'd bring in some or all of them based on the general plan with the card, which I'll admit I'm unsure of.

This is a rather long-winded and somewhat unclear answer to the question of how to sideboard in this situation, but in this answer I addressed a number of questions, the answers to which I find considerably more useful than a list of Ins and Outs:

  1. What kind of deck would concede in this type of situation?
  2. How do I fare against decks X, Y and Z, which contain the cards I have confirmed my opponent is playing?
  3. If I bring in the package that is best against the worst possible scenario, how much does this impact my win percentage if that scenario turns out to be false?
  4. Is it worth bringing in a card that is necessary in certain matchups if it will be particularly terrible on the draw if I misboarded?
  5. What are my sideboard options that will be fine against any deck?

And all of these questions in mind, it's always important to consider the possibility of just not sideboarding. When my sideboard contains cards that are going to be more or less live anywhere, I wouldn't just not sideboard, but if I'm really not sure what to do, I would avoid giving myself the opportunity to just plain mess up.

My Role in the Matchup is Impacted by Which Player Goes First

This is an area I believe many players neglect to address in their sideboarding plans. As somebody who plays tempo decks frequently, it's very important for me to identify all of the relevant differences between being on the draw, playing the game a turn behind, versus playing first and setting the pace for the game.

A card that fluctuates a lot in power level depending on whether you're playing first or drawing first is Daze.

Some people are more aggressive about boarding their Dazes out on the draw than I am, but I will almost always do so against Noble Heirarch decks and Elves. Mana accelerators just make it too easy to play around such soft counters, and bouncing a land on the draw already has its own inherent risks.

That is not to say that Daze is bad against Elves though. When on the play, Daze allows you to basically have another removal spell that is worth wasting on a Llanowar Elves, which you normally wouldn't want to Lightning Bolt, as it's easily their lowest impact creature. That said, throwing a Daze at their turn one Elf is a perfectly acceptable play because it really slows down their ability to get off the ground.

Mana Leak is often on my roster of cards to keep in mind on the play versus on the draw, as it's a much worse card for catching up than it is for staying ahead. In Standard Boros Burn I tend to leave in Ash Zealot on the play against anything and board it out on the draw against most things, as it can almost always connect on the play while is frequently too slow on the draw.

This element of sideboarding is likely ignored in no small part to the ability to dismiss nearly any matchup as simply being worse when you're on the draw, but sometimes something as simple as finding a way to lower your mana curve can make a world of difference.

My Opponent's Deck is Certainly Not Stock

Sometimes changing one or two cards in a deck can make a world of difference. Ravnica-Theros Standard has generated a number of different red decks. There's dedicated Nykthos, dedicated Mutavault and everywhere between. When the occasional opponent decides to play Firedrinker Satyr, Searing Spear and Fanatic of Mogis, it can be difficult to discern exactly what angle they're attacking from.

When playing against these red decks with Black Devotion, you have pretty clear gameplans against both extremes. Against Devotion your removal is gas, and against Burn Duress is an all-star. If you have access to Staff of the Death Magus, then it will be good against any aggressive flavor of red, but how clear cut is the decision to bring in Duress?

You're going to hit most of the time against Burn and miss most of the time against Devotion and Patrick Sullivan Red. What if the opponent has a heavy saturation of creatures but also has access to Searing Blood, Chained to the Rocks and Boros Charm? Your sideboard guide will be helpful for stock lists and extremely linear decks, but it takes adaptability and the ability to think on the fly to sideboard well against anything off-color or featuring new technology.

When sideboarding cards that are specific hosers, it's very important to take note of tweaks to the opponent's deck that might mitigate the impact of those hosers.

If I have Blood Moon in my sideboard but I notice that my 3-color opponent has access to what looks like an above-average number of fetches and basics, is it wise to bring it in? Is Snapcaster Mage plus one other graveyard interaction enough to bring in graveyard hate? How many targeted spells do I need to see from my opponent to make me want Leyline of Sanctity?

Don't put yourself in this situation.

Blood Moon

My Opponent Has a Transformational Sideboard

Transformational sideboards are nothing new, and the entire idea behind them is to try to make you sideboard incorrectly against them. That said, there's usually some evidence that things are amiss during game one when you play against these decks. This example is a little dated, but let's take a look at a James Zornes' Storm deck from Modern two years ago:

The idea here was that cards that are good against Storm combo aren't necessarily good against Twin combo. Specifically, you would bank on your opponent boarding out their Exterminate!s and Path to Exiles with this deck and then leave them guessing and trying to hedge for game three--if there even was a game three.

While I can't imagine figuring out the plan before I saw my opponent actually execute it if I wasn't already aware of the tech at play here, there are some notable differences from the stock lists of the time that made it clear that this was the build of Storm that a given opponent was playing. Specifically, if they seemed like they were playing a lot of lands and showed you a Gifts Ungiven, they were probably up to something sneaky with their sideboard.

While you can't ever really know which combo will be in for game two or three, being able to sideboard against decks like this is still very important. You could just go all-in against one of the combos and hope to guess right, but I find that your best bet is to play as much overlapping hate as possible. Thoughtseize is great, but Path to Exile is iffy.

One thing to keep in mind is that if you're aware of the transformational sideboard, you can generally assume that they're going to make the switch for game two. They probably wouldn't be bothering with the transformational sideboard at all if they didn't think that you were going to screw up and board your removal out, so unless you have reason to believe that they know that you know, I would err on the side of thinking that they're just going to pull the trigger in the dark.

Then for game three I would recommend playing all of your overlapping hate and only a couple copies of cards that are good against only one of the combos. It feels silly to die to Pestermite while two of your Exterminate!s are in your sideboard, but you have a better chance in those games than ones in which you draw four Exterminate!s while getting Grapeshoted.

While it's not a true transformational sideboard, a good example of a deck that can significantly change its nature between games is Patrick Dickmann's Tarmotwin:

Dickmann reported at Pro Tour Born of the Gods that he generally boards out of the combo and just plays as a tempo deck for sideboarded games. This is less extreme than the Storm example, but it still matters for some sideboard decisions. Notably, Spellskite is considerably stronger against Izzet Twin than Tarmotwin for this reason.

This deck is one of the primary reasons I choose to sideboard Dismember in Izzet Delver. Combust is really awesome against Twin combo. It's really useless against Tarmogoyf. The difference in boarding from a creature-based combo deck into a tempo deck might only be subtle in terms of how to interact with the deck, but it absolutely matters.

My Opponent Does Anything With Their Graveyard

The biggest sideboarding mistake I see commonly made is bringing in graveyard hate when it just doesn't matter. A couple weeks back, I saw a Burn player play a Surgical Extraction against his RUG Delver opponent. I really have no idea what would possess a person to do that.

While that example is particularly egregious, Surgical Extraction comes in way more often than it should. People really, really like this type of effect with complete disregard for the fact that it's card disadvantage. So, unless you're happy paying two life to mulligan, ask yourself the following questions before bringing in graveyard hate:

  1. What percentage of my opponent's deck revolves around the graveyard?
    • Remember Standard Junk Reanimator? All the graveyard hate in the world wouldn't save you from turn five Thragtusk.
  2. How much does it hurt me if I just let them do their thing with the graveyard?
  3. How good is my deck sans graveyard hate against their graveyard antics?

I strongly recommend trying matchups with graveyard elements with and without graveyard hate. Unless the opposing deck is particularly dedicated, I think that you'll find that you really don't need graveyard hate very often at all.

That said, I have to imagine that a lot of the players bringing in Surgical Extraction all the time are losing a lot because of it but are blinded by the time that it was randomly really sweet and the opponent happened to have two more Aerial Responders in their hand. Some people just like rolling dice I guess.

Just remember that sideboarding is a relevant skill that is worth developing and relying on a guide, without understanding the theory behind it, is merely a crutch. There's also the possibility that no matter how brilliant the person who wrote your guide is, their testing and/or theory may not match up to what you can come up with on your own. At the very least, having two minds battling the problem will most often be better than one.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan Overturf

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