Insider: Transformation – Lessons From the Best Sideboards in History

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As a student of Magic's history, I find that the past is the best tool for learning about the present, and for predicting the future. As the game's popularity has grown, so has our collective knowledge of it. What most do not realize is that everything we know now is built off of the past. It is taken for granted, but we stand on the shoulders of giants.

I'm going to take a look at some of the most important and influential decks in history. I'll share decks with innovative sideboards that did their part in advancing Magic sideboarding theory. These decks were quite successful, popular in their time, and still relevant today.

Both of the decks I'll discuss today feature some aspect of the "transformational sideboard", meaning the sideboard is used to drastically change the gameplan of the initial game one configuration. The decks I'll discuss today:

Jomesy's Savage Heartbeat, played to the Top 8 of PT Honolulu 2006 by Max Bracht. It was a dedicated combo deck that could transform into an aggressive deck. It evolved into the most dominant deck in the ensuing Standard-format National and Pro Tour Qualifier season.

Gerry Thompson's Thopter-Depths deck from Extended in Spring 2010. A dual-combo deck that transformed into a control deck, it was played by Katsuhiro Mori and myself to two separate Grand Prix victories, and saw both combos later banned.

The common thread between these decks is they use the sideboard to effectively sidestep opposing hate. By drastically changing strategy between games, the opponent will be left holding ineffective or simply useless cards that have diluted their own game plan, while being left unprepared for the second, surprising strategy.

Combo into Aggro

This deck was based around the combination of Heartbeat of Spring and Early Harvest to generate massive amounts of mana. It took full advantage of Sensei's Divining Top and shuffle effects, which allowed it to sculpt a game-winning board position and hand. It also plays Goremand, a mainstay of combo in Modern.

Opponents would be ready for the combo with discard, counters, enchantment removal, land destruction, and the like. To combat this, the deck could remove its dedicated combo pieces in favor of high-impact creatures that were capable of winning the game individually. This strategy was strong in theory, given that opponents were unlikely to have creature removal after sideboard against a creatureless combo deck.

The beauty of the plan is that the sideboard creatures worked wonderfully with the mana acceleration that would otherwise be accelerating the combo. Iwamori, the Open Fist could come down as early as turn three, while Vinelasher Kudzu and Meloku the Clouded Mirror could take advantage of additional lands.

Three Savager Twister could supplement the creatures, clearing out opposing threats and allowing the large sideboard creatures to take over. A single Umezawa's Jitte completed the puzzle, and was tutorable by the maindeck Muddle the Mixture, which could also conveniently protect creatures. Combined with Goremand and the sideboard transformation, the deck turned into something like aggro-control.

The strategy was not necessarily brand new--in the past some combo decks had used Dark Ritual to accelerate a post-sideboard Phyrexian Negator, but it was the first time I saw the strategy employed to such a high degree and to so much success.

This strategy is still seen today, though rarely to such high degree.

One example is Modern Storm, which brings in Empty the Warrens, accelerated out by rituals, to dodge all of the graveyard hate that would crush combo pieces Pyromancer Ascension and Past in Flames. It also allows the deck to go off earlier, potentially turn one, before it faces additional disruption like discard and counterspells.

Melira Pod, including LSV's recent list, brings in Lingering Souls to transform from a combo deck into a deck more capable of grinding out the opponent.

Combo into Control

At PT Houston 2009, the Dark Depths-Vampire Hexmage combo was one of the best strategies in the format. At Worlds later that year, I played a deck using the Thopter Foundry-Sword of the Meek combo.

During the ensuing winter and Extended season, Gerry Thompson innovated a deck incorporating both of those combos. The deck leaned on Muddle the Mixture, which could find pieces of both combos. Combine that with Chrome Mox, Thoughtseize and Dark Confidant, and the deck was thoroughly broken.

The deck was known as Thopter-Depths, and it caused a torrential downpour in the Extended format, winning no less than three PTQs in quick succession, including an online PTQ win for Gerry. I met Gerry at 8-0 in GP Oakland 2010, before I fell in the finals to a mistake.

Things came to a head with the printing of Jace, the Mind Sculptor. While great in the maindeck as a source of card advantage and board control, it was even more dominant as part of a control transformation post-sideboard. Katsuhiro Mori won Grand Prix Yokohama with the fully dedicated control sideboard, featuring one Jace maindeck and two sideboard. A few weeks later I took first place at Grand Prix Houston with the list above.

Both pieces were banned a few months later.

True control was not popular or really viable at the time, and Thopter-Depths was well-equipped to defeat combos like Hypergenesis. That meant there were a lot of aggressive decks to contend with. The two combos meant the deck could beat anybody uncontested, but as expected, players would bring a whole swath of hate cards in after sideboard.

In fact, they would often bring in so much hate, in addition to leaving in mediocre maindeck disruption like Path to Exile, that they diluted their main aggressive strategy. This made them easy to exploit, and rather than fighting through their disruption, the deck was better off transforming into a psuedo-control deck.

To transform, Thopter-Depths would trim down drastically on combo pieces and bring in a ton of removal, including the sweeper Choice of Damnations and the efficient Deathmark. I included the mini-combo control engine of Engineered Explosives and Academy Ruins, both tutorable by Academy at Tolaria West. I also included the one-card combo of Darkblast.

This removal easily dealt with aggro's anemic threat density, while Jace, the Mind Sculptor did the rest. Games would play out with the deck dealing with opposing threats and generating card advantage, leaving the opponent stranded with useless cards in hand. With no pressure on it, the Thopter-Depths deck had time to amass cards and win with the planeswalker or simply muscle through hate.

This sort of strategy has been most recently seen in Patrick Dickmann's Tempo-Twin deck, which he used to win GP Antwerp. A dedicated game-one combo deck, Dickman expected to face immense hate after sideboard. To sidestep this, he brought in cards like Batterskull and Threads of Disloyalty and controlled the opponent using his removal and counterspells.

Dickmann uses the strategy to crush every Modern tournament he enters, including a Top 8 at PT Born of the Gods and a Top 8 at the Bazaar of Moxen. Most recently, Dickmann has been seen playing with Keranos, God of Storms in his sideboard.

Check back for the next installment, where I will discuss a classic aggressive deck that turns into a control deck, and an aggressive deck that transforms into combo!


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