Insider: Transformation #2 – Lessons From the Best Sideboards in History

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Last week I delved into the concept of transformational sideboarding. As an example I shared two successful combo decks and explained how they utilized their sideboards to switch their primary gameplans against troublesome opponents.

These combo decks were often faced with immense hate after sideboard, and by switching gameplans to either aggro or control, they sidestepped opposing sideboard cards and played games on their own terms. This sort of sideboard transformation is applicable to many decks across forms, including combo, control, and the subject I will discussed today, aggro.

Today I share two famous aggressive decks from history, one that transformed into a control deck, and one that transformed into a combo deck. I will showcase how they utilized the transformational sideboard to dominate their Pro Tour opposition. The decks I will discuss today are:

  • Kai Budde's Pro Tour Chicago 2000 Rebel's deck, an aggressive white weenie deck that transformed into a control deck against other aggressive creature decks, and into an Armageddon deck against control. It earned him his second Pro Tour Champion title.
  • GW Ghazi-Glare from Worlds 2005, an aggressive midrange deck that transformed into a combo deck. The deck was one of a few x-0 decks in the Standard portion, took up 3 of the top 8 slots, and eventually won the entire tournament. It was played by three Japanese players to the top 8, including Shuuhei Nakamura, and earned a 1st place finish in the hands of Katsuhiro Mori. The deck also helped catapult Japan to their first Team World Championship title.

These decks used their sideboards to augment their core aggressive strategies to take advantage of opponents that would be prepared for the game 1 configuration. These decks replaced the typical aggressive endgame with an alternate endgame the opponent would be unable to win.

Aggro into Control

A year after his World Championship win, Kai was hungry for victory and he used his Rebel deck in Chicago to win his first of two Pro Tour titles that season. Kai would go on to be the most dominant player in history, winning two more Pro Tour the following season.

Kai's maindeck is relatively simple to those familiar with Rebels. Rebel cards had an ability to search out other Rebels up the curve, so once one Rebel was in play it would start off a chain reaction of threats. Rebel strategies were among the most powerful available for their entirety in Standard, and winning the mirror match was crucial. Kai turned to a sideboard transformation to get a huge edge in mirror.

It has been a long-held belief that the best way to get an edge in aggressive mirrors is to slow down and take on the more controlling role. Kai's deck was a perfect example of that and set a deckbuilding example for years to follow.

The first piece of the puzzle is Wrath of God. This board sweeper completely turns the tables in an aggressive mirror. These games are typically won by jockeying for board position, and, naturally, the player with the most threats will win. It is hard to get ahead from behind against a mechanic like Rebels, so many games would come down to sheer luck, perhaps from winning the die role.By bringing in Wrath of God, Kai wrote his own rules. Wrath of God served as a clean way to catch up from behind, most likely along with generating a large card-advantage gain.

Imagine an opponent against Kai Budde, ecstatic to be ahead against one of the best players in the world. Smelling victory at their door, the opponent would unload their hand into play, seeking to lock up the game quickly. A well-timed Wrath of God from Kai would end their plan.

The second piece of the puzzle is Mageta the Lion. This is essentially a Wrath of God on a stick, a re-usable board sweeper than would render the opponent unable to catch up. Mageta the Lion was particularly dominant against other Rebel decks because most would be without any ways to meaningfully remove it. It would end games by itself.

Kai's board plan of loading up on sweepers was particularly brutal when paired with his playset of maindeck Parallax Wave. Rather than removing opposing creatures, Kai would use the enchantment to protect his own creatures from his sweepers. Kai used the enchantment to break the parity of the sweepers, meaning he was always on the winning end of the exchange.

Kai also sideboarded 4 copies of Armageddon as a semi-transformation against control. Opposing control decks would combat rebels with an assortment of sweepers, including Wrath of God and the devastating Tsabo's Decree, in addition to traditional control elements like targeted removal and card advantage from Fact or Fiction and Gitaxian Probe.

Kai leveled these opponents by attacking their mana. Assuming Kai had any reasonable threat in play, Armageddon would effectively end the game. Kai could also use Armageddon on an empty board, and, presumably holding a land or two, would be able to recover faster than his mana-hungry opponents.

Compared to Counter-Rebels, the UW control/Rebel hybrid that reached the finals of the Pro Tour and became a top deck in the year afterwards, Kai played a very straightforward deck. Rather than complicating and diluting his game one plan, Kai opted for a consistent, aggressive, strategy. He turned to his sideboard to get an edge on his opposition, and it carried him all the way to 1st place.

A more recent example of an aggressive deck transforming into a more controlling build can be found in Shouta Yasooka's Boros Burn deck, which he piloted to the finals of a 269 player Standard event in Japan. Contrary to the usual Burn plan, he sided in a whole control package against aggressive decks.

The headliner was Boros Reckoner, a card known for shutting down ground-based offensives. He also used Prophetic Flamespeaker as a pseudo-Shadowmage Infiltrator. Supplementing his plan was more removal in the form of Banishing Light and even Bright Reprisal! Opponents hoping to fight his Burn plan with lifegain and the like would find themselves at the mercy of a control deck.

For more details on that tournament, and the Boros Burn deck, check this piece I wrote on TCGPlayer.

Aggro into Combo

This deck was the talk of the tournament, and the story goes it was discovered at a local Japanese shop before being honed by the Pros. This is a classic midrange aggressive deck, featuring a bunch of mana acceleration creatures and a powerful top end of 4 and 5-drop creatures.

The defining card in the deck was Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree. This card generated a steady stream of tokens to be abused by the power cards Umezawa's Jitte and namesake Glare of Subdual.

In a Standard format dominated by creature strategies, Glare of Subdual was effectively an Opposition that would lock opposing creatures out of game.

The deck was also built to fully abuse Umezawa's Jitte, arguably the best card in the format. The high creature count and token generation meant the equipment would be turned on at all times.

Supplementing Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree and bridging the gap between mana acceleration and the top end was Selesnya Guildmage. This bear was the perfect mana sink, whether it be generating tokens per the main strategy, or serving as an Overrun on a stick for pumping said tokens.

Notable here are three Pithing Needle in the maindeck, something never seen today and rarely seen since. Even in a world without planeswalkers, Pithing Needle provided the GW deck an efficient form of psuedo-removal for combating the format. Primarily, it was yet another way to stop Umezawa's Jitte and stopped Sensei's Divining Top from the control decks. It also stopped the omnipresent Meloku the Clouded Mirror, which could give this deck problems, along with the popular sweeper Kagemaro, First to Suffer. Pithing Needle also stopped the primary combo deck in the format, Greater Good.

That card--Greater Good--was the centerpiece of Ghazi-Glare's transformational sideboard. When combined with Yosei, the Morning Star, Greater Good would lock the opponent down and generate massive card advantage.This interaction turned into a bonafide combo when combined with the aptly-named Congregation at Dawn, which found another Yosei, the Morning Star or two or three.

Note two copies of Yosei, the Morning Star in the sideboard that would come in as part of the transformational package. It was also possible to end the combo chain with Hokori, Dust Drinker and ensure the opponent simply never got to play again.

This transformtional sideboard was employed against many opponents, including other midrange decks, combo decks, and control decks. Opponents would likely bring in all sorts of creature control, which left them vulnerable to the combination. Once Greater Good was in play, Yosei, the Morning Star could be sacrificed immediately before the opponent was able to remove the creature. This deck was a unknown quantity at the time, and opponents were unable to meaningfully interact.

Comparing the Ghazi-Glare sideboard plan to contemporary decks has proven difficult. The plan was extremely unique and novel at the time, and I haven't seen it replicated.

Wrapping Up

Combos are typically seen in the maindeck and are sided out when opponents will be prepared. I'd be interested in hearing additional examples of the plan being used successfully. It was a unique set of circumstances that led to the Ghazi-Glare deck, and it would be an incredible opportunity if one could enact the strategy in contemporary times.

The sideboard is a living, breathing part of a Magic deck. It's a space that holds immense potential and, when used properly, is perhaps the most important tool available to a player--a tool available in the arsenal of any archetype. It's a space for creativity and logic, for psychology and game theory, and for a whole lot of fun.

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