Sideboarding is a skill-intensive and essential component of competitive Magic. While it isn't an "Easy to learn, hard to master" skill, it feels very close. Sideboarding guides can be useful to overcome this learning curve, but they can also become a crutch and actively harmful to your chances of improving. Last week I went over the basics of the Modern sideboard. This week I'm going to follow up with more advanced strategies.
The strategy I advocated last week involved packing your sideboard with "silver bullets," cards that win the game unaided against certain decks. As a competitive player I cannot fathom why you wouldn't use as many as you can since they're free wins, but it isn't always possible. Some decks have no bullets for you to use or the colors you're playing don't support effective ones. There really isn't a silver bullet to beat Jund, for example (though Blood Moon comes close). This normally means that your only option is the Standard-style adjustment, bringing in cards that adjust the matchup rather than win it or dramatically alter things. While it might feel like this is the only option, that isn't true. If you're willing to commit to it, you can dramatically alter post-board games with a transformational sideboard, or try to pre-board against certain matchups.
Transform and Dodge Hate
The idea of the transformational sideboard has been around for quite some time, but it isn't very popular. Sheridan mentioned it a few months ago in regards to Affinity bringing in Ghirapur Aether Grid and Ensnaring Bridge against Eldrazi, and also gave some pretty good reasons why you should stay away. However, while for many decks there isn't any point, there are other times when this strategy works. Let's investigate the latter.
When most players think of transformational sideboards I suspect that they are thinking of Terry Soh's Tooth and Nail deck from his Invitational win. For reference:
Tooth and Nail was an incredibly powerful deck, but it was quite vulnerable to hate such as Sowing Salt, Bribery, and Cranial Extraction. The typical plan for the deck was to ramp up to an entwined Tooth and Nail, for Darksteel Colossus and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker to just win or Mephidross Vampire and Triskelion to clear the board of creatures. Removing a key creature or the namesake sorcery from the deck often left TnN unable to win.
Prior to Soh's Invitational win the trend had been to replace the combo pieces with more easily castable creatures that didn't immediately kill you if they got stolen. Soh took it to the logical limit by removing the TnN package entirely in games 2-3, turning his deck into a midrange beatdown deck in the style of Jamie Wakefield. The advantage was that he was now effectively invulnerable to the common TnN hate and the opponent was suddenly left with dead cards in their deck. This repositioning won Soh the Invitational and subsequently became the norm for TnN players for the remainder of its Standard life.
This is ultimately the problem with transformational sideboards and why you don't see them very often. Players were adopting the sideboard plan without really thinking about why and as a result TnN's power and metagame position began to decline. The transformation worked for Terry Soh because he was going to a relatively small tournament and he could metagame against the other players, most of whom had slower control decks, and take them by surprise. Once the strategy was known it was far less effective---the common sideboard cards were abandoned for more general answers to creatures, and the TnN players often hurt themselves by adopting the plan.
At 2005 Regionals I played White Weenie and I knew going in that TnN was a really bad matchup. I had to race their mana ramp or I just lost to the Mephitrike combo, with my only out being triple Awe Strike. Thanks to Terry Soh I didn't end up dropping a match to TnN because his strategy had been so widely adopted that players didn't have Mephitrike anymore and those who did sided it out against me for the transformation. Transforming works when you dodge crippling hate, but if you do it for no reason then you weaken your deck.
When to Transform
If you are going to have a transformational sideboard you need to commit to it. Twelve of Soh's sideboard cards are directly part of his plan, and Plow Under arguably qualifies as well. Even later in the season when the strategy fell out of favor, Soh was still playing seven beatsticks in his board. What this means is that you need to be certain that you will need to transform almost every game and that the opponent will fall for the change. It's very much a glass cannon strategy since it relies on your opponent dancing to your tune games 2-3. If they don't fall for it, you've made your deck worse for no reason and will lose.
Following the Invitational many control players adjusted to Soh's plan by keeping their sweepers post-board, where normally they were useless against Darksteel Colossus, and turning the matchup around completely. To avoid this type of pitfall, I have some rules for transforming:
1. Only transform your win condition.
If sideboard hate cards beat your specific win condition but not your strategy on the whole then a transformation is appropriate. In the Soh example Sowing Salt stalled the fast-ramp-into-fatties plan that made TnN a powerhouse but does nothing when you're just fetching basics to power out big beaters. The underlying ramp plan was still good even if it wasn't doing the most powerful thing possible anymore. Bribery was great against a small number of win conditions but worthless when you play many. You don't have enough space to completely change your deck, but you can change how it wins.
2. Only transform if you're not conceding other matchups.
Again from the Soh example, the transformation was great against Big Red, Mono-U Control, and Gifts Control, but worthless against White Weenie, a deck which saw a lot of play that Regionals. If you're certain that you'll be seeing a relatively small number of decks that attack your deck in a similar way then transforming is very effective. If it's more open then you need to be certain that your maindeck can carry you through the whole match since you won't have sideboard slots available to prepare for other decks.
3. Only transform if it complements your core.
If you're trying to completely reposition your deck through a transformation then you're likely to fail. The decks that can transform cleanly from combo to aggro or control are rare. You have to dedicate too much space to your core strategy to make it work and frequently that means that you don't have enough room to take out all these core elements for another style's core. It's possible to assume a controlling role in a matchup, but what I'm referring to is actually changing your deck entirely.
For example, I've seen Storm decks with transformations into Blue Moon fail because Storm's low land count and high fluff content doesn't play well with Blue Moon's answer-heavy plan and higher average mana cost. There just isn't enough space to bring in the answer density of Blue Moon and its win conditions. Conversely those decks that turn into UR Delver are far more successful because Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration and Young Pyromancer like low land counts and lots of cantrips. Your maindeck plan was good, so you really don't want to completely abandon it.
The most successful transformation plan in Modern has been Amulet Bloom removing Hive Mind and some of its engine pieces for green creatures. The general plan of ramping your mana and tutoring for bombs stayed intact but didn't fail to Ghost Quarter or Slaughter Games. Combo decks in general have an easier time going for the transformation and more reason to do so. There's no reason to dramatically change Infect or Burn, nor is there enough space to do so. But Scapeshift is already pretty controlling and can take out the namesake combo for more control cards to make itself less vulnerable to Crumble to Dust and Aven Mindcensor.
On the other hand, Modern is so diverse that the actual utility of transforming may be quite low since the actual likelihood of hitting the hate you're trying to dodge is low. In other words, don't transform unless you must.
Preboarding is just what it sounds like, coming into a matchup with the sideboard cards you want for that matchup maindecked. I'm not talking about having some common sideboard cards in your starting 60---that's something else. I'm talking about having your starting configuration look exactly like how you would want your deck in games 2-3 against a specific matchup.
It's not just that you wouldn't change your maindeck, it's that you specifically included cards that beat a certain deck and not others. This would be Jund packing Ancient Grudge and Shatterstorm maindeck for Lantern Control and Affinity, or Death and Taxes with Rest in Peace and Spirit of the Labyrinth against UR Treasure Cruise Delver (which I'm guilty of). You almost never see this happen because players understand the rule regarding preboarding: Don't!
In normal Magic you never hit a given deck enough to justify playing cards specifically for that deck. You need to play less specialized cards so that your deck isn't full of dead cards in every matchup. However, sometimes when things go wrong in the format it is appropriate.
Metagaming and preboarding against Cruising Delver and Pod during winter 2014 was acceptable, as was preboarding against Eldrazi earlier this year (not that it did much good). You have to be reasonably certain you will hit your preboarded deck 50% of the time or more for it to be worth the percentages you're giving up against other decks. However, there are times when playing sideboard cards in your maindeck is a good call.
Maindeck Sideboard Cards
While you never want to game your maindeck against another deck, you can hedge your bets and sideboard cards that are more general in scope in your maindeck. You have to be careful about this because it's easy to dilute your maindeck too much by trying this strategy. Never take out core cards in order to do this. But if there's a deck you're struggling with, it may be appropriate to use flex slots to beat that deck or at least improve your matchup, as long as they're not completely dead elsewhere. Rest in Peace is exceptional against Grixis, but you'd only maindeck it as long as you're not hurt by it and it impacts a wide range of other decks enough to justify the inclusion maindeck (which it's right on the cusp of doing, by the way).
These cards need to hit a wide range of decks, compliment or at least not harm you maindeck strategy, and actually impact the deck you're targeting. Rather than just theorize about them, lets go through some examples.
I think this is understood but I want to be clear, there is no deck that plays Spellskite in the sideboard that doesn't also want a copy or two maindeck. If Spellskite is good in your deck, that shouldn't be dependent on your opponent's archetype.
Control and combo decks will sometimes bring Spellskite in against Infect or some combo decks but I maintain that this is wrong. Those archetypes have access to much more powerful and harder-to-answer cards than Spellskite that also can't be played around. Infect knows to play around the card using Wild Defiance, which against control and combo they'd be bringing in anyway either to speed up their clock or protect themselves from Lightning Bolt. Infect also boards in Nature's Claim to force their way through. What's the point of bringing in Spellskite in that scenario? The combo or control deck would be better off with a removal spell that gets around the counter-sideboard cards like Pyroclasm.
If combo decks like Ad Nauseam are your worry then Leyline of Sanctity is not only more powerful but also harder to answer. They tend to play more ways to answer a creature as opposed to other permanents. Players have used Skite against Scapeshift as well, but it's not that burdensome for that deck to simply overwhelm the Skite, which you can't do with Leyline.
As a dedicated hoser, Spellskite is pretty mediocre and easily answered, but as a maindeck card with added benefits it is exceptionally strong. Maindeck it to protect your creatures, and then play an extra copy or two for extra utility in the board.
This card does not see enough play. There is not a deck that it doesn't hit and there are many that it cripples. Naming fetchlands is not the worst and sometimes it's absolutely crippling, especially turn one with Gitaxian Probe. It also hits planeswalkers, manlands, Tron, Affinity, Lightning Storm, and Grim Lavamancer. The sheer utility of the card and its potential to be devastatingly effective against so many decks make it a safe and powerful maindeck inclusion if you have space. Not every deck will have the space for it, but any deck can run it and have it be effective. If you're looking to maindeck a hate card, I'd start with this one.
Relic of Progenitus
If you're going to maindeck graveyard hate this is the piece to use (I wouldn't consider Scavenging Ooze a sideboard card per se). Graveyard hate is rarely dead in Modern and is very good against many decks. Even when it isn't very effective it does cantrip, and while I don't think that's a reason to play a card by itself, it does make targeted hate more playable.
This is another card that sits in a lot of sideboards when it should be maindeck. There are much more powerful options for the board, but the flexibility and the fact that it attacks for three make it worthy of maindeck inclusion. Pridemage doesn't shine against any deck or accomplish anything very efficiently compared to other options, which is not what you want from your sideboard cards.
However its flexibility makes it an exceptional maindeck inclusion that also reduces the pressure on your sideboard to answer problematic artifacts or enchantments. If you have it in your board it should only be to bring in extra copies. Having a maindeck out to Worship and Ensnaring Bridge is powerful and not something you want to be without. The same goes for Reclamation Sage and Echoing Truth.
If you have creatures and are playing a removal-light deck, this card will win you the game. Even against control decks this can threaten to keep them from winning, especially combined with hexproof or indestructible. If you think you'll want it, you'll get quite a few free wins by building around it.
There's Always More to Learn
My list is not even close to exhaustive, but it should give you a jumping off point for considering other cards that currently sit in your sideboards but should be maindeck. Determining what cards you should use and whether a sideboard card should be maindeck is something else entirely, which I won't get into today. Rather, it's going to be included in next week's article, where I'll discuss the strategy known as The Elephant. Until then, if you have questions or other topics you want to discuss, you can always find me in the comments.