The Sideboard Dance: A Strategic Parallel

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If the yearly Hollywood movie slate is any indication, new ideas simply do not exist. Everything is a sequel, reboot, or riff on some earlier work. As a content creator, I understand. Coming up with something every week is a challenge. Which may also explain why Modern is chasing its own tail in regards to deck strategy. There's a quirk in the current metagame that I hadn't previously noticed that might explain what is going on in Modern and inform players how to respond.

The Nature of Creation

While I realize that I'm a fairly small fry in the Magic content creation ecosystem, I still get recognized and periodically interact with actual readers. In person. It was disconcerting the first time someone I didn't personally know asked if I was that guy writing articles. Getting recognized at a Grand Prix was absolutely flooring. I don't know how actual personalities with real followings handle it all.

I bring this up because, despite how odd I find it, there are benefits to having an audience. Specifically, they help tease out insights from my data I would never have seen on my own. In fact, conversation with readers directly led to this article.

Story time: I was at FNM following the publication of my Insider article and there are several players there that read my articles. The one who is an Insider and he had some questions about my conclusions. The others who weren't Insiders were quite interested in what I'd said and my answers as well. I'm always quite tight-lipped about these things: it'd completely defeat the point of doing Insider-only pieces if I discussed their conclusions openly. Even for free articles, I put too much time and effort into my writing to just give it away. I do work, you give me page views. A simple, fair, and effective system.

A Eureka Moment

However, in the course of me being non-committal and vague, a point was raised by said Insider. He noted that a lot of the current decks seem to be really vulnerable to sideboard hate, but keep winning anyway. Which is something I've been saying to varying degrees of explicitness for some time now. He then observed that the plan is essentially to win game 1 then try and steal game 2 or 3 through the hate. Which both a UR Murktide and Cascade Crashers player agreed with. And that made my brain itch. There was something there that I remembered, but couldn't quite remember what I was remembering.

Later that night it came to me like a Lightning Bolt to the face: that is exactly what we used to say about Affinity! And Living End, to a significantly lesser extent. My mind literally boggled. I've been struggling to put into words this feeling about the metagame and how sideboards are working in it for a while, and here it finally was.

The overall strategic plan for many of the current top decks in Modern is to have a very solid game one and then answer the (quite effective) sideboard hate coming their way. Which is exactly what Affinity used to do. This implies that the key to victory is to adopt the tried-and-true anti-Affinity strategy.

History Lesson

If you played Modern prior to Mox Opal being banned, you can skip to the next subsection. You know (or should know) this part. For all you (relative) newbies, there was once a deck called Affinity. It was not the Affinity (also called 8-Cast after the card-drawing spells) you know. Curiously, for much of its lifespan, none of its cards bore the affinity keyword. This Affinity used Mox Opal to accelerate out a bunch of cheap enabler artifacts and at least one payoff card and ride that payoff to victory.

Said payoff might have been Arcbound Ravager, Cranial Plating, or Steel Overseer; it didn't matter which precisely. The plan was to hemorrhage the hand onto the board on turn 1 or 2 and win before the opponent could react. And from Modern's inception to January 13, 2020, it was a solid gameplan. Affinity was the longest-lasting good deck in Modern, seeing play in every Modern Pro Tour and Grand Prix during that time. Mono-Green Tron now holds that crown.

Affinity was extremely vulnerable to artifact hate (as one might imagine), and everyone knew this. I had a rule for beginners to always play artifact hate so they didn't just lose to Affinity. However, despite this being known and the plethora of existing maindeck spells which were uniquely powerful against Affinity (Kolaghan's Command being the most prominent), Affinity survived and even thrived for years.

The Key to Survival

Affinity players knew that they were vulnerable. They knew that players would be bringing in quite powerful hate against them. They also planned accordingly. The maindeck plan was fast, resilient, and powerful enough to blitz game 1. Affinity had many ways to win turn 3 and held the title as fastest deck in Modern for years. With that win down, it just needed to steal a win in one of the remaining sideboard games.

To accomplish this, it played more answers to sideboard cards than actual sideboard cards itself. In the deck I linked earlier, most of the sideboard are counterspells, removal, and Thoughtseize. While said cards can be used as disruption, they were more commonly used defensively to answer hate, e.g. Seize ripping Stony Silence out of an enemy hand on turn 1. It was common (though very inadvisable) for players to mulligan to their hate piece against Affinity. Answering that hate piece often won the game.

The ur-example of this is Ghirapur Aether Grid. The strongest individual hate piece against Affinity was and remains Stony Silence, which shuts off every card that does something. Unless Affinity had a big Ravager or Plating was already attached, the deck became nothing but anemic beats with the enchantment in play. Grid flipped the script by working through Stony and turning the game into a grindfest, completely repositioning the deck around the hate.

The Contemporary Convergence

This is repeating in Modern right now, and on a wider scale than ever before. To reiterate, I have called out many top tier decks as being very vulnerable to hate and that players should be more ready for them. That was a lot of my most recent metagame update, in fact. Consider:

  1. UR Murktide: Graveyard hate severely nerfs Murktide Regent[/card, [card]Dragon's Rage Channeler, and A-Unholy Heat, the best non-Ragavan cards in the deck.
  2. Cascade Crashers: A-Teferi, Time Raveler, Deafening Silence, and Chalice of the Void stop cascade, the entire gameplan.
  3. Living End: All the anti-Cascade hate and graveyard hate hit this deck.
  4. Amulet Titan: Blood Moon wrecks the gameplan, Torpor Orb neuters the win condition.
  5. 4-Color Omanth (all variants): Moon is crippling; Torpor Orb is arguably worse.
  6. Yawgmoth: Grafdigger's Cage stops the main combo and tutoring engine.

I could go on, but there's a lot of hate available against the top decks. Each of them are very beatable if players want to dedicate the sideboard space to make it happen. However, look at the sideboards of the linked decks. They're all running a lot of answers... to the answers. The fear of Chalice, Moon, and Leyline of the Void pushes many of these decks to run full sets of Force of Vigor. Crashers is particularly egregious, as its whole board is dedicated to answers, with some graveyard hate mixed in as a concession to Living End.

The only exception is Yawgmoth. The card it fears sees almost no play. Cage is extremely strong against Yawgmoth, but virtually worthless everywhere else. Yawgmoth is not a significant enough part of the metagame to warrant special attention, so the deck skates by.

Utilizing the Realization

What does this mean for players looking to fight the best decks? Well, first and foremost, if they want to actually hate out these decks, they need to play effective hate. Most of the graveyard hate seeing play is one-shot artifact graveyard removal to synergize with Urza's Saga. That works, but is much easier for Murktide to dodge and Living End to fight through. You can't hate out a deck unless the hate both bites and sticks.

Secondly, there needs to be a plan for when the opponent answers the hate. Just like against old Affinity, if you single-mindedly mulligan to find the sideboard hate expecting it to win the game for you, you're setting yourself up for disaster. Having the hate spell is great and all but you need a functional plan to win the game if it doesn't stick. Which is an important general point about sideboarding: If the opponent anticipates your sideboard strategy and correctly counterboards, can you still prevail?

An Alternative Arrangement

That said, trying to win the hate game against a deck that's prepared for the available hate is very hard. Remember back to the days of Krark-Clan Ironworks and its full sets of Nature's Claim and Lightning Bolt to beat every available hate card. Also recall earlier in this article how players have always tried that against Affinity, and it didn't consistently work. However, many players end their thinking there because of conventional wisdom surrounding sideboard games.

There is an alternative, however. The classic sideboard experience is effectively trying to anticipate the opponent's moves and zig when they zag while trying to make them zag into your zig. What if instead, you do the obvious thing that they're not ready for? Instead of actually faking to the left, you merely think about faking left and completely befuddle the opponent expecting you to actually make the fake.

For example, when Aether Grid first came out, I was playing Jeskai Control in Modern and relying on Stony Silence against Affinity. I lost to Affinity a lot when they played through my Stony and just ground me out because I couldn't remove all the artifacts. So I decided to change the game. Rather than run Stony, I switched to Wear // Tear and Anger of the Gods as my sideboard plan. Grid was neutralized by the additional sweepers and removed by Tear. It completely turned the matchup around.

Applying the Theory

The lesson is to come at the hateable decks with cards they're not ready for. Crashers is ready for the typical answers to its strategy. So bring in something atypical. I've dropped Thalia, Guardian of Thraben in favor of Lavinia, Azorius Renegade in Humans and am having success. Crashers rarely plays more anti-creature cards sideboard, while Humans can bring in Burrenton Forge-Tender to protect against removal. Lavinia doesn't just answer [card[Crashing Footfalls[/card] but the evoke elementals, which are most decks' only real removal these days. With a card swap, I'm dodging the opponent's responses and neutralizing their answers.

Walk a Different Path

The crux of all strategy is to find the easiest route to victory. If your opponent is strong, find somewhere they're weak. If they've anticipated your next move, do something else. Right now, Modern's best decks are sitting pretty on sideboard plans based around counterboarding against common answers. Throw it back in their faces.

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