Arcane Teachings – Sideboard Planning

Seasoned players tend to talk about “sideboarding plans,” which is not a surprise since sideboarding well is really all about planning. Tom looks at some decks and asks you to think about how their sideboards do or do not fit with the decks’ game plans. He wants to convince you that you need to be aware of and take into account your deck’s plans to build the most effective sideboard you can.

Seasoned players tend to talk about “sideboarding plans,” which is not a surprise since sideboarding well is really all about planning. Inexperienced or unsophisticated deckbuilders tend to build sideboards by merely identifying cards that are good against their opponents’ possible decks. More experienced players often try to identify their plan in each matchup- that is, what they do to win games- and sideboard cards that help that plan. They may even sideboard cards that change their plan or give them an extra plan. These approaches are much more successful because they give you a sideboard that works with your deck to do the things that your deck already wants to do. We’re going to look at some decks and think about how their sideboards do or do not fit with the decks’ game plans. I hope to convince you that you need to be aware of and take into account your deck’s plans to build the most effective sideboard you can.

Whenever possible, you should try to avoid sideboarding silver bullets that don’t particularly help you execute your existing plans. One egregious example of what I don’t think you should do is Takayuki Koike’s deck from Valencia:

Takayuki’s maindeck is a lean and efficient beatdown machine. His sideboard, on the other hand, is an awkward collection of bullets that doesn’t help him beat down. None of his sideboard cards help him further his own deck’s goals. Leyline of the Void is great against dredge, but he’s still dead in exactly the same way that he’s dead in game 1 if he doesn’t draw it since there’s no new strategy for him to execute. The same can be said about Kataki for affinity and Plague for goblins. Duress and Cabal Therapy aren’t silver bullets, but they don’t help the deck beat down either. These cards don’t actually further or change the zoo deck’s plan, so if it doesn’t draw a silver bullet or the opponent has a way to deal with it, there is nothing else to fall back on. Calling this kind of sideboarding a “plan” at all is almost a misnomer; you’re just hoping that your one card will win you the game singlehandedly when you draw it. We should try to do better.

You might try to do better by including cards that are generally good against certain things as opposed to using pinpoint silver bullets. If you don’t think about what your plan is, though, you’ll end up with an amorphous mass of cards that doesn’t do anything. It took me a while to find a good high-profile example of this, mainly because it’s not generally very successful, but I did find something. Andre Mueller played this at Pro Tour: Philadelphia:

1 Eiganjo Castle
9 Forest
1 Island
1 Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers
5 Plains
1 Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
1 Swamp
4 Tendo Ice Bridge

1 Hokori, Dust Drinker
4 Kitsune Blademaster
1 Kodama of the North Tree
2 Meloku the Clouded Mirror
1 Myojin of Cleansing Fire
3 Orochi Sustainer
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
2 Yosei, the Morning Star

3 Cranial Extraction
3 Final Judgment
4 Kodama’s Reach
2 Sensei’s Divining Top
3 Time of Need
4 Umezawa’s Jitte

1 Cranial Extraction
1 Final Judgment
4 Hero’s Demise
1 Hokori, Dust Drinker
2 Kodama of the North Tree
1 Swamp
4 Wear Away
1 Yosei, the Morning Star

This is essentially a Green-White deck full of good cards without much in the way of a plan. I really hate this kind of deck in general (it doesn’t do anything etc.) but I can’t say too much about it for this format because Steve Wolfman also made this Top 8 with a very similar deck. However, I really hate this sideboard. Hero’s Demise is a random kill spell that doesn’t support any particular plan, and Wear Away is pretty standard-issue stuff for Jitte fights. The rest of his sideboard is just extra copies of maindeck cards. This lets him tune his deck between games, but it also takes away his ability to meaningfully change how he executes plans.

Instead of playing generic “good cards” in your sideboard, you should play cards that are tailored to the game plan that you follow in each matchup. As a direct contrast to Andre’s sideboard, look at Steve’s board for the same archetype at the same tournament:

4 Empty-Shrine Kannushi
4 Ghostly Prison
4 Hisoka’s Defiance
1 Hokori, Dust Drinker
2 Wear Away

This is a sideboard I can get behind. Steve knows that he will win a long game against a White Weenie deck, so he plays Ghostly Prison to try to drag those decks into a long game with him. Empty-Shrine Kannushi plays a similar role since it has protection from White all the time, and it also gives Steve a way to sneak a Jitte through. Against more controlling big-mana legend decks like Heartbeat and Gifts, Steve knows that he needs to stick a Hokori to keep them from overwhelming him. To this end, he plays another copy of it with a set of Hisoka’s Defiances to protect them from Sickening Shoals. All Andre can do with his sideboard is tune, while Steve’s sideboard makes him better at doing what he needs to do or gives him a new way to do it.

Thinking in terms of big-picture strategy while building sideboards can lead to some bizarre and counterintuitive lists, but it doesn’t matter if something looks strange if it works. One classic example of a bizarre-looking but effective sideboard is Randy Buehler‘s Mono-Blue deck from Worlds 1998.

4 Force Spike
4 Counterspell
3 Mana Leak
1 Memory Lapse
3 Forbid
2 Dissipate
4 Dismiss
4 Nevinyrral’s Disk
1 Rainbow Efreet
4 Impulse
4 Whispers of the Muse
18 Islands
4 Quicksand
4 Stalking Stones

4 Wasteland
4 Hydroblast
4 Sea Sprite
2 Capsize
1 Grindstone

“Yep, that’s 26 land, 21 counters, 8 card drawers, 4 disks, and a Rainbow.” This is a very simple deck. It plays lands, counters things, Whispers when you don’t play things it has to counter, and Disks anything that comes through the counters. It will eventually win with Stalking Stones or the single Rainbow Efreet. The eight anti-Red cards in the sideboard are fairly self-explanatory, since the Mono-Red decks of this era were blisteringly fast and this deck didn’t really ever beat them in game 1. You might at first glance characterize them as being non-strategically motivated, but I think that would be short-sighted. Randy knew that the real problem that Red decks posed for him was that they got down efficient beaters like Jackal Pup and Ironclaw Orcs* down before his counterspells went active. Sea Sprite and Hydroblast both solve this strategic problem by dealing with Red guys that have already resolved. The Wastelands, on the other hand, are striking. Why would you play 26 land maindeck and board more? Let’s ask 1998-era Randy!

“This [mirror] matchup is weird, but once you understand it, it’s fairly straightforward. Both of you have more permission than you can ever hope to use so I set up my sideboard in such a way that I would never have to fight a permission war over anything. I sideboarded out permission [counterspells] for land! Uncounterable land is what wins this matchup and if you do have to fight, whoever can cast more of their counters will win.”
Randy Buehler, 1998

The permission fights that Randy is talking about here were usually over end-stepped Whispers of the Muse with buyback, which costs an enormous amount of mana. Knowing that, it seems only natural that Randy wanted to shuffle up 30 land in 60 cards. Wasteland was also a convenient way for him to force games to go long because it killed Stalking Stones, which was the most common route to victory for Blue decks of that era. If your opponent wasn’t winning with Stones, then there would be enough time for Randy’s 30 land to give him an insurmountable advantage.

Possibly the best kind of strategy-conscious sideboard is the transformational sideboard. By this, I mean a sideboard that changes your plan in a matchup as opposed to merely augmenting your ability to execute an existing plan. This doesn’t have to be as extreme as the traditional “transformational sideboard” that changes you from a control deck to a fish deck, but it does mean that you are changing your strategic goal significantly. In fact, my favorite transformational sideboard doesn’t look like it is one at all. Look at the Dutch Gifts Ungiven deck from Grand Prix: Salt Lake City.

Rogier Maaten and Frank Karsten
Grand Prix: Salt Lake City
Kamigawa Block

9 Forest
1 Island
1 Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers
1 Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
8 Swamp
3 Tendo Ice Bridge

1 Ghost-Lit Stalker
1 Hana Kami
1 Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
4 Kagemaro, First to Suffer
2 Kokusho, the Evening Star
1 Meloku the Clouded Mirror
1 Myojin of Night’s Reach
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder

1 Death Denied
1 Exile into Darkness
4 Gifts Ungiven
1 Goryo’s Vengeance
1 Hideous Laughter
4 Kodama’s Reach
4 Sensei’s Divining Top
4 Sickening Shoal
1 Soulless Revival
1 Wear Away

1 Cranial Extraction
2 Goryo’s Vengeance
1 Hero’s Demise
2 Hideous Laughter
1 Hisoka’s Defiance
1 Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
2 Kokusho, the Evening Star
3 Pithing Needle
1 Rending Vines
1 Time of Need

Unlike Randy’s sideboard above, this sideboard looks entirely benign, but it’s actually extremely clever. Gifts was the “best deck” going into this tournament, so the mirror was one of the first things on any Gifts player’s mind. Game 1 was fairly simple, albeit long. Every once in a while there would be silly blowouts when one player was able to accelerate his mana into a quick Myojin of Night’s Reach, but most of the time games were long slugfests between giant legends. In longer games, Gifts Ungiven found Hana Kami, Soulless Revival, and Death Denied, which gave a player using the engine an essentially unlimited amount of gigantic creatures. Games that went long tended to be decided by whoever could make this happen first without getting their hand taken away by a Black Myojin or Ghost-Lit Stalker.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of someone preparing to play Gifts. How do we build our sideboard? Kenji Tsumura and Gabe Walls both were in this Top 8 with Gifts, and they chose to use their sideboard to augment their game 1 mirror plan. Kenji was boarding Godo, Bandit Warlord along with his Tatsumasa, the Dragon’s Fang, while Gabe chose to sideboard extra Ghost-Lit Stalkers and Hero’s Demises. Both of those players also sideboarded extra random giant legends. Both of these plans clearly indicate that their players are still planning on playing the Giant Legend Slugfest game.

The Dutch deck is something completely different. In a mirror, it sideboards in two Kokushos, two Goryo’s Vengeances, and a Time of Need and plays with the goal of having the legend rule kill four of its own Kokushos. Between four Kokushos, three Vengeances, four Gifts, this becomes pretty easy to set up in a reasonable amount of time. The Time of Need is particularly elegant. Have you ever wanted to Gifts for two Kokushos? Now you can. This plan plays trump to Kenji and Gabe’s sideboards, which put them on the same plan as they had for game 1. While someone else is just playing and killing more big creatures, the Dutch get a combination endgame that doesn’t care about big creatures while still being able to play the big creature game competently. This sideboard plan doesn’t look like a transformation at first glance, but it changes the deck’s goals so much that it’s hard to characterize it as anything else.

Let’s go back to Takayuki Koike’s deck from the very beginning of the article and rethink his sideboard with our new perspective. I don’t have a better way to attack dredge decks, so I’ll allow Leyline even though I hate it. Now let’s figure out what to do against Affinity. The games between Zoo and Affinity that the Zoo deck wins are long attrition fights where the Zoo deck slowly grinds down affinity’s threats. What better way to support this game plan than Ancient Grudge? It’s as much of a pinpoint answer as Kataki is, but it works with the rest of our cards instead of parallel to them. When playing against Goblins, the Zoo deck has to make sure that the Goblin deck’s hordes do not grow out of control to the point that the Zoo deck can’t attack effectively. I would want to try Armadillo Cloak over Engineered Plague, since it gives you a giant threat that can still attack into an army of goblins. Instead of using Duress and Therapy to disrupt combo and control decks, I would have looked to Molten Rain. You already have four Vindicates to play the land destruction game with, and Molten Rain even does two damage to help you beat down. Ancient Grudge, Armadillo Cloak, and Molten Rain all help zoo accomplish things that it already wants to accomplish in ways that Kataki, Engineered Plague, and discard spells do not.

Building good sideboards is all about knowing what your deck wants to do and helping it do those things better. Silver bullets can do good things for you, but they usually don’t mesh with your deck’s existing strategies. The best sideboards support plans that the deck already has, or add a new plans without taking away from the old ones. Knowing what your deck’s plans are will allow you to build an effective sideboard that works with your deck, not parallel to it.

Happy fishing,

Tom LaPille

* I can’t believe I just called Ironclaw Orcs efficient.**
** I started playing Magic in 1997. Back in the day, we walked uphill both ways to the card store in fields of snow and razor blades just to get 2/2’s with a drawback for 1R for our Red decks! You kids don’t know just how good you have it.