Black Magic – Sideboarding in Zendikar Limited and the Importance of Situational Cards

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Tuesday, January 19th – In Limited, correctly evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of cards is a surefire way to improve your forty-card play. However, such evaluations also serve to hold you back, as a lot of “bad” cards have excellent uses outside the usual framework of the format. Sam Black shares a selection of overlooked cards, and outlines the ways in which they can be situationally superb.

I’ve been drafting a lot of Zendikar lately. The basics of the format are understood. We know how aggressive it is, and basically what cards are good. If you’ve been drafting much, you probably have a sense of what colors you like to play together and what you like to avoid. There are some general quality points I still think people strongly disagree on, but I’m not interested in trying to tell anyone why Adventuring Gear is or isn’t awesome. Personally, I’ve more or less stopped touching Green entirely, and I’ve been trying to draft Blue with White or Black. This article isn’t going to be about how to draft those decks, or why you shouldn’t touch Green. The point that I want to try to make is that you’re almost certainly playing too many of the same cards in games 2 and 3 that you played in game 1, and you’re probably trying too hard to draft one deck.

When I was in Rome, Ben Stark told me he thought M10 Sealed was a much more skill-intensive format than people gave it credit for, and that he could win a vast majority of his matches in the format because he wasn’t lazy and he was willing to rebuild his deck during sideboarding. I think he’s giving people too much credit when he assumes that the reason he does this and other people don’t is just that other people are too lazy. I don’t think other people know the matchups in Limited well enough, and they don’t know which situational cards are bombs against which archetypes they’ll play against.

Limited decks consistently have game plans, and countermeasures to most plans exist in most sets. People know to consider cards like Relic Crush as sideboard options, but it goes much deeper. Hedron Scrabbler, Pillarfield Ox, Whiplash Trap, Spell Pierce, Vampire Bite, Sky Ruin Drake, and Mark of Mutiny are all cards I’m not excited to play maindeck most of the time, but they’re all great to have access to depending on the opponent.

Not too long ago, I drafted a complete train wreck of a R/W deck where I had a pretty bad curve, not a lot of removal, 4 Shatterskull Giants, 3 Pillarfield Oxen, 3 Seismic Shudders, some Slaughter Cries, stuff like that. I played the Giants, but not the Oxen, so that I could have some kind of curve. In the first round I played against a fairly slow Blue White deck, with some evasion and some Merfolk Seastalkers. I sided in my Hedron Scrabbler and any other creature I had that cost less than four mana, did anything I could to make my deck more aggressive, and somehow won what I think might have been a pretty bad matchup. The next two rounds I played against Black/Red aggro and Mono Red aggro, and after I sided in my Oxen, my Shudders, my Caravan Hurda, and my Shieldmate’s Blessing, basically every card I played was a two-for-one. Seismic Shudder would always kill two creatures, Shieldmate’s Blessing would stop a Slaughter Cry so that his creature would die and mine would live, and any of my creatures would hold off almost any number of my opponents. My cards were all pretty terrible, but they were two of the most lopsided matches I’ve played.

The trick is to understand which cards are sideboard cards and what kinds of strategies you want them against, and then to understand what your opponent’s strategy is.

Makindi Shieldmate and Pillarfield Ox are great if your opponent is trying to attack with goblins and vampires, but they’re almost worthless against Welkin Turns or Territorial Baloths. It’s even harder to figure out things like when you want Unstable Footing and when you don’t based on your opponent’s deck.

After playing a game against your opponent, you should be able to tell yourself what their game plan is. Are they trying to play efficient creatures and beat you before you can play all your spells? Are they trying to live until they can play one of their 3+ different bombs? Are they trying to lock up the ground and win with evasion? Are they just planning to play an attrition game and kill all your cards that matter and win with whatever they happen to have left? There are a huge number of possible game plans in Zendikar Limited. We say it’s all about attacking, but there are so many ways to attack. Maybe they’re trying to burn you out, or maybe they want to stick a creature with Savage Silhouette and attack through whatever you put in the way. Not everyone’s even trying to attack. Maybe they’re just trying to play every ally in the set and win a late game off their synergies.

It’s hard to think of every plan anyone might ever have, but it’s pretty easy to approach a list of cards, so I want to look at the list of Zendikar cards and talk about which cards I think are particularly situational, and in what kinds of situations they’re likely to shine. I’ll try not to waste your time with suggestions like, “Bog Tatters has Swampwalk. Play it against Swamps.”


Caravan Hurda is rarely the first man I want for a job, but sometimes he’s surprisingly good. I don’t want him against most Green decks, because he’s embarrassing when he’s up against a Timbermaw Larva or a Territorial Baloth, and I obviously don’t want to try to race a Welkin Tern with him, but if I’m playing against a Mono Red or maybe a Red/White deck that’s trying to attack me with anything between a 2/1 and a Shatterskull Giant on the ground, the Hurda can be backbreaking. Remember that he can’t win a game by himself though, only prolong it, and you’ll need to have some kind of inevitability for this to work. But for the most part, if you can shut down enough of their deck with one card, which he can do in the right matchup, you’ll probably win.

Noble Vestige is a pretty embarrassing attacker, and, oddly enough, it might even be more embarrassing on defense. Still, if your deck is designed to be aggressive, particularly if you have ways to increase a creature’s power like Adventurer’s Gear or Goblin War Paint, this might be the way your Red/White deck can get around your opponent’s Caravan Hurdas and Makindi Shieldmates for the last few points after they’re stable.

Steppe Lynx is a good man, and I’d almost always play him in a main deck. It’s the kind of card that’s so dedicated to its plan that when you sideboard, you should really ask yourself if that’s the plan you’re trying to execute. If your opponent has Kraken Hatchlings or Giant Scorpions, and you have a backup plan that doesn’t involve trying to win quickly on the ground, it might be time to bench this guy for a round.

Bold Defense isn’t a card I like to play most of the time, but sometimes your opponent has a Sphinx of Jwar Isle and a Sorin Markov and it becomes clear that anything that doesn’t kill the opponent as fast as possible has to go because you’re really not winning a long game. This card is fine backup aggressive card that can let you make attacks you wouldn’t otherwise be able to make, to get in some free damage because your opponent might not even be able to try to block, and then when you’re ready, it can give you the last few points. It’s also great if the game is likely to come to a creature stall, at which point you’ll reach seven mana and someone will try an alpha strike at some point. Finally, it’s good against an opponent who has several creatures with higher toughness than power, as it shouldn’t be hard to get into a situation where they have several 2/3s blocking your 2/2 or something similar, and +1/+1 can both save your creature and kill theirs.

Narrow Escape and Shieldmate’s Blessing are both good against Red, and get better the more burn they have. Shieldmate’s Blessing is particularly fantastic against Slaughter Cry.

Nimbus Wings, like other enchant creatures, is generally bad against Blue and Black, but can be awesome against Red, White, and Green, depending on which specific cards they have and what your plan is. For the most part, it’s probably a better solution to trying to get over big stoppers than Noble Vestige, but you need to be sure you have enough creatures to begin with. I would be most likely to play this card if I have a lot 2/1s and 2/2s in a matchup where they can easily get blanked by 2/3s and 2/4s, but where a 3/3 flier would be awesome, and I’m not really down anything if it doesn’t work out, because I had probably already gotten about all the value I was going to get out of my 2/1.

Sunspring Expedition is an exceptional rarely-used gem reserved only for times when your late game is so good you’re almost assured to win if you get there but that might be hard to do, or when your opponent is really set on trying to kill you with Zektar Shrine Expeditions and Spire Barrages.


Gomazoa is a three-mana creature that can never offer any assistance going aggressive, and can’t really offer virtual card advantage (that best trick of a 2/4 – the ability to hold off multiple cards without actually killing them, using a single card) due to its lack of power. In a lot of matches it’s just a dramatically worse Kraken Hatchling and you’re often not looking for Kraken Hatchling to begin with. Still, if once you’ve established that you’re not going to be the aggressor, this card will almost always do what you need as another blocker. It’s particularly good at dealing huge Green creatures like Baloth Woodcrasher.

Shoal Serpent is a card that I’m honestly amazed that I’ve never sided in, but I haven’t. It should be good in an attrition war, I suppose, but I guess those come up pretty rarely in this format.

Cancel is obviously good if your opponent has some expensive bombs that you can’t possibly beat if they go unanswered. Much like in Constructed, the more aggressive your opponent is, the less you want Cancel.

Lethargy Trap is a card it took me a long time to play, but so far, every time I’ve drawn it, it has been completely amazing, understanding that it’s only in my deck when that’s likely to happen. If your opponent has a Goblin Bushwhacker in their deck, they are probably planning on setting up the kind of game state where Lethargy Trap will win you the game. Bring it in and let them do that.

Spell Pierce is a card I always like to have one copy of in my sideboard. Sometimes I bring it in just to lower my curve and try to trade with anything to slow down an aggressive opponent, other times I bring it in because my opponent has a lot of expensive spells and I don’t think it’s likely to go dead. Any time you cast it, you’ve probably gotten great value on it.

Summoner’s Bane is a card that’s often just a bit too slow for this format, but if my opponent is playing big Green creatures or generally being slower than their supposed to, I’ll happily bring it in.

Whiplash Trap is a card I think I’m maindecking less than a lot of people, but I’m just not that impressed by bouncing a two- and a three-drop on turn 5 in this format. I like it against Green and against enchantments, or when a game is going to be even more tempo-based than it usually is and I don’t have anything better. (As a courtesy to Richard Feldman, I’ll explain: what I mean is that the game will be resolved before both players have the ability to cast every spell they’ve drawn, and the losing player would have won with another attack step or two, or something like that.)

Paralyzing Grasp is like Gomazoa for me. If there were more utility creatures; maybe after a pinger is printed, its value will rise, but I use it about as much as I would a Gomazoa, but I’m a little less happy with it.

Spreading Seas is a card I’m pretty happy to play most of the time, but it’s often right to side it out on the draw, since it’s less likely to do anything to slow someone down and, given that you’re already down a turn and up a card, you probably don’t want to spend a turn cycling. I particularly like it against Mono Red, where having one less Mountain will almost always matter, or against cards like Gatekeeper of Malakir.


Crypt Ripper is obviously going to be in your deck all the time if you’re heavy Black. But sometimes you have one in your pool because you were drafting Black, but when all was said and done you ended up only playing 7 or 8 Swamps and you left him in the board. That’s fine, but even under those circumstances, if your opponent has a bunch of good blockers and they’re trying to stop your Mindless Nulls or whatever random two-power creatures you have from getting through, it’s a great way to give your deck a way to punch through in the late game.

Mindless Null is bad. We all get that. At this point, we also probably realize that it often gets played just to fill out the curve and give us another random attacker. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how to stop random attackers, but sometimes they’re exactly what you want. If your opponent has a bunch of good removal, but no good sources of virtual card advantage, bring in a random dude that they won’t want to deal with that will get in some damage before your opponent eventually realizes he has to trade something with it. Alternatively, maybe your opponent doesn’t have a lot of removal. Maybe it’s just fliers or landfall creatures. Anything that makes you decide you need to race, and your 2/2 will get some damage through. Sometimes you just need another man.

Needlebite Trap is a hard one. It’s so expensive that it’s hard to say it should come in when you’re racing, but that’s clearly when it’s at its best. You don’t really want it in an attrition war, because a 10-life swing might just not do anything. The times when it’s really at its best are when you’re racing AND when your opponent has some incidental life gain. Or when you’d like to be racing, you have some Guul Draz Vampires, and your opponent has some way to lock up the ground… but if you can get them below 10 at any point, their wheels might fall off.

Vampire’s Bite is the card that fills the role Needlebite usually wants to fill: when you’re just going to be swinging guys at each other until someone dies, in something like the Mono Black mirror, especially if you have a Hagra Crocodile, but when any evasive creature will usually do the trick. Also a great way to get your early vampires through a Kraken Hatchling.

Soul Stair Expedition almost always makes my main deck, but you have to realize that sometimes your opponent just isn’t that interested in killing your creatures, and unless you have something like a Gatekeeper of Malakir and a Heartstabber Mosquito, cards that you can profitably use to chump block and then get value by returning them, you’ll want to cut this against a lot of decks that don’t feature Red or Black.


Demolish: This one won’t come up a lot, but if you’re on the play against a much slower deck that’s likely to stop the aggressive start you want to have, you can bring it in. Especially if they also had some artifacts you might want to kill, and if they’re playing a particularly slow Green deck.

Slaughter Cry is probably very similar to Bold Defense, in that it can come in any time you just need to tune up the aggression, but the other uses are obviously a bit different. Here it’s good when you think you are going to be able to attack every turn, and you want to be able to send whatever random creatures you have into the 4/4 your opponent just played. It’s much worse if they’re likely to have tricks or instant speed removal available when you cast it, so it’s best against decks that have a lot of substantially more expensive creatures than your deck has, or decks that just don’t seem to have many instants.

Unstable Footing is good against decks that don’t have good defense, such that the game will come down to tempo as I described above, where a five-mana creature would be too late to the party. At that point in the game you’re probably looking to do the last few points before they do.

Quest for Pure Flame is pretty bad, but I was recently impressed by it once when it was played against me, so it might be able to be used similarly in a similar situation if you don’t have a real burn spell.


Vastwood Gorger is almost always the biggest thing around, but if you’re playing Green, there’s a good chance you already have things well in hand in the games where he’s going to have a chance to do good things. Still, if you play against anyone foolish enough to try to play 1/4s and 2/4s against a Green deck and they look like they’re settling in for a long game, this should wrap things up pretty handily.

Most of Green’s sideboard options are very straightforward at this point. You want an Archer against fliers, even if you don’t have other allies; if your opponent has multiple Welkin Terns, it’s probably good enough. You want 1/4s against 2/1s, you want Tanglesap against tricks or when you need just a little more time, and you want Savage Silhouette and Quest for the Gemblades if your opponent won’t be able to deal with creature you get out of it.


Hedron Scrabbler: The go-to answer for Surrakar Marauder – you may not get any value out of it, but sometimes you just have to be able to stop that guy. Also a surprisingly respectable two-drop when you just want another attacker.

Spidersilk Net is another card I generally try to pick up exactly one of in every draft. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, but I’ve seen it change a lot of games. It’s obviously excellent at stopping fliers, but aside from that, when you’re playing Red or Black and your opponent is too, it’s often the closest thing you can get to Pillarfield Ox when you just strap it to a 2/2 and leave it on defense.

I know it’s a little late to be worrying about Zendikar-only Limited, which is why I’m not trying to spell out any pick orders for you, but as the Prerelease approaches, it’s time to start thinking about Limited again. I know that when Worldwake comes out, I’ll be trying to consider how good a card can be when it’s at its best, in the right matchup, and not just how good a card looks like it would be in my deck in a vacuum. I hope this helped you do the same.

Thanks for reading…