Unfortunately, this viewpoint can really limit you. It’s much better to think of Magic as a competition between opposing strategies. In this sense, an individual card choice is important only in how it contributes to a specific strategy, and the strategic flexibility it provides.
Looking at cards outside this context can trick you into making poor decisions. The classic mistake here is running some one-for-one answer that directly attacks your opponent’s win condition.
In the early 2000’s, a player losing to a large Psychatog in might be tempted to bring in large numbers of removal spells. In game two, the ‘Tog player could draw a huge volume of cards (between Accumulated Knowledge and Deep Analysis), not relying on the creature in any way. The ‘Tog player could then either Mind Twist all of those dead removal cards away, play Yawgmoth’s Will to apply more pressure than the opponent could deal with, or simply overwhelm them with more counterspells and Psychatogs than the opponent had answers. This was not particularly hard to do when you outdraw someone four to one.
Fighting the wrong battles.
About a thousand years ago, I was playing a Storm Combo deck (TPS) at Vintage tournament for a Black Lotus. In game three of my top 8 match, my opponent was playing Control Slaver (the top control deck at the time). Slaver used Tinker, Goblin Welder, and Thirst for Knowledge to cheat expensive, powerful artifacts into play — in this case, a Platinum Angel.
I went all-in, burning my fast mana for a Memory Jar — a card that generally gives you one chance to win and that’s that. Of course, I did not win that turn, as the Memory Jar gave me a bunch of Dark Rituals and nothing to do with them. When I had to discard at the end of turn, this left my hand completely empty, with a board of nothing but mana, staring down a Platinum Angel, a Goblin Welder, and a four-card hand.
My opponent draws, attacks, and taps three of his four mana sources for a Tinker. He searches up … another Platinum Angel. My friend Eric Dupuis, watching the game, becomes visibly distressed. Praying for a miracle, I knock the top of my deck and draw a Brainstorm. That Brainstorm draws me a Yawgmoth’s Will. I cast it, it resolves, and Eric sighs and fidgets a bit.
Yawgmoth’s Will does what it usually does. In the midst of casting Dark Rituals, cantrips and tutors, I play a Rebuild. I wasn’t even particularly desperate for it. I needed it to generate a large amount of storm (by replaying my own artifact mana), and I would have found and cast it even if my opponent didn’t have two Platinum Angels out. The fact that it happened to remove them at the same time, clearing the way for my Tendrils of Agony — well that was just gravy.
My opponent drops his hand on the table, showing not only the two Platinum Angels I had Rebuilt, but two Mana Drains he couldn’t cast after tapping out for Tinker. He would have easily won the game in a few turns had he held back.
That anecdote illustrates a few important things: Brass Man is a lucksack, and Eric does not suffer fools. Most important for our purposes, though, is the idea that addressing specific cards isn’t as useful as addressing specific strategies.
Platinum Angel addresses the card Tendrils of Agony quite well, just like a Stifle would. The problem is that TPS isn’t a deck that just tries to cast a Tendrils and that’s that. The primary strategy of a TPS player isn’t “cast Tendrils.” If it was, the deck would run four copies, and many game would involve turns like “Land. Mox. Tendrils you for four damage, go.” This would not result in many wins for the deck.
A Storm Combo deck needs nine storm to win. This means that besides Tendrils of Agony, it needs to have at least nine cards and enough mana to cast all of them in the same turn. This is not something that just happens naturally. For starters, you have a maximum hand size of seven, so the deck needs some way to draw a lot of cards, or string cards together. The way different storm decks address this problem are what set them apart. Ad Nauseam and Doomsday do this by, well, casting Ad Nauseam and Doomsday.
A traditional Vintage TPS deck does this by abusing the restricted blue and black engine cards available. These decks run Yawgmoth’s Bargain, Yawgmoth’s Will, Necropotence, Mind’s Desire, and Gifts Ungiven — a rogue’s gallery of cards that powered some degenerate deck or another. These spells can be pretty mana-hungry, so an assortment of artifact mana and Dark Ritual effects help them come out earlier. TPS, in contrast with some more aggressive combo lists, will usually run a larger number of disruptive spells (usually Force of Will and Duress). These cards aren’t meant to play control though, but to complement that strategy, “All I need to do is resolve [some bomb], so I better make sure it resolves.”
The baseline strategy of a TPS deck isn’t “Hurr durr, just cast Tendrils.” It’s something more like, “Get the game to a state where a Tendrils of Agony can win the game. Do this by resolving a some large threat using fast mana, before my opponent is in a position to stop it.” This means a strategy of “Hurr durr, just stop Tendrils” isn’t really attacking the deck in any way it cares.
Alternatively, you might try something like “I’m going to attack his mana, preventing him from playing his large threats” or “I’m going to use countermagic to stop those threats, so he’s never in a position where Tendrils of Agony is dangerous.” This is a huge leap in the right direction — but it’s still wrong. A strategy like this is forgetting something essential.
Winning is more than just not losing
When playing a legacy Counterbalance deck, I’ve seen plenty of players lose to a Tarmogoyf game one, and bring in a handful of removal spells next game. Just like the Psychatog deck in days of yore, it’s not terribly hard to sit back in game two. I can play defensively while the opponent’s hand is clogged with removal, and drop a Counterbalance before ever playing a creature, rendering all those Swords to Plowshares useless.
In the same way, another player might be overwhelmed by an early Counterbalance in the first game, and bring in some large number of Krosan Grips. In that match, I’d be able to overwhelm with Tarmogoyfs, Sower of Temptations, and Engineered Explosives post-sideboard.
I’m going to teach you a little trick here: if you don’t already do something similar, this is going to go a long way towards making your decks and sideboards more correct. If you’re adding a card, either during deck construction or sideboarding, the correct way to think about a matchup always uses the following statement:
“I will win this game unless …”
This is critical. Never think “I lose if my opponent plays Tarmogoyf.” that’s the worst kind of Fear, and can get you making some terrible decisions. That statement might be true, and it might not be — but figuring that out doesn’t help you.
First, above all, establish how you’re going to win. From that foundation, you can plug holes far more effectively. Start with “I will win this game unless…” Insert what you think your problem is, and analyze the truth of that statement. If it’s true, you’ve identified the issue, and from there it’s a snap to solve it. If it’s not true, if you’re not sure you’d win (and it’s tough to be honest here), you’re going to need to find a new strategy.
If you’re, say, building Legacy Zoo in a field of Counterbalance, the thought process might go something like this:
Self: “Ugh, Tarmogoyf just crushed me last week. I couldn’t attack through it, and he just played a second one and beat me up.”
Self: “All right, well…. I guess I’ll run some more Path to Exiles so he can’t just beat me with ‘Goyf.”
Inner Brass Man:
“Hold on there a minute. What is Path going to do for you?”
Self: “Well, I’ll win the game unless … he sticks a Tarmogoyf, right?”
Inner Brass Man:
“But is that true? I can think of plenty of games you could lose without him drawing a ‘Goyf.”
Self: “But that ‘Goyf beat me!”
Inner Brass Man:
“Tarmogoyf is just a card. Isn’t his strategy here to use Tarmogoyf along with other creature-controlling spells to hold you off until his powerful late-game spells, like Counterbalance and Vedalken Shackles come online?”
Inner Brass Man:
“You need to address his strategy, not his cards”
Self: “I guess what you’re saying is… I’ll win the game unless he is able to establish control with his late-game cards?”
Inner Brass Man:
Self: “So I should readjust my strategy to one that can either apply pressure that he can’t disrupt enough to get his late-game cards online, or one that just wins through his late-game cards? Perhaps I could use a card like Sulfuric Vortex, which deals damage quickly, is hard to stop with a Counterbalance, and ignores both his early creature removal (like Firespout) and late game creature control (like Vedalken Shackles?)
Inner Brass Man:
“That’s more like it!”
Outer, real-world Brass Man: “Stop teaching people how to beat my decks.”
Though thinking precisely in this way is likely to get you committed, thinking generally in this way will improve your ability to identify issues and solve problem matchups.
Of course, sometimes you really would win unless the other player stuck a Tarmogoyf — because not every deck with a Tarmogoyf is using Tarmogoyf to execute the same strategy. Against a more creature-centric deck like Threshold or New Horizons, a Tarmogoyf is more critical part of their overall plan, which is closer to “Play an undercosted, oversized creature, and then attack while using light disruption and mana denial to keep the opponent off balance.” In that matchup, a Path is a lot more relevant — despite the fact that New Horizons and Counterbalance sometimes share up to twenty cards (not including the lands, which may also be very similar).
This means you can’t just look at Tarmogoyf and see Tarmogoyf. You need to look at Tarmogoyf and see the strategy it represents — the goal it’s trying to accomplish. The best way to do this is studying the format, but you can always get context clues from the opponent. You can figure out what someone’s trying to do by the cards they play, how a game ends, and above all the decisions they make. In the same way, even if you play a completely rogue deck, your opponent is picking up those clues from you.
tells us (and forgive my extremely layman’s understanding of quantum physics), that the very act of observation has a direct effect on what you’re observing. When you’re thinking about card choices, particularly when sideboarding, you can’t ignore the effect that the observer has. In this case, the observer is you, your deck, and your strategy. In the examples above, a strategy is identified, and a counter-strategy is developed — but in a tournament situation, your opponent is doing the same. Proper sideboarding requires not identifying what your opponent’s strategy is, but anticipating what it’s
A Dredge player, in any format, knows this intuitively. Game one, the opponent’s strategy is usually an awkward scramble for the fastest clock they can muster, while the Dredge player casually tears apart their hand and wins in the first few turns. After sideboarding the Dredge player does not expect the same game — he correctly expects a brutal, tooth-and-nail battle over hate cards. As a result he sideboards cards like Nature’s Claim and Chain of Vapor. He might even bring in cards like Ichorid, which aren’t as powerful as Dread Return, but are less reliant on large, Tormod’s Crypt-vulnerable graveyards. Almost all of these cards would have been terrible against the opponent’s game one strategy, but are absolutely essential in games two and three.
After all, a Dredge player knows “I’ll win unless… the opponent successfully hates out my graveyard.”
In the Dredge matchup, this is pretty obvious. Both players know what the other player is going to do — but both players still do it. The Dredge player can’t effectively adopt a graveyard-free strategy (believe me, I’ve seen players try), and the non-Dredge player can’t effectively race without graveyard disruption, which is extremely efficient in the match.
So lets’ go back to that Storm Combo-on-Control matchup.
In the modern Vintage era, TPS is still running around, but Slaver is long gone. Today’s blue mage plays either a Gush or Time Vault-based deck. So what do we do? Well let’s start with the statement, “I will win unless my opponent resolves some expensive, restricted bomb before my strategy comes online.” With Jace, the Mind Sculptor as a blowout draw engine, and the relatively fast clock of Time Vault / Voltaic Key, this doesn’t seem unreasonable. TPS doesn’t exactly have a late game plan or an answer to Jace. Something like Duress or Mindbreak Trap seem pretty suited to this role.
Like the Dredge player, a Storm Combo player is going to see this coming. This strategy is effective, and it’s not exactly a secret. Unlike the Dredge player, though, he can do something about it. Some enterprising combo pilots will bring in a set of Dark Confidants. You can’t Duress or Mindbreak Trap a Dark Confidant. It comes down early and generates advantage into the late game. A lone Confidant can cause problems for a Jace, and two can kill it without breaking a sweat. That means your “I will win” statement above isn’t quite so true anymore.
As Helmuth von Moltke brilliantly put it, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.
You might be tempted to say here “Well I’ll win unless he sticks a Confidant, so I can just pack a couple Darkblasts and call it a day” — but this would again be thinking
Confidant doesn’t just magically beat a control deck — it reduces their effectiveness by attacking the strategy “stall to the late game, in the late game I’ll win.” If try to build a deck to consistently answer a Confidant, consistently prevent early-game blowouts, and consistently generate late-game advantage, all without taking pressure off, something’s going to suffer — you can’t have it all. You’ll have a lot more success adopting a strategy that addresses his new plan. You could run some more powerful (though slower) late-game cards. You could go the other direction entirely and race him, now that he’s sacrificed a bit of his pressure. This only means anything, though, if you can correctly identify what plan your opponent is on.
This idea of “if you think I think you’re thinking I’ll pick Rock, I better pick Scissors” is well known to Magic players — we call it metagaming.
David Sirlin, who writes about Street Fighter, competitive gaming and game design, famously called this concept ”
.” Patrick Chapin might say that correctly
identifying your opponent’s plan puts you on the
Magic though, isn’t quite a game of Rock Paper Scissors. The fact is, many players are weak on the fundamentals, both playing and deck construction. If I met a psychic, someone who could flawlessly predict which sign I was going to throw every time, but for some reason was absolutely convinced that Rock beat Paper, I’d be thrilled to play against them. I’d beat them every time. That is, knowing what your opponent is going to do is irrelevant unless you know how to correctly capitalize on it.
Near-prescient opponent reading is great, and at a professional level it’s something that sets apart the truly brilliant. It’s better, though, to know how to effectively attack each strategy. Specifically when sideboarding, a player can change her deck only so much. If you’ve already seen Island, Aether Vial, Cursecatcher, there are only so many decks she could be playing. There are only so many ways she can shift her strategy effectively, and best ways are going to be pretty well known.
Of course, some decks are better at this than others.
A transformational sideboard trades a huge amount of deck or sideboard space for a dramatic strategic shift. In the past, players have shoved Oath of Druids into almost every deck, and Doomsday or full suite of aggressive creatures into another. It takes a pretty big commitment of sideboard space to do this, and your game two deck will generally be less synergistic and powerful than the first. Sometimes you’ll win game two on surprise, but lose game three after your opponent compensates. Even if you do well, every round of the tournament gets harder, as your games are all public, and it becomes more and more likely that your opponents have heard about your plan.
The space you need to support the switch means you might not have sideboard space for decks that don’t really care about your transformation, like Dredge. Transformational sideboards are dramatic, so they tempt players who like flashy cards — which means they may get run a bit more than they should. While they
work, it’s pretty rare that full deck swap is better than just playing up your strengths.
It’s totally possible, though, to get the benefits of a transformational sideboard without that huge cost. While you don’t want to shove a transformation into just any deck, I like to view every sideboard plan as a transformational, in some manner. Remember that you’re not thinking about cards, you’re thinking of a strategy that beats your opponent’s strategy. Any swap you make post-board, even one card, represents a conscious shift in your strategy, whether subtle or dramatic.
The Dark Confidants in TPS above is a beautiful example of a semi-transformational sideboard. Bringing in Confidants creates an effective strategic shift, while using a minimal amount of deck space.
If we recall from our discussions of Counterbalance and New Horizons, lots of strategies have overlapping cards — they can serve different roles. This is true of all magic, but particularly so in Eternal formats where the power level is so high. When selecting cards for your sideboard, think about what you’re already running that can play a support role.
Probably the number one thing I love about Legacy Counterbalance decks is their extreme flexibility in this area. There’s this really strong core of a great mana base: 4 Brainstorms, 4 Sensei’s Divining Tops. Cards like Force of Will and Tarmogoyf have value in almost every matchup. Beyond that, most lists have some number of other powerful search effects — I’ve most often played with Ponders, Trinket Mages, and Enlightened Tutors. This means you can shift strategies very easily.
Against Zoo or Goblins you could play a combo-control deck, digging out a win with Thopter Foundry and Sword of the Meek, or even Painter’s Servant and Grindstone, while you pick off their biggest threats with counters and removal.
Against graveyard based decks like Dredge and 42 Lands, you switch to an all-in combo deck, hunting down Nihil Spellbomb and Academy Ruins, only slowing down to answer a stray Pithing Needle. That’s easy enough to assemble between all of those tutors and cantrips.
Against combo you’re all control, never tapping out, never letting your guard down, dropping Vendilion Cliques during their end step.
And this is all the same deck. The more flexible the cards are, the more dramatically you can shift roles — but every deck can do this to some extent. The onus is on you to ask “Does my strategy beat their strategy?” If the answer is “no,” then do something about it!
Inner Brass Man: Now we’re talking!
* – No. You should never do that. Ever.