Zac Hill once told me about the sideboarding method Pro Tour finalist Brian Davis told him about. I’m not sure if he invented it, or how rigidly he practices it, but he’s the earliest known espouser of the theory, so it seems fair to attribute it to him.
The method has five steps:
1. Pick a tough matchup.
2. Tune your maindeck into a build optimized to beat that matchup.
3. Repeat the previous steps for all your other tough matchups.
4. Lay out all the cards necessary to transform your maindeck into any of these optimized builds on a moment’s notice.
5. Trim that list down to 15 cards while keeping as many of the most important transformative elements as possible that made the optimized builds successful.
Compared to a more traditional sideboarding strategy, the most obvious upside to the BD method is its ability to illuminate transformational sideboard possibilities. There are some matchups where you just need to bring in a truckload of cards to make a difference, and it can be hard to realize just how fundamentally you might need to change your deck to meet your needs.
Perhaps more importantly, though, is what it does to your ability to see what matters most in a matchup. I’ve often heard people complain that they “don’t know how to sideboard,” or “have no idea if I was boarding right in that matchup.” When you get to sit down and design your optimal strategy against a given deck, what’s most important and what’s not tends to jump out at you pretty quickly.
For example, many players are reluctant to board out Tarmogoyf, even in those strange matchups where it is often an irrelevant 1/2 and you would much rather have an additional disruption spell. When you sit down to design the best deck you can muster against that combo deck, you should quickly discover exactly which beaters you need and how many disruptive elements you want to be packing.
Finally, an abbreviated version of this method can be a good way for players uncomfortable with the actual act of sideboarding to get their bearings. Just bring in your entire sideboard and start boarding out cards you’re generally unhappy to draw in this matchup, one by one.
After doing this, you may actually find that you’ve boarded out more than fifteen cards if the matchup is that bad, and that’s fine – just look through the pile of cards you’ve boarded out and bring back in the ones that are least bad. More likely, though, you’re going to only board out eight or ten cards that you really don’t want to see; at that point, it’s all about finding the least-good card to remove without disrupting the core of your deck.
The BDavis Method in Action
The best example I can think of comes from many years ago – the first deck I ever took to a PTQ Top 8, in fact. Here’s what the maindeck looked like:
This was my maindeck, which featured a three-card infinite life combo that was popular at the time: Daru Spiritualist, anything that could target him indefinitely (Nomads en-Kor or Shaman en-Kor) and an effect that let me sacrifice a creature to gain life equal to its toughness (Starlit Sanctum, Worthy Cause).
This combo absolutely savaged any kind of deck that tried to win through damage – which was most decks – and could occasionally pull off wins against the Aluren infinite combo and the Brain Freeze-powered Mind’s Desire decks by finding the fourth combo piece, Unspeakable Symbol, before the opponent went off.
As you can imagine, though, the combo decks that won by decking – or through infinite combos of their own – were very difficult to beat with this deck. The typical sideboard strategy when you have tough matchups like this is to look for hosers. Unfortunately, aside from Rule of Law, there wasn’t much available at the time that could hose both Aluren and Mind’s Desire, and my horde of tiny 1/1s gave the opponent ample time to topdeck Echoing Truth.
So I went a different direction.
Thug Life, Post-Board
4 Cephalid Illusionist
4 Nomads En-Kor
4 Shaman En-Kor
Bam! Whole new deck.
Cephalid Breakfast, as this deck was known, was the absolute fastest combo deck in the format when it was legal. You could sometimes kill on turn 2 – in fact, in that very tournament I killed Eric “Danger” Taylor and his Mind’s Desire deck on turn 2 of game 3 – and were likely indeed to have it turn 3, often with Duress or Cabal Therapy backup.
Because I’d set my maindeck up for it, I was able to make this swap in only fifteen cards:
I only had two cards to board in when I wanted to keep the Life strategy: Disenchant and Ray of Revelation, but that was basically what I wanted anyway, as tutorable answers to Sulfuric Vortex and Cursed Totem if Duress and Therapy weren’t enough to stop them.
At the time, I didn’t really put a name to the technique I used to arrive at this deck, but my thought process definitely followed BDavis method. I was really interested in playing Life (and not the Hybrid Life/Cephalid Breakfast deck that played slow tutors like Living Wish and sacrificed speed on both combos to fit them both into the maindeck) because of its fantastic matchups against the bulk of the field, but could not find a way to get it past those pesky combo matchups post-board.
I sat down and expanded the deck out, and tried to think of the optimal build I’d want to run against those decks. Really what I wanted, I realized, was to play Cephalid Breakfast against them – a whole new combo. So I built my optimal Breakfast deck out of the maindeck Life shell, and lo and behold, it (barely) fit in a fifteen-card sideboard!
This is exactly the type of thing the BDavis sideboarding method can illuminate.
The main drawback is the potential to waste time; should you discover that your optimal build positively demands twenty new cards – say, because you’re transforming into a combo deck – you’ll have to start over with a fresh approach. It can also lead you to strategies that do not pare down well; for example, suppose you have a transformative strategy in which you become a control deck against Faeries that boards out creatures for removal and brings in Quagnoth as a finisher. Then you discover that you only have room to bring in the Quagnoths, which turns out to be a worse strategy than just bringing in Thoughtseizes in the first place.
Fortunately, if you keep these drawbacks in mind as you are going through the process, many of them are easy to anticipate. Chances are it won’t take you long to realize that the Quagnoth Control plan is not going to scale down to the four card slots you have to work with, or to realize that boarding into a new combo deck requires more sideboard slots than you have room for.
This isn’t a method I would recommend using every time you come up with a sideboard, but it definitely has its merits when you are stumped.
If you’ve at your wit’s end with a given matchup or two, I absolutely recommend you give this a try. Even if a radical sideboard strategy doesn’t jump out at you to solve the problem, it may at least teach you how you ought to be playing the matchup, or give you some clue as to how best to board it.
Good luck at those PTQs!
Bonus Section: Paruns Midrange
Wataru Hosaka recently lost in the semifinals of a PTQ in Niigata with a deck he dubbed Paruns Aggro:
- 2 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Lightning Angel
- 4 Doran, the Siege Tower
- 3 Gaddock Teeg
- 4 Rhox War Monk
- 1 Woolly Thoctar
- 4 Noble Hierarch
It brought back fond memories of a deck I brewed up some time ago, “Red Gold.”
- 4 Kird Ape
- 4 Boros Swiftblade
- 4 Watchwolf
- 3 Giant Solifuge
- 4 Martyr of Ashes
- 2 Sedge Sliver
- 2 Sulfur Elemental
To justify building around Pillar, you have to play the absolute highest concentration of busted multicolor cards you can muster. The multicolored cards in Hosaka’s list include:
Of these, I am most interested in the following cards:
It doesn’t seem like Lightning Angel would pull her weight in a format like this; she’s just kind of a random expensive animal. As I see it, the chief advantage of this strategy is that you can run cards which are slower than, but ultimately better than, what your opponents are running. That screams midrange to me, and there are plenty of disruptive gold cards available in the format.
I would run it thusly:
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Doran, the Siege Tower
- 3 Gaddock Teeg
- 3 Rhox War Monk
- 4 Tidehollow Sculler
- 4 Woolly Thoctar
This is not likely the best deck in the format, but it’s definitely a curveball with a gameplan against everything. It’s got a consistent plan of disruption followed up by big beaters, and it shouldn’t need to deviate much from that strategy.
Electrolyze seems like a perfect clean-up hitter in this deck, as it can easily be a tempo-boosting three-for-one against Elves and Faeries while serving up decent two-for-ones (especially spicy when they win you Tarmogoyf fights) against other decks.
If nothing else, Pillar decks are an exciting exercise in color balancing. This one turned out to be based around Green, Black, and White, with splashes for Bant Charm, Rhox War Monk, Electrolyze, and Woolly Thoctar. Interestingly, although Electrolyze demands both splash colors, it is still about as easy to cast as any of the other spells because so much of the manabase revolves around Pillar and fetching. If I have a Pillar and any fetchland, for example, I can cast Electrolyze just as easily as I can cast Gaddock Teeg, who is in both of my main colors.
Briefly, some matchup advice:
Faeries – Bant Charm needs to be saved for Shackles unless you’re going to lose to a Sower anyway. If Sculler is sitting on something important, don’t swing into open Vendilion Clique mana with it unless you have a removal spell at the ready.
Zoo – Hold Rhox War Monk until you have drawn out as much of their removal as possible, and start racing as soon as possible. If you leave your guys home on defense, you increase your risk of being burned out.
Elves! – Expend all of your removal before you drop a beater. Even if they only have one or two innocuous dorks on the table, you have no idea if they’re holding Heritage Druid and Nettle Sentinel in hand and are about to go nuts as soon as you tap out for something that doesn’t disrupt them.
Aggro Loam – Race as hard and as fast as you can before they get the chance to set up Worm Harvest. Don’t be afraid to cycle Electrolyze for two points to the dome if you are low on gas; Tarmogoyf wars and killing off two Worms shouldn’t rate much concern, as if they get Worms going you are probably dead anyway (and Electrolyze won’t save you), and you have plenty of removal for Goyfs. Cast Bant Charm in creature elimination mode only when absolutely necessary, as it can be used to stop removal targeting your guys and kill Jitte.
Bant – This is a pretty similar matchup, except your guys are generally bigger while the opponent has equipment. Definitely save Bant Charm for their equipment.