Flores Friday – What we as Wizards Can Learn from the Wizards: Sideboarding in Action

Read Mike Flores every Friday... at StarCityGames.com!
Friday, May 2nd – The power of a deck’s sideboard is something that is often difficult to quantify. Sure, we may fill our fifteen with cards that should impact the match in Games 2 and 3, but sometimes our meddling does little but dilute our core strategy. Today’s Flores Friday draws on the current Basketball Playoffs to investigate just how we can work to our strengths…

Round 2, me versus Justin

Justin was a really friendly guy, who goes to Swarthmore, a school outside of Philadelphia (I go to Penn). It turns out we have some friends in common, and we are both eager to see who gets to go to Dallas.

In game 1, all I see are some Islands, Adarkar Wastes, and Plains. I think that Justin is simply playing U/W control, and with that mindset I defeat him in a close game. All right now, just one more…

I sideboard out some creatures and one Withering Wisps for 2 Pyroblasts and 2 Dystopias. I’m not sure what Justin is playing, so I’m not sure how to sideboard. Anyway, I knock him down to 3 life when he drops Circle of Protection: Black. Suck*. Double-suck*. I hurl tons of fire at him, but at this point he’s got a Browse on the table, and obviously a ton of counterspells in hand. He has 3 Outposts. He Ray of Commands my Lim-Dul’s High Guard and kills my pump Knight. Damn. Justin attacks maybe twice before I concede. Not a Dystopia in sight, damn it!

I sideboard again. I will either be the biggest Magic genius for this play or the biggest Magic fool. I have to beat Justin’s Browse, as well as his defensive measures, to win. I sideboard out almost all of my creatures for an extra Stone Rain, 4 Pyroblast, and 3 Dystopia.

We shuffle and I go first. GOD DRAW! Glaciers. Swamp: Ritual, Icequake your Island. Swamp. Pump Knight. Pillage. Stone Rain. Second Pump Knight. Two Dystopias in hand. All I remember was attacking Justin when he had three life. He looked at his hand. He didn’t say “You’ve got me,” or anything. I went into “cocky bastard” mode and jumped out of my chair, yelling “I’M GOING TO DALLAS, BABY!” All my teammates jumped over to me, and it was hugs and slapping on the back and yelling! Justin was very gracious, I must say, and shook my hand, and congratulated me.

That was an excerpt from my first tournament report, the crucial last match that I needed to take to qualify for Pro Tour: Dallas in 1996. I will either be the biggest Magic genius for this play, or the biggest Magic fool. I think about that second-to-last paragraph at least once a week, and have for the last twelve years. The thing is, I just got lucky. I wish I had my decklist from this PTQ to discuss, but per Tim Gillam’s review of Deckade, I don’t have the deck list in my copy, either.

In those days, I, like so many others, just loaded my sideboard with a bunch of hosers – Dystopia, Pyroblast and the like. When faced with a U/W Control deck in what amounted to the only match that really mattered, I was able to spike game 1 (no surprise there, Necropotence versus anything), but I didn’t know what was going to happen and his sideboard cards punished me in the second. For the third… I just got lucky. That’s half of why I think of that paragraph at least once a week, and have done since qualifying for my first Pro Tour.

Given the tools I had, I still don’t know if what I did was right. Certainly it paid off. However…

I have been thinking about the intersection of basketball and Magic recently, now that the playoffs are heating up. The most interesting matchup is obviously the Cavs and the Wizards. The Cavs have the best player since Michael Jordan, and the Wizards have assembled more trash talk than a landfill full of extreme radio hosts. If you haven’t been paying attention to this matchup, it is the most engaging playoff series, ever… off the court, anyway.

Some loser on the Wizards insulted LeBron James.

LeBron responded by not responding, chuckling that Jay-Z wouldn’t deign to answer a negative comment levied at him by Soulja Boy**.

The aforementioned loser responded by inviting Soulja Boy, whoever that is, to the first Wizards home game.

Jay-Z then wrote a song about what a whiny loser the nameless Wizard has become.

So what does this have to do with anything?

The Cavs have demolished the Wizards in the first round of the East the last two years; when they inevitably polish off Washington this year, it will be the third consecutive. The Wizards, not surprisingly, are terrified of LeBron James and the Cavs. Right after the mid-season blockbuster trade that brought four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace to Cleveland, the Cavs had to play the Wizards short-handed, and were able to pull off a win suiting up only six legitimate NBA players (the new recruits had not yet passed their physicals).

So for the first couple of games, like many Magic players who don’t know how to construct or execute on their sideboards, the Wizards decided to go in a completely different, shall we say transformational, direction. Remember all that trash talk? It seems the Wizards just wanted to beat up LeBron.

The actual games have been brutal, a rapid fire of flagrant fouls, technical fouls, and ejections. During one of his Jordanesque flights to the hoop, LeBron was pushed from behind and sent uncontrollably off the floor. In a later game he was basically punched in the back of the head so viciously that it knocked off his headband!

The Wizards, it seems, decided that they couldn’t beat LeBron and just wanted to knock him around so as to either take away his layups or – combined with an idiotic string of trash talk – to fire him up to the point that he would be ejected.

This, as an experiment, was a dismal failure.

In the first two games of the series, the Wizards played lousy paperback novelist, hacking James and the Cavs inside… basically just getting LeBron angry enough to unleash his inner best player on the planet: Game 2 was particularly miserable for the Wizards, with the Cavs taking it by 30.

However, in Game 3, the Wizards did something different: they played awesome defense, created a ton of turnovers, kept James below 30 points… and won by over 30 points! Scandalous!

Then for Game 4 it was back to being a good idea to punch LeBron in the back of the skull so hard that he lost his headband. I mentioned to a co-worker that if I were LeBron James I probably would have gotten up and beat the snot out of the guy… but that would probably have given them an ejection, suspension, and more than a legitimate shot at winning the series. Cavs got this one on the road.

What does this have to do with Magic?

In related news, Still Life.

Blue/Green Madness
Ken Ho, PT: Osaka 2002

13 Forest
9 Island
1 Tarnished Citadel

4 Aquamoeba
4 Arrogant Wurm
4 Basking Rootwalla
3 Werebear
4 Wild Mongrel

4 Circular Logic
4 Roar of the Wurm
3 Squirrel Nest
4 Standstill
3 Upheaval

4 Aura Graft
3 Moment’s Peace
3 Nantuko Blightcutter
2 Persuasion
3 Still Life

Ken Ho won Pro Tour: Osaka with that deck, a version of U/G Madness that had such awesome anti-Black as Standstill and Upheaval, both main. However, Ken was not satisfied with those and also played Nantuko Blightcutter and Still Life — yes, Still Life – in the side. The theory on Still Life was that Black was all about Sorcery speed removal – Mutilate, Chainer’s Edict, and Innocent Blood – so especially post-Mutilate, Still Life would be a good way to push in damage… Interesting in theory…

Rumor has it that by the end of the tournament, Ken realized that Still Life was so bad that he stopped siding it in against Black – you know, kind of how the Wizards switched from thuggery to strong defensive play in Game 3 — unfortunately, the official mother ship coverage states that in the finals against Olivier Ruel Mono-Black deck, Ken discarded a Still Life to his Wild Mongrel, debunking that particular theory.

But the idea is still one we can run with!

I know that I have had more than one tournament where my sideboarded games seemed more challenging than my Game 1s even though I felt like I was siding in better cards for a matchup. Many times those “better cards” were supposed to deal with some aspect of my opponent’s main deck that I identified as somehow sticky. Recently I presented a sideboard to Osyp that had an unending litany of cards that seemed unpredictable and amazing against the various strong Blue Standard decks… It was really out there, a product of trying to be more clever than very good actually, but I think that especially when we concentrate primarily on main deck games, our sideboard strategies — despite the fact that sideboarded games are so much more important — not only suffer, but end up a complete mess of cards that “should” be great, but lack cohesion. You end up “playing cards” at best, skating on thin theory, and more often than not, the game plays you.

Jeff Cunningham once told me about his U/G sideboard when he was all gonzo for U/G in every format, especially Extended. People copied his deck and had no idea how to sideboard so they would take out an Arrogant Wurm, a Roar of the Wurm, a Deep Analysis, etc so that they could incorporate the “better” sideboard options without disrupting the core power of U/G Madness overmuch. The problem with that was double, 1) U/G cards aren’t really very good (I mean, a 4/4 trample, a 1/1 that can be a 3/3, no real way to deal with a permanent)… the value in the deck was in its speedy cohesion, and 2) if the sideboarded-in cards were better than some of the main deck cards — and they were or had to be, otherwise why play them? — wouldn’t it make sense to take out the main deck cards that they topped?

It is an old adage by this point, but you should be wary about sideboarding in such a way that you lose the core competency of your deck. Looking back on my first Pro Tour Qualification, I know that I made that mistake: I didn’t leave myself with very many ways to win. It just so happened that I drew enough ways to in the context of a basically perfect disruption suite so I looked like, you know, the biggest Magic genius in the room (which incidentally included Erik Lauer).

Similarly in the three games the Wizards dropped trying hack-a-Bron, they probably should have been concentrating on their ability to score lots of points in quick bursts. They diluted what got them to the playoffs too much by trying to run this trash talking thug game, and it cost them over and over, ultimately substituting their ability to score and defend with an anti-LeBron strategy that actually just got that particular scoring machine mad enough to bury them.

Back to Magic rather than Wizardry… How do you avoid this sideboarding problem?

Usually, you will run into the useless sideboard card issue mostly in less established metagames when you aren’t really sure what you will be up against specifically, or in young formats where something seems good but maybe you haven’t practiced enough to prove it.

One model I use for building a sideboard is to figure out all the bad cards in my main deck and then slot that many available sideboard options based directly on what I wouldn’t want to see in a sideboarded game against particular strategies I imagine my opponents might have. You aren’t always right, but by planning out “these cards are bad”-based swaps, you severely limit yourself from going overboard in a self-strategy squashing direction.

Batman had a pretty unusual sideboard for me, 2/2/2/2/3/4. Of the many twos, only Orzhov Pontiff rounded out a main deck two-of.

So how did this work?

Muse Vessel (actually Muse Vessel and Castigate, 2 + 4)
I really liked Muse Vessel for the format but I never sided it in except when I was siding in Castigate. I would generally side Muse Vessel in one of two situations, 1) my opponent’s deck was significantly more powerful than mine, or 2) my opponent’s deck was slower than mine and had at least 1-2 colors in common.

You don’t really want Belfry Spirit in against decks that are slower than yours. Belfry Spirit is primarily good for setting up a Skeletal Vampire or just blocking while you take control of the game. That is two cards you don’t want. What about the other four? Against those it depended on whether or not they had Skeletal Vampire of their own. If they did, I could not afford to sideboard out Last Gasp. However, I played against a fair number of Blue-based control decks with Invoke the Firemind, and against those decks I might not want Orzhov Pontiff and Gleancrawler.

Orzhov Pontiff
I think I only sided this in against decks with 1/1 production. In many cases Hour of Reckoning might not be very good (they have lots of tokens, too); I would never really keep in Orzhov Pontiff just to race, even if I won with its offense in Game 1.

Woebringer Demon
I only ever brought this card in against decks with Simic Sky Swallower. Most decks with Simic Sky Swallower don’t have little guys; therefore I would usually side out Orzhov Pontiff for Woebringer Demon.

Debtors’ Knell
I would usually bring this in against decks with Firemane Angel, or in very slow matchups that I would expect to go over 10 turns. Debtors’ Knell was a generally better threat than Belfry Spirit against those kinds of decks, but also better than Orzhov Pontiff. You’ll note that Firemane Angel decks would also demand the discard suite of Castigate and Muse Vessel, meaning that some or all of those creatures might already be spoken for. Interestingly, Last Gasp might be a very appropriate keep, but if I had a lot more guys, Hour of Reckoning wouldn’t be.

Culling Sun
This is interesting… I only played Culling Sun because U/G was one of our best test decks and I wanted to be able to beat it (I did every time). However, Culling Sun was also good against token decks… A pretty perfect swap for Hour of Reckoning in those cases.

Castigate (that is, just Castigate)
I sided in Castigate against decks with Rolling Spoil. Castigate is faster than Rolling Spoil, which was potentially devastating against a deck full of 1/1s like mine, especially in a format full of Orzhov Basilicas and the like. However, if you grab the Rolling Spoil, those decks usually just auto-lose to the sheer number of large threats that Batman could present. This four swap was quite easy: Belfry Spirit and Orzhov Pontiff. Those are 1/1s so they are bad against a deck that can topdeck a mass -1/-1 effect; plus Belfry Sprit is a bad deal for his cost if you are facing a deck that can essentially two-for-one your Orzhov Basilica.

Just as a side note, I would never consider siding out Teysa, even though she isn’t very big. Batman was slower than more than half the decks in Charleston, but against the decks that were slower than Batman, Teysa was simply the first thing I could do proactively; sad to say, sometimes you just need your Grey Ogre.

So as you can see from this example, you know that there are cards in your deck that might not be very good in certain easy to imagine situations. If you construct your sideboard – and numbers – specifically to accommodate siding out “bad cards” you don’t want to draw, you can’t go crazy with the wrong tactics because you have so many options for your opponent’s color combination (it bears mentioning that you are almost necessarily creating gaps where you have no relevant sideboard cards if you have constructed your sideboard in this way).

This isn’t the best way to construct a sideboard in the long term because it doesn’t address the intensity of problems (“you might not want Belfry Spirit in certain matchups but it isn’t actually ‘bad’ ever the way a main-deck creature removal spell might be sometimes and you’re probably going to win whether or not it’s in your deck,” versus “you can’t win this matchup without serious real estate commitment”), but for a non-developed metagame, it restricts your ability to go inappropriate hack-a-Bron when you don’t know enough and unfocused overload is the best you can come up with.

One of the principle tenets of marketing and copywriting is to pick an audience and attack that audience rather than trying to be everything to every potential customer… It turns out that you will “accidentally” pick up customers outside your target demographic, but you make the most money by hitting your sweet spot, so you should try there, as hard as you can; similarly, this sort of a sideboard structure will often give you lift in unexpected areas, for instance the relevance of Culling Sun versus G/W when it was placed for purposes of U/G.


Post Script

I am finishing this article on the night of Game 5. The Wizards have just stolen the most recent game by a single point. I initially found it difficult to reconcile this win with what I wrote above, and either basketball or Magic strategies. The cop out would be to say that Cavs were up five points with less than two minutes on the clock, the Wizards finally went up by one with less than ten seconds on the clock, and the Cavs didn’t get a foul called when James missed that last layup attempt, even though something held him up in the key and no Wizard can really man up to LeBron on defense without fouling (probably true)… that is, “bad call.”

However, on further reflection I realized the Wizards actually conformed even more closely to the models I outlined above than they did in Game 3.

You see, the Wizards had an injured former All-Star in Gilbert Arenas who managed a comeback recently, and actually played pretty well in Game 1 and graduated [back] to the starting lineup by Game 4. Gilbert is Washington’s Still Life… He wasn’t on the “Duel 1” Squad that put the Wizards in the Playoffs, but demanded space in the “sideboarded” lineup for the elimination rounds. For Game 5, Gilbert stepped up and declared himself out for the rest of the season… He was hurting the team more than helping it (he failed to hit the last shot in a tight Game 4). Without Arenas – their best player when he is healthy but a liability given the rest of the team’s rhythm, not to mention his not being 100% – on the squad, the Wizards emphasized their most effective weapon, quick scoring, instead of splitting attention, trash talk, idiotic fouls, or potentially “keeping bad hands,” which helped them to pick up the improbable win.

* It wasn’t “suck” in the original.

** Whoever that is.