Sideboarding. Many theorists and players who have risen to prominence in the past several years have called attention to the importance of that fifteen card first aid kit. Where ten years ago sideboards were often overlooked, times have changed. Articles have been written, paths have been blazed, and theories have been created. Transformational sideboards used to be something you would only see dueling on the stage of a Pro Tour final. Today, people at Friday Night Magic regularly invent their own transformational sideboards.
The theory behind what everybody puts into their auxiliary plans has grown more and more important as the strategy of Magic has advanced.
Today, sideboarding is more important than ever.
The reason is simple. With the advent of the internet, improved networking resources, and Magic Online, the correct maindeck to play for any given archetype is becoming increasingly easier to find.
Sure, lists may vary here and there. For similar reasons, there are more deck offshoots than ever before — look at Extended Zoo, for example — but finding, say, 54 cards of the right Dark Depths maindeck to play is just a click away.
With the fast paced nature of information and the refining of maindecks at a high, being able to adjust and adapt your sideboard to beat them is what separates a 5-3 finish from a PTQ victory.
Steven Birklid recently told me he thought the decks that have been winning have the best sideboards. It’s a stunning concept, but a true one. Look over any Top 8 and you’ll see he is right. The people who have the best sideboards float to the top, while the people who elected to play with ten or so less cards don’t break through the Top 8 bubble.
But, despite how much we know about sideboarding, how much do we really know about how people sideboard?
Though the importance of sideboarding has been stressed, people are not matching their sideboard plans to adapt to their opponent’s sideboard plan. It’s not because they don’t think about it. They just don’t think about it on an advanced enough level. Players still manage to pluck the low hanging fruit from the tree of knowledge. Everyone knows to sideboard in your Echoing Truths because they might have Leyline of the Void, or bring in Ingot Chewer to combat Ethersworn Canonist. But few people climb into the tree’s lofty branches to find the sweet nectar within its flourishing blossoms.
Let me provide you with an example. Go ask ten average PTQ players what cards you want to sideboard out against Zoo when you’re playing Dark Depths. Let’s use Katsuhiro Mori’s Grand Prix: Yokohama winning decklist as an example. Most of them are going to say Dark Confidant. Some of them might say Thoughseize. Very few of them are going to say 3 Dark Depths 3 Vampire Hexmage. Even fewer are also going to say 2 Thopter Foundry, 1 Sword of the Meek.
Well, despite what might come back as the popular opinion, removing combo pieces is how the best Dark Depths players sideboard.
For over a month the plan has been to take out all but one piece of both your combos and rely on another finisher to kill them, but very few people actually realize this. A majority of PTQ players have been leaving in all of their combo pieces and swapping out their Dark Confidants for Deathmarks, when that isn’t what you want to be doing at all.
After boarding, you turn into a U/B Control deck that can assemble its combos going long — or just kill them with Jace. Thopter Foundry? Whatever. It’s not worth fighting them on a battlefield they’ve planted with Damping Matrix and Ancient Grudge land mines.
The crux of the matter is simple. Decks are easy to understand. Sideboards are not.
You can look at a deck and figure out what it’s trying to do. But with sideboards, you have no idea what its owner was bringing in and out. You can look at a maindeck and tell that Damping Matrix is going to be effective against it. But you can’t just look at a sideboard and realize that Damping Matrix is going to do nothing in games 2 and 3.
People are focused on winning the maindeck war with your sideboard, but that’s the wrong focus. You can’t just try and beat their maindeck with your sideboard. If you want to beat your opponent after sideboarding, you need to beat their sideboard.
Now, with some decks this is very simple. If you’re playing Burn, you know they’re going to be combating you with ways to protect their life total. They’re going to be gaining life, making sure your spells don’t deal damage, or both. You can bring in Everlasting Torment to ensure they can’t gain life, Smash to Smithereens to disrupt some of the best life gain engines and otherwise get ahead on tempo, or Blood Moon to give you as much time as you need against decks loaded with nonbasics. Whichever plan you choose, it’s going to be hard to mess it up. This is the kind of aforementioned low hanging fruit that’s easy for most players to pick.
Mono Red Burn sideboarding is a good example of a linear disruptive strategy. This is the first method of sideboarding to beat hate, and by far the most common kind of sideboard strategy. Your opponent has cards that make your game plan harder after sideboarding. You aim to combat their method of disrupting you with an efficient, linear plan. Simple. Proactive. But not flawless.
A simple disruptive strategy works great if everything goes according to plan. Funny thing about plans, though: they don’t always work. Sure, that Ingot Chewer is going to be a game winner when it grinds up a Chalice of the Void. That Echoing Truth is going to give you a window to create a 20/20 when it bounces a Damping Matrix. That Viridian Shaman is going to be great when it destroys their Ethersworn Canonist. And sometimes, that’s all you need in a card. Sideboarding in Deathmark is always going to be good against Wild Nacatl. But not all strategies are as simple as creature removal. What happens when your opponent leveled you and is packing Rule of Law this week?
Welcome to trump sideboarding.
If you want to beat their hate, you have to diversify your response.
Now, usually this means playing a slightly worse card or strategy. The most efficient cards are played en masse for a reason. Ethersworn Canonist is better than Rule of Law because it costs one mana less. Clearly Canonist is a more attractive option in a vacuum.
But what if I told you that Rule of Law’s one extra mana bought you the game? You would play that… Wouldn’t you?
That’s what trump sideboarding is. It’s linear disruptive sideboarding taken to another level thanks to the metagame. If Hypergenesis matches degenerate into a matchup where all that matters is if your Ethersworn Canonist gets Ingot Chewered, then you can just cast Rule of Law and steal the game.
Trump sideboarding is how sideboards evolve as the format progresses. People keep one upping the other with their sideboards, requiring constant innovation. Just look at the Dark Depths mirror. First, it was Meloku. Then, Sower. Then, Sphinx of Jwar Isle. Then, Oona. Now, it’s Jace. Over the course of two months, these changes have circulated throughout the competitive player base to reach where we are today. The trumps gradually become the new linear disruptive sideboard plans, fueling the cycle to continue
Furthermore, trump sideboarding is also another reason why sideboarding is more important than ever. With people reacting at such a fast pace, a two week old sideboard can be totally ineffective: the trump from two weeks ago is the linear disruptive sideboard plan this week. When it’s about trumping them, as it often is, you have to know what the trump they played last week is and make sure you can beat it.
Finally, you have the third kind of sideboarding: the transformational sideboard. Terry Soh sideboarded creature plan in Tooth and Nail was the one which seemed to capture players everywhere, and now everyone is always trying to come up with a transformational plan. Usually, they are doing so in error.
The problem with a transformational sideboard is it takes up a lot of sideboard slots. At its core, a transformational sideboard is about changing plans. You want to move from one plan to another — and that requires a lot of card changes. Many problems can be solved with fewer cards. For a transformational sideboard to be truly worth it, it needs to be a sideboard plan you are going to bring in against several decks, and there needs to be a good reason to transform against those decks.
Dark Depths is a fantastic example of this strategy in action. By turning into a U/B Control deck, it cuts them off all of the normal hate cards people like to play. But at the same time, people can’t stop running those hate cards because then they will lose to people who keep in all of their combo pieces.
If you want to beat a sideboard, first identify what they’re bringing in. Then, figure out what sideboard strategy of your own is going to effectively attack theirs and either be ready to combat their strategy or, better yet, sidestep their sideboard plan entirely. If you try and prepare to beat their sideboard rather than beat their maindeck, the entire way you think about deckbuilding and sideboarding will change — a change which carries with it increased game win percentages.
Building sideboards to beat their sideboard has been a major Magic revelation for me, and applying this idea has drastically changed the way I think about formats in general. Hopefully, you will find it to do the same for you. If you want to have any questions or want to talk about sideboard applications and ideas, I’d be happy to look over them in the forums or over e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com.
Finally, I’d like to say that I’m thrilled Ultimecia has been working so well for so many of you. Seeing the list John and I worked on make so many Top 8 appearances around the country has been thrilling, and even more exciting is how people have began to create spin offs of the deck, like Kenji’s more Cruel Ultimatum centered version, and the straight U/R Version that won a PTQ. All of you who enough faith in our deck to try it out and do well with it are what makes innovation worthwhile.
I’ll see you all in Houston this weekend!
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else