(If you’re interested in listening to this article instead of/in addition to reading it, scroll down to the bottom.)
Many players have a sideboard guide for each matchup—either mental or physical—that looks something like this:
Simple enough. On paper, this seems like a clear decision. You cut the cards you don’t want and bring in the cards you do. However, it’s
important to remember that a sideboarding guide is just that: a guide. If you follow it blindly, it can lead you right off a cliff.
The purpose of sideboards is to increase your chance of winning any given game, not to just quantitatively increase your theoretical
“advantagedness” by adding cards that are “good” in that matchup. Sure, you can hop through the logic chain of “my
opponent does not have many creatures; therefore leaving Day of Judgment in weakens my deck,” but high-level Magic is more than just textbook
interactions. Your goal is not to have a superior sixty than your opponent but to have a superior plan than your opponent.
What do I mean? Well, look at it like this. Let’s say you’re playing a Caw-Blade mirror match. Your sideboard weapon of choice? Sun Titan.
You board in a full three Sun Titans and position your deck in such a way that you build the whole game up to lead to a favorable Sun Titan endgame.
You maneuver the game as you had hoped and, on turn six, set down your big whammy: Sun Titan.
Now, if you compare Sun Titan to Day of Judgment abstractly in the Caw-Blade mirror, Sun Titan is widely accepted as a good mirror match card while a
lot of players would choose to sideboard Day out. Looking at purely a matchup level, Sun Titan increases your deck’s advantage by giving you a
major threat, while leaving in Day decreases your deck’s level of advantage by having a sorcery-speed removal spell that can be a dead draw.
However, in how that game actually played out, Day proved to be contextually very important for trumping Sun Titan. In fact, if I knew my opponent was
planning to bring in three Sun Titans, I would leave in my Days every time.
What’s the takeaway here? Well, you can certainly say something about how threats and answers work, but that’s just the nature of the
example I used. I could have talked about leaving in Thoughtseize against red decks to similar effect. The overarching point is that you want to
position your plan against their plan, not just improve the perceived card quality of your deck.
Sideboarding is an active activity, not a passive one.
It’s not a time to take a mental breather and let your mind relax; it’s just as much a time to play as the rest of the match. If you think
about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, you can make a huge difference in your sideboarded games.
There are three main times you’ll want to deviate from your sideboarding plan.
When your opponent’s deck is different from expected
One primary axis where this is relevant has to do with which cards you see your opponent cast. The simplest rule of thumb to use is this: if your
opponent has an unusual card in his maindeck that is good against you, then don’t sideboard out cards that are good against that card! First of
all, you have to be able to deal with that card somehow. Second of all, there’s likely more where that came from. (Especially after
As an example, let’s say you’re playing the Caw-Blade mirror (it happens a lot these days) except that in game one your opponent casts
Mirran Crusader, Baneslayer Angel, and Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. They’re clearly playing a creature-heavy build with a lot of threats, and Day
of Judgment is going to be a lot better against them.
Sometimes the card in question isn’t even that unusual, just unusual in that archetype. A great example of this was when a lot of Valakut decks
began to adopt Lotus Cobra a few months back.
Against U/G, RUG, and other creature-heavy decks that can take advantage of Lotus Cobra’s mana boost, players would load up on ways to deal with
the 2/1 Snake.
Yet, against Valakut, I would still see players ritualistically sideboarding out their removal spells, only to be steamrolled by an active
Cobra. You really don’t want to be the guy telling his friends about how you sideboarded out your removal spells and lost to Lotus
Cobra, do you?
Finally, be ready to change up your deck for game three based on what you saw out of their sideboard. If they had something you didn’t expect,
then you have to be ready to combat it.
A great example of this is a match I played in Regionals 2008, maybe more familiar to you as Time Spiral–Lorwyn Regionals. I was playing Iron
Maiden, a Mono-Blue Control deck that played Platinum Angel and backed it with Pact of Negations (skipping Pact won’t cause you to lose) and
other countermagic. At its core, it was really more of a combo deck than anything else. If you cast Platinum Angel with a Pact in hand, you almost
I was coming off of two byes (yes, byes at Regionals; City Champs made it a weird year) and was paired up against a G/B rockish deck. Game one I won
pretty handily. Game two, he went turn 1 Thoughtseize Platinum Angel and then, out of nowhere, turn 2 Extirpate. I more or less lost on the spot.
For game three, I had to figure out a new plan. I had no good outs against Extirpate. Eventually, I figured out my plan of attack: I’d sideboard
down to just two Angels to reduce the chance of it getting plucked by a Thoughtseize.
Sometimes, you have to go outside of the box. But if I hadn’t been actively thinking during sideboarding and considering all of my outs against
his plan, there’s no way I would have ever thought of that idea.
When you reach for your sideboard, think about what your opponent played in the last game. If there was anything unusual, think about how that card is
going to impact the next game and be equipped to deal with it if it’s a problem.
When you’re going to be on the draw
One of the least talked about yet fundamentally most important aspects of sideboarding is when to change your plan whether you are on the play or draw.
If you’re going to win a match, then you’re going to have to play one sideboarded game on the draw. Yet, most people seem to construct
their sideboard plans with the belief they will be on the play.
Why do I say that? Just look at sideboards! Players love to sideboard threats like Sun Titan, Acidic Slime, and Loxodon Hierarch, and spells like
Volition Reins, Lapse of Certainty, and Memoricide. All of these cards have something in common: they are good at pressing tempo and are much, much
better on the play than on the draw.
However, if you look at a lot of the top-performing decks across time, their sideboards have plenty of cheap, tempo-swinging cards. Instead of just
trying to press an advantage, these cards help pull the pace of the game back in your favor when you’re on the draw. Cheap removal spells and
sweepers, discard spells, and even walls are all cards that have done a great job at this in the past.
There are two points here. First of all, design your sideboard with being on the draw in mind. Second of all and more key to the central premise of
this article, identify which cards in your deck have their values shift on the draw.
For an example, let’s look back at Caw-Blade. Two players could start with identical hands with Stoneforge Mystic, but whoever went first will
out-tempo the other (assuming correct play), and the end result may not even look close.
This isn’t just a Caw-Blade phenomenon, either. Look at Faeries, Valakut, and most combo mirrors for other examples, just to name a few decks
throughout Magic’s history. Practically any deck with some tempo-based card or engine is subject to this rule. (Notably, beatdown decks like Zoo
are not since their creatures just trade; there has to be a fundamental card or engine defining the matchup.)
What am I getting at? Well, to put it simply, look at how the matchup plays out. Think about how every turn will play out on the draw.
If you’re on the draw in the Caw-Blade mirror, what absolutely matters most is beating an opposing Stoneforge Mystic. As a result, Mana Leak
loses a lot of value. You can’t play it on their second-turn Mystic, and you’re going to be so busy reacting to their plays that the Leak
is likely going to end up stranded in your hand for a good part of the game.
On the other hand, Mana Leak is much better on the play. You can leave up two mana on the second turn, and your opponent knows that whatever spell they
cast is headed straight into Mana Leak territory.
Now, whether Mana Leak is actually correct to leave in or not is influenced by a lot of factors. For example, if you have a good way to contain their
Sword of Feast and Famine like Divine Offering or Condemn, then Mana Leak becomes a lot better because the game is going to go longer.
Another good example is Day of Judgment. On the play, you’re going to try and tempo out your opponent in the mirror, and you can’t really
afford to accidently draw one. However, on the draw, I’ll occasionally leave one in because it’s a good way to swing the pace of the game
back in my favor.
Moving to a different archetype, in Valakut mirrors, I know of several players who cut weaker ramp spells for other avenues to fight the mirror on the
draw. They weren’t going to outrace their opponent on the draw, so why try? It was more effective to try and cut them off of their plan then to
rush headstrong into a war they were likely going to lose.
Always pick up your sideboard for game three. At least look at it and consider your options. The game changes radically whether you’re on the
play or draw, and you want to be equipped for how you’re going to be playing that game.
When your opponent is playing in a certain way
Beyond just the cards they have on the battlefield, the way your opponent plays is a gigantic clue to how you should be sideboarding. Try to remember
the potential contents of their hand and watch how they play. The following is a list of some of the most important items to keep in mind:
-Did your opponent fearlessly play his threats or wait until the perfect window?
-Did your opponent extend out excess creatures or play carefully?
-Did your opponent play around everything?
-Was your opponent more concerned with card advantage or tempo?
-Did your opponent seem to make only orthodox plays, or did they do anything that surprised you?
-Which modes did your opponent choose with their planeswalkers/modal cards, and when?
-Did your opponent prefer to expend removal/counterspells early or wait until later?
-Did your opponent use abilities at the first available opportunity or wait until the perfect time? (A great example is Tectonic Edge.)
-Did your opponent attack with manlands whenever they could or choose to keep mana untapped?
That list is by no means all-encompassing, but it’s a great place to start. Not only can it provide you with gigantic tells from your opponent,
but it can also clue you onto how you should be sideboarding.
For example, if your opponent tends to play out all of his threats whenever possible, sweepers become a lot better. I’ve left Day of Judgment in
against plenty of Caw-Blade players who prefer to play out all of their Hawks as soon as possible. On the other hand, if they like to hold their Hawks
and play them one by one, it’s almost useless. If your opponent fearlessly tapped out to cast their planeswalkers as soon as possible, then
you’re going to want to keep in all of the counterspells you can.
This information can also clue you into what they’re sideboarding in, which can better inform you of what to bring in for them. If they’ve
tested the matchup and believe it’s all about doing one thing perfectly, whether it’s attaining card advantage, tempo, mana advantage,
playing threats whenever possible, etc., or if that’s just their personal play style, then they’re likely to sideboard cards that contribute to
that belief. If you’ve ever wanted to feel psychic, this is your chance.
For example, if they seemed to play in a way that gave value to card advantage, you can expect cards like Peppersmoke, Jace Beleren, and Day of
Judgment. If they play in a way that gave value to tempo and big threats, you can expect cards like Sun Titan, Karn Liberated, and Oona, Queen of the
While this is certainly not an assurance, it’s good to keep in mind while sideboarding and playing. It can definitely help you predict what they
have, and those small edges can make a big difference. Watch how your opponent plays and think about it while sideboarding.
How to sideboard is one of the most popular questions I am asked, and this particular topic has been requested by a few people recently. Hopefully this
helped you guys out!
If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me at Gavintriesagain at gmail dot com, send me a tweet, or post in the forums, and I’d be happy
to answer it for you. Otherwise, you’ll see me next behind the camera this weekend, doing SCGLive at the StarCityGames.com Open in Louisville.
Whether you’re there or just watching at home, I’ll talk to you then!
Continuing with doing bonus audio versions of my articles, you can find the spoken version of this article by clicking here. If you have any feedback,
please send it to me via any of the ways mentioned above. I really appreciate all of the feedback and support so far, and I’m glad you guys enjoy