Niv-Mizzet has unleashed his Maze upon us. All of the champions are racing through, anticipating what lies at the end. To make it, they will need all of their wits about them. I can only imagine the amount of training they put themselves through to ensure they’d be in peak shape for the task—planning ahead and having a strategy for the things they expected to face. Putting in work before the actual event happens pays off.
Would you take a test and only be prepared for one-third of the material?
You may have caught on by now, but this week I want to talk about sideboarding, which is very important subject since two out of three games played in a match are played with sideboards. It’s an extremely simple concept: fifteen cards you have set aside that you can swap in after game 1 of any given match. However, building an effective sideboard can be a challenge.
Most people can look at any given sideboard and identify what cards are good against what decks. Rest in Peace and Deathrite Shaman are good against Reanimator—those are obvious. Rest in Peace is also great against The Aristocrats, and Deathrite Shaman is good against U/W/R Flash and Esper Control too. But what do you take out to put those cards in? Over-sideboarding (bringing in too many cards and diluting the effectiveness of your deck) and under-sideboarding (not having enough cards for extremely popular decks) are both things that plague those who are unprepared. Today, I am going to go over the four steps I utilize build an effective sideboard so that you can avoid these problems.
How do you know what cards should be in your sideboard? Hate cards usually scream at you what decks they want to punish, but how do you know what decks you want to punish? To begin with, I like to identify the decks that are popular, the ones I am most likely to face at a tournament. As a running example, I’d like to use the recent PTQ that Brian Braun-Duin won because I feel we implemented the four steps to building an effective sideboard well. Since I will be referencing his decklist a number of times throughout the article, here’s a refresher for the uninitiated:
The decks that we identified as the metagame for this particular tournament were Naya Blitz, The Aristocrats, G/R Aggro, Bant Control, Esper Control, U/W/R Flash, Jund, and the G/B/W Reanimator mirror. That’s eight decks!
After identifying the decks we expected to see, we went through and listed the cards that we felt were impactful for those matchups that we didn’t already have in the maindeck (we expected a lot of G/B/W Reanimator, so we moved the Garruk Relentless into the maindeck in anticipation). I’ll list them here for you:
As you can see, Standard is a very diverse format. Times like these make it even more important to have a well thought-out sideboard plan for all the decks you expect to face.
Once we’ve identified the cards that are good against the matchups we expect to face, I like to identify what cards in the maindeck can be sided out. I think that this is the hardest part of sideboarding. Like I pointed out before, anyone can tell you that Rest in Peace is good against G/B/W Reanimator, but what do you take out of the maindeck to make room to put it in? Similar to the "good cards" list above, we made a "potential side-out list" for each expected deck in the metagame. I’d like to go a little more in-depth with this list and give you the reasons why specific cards in the maindeck might be bad depending on the matchup. We also want to take into account what they might be bringing in against us.
Note that I’m aware that the format is going to change with Dragon’s Maze and that most of this will be irrelevant from the G/B/W Reanimator strategy side, but I still think that it will be informative from a "how to create and use an effective sideboard" perspective.
Lingering Souls – Lingering Souls is actually pretty bad against Naya Blitz, which seems a little counterintuitive. It gives you two blockers and then two more blockers, but unfortunately they don’t trade with anything. Since we aren’t a Supreme Verdict deck, the opponent will just kill us after we’re done wasting their time. Not to mention that Thalia, Guardian of Thraben makes Lingering Souls look pathetic.
Acidic Slime – Thankfully, in this deck we have Acidic Slime in the main. Acidic Slime is the type of card that is crazy bonkers when it’s good and complete crud when it’s bad. As expected, here it’s really bad.
Garruk Relentless – Unfortunately, four mana is just too much, and often their creatures have at least three power, which doesn’t even give you a partial Fog the turn after you fight something. And much like Lingering Souls, Thalia also makes this card look pathetic.
This deck was a little tougher to crack when we were trying to determine what we wanted our plan to be for sideboarded games. They have the aggressive elements of Burning-Tree Emissary, Flinthoof Boar, and Hellrider, but they also have Wolfir Silverheart and Thundermaw Hellkite with Bonfire of the Damned to go over the top from turn 5 and beyond.
Acidic Slime / Thragtusk – Acidic Slime can be good for keeping them off double red to cast their Thundermaw Hellkites, and even though they have Arbor Elf and Gyre Sage, they usually cheat on lands by playing 22 or 23. Acidic Slime is also quite good against Wolfir Silverheart.
Unburial Rites – They probably have Ground Seal coming in and have the ability to nuke our mana dorks (Arbor Elf and Avacyn’s Pilgrim). Shaving some number of Unburial Rites seems correct since we don’t want to get stuck with them in our hand.
Thragtusk – Unfortunately, Thragtusk isn’t that great in this matchup. Even though they have Supreme Verdicts, we want to be Acidic Slimeing often and activating Gavony Township rather than making some puns about having two spears.
Thragtusk – He’s not that great here for the same reasons from above against Bant.
Mulch – Since we are a little more threat-dense post-board with wanting Obzedat, Ghost Council and some Deathrite Shamans, we don’t want Mulch to be milling our awesome spells into their Rest in Peace.
Angel of Serenity / Unburial Rites – Anticipating Rest in Peace coming in, these seem like candidates for shaving. We can expect them to have Clones too, which makes Angel of Serenity less attractive.
(Even though we expect Esper and Flash to have Rest in Peace, some of them won’t, and even if they have it in their deck, Deathrite Shaman is such a huge threat on its own against them that sometimes they have to just Supreme Verdict it and an Acidic Slime that’s chunking them for four a turn or play their Rest in Peace defensively to stop the life loss activations.)
G/B/W Reanimator Mirror
Mulch / Unburial Rites – We expect them to be bringing in Deathrite Shaman and potentially Purify the Grave, which make these cards a little unattractive. After sideboard, we are trying to hard cast our Angel of Serenity and prevent them from casting theirs.
Lingering Souls – While Lingering Souls is a good way to attack Garruk Relentless, it’s still pretty weak in the mirror. We expect them to have some or all of their Lingering Souls still, which make us want to keep some to protect our Garruk.
Trying to determine what cards can go and what cards need to stay is definitely the toughest and most tedious part of creating a sideboard. I have to force myself to stay on track, take each individual matchup separately, and think things through independently of whomever I’m working with. It’s really easy to get into a bad habit of just cutting the same card every time because it’s "the worst card in the deck."
Now that we have our list of cards we potentially want and list of cards we feel we can cut for each matchup, it’s time to actually build the sideboard. The main thing we want to focus on at this point is overlapping cards. Unless we have a matchup that is both terrible and extremely popular, we want to try to avoid cards that are extremely narrow and target just one deck.
Looking over our list from above, we can see that against the aggressive decks (Naya Blitz, The Aristocrats, G/R Aggro), Tragic Slip and Abrupt Decay overlap. In addition, Tragic Slip is good as an answer for Olivia Voldaren against Jund, while Abrupt Decay is a good answer for Deathrite Shaman in the mirror. Obzedat, Ghost Council is good against all of the control decks (Bant, U/W/R Flash, and Esper), and Deathrite Shaman is good against most of the control decks and the mirror.
Knowing what your deck wants to do on a matchup-by-matchup basis helps with this quite a bit too. We know against a lot of decks that we want to be Acidic Slimeing them, so having the fourth Acidic Slime is a must. Thragtusk, however, is a different story. Since Thragtusk isn’t our threat of choice against the control decks, we can afford to play something a little narrower for the aggressive matches rather than playing the fourth Thragtusk in the sideboard. This is how we decided on Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice!
Decks with tutors or ones with significant manipulation (Grisly Salvage / Mulch) also help with sideboard building. These allow you to play high impact cards as singletons, freeing up space for more redundant strategies. Cards like Fiend Hunter and Cavern of Souls are great when you need them, but when you don’t they’re just mediocre. Being able to play one of them in your sideboard and look for them with Grisly Salvage or Mulch when they’re needed gives your deck more options.
Did you know that you can write down a sideboarding guide and use it in between games? Most of my opponents give me a weird cock of the head when they see me pull out my little piece of paper and tilt it against my deck box while sideboarding so that I can see what I want to bring in and what I want to take out.
Magic: The Gathering is a very fun game, but it’s also competitive. Using every available resource is smart strategy in competition. Having a written sideboard guide with you at a tournament allows you to continue to focus on the match at hand without second-guessing yourself while sideboarding. You can always make revisions or changes on the fly, but making an effort ahead of time to plan everything out and write down what your plans are saves time and helps you focus.
One of the benefits of planning out your sideboard like this is that you are already familiar with the key cards and interactions in each popular matchup—from both sides. It’s a great feeling when you already know what your opponent is going to be trying to do and you’re ready for it, much like leveled thinking, but that’s a completely different topic.
Following these steps for building a sideboard has helped me tremendously. I know what the popular decks are, what cards are good against them, what cards aren’t cohesive to my strategy against them, and what they are bringing in against me. Using this information to build your sideboard by identifying overlapping impactful cards and executing the strategy by using a thought-out sideboarding guide for the popular matchups that you expect to see is invaluable. Use it, love it, and be successful. BBD and I have been doing this for every single event that we’ve traveled to recently and have seen quite a bit of success. I also feel more relaxed during my matches since I already know with close to 100% certainty what I’m sideboarding even while we’re playing game 1.
I hope that this information is helpful for everyone, and I look forward to tackling other topics that I have used to become a better player. Please feel free to comment on this piece or suggest any other strategy topics you’d like to see.
@Chris_VanMeter on Twitter
I am Azorius.
I don’t make any moves without thinking everything through. Careful and calculated is my game.