How To Think Through A Sideboard Strategy

Drew Levin is often asked, “How do you sideboard with this deck?” Well it’s time to learn how using some critical thinking and examples to guide you through.

Commenters on my last few articles have consistently asked the same question. No matter what deck I write about, the most popular question is a variation on “How do you sideboard with this deck?” There have been a lot of articles tackling the subject over the years, but I’ve struggled with gaining a lot from them. At least for me, very few of them address sideboarding in a way that remains useful beyond the deck the author decided to write about that week. I want to give you a method to evaluate sideboard construction, no matter what deck or format you’re playing.

This idea comes from a long back-and-forth I had in the run-up to Grand Prix: Providence about whether the new U/W Control deck that Gerry created was good enough against Dredge. For reference, the decks:

Dredge players argued that a counter-heavy deck with minimal removal couldn’t beat Dredge if Dredge played so as to blank all of their counterspells. Dredge players proposed that the matchup was nearly unlosable if Dredge chose to draw first and go straight to their discard step each turn, discard a dredger, and uncounterably flip their deck five or six cards at a time.

Gerry and I knew that that was a legitimate strategy and that Standstill was a terrible card against Dredge. This realization, coupled with the harsh fact that Standstill was similarly garbage against Merfolk, prompted the switch in draw engine from Standstill to Ancestral Vision. Ancestral was incredible against many of the matchups where Standstill was awful and let us play a completely different game against decks that sought to overload our removal.

I played against Dredge twice in Grand Prix: Providence and didn’t lose a game, securing each victory by forcing my opponent to draw a 61st card. The Providence list is below:

I want to use this as a case study for approaching sideboard construction. Many sideboard strategies ask players to cut the cards that are bad in a given matchup for cards that are good in a given matchup. This is fundamentally sound advice, but it presumes a level of knowledge on the player’s part that might not always exist. Not everyone has time to test every matchup and figure out their role in each game. If you don’t know whether you should be looking to fight a short game or a long game, how can someone expect you to know which cards are good?

Instead of giving you this U/W Control list and asking you how you would sideboard in a traditional “take bad cards out, bring good cards in” fashion, I want to tell you how the matchup works. My sideboard notes (and explanations) are behind the spoiler. I’m confident that you’ll arrive at most—if not all—of my conclusions.

Sideboard games against Dredge are games of attrition. The bad news for you is that their deck is built to negate the utility of a lot of your counters. The good news is that in order to blank your counters, Dredge players limit themselves to one dredge per turn. This gives you a lot of time to find your answers. Because they’re only dredging once per turn, you have the luxury of only caring about eight cards. The eight key cards to fight in this matchup are their 4 Ichorids and their 4 Narcomoebas. You can play to make their Bridge from Belows completely worthless by making sure that they never have a creature in play in their main phase.

To accomplish this goal, you want to disrupt their Narcomoebas and Ichorids in their upkeep and draw step. Remember that Repeal is just as good against Narcomoeba as a white removal spell while being pretty iffy against an Ichorid, so match your answers to their threats whenever possible. Unfortunately, Vedalken Shackles stealing an Ichorid will not work the way you want to—since the Ichorid goes to their graveyard, they will still get any Bridge from Below trigger.

Their Dread Returns, unsurprisingly, are pretty bad against our strategy. If we play our game correctly, they should never have three creatures to sacrifice to Dread Return’s flashback. The only thing that can take us by surprise is a Breakthrough, a Winds of Change, a Cephalid Coliseum plus a land already in play, or an actual creature discard outlet. It’s easy to get caught by surprise with these, so keep your Force of Wills and Mental Missteps. If you examine their decklist, you’ll notice that they aren’t ever going to cast a spell that costs anything but one, so your Spell Snare and Counterspells range from very inefficient to outright dead.

Stoneforge Mystic is a strong card in this matchup because it tutors up Batterskull. Batterskull is a fine card in this matchup as a way to brick-wall any Ichorids that might dodge your wall of removal. It’s worth noting that in a pinch, you can return the equipment to your hand in response to any Bridge triggers that might go on the stack. Because of the way that Bridge from Below is worded, the Germ creature token dying will negate their Bridge trigger and remove any Bridges from the game. Also note that Wasteland plus an activated Mishra’s Factory will do the same thing, so keep mana open (when possible) for tricks like those.

Given the above breakdown, how would you sideboard? The decklist, again, for reference:

Now that we’ve had a crack at this sideboarding method within the context of a solid 75-card decklist, let’s see how this can help us build those sideboards. What we’re after is building a sideboard that is a collection of plans, not a collection of cards.

To give us an unbiased opportunity, I found a decklist from a reliable source that was published without a sideboard. Here is a Zoo decklist that Ari Lax proposed playing several weeks ago:

Let’s start by establishing what we expect to play against. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll plan on creating specific sideboarding strategies for three decks while still creating as much marginal value as possible in other popular matchups. Our targets will be U/W Stoneforge, Dredge, and U/R Delver. It would be nice if we could make progress on G/W Maverick, Reanimator, Merfolk, and Show and Tell decks, but we’re not going to worry about those as much. Let’s get started:

Beating Stoneforge

Let’s start by looking at what will be the stock list of U/W Stoneforge:

The way that we’re going to lose against this sort of deck is by losing enough time to their Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exiles that they either manage to get an active Umezawa’s Jitte or untap with a planeswalker. Their Stoneforge Mystics should never be allowed to live, since they should never be allowed to pay less than five mana for their Baneslayer Angel proxy.

It’s relevant that we’re never really going to lose to their blue cards. Their Jaces are all awful, since they don’t have any good things to bounce. What are they supposed to do with it, use it as an Unsummon and a Healing Salve? That seems fairly marginal and certainly not worth boarding cards like Pyroblast to answer. No sir, all of the cards that beat us are white or colorless.

(Cards ruled out: Red Elemental Blast, Pyroblast)

Let’s make a list of what cards we’re afraid of losing to:

So what are we going to board to combat all of these angles? At first glance, our deck is pretty well set up to attack their deck. It has a ton of cheap pressure; only two of our creatures ever get killed by a Snapcaster Mage in combat, and all of our burn is super-efficient. We can play a short game very well, but a lot of what they’re planning on doing is aimed at blunting our first few turns of action. This makes a hypothetical goal of killing them quickly with no real plan beyond turn four a poor one for us to pursue in sideboarded games.

We have a few options here. The first one is that we can overload on Gaddock Teegs. Gaddock Teeg shuts off Wrath of God and Elspeth, but it’s a poor attacker, as it trades with Mutavault and Snapcaster Mage while being an immediate lightning rod for all their removal. It’s a good card on its face, but it lines up very poorly against all of their sideboard plans. It doesn’t do anything against Stoneforge Mystic’s threats and would be our worst threat by a mile. If we never attack with it, they only have six outs to it. Then again, that calculation is made problematic by our implicit assumption that our hypothetical opponent will cut Spell Snares.

If you’ll notice, we have an inherent strategic angle of blanking their set of Spell Snares, one of their best tempo-gaining tools in the Stoneforge vs. Zoo matchup. A good Stoneforge player will see the Steppe Lynxes, Goblin Guides, and Fireblasts and realize that there are few (if any) Lightning Helixes, Qasali Pridemages, and Tarmogoyfs to be had, thus deciding to cut those Spell Snares. A less-observant opponent won’t make such an induction and will happily Snare your supposed sideboard trump, probably gaining enough time and value in the process to eventually kill you. This is not what we want.

(Cards ruled out: Gaddock Teeg, Red Elemental Blast, Pyroblast)

So if we don’t want to be all-in on our plan of “win quickly with creatures,” but we also don’t want to lose to Spell Snare, what’s our line of attack? Keeping in mind that their goal is to interact with us using removal on every turn for the first few turns, we have two major options: attack their mana or attack their life total. We aren’t going to grind them out, and we aren’t interested in trying to match answers to their variety of threats, so cards like Ancient Grudge and Krosan Grip are satisfying (they kill their equipment) but ultimately poor (try drawing one against an active Elspeth, Knight-Errant).

(Cards ruled out: Ancient Grudge, Krosan Grip, Gaddock Teeg, Red Elemental Blast, Pyroblast)

Given that we’re going to get our creatures killed a lot, we want to cut anything that interacts unfavorably with Snapcaster Mage or Swords to Plowshares. This means that we realistically have four slots to work with, since Reckless Charge and Goblin Guide are not strong against either of those cards. One possible configuration is:

 -2 Reckless Charge -2 Goblin Guide
+2 Lava Spike, +1 Fireblast, +1 Grim Lavamancer

This gives us more marginal play against combo decks by giving us twelve three-damage spells costing R, letting us go to the dome with every available mana we have in a time-sensitive matchup. It also gives us more against G/W decks, where Grim Lavamancer is very easily our best card. Having Lava Spikes against a removal-heavy strategy is better than adding any more one-drops, since any of those one-drops have to attack successfully twice before they’re better than a Lava Spike. Grim Lavamancer is worthwhile because he’s a one-mana Phantom Warrior, letting us get those last few points through a theoretical trump like an active Elspeth.

Another possible configuration is

-2 Reckless Charge -2 Goblin Guide
+4 Choke

This is going to give us more play against U/R Delver decks and various other midrange blue decks. Choke is a very, very good card against blue strategies. Let’s get into why it’s good, though, since the explanation is instructive by itself.

Blue decks generally want to board out Force of Will against aggressive decks, especially if they’re bringing in more removal. Since they have to answer almost every creature as it comes out, casting one Force of Will is difficult. Beyond that, what are they supposed to pitch? Their Jaces are pretty iffy against us; they’ll never be able to cast Counterspell without losing tempo; their Spell Snares are outright dead against us; and their Snapcaster Mages are necessary to bring them back into the game. In short, almost all of their blue cards are bad against us, so they’re probably going to board some out. Once that happens, they’ll be short on both cards and specifically blue cards to pitch to Force of Will. Beyond all of that, if they open a hand with a Force of Will, they will use it on our turn-one play, since that represents nine damage or more.

The upshot of this is that they will pretty rarely have an answer for our Choke, which means it will resolve, which means they will very likely lose. Since it has applications elsewhere, it’s worth keeping in mind as a potential sideboard card, even if we end up opting for a different plan in this matchup.

It is important to note here that if you end up playing this deck and playing a sideboard with something like 4 Choke 2 Lava Spike 1 Grim Lavamancer 1 Fireblast, don’t board all eight cards in. It’s tempting to do so. Resist that temptation. Fight the reptilian instinct to “board your good cards in.” Remember that the advice is a two-part sentence that ends with “…take your bad cards out.” In this matchup, you don’t have many more than four bad cards. Don’t trim four-ofs to three-ofs to try to fit in your sideboard cards. It’s okay to leave good cards in a given matchup on the bench. Sometimes a card is good, but it doesn’t fit into what your plan is. Understanding that and exercising restraint is an important part of both constructing your sideboard and then applying your plan.

Beating U/R Delver

Unlike U/W Stoneforge, the U/R Delver deck is very capable of being as aggressive as you. If you approach the Delver matchup the same way you approach the Stoneforge matchup, you will likely fail. The Delver deck has a lot of burn spells that allow it to interact with both your board and your life total in a way that Stoneforge decks can’t. In addition, they have Price of Progress to blow away six to eight points of your life at a moment’s notice. So what do we care about out of this deck?

We can actually play either the aggressive or the controlling role in this matchup. If we decide to max out on Fireblasts, we can use Fireblast as a way of protecting ourselves against Price of Progress. If we play Choke, we can play more one-drops and force them into a controlling role, making them cast Submerge defensively and use their burn on our creatures rather than our dome. We could also add utility cards like Lava Dart and the fourth Lavamancer, which would let us fight their creatures more efficiently while also giving us more ways to kill Mother of Runes, which is one of our nightmare cards in the G/W Maverick matchup.

Cards to consider are: Lava Dart, the fourth Grim Lavamancer, the fourth Fireblast, and Choke. Lava Spike is probably just worse than all of the other cards, and Goblin Guide/Reckless Charge are pretty ugly, since Reckless Charge opens us up to a two-for-one, and Goblin Guide does the same, albeit in a less noticeable way.

I want to start with

-2 Lava Spike
-2 Reckless Charge
-2 Goblin Guide

In almost every approach to the matchup. We could run plans running the aggression spectrum from adding 1 Grim Lavamancer, 1 Fireblast, and 4 Lava Dart to adding 4 Choke, 1 Grim Lavamancer, and another utility card. Again, it all depends on whether you find more success being aggressive or controlling against U/R Delver.

Sideboard prospects so far:

0-4 Choke
0-4 Lava Dart
Grim Lavamancer
0-1 Fireblast
Lava Spike

Beating Dredge

The problem with playing a deck as fair as Little Zoo is that you’re going to lose against unfair decks a lot. Dredge is one such unfair deck. Reanimator is another. If we’re going to beat these decks, we’re going to have to invest a lot of sideboard space to do so. Since there are people who don’t want to play fair, though, we’ll have to go through several of these decks on the way to a trophy.

Let’s start with our basic approach: what are Dredge’s best cards against us? How are they planning on winning? If we’re attacking their life total directly, they’re going to be forced into a position where they have to race us onto the board. If they have Tireless Tribe, they can buy a turn or two by blanking an attacker. If they don’t, they’re going to be leaning a lot on Dread Return. Quick, tell me which of the following cards is going to be best at fighting their Dread Return strategy:

Surgical Extraction
Relic of Progenitus
Tormod’s Crypt
Purify the Grave
Lava Spike

The inclusion of Lava Spike on that list is not a joke. Since today’s Dredge lists don’t play Ancestor’s Chosen, it is very possible for them to Dread Return a huge Golgari Grave-Troll and still lose. Since they play Cabal Therapy, I wouldn’t want to play Surgical Extraction and risk losing it to a midgame Cabal Therapy. Since they’re very likely to board in bounce spells, I wouldn’t want to rely on Tormod’s Crypt as my only line of defense. Since we’re going to want to use Grim Lavamancer, Relic of Progenitus seems worse than Tormod’s Crypt.

If you really want to beat Dredge, I would advocate a sideboard strategy that uses a full set of Purify the Grave, several Surgical Extractions, and very likely loads up on additional burn spells (Lava Spike, Fireblast, Grim Lavamancer, and so on). The choice of Purify the Grave and Surgical Extraction also gives you the greatest mana efficiency against Reanimator, where every mana and every turn matters a lot.

Just how many cards can we afford to cut against degenerate strategies, though? What are our worst cards? In the case of Dredge, you’re most interested in goldfishing them with a complex two-step strategy of “play your creatures first and attack with them” into “target them with your red spells.” This means that Rift Bolt is your worst burn spell, since you’re going to want to target them with almost all of your Bolts. That one suspend turn could be the difference between winning and losing. I’m also not a huge fan of Steppe Lynx, since it’s worse than a Kird Ape if you miss your third land drop or they have a Tireless Tribe. You’re going to want to empty your hand as soon as possible, so it might not be possible to hold back fetchlands to maximize damage with Steppe Lynx’s landfall triggers. As a result, I would advocate the following sideboard strategy:

-4 Rift Bolt
-4 Steppe Lynx

+4 Purify the Grave
+3 Surgical Extraction
+1 Fireblast or Lava Spike (whichever you’re playing)

If you were so inclined, you could iterate this process for any given set of matchups, come up with a list of ideal card choices, and decide which of your plans are the most important. From there, it’s a short step to creating a sideboard that amalgamates all of your plans:

4 Purify the Grave
3 Surgical Extraction
3 Lava Dart
3 Choke
1 Fireblast
1 Grim Lavamancer

Once you do this, it’s important to review your matchup plans and make sure that you haven’t compensated away from too many slots for any given matchup. If it’s important, make sure that your plan still works. For instance, we decided that the Lava Spikes were too low-impact, so our new sideboard strategy against Stoneforge is:

-2 Reckless Charge
-2 Goblin Guide

+3 Choke
+1 Fireblast

So that still works. How about Delver?

-2 Lava Spike
-2 Reckless Charge
-2 Goblin Guide

+3 Lava Dart
+2 Choke
+1 Grim Lavamancer

And of course, our Dredge strategy is perfectly intact. The upside of this methodology is that we have still given ourselves good cards for G/W Maverick, Reanimator, Merfolk, Life from the Loam, and plenty of other decks.

I realize that this is a far more time-intensive approach to sideboarding, but you’ll see much greater gains in tournaments if you take the time to figure out why you’re sideboarding certain cards, how those changes are informed by your game plan, and what changing your sideboard selections will do to the texture of a given matchup. Good luck, and I look forward to hearing your feedback!

Until next week,

Drew Levin

@drew_levin on Twitter