Learn How To Sideboard, Dammit!

For the love of all things holy, ladies and gentlemen of the Magic community – if you want to get better at this game, you have to realize one important thing, and that is that somewhere in the area of 60% of all games of Magic are played with sideboards in… And it’s where most of you lose your games. So listen to me carefully: I have some rules for you to follow. They’re numbered. All you need to do is follow instructions. Trust the Tait.

There are several areas where pro-level players leave novice and amateur players in the dust.

Board Vision

The top-level players are great at taking everything into account. They are never surprised by what the contents of the board can produce. Low and mid-level players say,”I didn’t expect you to block like that.”

Do you know what Mike Turian does? He actually takes your creatures in hand and determines your potential blocks himself, so that he knows what the most effective blocks will be, and what those blocks will do to his attackers. Then he decides whether or not to attack. No one will spring a surprise on Mike.

He’s not the only one. Whether by physically determining the expected blocks or just going over it in their heads, pro players know how you are going to block.

Low and mid-level players? They’re punching bags. They don’t even know how you’re going to block – they just attack. When you block correctly, these monkeys say “Oh,” and take their lumps with a chimp-like look of confusion etched on their slope-foreheaded countenances.

Anticipating Tricks And Possible Plays In Rochester And Booster Draft.

Top-level players are great at this. They know when you’re holding that Soul Nova or Predator’s Strike. Either they remember you drafted it, or you’re unconsciously representing it – but either way, they know. They know when you’ve got Mana Leak and they bait it out or play around it. They know you’ve got Deconstruct and they throw out some tasty targets to soak up the destruction before the Loxodon Warhammer comes down. They’re always one step ahead in this regard.

Low and mid-level players? Again, they’re punching bags. I’ve played hundreds of bad players in my life, and they all have one thing in common – they walk right into your tricks with the same half-wit grin. Basically, they say, “If he has anything, I lose,” and then push their chips All-In. Every turn.

Sometimes the board is just the board and they come out on top. Just as often, the other player is holding something, and it’s anyone’s game.

Those two things are big, to be sure, but there’s one area where most low and mid-level players are especially Godawful, and as a result they’re completely out of position in up to two-thirds of their games.

I’m talking about sideboarding. For the love of all things holy, ladies and gentlemen of the Magic community – if you want to get better at this game, you have to realize one important thing, and that is that somewhere in the area of 60% of all games of Magic are played with sideboards in.

Yeah, I know. Back when women EDT was young and women were still fighting for the right to vote, you didn’t care about your sideboard. You’d hardly even get the question, “Do you have a sideboard?” because neither you or any of your friends ever built one. Who needs a sideboard when you cards are fighting for space on the kitchen table with a couple of sandwiches, a beer, and a jar of peanut butter? Times have changed for you, though. If you’re reading this article, you must have at least some interest in the topic of sideboarding and how to do it correctly.

Let me help you. First, take everything you think you know about sideboarding.

Got it? Good.

Throw it out. Forget it. Some people theorize that the mind can hold a finite amount of knowledge and experience, so what I suggest is that you read a good book and force all the faulty sideboarding theory out the other ear and into the emptiness of space, where some other fish will pick it up and run the 0-2. Done?


Now, listen to me carefully. I have got some rules for you to follow. They’re numbered. There’s no need to be a rocket scientist here; all you need to do is follow instructions.

1. The Sideboard Is Not The Place For Cards You”Wanted To Put In The Maindeck, But Couldn’t Fit.”

Let me explain what I mean. I looked at an Affinity sideboard recently. In that sideboard, alongside the normal stuff like four Shatter and so on, there was a Lodestone Myr and a couple of Somber Hoverguards. I recognized them – they were in this guy’s maindeck up until he bought two Thirst for Knowledges and a Broodstar that very day.

For Christ’s sake, why? Why!?

Why do you people always, always do this?

To some guys, it’s like breathing. Show me a bad player with a Goblin deck containing four Pyrite Spellbombs, and I will show you four Shocks in his sideboard.

I asked him what the Lodestone Myr was good for.

“Well, I want to try it out sometime.”

I asked him what he’d bring it in against. No answer. I asked him what he’d take out for it. No answer. I asked him if rocks were edible. No answer.

I’ll tell you, you guys are making me age beyond my years. I’m about ready to blow. When I look at a B/G Cemetery sideboard and see the two extra copies of Gravepact that used to be in the maindeck before you needed to fit in your Phyrexian Plaguelords, I’m Supafly TNT like Jules Winfield, our man in Inglewood.

2. Just Because Something Is A Color Hoser, Or A Narrow Card That Is Specifically Designed To Hurt A Specific Strategy, Does Not Mean You Automatically Have To Play It In Your Sideboard If It Is In Your Colors.

What do I mean by this? Let me give you an example: There’s a guy at my store who barely plays, but when he does, you can count on his having a bunch of sideboard cards that do absolutely nothing.

You could look at his Vintage sideboard on any given day and see Spiritual Focus, Sacred Ground, Warmth, Circle of Protection: Blue (for Morphlings, don’t ya know!), and Karma. We’d start the tournament and his sideboard cards would do absolutely nothing for him. He’d play Circle of Protection: Blue and the enemy Ophidian would still draw eight hundred cards. He’d never sideboard in Sacred Ground because he was playing Mono White and no one was playing land destruction. He’d sideboard in Spiritual Focus and get it Duressed out of his hand, or it wouldn’t be a factor. He’d play Warmth and die to Cursed Scroll. He’d play Karma and get killed by a first-turn Phyrexian Negator the turn he laid it.

This guy would simply look at all of the cards in his collection, see a specific card, say, “This card was designed to be a Sideboard card!” and then he’d put it in his sideboard. Without fail.

Newsflash. Bringing you the world of….Current Events.

Sideboard cards are sometimes not the ones that are designed to be sideboard cards. Sure, back in Tempest there were some insane hosers that were designed to be hosers: Chill, Light of Day, Choke. Those days are over – heck, even Compost is gone. If, instead of playing Spiritual Focus against discard, Warmth against red, Circle of Protection: Blue for Morphlings, and Karma for black, this guy had played Worship against aggro red and black, Disenchant for Scrolls and other troublesome permanents, Swords to Plowshares for Ophidians and Negators, and maybe some Armageddons for Blue control, he would have been better off.

Think before you make your sideboard. What are you going to be playing against? What is the most effective strategy against that type of deck? Just playing every “Wizards printed this to be a sideboard card!” type of spell is the fallback position of the unprepared. Most of them don’t even work. Do you want to play Spreading Algae against Mono Black Control? Are you dreaming of busting that Baleful Stare all up in Siege-Gang Commander’s grille? Come on.

3. Test And Make Sure Your Sideboard Cards Actually Work Against The Decks You Plan To Face.

Testing and study will solve most of your sideboard problems. Still, some people just don’t do this, and they just blindly say, “Matchup X needs help, let me find something”, throw it in, and sit down at FNM like they’re The Terminator. Luckily for these human leakages, it’s possible to steal a netdeck sideboard and avoid total disaster.

Let’s do a quick exercise: Say you’re up against a field full of Goblin decks. Do you play four Sanctimonies or four Circle of Protection: Reds?

I know, I know – the conventional wisdom is that you play CoP: Red, so that’s probably going to be your answer. But just try to think for yourself for a moment. Why is CoP: Red so much better than Sanctimony?

After all, aren’t multiple copies of Sanctimony a beating? If you draw multiples of CoP: Red, they just sit there in your hand. Triple Sanctimony means three life every time your opponent taps a mountain! Why isn’t that a good alternative to CoP: Red?

Anyone want to chime in here? Anyone at all?

Okay, I’ll field this one.

Sanctimony is unplayable against the red decks of today because they all play X number of Sulfuric Vortexes. Sulfuric Vortex makes Sanctimony into the worst sideboard card this side of Warthog. Meanwhile, CoP: Red is amazing against Vortex. You only need to test a couple of matches to discover this. You will also discover along the way other pearls of wisdom, such as:

a) Spreading Algae never does anything unless your opponent is stupid

b) Pro Wrestling is all choreographed – they are not really punching each other, but instead staging an elaborate gladiatorial performance for your amusement

c) Sun Droplet is not good in the Goblin mirror

d) I’m not wearing any pants

Seriously, don’t just assume the cards are good – test them. I actually did think Sun Droplet might be good in the Goblin mirror – good thing I tested it. It was mediocre at best. So don’t assume. Because you know what you do when you”assume”?

You force me to drive by your house and set your car on fire.

4. Make Sure You Have Room To Fit Your Sideboard Cards Into The Deck Without Fundamentally Changing The Positive Things About The Deck.

If you lose to Affinity time after time, and load up your R/G Beast beatdown sideboard with four Naturalizes, four Shatters, two Molder Slugs and two Hum of the Radixes, you have to have room to put those cards in. What are you going to take out?

Birds of Paradise? No – that would fundamentally change the speed of the deck and alter your mana count. Vine Trellis? Same problem. Ravenous Baloth? It trades with Myr Enforcer, makes use of Contested Cliffs and helps you race!

Plow Under? I guess that could go. Now… To find eight or nine more slots!

If you sideboard in too many cards, you destroy the synergy of your deck. This is especially true if you didn’t know how the deck works in the first place. People who copy decklists off the Internet typically butcher them in Games 2 and 3 after tinkering with the sideboards. They read “Tune the sideboard to your local metagame!” and they do so, and then launch into the next tournament with no concept of what they’re doing to the deck when they try to fit in their twelve-card sideboard against Goblins.

I’m reminded of the time a guy at our store had to fit twelve or so cards against red into his control deck, and accidentally removed all of his win conditions.

How many”dead” cards do you have against a given archetype? Don’t just answer – test, then answer. Once you know, you know how many cards you can afford to take out, and you know which ones they are. Then, with that number in hand, find some sideboard cards that are good in the appropriate matchup. Make sure you test them. Add these cards, in order of decreasing effectiveness, until you reach the appropriate number. Be careful not to totally disrupt the flow of the deck (“Oops, I took out the Oaths!”)

Good job. That wasn’t so bad, was it? And don’t you feel better?

5. Know What To Take Out And Put In For Every Matchup. Exactly. Make A Chart.

Anyone who says”Magic is supposed to be fun, I’m not making any damn chart!” can just pack up their stuff and leave, right now. Do you want to have fun and go 0-2, or do you want to have a little less fun in the preparation and a lot more fun in, you know, the winning? If it’s the former, write me a letter from the stinky corner of the store where they stick the 0-2 table. Tell me how it is. Your rating is probably so low, you can’t even find it in the DCI database without toilet gloves and a shovel.

Are you willing to put some effort into this? I thought so.

It should look something like this:

SB Vs. Goblins (-3 crappy anti-control card, +3 mass removal spell)

or maybe

SB Vs. Astral Slide (-4 mass removal spell, +4 enchantment destruction spell)

or maybe

SB Vs. Affinity (-4 useless Decree of Pain, +4 Dark Banishing)

or maybe

SB Vs. Your Mom (-4 Pants, +4 Barry White music)

Etc etc. You get the idea. Don’t guess when making this chart – test.

Am I repeating myself? Do do do I stutter, Kemosabe? I’m saying this over and over against because it’s important. For years, you have had no clue how to make a good sideboard, you’ve just read reports and results and stolen their sideboards.

Admit it. Left to your own devices, you’d be flying blind and running more copies of Lifetap than Nosferatu on a bender.

You’ve probably seen some charts like the above in articles by your favorite pros and strategy writers. There’s no reason you can’t take this format as your own, and use it to better your own play. Don’t just guess about what to take out! Know!

Don’t you idiots remember what G.I. Joe said? Knowing is half the battle!

Sure, Joe didn’t exactly have it tough (C.O.B.R.A. was, without a doubt, the biggest collection of mongoloids ever to threaten the earth) but nonetheless, his advice is sound.

6. Don’t Sideboard Extensively Against Matchups You Already Dominate.

People break this rule all the time simply because the cards exist to let them break it. I remember back in my T1 days, a guy from my local store was playing with Mother of Runes, Soltari Priest, Paladin En-Vec, Pariah, Worship, Empyrial Armor, and so on and he still had like eight cards in his sideboard to bring in against red.

Did he lose to control? You better believe it.

(Of course, that was back in the fledgling days of Sarnia T1, when Mishra’s Workshop was restricted and Necropotence wasn’t. I was just playing a Tempest-era Sligh, souped up for Type One. Hilariously enough, it beat his White Weenie most of the time anyway, because of Cursed Scroll and Anarchy. Those were the days.)

You need the sideboard to help shore up the matchups that you lose – not run of the score in the matchups you already win handily. Control Affinity has tough matchups against aggro and in the mirror, so much of the sideboard is dedicated to beating those matchups, with only four slots dedicated to anti-control strategies. Four Cabal Interrogators. I could throw in Persecute, Mind Rot, more counterspells, more card drawing, and a bunch of other stuff, but it’s just not necessary.

CoP: Red, Pyroclasm, Naturalize? Those are important. They change matchups with aggro from a tough one to something very winnable. I don’t want to look in any more Goblin sideboards and see twelve artifact destruction spells. You already do fine in that matchup. Stop wasting space and concentrate on beating those control decks.

So, how do you determine your problem matchups, so that you can decide what percentage of your sideboard gets dedicated to what strategy? I bet you can guess.

That’s right – psychic flashes.

Okay, no, it’s really testing. I was yanking your chain.

7. Do A Lot Of Testing With Your Sideboard In.

Even fairly good players never do this. When testing a new deck or a deck idea, they just make a maindeck and go nuts. Then they discover that it loses to control. Then they drop the idea. I bet hundreds of solid decks are lost each day because of this lack of persistence. If the control matchup is so bad… Test out some sideboard cards!

Seriously though, even if your deck is a homebrew experiment but a tried and tested golden oldie, you should do a ton of post-sideboard testing against the other decks you expect to face. If you’re not doing this, if you’re just playing twenty pre-sideboard games and then packing up and heading home, you’re blowing it.

Well over half of the games you play in sanctioned tournaments will be with sideboards in. If you don’t test your sideboard configuration at least as much as your pre-sideboard configuration, you’re making a mistake. It’s as simple as that.

And yet no one does this except for the very top-level players. I see dozens of my friends play, guys I respect, guys that want to get better, and yet when they test their decks, they either don’t make sideboards or don’t use them.

What are they doing? What are you doing? Stop it! You’re wasting your testing time! Tournaments are won on the backs of techy sideboards. If I had a nickel every time someone had a Game 2 and 3 collapse because he or she didn’t know what was going on in a matchup after Game 1, I’d have one dynamite ****load of nickels. There would be nickel trucks headed to my house day in and day out, unloading the little bastards on my front lawn. I’d be the nickel master. Nickel McNickelson would walk by, pause, and say “Damn, that guy has one hell of a lot of nickels.”

Have I stressed this enough? When I get rivered playing Texas Hold’em, I tell myself, “Well, Hold’em is a seven card game. It happens.”

Guess what? Magic is a seventy-five-card game. Get your head out of the sand, or wherever snug place it might currently be lodged (not that I’m inferring anything) and join the rest of us.


That’s it. Badda bing, badda boom, I’m done – and the bottom line is this:

If you’re willing to make the effort and go that extra mile to have a sideboard that works, you will start winning more. It’s a bigger part of the game than you realize. Now, are you going to keep getting dominated, or are you going to hitch up your skirt, swallow your casual, kitchen-table sideboard aversions, and take a few victories from those in the know?

It’s up to you.

I’ll be back next week, same as always. -4 Pants. +4 Bwah Chicka-Bwa-Bwah.

Geordie Tait

[email protected]


GT_ on #mtgwacky