Reflecting Ruel – How To Build A Sideboard

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Friday, September 11th – Sideboarding: the forgotten art of Magic. With sixty percent of your tournament games played with the sideboard, a lot of writers are turning to the strategy of formulating the perfect fifteen. Today, Olivier Ruel shares his personal sideboarding techniques.

In today’s article, I am going to talk about one of the most important aspects of Magic success. Nowhere near enough attention is paid to this aspect: the art of sideboarding.

First, it is important to remember that you adjust your sideboard for every tournament you play, and not simply a random fifteen from the net. In order to do that, you have to know what sideboarding is actually for.

A sideboard must reinforce your deck in its key matchups. In order to build a good sideboard, you must first know the archetypes you will be facing. First, make a list of every deck you could likely play against. Then make a list of every card you could possibly use against those matchups. Only then should you be able to shorten your list to fifteen cards to have a sideboard as close to optimal as possible.

But first, it is important to determine what a sideboard card should be for. You ask a sideboard card to…

Deal With A Specific Threat
For example, if you fear you’ll play against decks using Moment’s Peace, Flaring Pain can be a great sideboard card in an aggro deck.

Improve Your Tempo
For example, in a deck weak against Mono-Red, Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender or Vedalken Outlander will definitely win you several turns.

Compensate Your Main Deck’s Weaknesses
For example: You think most people won’t play combo or control, so you decide to play a lot of removal spells main deck. Your sideboard should allow you to switch to a better balanced version of your deck against the other archetypes.

Interact With Your Opponent’s Mechanics
For example: Tormod’s Crypt against any deck using his graveyard, or Ethersworn Canonist versus most combo decks, will keep them from developing their game plan the way they were expecting.

Anticipating Your Opponent’s Sideboard Plan
For example: They are not running any artifacts in the maindeck, but you know they are very likely to bring in Chalice of the Void? Then you should definitely bring in Ancient Grudge.

And finally, if possible, all of the above should be done while generating card advantage.

Let’s say, for instance, that you’re playing Rock and facing Burn in Extended. In the main deck you’re running 4 Kitchen Finks, but you’re having a really hard time winning when you don’t draw them. After game 1, you decide to bring in three copies of Loxodon Hierarch.
As a matter of fact, it compensates for your deck’s vulnerability against Blasts, as your Hierarch can reset the clock a little with his four life gain… and then, if your opponent wants to kill it, it will take him another one or two cards.

In this case, the elephant fulfills several of the requirements exposed a little earlier. It improves your tempo by slowing them down, it makes your deck less vulnerable to direct damage, and it makes card advantage if your opponent tries to kill him straight out.

Against a control deck, a card like Persecute can apply to pretty much all the categories above.

There is one last category of cards you want in your sideboard. Those are the Plan B cards, the alternate kills. Let’s take, for instance, Max Bracht’s Pro Tour: Honolulu 2006 Top 8 decklist:

10 Forest
10 Island
1 Swamp
1 Mountain
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
4 Drift of Phantasms
1 Maga, Traitor to Mortals
4 Sensei’s Divining Top
4 Remand
4 Muddle the Mixture
1 Boomerang
4 Heartbeat of Spring
4 Early Harvest
4 Kodama’s Reach
1 Compulsive Research
1 Recollect
1 Weird Harvest
1 Invoke the Firemind

1 Umezawa’s Jitte
1 Pyroclasm
4 Vinelasher Kudzu
3 Iwamori of the Open Fist
2 Meloku the Clouded Mirror
1 Keiga, the Tide Star
3 Savage Twister

Max knew his deck was easy to answer, so he decided to have an alternate sideboard plan. He would be either control or combo in game 2, and his opponent would often sideboard terrible cards against him. Another more simple option would be, if you play only one way to win in the main deck (such as three Meloku), to bring in at least one non-Meloku creature so you don’t die to Haunting Echoes or Thought Hemorrhage.

Once you’ve determined the cards you want in, determine how many of each card you want to draw each game. You will:

Bring one in when you have ways to search for the card (such as Tutors); when you have a slow matchup and want to draw it in the midgame or late game; or when it’s a “fifth copy” of the same card (such as 1 Thoughtseize when you already have 4 Duress in the main deck).

Bring two in when you’d like to draw one, but when the second one would be useless (such as a Circle of Protection).

Bring three in when you’d like to draw one or more copies each game.

Bring four in when you must draw one each game, and when drawing more will still be about as good (such as Kitchen Finks versus Mono Red, or Volcanic Fallout against Faeries).

In and Out

You’re now ready to do an In and Out Table. Write your decklist in the left column, and the different matchups you expect to face along the top. It usually looks like something like Aggro A, Aggro B, Control A, Control B, Combo A, etc.

In order to determine what decks to put in this table, you focus on the Tier 1 decks in the format. You should have more specific sideboard cards against the most popular deck, if you are really sure you know what it is. Focus on your worst matchup if it’s at least a Tier 2 deck, and if the matchup is not so bad that you would have to weaken your deck against more popular decks just to stand a chance.

In the table, write how many of each card you would be willing to take out against each match. Then, first thing: if you see a card you’re willing to take out against most matchups, you should ask yourself if it really has its place in the main deck. Next, look at your “cards to bring in” list and compare it to the number of slots you have in each matchup.

Against control decks, you will usually take out most, if not all, removal spells depending on what your opponent is running. Keeping Firespout against a deck which kills with Baneslayer Angel is nonsense.

Against aggro, you will usually take out most of the three-mana and higher counterspells (except for Cryptic Command), as they are too late to be useful. Also, remove discard spells, unless there is a target you must absolutely catch. Finally, look at your expensive spells in general, as you don’t want to be holding cards you can’t even cast against a tempo deck.

Against combo, you will usually take out all removal spells, the less aggressive creatures (such as Plague Rusalka), and expensive spells you can’t play because you’re afraid you might lose on the next turn (like Mind Spring or Broodmate Dragon).

Sometimes your sideboard would be overflowing if you want to play everything to make all the matchups as good as possible post board. You often can weaken some specific cards if you can play the weaker card in several matchups. In a Rock deck, instead of Loxodon Hierarch against Burn and Persecute for the mirror, you can just run some copies of Primal Command instead, which is a fine card in both matchups, but not as powerful against the individual choices against either.

Specific Sideboarding

A combo deck usually depends on its extreme balance and synergy between the combo cards, those which will search for the combo pieces, and the spells which help developing the mana to cast them. Take out one piece of the puzzle and the machine may not work anymore. Therefore, combo only has two sideboard options.

First is the traditional option, which consists of using cards against every single deck you’re supposed to face, even if they are in 7th or 8th place on your Predictions list. You can only bring in three or four cards in every matchup? Fair enough, three or four it will be, but they will be three or four you will be able to use against every single opponent. It is very important (and not only in a combo deck) not to destroy your deck’s core by bringing in too many cards. At some point, you can’t make your deck much stronger than it is, and every card you bring in for the same matchup weakens the deck against everything else.

The other possibility is the one we’ve examined before, which is to change your deck’s concept by totally transforming it. This option is very difficult because you need a common core between your main deck and your sideboard version. Max Bracht had already a solid control build in the main (with only about ten cards that were specifically for combo), and this is the reason he could switch so easily, while his opponents would bring in the wrong cards every time.

One last example, which usually doesn’t concern agro decks, is the toolbox. When you play Tutors, it’s common to play several singletons in the deck, but it also applies to the sideboard.
If you use 4 Diabolic Tutor, for instance, a single Haunting Echoes in the sideboard doesn’t count as one card, but as five, as five different cards in your deck give you access to this five-mana sorcery. Therefore, if you’re running four Tutors, and if your sideboard is using eight single cards, one triplet, and one quad, it’s almost like you were now using:

(8 x 1) + 3 + 4 = 15 cards, but instead it’s (8 x 1) + (8 x 4) + 3 + 4 + 4 + 4… so, up to 55 sideboard cards!

Let me give you a couple of last pieces of advice. Do not forget a deck has a core which should not be altered. Try not to board in an unreasonable number of cards in the key matchup. It would alter the deck’s essence, and probably not make it much better for the matchup, instead making it much worse against everything else.

Also, do not wait to hit the final period of testing to build your sideboard. It may look like it’s not so important, but remember that postboard games are about 60% of the games you will play in every single tournament! Preparing and optimizing the sideboard matters just as much as playtesting to get the best possible maindeck.

Until next week, have a great weekend!