SCG Talent Search – The Art of Sideboarding

Tuesday, November 23rd – Sideboarding is an important skill for every mage to have – after all, more games are played with board than without! Michael attacks sideboarding from every article in his article. Read and vote!

Sideboarding is an important part of every competitive game of Magic (including Limited). More games are played post-board than pre-board, which lends the notion that having a good sideboard and knowing how to use it are just as important as having a good maindeck. And just like a maindeck, it takes a lot of reasoning and playtesting to get to a good sideboard, but keep in mind that there isn’t always a precisely correct sideboard or sideboard plan (that’s why it’s an art). Some people can build a sideboard with theory alone, but playtesting can show you what works and what doesn’t and helps you in refining your choices. There are a lot of things to consider when constructing a sideboard from scratch like:

“What are my bad matchups?”

“What decks do I expect to face the most?”

“Is this the correct number for this card?”

All of these things require knowledge of the field, which is incredibly useful, but not always attainable. If you don’t have that kind of information, then you’ll have to construct a sideboard that’s capable of working against an unknown field. Such a sideboard contains cards that are generally good rather than specifically good. Kor Firewalker is a great example of a card that’s only good against a specific deck whereas Baneslayer Angel would be a better choice if you don’t know about the field. Baneslayer Angel allows you to have a card that has potential against a lot more matchups than Kor Firewalker would. Simply put, Baneslayer Angel is more versatile than Kor Firewalker and versatility is one of the most important aspects of sideboard constructing.


Cards in sideboards aren’t the only thing that can be versatile. The sideboard itself can be versatile, meaning that you can make use of variation (one-ofs and two-ofs) in order to increase your options. A specific sideboard comes to mind in which the constructor enlisted fifteen one-ofs and did surprisingly well:

I can’t say that I know much about the format that was being played at the time, but Nassif’s sideboard is still one worth examining. It may look like a bunch of random one-ofs, but it only seems that way because we aren’t the ones that constructed it. Nassif knows exactly why each card is there, and each one is certainly there for a reason.

If I were to organize it a little differently it might be a lot easier to see what is going on.

Blue Elemental Blast

These two are functionally the same (except one can kill Horobi, Death’s Wail). The primary reasons to split cards that are functionally the same are: to combat “name a card” cards like Memoricide and to prevent your opponent to guess the number of the card you play. I think the latter was the goal in this case. This way, Nassif’s opponents most likely assumed he had more Blasts than he actually did. You can do the same thing in Standard with Cancel and Stoic Rebuttal.

Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender

The one copy of Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender acted as a third way to combat red decks. It’s not a functional copy of Hydroblast, but it allowed Nassif to vary his options against red decks. Besides the marginal value of variation, such as equipping the one Umezawa’s Jitte to the one Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender, it also takes diminishing returns into account (no, diminishing returns isn’t some weird Legacy deck). Diminishing returns plagues a lot of cards, and sideboards generally aren’t testing enough for people to realize that they shouldn’t have as many of one card as they do.


As expected from a sideboard with fifteen different cards, we’ll see a lot of variation, but each instance holds a different benefit. The added benefit with these is that sometimes one is good against matchups that the other isn’t, meaning that you’re benefiting from playing one of each rather than two of either. Perish can serve as an answer to Progenitus, while Darkblast can deal with Grim Lavamancer or Dark Confidant (while both are great against Elves).

Krosan Grip

This is the first and only actual singleton card in this sideboard. It’s possible that this is the loosest card, but with one copy already main it can be assumed that Nassif knew that he would want the second copy.

Kataki, War’s Wage
Energy Flux

These two serve as varied answers to Affinity with specific reasons for each. One can come down fast (and pick up an Umezawa’s Jitte), and the other is tutorable with Enlightened Tutor.

Enlightened Tutor
Engineered Plague
Threads of Disloyalty
Umezawa’s Jitte

And finally, we get to the tutor package. Nassif made use of three different cards that are all good at certain times and in certain matchups but included one Enlightened Tutor to double his versatility and chance of drawing each of them. This type of package isn’t seen too often in sideboards, but it can be incredibly useful. It basically allows you to play more cards in your sideboard at very little cost.

Planar Void
Relic of Progenitus
Tormod’s Crypt

Each of these can be part of the Enlightened Tutor package and tutored for when most appropriate. Besides that, the variation of these three makes it hard for your opponent to play around all of them successfully, meaning that most of the time three different solutions will be better than three of the same one.

Overall, I find Nassif’s sideboard to be quite the masterpiece, but I do wonder whether there was a point during deckbuilding that he decided just to have fifteen one-ofs for the novelty of it, or if he thought it was really worth it. Whatever the case may be, we must move on to the other end of the spectrum.


I consider the 4-4-4-3 to be an amateurish sideboard. The uniformity generally shows a lack of depth and consideration. It’s typical that the constructor just filled those slots with cards that are expected to be good against certain decks without giving much thought to varying numbers or alternative choices. With that being said, it’s not impossible for a 4-4-4-3 sideboard to get the job done. Laurence Swasey managed to place second in the SCG Boston Open with such a sideboard. I definitely didn’t like it, but he did well with it, so I think it’s worth examining:

We’ve got seven counterspells, four cards for red matchups, and four cards for blue matchups. Despite its appearance, I actually think this sideboard is quite versatile. As stated previously, without the original reasoning behind a sideboard, we won’t (necessarily) know exactly why each card is there, but we can come up with our own reasoning in hopes of making the sideboard better.

The four Obstinate Baloths are obviously for red matchups, but they are also capable of being brought in against non-red aggro matchups and discard (Blightning is gone, but you get the point). River Boa may seem to be there for blue matchups, but it actually gives a lot of aggro matchups problems. These two cards prove to be surprisingly versatile and are probably worth the four-of slots.

I have a hard time justifying the seven counterspells. If you’re devoting seven slots to counterspells, should one of them be maindeck? That would open up four more slots in the sideboard and make the matchups we’re bringing them in against better for game 1. It would require some testing to determine whether or not it’s correct, but that’s certainly something to consider when half of your sideboard is devoted to something so specific.

Overall, I think Swasey’s sideboard didn’t amount to its full potential, and his success was most likely due to his deck being an unknown force prior to that event.

Sideboard Plans and Re-boarding

A good way to get full value out of your sideboard is to have a sideboard plan. The goal is to create a sideboard that has the perfect amount of cards for each matchup in relation to the cards that need to be cut from the maindeck. So, if you have seven cards you want to cut against R/G Valakut, then you want to have that many cards in your board for that matchup; and the same is true for all other expected matchups. With this method, every slot requires a lot of thought because many cards will have to be good in multiple matchups in order for the math to work out.

Every good sideboard should have such a plan, but having a sideboard plan that works out perfectly isn’t really necessary. During actual games, you’ll have to make changes to the plan because of unforeseen circumstances. You can have a sideboard and a plan for everything you expect, but your opponents aren’t always going to conform to your expectations. This is why using a written sideboard plan in between games doesn’t provide much of an advantage. If you want to board correctly, then you have to be able to adapt to what you’ve learned from the previous game(s) and board accordingly.

Let’s say you’re playing in a PTQ, and you’re playing against a good matchup. You’ve won game 1, as you should have, but for game 2 your opponent sideboarded something you weren’t ready for. Whether or not he transformed entirely or just brought in something you couldn’t deal with, he has sidestepped your sideboard plan. Before you know it, you’re shuffling up for game 3 and thinking about what you could’ve done differently. Well, you’re making a mistake. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be thinking about what you did wrong, but what you should be doing is reaching for your sideboard and shuffling it into your deck (and taking out fifteen).

Re-boarding for game 3 is something a lot of players forget to do. Whether or not you lost game 2 is also irrelevant. You’ve seen more of your opponent’s deck and gained some knowledge that you may not have had before. Even if you learned nothing from the previous games, you could still make changes to your deck based on being on the play/draw or just because you felt you were wrong in previous sideboarding.

Sideboarding in Limited

Sideboarding in Limited is another aspect of sideboarding that some players miss out on. You can continue to analyze your deck and listen to the opinions of others after deck registration has ended and then make appropriate changes for games 2 and 3; you can sideboard in your swampwalk creatures against black decks; you can sideboard out a land on the draw (or vice versa); you can switch colors or even entire decks when faced against a certain deck or bomb. All of these things can lead to an advantage, but people tend to forget them. Consider this a reminder that your Limited deck can always be changed for games 2 and 3 (my recommendation is to sleeve all your possible board cards and basic lands before you sit down to play assuming your deck is sleeved).

Hopefully you’ve learned something from this article, but I don’t expect everyone to agree with everything I write. I write what I actually think in order to incite debate among readers so that ideas grow and become better. If you think I’m wrong, let me know.

Thanks for reading!
Michael Hetrick