Seventy-Five-Card Strategies

Ready for the upcoming Pro Tour, Glenn Jones reminds you of one of the best deckbuilding theories ever conceived and provides some priceless sideboarding advice in the wake of this weekend’s #SCGDAL!

As of writing this, I have a deck I’m excited to be playing at Pro Tour Magic 2015.

This is a very good feeling. I’ve only really had it once before, with Doran at Pro Tour Amsterdam, and that deck wound up being quite good. Even more telling is that I’ve for some time been actively bummed about playing games of Standard (see my Twitter), so to have a deck I actively enjoy playing and that seems strong to me is very telling; after all, I’m actively looking for things to dislike!

Sadly, as this will be going live with the Pro Tour a few days away, I won’t be telling you anything about my deck. This is less out of deference to my own secrecy interests and largely one of the things that comes along with working on a team.

The fine gentlemen of Day 1 MTG will be flying to Portland this week, and I’m hoping they’ll put my list through the gauntlet and come out the other side as pleased as I am. Actually, I hope they like it even more! It’s going to take a lot to get me off the archetype at this point; they’d essentially have to convincingly refute all of my findings to this point. To be honest, even that might not be enough–I’m at the point where I value comfort and familiarity much more than percentage points in a few matchups.

It’s unfortunate that I won’t myself be there in person; I booked my flights when my team plans were a little different, and my job precludes a lot of absences. Hopefully, I don’t wind up regretting that too much. At a minimum, I know I’m missing out on good times with a great group of friends.

I’m currently in the stage where I’m finalizing my deck’s slots, and that is a process I’m all too happy to talk about… in vague terms. Generally referred to as “tweaking” or “tuning,” this is a stage I’ve personally learned a lot about over the last three years while working at StarCityGames. I owe a great deal of my improved insight to Brad Nelson and Gerry Thompson, players renowned for their deckbuilding prowess. Speaking with them and questioning their methodology was an enlightening experience.

The area in which I’m certain I’ve improved the most is sideboarding. Sideboarding is, as many top players will always say, both an art and a science.

The art comes in adaptation. Your tactics vary when you’re on the play or the draw, or when your opponent is playing specific cards that might not be stock in the lists you’ve tested against. On the play, Pack Rat might be a wrecking ball against Mono-Blue Devotion, while on the draw, it can be one of the worst cards in your deck. Playing and sideboarding against U/W Control changes greatly depending upon whether they’ve decided to load up on Divination and Planar Cleansing or remained reliant on the more traditional builds packing Detention Sphere and Banishing Light. Against the latter, Abrupt Decay is a very solid card; against the former, it might be totally unplayable!

One of the larger things to keep in mind when building your sideboard are the kind of cards that you want. I tend to address matchups very differently depending upon whether they’re good or bad matchups. Against good matchups, I want my sideboard cards to offer upgrades to my main deck and answers to anything unique I expect to see coming from their sideboards. Against bad matchups, I want my cards to either be incredibly effective against the opponent or nonexistent. If a matchup’s bad enough, you often shouldn’t waste slots on sideboarding for it. Brad actually implements this tactic aggressively, as narrated in this article. When you’re playing a large event with losses to give, Brad argues that rather than lose several sideboard slots trying to fix it, you should be satisfied with fighting from behind or losing in exchange for gaining larger swings against a swath of other opponents.

This is especially relevant advice when your bad matchup is a unique linear strategy. To use Brad’s own example, he cut Nylea’s Disciple for the Season Two Invitational in anticipation of a specific metagame. The card comes in against essentially only one kind of opponent: red-based aggressive strategies. It’s easy to point and laugh, considering Brad was demolished by Tom Ross in the Top 8, but keep in mind a few facts:

1) If those Nylea’s Disciples had occupied sideboard slots, he might never have made the Top 8 to begin with.
2) In order for Disciple to be effective, Brad has to actually draw them. He could easily have spent six or seven slots “fixing” the matchup only to not find his hate in the games played and wind up dying anyway–truly a waste of those valuable sideboard spaces. This is true for all matchups, but as the matchup gets worse it manifests more frequently because your existing configuration was already not good enough on its own.
3) Even with a spell like Nylea’s Disciple, some bad matchups could remain uneven. Boss Sligh could certainly power through one or two copies, while Burn decks might find it much more difficult. Drawing your sideboard cards and still losing is not a good feeling!

Now, to be clear, neither Brad nor I are advocating going down with the ship whenever you spring a leak. We’re just saying that some of the time you’ll be better off in the long run by swimming for shore through shark-infested waters rather than trying to save the boat!

The key is to decide what you’re willing to accept.

So, to that end, let’s talk analysis. My deckbuilding tends to follow the same pattern: I figure out the archetype, and then I figure out the seventy-five cards I want to be playing. Read that one more time: seventy-five cards. Growing up in Magic, I was so used to thinking about my starting sixty and then building the sideboard afterwards. This is an insane approach, when you think about it–you play more sideboarded games than maindeck games!

I always build my seventy-five the same way: with the Elephant Method. I have no idea how it wound up with that name, and I can’t even remember where I first heard about the strategy–it was certainly before I had a name for it. However, it was most clearly demonstrated by Zvi Mowshowitz for this very site following Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze last year. Essentially, you build idealized sixty-card decks for each of your major matchups, and your goal is to emerge from the practice with seventy-five cards that get you as close to perfect in each as you can get.

How? In plain terms, you examine two things: points of commonality and cards with overlapping effects.

Commonality is tricky. For example, let’s say you’re frequently shaving one or two of a card you intended to main four copies of; it might be best to only play three in the first place, as in the majority of your games you’ll not want to access more than three copies. Some cards are so powerful and flexible in game 1s, or in a bad matchup, that you won’t want to risk this, such as Hero’s Downfall in Mono-Black Devotion.

Months ago, when Dark Betrayal ran rampant, many Mono-Black players would shave some of their other removal spells to make room for the more efficient spell in the mirror or for Doom Blades against non-black decks. These would be the exact kinds of upgrades in efficiency I discussed looking for earlier, when you didn’t consider yourself to be at a significant disadvantage. In recent months, however, we’ve actually seen a few decklists sporting a trio of Downfalls as players struggled to idealize their sideboarded removal suite in the new world.

Overlapping effects are more straightforward. Moving back to our previous example, let’s say my Elephant Method included 4 Dark Betrayal for the Mono-Black Devotion matchup and 4 Doom Blades against Monsters and Mono-Blue Devotion and other people with creatures. Well, that’s eight slots–a tall order. I might try to compromise with something like 2 Dark Betrayal, 2 Ultimate Price, and 2 Doom Blades; this would give me four pretty efficient spells against the mirror, losing two ways to kill just Mutavault, Nightveil Specter, Frostburn Weird, and Fleecemane Lion while remaining mostly identical against my opponents otherwise; four efficient removal spells against everyone, but in 75% of the space. I’m not advocating this particular setup, it’s just an example to illustrate the point.

This particular form of hedging has probably never been more important in the history of the Standard format. With Devour Flesh, Bile Blight, Ultimate Price, Doom Blade, and splash options like Abrupt Decay, Dreadbore, and Mizzium Mortars available, Black Devotion players are afforded an abundance of options. It’s situations like this one where the Elephant Method is at its absolute best.

Identifying the setup that profitably impacts the most opponents requires experience and a solid understanding of the metagame you’ll be playing in. Take a look at Shaun McLaren’s sideboard from Pro Tour Born of the Gods.

Many players glanced at those fifteen cards and saw chaos. That’s not what Shaun saw–he knew when and where to bring in each of those cards by virtue of experience. His deck’s card drawing capacity combined with Snapcaster Mage meant he could see those singletons more often and duplicate his instants and sorceries when necessary, giving him a versatile range of responses.

The Elephant Method is an incredible teaching tool for deckbuilding, and after mapping a few decks out with it you’ll grow faster and more proficient each time. When building these idealized decks, it’s generally helpful to have Gatherer open at the same time, because you never know when you might be missing an angle of attack or defense you hadn’t previously considered.

Let’s look at Jund Monsters against Burn again with the mindset of trying to hedge a little stronger.

Do you know all of the cards in green that gain you life? Maybe rather than play Nylea’s Disciples in your Monsters sideboard, you can play extra copies of Scavenging Ooze in the main or side. They’ll gain you less life against Burn but have impact in other matchups while giving you a little boost against your worst enemy.

Perhaps gaining life still isn’t enough, especially in the quantity offered by Scavenging Ooze. Maybe the card that’s actually killing you is Chandra’s Phoenix, but you’re too removal light to consistently lean on Ooze for that problem; Magma Spray could be the wiser choice.

You can even split the difference with a Bow of Nylea that gives your Xenagos a leg up against larger creatures but still matters a lot against Burn, nabbing Phoenix out of the sky and gaining life in its absence.

These are the kinds of exchanges you should be considering, especially against one-dimensional decks like Burn. Their deck is so redundant that your solutions will often be strong against all of their draws; that’s the biggest con to any linear strategy. These strategies have to go into sideboarding knowing the kind of resistance they’re up against.

Green Devotion suffers from a similar disadvantage. It’s easy to say that it doesn’t really matter what sweeper the opponent is playing, because all of the sweepers are good against you, but the truth is that you can prepare for them differently. Against Verdict, your only real options are splashing for Golgari Charm or Rootborn Defenses. Against Drown in Sorrow those effects are irrelevant–striving Setessan Tactics, however, could save Burning-Tree Emissary, Voyaging Satyr, and Eidolon of Blossoms on a key turn with the fight a viable option against opposing threats when Drown fails to make an appearance. Meanwhile, Nissa, Worldwaker and Garruk, Caller of Beasts offer you resilient threats that survive both, which is why they’re so valuable to resolve in the first place.

I hope I’ve given you guys food for thought. Wish me luck at the Pro Tour; my mantle could use some flair!