Steps To Better Sideboarding

Mark revisits the art of sideboarding with a breakdown that touches on multiple aspects of assessing your sideboard and how you should go about building it.

You’re playing Jund—at least in my head you are.

After winning a rousing game of Rock Lobster, Paper Tiger, and Scissor Lizard, your opponent elects to go first. You pick up your hand and see Overgrown Tomb, Blood Crypt, Rootbound Crag, Tragic Slip, Putrefy, Scavenging Ooze, and Dreadbore. Not bad, right? If they’re on an aggro deck, they’re almost assuredly toast.

They lead off with Hallowed Fountain. No biggie. You draw another Putrefy and pass. Your opponent casually plays a Sunpetal Grove and drops Invisible Stalker onto the table. You scan your hand—uh oh, no way to deal with that creature!

You play your Scavenging Ooze and pass after drawing a Garruk, Primal Hunter. That was totally not the miracled Bonfire of the Damned you were hoping for, was it?

Just don’t have it . . . just don’t have it . . . just do—oh hell.

Their Temple Garden enters the battlefield untapped. You jot down the two damage, but you know where this is going . . .

Ethereal Armor, Ethereal Armor, Rancor. Attack!

Do you have any outs to this? You hope to draw your one Liliana of the Veil.

Nope. Just a Farseek.

After game 1 you reach for your sideboard, start thumbing through it, and think to yourself, “Wow, this matchup isn’t so bad.”

A few months ago I wrote an article called Sideboarding Solutions. Essentially it was a beginner’s guide to how to approach sideboarding, which I feel is one of the more overlooked aspects of Magic. Among some of the tips were experimentation, learning what to take in and out, metagaming, and testing different card choices. All of these things are very applicable, but some of the questions I come across often are:

“How do I sideboard?”

“How do I learn what to take out?”

“Why is sideboarding so easy for some people and really hard for me?”

There are no simple answers, and this requires a breakdown that will touch on multiple aspects of assessing your sideboard and how you should go about building it. These are steps to better sideboarding.

Whenever someone uses the title of their article inside the piece, I have a Peter Griffin moment.

Step 1: The Realization

A member of my streaming community, a young man named Nathan, suggested I talk about constructing a sideboard against an open field. He cited two of his losses at Grand Prix Miami while playing Junk Reanimator were to Peddle to the Metal along with the fact that he had not a single card in his sideboard to help defeat it. We hear that all the time, don’t we? “I had like nothing to bring in against them.” Is that something that we as deckbuilders can avoid?

Well, that answer is probably a resounding “nope.”

Whether you like it or not, it’s impossible to predict a metagame entirely. We can extrapolate from recent Grand Prix, StarCityGames.com Opens, and various Magic Online Daily and Premier Events, but we will never truly be able to devise a sideboard that can guarantee victory against the more obscure part of the field.

Imagine sitting across from your friend the night before a Grand Prix.

You: “Are you putting those Slayer of the Wickeds in your board for Jund?”

Him: “Nah, bro—gotta be ready for the Vampire matchup. Who’s gonna lose to Stromkirk Captain? NOT THIS GUY!”

You: “Yeah . . . I mean . . . ok . . . but it’s not bad against Jund either. It hits their Huntmaster of the Fells, Oliv—”

Him: “I am going to kill SO MANY Bloodthrone Vampires!”

You: ” . . . “

In order to build the most optimal sideboard for an event, one of the hardest realizations to come to is that you cannot prepare for the unexpected because the unexpected is just that. Instead, you need to create something that is diverse, doesn’t suffer from tunnel vision, and shores up the holes in the matchups you’re afraid of while still being strong against the expected field.

Step 2: The Construction

Constructing your sideboard is usually the last thing people do when they settle on a deck, and what’s worse is that instead of trying to identify what they want to beat, they just pull up a list online and copy it card for card, completely negating the fact that whatever tournament that board was created for was an existing metagame that may be infinitely different than what they should expect at their next event.

When I go into a tournament, whether it’s a PTQ, GP, or SCG Open, I always try to create something that is going to be great against the field. Sometimes that fifteen will be similar to what Person X was battling with the week before, but if we come to same conclusions, then it verifies my beliefs on the metagame and validates why I decided to play those cards.

Let’s look at the typical Jund sideboard for a moment:

1 Rakdos’s Return
2 Duress
1-2 Curse of Death’s Hold
2-3 Liliana of the Veil
1-2 Barter in Blood
2 Pillar of Flame
1 Vraska the Unseen / Slaughter Games / Deadbridge Chant
1-2 Golgari Charm
2 Underworld Connections

Depending on if they are in the main or not, Lifebane Zombie has become the new industry standard. Also, sometimes you’ll see things like Thundermaw Hellkite, a fourth Olivia Voldaren, or one to two more hand disruption cards.

Jund is an excellent example of plugging your holes and covering your bases; usually there will be somewhere in the neighborhood of five-to-seven cards that are good against control, several that overlap into other midrange matches, and four-to-six cards that you want to bring in against aggro decks.

Not every other deck out there is so lucky. Let’s look at the typical Junk Reanimator sideboard from about a month ago:

3-4 Acidic Slime (if it wasn’t in the main)
1-2 Obzedat, Ghost Council
1-2 Deathrite Shaman
2-3 Sin Collector
1-2 Abrupt Decay
2-4 Voice of Resurgence
1-2 Sever the Bloodline
1-2 Centaur Healer
1-2 Garruk Relentless

Sometimes you’d see cards like Gaze of Granite, Curse of Death’s Hold, or Rhox Faithmender, but for a while this kind of sideboard is what you could expect at most tournaments. In Nathan’s case, what in the hell was he supposed to do against a Peddler deck? Yes, he could get lucky and maybe Sever the Bloodline an Izzet Staticaster or have multiple Abrupt Decays, but when you’re piloting a deck that kills with creatures, it’s hard to get your feet off the ground when your opponent is playing deathtouching pingers. Were there holes in his sideboard? It’s possible but entirely unlikely that he was packing “hate” for a deck that was long considered dead. His construction was good for the tournament but bad in the face of the unknown.

Is the unknown what we should be preparing for? Probably not.

Your basic sideboard configurations need to be the kinds that cover a wide range of issues. Would Nathan have done better against those Peddler decks if he’d played something like Gaze of Granite in his board? Several other decks adopted that card and saw reasonable success against a large field of aggressive decks, and I’m sure they can attribute that to trying to cover their bases.

Do you think this kind of board would have been stronger against the field that Nathan faced?

2 Gaze of Granite
2 Abrupt Decay
1 Centaur Healer
3 Sin Collector
2 Obzedat, Ghost Council
2 Garruk Relentless
2 Deathrite Shaman
1 Sever the Bloodline

Something like this could have given a lot of reach in multiple matchups, including the off-the-beaten-path Peddler decks that handed him two losses, while still being awesome against Naya Blitz, G/R Aggro, and Bant Hexproof just to name a few decks.

When configuring your board, you want to be smart and not put all your eggs in one basket. If you’re playing a deck that has a tremendous matchup against aggressive decks but is very weak to control decks, you want a sideboard that makes sure you can compete against them in the games 2 and 3 that might happen if you get beaten game 1. Jund is an excellent example about this, and one of the common complaints is that sometimes you draw “the wrong half of your deck.” When playing against a deck like U/W/R Flash, it’s easy to lose game 1 due to drawing a few Tragic Slips, a random Dreadbore, or a Putrefy when all you want are your Garruk, Primal Hunters and Rakdos’s Returns.

After boarding, though, you gain a bevy of disruption that can make that matchup infinitely better for you. A complete sideboard that doesn’t dedicate itself 100% to a certain match but instead makes sure that it can take on a very wide field is paramount to doing well in a tournament.

Step 3: The Understanding

Your sideboard isn’t just fifteen cards—it’s an extension of your maindeck that you must use in order to give you a fighting chance in matchups that your base sixty otherwise wouldn’t let you beat. As my friend Jimmy Bishop put it, it’s about creating the perfect 75, not just the perfect 60.

The best 60 ever created cannot win a tournament unless it has a strong sideboard to support it.

That was deep, wasn’t it?

One of the greatest breakthroughs a player can have is when it starts to click—that you can see the interchangeable parts of your sideboard and know exactly what cards are going to come out and what cards need to come in. How do you do that? Identification and figuring out what cards are role players in what matchups.

Understanding that certain cards play certain parts is important; how often do you see a person quickly pull out several cards from their deck and replace them with fresh sideboard cards before they begin to confidently shuffle while you’re still struggling to figure out what to take out?

There is so much more to it than just having access to cards—it’s about understanding completely how to maximize the advantage you’re gaining from having these cards at your disposal. When that happens and things begin to make sense to you, you’ll be able to achieve the final step.

Step 4: The Genesis

When you’re able to understand what it’s like to construct a proper, well-oiled sideboard, you then have to understand how to use it. I’ve talked before about learning what to take in and take out, but you really have to understand why you’re making these changes.

Do you board in Sin Collector against Jund if you’re playing Junk Aristocrats? You can hit their removal spells, right? Whoops! It’s usually Olivia Voldaren that beats you.

When you’re playing Naya, do you bring in Unflinching Courage? It can help you race, I bet! Are you able to race an 11/11 unblockable creature with lifelink, flying, and first strike? Hmmm . . .

When you’re playing against U/W/R Flash with Jund, how much removal do you board out? What if they just kill you with Restoration Angels while burning out your other threats?

Knowing what to take out and what kind of plan to commit to will give you the edge in plenty of the games that you play.

As someone who battles with Jund frequently, you have to know exactly what kind of touch to use when you start boarding against your opponent. I see people consistently board incorrectly, and it’s something that with a lot of practice becomes easier and easier to fix—you just have to want to.

Playing against Esper, a Jund player can surmise that boarding out cards like Tragic Slip and Putrefy is probably a good idea, but I see them boarding out Dreadbore and then getting killed by an unmolested Jace, Memory Adept. If that Dreadbore rots in your hand the entire game because they don’t play Jace and you easily coast to victory, so what? If they play it and you’re able to deal with it immediately, what else do they have to kill you with? Nephalia Drownyard while you’re still employing threats? Hello and good luck!

My point is that once you get in the groove of what to bring in and bring out on a consistent basis through a great degree of practice, you will find your game elevated significantly.

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The art of sideboarding is so neglected, and I truly believe if people took more time to understand what they are doing that they’d notice dividends in their Magic-playing abilities.

Sideboarding isn’t just about taking cards out that suck in Matchup A for cards that might be good; it’s about putting your knowledge of how your decks works and can function with different components and doing so while still trying to maintain the integrity of your deck’s game plan.

I hope this has helped some of you because I know I would have loved to read something like this when I was trying to learn how to sideboard properly. Sick brags, right? Jedi Jund also had its own Reddit thread this week. In this moment, I am internet famous.

I’ve been receiving a lot—and I mean a lot—of questions about Jedi Jund this week, so make sure to tune in to my stream this week on Monday and Tuesday night at midnight where I’ll continue battling with it and answering all of your questions.

Catch ya on the flip-