The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Sideboarding For Fun And Profit

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Friday, November 13th – Conventional wisdom dictates that your performance in sideboarded games is twice as important as your performance in the pre-sideboard variety. Even so, practicing with your sideboard is often overlooked. Today, Brian Kibler shows us why we should pay special attention to games 2 and 3, and presents some handy tips to make the most of our precious fifteen…

While playtesting in Austin one night, a bunch of our group got caught up in a long discussion about the importance of sideboarding. Specifically, we were discussing the relative importance of sideboarded games to pre-sideboarded games. The assertion at hand was that in a typical two-out-of-three match, your performance in sideboarded games is in fact twice as important as your performance in pre-sideboarded games.

This conclusion may not seem immediately obvious, since it is always true that you play one pre-sideboarded game, but not always the case that you play two sideboarded games… but once you start looking at the issue mathematically, it becomes clear. Say you have a 50% chance to win a pre-sideboarded game and a 50% chance to win each post-sideboarded game. What are your chances of winning the match? The math in this case is very easy — 50% chance to win every game gives you a 50% chance to win the match. But let’s say you have a 100% chance to win each pre-sideboarded game and only a 25% chance to win after sideboarding. What are your chances to win the match?

Well, your chances of winning the first game are 100%, so you obviously win that, but after than drop to 25% in each subsequent game — which gives you only a 43.75% chance of winning the match. And that’s when you are mathematically certain to win game 1! [Math fight in the forums, everyone welcome – Craig, amused.] Obviously these numbers are extreme, but I’m using extreme numbers to illustrate the point. Let’s look at a more likely scenario. Let’s say you’re an even 50% before sideboarding and a 60% favorite after sideboarding. What are your chances to win the match?

The math for that is easy enough, since your 50% chance to win game 1 means that your 60% chance to win each sideboarded game is effectively your chance of winning the match — 60%. If you have a 60% chance to win game 1, though, and 50% to win each sideboarded game, you have a 55% chance to win the match. Continue this comparison with a 70% chance to win each sideboarded game (and a 50% chance to win game 1) and you have a 70% chance to win the match, while with a 70% chance to win game one while a 50% chance to win the sideboarded games, you still have a 60% chance to win the match. If you’re following along, it should be clear that the mathematical impact of increasing your sideboarding win percentage is exactly double the impact of increasing your maindeck win percentage, supporting the argument that sideboarded games are twice as important as pre-sideboarded games.

It is strange, then, that so much attention tends to be paid to maindeck games and so little to sideboarding. There are many reasons people tend to play more pre-sideboarded games, some logical and some less so. The logical reasons include the difficulty of determining how opponents might sideboard in a particular matchup, so the data gained from playtesting sideboarded games is less likely to be representative than data from maindeck games, as well as the desire to test a deck’s manabase or curve. One of the most common illogical reasons people play so many maindeck games is a psychological one. People don’t like being in what feels like a disadvantaged position, so they want to play a deck that wins a high percentage of game 1s. This comes up a lot in testing when people dismiss playing a particular deck that is a clear game 1 dog to a popular deck, often not even exploring sideboarding strategies that could give them a huge edge.

A good example of this is the Tinker deck that Jon Finkel used to win the 2000 World Championships, where he defeated Bob Maher playing the same deck in the finals. The deck had performed well at Canadian Nationals, but many players dismissed its results as a fluke because it had such a bad matchup against Replenish in game 1, and Replenish was expected to be a major part of the field. They were certainly right about the game 1 being terrible — I’d estimate it to be something like 70/30 in favor of Replenish — but that didn’t mean that it was hopeless. I knew that I wanted to play Tinker in Worlds if I could find a way to turn the matchup around, since it was so powerful against the rest of the field, so I explored possible sideboard options and ultimately found the Rising Waters/Mishra’s Helix plan that we used. The sideboard plan was so powerful and so unexpected that the deck’s toughest matchup became positive, and the rest, as they say, was history.

A more recent example is the deck that I used to win Pro Tour: Austin. When we were first discussing the deck theoretically — that is, a Zoo deck that used Baneslayer Angel and Punishing Fire to gain a huge edge against other creature decks and Blue control decks — one of the glaring questions was how it could possibly beat combo. The answer was that it wouldn’t — not in game 1, at least. The combo decks in Extended were so impossibly varied that there wasn’t any really good way to set your deck up against more than one or two of them before sideboarding anyway. Instead, we played a maindeck configuration that dominated other creature decks and Blue decks, and devoted our entire sideboard to hate — and it worked.

Here are some important steps to building an effective sideboard:

Identify Your Difficult Matchups

This is one of the good excuses for playing so many pre-sideboarded games — you need to know where you’re going to need help from your 15 subs on the bench. Perhaps as important as discovering what your bad matchups are is identifying why the matchups are difficult. It doesn’t help to know that Tinker is a big underdog to Replenish if you don’t understand how the games play out, but it does help to know that you’re losing because your mana denial plan is foiled by floating mana to Frantic Search after Tangle Wire or Mishra’s Helix resolve, because that gives you an idea of what you need to look for to solve the problem.

Look For Potential Sideboard Options

And this is where that information from understanding why your bad matchups are bad comes in handy. Frantic Search got you down? Rising Waters keeps those lands from untapping so that’s no longer a problem. Losing to a specific trump card like Cruel Ultimatum? Maybe Thought Hemorrhage is what you need. It’s important to understand how the actual matchups play out to choose the best sideboard options rather than just a collection of “sideboard cards.”

It’s not as bad as the old days when you’d see White decks with three of each Circle of Protection in their sideboard, but I very often see sideboards with cards that just seem to be hedging the deck’s bets against certain classes of permanents rather than filling a specific role in a particular matchup. While wanting to have some answer to every permanent type is understandable, particularly in an open metagame, is it really a good use of valuable sideboard space to play 4 Kor Sanctifiers? Collections of color hosers and Disenchant-type effects typically point to a sideboard that isn’t terribly well thought out or tuned. That doesn’t mean that sometimes a card like Celestial Purge isn’t the best option, but it’s important to realize that it isn’t always the right choice.

Identify Underperforming Cards

What you take out of your deck is often as important as what you bring in. Sometimes cutting cards is easy — you probably don’t want Path to Exile and Day of Judgment against a creatureless deck, for instance. But sometimes underperforming cards are less obvious. When playtesting for my quarterfinal matchup against Hypergenesis in Austin, Ben Rubin and I realized that Tarmogoyf just wasn’t cutting it as a threat. Since I removed most of the burn and the Hypergenesis deck didn’t really put cards in the graveyard until it was going off, my Tarmogoyfs were usually too small to provide a meaningful clock. Cutting the most powerful two-drop in the game is something that most people probably won’t realize is correct without actually playing sideboarded games.

Consider Your Opponent’s Sideboard

It’s important to take into account what cards your opponent might sideboard, both in terms of how that impacts your own sideboard choices as well as what you take out. At U.S. Nationals this year, all of the most successful Five-Color Control decks had Ajani Vengeant. While Ajani was a powerful card in its own right, a big part of the draw of the planeswalker was the fact that it provided an answer to Great Sable Stag that could stay in play and remain a threat after dealing with the Great Green Hope. If you’re playing a deck with few victory conditions, you’ll probably want to have a backup plan for when you face the inevitable Thought Hemorrhages out of Jund.

A big part of a successful sideboard plan is being a step ahead of your opponent. In Austin, we knew that Hypergenesis decks were going to be ready for cards like Chalice of the Void and Ethersworn Canonist with Ingot Chewer or Venser. As a result, we went with Ghost Quarter, Meddling Mage, and Blood Moon as our plan, which gave us a lot more game against them. Come Worlds and the PTQ season, Hypergenesis decks will probably have some number of basic lands to make that plan less effective, so staying a step ahead means finding another angle of attack.

Pay Attention To Your Mana

Playing in the Lorwyn Block season last summer, I ran the same Doran deck in a half dozen PTQs. As the format shifted further toward Five-Color Control, I found myself looking for ways to adapt. The best sideboarding strategy I found was to shift away from a midrange aggressive deck and fight them with big spells of my own — bringing in my Cloudthreshers, Puppeteer Cliques, and Lilana Vess to play an attrition game and diversify my threats against Runed Halo. The strategy was actually very effective when it came together, but was ultimately flawed because my deck wasn’t set up to play that many expensive spells with only 24 lands. I’d end up with draws of three land, Cloudthresher, Profane Command, Puppeteer Clique, and Chameleon Colossus, which I couldn’t afford to mulligan, and I’d just stall on mana and not be able to play out my big spells. This is an extreme example, but the same concept applies to sideboarding in general — be sure that your curve doesn’t completely fall apart when you sideboard. Similarly, make sure your colored mana works for the cards you’re sideboarding in. I see Jund decks with 4 Goblin Ruinblasters in their sideboard that skimp on Red mana, presumably because they only pay attention to their mana requirements in game 1 because that’s all they play. You’re not going to succeed at mana screwing your opponent when you’re sitting there with only a single Red mana and a pair of Ruinblasters in your hand on turn 4.

Use Your Sideboard Space Wisely

Having ten cards in your sideboard for a tough matchup doesn’t make sense if you only have four cards you want to take out. This is the sort of thing that you’d see all the time back in the days of Affinity or Goblins. Sure, you can pack your entire sideboard with anti-artifact cards or CoP: Red plus Chill and the like, but is it really worth using extra slots on cards that are only marginal upgrades to what is already in your maindeck? Even today I still sometimes see white decks with 4 Celestial Purge and 4 Devout Lightcaster in their sideboard. Okay, I get it — you really want to beat Jund (or maybe Vampires!), but unless you have some serious dead weight in your deck, it’s unlikely that all eight of those cards are giving you the most value you could get from your sideboard slots.

That’s what you really want to be looking for from your sideboard — not just cards that help you win specific matchups, but the cards that overall give you the highest overall winning percentage against the expected field at the tournament. If there’s a particular matchup that makes up a very small percentage of the field and your deck has a terrible matchup against it in the first game, it’s probably not worth devoting ten sideboard slots just to bring it up to even. Sideboard slots are at a premium — don’t go overboard against decks you’re not likely to face just out of fear that you run into them, and don’t feel compelled to sideboard against matchups where you don’t need the help. What was our sideboard plan against Zoo in Austin? Present the exact same deck we played in game 1. We could have sideboarded Kitchen Finks or Loxodon Hierarch or Jitte or any number of other cards to improve the matchup, but we recognized that we didn’t need any additional edge and used our sideboard slots for other matchups where they would give us the most value.

Overall, the moral of this story is that your sideboard is an incredibly powerful tool, and one that doesn’t get nearly the respect and attention it deserves. The next time you’re testing for a tournament, take a break from the endless pre-sideboarded games and try putting your bench to the test. You’ll be glad you did.

Until next time…