The Importance of the Sideboard in Extended

There are many ways to gain an advantage in any given format. The power of the cards in Limited, for example, coupled with the knowledge of how to exploit card synergies. Deck advantage in any given matchup is an example that is paramount in Constructed formats, especially traditional Standard. Josh is here to theorize on the trump card in the current “bloated” Extended environment – the use and abuse of the sideboard.

Having missed my usual Friday article, I had a choice to make. My options for the start of this article included making an apology, making an excuse, or being self-depreciating in a clever way (“to the one guy out there who missed my article last Friday, I’m sorry…” that sort of thing).

Now that you know what my choices were, we can get along with it.

This article is about Extended. While the majority of my articles here at StarCityGames.com have been about Limited, it feels good to talk about Constructed at this particular moment, and the reason is quite simple. You see, I’ve been stuck.

Worlds is looming (I’d say that’s an accurate fit for my mood), and while technically no format is more important than another, this draft format gives me fits. Before Kobe, I was averaging about a 2-1 performance in my practice drafts. However, I went 0-4 at the Pro Tour, and compounding this with poor finishes at all other Limited events using these cards, I’m led to believe that I am not very good at playing with Time Spiral.

So I’ve been drafting. The set has been out for a while on Magic Online (my practice tool of choice), and the 8-4s fire off fairly consistently, though sometimes a little waiting is in order. Now, I don’t know what the deal is, but I tend to see a lot of the same rares and Timeshifted cards in these drafts. I’ve been doing passably in these drafts, but I have indeed been stuck, as I said. It seems that the majority of my decks end up with a Squall Line, a Cockatrice, and several other flyers. Despite being Green I have been in a position to Hurricane my creatures away thanks to the aforementioned Cockatrice and cards like Scryb Ranger, never mind my Green/Blue decks. It is surreal. Squall Line is obviously a very fine card, with the ability to kill opposing flyers and / or your opponent, and Green shouldn’t have flyers to worry about, but not me… so it has been a hellish time drafting in these queues. Extended seems like as good a place as any to take a break, I hope you’ll agree.

Extended was last relevant during the qualifier season for Honolulu, the last premiere event for which was Grand Prix: Charlotte. Nearly a year ago by now, the big winner was clearly Ichorid. A ridiculous deck based on an even more ridiculous mechanic (dredge). Dredge made its debut at the first event in which it was legal, Pro Tour: LA last year. In Extended, combining dredge with Psychatog and cheap ways to draw cards makes filling the graveyard very easy, making killing your opponent a mere formality at that point. This was good. Ichorid is even better, often never drawing a new card: your opening hand, give or take a card or two, is often all you ever need. Make a turn 1 discard outlet (be it Careful Study, Putrid Imp, Tolarian Winds, or Zombie Infestation – with the help of Chrome Mox), and you’re dredging as early and often as you can. Ichorid keeps coming, until finally your opponent loses to the never-ending swarm of 3/1 hasted beaters. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Indeed, three Ichorid decks made Top 8 at the GP in Charlotte, and as predicted, it won the event. Only one set later did the answer to the overpowered dredge mechanic surface: Leyline of the Void, which is essentially a free spell, that any deck can play, which counteracts an opposing dredge-based or graveyard-based (flashback, incarnations, threshold) strategy. Of course, if you aren’t playing Black, you should mulligan until this card is in your opening hand, figure out another way to win, or another way to get it into play.

And now, with Time Spiral’s release, Tormod’s Crypt has been reprinted in classic Timeshifted fashion. A truly colorless card with no casting cost requirements, any deck that wants to can effective remove its opponent’s graveyard from the game. Both harder and easier to play around, each card has its own limitations; however, they both serve a purpose. They are both excellent “hosers” to graveyard strategies.

The Extended format is enormous. Cards from Invasion block and forward are legal, and now with Time Spiral’s “expanded” set size, including, of course, 121 “rare” cards most of which have some Constructed value. To say that the Extended format is a difficult equation to solve would be an understatement. Everyone’s deck is insane. The “fairest” deck is a Boros flavored deck chock-full of Jackal Pups and ridiculously efficient burn spells, up to and including the new, almost uncounterable Sudden Shock. Boros is a good litmus test in Extended; losing to Boros – which does nothing broken, just efficiently (as can be expected in Extended) and consistently – means your deck is probably not going to cut it.

Now, let’s look at the bigger picture. I won’t bother listing all of the possible archetypes… suffice it to say I played against a Mirari’s Wake control deck at PT: LA last year, and have seen stranger since then. Anything you can imagine, anything that has been done in the past with these cards is available, viable, and better than was last time. The Japanese combine and recombine decks to come up with winning strategies, so elements of decks get shuffled and reshuffled around until decks that do so many things (Solitary Confinement Lock, Duress, Therapy, Burning Wish, Life from the Loam and cycling lands, not to mention convenient access to Seismic Assault to make a quick kill if necessary… who else would think of this deck?)

I personally posted an unspectacular 4-2 record at the Extended portion of Worlds last year, playing Astral Slide. Our deck had a full Slide and Rift engine, along with a full compliment of Eternal Witness and all the typical control cards one might expect to see within those colors. The deck was excellent for the tournament and with slightly better luck, as it turns out, I would have easily finished in the Top 8 of that event, based on a solid performance capped by a strong Extended finish. Now I know what you’re thinking, because Astral Slide was Tier 2 when it was legal, until the very end when it won Worlds in a bizarre metagame dominated by a colorless menace (Affinity) that couldn’t deal with all the Green and White cards. I am just trying to illustrate my point about the grandeur of the format, the unpredictability, the power level, and the cards you’ll see, and the cards you’ll play with. It’s limitless.

So what do you do, exactly? Last year’s Worlds event was before the Ichorid Explosion. Deckbuilding constraints were that much less complicated. A few Grand Prix events to feed the tournament, and you almost knew what to expect. I ended up running 3-0 against Tog without losing a game, 0-1 against CAL, in what I think was a bad matchup… though after winning game 1 I thought I could win the match, but losing was probably my fault and not a result of the matchup itself. I beat Affinity, and lost to the mirror. My sideboard was excellent all day. I don’t recall the exact list, but each matchup had a specific and effective plan, allowing me to correct matchups (Kataki against Affinity – talk about effective) or sculpt the tempo of the matchup (like Boil against Psychatog.)

It’s one year later. Two thirds of a block, as well as Time Spiral, have been released, and the cardpool is that much bigger. It isn’t as bloated as it has been in the past, but it’s getting pretty big. We have cards like Smallpox, which have already been abused in Legacy. Now this is a truly Japanese deck, and it looks like a lot of fun. The card interactions are beyond ridiculous, and I wish Worlds was Legacy just so I could play it. That’s what you can do with Smallpox in Legacy, and you’ve already seen what it does in Standard… but in Extended, what will it do? I think one of the best applications for the card is in the aforementioned Ichorid deck. Providing an excellent outlet for discarding a dredge card, sacrificing a reusable resource like Ichorid – or nothing at all (as often will be the case, since you certainly know the Pox is coming). Now you do all of this as early as turn 1 if you want, and it really only helps you because the land you sacrifice is all you lose, whereas your opponent is probably losing on all three fronts.

Making a good deck that much better isn’t even difficult: it’s adding one simple card to an already existent deck. There are a hundreds of cards that haven’t been in Extended for over a year. There are two ways to succeed in such an undefined powerful format. The first is to simply break it. With this many cards and this little info, even with the Magic Online queues and Premiere Events firing off constantly, you could easily have a strategy that trumps all the other strategies. I couldn’t say exactly where you should start looking, but chances are if you haven’t found it by now, you won’t by next Friday either.

Barring a broken revelation or glimpsing someone else’s tech, your best bet is your sideboard, and building your deck to avoid everyone else’s sideboard.

What decks are really good? Well, graveyards are really powerful. With Dredge, Psychatog, Incarnations, Flashback, Eternal Witness, Eternal Dragons, Eternal… Dominion? No, definitely not Eternal Dominion. So, playing a deck based around these is clearly pretty dangerous, but what do you do? Do you play a transformative sideboard? Do you play reactive cards (Chalice of the Void for zero stops Tormod’s Crypt, costs nothing, and is colorless, so any deck can play it.) Do you play a different deck? What are you sideboarding anyway? Who do you want to beat? Who are you willing to lose to? Clearly if you are willing to lose to anyone who copied an outdated decklist and didn’t do their research you probably wouldn’t be reading this article… so, really, who do you want to lose to?

For those of you who gamed at the Grand Prix last year, the Ichorid mirror was awful. Coffin Purges, Composts and whatever else were abundant. Add in now Leyline of the Void and Tormod’s Crypt and you’re starting to get the picture. Consider that if you’re playing Ichorid and expecting Ichorid, maindecking Leylines might not even be that bad. They don’t hurt you and give you a leg up in a tense, hateful matchup that you might not otherwise have. But if everyone starts doing this, perhaps this isn’t the right deck to play.

No matter what deck you choose in Extended – as there is certainly not a shortage of powerful, exciting strategies – you must more than ever be wary of opposing sideboards. If you haven’t figured it out by now – and if that’s the case then I am truly sorry – but this article is more about the importance of sideboarding in Extended. It’s a wide-open, highly powered format. Sideboards will be your best friend and your worst enemy, depending on what you end up with.

There are hosers for all kinds of strategies. Kataki, Tormod’s Crypt, Leyline of the Void, Krosan Grip, Meddling Mage… there’s practically no limit, and it’s a tricky situation to be in, for sure.

To wrap things up, for those who balked at my beginning estimation of Boros’s strength in the format, you can see how a deck like Boros, or Aggro-Rock, would do well in a format full of “hosers.” Decks with resilient efficient consistent strategies are safe… but safe is boring, so you can’t be sure what you’ll see come coverage of Worlds next Friday.

And that’s Extended in a nutshell. In Vintage you have your mulligans, and in Standard you can usually get a pretty big deck advantage… but in Extended, I think sideboards are the most important thing.

My next article will probably have to do with drafting Time Spiral, and then a recap of Worlds, once I have actually played in the event.

Thanks for reading.

Josh Ravitz