Winning the Sideboard War

What do Jon Finkel, Control Magic, Boil, and Spectral Shift have in common? Flores explains it all today, as he focuses on one of the critical challenges players will face in the upcoming Constructed season – Winning the Sideboard War.

One of the bitterest pills I ever swallowed came at a Gray Matter $1000 tournament at the Clarion Suites in Philadelphia back in ’96 or ’97. If memory serves, I had won the previous Constructed event there – a Blue Envelope taking I shared with Erik Lauer – and in those younger days actually fancied myself one of the best players in the game. The format of this tournament was Type II, and my weapon of choice was a U/G/W hybrid control deck that I had assembled with input from Worth Wollpert. It was the kind of deck that could do a million things, the kind I would never consider playing today, a hodgepodge of Swords to Plowshares, Disenchant, Control Magic, and Wrath of God for defense, a full complement of countermagic, and four Erhnams and two Phelddagrifs at the four spot, a legitimate house of cards ill strung together with Moss Diamonds, Thawing Glaciers, and Fellwar Stones. I sat across my opponent, Elliot Fertik, and grinned: Elliot was playing a G/R Maro deck with Creeping Mold, and I was pretty sure that he had no chance against my Control Magics, or my deck in general.

Of course we got re-paired.

Some idiot showed up late, and because there was an odd number of participants, letting the pairings move forward as they had been originally set would have given the late guy the benefit of a bye. We shuffled around and I got paired against Mr. Tardy himself, a young magician by the name of Jon Finkel.

In these early days I was acquainted with Jon, but we were not yet good friends and I did not yet know that I was going to spend the next several years as his bitch, losing to him every time we were paired in a tournament, barning him as he achieved more and more Magic notoriety. I should have known, though, from my first Pro Tour, when in testing Jon tore my U/W and Necropotence decks to pieces with his Mountain Yeti deck, this Junior who voluntarily played in the grownup division. When we played at the Clarion Suites, Jon’s sanctioned record against me was an underwhelming 1-0, though that match was in the Top 4 of a two-slot PTQ, where I had only lost one game the entire day to that point. Though I didn’t yet know, I was of course still nervous, especially given the matchup. Jon was playing a U/R Nevinyrral’s Disk/Ghost Ship deck, and had considerable deck advantage against me. It’s not that he had so many more permission spells, but his mana, which was not stretched over three colors as mine was, was better at playing them, and his Disks were trump against my Diamonds and other permanents anyway. Jon took the first game in workmanlike fashion and we shuffled up for the next game.

The second game was a bit frustrating from my end. I didn’t draw any threats and Jon overloaded me with cost efficient answers. He won every counter war with Pyroblast, and his mana was just better anyway. After the game we had this exchange:

“You sided out the Erhnams, didn’t you?”

“Of course, you have…”

“Heh,” Jon interrupted. “I won the Sideboard War.”

“What do you mean?”

“I knew you would side out the Erhnams,” Finkel grinned, turning over a shocking fifteen cards off to the side. “… So I sided out the Control Magics.”

Now Fertik to Finkel in thirty seconds or less is a tough enough break as it is, but that wasn’t the worst of it. I actually won out at 4-1 or 5-1… AND DIDN’T MAKE TOP 8! BDM will tell you that in those days, the Gray Matter tournaments had four divisions; PTQ finalists got two spaces in the Top 8 to go with their Blue Envelopes and travel vouchers, Sealed Deck players placed two representatives, Jon and the other undefeated Standard player at x-0-1 took two more spots, and the last two went to the Type I players (of which there were like three total). So all Stephen Menendian, Ben Kowal, or even Oscar Tan would have to do would be to show up in order to have absurdly positive EV at a Top 8 prize pool of $1000 / the Power Nine. In an era when I posted an X-1 fail to make Top 8 at each end every $1000 Standard, my friend John Shuler ran the gambit with Extended Gun deck through two rounds of Type I before eventually splitting in the Top 4. Sorry Mox Sapphire, but what are you going to do about Savannah Lions and Lightning Bolt in the same deck?

“You Know What’s Crazy?” Asked Chris, Holding Up His Ramosian Sergeant. “I Just Beat The Hell Out Of You With Rebels… And Now I’m Going To Side Them All Out.”

Finkel’s siding out the Control Magics because he knew that I – as a disciple of Erik Lauer – would sideboard out my liability Erhnam Djinns is one example of winning the Sideboard War. Consider Control Magic, a highly relevant spell in the main deck, after boards… If the opponent only has two Phelddagrifs in his deck, Control Magic is poor sanction, and probably doesn’t have any target at all. It’s the same strategy we used with the White deck in Masques Block. We had the best version of Rebels and won every game one… But the opponent, ready for Rebels in either the mirror match or with a Black deck, would come back with Rebel hate, Informers or Massacre or worse. So we sided out all the Rebels and turned into a White Control deck with Story Circle and a slow kill that the opponent’s deck, now geared to beat Rebels, would be incapable of handling.

What say you we update the example a little bit? Consider the modern Mono-Blue Control v. Tooth and Nail matchup in Standard.

Game One can go either way, but inevitability lies with Tooth and Nail. Mono-Blue CAN win: its counters are much cheaper than Tooth and Nail’s threats, it can draw lots of extra cards, and it is far less draw reliant in the early game… However, Tooth and Nail only has to play a single card to win the game, commands a mighty mana engine, and might have access to Boseiju, Who Shelters All. At some point, Mono-Blue either runs out of counters or its counters are invalidated by Tooth’s open mana; if Blue hasn’t won at that point, it wont.

Boseiju, Who Shelters All is essentially the ultimate trump in this matchup because, even if the Mono-Blue player has access to Time Stop – which is really the only card that Mono-Blue can use to “counter” the effects of Boseiju, Time Stop costs six mana.

Tooth and Nail costs a relative five mana (Urza’s Mine, Urza’s Power Plant, Urza’s Tower, Forest, Forest), and with Boseiju in the mix, costs the same six as Time Stop. Six against six? That’s not unlike the four against four of Control Magic against Erhnam Djinn fight itself. These cards cost the same amount of mana, Erhnam Djinn seems pretty impressive on its stats, but the Erhnam player really has to cross his fingers and pray that the opponent doesn’t have Control Magic or he’s kold. You really don’t want to be on the Erhnam Djinn side of the table. In a six against six fight, the Mono-Blue player has a card that CAN handle Boseiju, Who Shelters all (at least once), but a lot of things have to be going for Blue. He has to have gone first. He wants to have accelerated with Wayfarer’s Bauble. His answer gets a lot less good when the opponent has gone first, and is useless if he’s drawn one of his mana acceleration cards.

While it can fall into the “necessary evil” category, Time Stop is really not the card you want to answer Tooth and Nail powered by Boseiju, Who Shelters All.

So when the Mono-Blue deck and Tooth and Nail go to boards, how do they want to side?

It took a while for me to figure it out, but Temporal Adept really is the best card in the matchup. The answer why is simple: it costs three and is active on turn 4. It is even with Tooth and Nail’s best mana draw, and Boseiju, Who Shelters All comes into play tapped. Once you use the Adept once, Tooth and Nail’s baseline strategy is essentially kold because Boseiju no longer has inevitability: Regular Permission Works Now. Mana Leak, Hinder, Condescend are all fine because you get to keep playing lands and Tooth never ramps up its mana engine beyond what you can handle. You get going for a couple of turns and you don’t have to worry about the Urzatron, none of it. Just make sure you don’t get beaten to death by 1GG creatures and you can’t really lose this matchup if you have Adept.

The other card you want is Bribery. Let’s face facts: Temporal Adept is the ultimate trump, it annihilates Tooth’s baseline strategy and never lets up, but sometimes you don’t draw it in time and you can’t really tap 1UU of your 4-5 mana if you want to win. The Tooth deck might just kill you. Especially if you are spending your early game permission on mana accelerators, it’s easy to sneak the five-mana Bribery under the [relative perfect draw / no Boseiju] five mana cost of Tooth and Nail.

Consider what happens when Temporal Adept and Bribery are both available. Strangely enough, it’s when we have the nuts that we are most prone to making strategic errors or missing the fact that the game is in hand. Just because you’ve bounced a land on turn 4 with your Adept doesn’t mean that you should go swimming for 7/10s when you hit five. It’s much more productive to just continue bouncing lands while you advance your mana and the Tooth player starts to discard. I wouldn’t suggest you play Bribery until you have maybe seven mana minimum, so that you can cover with at least a Mana Leak, just in case he has some trick up his sleeve. While you can reliably keep the opponent to four lands, spending all your mana on Temporal Adept can still allow him to play Sakura-Tribe Elder, Vine Trellis, or a Talisman… While not the UrzaTron or Boseiju, eking out little mana can give the opponent some oomph past your constant stream of Boomerangs… The last thing you want is to have the other guy playing something like Mindslaver. Sure, you can probably contain it, but then you’re no longer bouncing lands. If you give him a window, he might just walk through it.

With Temporal Adept and Bribery working in tandem (and whatever Time Stops, Duplicants, and whatnot you want to consider) Mono-Blue becomes a nightmare for Tooth and Nail. All of a sudden the cards that were only pretty good, that required some crossed fingers to stay online in game one, behave according to normal mana rules. As in the days of long forgotten Counterspell, reasonably costed permission – GASP – trumps the nine-mana sorcery.

Now under Standard Operating Procedure, mono-Green Tooth and Nail is pretty much kold. It’s never going to get to its namesake against Temporal Adept, and because Boseiju comes into play tapped, it loses its inevitability… but that doesn’t mean that Tooth and Nail is completely incapable of winning the sideboard war.

Just last week, in the forums, a player suggested siding in Troll Ascetic. Troll Ascetic is easy to stick because the Mono-Blue deck is optimally going to tap for Temporal Adept on turn three, and even if he counters on turn 4, at least he’s not using the Adept’s ability. In a straight-up fight, Troll Ascetic is quite awesome against Mono-Blue. At some point, Meloku can block it, but Mono-Blue has something like one copy; Bribery will generally step up as the trump card of choice; after all, your Troll Ascetic might race my Temporal Adept, but there ain’t no way he’s beating my Adept AND my 11/11.

Is there?

“Heh,” Jon Interrupted. “I Won The Sideboard War.”

“What Do You Mean?”

“I Knew You Would Side Out The Ernhams,” Finkel Grinned, Turning Over A Shocking Fifteen Cards Off To The Side. “… So I Sided Out The Control Magics.”

Jon Becker brought something really interesting up to me on the phone last week. What If The Tooth And Nail Player Sides Out The Darksteel Colossus?

It seemed pretty antithetical to the baseline strategy of the deck to me, more or less giving up, but after I thought about it for a while, I figured him to be right. It’s not like Tooth and Nail has much of a prayer with the baseline strategy if Mono-Blue gets its cards online anyway. Maybe it IS right to go aggro with the hard-to-handle Troll Ascetic. Maybe Tooth and Nail the sorcery gets less impressive without the big guy… But that strategy takes a lot of wind out of a card that is otherwise a de facto win for the Blue mage.

Now a couple of weeks ago, I posted a Tooth and Nail deck that turned out a bit controversial and even spurred a rebuttal article on the Star City Premium side. Despite the fact that my Tooth and Nail deck is a turn slower to actually entwine Tooth and Nail than the more common version, I can’t say that I’d ever personally play the UrzaTron in a tournament… It’s too vulnerable to any kind of disruption under pressure, whereas the Red version often sloughs off Sowing Salt because it can lean back on Kodama’s Reach. Without getting too much into the comparative merits of each deck’s engine specifically, let’s look at it solely in the context of the Mono-Blue matchup over three games:

1 Darksteel Colossus

1 Duplicant

2 Mindslaver

1 Sundering Titan

4 Talisman of Impulse

4 Eternal Witness

2 Kodama’s Reach

4 Reap and Sow

1 Rude Awakening

4 Sakura-Tribe Elder

4 Sylvan Scrying

4 Tooth and Nail

1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker

4 Magma Jet

1 Boseiju, Who Shelters All

4 Cloudpost

13 Forest

4 Mountain

1 Okina Temple to the Grandfathers


1 Platinum Angel

1 Triskelion

1 Mephidross Vampire

2 Kodama’s Reach

4 Tel-Jilad Justice

1 Viridian Shaman

3 Boil

1 Leonin Abunas

1 Boseiju, Who Shelters All

Against Mono-Blue, I would sideboard in Boil and Boseiju for some high end creatures and two Reap and Sow (I am also toying around with the main deck and think I want at least one more Rude Awakening over a Mindslaver). Against configurations with the really slow reactive cards I can’t stand *cough* Rewind *cough*, I’d also side in Kodama’s Reach.

Mono-Blue has one [potential] strategic advantage and two readily available trumps. Its strategic advantage comes from permission, which is trumped by Boseiju… at least as long as you have a sorcery to kill them. This gets a lot easier with a second Rude Awakening, but you can generate a huge mana and even card advantage with the sorceries you DO have remaining, so I don’t think winning should be that difficult with the resources you have at hand, even if you remove the guys with enormous power.

Mono-Blue’s most important trump is Temporal Adept, for reasons we have outlined above. The unique feature of the version I posted, which is unavailable to an UrzaTron deck that has to dedicate so many of its land slots to the mana engine that it sometimes has difficulty generating the first Green, is main deck Magma Jet. Unlike a straight Green Tooth and Nail deck, which may have a slightly faster – albeit also much more disruption vulnerable – core engine, Red Tooth can play four Mountains and actually utilize the second color of its Talismans.

Look at those mana costs: Temporal Adept costs 1UU and UUU to use; Magma Jet, a card that you can use to break Boseiju (or find Boseiju, or shuffle away a second Boseiju) just kills the Temporal Adept outright. It can kill the Adept the turn it comes down or it can kill the Adept the first time she starts to work her foul Magics. One bomb down.

The other bomb, Bribery, we can address by removing Darksteel Colossus and probably Sundering Titan. The issue at hand, more than making Bribery a five-mana Eternal Witness or some such (which might still be reasonably good, even if it isn’t a self-contained victory as intended), is that this bomb, designed to pre-empt a nine-mana Tooth and Nail, is a five mana sorcery that leave the blue deck itself exposed. Which is faster, Bribery in Blue or Boil in Green? Given the ability to lead Boseiju into Sakura-Tribe Elder into any land drop, Boil can actually play peer to Temporal Adept’s mana cost in this sideboard war. How good is Temporal Adept without UUU to activate? Which strategy is trump now? Is Adept even good enough against basic Mountain?

Now I know Mono-Blue players are going to come out with all sorts of shaking fists and objections; they know these cards are in the environment, are prepared to beat Boseijus, Boils, and other foils… But are they ready to do so in the context of this match, this Sideboard War?

Are Mono-Blue players capable of beating Boseiju, Who Shelters All? We spent several paragraphs talking about how Temporal Adept could do so in a Mono-Green matchup… But overall? I am a bit skeptical. Adept becomes clunky against, say, a RED Deck with Boseiju, or even a Black deck with Echoing Decay or Terror, for exactly the reasons we talked about regarding Magma Jet, but worse. This idea was one I caught in I believe Chad Ellis forum, and is a perfectly good example of a trump strategy that the average Mono-Blue player probably can’t side to beat but in all likelihood never considered.

Is a Mono-Blue deck capable of beating Boil? The answer is clearly yes… Under certain conditions. Spectral Shift is the most commonly cited response card, and it is a bear for a deck incapable of interacting the other direction. This presupposes a lot. Will the Mono-Blue deck never play Thirst for Knowledge until turn 5? Will he play Gifts Ungiven or Inspiration before turn 6? In my experience, the Blue mage often has to run these cards just to keep his mana flowing. Against Red’s Molten Rains or even the remaining two Reap and Sows out of the Tooth deck (especially coupled with Boseiju), just keeping minimal operating mana can be a challenge. Moreover, Tooth and Nail has one great big advantage over the Red Deck in this comparison: It Always Wins If The Blue Deck Doesn’t Do Anything.

I’ve played my version of Mono-Blue against numerous Red Decks in tournament settings and have dropped a total of one game, to, yes, getting all my lands blown up. The average Standard Red Deck is incapable of producing threats at a rapid enough clip to overwhelm the Blue deck’s permission and cheap bounce, and at some point, the Red Deck is either tapping out in a position to hand its best creature over is just kold.

On the other hand, you have the Tooth deck. If all it does is Reach out lands and muck around with its Sylvan Scryings, the Tooth deck is going to produce a board position where the Blue deck has to answer a string of threats with a six-mana permission spell if he wants to stay in the game in very short order. Accumulating a little damage with 1/1 or 2/1 guys that fall under the radar is just going to happen, no two ways about it, and the Blue deck can’t answer all the early game mana accelerations one after another for obvious reasons. If the Blue deck doesn’t get proactive, it can’t win this matchup… There is no way for it to even stay in the game against Tooth’s basic cards. What does that mean? There’s no “piggyback your Stone Rain to Condescend into my next two land drops” or “sit back and Mana Leak your Arc-Slogger” here: The Blue deck has to actually expose itself in the early game, Or It’s Just Going To Lose Anyway. One Kodama’s Reach resolves and every Mana Leak and Condescend in the Blue deck falls offline even if Tooth doesn’t have the Boseiju.

And anyway, unless your Blue opponent is reading this Premium article right now, the likelihood that he brings in Spectral Shift against a Cloudpost Tooth and Nail deck, or even has a clue as to what is going on, is also pretty remote. You’ll probably just kold him anyway.

“All right Mike, I need to know how to beat Long.”

“Accelerated Blue is a bad matchup, Bob.”

“I know.”

“I think you have to go Negator early and get lucky. Mulligan to Negator maybe.”

“I know that part. How do I sideboard?”

“You bring in the extra Negators, the Processor…”

“I don’t have those. Among these cards, what do I bring in?”

“Extra land maybe? Is that really Dragon Mask?”

“I think so. Why is there Dragon Mask in my deck?”

“Oddly enough, to protect against Treachery.”

“Does that mean I side it in?”

“You’re the Pro Tour champ. What do you think?”

“I think I’m not going to make Top 8.”

Winning the Sideboard War is a complicated dance between trumps, concerns who has the best card to beat the opponent’s strategy… but is largely about mana costs. From Tooth and Nail’s corner, it’s about stopping the Blue opponent from hitting his fundamental turn. In that matchup, Mono-Blue’s fundamental turn is 3.5, which means as the Tooth player, you had better have answers available on turns 1-3 or you’re never going to hit your own golden turns 5-7. Moreover, winning goes hand-in-hand with information, influencing how you side with what you have and how well you build your sideboard in anticipation of the other player’s tools. Mono-Blue was a lot harder to beat eight months ago, even with Ravager in the mix, just because people didn’t expect it, and those that were aware of it might not have been cognizant of trumps like Temporal Adept.

I beat a G/B deck last fall with an Echoing Truth and some Stalking Stones. He had what I’m sure he considered Inevitability with Boseiju + Death Cloud, but didn’t know I was siding in that annoying Wizard. Come Game Two, Echoing Decay was uselessly sitting in his sideboard, so when I eventually had two Temporal Adepts going, they became quite a problem. I guess the first one was enough of a problem, but those little gals would have been much less impressive had he known what was about to happen so he wouldn’t blatantly lose the Sideboard War.

These principles carry between essentially every interactive matchup. Say your White Weenie deck is strong against big decks but scoops to the card Arc-Slogger (i.e. the best creature in Standard). Maybe you bring in Damping Matrix. Uh oh. That’s Splash Damage on my Oblivion Stone, too! How am I ever going to stop your weenie hoard, Sacred Ground, and Circle of Protection: Red now? What if Red sides Culling Scales instead? Uh oh. I literally scoop to that card. It’s going to eat every Bonesplitter, Lantern Kami, and Hound of Konda in my deck up in a chain of violence that leaves even Auriok Champion, my most Glorious of Anthems, and, yes, intended trump Damping Matrix a pile of refuse I like to call “the graveyard.” Damn your spot removal, Red Deck! I cut Terashi’s Grasp for this stupid Damping Matrix. Maybe if I play out all my weenies to slow down the Scales…

And so it goes.