Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #22: Sideboarding Theory and Choices

A primer on preparing for the big tournament. Sure, it uses the Extended season as a reference, but don’t let that scare ya – there’s plenty of info here for the novice sideboarder!

I was going to do a multi-part article, like Zvi’s groundbreaking”My Fires, Part X.” I know everyone is truly impressed by those. I was going to talk about sideboarding for Extended, including a list of every card I could think of, plus a discussion of when, why and how.

Then I came to my senses. Extended season is nearly over – by the time this is published,* no one will care about the advantages and disadvantages of Coffin Purge vs. Ebony Charm vs. Honorable Passage. So, the series will now be one article on sideboarding. I’ll start with true basic theory, then discuss how to design a sideboard, and the tradeoffs and decisions I make in filling slots.

Let’s start with the most basic facts. Sideboards for Constructed decks, according to the DCI, must be fifteen cards at all times. After game one of each match,** you can swap cards in your deck with cards from your sideboard on a one for one basis. After the match, you put your sideboard cards back in your sideboard, and return your main deck to its original construction.

Also basic: the reason you do this is that sideboard cards are generally good in some matches, but bad in others. The sideboard cards are there to replace maindeck cards that are marginal in some matches. A simple example: If you run maindeck Flametongue Kavus, and your opponent plays a deck with lots of counterspells and no creatures, the Flametongues are not that good. At that point, you pull them out and replace them with Blurred Mongoose (which cannot be countered) or Obliterate.

This is also pretty obvious, but fifteen cards is not a lot. You cannot put every card that would be helpful in every match into a fifteen-card sideboard. You need to choose, and choose carefully. Here’s my step by step plan for building a sideboard:

1) Decide what deck you want to play. Playtest it enough that you will know how it works and – most importantly – what can make it lose.

2) Make a list of the metagame you expect. This list is never perfect, but make the best guesses you can; reading Top 8 decklists and tourney reports helps. Then proxy up those decks (or fire up Apprentice) and playtest against them, without sideboards. You want to get a feel for those decks that can beat your deck, and for those that cannot. You also want to know how they beat your deck – those are the holes you want to plug.

3) For each deck on your metagame list, make a list of those cards that could help your deck in that matchup. Don’t bother with numbers or making decisions at this point, just list cards that could help. If you are playing black, and you are thinking of sideboard cards for Reanimator, you don’t have to choose between Coffin Purge, Ebony Charm, and Rapid Decay – list them all. You are brainstorming here.

4) Now go back and ranks those cards, best to worst. At the very least, note the more useful or preferred ones. For example, Ebony Charm is better than Decompose***, since it is cheaper and an instant – so it can stop a turn 1 Entomb, turn 2 Exhume.

5) A critical step – for each metagame deck on your list, decide what cards you are taking out, and which cards you want to replace them with. In many case, you may have a long list of cards that you want to add, but very few cards you want to take out. That’s what makes this step so critical. If you have only two cards to remove in a particular matchup, it does no good to have eight great cards in your sideboard.

6) Once you have the lists of cards you would sideboard for each expected deck, total the cards on that list. If it is exactly fifteen cards, you are done. If it is something more, then you have to cut. Cutting is difficult, but here are a few tips:

a) The first place to cut is the sideboard cards for decks you already beat. For example, Rock decks beat Sligh pretty handily without a sideboard – so there is no need to devote any sideboard slots to that deck.

b) Look for cards that appear multiple times on your lists. A card that is good against three expected deck types should get the nod over one that is only going to come in against one deck type.

c) Look for cards that have multiple functions. Burnout, which counters blue instants, is not as versatile as Pyroblast… So Pyroblast gets the nod.

d) If you are still having problems, look for slightly inferior cards that can have multiple functions. For example, you might really want Aura Blast in some matchups, but have to settle for Disenchant because it can also kill artifacts like Phyrexian Furnace.

I should also mention the concept of”transformational” sideboards. These are sideboards that completely change the deck. For example, I was throwing a standard gauntlet of decks against something Adrian Sullivan was playtesting – an extended deck concept that that smashed with very fast Spiritmongers, Blastoderms, and the like, while backing them up with a thin mix of counters and the like. It seemed to win pretty regularly game one, but it looked very vulnerable to countermeasures like Hibernation and Perish in games 2 and three. Adrian’s thought on that was to win game one, then sideboard out all the creatures for resets, cycling lifegain, bounce, and Gaea’s Blessing. After sideboard, the deck could not win another game, but it only lost to incredibly bad draws. That was a classic transformation deck – from speed beatdown to complete board control. However, the deck never went anywhere, mainly because almost the entire sideboard was consumed by the transformation, leaving very little room to fit cards that could help in bad matchups.

Lets look at some tradeoffs, now. For a start, lets look at the counter spells that U/r Donate decks (or Star-Spangled Slaughter) could bring in for the mirror match. These include Disrupt, Misdirection, Gainsay, Burnout, Pyroblast, Mana Leak, and Divert. All of these are intended to help you win the counter wars between the decks. None of these are perfect, but Pyroblast is the strongest.

Pyroblast is modal, meaning that you can either use it to counter a blue spell, or let Illusions resolve, put lifegain on the stack, and then use it destroy the Illusions. The advantage there is that, since the Pyroblast is being used to destroy a target blue permanent, it is less likely that the Pyroblast can be retargeted with Misdirection or Divert.

Misdirection is another strong card in that it can change the target of an opponent’s Counterspell. It cannot force the Counterspell to target itself (not a legal target – a spell cannot target itself), but Misdirection can be used to change the target of Counterspell to the Misdirection itself. (Misdirection resolves, Counterspell now targets the Misdirection – which is no longer on the stack – so Counterspell fizzles.) Misdirection can also be free to cast, which is important.

Burnout is more limited, but it is a cheap counter when it applies, and it is a cantrip. One step below that is Disrupt, which is slightly more flexible and a cantrip, but only counters something when the opponent has no mana. Divert and Mana Leak also depend on the opponent having no mana – so they only work early or in control decks that tie up mana, like Orb-Opposition and the like.

Gainsay trails the pack, since it is too expensive and too limited, compared to the other cards available. It was strong in block, but is never played in Extended.

Let’s look at another perennial problem – killing problem enchantments and artifacts. Here the options are, for a white deck: Disenchant, Seal of Cleansing, Aura Blast, Erase, Wax/Wane, Cleanse, Aura of Silence and Dismantling Blow – as well as Aura Shards and Aura Mutation, if you are also playing green, and Purify, Scour, Serenity and so forth if you like odd stuff. The most commonly-played version, right now, is Seal of Cleansing. The Seal is a Disenchant you can play early on, then save until you need it. It is particularly good against Donate, since they cannot play Illusions until it is gone, but has the minor disadvantage that an opponent can bounce or disenchant it before you need it. Traditional Disenchant is more vulnerable to being countered or being hit with discard. Seal is also better in that most of the enchantments and artifacts that need to be killed – besides Illusions – tie up your mana. Stasis, Winter Orb, Opposition, etc., are all generally dropped when you are tapped out, so all are easier to kill with an enchantment already on the table than with a Disenchant in hand.

The other enchantment kill cards are more situational. Aura Blast is a cantrip, but against Donate (if it resolves) the game is already over so the cantrip effect is useless. Aura Blast has the added problem that it cannot kill artifacts. Erase removes the enchantment from the game, but this is only useful against Oath decks – a limited group right now – and it also cannot deal with artifacts. Cleanse and Aura Mutation have the same problem… And since Winter Orb is a very large factor in this metagame, that is a real problem.

Aura of Silence is like Seal of Cleansing, with the added advantage of making all the opponent’s artifacts and enchantments more expensive. In the current metagame, I think it has some real advantages against mana-tight Winter Orb decks like Miracle and Super Gro, and against Pernicious Deed – but the downside is that you need to reliably get 1WW quickly to cast it, and a three-drop is more likely to be countered than a two-drop. Most Three-Deuce and Junk decks don’t have a mana mix that will support WW quickly, so its use is limited at present. This is an excellent example of the tradeoffs involved in choosing sideboard cards – Aura of Silence has real advantages, but also has enough disadvantages to keep it out of most decks.

For green, the Disenchant options are: Emerald Charm, Creeping Mold, Uktabi Orangutan, Woodripper, Elvish or Druid Lyrist and Scavenger Folk. Only Emerald Charm is an instant, and only Creeping Mold has the ability to kill enchantments and artifacts. This is one reason that any green decks that are not based on pure speed (like Stompy) splash another color for removing problems. Junk and 3 Deuce splash white, while Rock splashes black (Pernicious Deed) and Miracle Gro relies on blue and counterspells.

For blue decks, besides just countering the things, the options for dealing with enchantments and artifacts are: Rushing River, Withdraw, Hoodwink, Capsize, Boomerang and Nev’s Disk. Capsize, which is reusable, is best, followed by Rushing River and Nev’s Disk. Hoodwink and Withdraw are both very situational, but do see some play.

For red and black the options for dealing with enchantments are discard, such as Duress and Addle, Nev’s Disk, or a lot of luck. Black and red just cannot handle enchantments – although red is pretty good at handling artifacts. Given the artifacts in the field right now, Overload looks pretty good. Nearly every artifact that sees play right now costs two or less (Tinker decks and Masticore aside.)

One more example: Tight now, I am worried about large creatures, like Spiritmonger in Rock and Mystic Enforcer in the SuperGro and AggroOath decks. I am looking for a way to kill those creatures, to supplement the four Swords to Plowshares in my main deck. Since Spiritmonger is black, Terror and the like doesn’t do it – and since it can regenerate, simple destroy effects do not do it either. Wrath of God is okay, but not targeted. The only options I see are Topple, Exile, and Reprisal. Topple is perfect against Spiritmonger – since it removes it from the game, so Recurring Nightmare does not bring it back, and okay against Miracle Grow, but it is an expensive sorcery for the format. Exile is an instant, but it only works on attacking creatures, and it also costs three. Reprisal is probably what I will sideboard, since creatures cannot regenerate, and since I really don’t care all that much about smaller creatures.

A practical example: I played a G/W variant on Bill Macey’s Samurai Jack last weekend. First I’ll provide the decklist, then a discussion of the sideboard cards. Fair warning, though – the deck is something Brian Kibler might play, not a true powerhouse. Why Kibler? Instead of Cloaking a Dragon and going over, I’m Cloaking shadow dudes and going under, but it is the same concept. The deck has the tools to win against everything, but it can be a fight and bad draws can really hurt in some matchups. My records of 5-2 and 5-3 are pretty much what you can expect from the deck: top 20 or so, but not top 8.

4 each: Brushland, Savannah, Grassland, Wasteland, Call of the Herd, River Boa, Soltari Monk, Soltari Priest, Swords to Plowshares, Wax/Wane, Mother of Runes

3 each: Aura of Silence, Rancor, Armadillo Cloak, 7 Plains, 1 Forest.

Now I’ll list the sideboard I played, the reasons why and what actually happened.

2 Reprisal – See above, but I never used one all day. I drew them twice, but both times it was the turn I won anyway.

1 Mystic Enforcer – probably should have been maindeck, and would have been more if Ingrid hadn’t been playing Super Gro – but we did not have any more, and all the dealers just laughed when I asked. That’s a note on Extended versus Type 2 – I could get any number of duals, even black-bordered duals, at the PTQ, but I could not get Type 2 cards.

1 Armadillo Cloak – Against some decks, the ability to Cloak a dude and race is amazing.

2 Cursed Scroll – Versus decks that stall the ground with Propaganda and the like, this provided an alternative method of victory, as well as a means of killing Meddling Mages and other problem creatures, like opposing shadow dudes. Scroll is also an answer to a late-game Ball Lightning: I expected Sligh to reappear in response to Grow, and it did. The only problem is that Scroll dies to Deed – but that can also be an advantage in that you can force an opponent to Deed it away.

3 Armageddon – This deck runs on very few land. If I can get this to resolve, I am in very good shape. I won the game against a B/U/G deck because I baited enough counters to get Aura of Silence down early, then Geddoned, and he never could play the Pernicious Deed to kill my threats. This is strong against control decks, since it is another must-counter card, but only marginal against Gro and the others.

2 Wrath of God – Not as strong as I had hoped, but they also kill Spiritmonger and hurt Rock’s buildup – and kills Morphling, but that is not quite enough justification. These are very good against decks I don’t expect to see anymore, like Stompy and Cradle Elf. If I play the deck again, Wrath will probably be gone. The only time I sided one in is against a G/B control deck running Haunting Echoes and Spiritmonger – and that only because I was worried about losing the better removal to Haunting Echoes.

1 Cataclysm – This proved very useful; I generally end up with a Rancored or Cloaked shadow creature and a decent land, and I was also often holding extra land in hand. Cataclysm also combined Wrath and ‘Geddon in one slot.

2 Scragnoth – I was worried about Gro, which would bring in both Legacy’s Allure and Submerge against me, and I wanted something that could survive against that combination. Scragnoth is a bit expensive (4G), but he works in theory and playtest. I only faced one Gro deck all day, and never drew him, so I cannot say he worked in practice.

PTQ highlights:

Round 1: I played a Sneak Attack deck running Gamble, Orcish Lumberjack and Tinder Wall for mana, and assorted big creatures. Seven maindeck enchantment kill cards makes this a good matchup for me, and I crushed him. Armadillo Cloak on a Soltari Priest does outrun a turn 3 Weatherseed Treefolk; I just wish I could get more matchups like that. Sneak Attack is a fun deck, but I just don’t think it has a prayer in this environment.

Versus several control decks: I played a couple, one with Pernicious Deed and one without. In both cases, I had more threats and won simply by playing one threat at a time, forcing him to Deed away a threat, then replaying it. Call of the Herd is great in these matchups, as are ‘Geddon and Wasteland when combined with Aura of Silence.

Versus Sligh: I lost the first match; ten Ball Lightnings in three short games is a bit too much to handle. In a later match, my red-wielding opponent scooped turn 5 when he had all 4 of his Jackal Pups in play, and I played a Call of the Herd to accompany my Mother of Runes and River Boa (with regeneration mana available). Game two I played a turn 2 Mother of Runes (and saved it with Wax/Wane) then played three more in the next two turns, while he drew only one burn spell. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Versus Lucas Duchow with SuperGro: I had a decent start, but his was insane. He won because he had Misdirection maindeck and in hand (I knew, thanks to Land Grant), and I could not Plow his attackers. Grow’s god draws are up there with CounterSlivers – and he was lucky. Example: He wins the roll and Land Grants, showing me a no-land hand with a Brainstorm turn 1 and gets a Tropical Island. I have a two Grassland, two Wasteland start, so I Wasteland his only land. He Brainstorms in response, and drops an Island on his turn. I play my slow land, he drops as second Tropical Island and plays Werebear. I try Wasteland, and he Gushes. So – the three cards he drew off Brainstorm were Island, Tropical Island, and Gush. Anything else, and I might have had a chance. As it was, Werebear got big fast and my creatures were never enough. Props to Lucas, though: he was in the final 4 when I headed home, after blowing out Stasis in the round of 8. I believe he wound up winning the whole thing.

That’s enough for now – I spent yesterday at the PTQ – I have work to catch up on.


* – Yes, this article has been under construction for weeks. Work has been intense, so I am having trouble getting these things done. Hopefully that will lessen a bit. The worst part is that I have had almost no time for any playtesting this Extended season. Doing your playtesting at a 32k PTQ is hard on your rating.

** – Except when you do something stupid – like misregistering your deck – and a judge gives you a game loss before game one starts, in which case you cannot sideboard until after game 2. Not that I would ever make that mistake. Again.

*** – If I really wanted to pad this out, I could provide the text for all of these, but all that cutting and pasting sounds like work. Instead, here’s the link for Stephen D’Angelo’s site, and the massive list of cards and rulings: http://www.crystalkeep.com/magic/rules/summaries.html. If you ever need current wording on cards and rulings on those cards, this is the place to go. I use it even more than the Oracle.