ow much thought do you put into your sideboard? You know, that set of (up to) fifteen cards off to the—ahem—side of your starting sixty? You take some out of your deck proper and add some in from that extra stack between games. How much thought do you put into what fifteen cards you choose, and what configuration you come up with for Game 2 and Game 3? What comes in, but also what goes out?
Spectral Shift | Art by John Avon
Sideboarding is one of the most important skills you can develop to improve your chances of winning tournament-Magic matches. For one thing, sideboarded games are more numerous—and more important—than Game 1s. Really! Sure, you play a Game 1 every match... but except in relatively rare circumstances, you also play a Game 2. If you 0–2 or 2–0 every single match, sideboarded Game 2s are "merely" exactly equally important to Game 1s. But because many matches go to three games, that means that over the course of a career (or even just over the course of a single tournament) you will play many more sideboarded games than Game 1s.
Don't you think that you should put some method and mindfulness into these multitudinous, meaningful, even monumental contests?
This article will go over several strategies, tactics, and patterns of sideboards and sideboarding... as well as revisiting some of Magic's great sideboards as illustrations. No one article can cover every single sideboarding system and strategy, so we are going to leave the best for last this time; "last" being "next week" in this case; and "best" being somewhat debatable... but most-assuredly exciting.
What are we trying to accomplish?
Most sideboarding; most good sideboarding, anyway, is ultimately moving toward a single objective: speed.
Either you are figuring a way to make your deck win faster, or you are figuring a way to slow down the opponent's deck, presumably so that you can delay his or her victory until after you have pocketed the dubya. All your decisions can therefore be examined through that lens of speed. You will see common strategies like "bringing in more (fast) creature-kill for beatdown decks..." that is, at least in part, because killing the opponent's creatures slows down his or her offense. Bringing in a tonnage of creature removal—in some cases more removal than the opponent has threats—can hang a gigantic anchor around the opponent's neck; when were you planning to win, exactly? Because as long as you tax those threats, you can delay an opposing victory. This applies to the other sorts of permanents (and their commensurate sideboard cards) in the same way... Ancient Grudge for artifacts, Scavenging Ooze for Unburial Rites, and so on.
Sometimes you will want to bring in cards that dominate an opponent's strategy (dredge is going to have to jump through some hoops to beat your turn-zero Leyline of the Void), and other times you will try to find new routes to card advantage (Staff of Nin may be too slow for main deck, but just perfect for grinding out a Sphinx's Revelation player). Sometimes you bring in seemingly low-powered cards to make it tough for your opponent to play (Spreading Seas against Jund) or assets that make it easier for you to play (like any time you side in a land). Sometimes you bring in sideboard cards just to fight the opponent's sideboard cards. When we do things right, these decisions relate to the speed of a matchup, moving a turn in one direction or another for one player or the other.
We will touch on lots of these ideas and more today. Hopefully, you will be able to come away from this primer on sideboarding invigorated, and with new ideas on how to build or otherwise utilize your sideboard resources in future.
Irrespective of what you actually put into your sideboard and how you want to utilize those cards, there are a handful of rules to sideboarding that you should keep in mind; but the most important of these, that I think bears some reflection before we proceed is this: Never make their cards good.
Never Make Their Cards Good
Often, their cards are good. They start out good. You can't really help that. Just as you strive to play good cards in your deck, the opponent will do the same. You have Champion of the Parish starting? Well your opponent has Tragic Slip. From Tragic Slip's perspective, Champion of the Parish is like peanut butter to its chocolate. They were made for each other. On the first turn there is little you would rather see in your hand against a Champion of the Parish opening than a Tragic Slip. Sometimes you want to give the opponent the opportunity to spend some mana in hopes of acquiring +1/+1 counters before you make the Champion slip on the old banana peel in response. Champion of the Parish is often accompanied by Cartel Aristocrat, so even after it levels up a few times, Tragic Slip is still relevant. -13/-13 for you! "Morbid" you! Peanut butter and chocolate. When you play Champion of the Parishyou can't help it that the opponent's Tragic Slips will be relevant.
But what you can do is to keep from making the opponent's cards useful.
During the Championship Season of Mirrodin/Kamigawa Block Standard, a common strategy for Red Decks was to tap four mana against Mono-Blue Control decks and blow up all the Islands. Blue Control decks of the era had numerous permission spells to fight a sometimes-clunky four-mana spell, but getting all your Islands blown up is pretty harsh... so they would sometimes sideboard just against sideboard cards by adding an over-the-top answer in Spectral Shift.
Spectral Shift could turn the tables on the Red Deck player's Boil. "Island" would become "Mountain" and that would not go the way the red mage wanted at all! In fact, the red mage's own battlefield would be erased rather than the hated blue mage's.
The most powerful threat a Red Deck player could present at the time, offensively, was Arc-Slogger. Although five mana—and therefore a bit pricey—Red mages would but rarely lose the game if they could untap with an Arc-Slogger. Among other things, even if the 4/5 never attacked, it was usually good for something like 10 damage straight to the face. Blue players knew this, so would consistently bring in Bribery to steal the opponent's Arc-Slogger, often preemptively. And anyway, Arc-Slogger was at no advantage against cards like Mana Leak or Hinder; just look at their upper-rights.
So if a default blue sideboarding strategy was to bring in Spectral Shift and Bribery in an already permission-rich shell... what was the "correct" Red game?
For one thing, you would never, ever want to put yourself in a spot where all your Mountains were being blown up. You can make an argument for playing with one Boil, play with the top card of your sideboard face-up, juke the opponent into bringing in his or her Spectral Shifts (that had no text) but not risk bringing the Boil in yourself. You could certainly make that argument.
But the other issue was that Arc-Slogger was more than a mite dicey against Blue. Not only did blue mages have permission but also Vedalken Shackles—which was faster than Arc-Slogger's five mana—and a Bribed Arc-Slogger was just going to kill the red mage (5 being outside reasonable burn toughness).
They just had so many cards that were so good against Red Decks.
Josh Ravitz's sideboard from the US National Championships Top 8 exemplifies the concept of never making the opponent's cards good.
2005 U.S. Nationals Top 8
Not only did he make cards like Spectral Shift useless (no target), he made Bribery useless . Josh's deck only had the eight creatures—Arc-Slogger and Solemn Simulacrum—and he took all eight out for a mix of more big sorceries and Boseiju, Who Shelters All.
A post-sideboarded Red configuration could fuel Pulse of the Forge with Boseiju, Who Shelters All... and not only would it ensure the resolution of that burn spell, but with a little life management, guarantee a re-buy. Blue decks with largely 1/X and 2/X threats could not punish the Red Deck's semi-suicidal life loss, at least not most of the time. Josh's post-sideboarded deck was full of nothing but big burn spells, all of which would resolve. The opponent could leave up—and waste—Spectral Shift mana for a four-mana bomb that was nowhere to be seen. He or she might tap five for Bribery only to find... nothing. No target whatsoever. Not even a 2/2 for four. Vedalken Shackles, usually a table-snapping hammer... would similarly have nothing to do.
Not only did this strategy blunt usually effective sideboard cards like Bribery and Spectral Shift, it made a permission baseline strategy actively bad.
Part of what was important in Josh's sideboard—and what is a huge challenge for sideboarding in general—is not only what to bring in, but what to take out. Josh's plan against Bribery only worked because he had no creatures whatsoever to steal. Other sideboarding plans might not be as specific as that, but you need to know what to take out when you bring something in; otherwise you might actually be weakening your deck, not strengthening it.
A challenge with most sideboarding is to bring in cards that are useful in a matchup, but not necessarily to the detriment of your overall strategy. Put another way, there is a temptation for players to bring in a ton of cards in a matchup that they think are good against a particular opponent... but where they just end up weakening their own paths to victory. One way to avoid such a pitfall is the strategy of the efficiency swap. An intuitive way to illustrate this technique—essentially taking out a card for a better version of that card in-matchup—is to look at Frank Karsten's recent Naya Blitz deck.
When Hall of Famer Frank Karsten burst onto the Standard scene with Blitz in April of this year, he immediately became famous for making it to the elimination rounds of his World Magic Cup Qualifier...with no sideboard at all! Frank sided in fifteen mystery cards every game; sided out the same fifteen. Part of that was just Frank being Frank, but Naya Blitz is a deck with so many pocket synergies—Humans linear off of Champion of the Parish and Mayor of Avabruck; battalion line with Boros Elite, Firefist Striker, and Frontline Medic; the high concentration of creatures required for consistent evolve; and so on—Frank just didn't want to dilute his deck: Boros Charm doesn't evolve Experiment One; Cavern of Souls doesn't cast a Gruul Charm; etc.
He later realized that some matchups, like the mirror, gave rise to opportunities for sideboarding that would almost by definition improve the deck... but that he didn't have to disrupt his plans overmuch to take advantage of them.
Consider Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. Awesome card. Awesome on the play against cantrip-intensive or spell-reliant decks and absolute hell on combo decks in formats like Legacy.
Thoroughly unexciting in the Blitz mirror.
Thoroughly unexciting in the Blitz mirror.
If you are playing forty dudes and the opponent is playing forty dudes... what exactly are you getting out of Thalia but the opportunity to draw two—or even three—underperforming cards, one or more of which will be stuck in your hand?
In the mirror you can painlessly side out three copies of Thalia, Guardian of Thraben for one Nearheath Pilgrim, one Fiend Hunter, and one Boros Reckoner and come out with a thoroughly superior configuration for the fight at hand. You can do more than that, of course, but just making those three upgrades eliminates problems and bolsters key lines. You still have forty creatures so you are not diluting your evolve opportunities. Boros Reckoner is worse with Champion of the Parish but great against the opponent's Champion of the Parish; both Nearheath Pilgrim and Fiend Hunter fill in about as well as Thalia for your Humans synergies while providing much greater impact than the legendary two-drop in almost every situation.
Any time you are taking out something and substituting the better version of that something for a matchup, you are stretching your "efficiency swap" muscles.
... is exactly what it sounds like. You know what the opponent's strategy is and you bring in cards appropriate to that strategy (which may or may not mean interacting with specific cards). For example, Ground Seal is quite good against Reanimator (a strategy/deck), specifically its signature card Unburial Rites, but has no interaction at all with the card Angel of Glory's Rise in Humans Reanimator. You might still bring it in against Humans Reanimator because it slows down one particular line, but you have to be mindful of the opposing hard-cast. Ground Seal is great against the flashback phenom Snapcaster Mage but has little relevant text against general flashback like Think Twice or Desperate Ravings. Ground Seal can make Snapcaster Mage decks clunky and Reanimator decks slow; incidentally, it also cycles you through your deck by one card. It does a fair amount of work in terms of changing the speed of a game without actually ending it.
Remember what we said about good sideboarding having an eye to speed?
What do you see, special, about this sideboard?
Top 32, Pro Tour Venice 2003
Osyp Lebedowicz's Slide deck, winning Venice, is history's darling, but I think Zvi got something right with Rorix Bladewing and Stoic Champion.
You see, here's the thing about Astral Slide. It's pretty powerful. Akroma's Vengeance is a powerful sweep spell. Akroma, Angel of Wrath costs eight mana for a reason. Its big and powerful (and at some point at Venice, ultimately rules-changing). Astral Slide can go big; but even in Block it wasn't biggest.
In a format with Patriarch's Bidding there was little way for the permission-free Astral Slide deck to stop an opponent from cycling a ton and then returning twenty creatures to the battlefield with Patriarch's Bidding. Kill them all? Bidding again; that's what happens when the opponent can fix his or her hand with cycling card after cycling card.
Faced with a Bidding deck in an upcoming feature match a desperate Slide player famously asked Zvi how to win the matchup... to which he responded, "You don't have the cards in your sideboard."
But Zvi did.
Zvi understood speed, even then. He sideboarded Stoic Champion and Rorix Bladewing. Knowing the opponent could go bigger—if given time—Zvi just wanted to be faster. Why bother worrying about how much more position the opponent could brag about come turn six or seven? Why, when Zvi could just kill his opponent?
His strategy was to lay two-drops, buff them, and get in with haste creatures. An opponent who is spending mana cycling or setting up for a future sorcery is just begging to be brained for 6 on turn three. Begging for it. Zvi didn't side in particular cards against Patriarch's Bidding; he didn't have some sort of format-specific Tormod's Crypt, Who Shelters All ... he simply understood the speed of the format (and the opponent's deck) and got there a little faster; he didn't play against the cards, but what the cards all added up to do.
Check out this showstopper by Hall of Famer Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa:
Paulo Vitor Dama da Rosa
Pro Tour–Austin Top 8, Extended
If you don't have a great idea of how this deck works, it's like this:
Now it didn't always go so smoothly. Eventual PT-winner Brian Kibler played Path to Exile, which fights a 20/20 token quite adequately. PVDDR himself played Repeal (an even better one-mana answer to an opposing 20/20 zero-mana token). The format was lousy with cards that cost one that could stop this particular 20/20... but PV thought of that and could preemptively counter with Chalice of the Void for one.
You had to expect that mirror opponents, if they didn't have Chalice of the Void main themselves, would have something similar after sideboarding. Paulo therefore chose sideboard cards that could fight at odd angles; weird casting costs that would create liabilities for the opponent.
Bitterblossom: One of the most terrific threats in Magic history (and a favorite of PV's from his Fae days), here a stream of 1/1 tokens could play Forcefield against a 20/20 or attack Faeries-style from turn three or so. Don't these Dark Depths decks play cards like Engineered Explosives? PV's had it main! Yes! Engineered Explosives can certainly sweep some 1/1 tokens on zero...
Threads of Disloyalty: Wow what an exploitation of a casting cost. Zero, you say? Just wow.
A very nice deck that went a long way to protect its combo from common strategies with the tools to anticipate, counter, and overcome that same arguably best strategy even when the opponent pulled it off instead!
Sideboarding Against Sideboarding
The strategies and tactics above speak largely to siding against the opponent's baseline strategy... making your deck a little more customizably efficient, protecting a combo, or winning even when the other player gets his or hers.
But what should be clear by this point is that decks in sideboarded configurations often play quite differently than they did in Game 1. There are extreme examples (transformations and repositionings) that we will go over... but there is also the simple realization that if the opponent looks different... you might want to, too.
This example is a little bit cheating because Osyp played a pair of Atogs main; but that third Atog in the sideboard was surprisingly strategic and lethal.
Ravager Affinity decks—especially in an era with full-on Disciple of the Vault and Æther Vial—were substantially stronger than almost every other strategy in Mirrodin Block Constructed. That said, if there was one thing Mirrodin Block allowed other decks to do, it was side in a ton of artifact hate. So in came Oxidize! In came Viridian Shaman (even Osyp devoted half his sideboard to Viridian Shaman plus ways to cast it)! In came Electrostatic Bolt, which could kill Myr Enforcer, a reasonably large Arcbound Ravager, and even Disciple of the Vault (which Oxidize et al couldn't).
So you've got a fist full of Shatter, Tel-Jilad Justice, and Annul. All the bases are covered! What's a girl to do? How about kill you with Atog?
Atog was the Arcbound Ravager that refused to die to a Creeping Mold. Only the most negligent Atogs could possibly bite it to Electrostatic Bolt. You assumed as an Atog-Affinity player that the opponents would have all the artifact removal in the world.
...and won, via primary strategy (more-or-less) anyway.
Personally, my favorite sideboarding strategy is repositioning. You start at 12 o'clock; your opponent aims at 12 o'clock. But you are standing at 3 o'clock so your opponent misses. Game on. Game.
Repositioning relies on a macro understanding of Magic's big archetypes and how they interplay. Like, what's the difference between StOmPy, Sped Red, and Suicide Black?
These decks were all contemporaries and could all start on some sort of flawed 2/1 or 2/2 on the first turn. All of them either hurt themselves (Carnophage and Sarcomancy; Jackal Pup and Ancient Tomb) or relied on a life imbalance anyway (Wild Dogs). All of these are aggressive one-drop decks but they all did a little something different.
StOmPy had Rancor and other creature-buff cards. It was offensively fast but not particularly interactive. Sure, you could Giant Growth in response to a Bolt but if you didn't beat a combo deck in a race you weren't going to beat it.
Suicide Black could win on the second turn with a Hatred but had to expose itself to do so. It was the best of the three at racing a combo deck, especially as it would have cards like Duress to break up the opponent's hand (and the speed to win before the opponent could reassemble).
Sped Red could get great tempo draws and would absolutely wipe the floor with Suicide Black... but had different, substantial, problems. It relied on its removal to get through, and its guys were actively bad at creature combat. When forced to interact (rather than forcing the interaction), it was often overpowered.
All these decks, although starting in similar places, interacted in wildly different ways with the other decks of the format. One was a swarm beatdown deck with no way to win outside of attacking; one was a disruptive demi-combo deck; and one was a beatdown/burn deck with a resource-denying sub-theme. Which one(s) would you want to play against if you were a combo deck? Which would you run and hide from?
Winner, Grand Prix Kansas City 1999
Mark Gordon played a straight Red Deck to a victory through the star-studded Top 8 of GPKC '99. His deck was offensively solid with big Fireblasts and Goblin Grenades to finish with big flourishes, as well as Cursed Scroll to compete with other small-creature decks. But this deck, as an offensive deck, was not capable of consistently racing a High Tide combo deck, certainly not on the draw. Gordon didn't even have Wasteland for the opponent's Thawing Glaciers!
But after boards, Gordon could take out his Cursed Scroll (way the heck too slow) and five other candidates (probably Incinerate to start) and bring in four Pyroblasts and four Red Elemental Blasts.
It is simple-minded to reduce this to color-specific sideboarding. He isn't just moving to trade a 'Blast with any old blue card. He is literally rebuilding his archetype. This isn't a Red Deck any more. He has transformed himself into a Suicide Black deck!... that happens to tap Mountains. He is now a tempo/disruption deck. His starting configuration was not fast enough offensively to race High Tide, but adding eight—count 'em, eight—one-mana laser-accurate permission cards allows him to slow down the opponent. Every one he draws is like a free turn. Because he plays Goblin Lackey, he never has to tap mana on his own turn again if he doesn't want to. He hasn't gotten any slower... but he can slow the usually faster opponent long enough to win the race.
Pro Tour Paris Top 8, Standard
Even the greatest Standard deck of all time could improve strategically via sideboarding!
Caw-Blade could remove its permission cards and replace them with board control cards like Baneslayer Angel, Oust, and Ratchet Bomb. This could effectively turn the deck from a cousin of a true control deck to a board-control deck when facing a fast beatdown opponent. If Mana Leak is too slow on the draw what then about Stoic Rebuttal and Deprive?
Oust, on the other hand, could slow down even the fastest first turns on the other side of the table, buying Caw-Blade precious time to set up and take control with Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Sword of Feast and Famine.
A beatdown deck of the era might salivate at the idea of fighting a UW permission deck that had to draw the right colors in the right order... but what about a removal deck that topped up on Baneslayer Angel?
Twelve o'clock? Meet three o'clock.
Surprise! sideboards put many of these elements together. You make the opponent's cards bad. You anticipate the opponent's sideboarded configuration and present a deck that you don't think he or she can beat. Your opponent's got all the wrong answers, but baby, have you got threats.
Surprise! sideboards tend to create the splashiest swings in win percentage... at least as long as they remain surprising. On balance, they tend to require tons of sideboard space, so they can cost you flexibility, especially if you have to play a third game.
Pro Tour Chicago, 1997
Perhaps the greatest and most famous of the Surprise! sideboards was Jon Finkel's Prison deck from 1997, Jon's first PT Top 8. He played a deck that was overwhelmingly artifacts and enchantments. He would play a progressive game of Diamonds into Icys, slowing the opponent down with Winter Orb (but being able to operate himself via those Diamonds). Icy Manipulator + Icy Manipulator + Winter Orb was a long-term lock. Jon could tap whatever the opponent untapped, tap his own Winter Orb, and untap... while largely paralyzing the opponent's basic ability to play a game of Magic. The other player would be forced to commit land after land just to try to keep his or her head above water but then... Bam! Armageddon!
Losing to Jon's deck would take...forever. Opponents couldn't reach for their sideboards fast enough. All artifacts and enchantments. Lock combo-control deck. Check and check. Wait until you see this stack of Disenchants!
Knowing the opponent would go for artifact and enchantment removal, Jon—Surprise!—switched in his Erhnam Djinns and Wildfire Emissarys. Notice how carefully chosen those creatures were. Not only would he have creatures in his deck in a spot where the opponent likely took out all his or her creature removal for artifact removal... but they were resilient creatures. Both Erhnam Djinn and Wildfire Emissary were outside of Lightning Bolt range. Wildfire Emissary could not be killed with—or even targeted by—a Swords to Plowshares.
The hapless opponent would have more-or-less one line: Hope the greatest player of all time—though not yet—was mana screwed.
When you use the Surprise! strategy, you start with a deck that can lull the opponent into making what should be an obvious change: No creatures? Overload of some other kind of permanent? The opponent almost only has one way to go.
The opponent has all the wrong answers but no way to compete with your actual threats.
...will have to wait for next week.
I hope you liked this overview of various sideboarding strategies and tactics. We promise you'll like—or at least be super excited by—next week even more.
Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."