One of the most undervalued aspects of competitive Magic is sideboarding. Too often, players agonize over each card choice for their main decks, losing sleep over that sixtieth card, but give little thought to the contents of their sideboards until moments before a tournament. For the record, I’ve been that guy, though I’m not proud of it. Yet, in a time of events frequently featuring a very small number of different archetypes, often played by players with very small skill gaps, the smallest detail can be crucial.
The thing about your sideboard and how you use it is that it’s not merely a small detail; it’s a major factor in determining tournament success. Somewhere between 50% and 66% of your games are played after sideboarding. In those games, you have the ability to change the contents of your deck by up to 25%. If determining what your sixtieth card in your main deck should be is a big deal, determining what should be in your sideboard is of monumental importance.
- 4 Huntmaster of the Fells
- 3 Olivia Voldaren
- 4 Thragtusk
- 2 Garruk, Primal Hunter
- 4 Farseek
- And exactly 25 lands
Four of them used Vampire Nighthawks, and all of those ran exactly two. Clearly, players are paying attention to the content of each other’s main decks and what seems to be working. Yet, their sideboards varied wildly. Twenty-three different cards can be found in those five sideboards. The only things all five sideboards had in common were that they each had at least one Duress and that they had at least one Tragic Slip. There were fourteen different cards that only showed up in exactly one of the five sideboards.
- Players are prioritizing the acquisition of cards for the main decks and the building of the main decks and just throwing together the sideboards as afterthoughts.
- Players believe the main decks are good for a generic metagame, and they keep changing the sideboards in preparation for what they believe are likely to be the popular decks for a given tournament.
- Players are willing to take more creative risks with sideboards than with main decks because they are afraid of being ridiculed for going rogue with the build of their main deck but not the sideboard.
- The articles and other places they’re finding their decklists don’t really cover sideboards.
- It’s easier to test a main deck and come to a consensus for the build of a main deck than it is to do so for a sideboard.
It’s most likely is a combination of factors, and the problem just snowballs—when people look at decklists that did well at tournaments, there isn’t a consensus to work from for future events. This suggests that while players can rely heavily on the Internet as a source for good main-deck builds to choose from when going to a tournament, they may be largely on their own when figuring out what the best builds for their sideboards are. So, while players are constantly being bombarded with the principles and thought processes needed for building a good deck, they might be better off focusing on what the principles of building a good sideboard are.
Ideally, building a good sideboard and figuring out how best to use it go hand in hand. A key part of determining what to put in your sideboard should be your sideboard plan. First, you need information:
- What decks are popular? What decks do you expect to run into at that particular event?
- What decks are difficult matchups for yours?
- What decks are easy matchups for yours?
- What cards in your deck are weak in each matchup?
Once you determine the answers to these questions, you’re ready to start deciding what the contents of your sideboard should be.
In most cases, however, one of the qualities you should be looking for in a sideboard card is versatility. A good sideboard card is useful in several matchups. If there is only one minor deck in the metagame that uses artifacts, a card like Shatter is too narrow and would be taking up valuable space in your board that could be better used. A card like Abrupt Decay, however, might help against the artifacts you’re worried about but still be good in other matchups because of its ability to deal with creatures.
On the one hand, you’re looking for cards that you would bring in a large number of matchups; on the other hand, if you find yourself bringing it in every game, perhaps you should be finding a spot for it in your maindeck.
The silver-bullet method is usually best in a wide-open metagame where your deck is pretty good against everything and you just want to be able to tweak it slightly for each matchup. There are times when the silver-bullet approach isn’t the right way to build your sideboard, however.
If, for some reason, there is a Game 3, you have the advantage. How should the opponent sideboard? If he or she takes out the graveyard hate and you switch back or even go with a hybrid approach, he or she might just be clobbered. If he or she doesn’t take out the graveyard hate, he or she might end up with the same problem from Game 2. Yet, your choices are much safer, as even if the opponent ends up correctly guessing your Game 3 approach, you at least won’t have any dead cards, and you could easily win before the opponent draws any of his or her sideboard cards.
The other time when it makes sense to have a targeted sideboard is when there is a single deck type that’s dominating the metagame. Often in those cases, if you can build your sideboard to crush that matchup, you can roll through the field.
The most important thing to keep in mind is the importance of your sideboard. Building and using your sideboard well can easily be the difference between an early exit from an event or riding to the finals. While you may be one of many people of your skill level playing a particular deck type in an event, your sideboard is your edge and can be what sets you apart from the rest.