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Sideboarding in Limited

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Welcome back to Very Limited. Over the last few weeks, we've had discussions that were mostly related to pick orders and card power level. In an effort to sharpen our big-picture Limited understanding, we'll be taking a look at one of the most overlooked concepts required to becoming a Limited master. Sideboarding well in Limited is a lost art. Most of us read columns that tell us how to sideboard in specific matchups with our Constructed decks. When playing Limited, we know to put cards such as Glare of Heresy or Dark Betrayal in our deck, but we fail to be the sculptor that's able to shift a bad matchup into a good one. Today, we'll be discussing how to optimally sideboard when drafting and when playing Sealed Deck.

Skyreaping
The most important thing we need to recognize when optimizing our Limited sideboard plan is how the opponent is trying to beat us. For example, if we're a mostly-green deck with generally-larger creatures than our opponent’s—whose deck has a healthy amount of flying—creatures with reach and cards that specifically deal with flyers become very strong for us in post-boarded games. We should try writing down the cards that cause us problems so that we can shift our deck to be stronger against those specific cards in the second or third game.

We can go a step further and write down the power and toughness of our opponent's creatures, keeping a tally to recognize the most common power-and-toughness combinations in our opponent's deck. This is the most important information when we make our sideboarding decisions.

How will we use this information to our advantage? Magic is a complex game in which less-than-stellar cards can be very strong against more-than-stellar cards. For example, Cyclops of One-Eyed Pass won't be making our main deck a lot of the time, but if we're facing an opponent with multiple 5/5s or a few Scholar of Athreos, a 5/2 body matches up very nicely against our opponent's plan.

One of the most common things we run into when drafting is the bear deck. We lose games to players who simply play 2/2s and 2/1s for 2 mana while keeping us on the back foot by having a couple pump spells for when we play a creature that trumps his or her endless stream of 2-power dudes. We shouldn't be losing to these people more than a small portion of the time, though. We have two games in which we can force those players to have nearly perfect hands by filling our deck with countless trump cards that force one or two tricks. The vanilla 2/3 for 3 mana may not be as strong as a 2/2 flyer for 3 mana in a vacuum, but it's much stronger in this particular matchup. We can fill our deck with 2/3s for 3, 2/4s for 4, and other fat-assed bodies that stonewall the opponent's plan. It may seem that these aggressive strategies are running us over, but we'll be quite happy to see our opponent enter the second game with reckless abandon when we've shifted our deck accordingly.

Cyclops of One-Eyed Pass
Sometimes, we'll find ourselves in the driver’s seat of an aggressive bear strategy pitted against a player with a lot of toughness. In these situations, I like sideboarding in some clunky, large cards that have the potential to punish our opponent for playing bad cards that happen to match up well against us. We don't need to attack into the opponent’s board, and we can always block with everything on his or her smallest guy when he or she starts to attack, especially if we aren't afraid of some kind of deathtouch or first-strike trick. This usually forces our opponent to use all or none of his or her tricks. By putting our opponent in this position, we never give that player an opportunity to gain tempo or to catch us off guard with an instant-speed-pump or removal spell.

What do we take out of our deck? The fact that a card usually makes our main deck doesn't mean it's always good against our opponent. For example, Lash of the Whip is a fine middle-of-the-road pick that almost always makes the main-deck cut in our black decks, but the card becomes very weak when our opponent is playing a lot of inexpensive creatures that cost less than the 5-mana removal spell. Sometimes, Lash of the Whip is outright bad; our opponent may be playing an aggressive deck with a top end that's mostly made up of creatures with 5 or more toughness. We only have so much time to sideboard, so it's important that we remember which cards underperformed for us in previous games. Following the same logic, we should constantly be thinking about which cards we don't want to draw. We've already trained ourselves to play to our outs, but it's also important that we know what the absolute worst nonland draw step is—this will be valuable information when we're shaping our deck for the next game.

Pheres-Band Centaurs
How will sideboarding affect our picks when drafting? As packs dwindle, we should be taking cards like Felhide Minotaur and Pheres-Band Centaurs even if they're not going to be making our deck. The value of hate-drafting some random filler card is extremely negligible, while the value of being able to make our deck nearly unbeatable in certain matchups is very relevant. Scholar of Athreos may not be very good in our W/U Heroic deck, but we'll be happy to have it when we're paired against the guy with three Akroan Crusaders. We should try to recognize the weaknesses of our deck when drafting. We can imagine how our deck handles aggression, evasion, a lot of toughness, fatties, and card-draw as we're picking cards. It may be worth a somewhat early pick to grab a card that shores up a particular weakness nicely. A lot of the time, we can expect the mediocre cards to come back around to us. Try counting the playable cards in the pack to ensure the card will come back. If it doesn't, we can expect the color of that specific card to be overdrafted and shift our plan accordingly. This is most important in the first pack because it's difficult to switch colors or plans in the second or third pack because of pick constraints.

We should try to make sure that every card in our deck is capable of at least trading for one of our opponent's cards. We can sift through our deck after each game and ask ourselves how each card will trade with something. Obvious exceptions exist, such as Sea God's Revenge, but those cards are often huge game-breakers that we wouldn't sideboard out unless in a very extreme scenario in which the opponent is hyper-aggressive and we're extremely top-heavy.

We should discuss some of the more common sideboard tricks we can use in Theros Limited: X/1 flyers become outright bad when we know that our opponent has multiple copies of Coastline Chimera. Inexpensive creatures and creatures with enters-the-battlefield abilities are the best bestow targets against blue decks with Voyage's End or Griptide. Instant-speed enchantment removal is game-breakingly powerful in conjunction with toughness against heroic strategies, almost always resulting in a card advantage and tempo swing in our advantage. Benthic Giant is very good against aggressive decks with removal instead of pump spells, but very bad against pump spells. Silent Artisan and Pheres-Band Centaurs are great against G/x decks now that Born of the Gods has been released.

There’s room to gain big advantages in Limited if we sideboard correctly. Today’s discussion taught us that sideboarding in Limited removes a huge element of variance from the game by allowing us to sculpt our deck to beat a specific opponent when the cards available to us make it possible to do so. Going forward, we can use this information to dominate opponents who continue to play Limited with no more than twenty-three of their cards.


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