How much thought do you put into your sideboarding?
Let's pretend, for a second, we're all still playing traditional best-of-three Magic and that uber-popular Arena format doesn't exist. Don't worry! This is an update article and we'll hit up best-of-one in a bit.
But think first about regular old tournament Magic.
Many players put a lot of thought into picking a deck... Or at least a deck archetype. They can rattle off their starting sixties from memory; but their sideboards are often a scattered hodgepodge. Even great players! More than one Pro Tour Champion has gone on record saying that they mostly test main deck; and theorycraft sideboards, usually due to time constraints.
Simic Flash | Eldraine Standard | Michael Flores
- Planeswalkers (4)
- 4 Nissa, Who Shakes the World
A few months before the world collapsed, I took a deck that Brad Nelson helped to make look really good... But added some very different sideboard cards. We surely tested main deck. Simic Flash was definitely the best deck to play. My LGS was lousy with Fires of Invention qualifiers (myself included!) and Simic Flash was way ahead against Fires of Invention. In our testing it was even favored against Jund main deck! But the Mythic Championship showed the world that Jund's sideboard plan consistently put Simic on its back. Jund got way less fancy after Game 1, and kind of just went Lovestruck Beast and hand destruction.
In a way Jund switched from a big machinery deck into a kind of Aggro-Rock. Its cards were mostly cheaper, it's creatures were potentially bigger, and not only could it file off Simic's unique selling proposition, adding point removal just killed Simic's medium-sized guys when they did resolve.
Our solution was to reposition as well. You know what's bigger than a 5/5? A 5/6! And one that draws a card? This was a good plan and we managed to get the Jund matchup even after sideboarding. The math said we won Game 1. Traditionally Jund would win both sideboarded games. But in the new world we won Game 1 and would split Two and Three. It wasn't automatic like Fires, but W-L-W (and sometimes even W-W!) seemed way better than W-L-L.
What can we take away from this?
Even in the age of Arena, the most homogenous era of widely published Constructed Magic ever, one can still obtain an edge with thoughtful sideboarding. We utilized a very important paradigm: Spending lots of sideboard slots on one matchup... But a common matchup that was in fact supposed to be bad in Games Two and Three.
The other thing - the most important thing in fact - was the realization that sideboarded games are simply more important than main deck games. You always play a Game 1, and unless you're going to time, you always play a Game 2. But in any match where the same player didn't take both, you get a second sideboarded game.
In earlier eras of Magic, tweak sideboards were relatively uncommon. Super powerful color hosers like Blue Elemental Blast or Perish put sideboard cards at a premium. White Weenie players splashed Sleight of Mind in anticipation of the opponent's incoming Gloom. Today you have something like a Ray of Enfeeblement; which, to be fair, is a pretty efficient one-for-one. But it's no Dystopia.
Today, with hosers and interactive cards less powerful than ever (but creatures themselves so good), players tend more toward tweak sideboards. Don't know what to cut? Throw copies two and three of that fun-of in your sideboard. Or, say you know you want to play all four copies of a card like Skyclave Apparition... But that it is bad against the most common deck. You might split the difference but make sure you have access to the other two for those terrible Winota people.
Dimir Rogues | AFR Standard | karatedom, 4th Place MTGO Standard Challenge 8/8/2021
- Companion (1)
- 1 Lurrus of the Dream-Den
- Sorceries (6)
- 1 Crippling Fear
- 1 Pestilent Haze
- 2 Agadeem's Awakening // Agadeem, the Undercrypt
- 2 Of One Mind
- Enchantments (1)
- 1 Dead Weight
- Lands (23)
- 3 Swamp
- 6 Island
- 1 Zagoth Triome
- 2 Hive of the Eye Tyrant
- 3 Temple of Deceit
- 4 Clearwater Pathway // Murkwater Pathway
- 4 Fabled Passage
At present these kinds of sideboards are just super common. When writing the first draft of this article I literally wrote myself a note to add "any" current deck list. Which might be an exaggeration... But not by much. This sideboard by karatedom is a very good example of tweaks. Not sure what is the best two-mana removal card between Power Word Kill, Heartless Act, and Epic Downfall? They all cost the same and have some spots where they shine and others where they miss. Two of this one three of that, round out another pair. 1 + 1 Crippling Fear; the third Disdainful Stroke. There are some specialized cards here, sure (including one main-deck sideboard card, see below)... But the majority of it is tweak.
Players don't always think about it this way, but it can, in a sense, be what they are doing. Even in the Simic example I made, above, the deck shifted away from the Faeries-esque Flash plan to playing bigger spells, and main phase.
Would you consider the 2+2 Hydroid Krasis an example of a tweak?
It does look like that, but I would actually say no in this case. They aren't there as "two cards" so much as a deliberate strategy shift. Hydroid Krasis in Game 1 is just a powerful but not particularly synergistic card that supplements Flash in Game 1. In Game 2, it is redundant to Cavalier of Thorns as a big body that draws extra cards. I actually considered Commence the Endgame, but it ended up making smaller guys on average and I wanted to out-muscle Lovestruck Beast.
We haven't had a popular Azorius Control in Standard for about a year, so I'll draw on my list from last spring:
U/W Control | THB Standard | Michael Flores
- Sorceries (4)
- 4 Shatter the Sky
- Artifacts (4)
- 4 Glass Casket
- Lands (26)
- 6 Plains
- 7 Island
- 2 Castle Vantress
- 3 Castle Ardenvale
- 4 Hallowed Fountain
- 4 Temple of Enlightenment
Azorius Control is a Weissman, or "True" Control deck. It can counter a big spell and take on all commuters. But certain cards - most notably three-mana permission spells - can be awkward or clunky against beatdown.
So, a common strategy is to swap out permission to max out on Aether Gust and more importantly Devout Decree. It probably seems insane to side out Absorb against Mono-Red, but you could gain more than three life in answering threats quickly. Control decks for about the last ten years have been siding out counters for board control in an effort to stretch time and preserve life total. Other three-mana spells like Hinder or Sinister Sabotage probably seem much less controversial.
Izzet Midrange | AFR Standard | Tarmogoyf1234, 3rd Place MTGO Standard Challenge
- Creatures (17)
- 2 Inferno of the Star Mounts
- 3 Galazeth Prismari
- 4 Bonecrusher Giant
- 4 Brazen Borrower
- 4 Goldspan Dragon
- Artifacts (4)
- 4 Mazemind Tome
- Lands (25)
- 6 Mountain
- 7 Island
- 2 Den of the Bugbear
- 2 Hall of Storm Giants
- 4 Fabled Passage
- 4 Riverglide Pathway // Lavaglide Pathway
Saw It Coming is a little expensive against high impact threats like Robber of the Rich; and Mystical Dispute couldn't be worse 80% of the time. So, you see a well-crafted Dragons deck trade permission for more Red removal, and in this case Prismari can lean into color hosing removal that also has text against White Weenie. I'm sure when next we see a popular Azorius deck, the strategy will again manifest.
In all these cases you have either a True Control or a Tap Out deck shift into a Board Control deck (you know, the character of a Mono-Black Control or R/W sweeper deck) which all basically farm small creatures. In the immortal words of Patrick Chapin "sometimes even Blue decks are Non-Blue Control".
This example is old, but it's one of the most blatant and successful repositioning jobs of all time.
Mono-Red | Standard 1999 | Mark Gordon, GP Kansas City
- Creatures (24)
- 4 Ball Lightning
- 4 Goblin Lackey
- 4 Jackal Pup
- 4 Mogg Fanatic
- 4 Mogg Flunkies
- 4 Raging Goblin
- Sorceries (3)
- 3 Goblin Grenade
- Artifacts (3)
- 3 Cursed Scroll
- Lands (18)
- 18 Mountain
Mark Gordon won Grand Prix Kansas City 1999 with that eight-pack of Red Elemental Blasts.
The Top 8 was all the most famous players of the day - many of them future Hall of Famers - and all on Blue decks, especially High Tide and Mono-Blue Draw-Go.
In Game 1 a beatdown deck just has to try to race a combo deck. Gordon's deck was fast - especially packing Goblin Grenade. But High Tide could often win on turn three. With more than half his sideboard dedicated to Blue matchups, Gordon could essentially become Counter-Sliver. His counters were all Blasts... So, he didn't have regular Aggro-Control flexibility... But when all your opponent's cards are Blue, who needs flexibility?
ErhnamGeddon | Bertrand Lestree, First Pro Tour
- Creatures (10)
- 1 Autumn Willow
- 1 Serra Angel
- 2 Fyndhorn Elves
- 2 Llanowar Elves
- 2 Order of Leitbur
- 2 Spectral Bears
But for a topdecked Swords to Plowshares, we would be remembering this as the winner of the first Pro Tour.
Back in the dawn times, it was common for the beatdown to play answers like Disenchant in the main. The "beatdown" finalist started all four! Lestree could of course augment his Maximum Number of main deck Disenchants with a couple of Divine Offerings. But nowadays it is rare to see a creature deck main deck such a spell.
Who even needs Leaderboard points when you're this goated? I am absolutely 100% MOCS Qualified.— Phill_Hellmuth THE RIVAL (@SamRolph3) August 22, 2021
This dub locks my closest friend @Nathansteuer1 and opens up the leaderboard to other players.
Played Mono White taxes. The Yorion is sauced.
LETS GOOOOO pic.twitter.com/s3m4vBCWJU
Phill_Hellmuth played eighty cards in the main of this Legacy Death and Taxes but couldn't find space for one. In fact, his only nod was a single Leonin Relic-Warder in the sideboard.
The original thought behind cards like the Visions template was that you could play a slightly less efficient creature... But hey! It was still a creature you could attack with.
I'll be curious to see how this card is used come the impending Standard rotation. I think it will be an important tool against The Book of Exalted Deeds... But even though it has everything going for it - I mean it even says "draw a card"! - this answer's general not-offense has relegated it narrowly to sideboards so far.
Answer cards come in multiple flavors. In some formats there is nothing better than drawing 100 fast one-for-ones; but I think right now players are mostly interested in not interrupting the flow of their own threats.
The classic reposition is to Surprise! the opponent by siding creatures into a control or combo deck.
Surprise Control | Jon Finkel
- Lands (17)
- 1 Flood Plain
- 1 Volcanic Island
- 2 Plateau
- 2 Undiscovered Paradise
- 3 Savannah
- 4 Mishra's Factory
- 4 Tundra
The strategy was known by 1997 but never executed so successfully as Jon Finkel on the way to his first Pro Tour Top 8.
Basically, Jon was playing a combo-lock deck in Game 1. Ideally the opponent would be stuck under Winter Orb and the Machine could hassle an untap with Icy Manipulator. He could operate himself with all those Diamonds, and force the opponent to over-play lands into Armageddon.
The opponent would be quick to reach for his sideboard. Out creature removal. In all those Disenchants we were just talking about.
So, Jon would side in creatures! Not just any creatures, but ones that could live through a Lightning Bolt. Comparatively helpless, the opponent would be run over.
Both combo decks and control decks can utilize Surprise! effectively. But did you know even some creature decks can?
Jeskai Fires | THB Standard | Gabriel Nassif, Magic World Championship XXVI
- Creatures (18)
- 3 Brazen Borrower
- 4 Bonecrusher Giant
- 4 Cavalier of Flame
- 4 Sphinx of Foresight
- 3 Kenrith, the Returned King
- Planeswalkers (4)
- 4 Teferi, Time Raveler
- Lands (28)
- 2 Island
- 2 Mountain
- 2 Plains
- 2 Castle Vantress
- 2 Temple of Epiphany
- 3 Hallowed Fountain
- 3 Sacred Foundry
- 4 Fabled Passage
- 4 Steam Vents
- 4 Temple of Triumph
Jeskai Fires of Invention technically won with creatures... But it did so in a combo-riffic way, generally after resolving Fires. Opposing control decks would focus on keeping Fires off the battlefield; or failing that, countering or otherwise answering the big threats one-for one. And Control would have a reasonable expectation of time. Fires costs four; a Cavalier or Returned King even more.
Enter Robber of the Rich.
A relatively late addition to the Fires archetype, Robber let Jeskai get proactive on turn two, and slide under a potential permission wall.
And even though the opponent would be prepared for "creatures" they might not be ready for small, fast, and hasty Ophidians. The kinds of cards good against big Titans are not necessarily good against a Robber. So, this flavor of Surprise! was in part a Finkel-esque juke, but it also repositioned the deck away from a Big Spell combo-control to a little bit of an Aggro-Control. Even if the right answers came, they might be too late to prevent Jeskai from generating a nice advantage.
The Rock | 2005 Standard | Maximilian Bracht, Pro Tour Columbus
- Enchantments (4)
- 4 Pernicious Deed
The first time I did a Pro Tour both was Columbus in 2004.
The format was Extended and the most popular macro archetype was The Rock. There were Red versions with Flametongue Kavu, Blue versions with Gilded Drake; decks with no Wishes; decks really heavy on Wishes; and decks like Bracht's... Two Wishes in the main only, but still a really telling implementation of the Wish sideboard strategy.
Wish decks gain tremendous flexibility in Game 1; but sometimes lack the ability of other decks to dramatically improve in a bad matchup after sideboarding. Bracht preserved his ability to sideboard really hard against Goblins... But gave up every other matchup. What if he had to grind harder in a The Rock mirror? His answer to the tournament winning Affinity strategy was... A pair of Chainer's Edicts? No Wish sideboard can really ever eight-pack Pyroblasts like Gordon or Surprise! the opponent like Finkel.
But what they do gain is greater flexibility in Game 1. Here Bracht could fight an opposing graveyard deck by finding Withered Wretch. He could go after a big creature (hopefully in a removal-poor deck like Reanimator) with a Faceless Butcher. I love the fact that in a pinch, he could search for two different lands!
Today we have multiple variations or updates on Wish.
The simplest is playing a Companion. You give up one sideboard slot, but three free mana pending, can always draw one extra card in Game 1. That's a lot like Wish, only you don't have to spend actual deck space on Wishes.
CGB Venture Midrange | AFR Standard | CovertGoBlue
- Creatures (16)
- 1 Ebondeath, Dracolich
- 1 Gelatinous Cube
- 2 Skullport Merchant
- 4 Eyetwitch
- 4 Prosperous Innkeeper
- 4 Shambling Ghast
- Instants (4)
- 4 Deadly Dispute
- Sorceries (4)
- 4 Blood on the Snow
- Enchantments (4)
- 4 Binding the Old Gods
- Lands (24)
- 3 Snow-Covered Forest
- 9 Snow-Covered Swamp
- 4 Darkbore Pathway // Slitherbore Pathway
- 4 Faceless Haven
- 4 Woodland Chasm
This is a typical CovertGoBlue "Blood Money" style deck. "Blood" for the deck's big payoff: Blood on the Snow. "Money" for the numerous Treasure-bearing cards like Prosperous Innkeeper, Skullport Merchant, and Dangerous Dispute. Note the not-fifteen sideboard slots... CGB loves to play Best of One.
Lesson plans are a modern implementation of Wish sideboards; only far, far less powerful if differently positioned. Wishes play precision Magic; Lessons generally come on the bonus. You get a 1/1 and an extra card... But the extra card isn't usually very good. I happen to prefer this Blood Money variant, but another might have Hunt for Specimens in the Innkeeper slot, or dig for Pest Summoning. Value, yes... But nowhere near an old school Wish's precision or power.
Currently, Blood Money is an extraordinary popular umbrella of decks in Arena's Standard 2022 and for good reason: if you are playing Best of One you just get free cards. It is possible some other deck is "better" but none flaunt the rules of engagement like the dedicated Lesson sideboard. There is no downside risk! Not only is there no Game 2 to not improve in, opponents who aren't playing Mascot Exhibition and company are just at a disadvantage. If you can withstand their initial assault, you basically always draw seven more cards than they have. You get more action but don't have to rebalance your mana; and tons of your cards are just card advantage anyway. Even better, you get to play one-ofs like Containment Breach that let you access other sideboarding styles or forgotten main deck traditions... In Game 1!
I play a lot of Bo1 Blood Money myself because I watch hella CGB videos, but wonder if I would actually sleeve a deck like this up for FNM. Best of One is almost a different game than Magic: The Gathering; and I have to assume that I'd want to win more sideboarded games than the zero currently presented.
It re-writes the first, timeless, rule we introduced in this article, after all.