Veil Of Summer
The weirdness, at least to me, was seeing a “sideboard card” banned from a Constructed format. In fact, the other time I recall a sideboard card banned was Rampaging Ferocidon from Standard Ramunap Red and that was… strange…
Even though the Veil ban breaks from convention, I’m a fan of the move and have a lot of respect for the DCI for taking the initiative and getting out ahead of the situation. The card was a backbreaker for blue and black decks and disincentivized entire colors and strategies from a format that should be new, shiny, and diverse.
If anything, the ban reaffirms something that most adept players already know: Sideboard cards are as format-defining as main deck cards.
Specifically, Veil’s ability to protect planeswalkers like Oko from black removal and blue permission (the two things that are actually effective against walkers!) was something data suggests was warping the Pioneer metagame.
This got me thinking about the importance of sideboard cards and their unique role in tournament Magic. It also got me thinking about how the design and implementation of sideboard cards has evolved and adapted over time as clearly Veil of Summer pushed the power level.
It’s a huge and amorphous topic, but I’ve done my best to break it down into a three-part series. We’ll start with the evolution of various types of hate cards that attack specific linear archetypes and strategies, starting with artifacts and enchantments today and moving onto graveyards and auras next time. The final part will focus on more abstract tactics like mana development/denial, proactive transformational sideboards, and other oddities. At the end, I’ll share my list of the Top 8 most significant sideboard printings of all time.
I’m sure I’ll miss some, so we can absolutely extend the discussion into the comments section and I’d love to hear the reader’s favorite bench players of all time. If Veil of Summer and the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons of the ‘80s have taught me anything about winning, it’s that a strong bench can impact the outcome as profoundly as starters. The analogy is also spicy because some of these sideboard cards are so good it feels like playing dirty.
The Best Artifact and Enchantment Hate in Magic History
Artifacts are significant because their colorless cost means they can go easily into any deck. Not only are these cards everywhere, but noncreature artifacts require specific subsets of cards to get off the battlefield:
Cheap 1-for-1 answers have existed since the genesis of Magic and rounded out 75s. If you have any doubt about the importance of these staples, look no further than the sideboard of an Old School Magic deck! The earliest expansions added even more effective ways to punish strategies that relied too heavily on artifacts.
And, of course…. OF COURSE, Blue got the nastiest anti-artifact technology of the bunch.
Blue’s flavor in the early days was “the best of everything,” and blue’s artifact hate doesn’t disappoint in that department–in fact, it remains relevant and impactful all these years later. Hurkyl’s and Flux are still potent ways for blue decks to slog through Workshops in Vintage. Shatterstorm remains Modern-playable and the “cannot regenerate” clause has unique applications against artifact decks with Welding Jar. Even Dust to Dust sees significant play Pauper, and is one of my favorite Old School sideboard cards.
Alliances brought the Mox Monkey, an obvious predator of Vintage’s Moxen. These days, Furious George has found steady work in the sideboard of Pauper decks where he is always at the ready to munch on artifact lands, Springleaf Drums, and Prophetic Prisms. Shaman’s design is unique because it’s an aggressively costed permanent that sits in play with the capacity to destroy one artifact after another, and is thus a reusable source of board and card advantage.
The set also brought another significant sideboard card and design template:
P.J. may not look like much compared to some of the powered-up effects that have been printed since, but it is certainly innovative design. It’s essentially multikicker from back in the day! Alliances also solidified red as the color that was great at smashing up an opponent’s relics.
I would argue Null Rod is one of the most important designs in the history of the game, period.
The idea of a cheap permanent that sits in play and shuts down an entire axis of play has been replicated, duplicated, but rarely paralleled in innovative design or utility. Yes, there were other designs that sat in play and took something away (Moat, Blood Moon and Winter Orb come to mind), but Null Rod was a gamechanger.
Null Rod, in many ways, has become the template for what players want, need, and expect from a dedicated sideboard card against narrow or linear strategies. It needs to be cheap, and is ideally a card that comes down and makes life extremely challenging for a linear deck.
While the artwork is pure Monkey Business, the card itself was serious business and pushed the design of the lowly Pyknite into a focused, useful sideboard card. Creatures with ETB triggers are now common as breadsticks at an Olive Garden, but it’s fascinating to remember it all had to start somewhere!
The ability to remove an opponent’s material from the board while leaving material behind was clearly a unique twist on how cards could work and interact. Everything from Viridian Shaman and Reclamation Sage to Knight of Autumn came from monkey ancestors.
Urza’s block pushed artifact decks to the brink of insanity in Standard, Extended, and Vintage and sideboard (and even main deck) reliance on anti-artifact technology became extremely important and necessary to combat these fast, broken, and consistent combo decks.
Null Rod vs. everyone!
Both of these would also remain important for years after their printing even beyond the next major artifact renaissance. There was always a tension in Vintage between which version to play, as one was much better against Workshops and the other against UR Fish’s Null Rods against 4-Color “The Deck” Control and later Control Slaver.
Mirrodin was a major event that shook up how we understood artifact decks, once again. Specifically, the artifact lands and affinity mechanic created powerful synergy that made these decks fast and robust in every format.
Kataki, War’s Wage is a miniature Energy Flux on legs, but unfortunately arrived fashionably late to the Standard party. By the time Kataki was released, the Standard Affinity deck had been banned beyond recognition. It didn’t stop Kataki from making its pesky presence known in Extended, Legacy, and Vintage, all of which had strong artifact decks. Kataki remains a staple sideboard card in Modern Chord of Calling decks.
A more “Modern” take on artifact hate is a return to “scaling Shatters,” that improve with upgraded investment of mana:
There are many tasty flavors, and the best one is determined by context: what is your deck and what are you trying to do with it? Ingot Chewer had a knack for ignoring Thorn of Amethyst in Vintage; Wear/Tear’s mana cost made it an ideal card to float on top of one’s library with Counterbalance + Sensei’s Divining Top; Shattering Spree is an ace in a deck that can make a bunch of red and replicate allows it to dance around Chalice of the Void on 1.
A lot of people might forget what a big game Trygon Predator was only a relatively short time ago. The ability to mop up artifacts or enchantments while also pressuring with evasion or pitching to Force of Will was clutch. It’s an interesting card to note because it’s such a beefed-up version of earlier creatures, specifically not requiring mana to activate.
Trygon Predator was in many ways a proto-planeswalker.
We also saw a move toward hyper-efficient answers. Ancient Grudge also paired with graveyard synergies as a free spell when incidentally milled.
While not accessible to everyone, Stony Silence brought Null Rod level hate into the Modern world. As a white enchantment, the card uniquely dodges red’s ways of interacting with it.
The new trend for sideboard cards tends to be more about mana efficiency than locking an opponent out. Rejection’s application extends beyond merely artifacts into denying powerful Eldrazi or colorless planeswalkers at a bargain price.
Another recent design trend has been to create cards that do multiple things. Abrade is an answer to annoying artifacts in Modern, such as Chalice of the Void, but it doubles as creature removal against Humans. We’ve actually seen similar cards before:
Cards that serve multiple functions across matchups are obviously great because a sideboard has limited space! As Magic has evolved, it has become more difficult to cover all of the necessary bases without finding cards that overlap utility across matchups.
Modern Horizons upped the ante significantly. The upside of modern artifact strategies has always been speed, synergy, and redundancy, but nothing is faster than free. Force of Vigor may be the ultimate artifact (and enchantment) hate card of all time in terms of bang for your buck.
Collector Ouphe brought yet another unique Null Rod effect into the game, this time in green and on a body, which is obviously extremely useful for creature decks.
While enchantments have never been as big a player in competitive Magic as artifacts (due to their more restrictive casting costs), they are quite important to deal with. Enchantments are also more difficult to answer than artifacts, as a result of the color pie mostly limiting enchantment removal squarely to green and white. In fact, there was an enchantment sweeper before there was ever one for artifacts!
For much of Magic’s early history, resolving enchantments and protecting them with counters was a top-shelf strategy.
I remember playing Burn in Extended splashing green for 8 green cards: 4 sideboard Emerald Charm and Tranquil Domain
— gabriel nassif (@gabnassif) November 13, 2019
Killing enchantments has always been important, but Time Spiral’s split second mechanic put a serious damper on the old “resolve and shrug” enchantment recipe with this next one:
Grip, (and later Abrupt Decay), played a pivotal role of dislodging one of the deadliest mini-combos ever to soft-lock the multiverse; Before Krosan Grip, Extended and Eternal players had to go to great lengths to deal with Counterbalance–Sensei’s Divining Top.
E.E. has always been a great utility way to squeeze enchantment removal into a deck. It’s flexible. I worked a lot with Patrick Chapin on blue lists for Extended, and our workhorse at the time?
“Crosses fingers… Prays there isn’t a CMC 5 spell on top when they spin the Top.”
It was a crazy time before Krosan Grip and players truly had to find some unique ways around enchantments and artifacts! Come back next time, when I’ll tackle auras and graveyards!