Melira Sylvok Outcast

What Are the Most Powerful Sideboarding Strategies in Magic History?

Welcome back to the final installment of this massive four-part discussion of how the sideboard has evolved across Magic‘s long and storied history.

In the first part, I discussed the evolution of various forms and flavors of “hate cards” that have been used as strategic trumps to various powerful, linear strategies and how the evolution of broken archetypes has necessitated the design of new kinds of sideboard cards:

In the previous installment, we discussed the evolution of Magic into a competitive tournament game, the creation of the sideboard itself, and the importance of thinking about the sideboard as a resource to shore up, or generate outright advantage, in terms of mana production and efficiency.

With a solid grasp of fundamentals and history now in play, I’m excited to bring it all together with some of the most exciting examples of instances when player’s have found truly innovative and creative ways to take sideboard play to another level!

Transformational Sideboarding

One thing to consider is that any time you reconfigure your deck in between games it is transforming into something at least slightly different. In Magic, the term “transformational sideboard plan,” typically means that the way you plan to win the game will be different in the post-sideboard games.

Oath of Druids

One of the most famous and straightforward sideboard transformations involves boarding in Oath of Druids and a couple of unbeatable creatures when paired against creature decks. In pre-sideboarded situations, the opponent’s deck might not have creatures to exploit, but when you know their strategy involves putting small critters on the board and turning them sideways… Oath of Druids is a 2-mana, suspend 1 monster of your own choosing!

In Vintage, this approach has been utilized frequently over the years. If I know my opponent is going to bring in a bunch of Null Rods to counteract my artifacts from a creature-based deck, Oath of Druids dodges that hate.

Phyrexian Negator

Another iconic transformational sideboard plan is to bring in creatures from the sideboard of a deck that the opponent wouldn’t necessarily expect to see creatures. If the opponent is likely to board out lots of creature removal (against a deck that doesn’t play creatures pre-sideboard), you can look to blank their “spell interaction” by beating them down with a big cheap monster such as Negator in the olden days, or Tarmogoyf in the present.

In recent memory, Thief of Sanity was an effective and commonly used transformational sideboard plan for Standard Esper Control in various matchups.

Thief of Sanity

Thief’s small body and 3-mana cost made it a liability against fast mono-colored beatdown decks, but in slower matchups it was the ideal threat to play and protect, especially in matchups where the opponent was likely to board down on creature removal in order to bring in better answers to counterspells and planeswalkers.

Nightveil Specter

It’s kind of funny that Esper Decks did the exact same thing in Ravnica 3 Standard as they did in Ravnica 2 Standard! I shudder to imagine what a Ravnica 4 power creep Dimir Specter might look like, but chances are that Esper players will use it to transform their line of attack!

There are generally (but not limited to) two criteria under which transformational sideboard plans tend to thrive:

  1. A card exists that is extremely difficult for a popular strategy to answer.
  2. There is a popular strategy that exists that beats the heck out of your strategy and the best way to interact with it is to do something completely different.

Ideally, the best transformational sideboard plans take advantage of both situations!

Most transformational sideboard plans loop back to the larger fundamental themes we’ve explored: hate/strategic trumps and mana efficiency.

It’s not a coincidence that Thief of Sanity is cheaper than the main-deck threats Esper plays, or that boarding in Oath of Druids against aggro decks occurs under conditions where the aggro player is likely to board out removal that can answer an Oathed up monster. The best ways to transform tend to increase mana efficiency and be difficult to answer.

Wish and Bullet Boards

“Toolbox” decks rely on being able to consistently find the best possible cards to solve various sorts of opposition. The sideboard has long been the bread and butter of every good toolbox deck. As flexible as these decks tend to be in their game 1 configuration, they become exponentially more so when given the ability to replace the least impactful tools with even higher impact ones.

The Mirage Tutor cycle opened up a ton of space for these decks, as did tutor engines such as Survival of the Fittest.

Vampiric TutorMystical TutorEnlightened TutorSurvival of the Fittest

The key here is that if you have a redundancy of ways to ensure you can find a specific card, it makes sideboard silver bullets all the more potent (since you can find them when you need them!).

Tutors, cards that allow you to find specific cards, are extremely powerful, and clearly design doesn’t make them this efficient in the Modern Era. With that said, it is often the case that the game 1 configuration of a tutor deck isn’t necessarily a toolbox, but facilitates a consistent combo strategy that is enhanced after sideboard by finding backbreaking hate cards.

I played a lot of Enlightened Tutor/Counterbalance/Top decks over the years. In game 1 I could use my Enlightened Tutor to find the other half of my soft lock combo, or use it to find and put a specific mana cost artifact or enchantment on top of my deck. After sideboard, it made it extremely easy to find singleton copies of specific cards such as Rest in Peace, Moat, or Crucible of Worlds. Whatever I needed.

Judgement‘s “Wish cycle” took the concept of a sideboard toolbox and gave players access to it in the first game! Decks that are able to use Wishes have the unique dynamic of accessing their sideboard during the first game of a tournament match.

Cunning WishBurning WishLiving WishDeath Wish

In Vintage, Gush-A-Tog decks famously used Cunning Wish to find extremely focused sideboard cards such as Hurkyl’s Recall against Workshops, Firestorm against creature decks, or Red Elemental Blast against control, but could also use the card to combo off by finding a Berserk to win through blockers or with diminished resources.

Standard Psychatog decks also loved Cunning Wish‘s ability to find highly effective narrow cards, as did Mirari’s Wake “Fog Lock” decks. Back in the day, Wishes allowed players to search not only their graveyard, but also exile for a card, which meant that copying a Wish with Mirari to find a previously exiled Wish + another cards was a never-ending chain of card advantage.

The same rules loophole exploited by Wake decks was also utilized by Psychatog decks in various formats, since Tog could exile a Force of Will, Ancestral Recall, or Accumulated Knowledge and thus make these main-deck cards Wishable!

In Vintage, Burning Wish broke the concept of how the Restricted List worked by turning the sideboard into a seamless extension of the main deck:

Yawgmoth's Will

“Burning Long.dec” used its four copies of Burning Wish as Demonic Tutors to find its signature restricted combo turbine, Yawgmoth’s Will. Essentially, Burning Wish functioned as FOUR copies of Demonic Tutor, giving the deck extremely easy access to its most important restricted card. The Wish could also be used to find important pieces of interaction against creatures, artifacts, and counterspells, as well as the kill condition, Tendrils of Agony.

Burning Wish was pretty quickly restricted as a result!

It was exciting to see the “Wish board” return to Magic with the printing of Mastermind’s Acquisition.

Mastermind's Acquisition

Decks like Turbo Lich once against harnessed the power of tutoring and main deck that extended into the sideboard to find “the right spell for the job.”

Rules Minutiae

The rules of play have also impacted the context of sideboarding for various types of threats over the history of the game. Right from the start, the DCI implemented limits to the number of copies of specific cards that could be played in a deck as well as rules for sideboarding for matched play.

One particular rule that has been subjected to constant change over time is the “legend rule,” and how legendary permanents interact with one another.

The oldest variant of the legend rule stated that if I have a legendary card in play and my opponent plays the same legend, theirs is immediately sacrificed and mine lives on unbothered. Quite different from what exists today!

The implication of such a rule is that getting a signature legend into play first had a tremendous upside, particularly in matchups where the same legendary cards were being used by both players.

Tolarian Academy

Tolarian Academy decks were a tournament powerhouse during Urza’s block, which actually led to non-Academy decks sideboarding in copies of the powerful legendary land to road block the dedicated Academy decks from deploying their linchpin.

After sideboard, a Stompy deck for instance, could play turn-1 Tolarian Academy, which would force the Academy player to to answer the Academy before they could play their own!

Champions of Kamigawa was the first “legendary”-themed set since the early Legends expansion (which introduced the mechanic), and the rule saw a significant overhaul designed to make “getting my legend into play first” less oppressive with an influx of powerful legendary cards on the way. The fix was that if a second copy of a legendary card entered play, both copies immediately blew each other up as a state-based effect.

Unnatural Selection

There was also a time when creatures with the type “Wall” could not attack (before the defender keyword) and so changing a creatures type to Wall would render them unable to attack! Some neat trivia.

Can you even imagine a Kamigawa format where the first Jitte invalidated an opponent’s Jitte’s?

Umezawa's Jitte

I can. It would have involved the card being outright banned!

Send in The Clones

Under a rule system where legendary permanents “blew each other up,” Clones which entered play as identical copies of a creature in play (including the legendary characteristic) functioned as removal for legends.

Phantasmal ImageGeist of Saint Traft

The easiest way to remove Geist of Saint Traft was simply to board in your own Geists or Phantasmal Images to legend rule the Saint away.

Narrow, but Neat

There are plenty of examples of extremely narrow but effective sideboard hate cards. The value of these types of cards depends greatly upon the context.

Against Tribal decks, there are subsets of cards such as Engineered Plague that can reduce an opponent’s army of Elves or Goblins to rubble.

Engineered PlaguePlague Engineer

One of my favorite examples of a narrow hate card is Stabilizer:

Stabilizer

I really liked it in Onslaught Block Constructed as an obvious hate card for the powerful cycling mechanic.

Astral SlideLightning RiftDecree of JusticeEternal DragonSecluded SteppeForgotten Cave

When a specific axis of gameplay is pushed in a small format like Standard, or Block Constructed (a thing back then), I thought the inclusion of a focused hate card created dynamic interplay between “the best deck” and other potential strategies.

Onslaught block wasn’t without its faults and certainly ended the pre-Modern era with a huge bang in terms of designs that would shape the game in a tangible way.

Mind's DesireTendrils of AgonyFlooded StrandPolluted Delta

With that said, looking back, I appreciate that while these designs are clearly pushed and opened Pandora’s Box, there was a legitimate acknowledgement of counterplay within the block:

StiflePyrostatic Pillar

Stifle assigns a meaningful cost to playing with fetchlands which are extremely powerful,  and answers the equally strong storm mechanic.

Melira, Sylvok Outcast

Another great example of a narrow hate card is Melira, Sylvok Outcast which helped to keep Infect decks in check in Standard, but particular in Modern. Perhaps it’s my history of playing the game in the pre-Modern era that informs my opinion, but I always find gameplay much more dynamic when there is at least substantial counterplay to the obviously most pushed synergies in a format (specifically, in small formats like Standard or Block).

One place I believe the inclusion of a narrow card designed to curtail a block mechanic like Stabilizer or Melira would have really shined is Kaladesh‘s energy mechanic:

Aetherworks Marvel

Without meaningful counterplay, the formant was an unending litany of oppressive energy variants highlighted with one ban after another!

The real challenge I see for Magic design after the past year is finding a way to create better counterplay to the powerful planeswalkers they’ve released across a diverse range of formats. If investigating the history of sideboards has taught me anything, it is that the moments where new powerful methods of gameplay are created also tend to be the catalyst for creating cards to balance their effectiveness within larger metagames. So, I’m excited to see the approach that comes from the post-War-of-the-Spark era, hopefully it’s more substantial than just banning cards!

I’ll end the series by highlighting what I believe to be the most impactful sideboard designs across the history of the game. Over the course of the series, these have all been cards that changed how sideboarding and thus matchups play out.

8. Duress
7. Force of Vigor
6. Krosan Grip
5. Spell Pierce
4. Leyline of The Void
3. Blood Moon
2. Red Elemental Blast
1. Null Rod

I feel good about my top 4 and 5-8, but within those pods the individual cards could be in almost any order because they are all such significant printings that fundamentally changed how not just decks, but entire formats, needed to approach sideboarding!

I had a hard time placing Veil of Summer. One of the few cards that saw a lot of sideboard play to earn multiple bans (Mental Misstep being another, but Misstep was banned for being a MD card, IMHO). Veil, you’ve been here for 20 minutes and everybody hated you enough to ban you, which is difficult to place on a list of game changers! Raw power and efficiency, I’d consider it for number 1.

Veil of Summer, to me, is a great cautionary tale for bad sideboard card design: always trades up on mana, always generates card advantage, and protects cards that are already nearly impossible to answer at parity.

I hope you all enjoyed the series and the list. Feel free to share your favorite sideboard tech moments in the comments. I’ll be dropping in to reminisce with you.

  1. Sideboards are 15 cards with infinite potential.
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