Sideboarding is a tricky subject. I’ve thought often about writing articles about sideboarding, but I’ve never really wanted to pull the trigger on it. I never felt comfortable enough with my own sideboarding abilities to feel like I had the chops to try to tackle the subject.
Over the last year, however, sideboarding is a skill that I have steadily worked to improve. In recent years, sideboarding has become one of the biggest catalysts to success in competitive Magic. Sideboards frequently used to just be full of random hate cards for various matchups that we would just slot into our decks when we played those matchups. They don’t really design those kinds of cards anymore, and as a result, sideboarding has become much more of an art form and much more of an important skill to master to experience success.
I want to talk about some tips I’ve developed for how to maximize the value of sideboarding during matches.
#5) Find the Vulnerabilities
Before we can even start contemplating the grisly details like which cards to side in and which cards to side out, we first have to create an understanding of why those are the specific cards that should go in or go out. This involves developing a plan. That plan should be based around exploiting the vulnerabilities in the opponent’s strategy.
One fatal flaw I see frequently in sideboarding is the dartboard approach. Players will basically just sideboard in “good cards” and side out “not so good cards” for each matchup. It’s basically like throwing darts blindly at a dartboard and hoping things stick. Often, doing this just results in “sidegrading” where you replace cards with other cards that aren’t really any better or worse than your original cards. The blind dartboard method is definitely worse than coming up with a coherent game plan.
Every deck has some vulnerability. Decks that don’t rarely stay legal long. Finding that vulnerability is step one. One easy question to ask ourselves is “why isn’t my opponent’s deck winning every tournament?” The answer to that often yields up the vulnerability. For example, let’s say the reason is: “It’s because the mana base is really bad.” There are many ways to attack bad mana, such as being too fast, being disruptive, or using the early turns to develop your game plan while they get their mana to work. It varies from deck to deck, but it is exploitable.
One common vulnerability is a weakness to a specific card type. Some decks struggle to beat enchantments, or artifacts, or planeswalkers. Another is relying too heavily on one specific card or one specific card type. Maybe their deck is prone to flooding out, or running out of gas, or the cards are too weak late in the game, or they are too slow. Some decks need Dragonlord Ojutai to win. Others thrive on tearing your hand apart with discard and will struggle to beat a bunch of card draw spells to refuel. Rally struggles against flying creatures and disruption for their Collected Companys and Rally the Ancestors. Ramp can’t win if they draw only ramp spells or only big spells. Jeskai Black struggles to beat planeswalkers.
#4) Board for a Board
Once we’ve figured out a plan for how to attack the vulnerabilities in our opponent’s strategy, the next step is to immediately abandon that plan. OK, maybe not quite that. But we have to take into consideration the idea that our opponent will also have a plan, and we need to plan not only for what their deck does in game 1, but also for what their deck is planning on doing in games 2 and 3.
We’re still aiming to attack their vulnerabilities, but we might have to go about it in a different manner, because they are probably going to try to protect those vulnerabilities. So let’s say that our opponent’s deck is really weak to planeswalkers. Our initial plan would be to build a sideboarding strategy that emphasizes planeswalkers as a core strategy. In sideboarding, however, they are likely going to be bringing in cards that help shore up their weakness to planeswalkers. We may need to alter our plan to involve also protecting our planeswalkers. Or perhaps if they are overloading on planeswalker hate at the expense of something else, we can ignore planeswalkers completely and exploit their new vulnerabilities.
#3) Reassess and Rebuild
Every 3-game match involves two games played with sideboarding. One common mistake that I see people make all the time is to sideboard for game 2, and then just leave things as they are for game 3 without taking the time to evaluate what happened in game 2, what the opponent’s sideboard plan looked like, and what the expectation for game 3 is. It’s imperative to reassess the sideboard plan whenever new information surfaces, and make changes if necessary. The opponent’s sideboard plan might have covered up one vulnerability but exposed another, and without making necessary changes between games 2 and 3, these new flaws will never be capitalized on.
#2) Play vs. Draw
Another huge consideration is whether or not we get to be on the play or draw. Some cards, like Knight of the White Orchid, have huge variance based on play or draw. But even beyond obvious examples like that card, we may want to change our strategy entirely based on whether we get to go first. One general rule of thumb is to take a more proactive and threat-based role when on the play and take a more reactive and answer-based role when on the draw. Being able to go first is a huge tempo advantage, and if we don’t sideboard to take advantage of that edge, we’re wasting a big opportunity. Likewise, if we’re building our deck to try to be proactive, but our opponent is an entire turn ahead, it could backfire spectacularly in our faces. Instead, we could plan our sideboard strategy to stifle our opponent’s action and make use of the extra card we get on the draw to win a longer game.
For what it’s worth, in many straightforward matchups (like aggro vs. combo), being on the play or draw isn’t going to really change how we sideboard, it’s just going to make it easier or harder to win with the plan we have. This is mostly important for more intricate matchups where maneuvering plays a big role.
#1) Don’t Go Overboard
There is actually a term developed for this sideboarding tip. In the 1800s, boats were a common form of transportation. Thankfully things are different now. Instead of being cramped and sea-sick in a tightly packed dark room with a bunch of strangers while traveling on a boat, we now get to be cramped and motion-sick in a tightly packed dark room with a bunch of strangers while traveling on an airplane. It’s truly amazing what 200 years of technology will do.
Unfortunately for our 1800s counterparts, travel by ship is quite a bit slower than what we’ve got these days. Those suckers could be stuck on those ships for days, weeks, sometimes even months. Things got pretty boring for them, so they took to playing high-stakes, competitive Magic: the Gathering to pass the time. Things would get pretty heated at times, and one common thing people liked to do was dagger and harass folk who would sideboard horrifically and lose resulting games from it.
One particular example involved a tense match of Legacy Storm versus Legacy Merfolk. The Storm player ended up keeping a hand with a bunch of cantrips, but over the course of the game drew only reactive cards like Abrupt Decay, Carpet of Flowers, and Xantid Swarm. Onlookers started to really dig into the Storm player by chanting “this man overboarded” every time he drew another sideboard card. As the chanting grew more fevered, it started to blur together until the chant was simply: “man overboard.” They tried to save him from drowning, but it wasn’t enough. He took a Lord of Atlantis to the knee and was soon found swimming with the fish.
It was that fateful night that the term “man overboard” was coined. It later was used to refer to a ship member who literally fell off the ship, but let it henceforth be known that the term was originally used to dagger a foolhardy sideboarding miscue. Isn’t history great? Isn’t it also great how you can rewrite and change history to fit your agenda? I agree. It is.
The point here is that there is a real flaw to sideboarding in too many cards. It’s very possible, and actually very common, to lose to overboarding. Sometimes, by bringing in too many sideboard cards, especially reactive ones like removal spells or counterspells, we run the risk of simply diluting our deck’s core strategy so much that we hurt our chance of winning the game. Especially with an aggressive strategy, and with a deck that is already favored against the opponent, the best thing you can do in sideboarding is to not sideboard much at all. Getting too cute or bringing in too many sideboard cards can sometimes backfire and cause a good matchup to go bad.
Don’t fall overboard. Don’t fall for the over-board.