Calm down… take a deep breath… chill… Please! Please! Please! Don’t rage post your opinion about what you think this article is about without taking the few minutes to read it! By all means, leave a comment afterwards and I’d love to discuss the topic, but if you post:
“Mox Opal decks would be unbeatable in Modern if people can’t sideboard Stony Silence!”
I know you either:
- Didn’t read the article.
- Have mastered basic level 1 Trolling.
Previous Level Troll.
Today’s article is theorycraft and ties together several trends I’ve observed over the past two months on Arena. I’m interested in discussing how these trends may or may not play out in the future. Arena is without a doubt transitioning Magic from a table-top experience into a bonafide esport, but how will this impact the role of the sideboard in the future?
Eternal and Non-Rotating Formats are Unplayable Without Sideboards—I’m Specifically Not Talking About This
Before I start getting to my actual points, we can disqualify the things that have nothing to do with my point.
Non-rotating formats such as Vintage, Legacy, and Modern need sideboards to properly function. The card pools are expansive and there are many linear decks floating around. We play Magic tournaments to play Magic—not rock, scissors, paper. Much of the interaction and tactical play in these formats are related to properly building and using the sideboard.
Some of the ideas in this article are a little bit out there, but I’m nowhere near predicting or advocating no-sideboard Modern or beyond. We need the board to play these formats.
With that being said, has Arena opened Pandora’s Box and created a space where Magic could be moving to sideboardless formats?
Not everything needs to be all-or-nothing, or strictly better or worse, all the time. There’s strategic depth to be explored in both scenarios: best-of-three matches with sideboard, as well as best-of-one matches without.
A future where BO1 could play a larger role in competitive Magic, on Arena, and potentially beyond is viable.
Not an exclusive role. And not a better role.
Scenarios Where BO1 Offers Strategic Depth
I didn’t like the idea of best-of-one matches when I first started playing Arena. I’m a creature of habit. I also believed BO1 was essentially a lowest common denominator—a watered down form of Magic.
After having the opportunity to play a ton of Arena and experience BO1 for several months, I’m more open-minded and have started to appreciate certain aspects of it.
I’m going to lead with my best example: Arena Standard Singleton. I love this format!
It was a play option about a week ago and has since disappeared but I enjoyed it so much that I still play it with my friends thanks to the Direct Challenge mode.
In a format such as Standard Singleton, I believe that a sideboard likely detracts from the strategic depth of gameplay. The sideboards would be so predictable: sweepers for aggro, and disruption and sticky threats for control.
What I love about Singleton is that with a restricted card pool, players can’t just spam all the best “build around me” cards backed up by the most synergistic supporting cast.
There is no singleton deck that is so focused or linear that a sideboard is actually necessary to address it.
The fact that sideboarding is not allowed forces deck builders to make serious deckbuilding choices about how they will position their deck. Are you going to play Ritual of Soot for aggro or Arguel’s Blood Fast for control?
When you have a 15-card sideboard, it allows you to build your deck many different ways and improve potentially weak matchups, whereas BO1 forces you to choose exactly one look. For this reason, I believe Standard Singleton gains strategic depth by not including sideboard games.
I certainly wouldn’t have thought that before playing Arena, but I’m beginning to come around to the upsides of best-of-one. Also, this is coming from a guy who once wrote an article professing the virtue of playing Commander with 15-card sideboards! So I’m a bit of a new convert to this style of play.
My point is that you can have your cake and eat it too. It doesn’t have to be one or the other—it can be both. Limited is an area where I’ve started to appreciate the option to play BO1 or BO3. There are obviously opportunities to go deep with a Sealed or Draft sideboard, but a lot of the boarding boils down to relatively intuitive play patterns: I board in Pierce the Sky against blue decks. I bring in Radiating Lightning against G/B Tokens. I shuffle up Invoke the Divine against an opponent with an Icy Manipulator or In Bolas’s Clutches.
In BO1 you have to make those types of decisions in the dark against the field in the abstract. It’s a different dynamic. I wouldn’t want to replace sideboarding, but I do enjoy the option to choose.
Other Virtues of BO1
Another aspect of BO1 I’ve come to enjoy is getting to play against a wider range of decks, rather than the same deck, modified, three times.
It’s also much more stream-friendly, since viewers get to see you play against a wider variety of matchups. I know a lot of purists will contend that they love watching sideboard games, but there is something to be said for mixing it up and seeing more decks.
Another thing to think about is what a BO1 tournament on Arena could look like. We are familiar with how tournaments look and feel with best-of-three with sideboard—but imagine best-of-one events.
The first thing that probably comes to mind is, “I’d want a shot at redemption if I get mana screwed. Best-of-three gives me a second chance!”
What if instead of playing a 9-round B03 Sealed event there was also an option to play a 24-round B01 event? I know a lot of people would opt for the B03 and I don’t have an issue with that. The real question is: would you have a problem if Arena offered both events and players could choose? The more I think about it, the more I’d rather play a 24-round BO1 Sealed event than a 9-round B03.
The Purpose of This Article
The purpose of this article isn’t to convince you that B01 is better than sideboarding. In a general overall sense, I’ll admit that it’s worse. I’m not advocating for it as an evergreen rule, but rather pointing out that it might have interesting applications for tournament play down the road as Arena becomes a bigger piece of the Magical pie.
Arena has put a lot of eggs into the BO1 basket and after playing a lot of these “no sideboard” matches, I’ve begun to warm up to it more than I thought I would. In particular, I’d love to see Standard Singleton BO1 become an “all the time” format on Arena. I’d love it to become a format I could play in paper at my LGS. Heck, I’d love to see it as a format I could play in large competitive events.
Magic is in a transformational state right now. It is in the process of integrating itself into the Esport game. Magic Arena is challenging the way we play and think about the game, and long time fans and players are going to have to adapt with the times.
I want to point out one last observation that leads me to believe that BO1 may be on the minds of the people who are designing and developing the cards: sideboarding doesn’t feel super important in Standard right now.
- There are fewer narrow sideboard cards in Standard than usual. Wizards has moved away from sideboard all-star cycles like the Amonkhet “defeat” cards
- The types of cards that people used to tend to think of as sideboard cards Negate, Essence Scatter, Duress, Spell Pierce, Shock are frequently maindecked.
- Wizards has started printing more flexible answered to artifacts and enchantments on universally maindecked cards (Vivien Reid, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, Assassin’s Trophy, Conclave Tribunal). You don’t have to board in Disenchant—it’s already main.
- Many of the Standard-legal cards that feel like “sideboard cards” are fairly useless in a Standard context (Alpine Moon, Blood Sun, Remorseful Cleric). These are sideboard cards that were printed to impact non-rotating formats, much more so than Standard.
Is it possible that Wizards’ has already begun transitioning Magic to a place where no-sideboard play could become a larger part of how we play the game? When I think about my experience playing Arena, my answer is: “Yes, I believe it has.” And as long as I continue to have the option to play both ways, I’m good with that.
I’m curious to hear what the readers think. Do you love BO1? Hate it? Or are you like me and are growing to enjoy it in certain situations?