“Give someone a sideboard guide and they will be set for one tournament, teach them to build a sideboard and they are set for life.”
When I started playing Constructed tournaments, I would build my sideboard in the 30 minutes before the event started with all cute and fun 1-ofs. One of the most common requests of writers is for a sideboard guide on a silver platter—how far that guide will get you is extraordinarily limited.
Magic is a game of resource management at its core—mana, damage, and cards. You will certainly benefit by utilizing resources outside of gameplay: articles, deck construction, and practice. The process of building an optimal sideboard for your predicted metagame is a pain. Hopefully the feeling of preparedness that comes along with having exactly the right number of cards to subtract from your main deck and add from your sideboard will make the construction process worth the effort. The sideboard is a key resource in gaining an advantage without even having to out-play or out-luck your opponent during the match.
Of course, it is in your best interest to not play superfluous cards for a positive matchup or an inadequate number of cards for a problematic matchup. 15 is a precious number of sideboard slots—the only way to ensure that you do not squander any sideboard slots is to break out the pen and paper.
Anytime that I’m serious about a tournament I will make a sideboard sheet. I write down each matchup that I expect to play against and exactly which cards I want to remove from my main deck, on the play AND the draw. Look at these examples I made for Modern Jund in my preparation for GP Pittsburg:
Click to enlarge.
From there I know roughly the number of cards I want in my sideboard for each matchup. Now come the tricky parts of this process. There are versatile sideboard cards, and narrow ones. Typically the more narrow a sideboard card the more impactful it is in a matchup. You will need to determine both: how popular an archetype is in the expected metagame and your expected win percentage against this archetype. Evaluating a metagame and how your sideboard should address it is definitely not an exact science and you will improve with experience. Here is a chart to explain my most basic philosophy:
How many low-impact or bad cards you have in your main deck in any given matchup is a good indicator of how much attention the matchup deserves from your sideboard. On one end of the spectrum is Merfolk, an uncommon and extremely easy matchup—I’ll ignore this matchup while constructing my sideboard. It’s still possible that I sideboard several cards in this matchup in spite of ignoring it because of overlap from other matchups. I may bring in cheap removal or sweepers originally intended for Infect and Affinity.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are Amulet Bloom and to a lesser extent Tron. These are matchups that I expect to play against multiple times in a Grand Prix and against which I’m an underdog in game 1. I cannot reasonably play Jund into this expected metagame until I have come up with a sideboard plan that gives me a decent chance to beat Amulet and other fast-mana decks. You will not be able to beat everyone, especially in a format as diverse as Modern. I haven’t even bothered with unpopular wacky combo decks Ad Nauseum, Lantern Control, and Grishoalbrand. Regardless of whether or not these matchups are favorable or unfavorable, they are so unlikely to come up that they are not worth the time to evaluate or the finite sideboard slots.
Of the 11 decks I am preparing for here is a list of my priorities when making my sideboard:
- Amulet Bloom
- Jund Mirror
- Grixis Midrange
- Splinter Twin
- Living End
Splinter Twin and Grixis Midrange are more popular than every deck above them on the list—the reason that they are so low on the list is that I consider those matchups favorable and a major reason to choose Jund. Given the popularity of Snapcaster-Mage-plus-Lightning-Bolt decks I do want to have a coherent sideboard plan that takes into account their sideboard plans as well (Blood Moon and Keranos, God of Storms).
The Jund/Abzan mirror takes precedence over so many other matchups because it comes down to who draws better nearly 100% of games. There is close to zero skill involved in the Jund mirror. It’s an arms race, whoever comes packing more card advantage will win.
Ideally you will have time to try out different sideboard strategies and cards in real matches. If you don’t have time to actually play, theorizing about which cards fit your needs in each matchup will have to be sufficient. Through playing on Magic Online and talking to friends about their experiences I came up with the following sideboard:
Apart from Shatterstorm, all of the cards I chose for the sideboard are widely applicable against the Modern metagame.
Battle for Zendikar brought an eternal staple. This card is nowhere near as powerful as Treasure Cruise, but in matchups where your life total is unimportant, this card is tremendous. Ben Stark made Top 8 of a Modern Grand Prix with Harmonize in his sideboard. I plan to sideboard this in against almost every deck except Burn, Zoo, Affinity, and similar decks. Even against fast combo decks, Painful Truths can be effective if you spend the first few turns casting discard spells, leaving both players without much going on afterward. Most combo decks dilute their own decks after game 1 to bring in removal spells or Leyline of Sanctity—making them less likely to go off early in game 2 and 3.
It’s obvious that this card is for aggressive decks like Burn. The reason that I like Kitchen Finks more than a card like Feed the Clan is because it is also quite good in the Jund mirror match and against Grixis.
Obstinate Baloth and Thragtusk
These come in against all the same decks as Finks. The reason I played these instead of 4 Kitchen Finks is so that my deck has at least a few extremely powerful spells in the late game. There are no 4-drops in the main deck or sideboard other than these. Obstinate Baloth and Thragtusk are extremely relevant because they can be recurred via Kolaghan’s Command, unlike Outpost Siege or Painful Truths.
This is my main weapon against Amulet Bloom. One thing about Fulminator that I appreciate is that you can board in 4 copies on the play against any matchup that you feel unfavored against in a long game and just hope to mana-screw the opponent. I like it especially against Abzan and Living End.
This is more narrow than Ancient Grudge, Jund Charm, or Rakdos Charm, but has the benefit of being an instant win against Affinity any time you cast it. A silver bullet that can win a game by itself may be difficult to evaluate compared to its more versatile counterparts. I always show some respect to Affinity.
This is a pure, efficient 2-for-1. I board at least 1 in against any deck with multiple artifacts: Infect, Amulet, Tron, Lantern Control, Merfolk.
This is good against Amulet and Tron on turn 2 before other land destruction spells can have an effect. Even though the opponent will often have one basic land in their library you will be destroying a land that produces 2 or more mana. As long as I have a land in my sideboard I will add it on the play in any matchup where I am favored and have many low impact cards, in order to avoid mana-screw. Against Bogles the only things that matter are disrupting them, possibly killing Leyline of Sanctity, and then playing Liliana—drawing an extra land instead of 2 creatures or 2 Lightning Bolts does not really matter whereas drawing one too few lands will be the end of the game.
This is an extremely versatile card that you could reasonably sideboard in any matchup but I would not want to draw multiples of in most of these matchups. If it was between this and Dark Confidant or Thoughtseize I would add this against Burn to only kill Eidolon of the Great Revel. Golgari Charm is a needed sweeper against Bogles and Inkmoth Nexus. If you happen to play against UW Control with Supreme Verdict and Detention Sphere a la Yuuya Watanabe, it is also quite good.
This card is a veteran of tournament Magic, Lavamancer is always barely good enough for most fair decks in Modern and Legacy. Lavamancer has such a low mana cost that it cannot ever be that bad of a card. I like it against any deck with lots of creatures, and those with just a few like: Grixis, Jund, and Amulet Bloom (Hornet Queen, and to apply some amount of pressure).