After getting such a positive response about my article last week I figured I would just pick up where I left off. People asked me to write more on the subject—there’s so much ground to cover but I have a few lessons I have learned about sideboarding for Constructed over the years.
One question I like to ask myself when considering a sideboard card is whether my deck can benefit from this card in other ways. If I was playing Affinity in Modern, then certain cards like Spellskite and Pithing Needle shoot up in value because they can act as disruption while also just dealing more damage to my opponent alongside Arcbound Ravager or Cranial Plating. Spellskite has the added bonus of just being a really good card to draw with Arcbound Ravager since you can go all-in and worry about removal less. If you had to make a decision between an anti-Storm sideboard card like Rule of Law or Eidolon of Rhetoric it would depend on many factors, but the answer would depend totally on your deck. A Birthing Pod deck would always choose to have the Eidolon for obvious reasons whereas a deck like Jeskai Control might prefer the Rule of Law as it can’t die to some unforeseen burn spell.
In the same breath I would mention that it’s very important to make sure your sideboard cards aren’t easy to answer. If you’re Affinity in Modern and you sideboard in Pithing Needle to stop a card and you know your opponent has 4 Ancient Grudges in their sideboard, then it’s hard for you to rely on that Needle to solve a problem when at any moment it could be killed. This also goes for any sideboard card—when you know your opponent has cards that neutralize it then it loses some of its effectiveness.
I much prefer to sideboard cards that attack from a different angle. It’s always a strong move to have a sideboard card that helps in the matchup and dodges all your opponent’s removal. You should always be thinking about how your cards match up head-to-head against your opponent’s cards and do everything in your power to make their cards weaker or even completely uncastable. I have run into problems in Legacy where I sideboard in Rest in Peace to stop decks that run Tarmogoyf and Deathrite Shaman only to find my Rest in Peace killed by one of their 4 maindeck Abrupt Decays.
One thing I strive for in Constructed Magic is to have a sideboard card that’s devastating. One match I’ll never forget is Grand Prix DC 2013, deep in Day Two in Top 8 contention, I played a match against Manaless Dredge, and game one was a bit of a one-sided affair in my opponent’s favor. Game two I chose to draw, my opponent passes and I played a land and passed, he discarded to hand size, I played my second land and Rest in Peace and he immediately conceded. Game three my opponent chose to draw and revealed Chancellor of the Annex, I played a land, he discarded to hand size, I played my second land and cast Grafdigger’s Cage paying the additional 1, and my opponent immediately conceded. Multiple turn two kills is pretty difficult to do with a Delver deck but the way my opponent’s deck was constructed he just couldn’t ever beat the cards I had in my sideboard and if I drew them.
If you were to play against a deck that was just 40 Lava Spike 20 Mountain, you would probably sideboard in a Sacred Nectar if somehow you had that card in your sideboard, but you would much rather have a Circle of Protection: Red and even more than the two of those you would rather have Leyline of Sanctity. Usually, you have a ton of options as to what cards you play to try to win certain matchups and it’s a true skill to play the ones you know will win the game the most often. Sometimes that option doesn’t exist and you do have to be content with adding a Pyroblast against a blue-based deck and admitting that all the card can ever do is trade 1-for-1 with another card. In a perfect world, you’d prefer to have a card like Slay against a green deck which can really swing a game instead of supplementing an existing game plan. So keep your eye out for those opportunities since there aren’t many.
Building a sideboard can be difficult at times since there are usually many decks worth trying to improve your matchup against, and an almost unlimited number of options you could go with. One area to focus on is making sure you can take out all your dead cards in matchups where you have them. Making sure to take out all your creature elimination spells against control decks can be a daunting task, but there are huge rewards if you can do it. This often means you pick one card over another because it has a more-than-zero level of usefulness against control if they’re similar in another matchup. Let’s say you had a choice between Pithing Needle and Phyrexian Revoker, assuming they’re similar enough you might choose the Revoker if it let you sideboard out that last useless Doom Blade against a creatureless deck. It’s the sign of a well-built sideboard when you can take out all your dead cards in each matchup, and that’s really only possible when your sideboard cards are flexible and have good uses in more than one matchup.
Last week I wrote about visualizing your route to victory and playing to the strengths of those draws. One great example of this is when I chose to sideboard 4 Meddling Mage in my Jeskei Delver deck in Legacy. It added more blue cards, making Force of Will a more reliable card against the combo decks. It was important to have disruption as well as a beatdown plan against combo and Meddling Mage did both of those things quite well. I liked that my disruption card was also a creature that could carry the various equipment cards in my list. I also liked that my sideboard had Red Elemental Blast so if I were to be paired against Sneak and Show I could use Meddling Mage to name Sneak Attack and Red Elemental Blast to help stop Show and Tell. It was just a unique instance of there being a perfect card that plugged all the holes I needed to fill and Meddling Mage also served a strong role in the Elves matchup as it could name Natural Order and almost never be removed.
It’s risky to ever sideboard in a way where you too badly dilute your deck’s game plan. A good example of this would be if you take too many threats out of your deck in exchange for reactive cards which prolong the game, and by virtue of drawing more cards your opponent will draw more removal, and your deck will have too few creatures to combat that removal. I’ve had this happen to me a few times and often you only realize when it’s too late that you’ve built your deck in a way where you simply cannot win without getting a great hand. You make all logical decisions and take out creatures that are weak against their removal and you add removal that’s great against their creatures but then you run the very real risk of having a deck that rarely performs well.
As much as it’s important to ensure that you have enough cards for each matchup to remove all your weak or dead cards I would stress that it’s almost equally important to not have too cards to add against a matchup where all your cards are already good or a matchup that’s just good enough as is. Sometimes you can play a deck that’s just already great against one of the top decks and without thinking about it too closely you put in five or six cards to help that matchup in your sideboard and when you sit down in a tournament match you realize for the first time that you don’t want to remove any cards from your list and leave cards you intended to play in the board for games two and three. This is a nightmare and should be avoided at all costs, maximizing the value of each sideboard slot can’t be understated.
One thing I try to do consistently when building a sideboard is to make sure I have a plan against decks I feel will be either popular or successful. If I went into a Standard tournament tomorrow I wouldn’t feel the need to have 8 cards against Abzan and 7 against Jeskai in my sideboard, but you had better believe that I will have a plan for what to do if I get paired against those decks. I would be less concerned with a deck such as Mono-Black Aggro which I would expect to show up in small numbers and not be at the top tables as the day goes on. It’s rare I will go in to a tournament with the perception that I have a bad matchup against the decks I expect to be popular and in the same thought I will be totally comfortable having a bad matchup against decks I think won’t be played as much.
When I build a sideboard I like to keep in mind that I should be hard to sideboard against, unpredictable, my cards should be versatile and flexible, and that I should have a plan against each deck to remove bad cards and transform my deck to be a lean machine. My sideboard should feel like a Swiss army knife where I always have the right tool for the job and many of my cards are lights-out for various decks I might get paired against.
I can almost guarantee that if you’re reading this you don’t spend nearly as much time as you should thinking about your sideboard and how you want your deck to perform after sideboard. I can say that with confidence, as I almost certainly don’t spend enough time on it myself!
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