Owen’s a Win – Better Sideboarding

This week I want to talk about sideboarding and how to approach certain matchups generally, applicable to all forms of tournament Magic from Team Sealed to Legacy and everything in between. I started to think about this more and more since my last GP in Nashville because it came up often in Team Sealed, since you usually have a 50-card sideboard—but I often do this in individual Sealed and Constructed as well. The biggest thing to remember here is to have a plan and always do whatever you can with your deck to facilitate that plan.


One tactic that you rarely see is to sideboard out lands. I’m not saying you should sit down with your Red/Green Monsters list next week at FNM and sideboard out four Wooded Foothills against Mono-Red Heroic because it deals you too much damage, that’s obviously very dangerous because there’s a strong chance you won’t have the appropriate amount of red and green mana in your deck to function consistently. There is a very real concern when sideboarding out lands: that you will get mana-screwed and be unable to cast your spells. It’s good to pay attention to this, as losing to your mana is devastating and somewhat avoidable. That said, let me detail some scenarios in which I would sideboard out some mana.

In Limited, if I won the first game and strongly suspect my opponent will choose to play first, I would be more willing to sideboard out a land. The chances of having four lands by turn four with 17 lands in your deck on the play are remarkably similar to having four lands in play by turn four when you have 16 lands in your deck on the draw. Don’t take this as a hard-and-fast rule, I would estimate I sideboard out a land on the draw in about 20% of my Limited matches. Make sure you make an informed decision here. If you do it too often or in the wrong spots it could be disastrous. I like to lower my land count when I am confident some of the following things are true:

  • My opponent’s deck is slow and it’s unlikely I will get run over in the early game.
  • My deck has a low mana curve so even if I don’t draw five lands in a timely manner I can still play many spells and compete.
  • I believe it’s a grindy matchup and the games will go long, in these games you just see a much higher percentage of your deck and lands will be a dead draw later.
  • My deck is two colors. Removing mana sources from a three-color deck is much harder to justify.
  • My deck has a higher-than-average number of removal spells, especially cheap removal. The more removal you put in your deck the higher the chances are that you’ll stunt someones early offense resulting in a long game.

It can often be right to sideboard out lands in Constructed as well. I’ve seen people cleverly side out Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx when they know the opponent’s deck has a ton of spot removal and the effectiveness of the card is reduced. I also can appreciate the Reid Duke school of thought when it comes to sideboarding Voyaging Satyr out of his Mono-Green Devotion lists when he knows his opponent could have access to Anger of the Gods.

Anything you can do to preemptively solve a problem is a smart way to sideboard. The best example I’ve seen of this is in Legacy with Wasteland. Occasionally, I’ll get paired against players who play zero nonbasic lands, either High Tide or some Miracles lists or some other strange deck. The point is, if you know Wasteland won’t be killing lands reliably, then all it does is produce mana—and a land that taps for colorless and has no other abilities is a really bad Magic card. When I play my UWR Delver list against High Tide, I sideboard out all my Wastelands and I’m confident it’s correct. As a land whose sole purpose in the match is to produce mana it’s simply too weak to play and the deck can function off 16 colored mana sources. You just have to be cognizant of the fact that lands are a bit harder to come by and adjust how you use your Ponders and Brainstorms. It’s worth noting that when you configure your deck in this way, you usually draw 2-3 lands and all sweet spells, and making those games happen more often just results in a better matchup.

Play Your Role

One of the things that has helped me improve the most as a Magic player is when I learned to visualize the most likely way for me to win a game, and then to make plays as if that was going to happen. This means taking chances and making unconventional plays—when it doesn’t work, it’s usually in games you wouldn’t have won no matter how you played. If you imagine a hypothetical match between two decks, and one of them is aggressive and only wins quickly and the other is controlling and only wins long, slow games, then each player should know that before the cards get shuffled.

What does this mean for each player? Well if I’m the aggro pilot I would be hard pressed to ever want a card that costs six mana in my deck and I would need to have a long hard think about any card that costs four or five. I would need to know that resolving that card had a high correlation with winning the game outright since it detracts from my main game plan of having a low curve and winning by virtue of having a better draw than my opponent. In the same respect, as the control deck I would need to have good reliable answers to a fast weenie rush and additionally I need to focus on having good win conditions so I can close out long games and never lose games I manage to stablize.

I’ve always felt it was important to assign a role to your plan and keep that in mind as you play. Once again this isn’t set in stone, but if you’re playing a match of Constructed and you’ve sideboarded out threats for more removal, then think of your deck as more controlling, and as long as you have something worth drawing to then you can play defensively. This reminds me of playing 5c Zoo mirror matches a few years back when I would have 2 Geist of Saint Traft main and 2 Thrun, the Last Troll in my sideboard and in the mirror both decks would be all removal spells, but I would have effectively a four-of hexproof win condition. In this matchup I did everything in my power to kill creatures as they came into play and not allow myself to be attacked while also playing all my shock lands tapped, preserving my life total, waiting patiently to draw one of my trump cards. This isn’t a guaranteed way to win but it’s a good plan and it worked often, at worst my opponent had a similar plan and the winner was decided by who had a better draw, but I would gain a huge amount of equity against Zoo players who didn’t adapt.

Know the Options

There is a healthy amount of gamesmanship involved in a match of Magic when it comes to sideboarding. In the middle of a Standard season the “best” strategies are somewhat known and it’s common to anticipate which sideboard cards people will have for your deck, but knowing which ones they could have that are non-traditional and figuring out their hand based on how they play is what separates the good players from the great ones. Deducing your opponent has sideboarded in Anger of the Gods against your Mono-Red Heroic list is easy, but knowing when he has it and is hoping you’ll overextend versus knowing when to press your advantage to reduce his total draw steps that could find it is a true Magic skill. Subtleties in their play can give away what they have.

The most satisfying wins in Magic come from developing this skill. For instance, in Modern when UWR Control used to have a tough time handling Tarmogoyf, after sideboard they would have Threads of Disloyalty in addition to Spell Snare, so I would often just sideboard out all my Tarmogoyfs. I would play matches where people would choose not to kill my creature on turn one, instead waiting until end of turn to leave up Spell Snare, and I just had zero 2-casting-cost spells in my deck! They would end up being forced to Threads of Disloyalty something like a Kird Ape that would turn from a 2⁄3 into a 1/1. They have this card that goes from a 10/10 in the matchup and can singlehandedly win games when it lands on Taromogoyf into a card that’s barely playable—all because of my willingness to sideboard out one of my strongest game-one cards. In situations like this, your level of certainty needs to be very high because there will be times when your opponent is exactly as ill-equipped to deal with one of your cards as you think they are.

I get many questions about sideboarding (though almost all of it is LSV trolling). But if you find sideboarding theory interesting I have some examples of creative solutions to share. It’s pretty rare that there’s a flat-out right answer based on little preparation so often you have to try different builds and play more matches. Thanks for reading and feel free to tell me if you enjoyed this subject, want to hear more about it, or if there’s any other kind of strategy you’d like to discuss.

Owen Turtenwald qazwsxedcrfvtgbyhnuj on Magic Online

OwenTweetenwald on twitter


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