April 7, 2017

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Going for the Gold – Building Your Sideboard

I hope everyone found last week’s article on Optimizing your Hand Selection very insightful. If you didn’t get a chance to read it yet, I implore you to check it out here. The concepts I discussed are applicable across both the Limited and Constructed formats. However, today we'll dive into a topic that is only applicable to constructed formats by tackling how to build your sideboard.

Sideboarding is one of the most unappreciated and misunderstood parts of magic that's often not even considered until the end of the deck building process.

Your sideboard can contain anywhere between 0 and 15 cards.

The first tip that I have to give you is that you should always maximize your deck's flexibility. You do this by utilizing all 15 slots in your sideboard. The only reason that this rule exists is because when sideboards had to be fifteen cards, there were also a few players that would include less and receive a FEEL BAD game loss. Anyways, in order to build your sideboard you need to ask yourself the following questions:

What does the format currently look like?

Most healthy Standard formats have somewhere between 3-5 viable decks and your sideboard should be built in anticipation of facing one of those decks. Even if your deck is horrible versus “Mono Blue Ninjas”, if no one plays it, then you have no reason to put cards in your sideboard to help you against it. Also, sideboard cards are best used against decks that you're not too good against or need some help with which brings us to our next question…

What are my weakest matchups or do I need help against a certain matchup?

Typically, no single deck will exist in a format for too long without having a “bad” matchup. Even when you consider Mardu Vehicle’s current dominance in Standard, the mirror match has completely influenced its sideboarding options.

One purpose of sideboarding is to shore up your bad matchups, either with certain cards or a transformational sideboard. If you are weak against early aggressive artifacts you would bring in some artifact removal to help you in your post-sideboarded games. This is a case where certain cards help your deck get to the late game by bringing in extra targeted removal.

However, if your game plan is inherently weak against what your opponent is bringing to the table, it might be useful to go a different route. We saw this strategy frequently employed with the Aetherworks Marvel decks that would transform into an Energy aggressive deck after sideboard. Typically, players shaved a lot of their creature removal in the post-sideboarded games which made this transformational sideboard plan even that much more potent. Of course, these transformations are much more effective if your opponent doesn't know about them, so it really depends on where the metagame currently is.

Regardless of which option you choose, I would always recommend shuffling in your 15 cards as to not tip off your opponent to how many cards you'll be bringing in against them. You may think you're saving some time by just boarding in a few cards, but that information is critical to an observant opponent who can usually deduce what cards you'll be bringing in as a result.

Now that I have identified my sideboard cards, how much of each do I want?

Identifying the cards you want in your sideboard is the biggest part of the process. However, the final step is understanding how you would be bringing in those cards and how they would affect your deck as a whole.

For example, if you're bringing in Radiant Flames for a very weak matchup against an aggressive deck, then you'll want to make sure that you are able to cast it by turn 3. This is dependent on two things: Your mana being able to cast it appropriately, and the likelihood that it's in your hand by this time. If I lose the matchup every time I don't have the sideboard card on turn 3, then I will usually sideboard between 3-4 copies of the card depending on the deck's prevalence in the metagame. This number also shifts when you consider how much deck manipulation/cantrips you're playing. The more cards you're able to see, the less copies of the sideboard card you'll need.

At Pro Tour Milwaukee in 2016, I sideboarded 4 copies of Radiant Flames in my Jeskai Black deck, while most of the Jeskai Black players were okay with having 2 copies. The R/G aggressive decks were very strong and made up a large amount of the field. This is a deck that I did not want to lose to, so I prepared my sideboard accordingly.

When you're bringing in extra removal spells or counterspells, you don't need to have many copies, especially if it's bolstering your deck's main deck capability to answer threats. If you are playing cards that are good upgrades but not necessary in the early game, then it's okay to have fewer copies. You see this with extra threats such as Planeswalkers.

After identifying your 15 sideboard cards, it is very important to cross reference with your main deck, by going through the sideboarding process. Make sure that you are not committing any egregious deck violations such as:

  1. Deck no longer has a cohesive game plan
  2. Too many threats in a reactive deck
  3. Clunky because the mana curve has been adjusted after sideboarding
  4. Too much of an unnecessary effect
  5. Some sideboard cards only offering slight upgrades
  6. Some sideboard cards not being brought in against any deck because they do not fit the game plan.

An Example:

Okay so now let’s run through these notions with an example of how I used this in Standard and I'll show you how I tackled building a sideboard for Pro Tour Dublin 2017. Remember that this was with imperfect information about the format. For reference, here is the RB deck that I played.

Every time I look at this decklist, I cannot believe that I only played 3 Unlicensed Disintegration.

Okay that was my quick aside....

So I expected that the format would be the following decks, ordered by most popular first:

  1. Jeskai Saheeli
  2. G/B Energy / Midrange Decks
  3. Mardu/4c Vehicles
  4. Amalgam Zombies

Jeskai Saheeli was expected to be at least 30% of the format and this drove the deck choice. After sideboarding, I expected them to move toward a more wrath heavy deck, so I knew I wanted some Planeswalkers and discard spells. In testing, we found that GB was very weak to Fatal Push and I knew that I wanted to be able to take out their huge Winding Constrictors with a single mana which really helped keep up the tempo in the matchup. Also in situations, where the GB deck was able to stall the board, it was crucial to have a falter effect to give the deck some additional reach. It came down to Key to the City and Destructive Tampering, and we settled on the former.

The mana base of the current iteration of Mardu Vehicles decks gave RB the advantage but we wanted to be able to remove their early drop and also discard one of their removal spells, so we landed on Collective Brutality. This was a toss up between Release the Gremlins and it was clearly wrong in hindsight. Finally, we had Amalgam Zombies in our gauntlet at the start of testing and it always did medium so I was afraid that some players would show up with it and Kalitas really shines in that matchup.

Cards Identified:

Now that we've identified the cards, we wanted to figure out which were more crucial than others. Against Saheeli, we wanted to top up to 4 Chandras so we added the 2 to the sideboard. In addition, Transgress was very important to help poke holes in their shields, so we wanted 4 copies. This was supposed to be the most popular deck, so it was worth the investment. Against GB, we were torn between 3-4 copies of Fatal Push since we wanted it as early as turn 2, and in hindsight we should have played 4 copies. Key to the City was a card that we didn't want to draw early against GB or have multiple copies as it was too negative of a tempo swing, so we chose to run 2 copies to hedge. This gave us 4 slots remaining and we chopped it in two between Kalitas and Collective Brutality.

Final Sideboard:

2 Chandra, Torch of Defiance
2 Collective Brutality
3 Fatal Push
2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
2 Key to the City
4 Transgress the Mind

I hope that you found that walkthrough to be helpful! Anyways, how do you feel about the change in pace of these articles? Did you like it, hate it, or are you indifferent? Either way, I'd love to hear from you. Also, let me know what you think about my decisions and if you agree or disagree. Post in the comments below or tweet at me (@SammyTMTG), and if you want to keep up with my articles and happenings, please make sure you hit the follow button for Twitter @ SammyTMTG. I’ll see you next week for another article on improving your magical skills!

Until then,

Sammy T