November 26, 2015

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Going Rogue: The Transformative Sideboard

Hello and welcome back to Going Rogue, where winning isn't the goal, but it often happens anyways.

Remember that sealed prerelease you did a few years back, where you couldn't decide between the black-red aggro deck, or blue-white control... so you did both? Bringing a second set of sleeves to a sealed event is a must, because sometimes your second best 23-or-so cards turn out to be the better of possible matchups, and after game one, you completely transform your deck.

Ah yes, the transformative sideboard. Every Johnny's dream. "Next levelling" your opponent into what they think is the right sideboard decision, only to have it turned completely on its head.

Porting that concept over to constructed, however, turns out to be a very different story. For one, you only have 15 cards to work with, including lands. And more importantly, Modern decks are obviously tuned a lot more tightly than your average sealed pile, and compromises made for the sake of flexibility can seriously hurt your main strategy.

Sometime last year, I was habitually playing UWr Geist Control, and decided that I wanted to try sideboarding into a URw Delver tempo build. The idea made sense, as they are very different decks to play against, and catching an opponent off-guard could really swing the early game in my favour, which Delver decks are built to capitalize on.

UWr Control to URw Delver Transformative Sideboard Plan

-4 Celestial Colonnade
-1 Glacial Fortress
-2 Path to Exile
-2 Restoration Angel
-2 Cryptic Command
-2 Geist of Saint Traft
-1 Supreme Verdict
-1 Sphinx's Revelation
+4 Delver of Secrets
+4 Monastery Swiftspear
+2 Serum Visions
+2 Vapor Snag
+2 Spell Snare
+1 Forked Bolt

It was a very fun strategy that got a few laughs and would often get the job done. A turn one Delver or Swiftspear against an opponent that likely boarded out (or mulliganed away) their cheap removal is backbreaking, and fighting against control-breakers like Keranos, God of Storms suddenly became very easy.

But it didn't come without its costs. For one, I had access to zero silver bullets in the sideboard, effectively cancelling out one of White's best strengths. Second, I also had no access to control tweaks, such as adding my own Keranos, or increasing the number of Supreme Verdicts, making improvements control mirrors or decks like Zoo or Merfolk fairly awkward. Third, Pyroclasm is a common sideboard answer to Geist of Saint Traft, which Delver is also weak to. And finally, I had to make some not-ideal compromises in each version of the deck, playing two copies of Serum Visions in the control build, and playing White at all in the tempo version.

So while not a total flop of a tactic, 90% of its value was fun factor. Strategically speaking, I would have been better off with a traditional sideboard nine times out of ten.

But that doesn't mean the idea is completely shot. There are a few real Modern decks that often exploit the same principle without devoting the entire sideboard to it. The whole idea, after all, is to just stay one step ahead of your opponent's sideboard adjustments. So when, for example, you're playing Ad Nauseam and your opponent boards out all their removal, bringing in a few Grave Titans or Dragonlord Dromokas can be absolutely devastating - especially in a deck that can usually play them by turn four. A little move like that can massively punish your opponent for sideboard decisions that were technically correct.

Now since this is a column about having fun, I'm of the belief that there are still several other welcome homes for the transformative sideboard approach, and I'm going to suggest one here.

Black-White tokens is a very good Modern deck. It generates great value without any actual card advantage by virtue of downgrading all opposing spot removal (other than Abrupt Decay), it hits fast and hard in the air, and if you have an answer, you'd better play it quick before you fall victim to its heavy maindeck hand disruption spells like Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek. On the other hand, it's very weak to post-board sweepers, folds like a house of cards to Spell Pierce, and has no powerhouses to help you come back from behind.

Esper Polymorph, on the other hand, is a terrible deck. It is a gross bastardization of BW Tokens that seeks to use Polymorph or Proteus Staff to hocus-pocus a Spirit token into Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. A clever idea, if not for the fact that its #1 weakness is spot removal in response to its cheat-in attempts - completely negating the #1 strength of the BW tokens shell it resides in. Wah wah.

But what if we started out as one, and became the other?

Enter: Esper Tokens Emrakul. Here's my commercial for it:

Are you tired of your old boring tokens deck? Has playing with no colours, only shades, got you down? Does the sight of yet another 1/1 white creature make you sick? Then you need Esper Tokens Emrakul ©.

This take on the deck is going to look an awful lot like BW Tokens at first, with the option of sideboarding into an Emrakul-cheater if the situation calls for it.

However, I'm going to want to do a few things differently in the main. For one, since we're playing Windbrisk Heights also have access to Thirst for Knowledge, our one-of Emrakul, the Aeons Torn can actually live in the mainboard. And at the same time, if our sideboard strategy involves discouraging spot removal, let's push that to a new extreme and try to discourage Abrupt Decay by also cutting Bitterblossom and Intangible Virtue, giving it very few legitimate targets.

Yes, I know these are two of the deck's best cards, but we can do reasonably well by replacing them with their jankier cousins that contribute better to the effectiveness of our transformation plan:

These cards might seem like only limited all-stars, but they're terrific here unless we run into the rare maindeck Pyroclasm. This extra-wide approach also enables us to add in blowout cards like Hour of Reckoning and weird potential gems like Unified Will.

The wider and harder we go, the better our odds are of having our opponent sideboard aggressively for answers. What better set-up is there for total disappointment? Then comes the sideboard strategy. What happens when you go from wide and fat to narrow and tall?

The best spell we have to support Big E is Polymorph, so we are definitely bringing in the full four. Proteus Staff is the next-best option here that truthfully, I'd like to skip, but for matters of reliability would suggest playing two. And frankly - that's it. Our entire sideboard transformation plan can be supported by only six cards, so we still get to keep elements of a regular sideboard.

Let's take a look at what I'm suggesting for the full list.

Just like anything else brewed in this column, I'm not suggesting that this is the most competitive deck you could play with, but at the very least it is a great use of surprise sideboard tactics, and a clever way to make Esper Polymorph actual work, rather than falling flat to Lightning Bolt - not what Emrakul is supposed to do.

Do you have any fun sideboard stories to share? Let me know in the comments. It's always great to hear about when a little creativity goes the extra mile.

Otherwise, that's all for this week. Until next time, have fun, and may the force be with brew.