Almost every week, players—even strong performing players—make completely avoidable errors with their sideboards and sideboarding choices. The Naughty List will outline seven common sideboarding mistakes and hopefully how you can avoid them.
1. They Don't Put Sufficient Effort Into Their Sideboards
Sideboarding is probably the easiest, most leverage-able area where you can improve your win percentage. Many top players put insufficient effort into constructing their sideboards. Many good players work and work on choosing their starting sixties…and then kind of hope that the next fifteen figure themselves out.
The simple truth of the matter is that winning sideboarded games is simply more important than winning game ones. Imagine a 2-0 match. In a 2-0 match you play one game one and one sideboarded game. Imagine a 2-1; in a 2-1 you play one game one and two sideboarded games. If you plan on doing well in a tournament, you will very likely play more sideboarded games than maindeck games.
The second point, and the point that makes sideboarding such a leverage-able skill to acquire, is that so many other players are not focusing on sideboarding. Imagine you put together a nice little run at a Grand Prix or an Open and you find yourself sitting across the table from a decorated local Pro Tour Champion. What do you think the chances are that you are going to legitimately outplay him on the merits? Certainly some people reading this are going to be in a camp that can do so, but for the rest of us, if we are going to take down a big name, we are going to get our extra margin somewhere else. He didn't put a ton of work into his sideboard? Strike against. You have the best sideboard you've ever played in front of you…maybe the best sideboard in the room. Heroes!
That might be a nice little delta for the home team.
Here is a small stack of skills related (or not) to the next six points; getting good at any of them will win you many more incremental games than work you are already doing on mere deck selection:
- "Perfect" Sideboard Construction - You have exactly the right number of commuted slots as you have eligible outs across all known [relevant] matchups, such that you never go into a sideboarded game without gaining value (or hopefully with a bad card in your deck).
- Know all your ins and outs ahead of time (BDM says the best thing about Q'ing with a Gerry Thompson deck is the detailed, included sideboarding guide).
- Play / draw plan - Cards like Syncopate gain value on the play and lose value on the draw; the opposite may be true for Pillar of Flame.
- Prediction paradigm - Accurately predicting what your opponent might do will improve your main line plan but may give you insight on the fly for three-game matches. If you know your U/W opponent is going to take out permission for removal, you actually gain an open to resolve a not-main big spell. If your opponent's plan is Bribery, see if there is a way to take out all your creatures. Andre Coimbra's main line plan against Bram Snepvangers in Worlds 2009 was to bring in light removal (e.g. Burst Lightning) for his small creatures; when Bram morphed into a bad White Control deck, Andre deliberately slowed down to out-bomb him.
Magic is a game where the best players largely improve by un-learning all the things they acquired to get past the level of Unconscious Incompetence; if some of these suggestions seem internally inconsistent, it is because the only hard and fast rule is that your greatest likelihood of success comes with the application of the most appropriate tool.
2. They Think They Know What They Want In But Not What to Take Out
“It doesn't say what it means. It won't say what it's got in its pocketses. It knows. It knows a way in, it must know a way out, yes. It's off to the back-door. To the back-door, that's it.
“The goblinses will catch it then. It can't get out that way, precious.”
-Gollum, The Hobbit
The first bit of naughtiness is mostly a mindset issue. Maybe you didn't have the right tools or the right focus. In the case of “too many sideboard cards” players are often super enthusiastic about a particular kind of card (or apprehensive about a particular kind of opponent) but don't pay attention to what they have to take out in order to make room for the 8-12 sideboard cards they think they want in a matchup. All those cards might be good, but if you only have a couple of cards that you can cut from your maindeck for the sideboarded games, you are never going to be able to fit in all your proposed sideboard cards.
If you are planning to do something like bring in 4 Thragtusks and 4 Centaur Healers and 4 Rhox Faithmenders, then you might be in for a full-on repositioning or semi-transformation. I'm not really talking about that, but even then, you had best know which parts of your deck can be upgraded and which need to stick around to keep the lights on.
3. Their Sideboard Cards Offer Little Improvement
This common error is closely related to the previous. Basically, there are hundreds of appropriate cards you can choose to play at any given time. Many of them can be reasonable to play in the deck or strategy you choose, but some offer more help than others, especially when exchanged for cards that actually have some reasonable value in a matchup.
Is a Human Frailty or Deathmark better than a Victim of Night against a G/W deck? Deathmark seems really good against a G/W deck, but it is not going to keep you from getting pounced by a big hit from a Wolfir Silverheart on a Silverblade Paladin, the turn you are about to get whacked for a million. Human Frailty is never going to stop a Wolfir Silverheart! Now of course, highly relevant, one-mana cards are going to be contextually effective against a deck whose main goal is to get the offensive drop on you. The question is whether you have too many cards for the matchup, once you reach the point that your next-worse card is a relevant, cheap removal spell.
You are never going to productively bring all of them in; and worse, you are costing yourself space you could be using for something you actually want, elsewhere.
While it might seem that the greatest sin of an overly redundant or generally low-impact sideboard option is that it spends the day on the bench, remember that we rarely worry over the games we lost because we didn't make room for that one magic bullet before the tournament started. Who knows how many games any of us lose over the course of a lifetime due to unacknowledged, inefficient sideboard space allocation?
4. Their Sideboard Cards Are Actually Not Good At All
Drawing certain sideboard cards should be a cause for celebration. You look at your opening hand, and there is something cheap, something effective, something that should buy you a turn. Pillar of Flame might not be an objective ace in 2012, but when you bring it in (instead of starting it) and your opponent goes first (obviously) and you have it for his Gravecrawler (or even Arbor Elf), you get a sense that all is right with the world. You have lowered your curve and forced him to stumble. Even though you have “just” traded one-for-one, you have taken a puff of wind out of his sails and set yourself, nice and early, on the path to success.
So what happens when you look at your opening hand, see both lands and the cards you just brought in, and that warm and fuzzy feeling isn't there? Or is a bit “off?” What happens, worse yet, when you cast your sideboard cards and your opponent rolls you anywho?
Almost every tournament you will hear a player flipping through their sideboard and comment about how such-and-such wasn't good at all. Sometimes the card they are lamenting will seem strange. Sometimes they attempted a repositioning—even “got there”—and the opponent's ho hum Plan A was still just better.
The problem is probably that the sideboard cards weren't very good.
Last year I commented on the general non-effectiveness of Spellskite in (and against!) my U/R Exarch Twin sideboard and got some raised eyebrows. Over and over the course of the day I was able to beat multiple Spellskites using Jace, the Mind Sculptor; conversely, Spellskite didn't do much for me. I brought it in against another Splinter Twin deck, but what really beat him was Jace's Ingenuity. Later, I had the option of bringing it in against the now-streaking Reid Duke—who was playing B/U Control, exactly the kind of deck that might be punished by a Spellskite. I didn't bother (move Go for the Throat to my…oh, never mind).
Many players will lament that they don't have the time to test, or at least to test sideboards. There is not much a primer like this can do to help those players but to give this piece of advice: If you don't have time to do a lot of sideboard testing, you can avoid this bit of naughtiness by not-notconforming. If you have some sort of strange switch or you are trying a new and different way to attack the mirror or the meta, maybe you shouldn't. I am all for new and different (and exciting) (and hopefully groundbreaking) explorations, but if you are actually concerned about the amount of time you can put into sideboard testing, tried and true might be the better route for you. Successful sideboard cards have to be about four times as effective as their maindeck brethren; opportunity cost matters with sideboards to a degree that is simply not measured by most players. Have you heard of “addition by subtraction?” By “gaining,” or at least not losing, by removing negative elements?
Strong candidacy here.
5. Their Imaginations Fail
What does your deck want to be when it grows up?
When you step back and look at your 75—not as a 60 and as a separate 15 but as the 75 as a whole—what four-ofs do you see and how are they split up?
Patrick Chapin likes to say that most of his decks don't work at all unless he gets to use all 75; that is not the attitude of a mage who even thinks of the main and the side as different entities.
Brian Kibler likes to talk about being able to “be” more than one deck and that which cards you put at your starting sixty are a reflection of the deck you want to show the majority of the metagame…but isn't the only deck that you can show opponents. When Kibler won Pro Tour Austin, there was initially some concern about his inability to sideboard very much against opposing Zoo decks—who were often doing so much against him—until it was realized that Kibler started out sideboarded against the dominant Zoo archetype. With his Baneslayer Angels and Grove of the Burnwillows engine, Kibler's default was better at what it wanted to do than most Zoo players could bring to bear in anti-aggressive sideboard games!
Later, when playing Caw-Go (not Caw-Blade, its predecessor), Kibler talked about wanting to play four Spreading Seas; he might not have been able to play all four in his maindeck, but he made sure that between his maindeck and sideboard he would be able to present a deck with four Spreading Seas should the need arise.
Many of the very best 75-card compositions have this ability to present a beatdown deck versus a removal deck or a true control deck versus a board control deck; it isn't about minor cosmetic changes for them, even when they only seem to be taking out 3-4 cards for a couple from the other pile. It is about picturing a particular destination as a deck—and another, and maybe another—and being able to get to that place or sub-composition depending on who is across the table.
6. They Have Nothing for Midrange
Interesting bit of learning I went through this week.
I really like a deck and am trying to concentrate on just that deck for the next couple of weeks, especially through the holiday lull time, and hopefully play it in GP Atlantic City. No cards are changing between now and the Grand Prix, and we have seen a tremendous variety of viable strategies from the day Todd & co. broke it open with their U/R/W Miracles to the fall of G/B Zombies to the rise of B/R Rakdos to the truly special run of the ever-apologizing Reid Duke and his truly special Overgrown Tomb Bant deck to the rambling wreck of Omnidoor. New discoveries and innovations are being made every week, but like I said, there is a lull time happening, and no new cards are being added.
I decided that I wanted something against [other] midrange decks. I tried Garruk, Primal Hunter but found GGG too hard to muster. Borderland Rangers or no, I had two Forests, and Cavern of Souls don't make planeswalker colors.
I settled eventually on Collective Blessing.
This ended up a nasty net of naughtiness, actually, and ultimately a violation of point #4; I think Collective Blessing ended up making my deck worse, actually. I wanted to make my Borderland Rangers matter, especially if my target opponents would be so polite as to keep in their contextually low-impact Centaur Healers or Loxodon Smiters. The problem was that I was putting in all Mizzium Mortars (and Pillar of Flame if they had Avacyn's Pilgrim), and my deck is mostly dudes, which meant I was siding out Thundermaw Hellkite (curve) and other random folks.
So I had this Collective Blessing that is mad expensive…with far fewer creatures to take advantage of it than I started with!
Like I said: #4 violation.
But at least I was prepping for midrange.
A very common sideboarding shortcoming is having swaths of cards for control (Slaughter Games your Sphinx's Revelation) and for fast aggro (typically point removal while lowering the curve, relying on a deck's natural tendency to card advantage) but having nothing for decks that aren't firmly in one of the game's three cardinal directions. If you've ever lost game one to a creature deck, moved to add your Repeals, and realized the creatures that just beat you were all Eternal Witnesses, you might have had this problem.
What do you mean a utility creature?
Shouta Yasooka and Yuuya Watanabe exploited #6 during their respective runs at the Players Championship. Yasooka went through most of his Modern opposition exploiting the fact that “blocking” and “gaining life” were not solutions to a deck full of tempo two-for-ones; also the only solution to Aether Vial was banning. Once he hit the finals, Yasooka's wonderful run came to an end when it was revealed that “tempo two-for-ones” were no solution to Olivia Voldaren.
Earlier this Standard season I commented that I thought Bant Control was the hardest kind of deck to sideboard against. Now that Reid has shown us a hyper-focused (if relatively permission-poor) Bant deck, that is no longer true. However the early Bant deck combined Jace, Architect of Thought, permission, removal, and the showtime creatures we typically associate with Selesnya or Naya non-control decks…
How are you supposed to sideboard against that Bant? They can beat you with Jace; they can beat you with Thragtusk. They are faster than most decks with Farseek. They have more card advantage than you with Sphinx's Revelation. Detention Sphere? Fighting their permanents point-by-point might be counterproductive, as they can always trade with value (Jace drew 1-2, Thragtusk leaves behind a 3/3 + 5).
There is no single, simple solution to the midrange problem. Do you perhaps see how I failed in the particular direction of Collective Blessing? Unless you are a deck like Rakdos or the four-Drownyard control deck, where you push every effort in a single direction, beating certain decks is about figuring a paradigm where you can get a substantial advantage on the field of battle (which might just be the battlefield). Make them react, rather than forcing you to react to so many different, all-effective things.
Especially today, where in the face of an Omnidoor we still see vanilla Naya decks winning big tournaments, make sure you keep an eye open for midrange.
7. They Make The Other Player's Cards Good
How to Do It Right:
One of my favorite sideboards ever was the Mono-Black Control from 2003 Championship Season with Laquatus's Champion as the anti-Compost swap. We started with a deck Josh Ravitz got from Kai Budde and figured out a way to beat the one card that theoretically held MBC in check. I beat Compost and double-Compost all tournament.
In the win-and-Q round, I was up against Astral Slide, which was basically my best matchup, essentially un-lose-able. However I got flooded in game one and never played a land in game three, which is why the matchup was “essentially” un-lose-able instead of actually un-lose-able. The deck and sideboard were great, though, and I still have a gem of a game two to remember.
I knew that my opponent would not be able to take out all his removal. Part of my advantage was that he had all this removal, and I didn't need to beat him in a traditional attacking sense. I sided in Laquatus's Champion, knowing he would not take out his Lightning Rifts and could not take out all his sweepers. He stalled the Champion with Starstorm and Akroma's Vengeance (both still synergistic with his cycling theme) but could not ever actually remove it. It was very satisfying (you know, until five minutes later, when I failed to beat my best matchup for the Blue Envelope).
Still, I got it right.
All decks have fundamental limitations. Even a Battle of Wits deck that has 240+ maindeck cards can only bring in and swap out a maximum of 15 cards. One of the most common sideboarding errors is a mismatch between cards you want to bring in and cards you can afford to take out (#2, above). As such, you'll often find opponents who simply can't remove a sufficient amount of deadweight. When you have an opponent in this kind of a situation, the worst thing you can do for yourself is make their bad cards good.
An excess of creature removal is the most common issue for the opponent. He has too much creature removal! Your default sideboard plan is to bring in some sort of surprising creature.
Except that is terrible when the opponent has an excess of creature removal!
All your clever sideboard card has done is give him something to kill.
Earlier this year I made a run for Top 8 at the Baltimore Standard Open. I lost early so had to play the last round but was ecstatic to be going for Top 8 under the lights, as I was x-0 on camera that weekend, and most players—unused to Magic as a spectator sport—tend to play a bit worse when others are watching. Sadly I lost that win-and-in under the lights, in a Delver mirror where my draws were all awful, and his draws were all awesome. *
Along the way to losing the only Delver mirror that mattered (and picking up a double kick-in-the-junk at 17th money), I beat every G/R deck that the metagame put in front of me, including on camera twice, both Wolf Run Ramp variations and Jackie Lee aggro decks. Lots of these G/R decks! The paradigm I worked hardest on in preparation was making their Ancient Grudges bad. My deck had Pikes and Swords main and in the side more equipment. Many players at the time would reach for Sword of War and Peace against G/R Jackie Lee. It is obvious, right? They are red, and their plan is to Galvanic Blast your Delver of Secrets. Sword of War and Peace gives your Delver protection from red. Yeah! Their plan is to deal lots of damage with Hellrider and Kessig Wolf Run. Sword of War and Peace gains life. Yeah!
If your plan was based on equipment, you were just investing four or more mana to give them a two-for-one. It is hard to imagine a worse situation, but I can imagine one for you.
You are so happy. You have Sword of War and Peace to apply to your Geist of Saint Traft. You rumble into his two 2/2s, thinking to yourself “This is The Abyss,” as you make a 4/4. He can only block with his Wolf token because Huntmaster of the Fells is red.
AND HE STILL HAS HALF AN ANCIENT GRUDGE FOR YOUR NEXT EQUIPMENT.
My sideboarding plan seemingly de-powered my deck a little bit and involved one particular bit of strangeness. Certainly my Wolf Run opponents raised an eyebrow right before Jace, Memory Adept got them. Jace, Memory Adept was very adept at drawing me the Dissipates for their Primeval Titans, thank you very much. At the end of every successful campaign against these Gruul hordes, I asked if they had Ancient Grudges.
At least three different times, they had Ancient Grudges in hand.
Point being, if your sideboard doesn't take into consideration the kinds of cards the opponent will have in their sideboarded games, you are going to be much less successful. SURPRISE! is good; being surprised [by your own lack of foresight]…not so much.
* How else could I possibly lose?