For those of you who were looking forward to some strategy content, thank you for your patience. This week I will be expounding on the role that strategic and tactical decisions have in sideboarding and how lack of deference to the differences between these two concepts can and will hurt your ability to produce effective sideboard plans. To begin, I will make it clear what is meant by the terms, "strategy" and "tactics."
A strategy is the overarching plan one takes into a game or match. Perhaps the most common strategic question players seek to answer is " Who's the beatdown?" so as to assess the proper role for a given matchup. When we say that one deck has the control role or another is the aggressor, we are making a statement about the strategy these decks are employing. Strategies tend to be abstract and are mostly independent of the specific cards being used although certain types of cards are commonplace for well-understood strategic archetypes throughout Magic's history. Many control decks employ cheap removal and countermagic to buy time until its more powerful spells can produce a victory where aggro-control decks often use cheap threats and a few key disruption spells to secure victory in the early-midgame. Ultimately though, it is how these cards are used that defines the strategy rather than the cards themselves.
For most decks, the chosen strategy is independent of the opposing deck. A Rabble Red deck is going to try and overwhelm all of its opponents in the early game with a swarm of small creatures and some burn spells. A U/W Control deck is going to try to extend the game as long as possible and establish an overwhelming resource advantage with Sphinx's Revelation. And the Goblin Charbelcher deck is going to try and ruin everyone's good time by not letting them play Magic. The most notable exception to the rule is the midrange archetype. Because these decks position themselves for the midgame, they cede early initiative to more aggressive decks, forcing them to adopt a controlling role early on until they are able to turn the corner. Against control decks, they adopt a more aggressive strategy. In both cases, they look to win in the midgame, but they do so in very different ways, solely dependent on what their opponent is doing.
Alternatively, tactics are the set of individual plays and decisions made to accomplish a predetermined strategy. Common examples include: holding spot removal spells to make a sweeper more effective, making poor attacks to put an opponent in burn range, and holding a counterspell for a sweeper instead of using it on a card draw spell. It is important to note that these examples aren't hard rules that should be followed at every opportunity. It may be too risky to hold a Last Breath against a Rabble Red deck in favor of getting more value next turn from your Supreme Verdict as you would fall within burn range. Tactical decisions, unlike strategic ones, are always made within the appropriate context. The context of these decisions is determined by countless factors, including board texture, life totals, the cards in your hand, and the possible cards in your opponent's hand. But most importantly, all tactical decisions must be made within the context of your assumed strategy for the game. When players talk of having a plan for a game and executing it, what they mean is creating a viable strategy and using that to guide your tactical decisions.
Given these definitions, my concern in this article is how strategic and tactical decisions influence sideboarding. Given that you change only a small portion of your deck while sideboarding, it is a process dominated by tactical decisions. There is not enough space to make a complete shift in strategy, and even in the cases when one does employ a transformational sideboard, it often leaves you with several cards that are ill-equipped for the new strategy, but are left in out of necessity. As such, a transformational sideboard should only be utilized when one does not have any viable tactical options.
A great example of this dynamic occurs in the match-up between Mono-Blue Devotion and UW/x Control. Mono-Blue Devotion is a focused, swarming aggressive deck that uses powerful devotion cards to take advantage of getting on the board early with cheap but underpowered creatures. Cards like Cloudfin Raptor, Master of Waves, and Thassa, God of the Sea are all optimized when you develop as large a board as possible. Unfortunately, without the speed or reach of other aggressive decks, this leaves the blue player hopelessly ill-prepared for Supreme Verdict outside of Mutavault, which incidentally is the most important card in the matchup.
The traditional means for an aggressive blue deck to fight sweepers is to slow down and incorporate a few counterspells so you can develop a reasonable clock while not being vulnerable to a sweeper or other similarly powerful spell like Jace, Architect of Thought. Unfortunately, Supreme Verdict is uncounterable so we are forced to make a more drastic strategic adjustment. Without the tools to end the game early, you must interact well into the middle and lategame, taking advantage of the sparse threat density in the control deck by overloading on counterspells and judiciously saving them for the powerful threats like Jace, Architect of Thought, Elspeth, Sun's Champion, and Sphinx's Revelation provided X is reasonably large. This new strategy allows you to extend a single creature at a time to the board and deal damage in small increments while answering their big threats as necessary.
Under this new strategy, you should not be concerned with spot removal spells, confident that if you are able to keep the major threats from resolving, that you will have enough time to do the full twenty damage even if it takes twenty turns. Whereas pre-board you are forced to employ a strategy of blind aggression due to the strategic superiority of the control deck, you now employ one predicated on incredible patience. Ideally, such a strategy would include more robust individual threats, but with limited sideboard space you are forced to leave in weak creatures like Tidebinder Mage, and the rather anemic clock presented by an individual creature can give the control player a chance to overwhelm your counterspells. But the plan is much more sound than praying they do not draw a Supreme Verdict on time.
Hope is never an effective strategy.
As mentioned above, sideboarding is largely driven by tactical decisions. Most of the time we are making fine adjustments rather than sweeping changes. It is also an entirely reactive process where each change made is driven by what strategy and tactics your opponent uses. I think the latter is what gets many into trouble when sideboarding, as they seek to have a specific card that answers each threat or scenario that arises in the matchup, even if that answer is unwieldy or outside the scope of their strategy. This leads to the well-known mistake of over-sideboarding and cutting too much of the core of the deck, rendering it impotent. In a typical control deck, overloading on reactive answers is exactly what you want to be doing: trading resources in the early game and taking over with powerful cards later on, but in focused proactive decks, aggro and combo for the most part, each reactive card you add is one that does not support your strategy.
It may sound like I am advocating removing all the reactive cards from your proactive decks, but such decks are almost always too vulnerable to consistently succeed against opponents prepared with the proper interactive cards (Goblin Charbelcher, meet Force of Will). What is important is to be judicious in your use of them since the core of your strategy requires so much space to be effectual. Due to lack of space, these reactive cards also need to be flexible since they will be taxed with answering a wide range of cards from your opponent. In the ideal scenario, they do more than simply serve as an answer, so they can contribute to the proactive plan when necessary. Burn spells give red aggressive decks reach, Selesnya Charm can be a threat or combat trick, and Rapid Hybridization serves as a pseudo-counter to opposing removal spells.
As an example of an ill-conceived sideboard answer, consider Ratchet Bomb out of Mono-Blue Devotion. In theory, this card can effectively answer Pack Rat out of Mono-Black Devotion and Mistcutter Hydra from the various green midrange decks (Jund Monsters, Jund Walkers, Mono-Green Devotion). It does not answer much of anything outside of those cards as it is much too slow to effectively answer something like Desecration Demon or a planeswalker, and it contributes absolutely nothing to the primary gameplan. It does not even provide devotion while it accrues counters. Against these midrange decks, keeping them from turning the corner from defense to aggression is the key dynamic of the games, and while Ratchet Bomb can answer some problematic cards, the time given up in doing so is far too high a price. Many players are surprised when I explain that my "answer" to cards like Pack Rat and Mistcutter Hydra is winning the race. Rat is largely ineffective on the draw against a reasonable curve while still losing the best starts on the play. Hydra needs to be played with X of at least four or it risks trading with a token from Rapid Hybrdization, and as long as you have applied sufficient pressure, a 4/4 will not be able to race. I accept that I will lose games to Pack Rat and Mistcutter Hydra, but trying to win in every possible scenario is misguided. The goal is to maximize the number of games you do win, and admitting that there are some draws that you are ill-equipped to beat is a part of that. Bending your deck to try and steal some of those games will create more losses than it does wins by costing you in other games.
Now consider Domestication. This card, while not answering a single Desecration Demon (if they have two you can take one and sacrifice it to the other), is a perfect way for Mono-Blue Devotion to answer opposing creatures while furthering its aggressive strategy. Taking something as innocuous as Lifebane Zombie against Mono-Black Devotion is a huge swing in board presence which is key in the matchup since the Black deck is trying to reach a boardstate where they can turn the corner and become the aggressor. Against smaller aggressive decks, Domestication allows the Blue player to turn the corner itself. It is a seemingly reactive removal spell that operates on a proactive level that harmonizes with the rest of the deck.
An effective method that I have found for avoiding the temptations of overboarding is to begin by thinking about what cards should come out first, rather than immediately reaching for your sideboard and thinking about what cards should come in. It is a subtle difference, but it shifts your mindset away from the optimism that narrowly powerful cards can create and allows you to more readily examine what you are willing to lose from your maindeck.
Sideboarding in Limited
The oft underutilized Limited sideboard operates under these same principles, although the much smaller card pool muddles the context quite a bit. Limited decks gravitate towards the midrange, lacking the proper tools to execute a more focused strategy. Still, newer players often miss the minor tactical adjustments and bold strategic shifts made by those with more experience.
As we saw in Constructed, newer players are overly concerned with bringing in answers to specific cards. The most common examples of this are bringing in Disenchant effects and color hosers. It is not difficult to see that Dark Betrayal is going to be effective against your opponent's heavy black deck. The more subtle adjustments that should be made when sideboarding in Draft and Sealed revolve around changing your creature suite to matchup more effectively against that of your opponent. Does your opponent have several copies of Warpath Ghoul? Then that Pillarfield Ox is going to be quite good. In the opposite scenario, bring out those Warpath Ghouls for something that can trade or at least swarm the 2/4. Do they have a more aggressive curve that you are struggling to keep up with? Bring in those Bronze Sables and stay at parity. These are not major shifts in our gameplan, just minor changes that give you a tactical edge. When made explicit, these decisions seem rather obvious, but it is very easy to fall into the trap of evaluating cards in a vacuum and ignoring those that are labeled bad. As always in Magic, context is king.
In addition to these minor adjustments, there are times when you need to make more drastic changes when your deck is largely outclassed. When your opponent has multiple bombs that you cannot answer, trying to play a typical game of Magic against them will not end well. They have inevitability so the onus is on you to end the game as quickly as possible. Bring in those Fugitive Wizards and Coral Merfolk and beat down. You are not going to be a favorite either way, but with the right cards you could very easily be better going with a pile of last picks and a more effective strategy. Similarly, if you feel like you have inevitability, that Divination may be unnecessary. Consider another blocker to ensure you stay at parity until your bombs take over.
At the heart of all these decisions is the need to constantly ask questions and reevaluate. What is my plan against a turn 4 Desecration Demon? How about a Supreme Verdict? Advent of the Wurm? Does that change if the Advent is accompanied by Thoughtseize, Hero's Downfall, and Ajani, Mentor of Heroes as opposed to Soldier of the Pantheon, Fleecemane Lion, and Selesnya Charm? Every card in your sideboard should be justified as part of a cohesive whole. With an understanding of the fundamental goals of your deck, sideboarding becomes much more dynamic as you react to slight deviations in your opponent's deck from the stock list or someone who plays the matchup in an unexpected way. You often hear great players say they rarely sideboard the same way twice. That is due to the sheer number of variables that can come into play when making sideboarding decisions. Trying to come up with a universal plan is myopic at best. Instead work towards developing a fundamental understanding of your deck, and let your strategy guide your decisions; you will find your intuition develops to the point that these decisions become continually easier.