Flow of Ideas - Sideboarding in Limited
“Memnite Memnite Plains Vector Asp go.” I couldn't see my opponent's face through the computer screen but the pause in his first upkeep step told me everything I needed to know. As I expected he had no answer to my MacGyvered Wild Nacatl.
I won and it wasn't close. My Sealed opponent hadn't exactly expected my slow U/G deck that picked up a long game 1 off of a timely Volition Reins to suddenly present three points of power on turn 1 in game 3. That's the beauty of sideboarding in Limited.
But perhaps I should start at the beginning…
Sideboarding in Limited is one of the least respected arts of all time. Despite the gigantic impact it can have on a match it seems to seldom be taken into consideration. Since we established last week that my goal is to steal as many topics from the Limited Talent Search writers as possible what better thing to talk about?
The good news is that players have become a lot better about sideboarding in the past few years. I've found most of my average PTQ opponents have moved on from not even picking up their sideboard between games. Instead they grab their stack of sideboard cards ritualistically flip through them while humming some Rihanna song stop on a card or two feign a trip into the tank then set them back down without making any changes. Or if you're talking about the online scene maybe your opponents just finally figured out that if they take their bathroom breaks while on the deckbuilding screen it makes you think there may be some decisions being made.
I wish I was being entirely sarcastic. I honestly still see a lot of PTQ players taking that route.
However on the whole I have to give credit where credit is due and shed the veil of exaggeration for a moment. Limited PTQs have become a lot harder in the past four years and I think it's partially because many of the reasonable PTQ players have figured out basic elements of Limited sideboarding. Most of the people I ideally don't want to sit across from know to actively scour their sideboard for cards like Wing Puncture. If you've been doing this good work. If you haven't start looking for those Wing Punctures! (Or just try putting them maindeck – I've found it's seldom a dead card.)
However there is far more to sideboarding in Limited than just finding your Wing Punctures. Keep in mind Kenji Tsumura once said you should be sideboarding in every Limited match. While I don't necessarily agree that you should do it every match I think it's certainly correct to sideboard in the majority of Limited games you play.
To help show off the different ways you can sideboard in Limited to your advantage I have broken them down into four sections. I'll explain the premise behind them and then use a few stories and examples to explain what I'm talking about.
1. Sideboarding cards against cards
This is far and away the most popular way to sideboard in Limited. This is the kind of sideboarding most players have picked up on in the past few years to the point that the basics are widely understood.
The premise is fairly simple. Your opponent has presented you with cards that you can better answer with cards in your sideboard. For example if he has a Baneslayer Angel then bringing in Plummet makes sense. Similarly if your opponent has an Umezawa's Jitte you're going to bring in all the Hearth Kami's you have.
The less discussed part is that a lot of people have designated mind space for which cards are sideboard cards and which aren't. Artifact and enchantment removal flying defense and color hosers generally are accepted as the cards you keep on the top of your sideboard pile. The trick to doing this optimally is that sometimes you have to look at other cards and get a little more creative.
For example have you drafted a lot of Masters Edition III? Well for the handful of you that have you might recognize that Karakas is unbelievably powerful in that format. It protects your own creatures from removal while simultaneously Unsummoning your opponent's cards over and over. People would complain about this card endlessly. Clever players who were able to look beyond the typical playability of a card could sideboard against it however.
Evil Presence a 14th-pick “unplayable” common was an answer to Karakas. Was it a good card? No not at all. However when your opponent had Karakas you had to answer it or you lost. When a card's effect is as binary like that – think Umezawa's Jitte – you have to sideboard in your answers no matter how bad they are. I'd happily trade a card for the ability to not just automatically lose.
Did you complain about Sprout Swarm in Time Spiral block? Well how high were you taking Augur of Skulls? Psychotic Episode? Cancel? I just always made sure my decks had answers to Sprout Swarm. You just have to sideboard (or even maindeck) a couple and then you never end up losing to the nefarious green common.
Moving up to present day I had a deck with ton of artifact removal but no good way to deal with colored bombs. My opponent however had Carnifex Demon and Geth Lord of the Vault. My solution? I sideboarded in Liquimetal Coating to good effect despite it not being great in my deck otherwise.
In short there are a lot of opportunities to sideboard reactive cards besides just ones that are explicitly good against a certain kind of card. Make sure to look for those.
2. Sideboarding cards against archetypes
Just like how certain cards are good against other cards there are cards that are good to sideboard in against certain archetypes. In the first category you're sideboarding a card to beat their card. It typically means they have one or more strong cards you specifically need more answers to. In this category you're sideboarding a card that is good against their overall strategy.
One recent example would be Wall of Tanglecord. If your opponent is playing an aggressive deck you should pretty much always bring the Wall in. You're not sideboarding against one or two specific cards as much as you are their whole strategy. The same kind of thing goes for Wing Puncture and fliers.
However just like with the first category you need to look for opportunities that aren't as clear.
One example is with a draw spell. You pick the draw spell and the format. For sake of simplicity we'll say Jace's Ingenuity. Now let's say you manage to draft five copies of Jace's Ingenuity in your blue control deck. You might not want to play all of them because you can't afford for your hand to be clogged on five-cost draw spells all the time against faster decks nor can you afford to draw into more five-cost draw spells. You leave two on the bench.
However if you're staring down a similar slow blue deck you want to bring those extra draw spells in! The player with access to more cards is going to have a gigantic advantage. The same goes for something like Cancel. Interestingly enough this is the exact same principle players use to sideboard in Constructed – yet those same players rarely do it in Limited.
Against infect decks in Scars of Mirrodin Limited you can usually just sideboard in a bunch of cheap weak guys to trade early and mitigate their offense. I'll bring in cards like Dross Hopper and Vector Asp against infect over and over just to stop the initial assault and win the late game.
My last example requires me to turn back the clock back to 2005 pull up an armchair and put on a faux-Gerard Fabiano voice.
I was at a Kamigawa Block Sealed tournament where a thousand dollars were distributed among the Top 8. A grand may not seem that extravagant to all of you kids spoiled by awesome events like the StarCityGames.com Open Series in today's age but it was a big deal back then. Moreover to a 15-year-old kid that money might as well have been encrusted with rubies and diamonds sprinkled with pixie dust and come with fifty free coupons to Baskin-Robbins. I had my bulbous childlike eyes focused on victory.
Anyway I had started off with a round 1 loss and managed to climb my way back up the standings. Finally I was at my win-and-in match. The winner made Top 8 and guaranteed cash. The loser sulked out of the room with a few packs.
I was an aggressive W/R deck and he was a super-slow control deck with a seemingly unending supply of Kamis of Old Stone and other defensive creatures to buy him time. Game 1 I managed to set up a situation where I was able to squeak past his Kamis and deal the last two points. I looked to my sideboard. Nothing there that would help. Shucks.
Before game 3 I went back to my sideboard. There had to be something! Finally my eye caught something. I tanked for a while wondering if I was really going to do this and then slammed it into my deck. I was so determined I don't even think I pulled out a card.
So there we were. My army being held off by his Kamis. He could smell the chocolate aroma of his trip to Baskin-Robbins coming closer and closer with every draw step. But then I drew my sideboarded card – and I had him.
He drew his card and passed licking his lips. “Wait. Combat step?”
Now whenever you opponent says “combat step?” after you pass the turn you know something good can't be about to happen. You just passed the turn so there's no incentive for them to back up. All that can mean is you're about to get blown out. I could see my opponent's eyebrow drip with sweat as he gave me the hesitant go-ahead.
His Kamis rushed into the combat step and then my army rushed to victory the following turn.
The point once again is to examine your sideboarding options. There is often a lot more room to maneuver in Limited sideboard than you may think.
3. Sideboarding archetypes against archetypes
(A.k.a. the switcheroo.)
This category mostly applies to Sealed though it can apply to Draft as well.
Many players have caught on to the simplest form of this method. After deckbuilding or round 1 they'll go to their friends show them their decks and then all collectively come to what the best build is. Then they'll sideboard into that deck every round happy that they “fixed” their deck.
While a good plan it doesn't always work. Why? Because sometimes the best build of your cardpool isn't the best build against your opponent.
After making my initial deck the first thing I do is figure out what my optimal sideboarded decks are going to be against several different archetypes. It's not uncommon for me to have two or three different decks mapped out in my sideboard complete with basic lands as possibilities to bring in.
This kind of planning is especially useful in Scars of Mirrodin Sealed where the deciding factor in one color against another is often as close as a single card. If that single card is suddenly weaker against your opponent it might be time to jump ship. As if that wasn't enough to make sideboarding even more complex most pools have a plethora of artifacts you can bring in and out.
In any case I might for example have a W/R deck that's better against poison than my U/W deck. Maybe switching into green looks better against decks with a lot of fliers because of my triple Wing Puncture. Maybe my R/W metalcraft deck should be eschewed for a U/W fliers or poison strategy if my opponent has the triple Shatter double Revoke Existence pool. The possibilities are endless and really differ with each Sealed pool.
The one that is almost always around though is the beatdown strategy.
In a PTQ the end goal of your Sealed deck is for it to make Top 8 so you can let your draft strategy take over. When you open up a weak pool you can build it most powerfully and hope to power through some opponents that way… but there's no way you're going to beat the competent players with great pools. If I know my deck is outmatched I'll often have a sideboard plan that just goes as absurdly aggressive as possible.
For example at a PTQ two weeks ago I had a Sealed deck that was definitely in that 10% or so of pretty bad Sealed decks. I knew I'd manage to beat bad players and/or players with middling pools with my “best” build but there was no way I could beat the better decks in the room. After winning round 1 I went into a corner and figured out how to sideboard against those decks. It wasn't pretty. Memnite Vector Asp Kuldotha Rebirth Goblin Gaveleer some mediocre equipment – I'll let your imagination fill in the rest of my lineup.
Did I Top 8 the PTQ? No. But my sideboard helped me pull out about three more match wins than I should have. These kinds of decks punish slow decks and stumbling opponents more than your base build could. Those two elements are how you can beat the best decks in the room and ridiculously scrappy fast decks do just that.
As a side note you can do the opposite as well of starting with your beatdown deck with a bad pool and then sideboarding into your “better” deck if the situation warrants it. However by sideboarding into your fast deck instead of starting with it you both catch the opponent who prepared for something slower off-guard with a fast start – that's much better than catching someone who prepared for a fast start with a slow start – and you don't lose to people who can beat you easily. The scrappy beatdown deck often loses to the average deck because they have filler cards that just trade with your small creatures while the better decks often aren't filled with those.
4. Sideboarding archetypes against cards
The fourth and final kind of Limited sideboarding is by far the most uncommon. However it's very important to keep in mind because it's absolutely crucial to know when you need it most.
Simply put if your opponent has one or more cards you absolutely cannot beat you may need to wildly change your deck to beat his individual cards.
A classic example would be something like Worship. If you have no real answers to creature creature Worship besides slogging through the game killing every single creature relying on your opponent just not drawing Worship isn't reliable. It's often worth it to switch into a slightly worse deck that has an answer to the problem. In Draft this may mean splashing green for that late Naturalize you picked up. In Sealed it's easier to do because you can just switch entire colors.
While you don't see cards like Worship that often anymore there are plenty of bombs in a similar vein.
Imagine your opponent has Hoard-Smelter Dragon. You have no way to deal with a non-artifact – and not even any Liquimetal Coatings to save you. To make matters worse most of your good threats are artifacts!
In this case either your deck has to be good enough to kill them before they have a chance to find their Dragon or you need to switch up your deck. You can't just count on them not drawing it unless that is absolutely positively your only option.
The easy example is to sideboard into the aggressive deck I detailed above and try to kill them before that point. Another example would be to swap a color out for white so you can play the Arrest sitting in your sideboard or switch to red so you can play your two Turn to Slags.
Maybe you can't even do that. Maybe you have absolutely no way to deal with a 5/5 red Dragon. Well then the least you could do is sideboard out some of your artifacts.
There are always options.
Options – that's the theme of Limited sideboarding. Especially in Sealed you have plenty of options and tools at your disposal. Yet people don't use them. Utilizing your cardpool to attain its maximum value is how you can pull off those seemingly “unwinnable matchups” and turn that 6-2 into a 7-1. You can even see the results play out in your games. When you make a sideboarding change and you win even if it's just drawing the one sideboard card at the right time you can see how the things you're doing change the game and give you a strategic edge. Plus few things feel better than winning with your single sideboarded card.
Especially with the Grand Prix coming up this weekend use your byes wisely. Figure out how to sideboard against everything and have your options ready and in order to make a quick transition.
Speaking of the Grand Prix I'll see you there! I'm looking forward to a fun weekend of Magic. Feel free to come up and say hi. I always love hearing from readers. After all it's you who help give me the drive to write week after week. If you're not going to Nashville but still have something to say feel free to reply in the forums tweet me @GavinVerhey or send me an e-mail at Gavintriesagain@gmail.com . I'd love to hear your sideboarding stories and advice.
Talk to you soon!