You’ve made it to the top 8 of this PPTQ and after beating Mardu Vehicles handily in the first game - after all, Winding Constrictor into Rishkar, Peema Renegade is a powerful combination of cards - you are staring at a board state you can do little about. You look at your hand and see a combination of Fatal Push, Grasp of Darkness, Flaying Tendrils and Murder stare back at you, mocking you as your opponent turns his Gideon, Ally of Zendikar into a 5/5 and kills you.
You have read memorised every configuration of 60 cards they play, you know how to beat them. The Mardu Vehicles deck runs a bunch of small creatures and only three Gideons. Your opponent was so lucky! After all, he had one of his three Planeswalkers on turn four and never drew ANY of his one or two drops! You proceed to game three and see a hand of three removal spells, a Winding Constrictor and three land. You keep quickly, knowing that you will be able to kill all their threats. Except your Winding Constrictor falls to a Fatal Push, your backup Grim Flayer finds himself Disintegrated and your opponent again plays no creatures before happily casting his Gideon. Before long, the 5/5 attacks four times and makes a mockery of your removal spells.
So what went wrong?
Quite simply, you sideboarded for the wrong deck. You saw all these Toolcraft Exemplars and Veteran Motorists game one and so sided in every single removal spell you could find in your 75. You sideboarded against cards that are likely no longer in their deck. You forgot to account for the simple fact that your opponent gets to sideboard too.
Approaching the subject in a more abstract way - how would your answer the question ‘how many cards are there in a Standard deck?’ A lot of players would automatically say 60, and they wouldn’t be strictly incorrect. However, a deck should always be considered in its entirety, as each of its 75 cards should be considered in any given match.
When you sideboard, you shouldn’t just select a number of cards that are good in a matchup to replace a similar number of cards that aren’t as good (or bad) in said matchup. You need to consider what your deck looks like, what you expect your opponent’s deck to look like and what you want your deck to look like after sideboard. In essence, you have to choose the best 60 cards from a pool of 75 to beat the best 60 cards out of their pool of 75. This brings us to one very important part of sideboarding - you need to make sure your pool of 75 cards contains an optimal (or at least good) set of 60 cards for the matchups you will face. You might have shoehorned yourself into bringing ten removal spells against their aggro deck, but that’s only because you put them there originally!
Example 1: Green-Black Aggro vs Mardu Vehicles
Let’s actually consider an actual example. You’re playing GB aggro and want to know how to sideboard against Mardu. A quick look at their sideboard indicates a very high number of cards you don’t really want to face - Fumigates, Chandras, Fatal Pushes, etc. For the sake of argument, let’s say they have eleven cards that could realistically be brought in.
Do you have a plan for all of these?
Assuming your opponent won’t do something wild like presenting a 70 card deck for game two, eleven potential cards would suggest a very likely change of plan. After all, there’s only so much shaving one of each card achieves (hint: this strategy is terrible as it dilutes the concentration of cards you do want to draw). The cards being brought in are removal, an extra land and a lot of 4+ mana threats, so what comes out?
For Mardu to still operate as an actual deck, they can’t remove all the vehicles (or Toolcraft, Motorist and Disintegration become poor) or basically any removal (they can’t risk just dying to a turn two Constrictor). That leaves cards like Toolcraft and Motorist as the weakest link - removing these lets them end up as a ‘big’ midrange deck with vehicles to force your removal and a plethora of removal to keep your board manageable.
Then it follows that rather than overload your deck with cheap removal spells, such as Dead Weights and additional Fatal Pushes, for example, you should instead bring in cards like Transgress the Mind and Noxious Gearhulk so you can win the long game they are setting themselves up for. However, you cannot go too far into control as a savvy player could simply leave in their early drops and stay aggro to get under your now much ‘bigger’ deck.
Example 2: Delver vs Storm
This is an older example, but still applicable in putting the point across - you are playing a Legacy Delver deck (doesn’t matter which colour combination) and your opponent is on ANT (UB Storm). You keep a removal heavy hand game one, cannot apply enough pressure and die to a large storm count. You know they are on Storm and you expect them to have no creatures in their deck, so you side out all your removal and board in all your countermagic and other disruption.
So, in game two, you lead off with a Ponder and your opponent starts with an aggressive Duress. You show him a hand full of Spell Pierces and Flusterstorms, confident that you have the tools required to stop him from comboing for the entire game - you even have a Surgical Extraction ready! They take your Force of Will and a Lotus Petal and a Dark Ritual later, you find yourself facing down a Dark Confidant with no removal spells in your deck. Your hand is strong, but you cannot deal with them drawing two cards a turn and eventually die after they discarded your counterspells one by one.
One of these sideboard plans is more efficient than the other...
In this example, your opponent took advantage of a reasonably easy-to-make assumption (removal is bad as they have no creatures) and shifted their plan to involve a card you basically can never beat post board.
In light of this, how do we aim to not get trapped?
1) Construct a sideboard before the event, don’t just add generic good cards.
Lay your main deck configuration out on your desk. Your deck needs to have a plan and all the tools to execute this plan, even through disruption. Remember that usually decks are faster and less interactive game one as you need to be able to have a plan you can stick to in unfamiliar matchups (best example of this is Modern Jund - if you don’t know what’s going on, discard into Tarmogoyf is a solid failsafe that lets you gain information and act on it efficiently).
Pick the two or three matchups you are most likely to face and check the configurations you have post-sideboard still look like reasonable decks. If your numbers no longer make the deck viable (for example, your Affinity deck sided out seven artifacts for seven spells), then you need to reconsider your sideboarding. Once you’re happy with this, you can adjust the last few cards in the sideboard to either cover the majority of ‘the rest’ or improve your percentage in these top matchups.
2) Make sure your sideboard addresses the problems you actually have.
It is easy to fall into a trap of adjusting your deck too much (or too little) for the various top matchups. You might really like the configuration you found for one matchup, but you may be able to do just as well with half the slots, which allows you to solve issues you might be overlooking.
As an example, let’s consider Modern Jund in a simplified meta where you expect 30% Infect, 30% Tron, 30% other BGx strategies and 10% other decks. You build your sideboard with six cards to bring in the mirror (to replace the poor discard spells) and this overlaps with some of the cards you want against Infect. You already have three Fulminator Mages in your sideboard, which double up against the mirror and Infect, and so your Tron matchup is covered and you have some slots left for generic answers.
However, in this particular meta, you’re expecting to play roughly a third of your matches against Tron, which is an abysmal matchup. So what you should do is turn those extra slots into Crumble to Dusts (or even Blood Moons) to make sure you have a fighting chance - it may be that you have no cards for the random 10% of the meta or that you have to keep in the two Thoughtseizes in the mirror, but rather than than being so poor against a large part of the meta.
(Note that in such a meta, my advice would be to not play Jund, but our hero is keen to cast Dark Confidants and Tarmogoyfs for some unknown reason!)
The opposite of this is that you have enough sideboard cards for Tron and the mirrors, but you are bringing in ten cards against Infect, a matchup which is already favoured. In this case, you might want to revise your sideboard to be more generalised as some of your sideboarding will be improving some cards which are already good rather than replace the bad ones.
This brings us swiftly to…
3) Don’t be afraid to improve good cards over replacing poor ones, and vice-versa.
Let’s say you’re playing a control deck in Standard (Jeskai Saheeli, for the sake of argument) and are trying to arrange your sideboard to beat the top aggro deck (again for the sake of argument, Mardu Vehicles). You have singled out Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Scrapheap Scrounger as the two cards that are costing you the most games, but you can’t quite get your sideboard configuration right - you have too many removal spells between your maindeck and your sideboard and there’s no space for these Negates on top of your eight slots for the combo…
Since you singled out these two cards as cards you must absolutely be able to beat, then there’s no shame in adding all the Negates, Brutal Expulsions and Incendiary Flows you have available and shaving on Immolating Glare, for example, a card that is not very powerful against Scrapheap Scrounger. It may not be correct to side Glare specifically out, but you should at least consider it.
Another good example - if you are playing Black-Green Aggro and you need to keep your creature count high to make good use of Winding Constrictor, it is not unreasonable to sideboard those Murders out as the clunkiest removal spell in your deck.
Your priority during sideboarding shouldn’t be considered as reducing the number of bad cards in your deck against the opposing deck, but to pick the best 60 you have available to you. If this means making an unorthodox choice, such as siding Murder or Immolating Glare out against a deck which is trying to attack you with many creatures, then so be it - so long as you have a plan rather than a collection of good cards, you should be fine.
4) Flexibility is key, as not all decks within an archetype are equal…
You played the first game against what looked like a completely stock Temur Aetherworks deck. You saw about 30 cards, including Woodweaver’s Puzzleknot, Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and Glassblower’s Puzzleknot. You board out all your removal and bring in all your discard and Lost Legacy, as you have done countless times. Your hand for game 2 contains your perfect curve of Transgress the Mind into Lost Legacy, what would go wrong?
The alarm bells start ringing when your opponent finds a Swamp off his turn 1 Attune with Aether - now that you think of it, you did see a Blooming Marsh, but didn’t give it much thought -, before a Longtusk Cub shows up. You raise an eyebrow as your Transgress shows a turn three Winding Constrictor backed by a second copy of Attune and suddenly you’re facing a 10/10 Cub and you die on turn four.
You stare at your sideboard in a mild panic - if you keep Push and Grasp, but they side into Marvel again, you lose. If you keep Transgress and Lost Legacy, you can just die to the Cub. You look back to a mental image of your deck laid out and decide to morph into Black-Green control. Noxious Gearhulk seems like an odd card to bring in against Marvel, but you need to keep all the removal and all the discard, so there is no time to play around with small creatures.
Sometimes you need to think fast and adapt to situations you haven’t seen before. If you were sideboarding based off a simple sideboard guide, you would be looking at your cards without knowing what to do. Having a plan however, and constructing your sideboard in a way that allows for you to remain flexible and configure your deck to look like what you need it to look like can give you chances rigid sideboard plans would never give. Sideboarding Winding Constrictor out sounds like madness, but in this specific example, it makes perfect sense.
5) … and neither are players.
Let me ask you a question, and please answer it honestly - how many times have you considered sideboarding differently against the same matchup based on the pilot?
Let’s say you are playing Blue-Red Delver in Modern against Jund. Your opponent had a decent draw and won the first game easily. You know this matchup isn’t good, but your trusty Blood Moons have never let you down - after all, you have beaten Jund each of the previous five times you played against it using your Blood Moons. Your opponent plays a couple of fetches on the first turns and your Vendilion Clique reveals multiple non-basic lands after they found a basic Forest and a basic Swamp to Abrupt Decay your pesky flier. You look at your Blood Moon and realise it simply won’t do anything this game.
You manage to win this game by topdecking a couple of burn spells, but it was a lot closer than before.
The first thing you should do before game three is side the Blood Moons out. If your opponent is willing to severely slow their draw down (you should play tapped lands first to curve better), then the threat of Blood Moon is already enough, you don’t need to actually have it.
A similar example is that of playing Delver in Legacy. If your Miracles opponent aggressively fetches basics, even at the expense of being able to cast their Counterbalance on time, then you should absolutely side some number of Wastelands out. You know they are going to make Wasteland into as close to Wastes as possible, so what’s the point in having them in your deck? (note that it isn’t advised to side all of them out based on you still needing a large enough land count!)
Sideboarding is tricky, but the aim is always the same: you want to select the best 60 cards from your pool of 75 to give you the highest chance of beating the 60 cards out of 75 your opponent selects. To this extent, factors such as ‘wild’ sideboard plans, weird cards or outright plan changes mean you need a flexible approach so that you don’t panic when one of these shifts happens.
You should have a clear picture of what you expect the next game to play out as, what you expect your deck to look like and you need to remember that you are sideboarding to beat the deck your opponent presents, not the deck your opponent presented the previous game.
About Joao Choca:
Joao started playing competitive Magic in England in 2007 and has been a Grand Prix grinder since then. Joao has retained Bronze status since induction and has been rewarded for his consistent results with a win in Grand Prix Turin 2018. He enjoys thinking outside the box and is one of the more creative team members when it comes to fresh ideas. His approach is one of gradual improvement and he is constantly looking for flaws to fix in his game. His aim is to achieve Silver and stay on the Pro Tour circuit.