Building and properly using your sideboard is undoubtedly one of the most skillful aspects of deckbuilding in Magic. Often, the advantages or disadvantages that are applied after both players get to customize their deck between games are what ultimately decides a winner. So, let’s work through the different permutations of that 15 card gold mine, what a transformational sideboard really looks like, what kinds of card are “traps” and how strategies and specific cards change post-board.
What are you trying to accomplish?
I think this is the primary question when trying to assemble a sideboard. The cards should never just be a series of small upgrades, but rather a collection of cards that impact individual matchups on both the macro and micro level. Your sideboard changes should both be strong and impactful when you draw them individually and ideally also bolster your deck’s larger scale gameplan in the matchup overall.
Take a card like Essence Scatter out of the sideboard of Temur Energy in this new version of Standard, sans-Aetherworks Marvel. In the energy creature mirrors this card is obviously a strong one-for-one and is effective to draw early. But, in multiples over the course of a long game it gives your deck that one-for-one answer to both Bristling Hydra and Glorybringer that your pre-board configuration doesn’t have access to. This means that, depending on the number of Essence Scatters in your deck or hand, you can play in a way that you know you won’t just get stymied by a hexproof Hydra.
Sideboarding for YOUR deck
Sideboards, and sideboard cards, are completely different depending on what archetype you’re piloting and how linear or reactive your gameplan is. Typically “fair” decks are looking for versatile sideboard cards that can have applications in a variety of matchups. These are decks like Modern Jund that seem to bring in 5-6 cards in every matchup. Unfair strategies, take Modern Ad Nauseam as an example, approach their sideboards much differently. They’re looking to keep their core game plan intact while only bringing in answers to specific hate cards they’re expecting. For example they might bring in a couple Disenchants to take down a Runed Halo or Leyline of Sanctity or bring in their own Leylines to mitigate the effectiveness of discard spells. But you’ll never see combo decks like this overhaul their strategy and bring in 7-10 cards, because they’d be diluting their main strategy far too much.
This logic is used to a fault, in my experience. There have been cases in the past where decks like Legacy Storm have had success with more fair post-board packages that involve Dark Confidant, but typically these sorts of ideas fall short. A notable example is Path to Exile out of the sideboard of Modern Burn. I can’t tell you the number of times they’ve Path’d my Tarmogoyf and I could have done a cartwheel I was so happy it wasn’t just another Lava Spike. With these kinds of linear decks, over-sideboarding is often worse than under-sideboarding.
Sideboarding on the play and on the draw
The differences between play and draw are highlighted more in creature-based, low-powered formats like Standard and Limited than in older formats where there is punishing sideboard hate. Standard is likely the place where understanding the differences between play and draw post-board will give you the biggest edge. First you need to understand that in fair matchups where creatures are going to fight like in Standard right now, both decks are going to slow down post board. There will be more answers in both players’ decks, and therefore sequencing your threats properly and maximizing threat density is key.
Let’s start with the play. On the play you will be the one asking the questions while your opponent will need to be providing answers. You want to have as many threats in your deck as possible for this reason. Let’s take the Temur Energy mirror in Standard as an example again. These decks often have 2-4 extra removal spells in their sideboard. Reflexively you’ll want to board those in to provide the answers you need. Maybe Chandra, Torch of Defiance looks bad against Glorybringer so you board that out, and you need some extra cuts so you shave two Longtusk Cubs. Before you know it, you’re on the play ramping into removal spells and reactive cards, and your opponent slams a Bristling Hydra and suddenly has control of the board. It is imperative that you take as much advantage of the play as possible in formats like this. Don’t dilute your deck on the play.
On the draw, things change. You want those reactive cards because you’re starting at a disadvantage. You want to trade at all costs until you can find a way to take back the advantage. In this case you want to trade until you can find a Glorybringer, as that’s the card in your deck that’s most likely to shift the tempo of the game. With all this in mind, maybe you don’t want any Cubs in your deck on the draw because it’s too much of a liability into your opponents two-mana ramp creatures. The way Magma Spray looks also changes because of how essential it is to not let your opponent get two mana ahead of you.
Lastly, you should be aware of the cards in your opponent’s deck that change the effectiveness of your post-board answers on the play versus on the draw. Standard’s biggest example of this is Heart of Kiran. It makes your Negates look great against Mardu post-board on the play, where you can snipe a Heart and also have answers to Gideon in your deck. In the meantime, if you try to Negate a 2-drop on the draw, you’ll have a bad time.
What is a transformational sideboard?
To set the benchmark for this explanation here is the Aetherworks Marvel decklist that myself, Daniel Fournier (who Top 8’d), Jeff Swaluk and Jonny Teigesser played at Grand Prix Montreal.
We knew Aetherworks Marvel was the deck to beat and had found success in testing this transformational sideboard plan. This is also the only thing Daniel Fournier has ever claimed that he “invented” that he actually did. In retrospect, Paul Dean showed us that this wasn’t the best way to approach the mirror by Top 8ing two consecutive Standard Grand Prix with his version. This is still a solid example of what a transformational sideboard plan looks like.
Fournier was bringing in 13 cards in the mirror and boarding out all of the Aetherworks Marvel package. It’s also worth mentioning that he played Tireless Trackers in his maindeck over Glimmer of Genius in order to make room for additional sideboard cards for the mirror while still having four Trackers after board. In my opinion that decision is the essence of a transformational sideboard plan. It forces you to think of your gameplan through the lens of a full 75 card deck rather than maindeck and sideboard.
What’s key to think about with these plans is that you need to commit. When you make the decision to do something this drastic, you can’t back-out midgame. You have to cast your Negates on their Harnessed Lightnings that are targeting your Longtusk Cub, knowing they have Marvel in their deck, because that’s what you’ve committed to in deck construction. Now, there’s obviously some nuance to all these plays. If you have another threat, maybe you let the Lightning resolve, but the point stands that you have to play the way your deck forces you to play when you make such a big change after sideboarding. This is the true risk of transformational sideboards. They take up so many slots and such a large portion of your macro gameplan that it has to work. You have to “get them” or you’re dead.
How cards change
I mentioned earlier that games tend to slow down as both players load up on answers after sideboarding. This effectively changes some of the text on your cards, and you should be aware of that. This is why Tireless Tracker is such a feature in sideboards. The extra card advantage and mana-sink is powerful in long games and there are just more cards in your deck you need to get to. In Game 1, Tracker does a little less in that it’s just drawing you into more cards similar to itself and is rather slow. This logic has been utilized in Legacy as well with Storm. Knowing their opponents are bringing in so much disruption, they often boarded into 1-2 copies of Sensei’s Divining Top prior to its banning in order to play better off the top of their library.
The Part about Surgical Extraction: Traps
This is the single most complained-about sideboarding problem from the pro community—misunderstood cards.
Surgical Extraction Effects: The only time these cards should be in your deck is if your opponent can either not win without the card you’re naming, or you feel as though you can’t win unless you rid them of the card you’re naming. An exception to this is obviously Reanimator decks where Surgical is actually a hate card. I cannot stress enough how awful a zero-for-one is within the confines of fair Magic. Do not bring this in against Death’s Shadow and hope to get their Shadows because you will die to Tasigur, the Golden Fang. Dispossess was good against Marvel because you blanked so many of the cards in their deck, just as Surgical is actually good against things like Lands and Reanimator in Legacy because it actually represents the value of a full card.
One-of Bomby Cards without Tutors: This is more situational but I think it’s worth mentioning. I often see people play cards like Void Winnower in last Standard for Marvel, or something like a two-of Rest in Peace in their Snapcaster Mage and Lingering Souls deck. As this entire article has stated over and over again, you have to consider your sideboard as a part of your holistic gameplan. It is almost always correct to find ways to allow your deck to operate at full capacity while having effective sideboard cards. Maybe you want Ravenous Trap or Leyline of the Void instead of the more powerful Rest in Peace. This is the same way I felt about Void Winnower. It can be an “Oops I win” style card, but it’s not really in-tune with what the rest of your deck is doing. With your sideboard, you don’t want to be spikey, you want to be strategic. The exception to that is if your deck changes enough after-board to be accommodate a spiky card like Winnower and gets better at casting it or finding it. This is why bullets are great in Chord of Calling and Collected Company decks.
Interaction you’re not Willing to Use: If you’re not willing to change the way you play to accommodate your sideboard cards then they shouldn’t be in your sideboard. It sounds simple but it is something to consider in deck-building. If you put four Negates in the sideboard of your creature deck, are you willing to keep double Negate hands? Will you forgo playing a creature on curve to hold up Negate? All of these decisions come with questions that need answers before you can access to full power of that 15 card goldmine.