Hello and welcome back to the world of Standard! There are some big tournaments coming up including this weekend's TCGplayer MaxPoint Championship in Milwaukee! Standard has been itself for a few months now so there is a good chance you either know what you want to play or can at least narrow the choice down to a few decks, but determining the archetype you are to play is not where your work ends. Today I wanted to discuss how to properly arrive at a sideboard for your major tournaments.

Sideboarding for FNM or smaller tournaments tends to be an afterthought or a chance to test experimental sideboard options. When it comes to a Grand Prix or the TCGplayer MaxPoint Championship though, you don't want to show up with anything experimental or unknown if you can avoid it. This is the big show so put on your best Threads of Disloyalty and let's get to work!


Successful Tournament Sideboarding

There are a few key things to know when seeking the right sideboard for an event.

1: Know your options
2: Know your enemies
3: Know your plan

Step 1 is rather easy. Here we want to be familiar with the options available to us in the format and to select the best of them for our desired needs. Playing cards that are both narrow and not powerful is not recommended, especially in your sideboard, so we want to be vigilant here.

Step 2 is an extension of the first where we need to know what we will be facing in order to arrive at the best options available to us. Obviously you cannot know the exact decklists of everything you play in a tournament, but you can estimate percentages of archetypes and read up on the format to know what people will be playing.

Step 3 is perhaps the least self-explanatory, so buckle in because we are about to get into the meat of today's article. To help us out and to make this relevant, we will be using my Dust Devils list as our example list. This is the deck as I currently have it built.


Have a Plan

DECKID=1254968

One of the most important things to know about your deck before a tournament is your board plan. Different people have different levels of specificity they like to use when going into a tournament. Some people want a board plan that details every single card that comes in and out for a given matchup while others prefer to not use notes. That is generally a call of preference and I cannot tell you what will work best for you, but I can advocate for planning your board strategy in advance.

For this, I am going to use myself as an example as I think I am right in the middle of the spectrum when it comes to written notes versus off-the-cuff boarding.

Step 1: Build a deck.

This is pretty self-explanatory. Get to brewing!

Step 2: Build a rough sideboard and USE it!

After you have a deck concept and an initial list down, expect to play some number of games without a sideboard while you get a feel for the deck. During that stage, you don't even know if the deck is worth pursuing, so a sideboard is useless. Once you determine this is a list you want to work on though, build a sideboard.

This sideboard does not have to be perfect and should more resemble a quickly thrown together set of solutions that you might need. The goal is start playing with some cards and running through boarding scenarios so that your needs and overcompensation become apparent. Originally, the above list had three more copies of land destruction in it. I figured that in order to turn into a land death deck against ramp, I would need 10 or more ways to kill lands. To help with consistency, I landed on 11 total, with four Crumble to Dust in the main and then the rest in the board.

And yet, every time I ran into ramp, or five-color, or some deck where land destruction made sense, I could never figure out anything to cut for that 10th or 11th land destruction spell. Nine even felt a little heavy most of the time.

Step 3: Identify Weak Points.

Using this rough sideboard and games, you should begin to isolate the cards or systems that are not cutting it.

In the above scenario, despite having access to 11 land destruction spells, I never really boarded into that many. I had one to three dead slots in my board that were being wasted because I had too many cards coming in for a job without having the same number of cards that needed to come out. This is even more dangerous than a weak point as it is essentially a handicap, playing with only a 12 or 13 card sideboard. There will also be cards that simply do not do what you want them to as effectively as you had hoped, so some pruning will occur naturally there as well. Playing games is the fastest and most practical way to reach these conclusions.

Step 4: Research and Issue Replacements.

Before I finish a sideboard, I like to do one more sweep through with a nonspecific board. By that I mean I want to use the information I have gained through playtesting to try to arrive at a board completely naturally. This means I am not looking at specific numbers yet, but want to take my best "guess" if you will.

This new sideboard will be the vessel I manipulate when crunching the numbers, so I want to take some time with this and actually look up cards that I might need for specific jobs. For example, if I am having issues with artifacts and enchantments, I want to go a step further than just having any old Naturalize in my sideboard and instead want to land on the specific Naturalize effect that I want to use.

During this process for Dust Devils, changes like Demolish becoming Reclaiming Vines and Burn Away becoming Rending Volley happened. I had cards performing roles but did not have the best cards for those roles. At this point, cleaning up your board to resemble a final list is what the goal is, even if we are not actually arriving at a final list just yet.

Step 5: Matchups and Numbers.

Now is the time where we actually develop our boarding strategy. The goal here is to isolate every potential matchup and then figure out what cards come out and in. To do this, I never start with the sideboard but instead start with my main. I want to Remove all obvious cards first so that I know the room I am working with. If I start with my sideboard and pick all the cards that need to come in, I might make extra room that shouldn't be there just to force cards in. In other words, I might be cutting cards that are good in the matchup just to make slight upgrades.

For example, let's imagine a world where I had four Dark Banishing in my maindeck and four Terror in my sideboard. When I am up against mono red, I certainly bring in my Terrors. And, assuming nothing else came out, at the very least they come in over my Invocations as they are strictly better. So if I were looking at my sideboard first, even if there were no other cards to come out for Terror, I would still want to bring it in over Dark Banishing. From a sideboard-first view, I made my four Terrors work and therefore they are justified.

If we look at this from the deck-first perspective though, there is no chance that I am taking my Dark Banishings and moving them to the "this is bad in this matchup" pile. Dark Banishing is a card I actively want against your Arc Sloggers and Slith Firewalkers. Upgrading to Terror might be something I want to consider as a deck choice, but using four slots in my sideboard just to upgrade this small amount against mono red is not worth it. From a deck-first perspective, I have no room for those Terrors and therefore four sideboard slots to be used elsewhere.

So from a deck-first perspective, go through and figure out what is coming out in each matchup, then go to your sideboard and figure out what comes in for each matchup. If these two numbers match, then we are done. Note the swap in a notebook or whatever you prefer and move on to the next matchup.

When those numbers don't match up though, now we have some work to do. For example, a previous sideboard from my last article on this deck looked liked this:

2 Nissa's Revelation
3 Radiant Flames
4 Demolish
2 Orbs of Warding
1 Ruin Processor
2 Burn Away
1 Plains

When I ran my numbers against U/W Control (which had picked up some popularity) the swap looked like this:

-4 Jaddi Offshoot
-4 Crumble to Dust
-1 Radiant Flames

+2 Nissa's Revelation
+2 Burn Away

I had five open slots that were just hanging. I could justify keeping some number of Crumble to Dust in, but I wasn't happy about it. I knew I needed to address this by moving the sideboard around. This was one of the main reasons I moved access to the third color to the maindeck, as freeing up a sb slot was huge. Additionally, Reclaiming Vines made for a much more versatile card over Demolish and I could bring some number of those in to hit Stasis Snares, Silkwraps, Quarantine Fields, or a land, should that come up.

I quickly made those swaps so the numbers lined up. So now we were here:

-4 Jaddi Offshoot
-4 Crumble to Dust
-1 Radiant Flames

+2 Nissa's Revelation
+2 Burn Away
+4 Reclaiming Vines
+1 Void Winnower

Later on, doing this for other matchups would cause me to see just how infrequently Burn Away was the optimal card to board in. Also, while playing many games with this configuration, it became clear that Nissa's Revelation was easy to counter for the control decks and, even when it did resolve, it was not the most consistent card in the world. This lead to the swap of Gaea's Revenge for Revelation and Rending Volley for Burn Away, making the board plan into what it currently is:

-4 Jaddi Offshoot
-4 Crumble to Dust
-1 Radiant Flames

+2 Gaea's Revenge
+2 Rending Volley
+4 Reclaiming Vines
+1 Void Winnower

It is entirely possible that those Gaea's Revenge or Rending Volley end up as something else before the TCGplayer MaxPoint Championship this weekend. If that happens and the replacement is not good in this specific matchup, I either need to justify leaving something in, such as a Crumble to Dust or two, or find another card to swing over into this matchup. Void Winnower is sort of already doing that as it is here for ramp mirrors but has enough upside against blue/white that we could slide him into the open slot.


Taking It Off Rails

Once you have arrived at your full sideboard guide, there is a tendency for players to stick to it verbatim. They sideboard the same way against every red deck over and over because it is what they arrived at through their sideboard Exploration. While this isn't the worst strategy, it is also not exactly optimal. Each opponent you face has the opportunity to change or tweak their deck in small ways, so boarding against every deck of a particular archetype as though they have no variations is just lazy.

What I like to do is reference my planned swaps (or memorize them) but then critically think about the matchup before blindly making those swaps. If I can think of a reason to deviate from the plan, I almost always will. Past me was less informed than current me, so I need to use this newly gained information to my advantage.

This is not some set of company rules where adhering to them is your only option. You wrote these rules, so consider this double checking your work. Often, this means reevaluating after game two and making changes to your original boarding strategy or planned boarding strategy. You have gained new information about more cards in your opponent's deck and that matters, so use it!


Sideboard Guide

To help anyone considering playing this deck and to fully flesh out this example, the following is going to be a matchup by matchup sideboard guide.

Vs. Red, B/R, or R/G Aggro
-4 Crumble to Dust
-1 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
-1 Whisperer of the Wilds

+1 Radiant Flames
+4 Jaddi Offshoot
+1 Ruin Processor

Vs. Ramp (B/G, U/G)
-3 Radiant Flames
-1 Explosive Vegetation
-1 Dragonlord Atarka

+4 Reclaiming Vines
+1 Void Winnower

*If they use Infinite Obliteration, it might be worth removing one copy of Ulamog for one copy of Gaea's Revenge to diversify threats, although hardly required.

Vs. Blue Control (Esper, U/W, Grixis)
-3 Radiant Flames
-3 Crumble to Dust

+2 Gaea's Revenge
+4 Reclaiming Vines

*if they have no artifacts/enchantments, you can keep the Crumble count higher.

Vs. Blue or White Aggro/Midrange (Jeskai, Jeskai Black, Temur)
-4 Crumble to Dust

+2 Rending Volley
+1 Radiant Flames
+1 Ruin Processor

Vs. Abzan Aggro
-1 Whisperer of the Wilds
-2 From Beyond
-1 Crumble to Dust

+2 Rending Volley
+1 Radiant Flames
+1 Ruin Processor

Alternatively, if you ever feel like the mana base of your opponent is exploitable, you can move in and go a land destruction route. This applies to any five-color brew or slower four-color decks. The faster four-color decks tend to have a creature or two down by the time you can Crumble them, making it a little risky. That said, on the play, you can almost always pursue this line if you feel like you need to take a gamble to win the matchup.

Vs. Bring to Light Control
-3 Radiant Flames
-1 Explosive Vegetation

+4 Reclaiming Vines


Wrap Up

I am looking forward to this weekend as I will get to battle with Dust Devils myself, although I am pretty jealous of those you attending the TCGplayer MaxPoint Championship. Regardless of where you are playing this weekend though, double check those sideboards and give yourself the best chance at winning! Until next week, thanks for reading!

--Conley Woods--