Recently Chris VanMeter and Brian Braun-Duin had a conversation that I can only describe as "Next-Level Sideboarding." Their focus was the recent Modern Premier IQ-winning Temur Delver list, and its pair of sideboard Huntmaster of the Fells. Chris pointed out that the deck, which runs a mere 17 lands, is unlikely to be able to cast Huntmaster of the Fells in the process of a normal game, and that the card is specifically meant to combat decks that are running Path to Exile. Not only is Huntmaster of the Fells good against Path to Exile because of its intrinsic value against one-for-one removal spells, but also your opponent's Paths, namely, the fact that they grant you lands, actually make you exponentially more likely to be able to cast Huntmaster of the Fells in the first place. Their dialogue led to a discussion about sideboarding against what you expect the opponent's configuration to be post-board rather than game one, which I feel is a oft-undiscussed topic that is certainly worth delving deeper into.
When many players sit down to determine what sideboard cards they want in their precious few slots, they consider each deck they expect to face, and think through what cards they've seen played (or better yet, do a gatherer scour) to figure out what's good against them. Sometimes that means they're using very specific cards like Self-Inflicted Wound or Duress to combat archetypes, other times it means they're replacing some kind of weak threat ( Warden of the First Tree) with a more robust threat ( Elspeth, Sun's Champion) against a particular archetype. Often this is as a result of testing a bunch of game 1's, and seeing where the matchup stands – identifying the weaknesses they see for game one, and finding ways to strengthen them. Unfortunately, time for testing is limited even in the best cases; and players often have some idea of the strategy they expect to choose well before the process of testing is complete. That means you're unlikely to discover multiple strategies for the same matchup, and specifically you're unlikely to identify optimal sideboarding strategies for multiple decks. Beyond "you aren't playing enough games post-board," this kind of testing leaves a glaring hole in your preparation – you are practicing a sideboarding strategy that doesn't account for the changes your opponent is making to their deck once the full 75 cards come into play.
Let's take a look at a few examples.
In Jacob Tilk's Red-Deck-Wins list, there is a high concentration of low-toughness creatures as well as token-producing spells that would make overloading on removal an attractive option for the opponent after board. Indeed, were I to face Jacob with a deck capable of supporting it, I would be very interested in having as many copies of Drown in Sorrow as possible in my deck for the second and third game. What's interesting about this decision is Tilk's ability to move up the curve post-board with Chandra, Pyromaster in an effort to mitigate some of the damage that could be done by Drown in Sorrow. For decks looking to impede Tilk's path with creatures, a host of removal comes in from the board. This plan reduces Tilk's absolute threat count, but allows him to be much more efficient in clearing a path for the creatures he has left. The inclusion of Break Through the Line means his creatures can be impactful prior to getting swept away by Drown in Sorrow, and can punch through any number of blockers. Combined with Lightning Striker, it turns into a Fanning the Flames with buyback 0. Where cards like Foundry Street Denizen can be a liability versus removal heavy decks, having a Dwarven Warriors-type effect with Haste as an add-on can really change the dynamic of the late-game damage potential. By diversifying the type of threat from creatures into Planeswalkers, the removal spells your opponent are likely to bring in become less damaging to your game plan. With this plan, Tilk was very obviously exploiting the fact that most amateur players will just sideboard against the cards they see in game one.
Rosettus Weeks, the player who lost to Tilk in the finals, probably thought he had quite a solid game plan versus Red Deck:
With a pair of Hornet Nests in the maindeck along with a multitude of easily-traded early plays followed with Mastery of the Unseen for life and Dromoka's Command to protect yourself, game 1 seems quite strong for Weeks. Post-board Arashin Clerics, Encase in Ice, and an additional Hornet Nest seems like icing on the cake. Without witnessing the boarding and finals first-hand we can't be certain how it played out, but my expectation is that Tilk managed to push through enough damage in the first few turns to put Weeks on the back foot, and then leveraged his removal as a way of countering the effectiveness of the more powerful (albeit more expensive) spells Weeks could play. Break Through the Line in particular seems impressive against a deck leaning hard on Hornet Nest, and my guess is that this spell was unexpected by many players throughout the event. The addition of a single mana onto a spell is negligible in a mono-red deck topping its curve at three, which often floods out in the late-game anyway. It seems to me that Weeks's deck is quite prepared for the game-1 strategy of the Mono-Red list, but Tilk knew what the probable plans were to combat his strategy, and rather than overloading his deck with cards like Outpost Siege or Atarka's Command to combat those board plans, he chose to circumvent those problems by focusing on removing as much interaction as possible. Instead of trying to push the game longer to try to draw more burn (the strategy that Outpost Siege tends to reward) – which can allow a deck like Bant Megamorph to gain footing or even take a game over with Mastery of the Unseen – Tilk decided to keep the game as compact as possible and eliminate the impact of those powerful spells.
Moving backward in formats, an example of this phenomenon in Modern could center on the debate between overloading on combo hate versus losing the midrange battle versus Splinter Twin.
When a deck has the capability of winning in one turn, it's very easy to get "the fear" and over-board to beat that combo. When playing Twin, I can't tell you how often I see players board in narrow cards like Zealous Persecution or Rakdos Signet that are only good in specifically one case – I have infinite creatures in play and am trying to attack them – but are fairly terrible versus the sideboard strategy of "board out the combo and play a midrange control strategy." Keranos, God of the Storms and Batterskull are quite good at circumventing most of the combo hate leveraged at the deck, and Jace, Architect of Thought is adept at getting ahead in the midgame. If a player tries to battle the midrange by focusing on threats like Tarmogoyf, then Sower of Temptation tends to be frustrating. These spells also play along the same lines as the Huntmaster of the Fells discussion leading this article, as the likelihood of Path to Exile from the opponent targeting your combo creatures makes it easier to hit 5 mana and cast your major threats.
Rather than being focused on what kind of quick kill the deck can muster, I've found the more crippling sideboard plans against Twin to be the ones that generically constrict my resources. Cards like Liliana of the Veil – which, on the surface, does little to prevent a turn 4 win – can be incredibly difficult to beat when backed up by added hand disruption or removal. Winning quickly with Twin is certainly possible, but doing so in the face of interference is difficult. That usually allows an opponent to open a window for cards like Liliana or Spellskite to be real obstacles. Even when you're on the Keranos/Batterskull plan, a Liliana can be frustrating to play through, as you're forced to invest resources into handling her while also trying to hit five mana for your big spells. In a similar vein to Liliana of the Veil, I've found Geist of Saint Traft (especially backed by Restoration Angel) to be difficult to interact with favorably, as the clock it presents forces you to be much more proactive than you'd prefer – which usually means you're playing into the Geist deck's game plan of "protect the queen," and often have to play spells when you'd rather not. Much like the ticking clock of Liliana of the Veil that slowly eats away at your hand, the presence of a difficult-to-remove threat on the board constrains your ability to set up an effective win with protection. This type of constraint is equally impactful against the sideboarded strategy because the majority of the threats you're deploying post-board are at Sorcery-speed, meaning they still suffer the same disadvantages of forcing you to play off-tempo. Playing a five-mana spell like Batterskull as an answer to Geist is generally begging for a Counterspell, and you're often unable to wait to protect it (via Dispel or the like) on turn six because you're so far behind. This kind of strategy – even in boarding, for example out of the pseudo-mirror or another Jeskai strategy – can be incredibly effective against both the main strategy and the sideboard alike.
Bringing the discussion to Legacy, arguably the format where effective sideboarding is the most important due to the power level of sideboard cards, we can discuss the Omni-Tell list piloted by Chris VanMeter to a 9th place finish at SCG Worcester last month.
Chris, as well as Shota Yasooka before him at GP Kyoto, identified the main way in which the majority of matches would play out, and attempted to next-level that game plan.In game one, the OmniTell deck plays its game to an expected conclusion. Many decks in Legacy lack in ways to effectively interact with the Show and Tell strategy in game one, instead being focused on interacting with the board. Decks are perfectly willing to play full sets of Swords to Plowshares and Lightning Bolt in their maindecks, but rarely do we see cards like Meddling Mage or Detention Sphere maindeck. Though often there is some disruption, it pales in comparison to the amount of hate you're likely to see post-board. Often players are looking to Remove those removal spells to include more disruption on the stack – more Counterspells, more hand disruption, and more ways to interact with your primary strategy of "resolve one spell."
To that end, CVM included a pair of Young Pyromancer in the board to circumvent that hate. With no other creatures in the deck, it is unlikely that opponents will include spells like Pyroclasm or Zealous Persecution in their deck post-board on the off chance you board in Young Pyromancer – but an unchecked turn 2 'mancer can be deadly to an unprepared opponent. Your deck is still more spell-heavy than even the UR Delver decks, often running 16+ zero-to-two mana cantrips to keep the elementals flowing. The card selection spells make finding the two 'mancers trivial, though it may not always be on turn 2, and having a full set of Spell Pierce in the deck makes it more likely you can keep the token maker around. The expectation is that you are far less likely in the post-board games to be capable of resolving a three-mana Sorcery, but a two-mana creature is probably safe if it hits the board. This is a classic case of identifying what the plan of a given opponent will be, and circumventing that plan by transforming your own strategy to dodge it. Of course, we can hardly consider a two-card board plan a transformational sideboard, but the insane amount of card selection this deck runs means that the plan comes to Fruition more often than not anyway.
Each of these decks' pilots put consideration into the ways in which their post-board games would play out – not against the maindeck configuration the opponent presents, but against the expectations of what their opponent would do to combat their own strategy.
This is the essence of "next level" thinking:
Level 0 – Build a deck
Level 1 – Build a sideboard to beat deck X
Level 2 – Build a sideboard to beat how deck X plans to beat you
You can always dive deeper into levels – we've even laid it out a bit above with the discussion of Geist vs Twin – but most players get stuck on level 1. If you've ever played against an opponent who seemed to have all the answers no matter what you did – even when you had sideboard cards you thought would just blow them out of the water – there's a good chance they were at least one level ahead of you and planned for what you'd bring to the battle. I encourage you to incorporate more post-board games into your testing process, and to give consideration to both sides of a matchup when doing your tournament prep. The best way to beat a prepared opponent is to be aware of what their expectations are – and when the opportunity arises, leverage them into your favor.