We as a community have a problem. It is not something that most people even recognize as a problem or in some case, do not recognize at all, but if we are to move forward as a society, we must be willing to admit our mistakes. Magic peers, we are maindeck biased! There, I said it. The first step toward solving any problem, etc., etc.
Alright, so perhaps equating our love with the main 60 to one of the many social movements of modern times is a bit extreme, but it is true nonetheless. Sideboarding is always the little brother to his more successful and handsome older-half and we have been giving far too little attention to the guy.
On some level this makes sense. If I told you I had a sweet new brew for this weekend, showing you the sideboard alone would do very little. Without the context of my maindeck, those 15 cards are pretty random. Basically, a deck without a sideboard is still a deck, but a sideboard with no deck is nothing at all. That said, when it comes to competitive play, your sideboard might as well be a part of your deck.
Could you imagine working for weeks on 45 cards of a deck and then just randomly throwing in the final 15 cards in a last minute effort? Oh, people already do that with their mana bases? Bad example then...
Honestly though, let's assume your mana base is equally worked on like the rest of your deck. In this scenario, the 45 cards you get perfect include some 15 to 20 lands or so. You would never intentionally just ignore a 4th of your deck as that would cost you all sorts of percentages in your win column. Your sideboard is easier to ignore than those 15 maindeck cards are, but it really is no less important.
Recently, some sideboard conversation has come up due to some snazzy innovations and tricks used in recent Top 8s. One such list comes from teammate and friend-- Steve Rubin. Rubin recently piloted the following deck to a Top 8 finish. See if you can identify why his sideboard has been getting so much attention:
If you said Mastery of the Unseen, good guess, but I actually am looking at those Fleecemane Lions in the board. People are excited by the prospect of an Abzan deck that is rather on the controlling side, but that can add an aggressive touch after board to catch people off guard who might be bringing in the Negates and Swan Songs against you.
Rubin's board actually does not go very deep into the aggressive side of Abzan. Realistically, when the deck wants to go aggressive, only four copies of Fleecemane Lion and one copy of Sorin, Solemn Visitor are required. Anything else that comes in is matchup dependent and not an essential part of the aggressive package. Five cards is not all that many considering that when we typically think of transformational sideboard, we tend to think of elaborate 10+ card swaps.
As it turns out, however, there are actually a lot of neat things you can do with a sideboard other than just playing cards that help bad matchups. While that may be your ultimate goal, the methods you use to get there can go beyond Blue Elemental Blast and Naturalize. Today, I wanted to share some rogue sideboard tips and tricks I have used over the years to hopefully inspire some deck builders out there!The Bullet Board
The Bullet Board is one of the most fun sideboards you can ever run. While it will not always be strategically correct, running a Bullet Board will give you a new appreciation for your sideboard and a new look on how to transform your deck after game one situations.
A Bullet Board is a sideboard made up of fifteen different cards. Each of these cards is nicknamed a "Silver Bullet" thereby giving the entity the Bullet Board title. To be a true Bullet Board, you will want none of your 15 sideboard cards appearing in your maindeck, although cheating a little here is ok in my opinion (as in, I have three Hero's Downfall main and one side).
Bullet Boards are most often used when a deck has access to some kind of tutor package or otherwise has a high card flow, increasing the likelihood that you see any given card from your sideboard. Birthing Pod in Modern would be a reasonable spot to have a Bullet Board as you have six to eight tutors and are a creature based deck, meaning other creatures just tend to fit in better. In Pro Tour Born of the Gods, I nearly ran a Bullet Board but needed to make some room for the Thoughtseizes that didn't end up in my maindeck.
Obviously there are a lot of tools in this sideboard that I can use for specific matchups. Ethersworn Canonist is a great card against Storm combo, for example, and both Pod and Chord can find it for me. But beyond just having hyper-specific cards, the board was built in such a way that it could find these unique one-ofs that perform similar jobs and join together against it.
For example, let's say my sideboard had four copies of Obstinate Baloth in the sideboard. Against a Zoo opponent, I am going to be bringing in all of those Baloths as they are likely my package against such an opponent are are strong in that matchup. The board above captures that by having enough overlap across cards. Against Zoo, I would be bringing in Obstinate Baloth, Shriekmaw, Abrupt Decay, and then something like Orzhov Pontiff if they had small things like Lavamancers or perhaps Aven Mindcensor if they have Knight of the Reliquary.
The versatility of a Bullet Board really allows you to mold your deck in game two and three situations. I could easily have three copies of Kataki, War's Wage to fight Affinity as it is very strong there, but instead, I am able to play cards like Harmonic Sliver and Abrupt Decay which are still strong in the Affinity matchup, but lend a hand against Pyromancer Ascension or opposing Birthing Pod decks. Even if Kataki is the best card against Affinity, Modern is a wide open format so we want to be strong against Affinity, but not neglect other matchups in the process.
Keep in mind that a useful and productive Bullet Board is not done for aesthetics. I could have pretty easily not run all of those Thoughtseizes in the board and instead played random one-of things like Duress, but my intention was not to weaken my deck in order to make it look cool. In fact, I was trying to strengthen it. Be sure to keep improving the deck as your priority as running a Bullet Board can be really fun and a little addicting.The Sketchy Backdoor
Yes, that is the official name of this technique, just trust me.
Have you ever had some card that you thought was really amazing but just could not justify based on how easily it is dealt with? Some examples of this in Standard might be the likes of Narset, Enlightened Master, Satyr Firedancer, or basically any threat out of a control deck. Basically, these are strong cards, but they tend to be a lightning rod for removal. Either they are so obviously important that they die on the spot, or your opponent has been holding answers to them all game but has had no targets. For example, Narset seems like a safe creature until its turn 10 and she is the first creature you cast. Now the Crackling Dooms, End Hostilities, and Drown in Sorrows your opponent has been holding are live and your resilient creature ends up dead.
Now imagine that same scenario except there is no Narset. You just bludgeon your opponent with planeswalkers and burn spells, controlling the game and never showing a creature. Do you think bringing in some Narsets for game two might have some value? There is such little chance of your opponent keeping in any removal spells that can deal with the legend as they saw nothing to use those on in game one.
This is effectively a bait and switch. You are looking to bait your opponent into a sense of security in understanding what your gameplan is and then pulling the rug out from under them in game two. Rubin did this to a certain extent by becoming aggressive, but people would still have all their normal removal in for game two in that situation. Andrew Cuneo showcases a nice example of how to go at this with Jeskai Control.
A lone pair of Nyx-Fleece Ram are his only maindeck creatures. This means aside from some Hero's Downfall that will be left in to clean up walkers, when Cuneo brings in those Brimaz from the sideboard, they are likely to cause a heck of a lot of problems for an opposing control player who is now pressed to find one of only a few answers and very quickly.
Brimaz is obviously a very strong card and is found in decks all across Standard, but if you look at Cuneo's list, the maindeck is just no place for this cat. It would basically always die to the random Murderous Cut or pair of Bile Blights that the opponent has saved up due to a distinct lack of targets otherwise. But out of the board, it is a strong weapon to be taken advantage of.
Of course, this will lead into some debate about what you should do for game three. If they bring back in their answers, you would probably rather be back to your mainboard configuration. There is very little rhyme or reason here though as different players will do different things to answer your game two plan or not. I will let you figure out what to do with game three on your own!The Reversal
Sometimes a metagame will become so polarized that public enemy number one really is just that. If you remember back to Caw-Blade, for example, you remember a time like this. Legitimately, 40% or more of the players were all playing some type of Caw-Blade variant and decks that were not Caw-Blade were mostly preying on each other as no real deck stood up against Caw-Blade in a reasonable manner.
The format became so much about a single deck that people began to run answers to specific Caw-Blade problems in their maindeck. Divine Offering was commonplace out of white decks while other strategies turned to things like Pithing Needle or Nature's Claim and would often run these cards in the main.
That leaves the sideboard with some open slots though because now those very cards have migrated over. You could replace those slots with more sideboard options for other matchups, but sometimes the correct move was to run cards that would normally be in your maindeck in those slots. Whenever you wanted to genetically improve the strength of your deck for any non-Caw-Blade matchup, you could bring in an extra Counterspell, a draw spell, and maybe some removal spell to go back to where you would be if Caw-Blade were not so omnipresent.
Generally, the cards you bring in do shore up some matchups, they just might not look like typical sideboard cards. Often you will see the fourth copy of a key removal spell or something in the sideboard and that was only moved there to make room for the more metagame dependent Naturalize or whatever.
You are essentially acknowledging that you cannot predict every non Caw-Blade matchup you will run into, because they are all tier two or lower and basically anything is viable once you Remove the restriction of needing to be good against Caw-Blade. So, you can either wander into these matchups with a highly specific sideboard in which you might not have anything to bring in, or you can resort back to the strong deck you want to have assuming the Caw-Blade Menace were not around.Wrap Up
Of course, there are all sorts of sideboard techniques that deserve more time. The transformational sideboard is probably the flashiest. There are also wish sideboards that get used in eternal formats and take an entirely different approach. Or even proactive sideboards that accompany very dedicated combo/aggro decks that do not like to Tinker around with their formula too much and therefore only have very powerful and specific sideboard cards because they cannot bring in more than a couple for any given match.
The big takeaway from all of this should be that your sideboard matters. Take some time to develop some skills and sideboard techniques as those are the types of things that make or break a 15 round tournament. As always, thanks for reading!