Food for Thought: Sideboarding (Part 1)

October 9, 2017


The Theros spoiler list is finally up, and I have rarely been so eager to build weird new decks. It is not very common for a set to bring a whole new card design: the last time was probably Lorwyn, with the arrival of Planeswalkers, and I barely knew how to tap my lands back then. Those gods are really hard to figure out, even though my gut feeling is that most of them will fall a bit short –the exception has some business with hammers. And don’t even get me started on how S C R Y are the coolest four letters ever printed of a card.
Anyway, I decided to show you an aspect of deckbuilding that I think is both very important and very often overlooked: sideboarding. Most of my article will be about constructed, but I will try to leave you with some limited takeaways. There we go!

1-The importance of sideboarding (limited and constructed)
How important is it to sideboard correctly? To give you an illustration, I would say that coming to a tournament without a sideboard hurts about as bad as coming to a tournament with a “never keep 7 cards” emblem. You can get away with it, but that is very unlikely. Yes, it is that bad.
How many games will take your sideboard into account? More than half, obviously. Assuming that you enter the day 1 of a Grand Prix with a deck that has a 50% match-up against the field both before and after sideboard, here are the average numbers:
• Maindeck games: 9 (1 per round)
• Sideboarded games: 13,5 (1,5 per round)
In other words, you play 60% of your games with a sideboard. So, having a good match-up after sideboard is actually more important than having a good match-up maindeck. But wait! It gets better.
Let us assume that Sheldon Cooper shows up at this Grand Prix. Being the king of the nerds and a very smart animal, he did his homework and showed up with a great sideboard, meaning that his bad match-ups are likely to improve a lot after sideboard.
Funny thing is, Barney Stinson is attending the same tournament. Being, well, Barney Stinson, he was too busy doing something or someone and has a terrible sideboard; his match-ups are about the same after sideboard.
In every single round of the tournament, both of them are paired against a very unfavorable match-up. They both have a 30% chance of winning game 1. But after sideboard, Sheldon get a 70% percent match up while Barney is stuck at 30%.
At the end of the day, Sheldon played:
• 9 maindeck games (1 per round)
• 14.22 sideboarded games (including 5.22 games three)
While Barney played:
• 9 maindeck games (1 per round)
• 12.78 sideboarded games (including 3.78 games three)
What does it mean? Well, simply put, the more your sideboard helps in an “unfavorable” match up, the more you get to play with it. And it obviously works the other way: if your opponent improves after sideboard, he gets to play more sideboarded games against you. So, sideboarding well has the hidden bonus of making sure you get to use your sideboard more often.
Oh, right, does it really matter? Well, at the end of the day, Sheldon will score an average of a 6-3 finish, while Barney is expected in the 2-7 tribe. This is probably why high-level magic features more Sheldons than Barneys. So, I would say it matter a whole lot.
For those of you who like math, here is a funny number. Sheldon’s efficient sideboard granted him an overall 61, 6% match-up while Barney’s slacking left him with a miserable 21.6%. Yeah, 21, 6%. While he had 30% both maindeck and after sideboard. See what I mean? The highest repetition of games makes it even more unlikely for him to win the match. The odds of him winning a three-game match are only 12, 6%! Never overestimate variance, the “getting lucky” factor: if a match-up is really bad, you will lose, period.
Takeaway number 1: Sideboarding is way more important than your intuition says it is. You can not be a good player if you do not sideboard properly.

2-How to sideboard (limited and constructed):
Here, I am actually talking about the physical way to sideboard. You see different kinds of behavior in this area, from this guy who removes and adds cards one by one to this other guy who pulls out sideboarding chart and changes everything in a flash. I have been both of those gentlemen, and many others, in my first years as a not-so-competitive player. And I would be strongly in favor of the sideboard-shuffle technique.
In constructed, it goes like this: you take all fifteen cards from your sideboard, shuffle them in your deck (like, one riffle shuffle, no need to waste time on that), and then remove 15 cards. There are two good reasons to do this. First, it forces you to think correctly. You see every card in your 75, so you make sure you do not miss an interaction, or screw up your curve. It also forces you to actually remove cards one by one, so if one of those cards was actually good in the match-up (because of some weird tweak in your opponent’s list, for instance), you are much more likely to notice it in time.
The second reason is very important: your opponent does not get to see how many cards you bring against him. And that is huge. If you are playing against dredge, and you sideboard exactly four cards instantly after the game is over, then you give your opponent a major hint towards hard hate such as Rest in Peace, Tormod’s Crypt or Leyline of the Void. And he gets to make his own sideboard decisions accordingly, which is huge. And it works both ways: pay attention to what your opponent is doing while you sideboard, especially when his choices might have an impact on yours.
The most blatant examples appear in sealed tournaments, like during my day 1 at GP Prague. I could play two very different decks with my pool, both of them being equally miserable: a blue/white fly deck featuring the American air force but no removal or card drawing at all, or a super aggressive black/red deck with maindeck Lava Axe and Seismic Stomp. I ended up registering the blue/white list, but I prepared the other one with the same sleeves. Every single round, I checked how many cards my opponent sided and switched decks to surprise them: none of them noticed it, making for some awkward wins when my opponent’s Plummets prove quite useless against my Grizzly Bears. For game three, I just shuffled both decks together, and then removed 40 cards, so that my opponent could not decide between Shrivel and Windstorm. I went 8-1 before an impressive failure in day two, but hey, I still have a point, right?

3-How to build a sideboard (constructed):
You might not know it, but I think that the sideboard is an important part of a deck. So, how to you build one?
There are tons of options to build a good sideboard, Probably, But I only know one, so I will share it with you. What you do not want to do is decide which card to have in your sideboard until you have fifteen. That would be very much like buying a medicine before you know what makes you sick: it is comforting, it is reassuring, and for some weirdoes it is even fun, but it is not a rational decision. And irrational people scare the hell out of me.
My method is to test every match-up maindeck, and then figure out which cards are bad, and what they typically do or are. Like, if I am testing Mono-red against mono-white for PT Theros, I will note that Firedrinker Satyr, Rakdos Cackler and my 2 Chandra’s Phoenix suck. So I want to have something to replace them. What is it? I will see that later: I only know that I need to replace 10 low-cost creatures. And that’s enough: I can test another match-up and do the exact same thing.
At the end of the day, I have a chart which goes like this:

Obviously, this is overly simple since I just want to use it as an example. But you get the idea. Not only do I know how many cards I need for each match-up, I also know what kind of cards I need as replacements. I mean, if we take the blue-white match-up example, you see that I want to bring in 10 cards. I could pick 4 Burning Earth, 4 Skullcrack, and, say, 2 Stormbreath Dragon. All those cards really shine against control decks. But I would actually end up with a miserable deck, having flushed my aggressive curve down the toilet and not being able to draw enough creatures to pressure my opponent and enable my Burning Earth and Skullcracks. So, instead, I will favor Mindsparker, possibly Chandra, Pyromaster, and so on. This is when you start actually selecting cards for your sideboard.
Now, it seems that I would need a total of 26 cards to cover those three match-ups. Which brings us to a core concept: overlap.
Overlap means that a card can be used in more than one match-up. It is the main reason why you might sometimes not want to play a crazy good card for a given match-up just because that would put your entire sideboard off balance. For example, you might decide to run Torpor Orb over the superior Grafdigger’s Cage against Birthing Pod, just so you can also fight Splinter Twin strategies. Combining overlap with the previous chart is about all you need to build a functional sideboard; you will make sure you have enough good cards for every match-up without diluting your main plan.
That method has three consequences we need to examine:
• You do not get to upgrade cards:
Upgrading your cards means that you change a card that is actually quite good in the match-up for one that is even better. Although that is obviously sweet, it is not something you should be prioritizing: if all your cards are good against FaeriesDelverBlade.deck and you are still losing, it means that your power level is too low and you should change decks. That actually happened back when Caw-blade was a standard-legal deck: you could play Boros and have so many great cards against Caw-blade, but in the end… Batterskull. Still, upgrading cards is a viable option when you just happen to be able to do that. Basically, if you found a sideboard configuration that allows way to remove all of your bad cards in every match-up and it so happens that you could also upgrade, please go for it.
On a side note, there are actually some cases in which I think favoring upgrades over consistency is the right call: that is when you expect deck A to see a lot of play, and deck B to be widely overlooked. Then, it might be a good idea to accept lacking sideboard against deck B so that you get an even better match-up against deck A. That is very close to “abandoning the match-up”, an aspect of sideboarding that I will cover later.

• You tend to disregard hate cards:
Because you want to overlap as much as possible so that you cover every angle of the metagame, the incentive to play niche cards such as Rest in Peace is very, very low. Well, first, I confess that is true: I hate those cards, and I will almost always prefer generic cards like Negate than targeted hate such as Rule of Law against Storm, because I want my Sideboard to hit other combos (I am looking at you, Scapeshift) and control decks as well. Still, you should try to identify the cases when those cards are just too good to leave them at home. That happens when the deck they target is very popular, or when the impact that they have on the match-up is tremendous (think Slaughter Games against Scapeshift) and you think they will catch your opponent off guard. That last point is actually crucial: remember that Negate will always be great against Storm, while playing Rule of Law on turn three might just result in a quick demise after your careful opponent played an end-of-turn Echoing Truth
• You do not take your sideboard in consideration when building your maindeck:
Of course, you need to have a general idea of the maindeck before you build a sideboard. But from times to times, you will see a card that seems so good after sideboard that you really want to play a deck that has access to it. For example, after the release of M14, I knew I wanted to play a deck that could cast Burning Earth after sideboard. Well, this is not incompatible with the previous method: just do the exact same thing, except that you know your maindeck will be a kind-of-aggro red deck, and that you will only have 11 cards left to cover the rest of the in/outs of your deck.

4-Which match-ups to favor (constructed)?
This is a two-fold issue. First, there is the issue of the metagame, and that is a very simple one: if you have one last card to include into your sideboard, and it may improve either match-up A or B by 5%, you should pick the one that corresponds to the match-up you think you will face the most. But there is more to it, as I want to show you right now.
Stupid scenario: you are about to enter your very first pro tour, armed with a rogue 5 colors deck you designed at home. The metagame is split between 4 different decks, all of which represent exactly 25% of the field (excluding your deck). Your match-up against them is as follow:

Now, a sweet little faerie looking creature comes to you and offer to improve one of your post-board match-ups by 10%, no downside. Which one do you pick?
That is a really tough one. Does it actually make a difference, or is your match-up against the field going to stay the same any way? If not, what should we take in consideration to determine the answer?
This is what I will try to cover next time. Until them, I would love to have your ideas, and possibly include them.
Until next time,
Pierre Dagen

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