Food for Thought: Sideboarding (Part 2)
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In magic, played in 4 PT, got three GP top 16 and 1 top8.
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In my last article, I tried to show you the proper ways to build and use a sideboard once you identified which decks you needed to sideboard against. That left us with a need for determining in which match-ups we wanted to sideboard. But before I get to the topic, let me warn you: this is a bit technical, and you might not be interested in the demonstration that follows. That is why I put some takeaway points, so that you can just read them and skip the explanation: but if you do that, you will just have to take my word for this.
First of all, we should take the metagame into account. I will not go to deep on this, since the basic guidelines are obvious: if one deck is very popular, you need to have an efficient sideboard against it. If not, you can afford to accept one or two tough match-ups and use the available slots to improve against the rest of the field. Last but not least, you need to know that you will sometimes have to abandon a match-up, which basically means that you understand that it is so hard to win that even dedicating your whole sideboard would not ensure victory. In those cases, just go for broke, work on your other match-ups, and hope you will not face your archenemy too often.
The Secret Card Riddle
But most of the times, the metagame does not have one clear winner, but three of four good decks each one of them representing 15 to 20% of the field. A fine example could be last year’s standard: at some point in Europe, the metagame was 20% Junk Reanimator, 20% Patriot, 20% Naya Blitz and 20% Aristocrats. Let us assume that you enter a Grand Prix featuring that exact metagame (you are playing, say, a standard Junk Reanimator list). As you are about to submit your decklist, Mark Rosewater walks by and offers to give you an unknown, secretly standard-legal card for your sideboard. That card is so good that it will increase one of your match-ups after sideboard by ten percent, no costs at all. Sure enough, you agree: but which match-up do you choose?
Remember that the metagame has no impact whatsoever on your choice: each one of the top four decks has the same representation in the room, and there is no way to determine which one you will be facing the most today. So how can we make a decision? Actually, does it even matter?
Well, truth is, it does. And here is the answer to the fictional Mark Rosewater’s question.
Let us assume that, having tested carefully for this event, you think your match-ups without the secret card go like this:
Now, as you can see, Junk Reanimator was just decent, since its overall match-up against the field is not far above 50%. Now, take a moment and decide in which of those match-ups you would like to increase your win% after sideboard by 10%. All set? Let’s see if you got this right.
As you can see, your choice is not neutral. In fact, depending on the match-up you decided to boost, your average score over 16 rounds (which is assuming you make day two, but I have faith in my readers) varies from 8-8 to 9-7. You might be under the impression that this is a very thin variation, and you would be right. But please remember that the difference between the top performing deck and the worst performing deck in a major event (like a PT) is usually around 5%. So trust me, I’ll take anything.
Takeaway number 1: even when two decks represent the same share of a given metagame, the decision to improve your sideboard against one or the other is not neutral and does not improve your overall win % in the same way.
History of a Happy Sideboard
Now that we proved that your sideboard does not have the same impact in every match-up, it seems legitimate to wonder which criteria we can use when deciding which match-up we want to prepare for. And that is actually a really tough one, since there is no obvious answer: as you see from the chart before, boosting the best match-up (Patriot) would be a poor idea. But upgrading the worst match-up (Aristocrats) is actually a poor choice as well, which I think is pretty counter-intuitive.
Let us just imagine that your sideboard is actually a football player (and by football, I mean soccer, not chainsaw massacre football). The poor little guy is actually quite good, but he starts every match on the bench. And that sucks – trust me, I was an expert for quite some time. So, when he finally gets to enter the arena, he needs to see a maximum amount of play, because making your sideboard happy will make you happy (that is, if you like winning).
Where am I going with this? Well, it is actually pretty damn simple if you take the sports metaphore. Let us assume that I am coaching my football team, and the other team already has a very hard time. We are winning, 4 goals to nothing. I still have one player sitting on the bench, and I know that he usually plays super well against our opponents: last time he played, he scored twice in like ten minutes, and I believe he will do the same today. If he enters play right now, I am pretty damn sure we will win. I am also pretty damn sure that we will not need to go to extra time. So, all in all, he is gonna play for five minutes and turn my certain victory into an even more certain victory. That is what you call overkill.
What if I was the coach for the other team, and I was in the exact same situation, except I am currently losing 4-0. Well, I can get my superstar into play, but honestly, I doubt he will turn the tide all by himself. We will lose 4-2, and still not go to extra time. So, what’s the point?
Actually, the best scenario for my secret weapon is to enter the game when the score is slightly unfavorable, because then, his impact will not only help for the last five minutes, but also increase the odds of going to extra time. Not only will he help me play better, he will also help me play longer, which means that his presence will have much more impact on the outcome.
If we apply the same thing to magic, with extra time being game three, we begin to understand why improving the Patriot match-up was actually a bad idea. What we are doing here is this: we devote some part of our sideboard to a match-up for which we will usually win game one. Now, since we made an effort to have a good sideboard, we are even more likely to win game two. And as a conclusion, we are probably never playing a third game. Our sweet sideboard tech will not get to see the sun too often. And that is how you make a sideboard sad. In more mathematical terms, improving our post-sideboard match-up against patriot by ten percent has the following impact:
As you can see, even though we increased the odds of winning a third game, we also decreased the odds of actually playing a third game. That is still favorable, obviously (since if we do not play a third, it is very probably because we won 2-0), but it still means that our super efficient sideboard was not really put to the best use.
At the contrary, applying the same reasoning to our best-scenario upgrade (Naya Blitz), we get the following chart:
Yep, now you get it: this time, you do not only get to win more sideboarded games, you also get to play more sideboarded games. And that, my friends, is a happy sideboard. Still, I have to be perfectly honest with you guys and show the numbers we get when boosting the Aristocrats match-up:
As you can see, boosting your sideboard VS The Aristocrats would actually augment the average number of game threes you’ll be playing even more. So, how come it is not the best option? Well, it is actually very simple: even with that augmentation, you still get to play a game three only 49% of the time, whereas you play it 52% of the time against Naya Blitz. So, your sideboard keeps a little bit under-exploited.
Takeaway number 2: you need to get a good sideboard in the match-ups that are the most likely to go for all three games, and you should focus on improving your sideboard in match-ups that are unfavorable main deck because that makes you much more likely to get to game three and actually use that better sideboard.
So, what does it mean? It is actually quite simple. Here are the four different scenarios for a match-up, along with what they imply in terms of sideboard:
• Dominant match-up: MD >50%, SB >50% (example: Splinter Twin VS Pod)
o This is the kind of match-up where you are ahead main deck and after sideboard.
o Since the results of games 1 and 2 are likely to be the same, you will rarely go to game 3: you do not get to use your sideboard too often.
o If you improve your sideboard in those, then you make it even less likely that you get to game three. In other words, the better your sideboard, the less you get to play with it.
o If you weaken your sideboard in those too much (i.e under 50%), you fall into the “Bad sideboard match-up” category.
• Good sideboard match-up: MD <50%, SB >50% (example: Jund VS Ravager)
o This is the kind of match-up where you are behind main deck and ahead after sideboard.
o Since the results of games 1 and 2 are likely to be different, you will often go to game 3: your sideboard works really hard.
o If you improve your sideboard in those, then you make it even more likely that you get to game three. In other words, the better your sideboard, the more you get to play with it.
o If you weaken your sideboard in those too much (i.e under 50%), you fall into the “Dominated match-up” category.
• Bad sideboard match-up: MD >50%, SB <50% (example: Dredge VS about anything)
o This is the kind of match-up where you’re ahead main deck and behind after sideboard.
o Since the results of games 1 and 2 are likely to be different, you will often go to game 3: your sideboard works really hard, which sucks since it is bad.
o If you improve your sideboard in those enough (>50%), then you fall into the “Dominant match-up” category. Most importantly, you get your opponent out of the “Good Sideboard match-up” Category.
o If you weaken your sideboard in those then you make it even more likely that you get to game three. In other words, the worst your sideboard, the more you get to play with it.
• Dominated match-up : MD <50%, SB <50% (example: RG Tron VS Scapeshift)
o This is the kind of match-up where you’re behind both main deck and after sideboard.
o Since the results of games 1 and 2 are likely to be the same, you will not often go to game 3: you do not get to use your sideboard too often.
o If you improve your sideboard in those enough (>50%), then you fall into the “Good Sideboard match-up” category.
o If you weaken your sideboard in those then you make it even less likely that you get to game three. In other words, the worst your sideboard, the less you get to play with it.
So, assuming that you already defined your main deck, we can deduce what you should do with your sideboard in every match-up:
• In a Dominant match-up, you should not try to improve: just make sure you stay dominant (i.e do not fall under 50% post SB). For example, if you play Splinter Twin, do not overload your sideboard with Shadow of Doubt and such: just make sure their Spellskite do not turn the match-up upside down (Flame Slash, here, is a perfect example since it is not a card that you devote specifically to a match-up, but it still does the job very well).
• In Good Sideboard Match-ups, you should actively try to improve your sideboard, since this is when he will be working the most. For example, if you play Jund VS Ravager, having all four Ancient Grudge makes an awful lot of sense: not only is it more likely that you draw it and win game 2, but it also means that you will more often get to play a game three where you will be favored thanks to that exact same Ancient Grudge
• In Bad Sideboard Match-ups, you should try to improve exactly as much, since if you do not, your opponent gets the exact same edge as I described in the Good Sideboard match-ups category For example, if you are playing Dredge against some deck with four Tormod’s Crypt. in their sideboard, you have to have a plan against it: if not, the first one your opponent draws (in game 2) is very likely to lead to him winning that game and drawing another one in game 3 to steal the match.
• In Dominated Match-ups, what you should absolutely not try to do is improve your main deck. On the other hand, if you are able to turn the match-up upside down after sideboard, then you move in the Good Sideboard Match-ups category, which is exactly where you want to be and as such should be your top priority. For example, if you play Splinter Twin against Jund, having some dedicated cards ready for his Abrupt Decays (think Mizzium Skin.) might very well be worth it, since it has a good chance of turning an 0-2 into a 2-1 in your favor. Careful though: as you could see from the previous example with the Aristocrats match-up, improving your match-up post-sideboard is not all that useful if you remain under 50%, since you still won’t play too many game threes. So, if you feel like the match-up is still bad after sideboard, do not devote too many cards: just be a man and accept that this is a tough one. For instance, even with four Leyline of Sancticity in your sideboard, your RG Tron deck is still an underdog after sideboard against Scapeshift: do you really want those four cards when they will most likely just turn an 0-2 into a 1-2? I do not.
Takeaway number three: For those of you who do not like numbers, this is actually the conclusion.
When creating your sideboard, you should (by order of priority):
• Try to get over 50% post-SB in match-ups that are under 50% MD.
• Try to improve your post-SB % in all match-ups where one player is ahead MD and the other ahead SB.
• Try to maintain your post-SB% over 50% in all match-ups where you are over 50% MD.
And you should not:
• Try to improve a match-up that is already>50% both MD and SB (also known as overkilling)
• Try to improve a match-up that is still <50% both MD and SB (also known as waste of resources)
And for those of you who want further explanation, I just put the chart I drew with 20 typical decks, in order to get a ranking of the impact of an arbitrary 10% boost:
As you can see, the main points to take into consideration for your sideboard upgrade to be effective are:
• Target a disputed match-up: It is absolutely shocking to see that every single deck which has an inversion between its MD and SB match-ups has a better ranking that the others. This is obviously directly related with the fact that having an inversion grants you more sideboarded games – happy sideboard for the win!
• Go for the biggest spreads: what I called the spread in this chart is the difference between your MD win% and your SB win%. The bigger the spread, the more sideboarded games you play, and the more sideboarded games you play, the more useful your sideboard.
• Favor negative MD over negative SB: That one is easy to miss, but it definitely shows in the statistics. If you have a choice between boosting a match-up that goes like 35% MD, 65% SB and the opposite (i.e 65% MD, 35% SB), you should always go with option A. This actually makes a lot of sense when you give it enough thought: improving match-up A, you augment the spread (allowing for more sideboarded games), whereas improving match-up B would result in lowering the spread, which implies less sideboarded games: sad sideboard.
That’s about it. As a sidenote, I will have you notice that in any 50% MD match-up, your overall match-up is exactly the same as your SB match-up, which means that you can never go too far wrong sideboarding for a mirror match.
Before I leave you, I just wanted to thanks team Revolution / MTGMadness for their support, great atmosphere and amazing players who got me into the finals of PT Theros along with my teammate and co-writer Jeremy Dezani. I will write a report someday soon, but for the moment, I would rather congratulate the actual winner, Jeremy Dezani.