Five Sideboards to Learn From

Feature Article from Michael Flores
Michael Flores
9/20/2010 9:52:00 AM
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I decided for today to focus on five sideboards I built in the past, and what made them so good.

2000 - Mono-W Rebels

"Swamp, Dark Ritual, Necropotence."

That's what I said on the first turn of the first game of the first time I pulled it off. My opponent was Justin Polin. He was undefeated, too.

Justin wrinkled his nose. I had a first turn Ramosian Sergeant (the "Necropotence" in this case), and he didn't. Completely unfair. He let me know that.

Of course I played many more Rebels than he did, putting Justin on his heels, then won.

"Yeah, very skilled. You just had Ramosian Sergeant and I didn't."

"You don't even know why you lost," I responded.

"I know that you had Ramosian Sergeant on the first turn."

"How about I could side out all my Rebels and still beat you."

So -- just for kicks -- that's what I did.

And I beat him again in Game Two.

This game was the first domino. We refined for future weeks (this was the summer I made four PTQ Top 8s with straight White), but the entire Neutral Ground New York crew enthusiastically adopted the switchover. Many decks had their eyes trained specifically on Rebels. Black decks and B/G decks were bringing in a ton of Massacres, which were free. Even Nightwind Glider -- which was Protection from Black -- was vulnerable to the Massacre plan. Other Rebels decks had picked up Rebel Informer tech. I had it the very first week of the PTQ season, but in a Mono-W mirror, whoever had more mana would be at a huge advantage… Or you could get unlucky and actually draw the damn thing. Both eventualities were potentially random.

"So you're saying I just beat this guy up with all these Rebels and now I am supposed to side them out?" Chris Pikula -- in typically fashion -- groused about it before doing it, but it was eventually considered "right" by everyone.

Other Rebels decks -- when they went all-in on Rebel Informer -- were pinned under the four-pack of Mageta, the Lion. That big Legend was all that mattered (beyond blocking). Black decks had literally no good things to do with their Massacres. We could sit behind four toughness and / or the nearly insurmountable Story Circle… and that was it.

Not a full transformation, just one of the best sideboarding strategies of the last 10 years… Despite being nestled in a format -- Masques Block Constructed -- with few real metagame players.

Rebels by Mike Flores
Main Deck
4 Cho-Manno's Blessing
1 Defender en-Vec
1 Defiant Falcon
4 Mageta the Lion
1 Nightwind Glider
1 Ramosian Lieutenant
4 Ramosian Sergeant
1 Rebel Informer
4 Steadfast Guard
Creatures [21]
4 Cho-Manno's Blessing
4 Disenchant
4 Parallax Wave
4 Ramosian Rally
1 Seal of Cleansing
Spells [17]
1 Kor Haven
23 Plains (230)
2 Rath's Edge
Lands [26]
Deck Total [64]

4 Afterlife
3 Defender en-Vec
1 Rebel Informer
3 Seal of Cleansing
4 Story Circle
Sideboard [15]

Click for full deck stats & notes!

Meanwhile, the best non-Mageta card in the opponent's deck was usually a Parallax Wave; we could go up to a million Disenchants and Seals, simultaneously straining the opponent's ability to deal with our targets with more Story Circles and so on.

"Afterlife your Ramosian Sergeant" seems so painful the first time you do it.

But eventually, we moved Afterlife to the main and the once-super tech Rebel Informer became more and more high toughness Blinding Angels. All based on a seemingly ludicrous -- if successful -- attempt at one-upmanship.

2004 - The G/W Deck

G/W Control by Brian Kibler
Finished 5th - 8th Place at 2004 US Nationals
Main Deck
4 Eternal Dragon
Creatures [4]
4 Akroma's Vengeance
3 Decree of Justice
2 Gilded Light
4 Oxidize
4 Pulse of the Fields
4 Renewed Faith
4 Wing Shards
4 Wrath of God
Spells [29]
4 Elfhame Palace
3 Forest (350)
12 Plains (334)
4 Temple of the False God
4 Windswept Heath
Lands [27]
Deck Total [60]

2 Darksteel Colossus
2 Duplicant
2 Mindslaver
4 Purge
2 Reap and Sow
3 Tooth and Nail
Sideboard [15]

Click for full deck stats & notes!

It's hard to believe that the first-time-around version of Brian Kibler ran consecutive US Nationals Top 8s. He was awfully good, even then.

Brian liked the G/W deck on the basis that while most rogue decks -- even when they were viable -- were not very "powerful", the G/W deck actually was. The problem was that while it was the best anti-Affinity deck in the format, it could potentially fall behind against Tooth and Nail, or be raced by a seemingly infinite front of damage.

The initial semi-transformation came from testing with Seth Burn, the final -- which went through my own disappointing performance at Regionals -- ended up being Kibler's Nationals Top 8, where the G/W deck was the statistical best performer. Brian later joked that he beat an Elf and Nail player who sided out his Vernal Blooms when Brian showed him a couple of the main deck Forests!

Kibler's exit inexplicably came from -- you guessed it -- Affinity, despite the fact that G/W was, again, the best anti-Affinity deck in the room. Postlethewait drew all four Skullclamps in the decider, and eked it out.

2005 - Kuroda-Style Red

Mono-Red Aggro by Josh Ravitz
Finished 5th - 8th Place at 2005 Nationals Baltimore, MD
Main Deck
4 Arc-Slogger
4 Solemn Simulacrum
Creatures [8]
3 Beacon of Destruction
4 Magma Jet
4 Molten Rain
4 Pulse of the Forge
4 Sensei's Divining Top
4 Shrapnel Blast
1 Sowing Salt
4 Wayfarer's Bauble
Spells [28]
4 Blinkmoth Nexus
15 Mountain (346)
1 Swamp (342)
4 Tendo Ice Bridge
Lands [24]
Deck Total [60]

3 Boseiju, Who Shelters All
3 Cranial Extraction
4 Culling Scales
4 Fireball
1 Sowing Salt
Sideboard [15]

Click for full deck stats & notes!

Probably the best sideboard ever devised by YT, Josh Ravitz's from the following US National Championships was built to beat Mono-Blue Control, and for that matter, every key deck in the format.

The Kuroda-Style Red Deck already had a strong, if not insurmountable matchup against Tooth and Nail. With its heavy burn, the deck was one of the few that could actually beat Tooth and Nail after the signature sorcery had been played.

The cool thing about the sideboard was the twofold set of opportunities for repositioning.

Against White Weenie (and potentially other aggressive decks), the deck brought in Culling Scales. Josh beat every White Weenie deck in the Swiss, with most of them playing Auriok Champion, and in some cases Auriok Champion + Worship!

The Culling Scales + Sensei's Divining Top combination was basically The Abyss, and bought more than enough time to set up his essentially unbeatable mid-game behind Arc-Slogger. I remember Josh's final opponent finally getting the [Disenchant… I don't know what it was actually called] to kill the Culling Scales that had been bedeviling him all game, and Josh sending it headward with Shrapnel Blast.

But the really spectacular performance from this sideboard came at the expense of Mono-Blue Control. The Mono-Blue Control decks of the day relied on Bribery, Sun Droplet, or reversals of Boil to beat medium- or Big Red decks.

The near-transformation in this deck completely changed the rules of the game.

-4 Arc Slogger
-4 Solemn Simulacrum
-1 Shrapnel Blast
-1 Mountain

+3 Boseiju, Who Shelters All
+3 Cranial Exraction
+4 Fireball

The theory here was that we would actually out-mana Mono-Blue on the way to Fireballing them to death with unstoppable Fireballs. It was a good theory.

The first strategic Leap was figuring out that we had to side out not just Arc-Slogger (obviously vulnerable to Bribery) but Solemn Simulacrum, too. The problem was that I actually told Mark Herberholz how we beat Blue decks sideboarded, and he told Neil Reeves. They brewed relentlessly and figured out the big creature (specifically Uyo) and Twincast counter-sideboarding plan that Neil used to take down Josh in the Top 8… another US Nationals Top 8, another loss to the deck we were a lock to beat.

Oh well, it was still great on the way up.

2005 - Critical Mass

Green/Blue Aggro by Gerard Fabiano
Finished 5th - 8th Place at 2005 Grand Prix Mexico City, Mexico
Main Deck
2 Isao, Enlightened Bushi
4 Keiga, the Tide Star
4 Kodama of the North Tree
4 Meloku the Clouded Mirror
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
Creatures [18]
4 Hinder
3 Hisoka's Defiance
4 Kodama's Reach
4 Sensei's Divining Top
4 Umezawa's Jitte
Spells [19]
10 Forest (350)
7 Island (338)
1 Minamo, School at Water's Edge
1 Miren, the Moaning Well
1 Oboro, Palace in the Clouds
1 Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers
2 Tendo Ice Bridge
Lands [23]
Deck Total [60]

3 Consuming Vortex
2 Gnarled Mass
4 Jushi Apprentice
1 Overwhelming Intellect
2 Rending Vines
3 Threads of Disloyalty
Sideboard [15]

Click for full deck stats & notes!

The way Critical Mass handled Jushi Blue is among my favorite cat-and-mouse dances in the history of Magic.

In Game One we are just Mono-Blue Control, but better. They have Jushi Apprentice but we have Sakura-Tribe Elder. Essentially there is Counterspell parity but we can get to the Keiga / Meloku position (often with counter backup) faster, and defend better. We can trump with Jitte, which they can't do in Game One. If we ever get big Kodama, all we have to do is sit back on Counterspells, and they can't win ever.

Meanwhile they are drawing tons of cards with Jushi Apprentice that can't actually get them out of the hole they are in. We are also a Counterspell deck, but have more mana. They have no way to deal with Kodama, except by throwing 100 cards at it. We actually have more copies of Keiga and Meloku than they do, winning the Legend war over time; plus, we have a 4-0 Sensei's Divining Top advantage.

And we haven't even gotten to one of my Top 5 sideboards of all time.

This is a cat-and-mouse dance, after all. They have literally no targets for Threads of Disloyalty (hello, Sakura-Tribe Elder!). All of their Threads of Disloyalty come out. Meanwhile we bring in an eight pack of Threads of Disloyalty (for their Jushi Apprentices) and Jushi Apprentices of our own. So Game Two is a recap of Game One, except instead of being able to draw 100 cards with Jushi Apprentice… Well… We have complete domination of the Jushi Apprentice part of the game as well, now.

Basically, an embarrassment of riches.

2006 - This Girl

The previous four sideboards were all non-purely transformational routes to outsmarting the opponent moving from Game One to Game Two. We created null card opportunities, taxed Limited Resources, or changed our position on the metagame clock. We figured out pressure points and put every resource where the opponent was not strong, evaded fights where we were not supposed to be strong, or had the opponent chasing phantoms and shadows behind every door.

I could have included the Mono-Black Control sideboard, designed to overcome Compost, but we talked about that relatively recently; that was -- like the Kuroda-Style Red sideboard -- a focused attempt at fixing a specific problem. In each case we had one of the best decks in the format -- and generally the best deck without a target on its back -- but there was a not-uncommonly-played spoiler waiting in the wings to spoil our day. It was only by complete and utter mastery of our knowledge of the format that we could figure out a way to beat that Compost or Bribery-reinforced-by-100-Counterspells.

It was recently suggested to me that a way to improve one's tournament Magic performance was to stretch out to other formats, play everything from EDH to casual multiplayer to increase one's ability to anticipate different threats and come back from difficult positions.

Quite simply this is terrible advice. You get better at cracking formats by understanding what is possible, what will actually come up, and using your finite resources -- generally your time and your cards and your opportunity -- to figured out a strategic and repeatable road map to overcome the specific hurdles in a consistent and systematic manner. "More" possibilities doesn't help you. You need to cut down to fewer and fewer until you find the one that actually works.

Anyway, that's what the previous four sideboards tried to do.

This Girl's sideboard -- which at the time I claimed was my best ever -- was just four different cards that I used over the course of the day. Three of them won me at least one matchup that I couldn't beat in a Game One situation, at least not easily.

This Girl by Mike Flores
Main Deck
4 Court Hussar
4 Firemane Angel
4 Lightning Angel
4 Serra Avenger
Creatures [16]
2 Azorius Signet
2 Boros Signet
4 Compulsive Research
1 Confiscate
4 Demonfire
4 Lightning Helix
4 Wrath of God
Spells [21]
1 Adarkar Wastes
3 Boros Garrison
4 Flagstones of Trokair
4 Hallowed Fountain
2 Island (234)
1 Izzet Boilerworks
2 Plains (230)
4 Sacred Foundry
2 Steam Vents
Lands [23]
Deck Total [60]

3 Fortune Thief
4 Grand Arbiter Augustin IV
4 Mana Leak
4 Repeal
Sideboard [15]

Click for full deck stats & notes!

I once again made a big deal out of not having any Counterspells. Actually having Mana Leak in my sideboard (and especially with no Remand anywhere) got a lot of value. It was the combination of Grand Arbiter Augustin IV and Mana Leak together that bought me -- albeit by slim margins -- the Dragonstorm matchup that I started 0-1.

Repeal was generally good over the course of the day… I sided it against Zoo, and against the final MSS Champion, playing U/G (actually my backup deck going into Champs). I slow played the sideboarded games but fast played removal on my own turn, specifically any opportunity to take out Cloaks or save damage. Repeal was good in all the aggressive situations, if not 100% necessary to win any particular match.

But on the other hand… Fortune Thief!

This card was a gamble. But it was an amazing one. First of all, no one even knew what it did. Second of all, even the decks that could deal with it didn't usually have cards to after sideboarding.

The team had serious problems with Ghazi-Glare in long, 50+ turn games. Essentially they could lock down all our threats and gain enough life to avoid being burned out. Even with four copies of Wrath of God, we would eventually be overwhelmed by Saprolings given enough time.

Fortune Thief, well… beat them. They had no Counterspell. We just had to put them in a position where they didn't have a stray Serrated Arrows.

The match I took over Ghazi-Glare to make Top 8 came on the back of Fortune Thief.

This little Red creature may seem like a fun stretch to you, but it was really this deck's one-card response to the beat-Compost or beat-Bribery-and-Counterspells sideboards of yore. U/R/W being behind against G/W isn't even obvious to most players! And it was something we uncovered only by hundreds of turns of repetitions. To even figure out that there was a problem was a feat that could not be accomplished with random time wasting play; figuring out a strategically repeatable solution within 24 hours of tournament time… Well, I suppose that is the difference between winning the tournament and not even making Top 8 in this case.

So what did we learn and what can we apply to present and future sideboarding?

Rebels - Just because your deck is named after something doesn't mean that that has to be who you are and define your identity 100% of the time. You might have more flexibility than you think in terms of taking the target off your back, even when you are the Deck to Beat.

G/W - If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Figure out how you can piggyback on the space that you already have in order to fit in everything that you need. For example, this deck didn't have the Cloudposts or Vernal Bloom engine of traditional Tooth and Nail or Elf and Nail decks, but it did have Temple of the False God. The Regionals version had Akroma, Angel of Wrath as a potential Tooth and Nail target. Space-savers like these can help you develop a hybridization or transformation where someone else seems to be using an entire deck for a completely different purpose.

Kuroda-Style Red - You have to know the enemy. This goes beyond just the Blue matchups. If you know that White opponents are going to highly value any hand with Auriok Champion, being able to beat Auriok Champion (let alone all the cards that don't have life gaining and Red-thrashing abilities) means you will beat their best hands. You might as well translate that to a fight between Baneslayer Angel and Combust today, potentially.

Critical Mass - Speed and mana optimization are generally more valuable than either pure card advantage or potential power. When you have only one, pick mana. When you can have two, pick mana. When you can have all three… Good job, I guess.

This Girl - Sometimes the definition of the best sideboard is that you used all your cards, and they all helped you win with your back against the wall, at some time or other. Sideboard space is one of the most finite resources in deck design. Choose wisely.


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