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The Way of the Sideboard

Robert Dougherty

Without question the most underdeveloped, undertested part of the average Magic deck is its sideboard. Many times, even top players will throw a sideboard together the night before a tournament. This is in sharp contrast to the many hours of playtesting and tweaking that go into the main deck.

The value of a sideboard card is not simply determined by the power of the card against the opponent, but by the difference in power between it, and the card it is replacing.

A typical Magic match is best 2 out of 3 games. Assuming that half of matches finish in 2 games and the other half go to 3 games, then a full 58% of the Magic games are played with the post sideboarded deck. With similar assumptions in a best 3 out of 5 match, 77% of games are resolved using sideboards. These numbers make it abundantly clear that the sideboarded version of a deck is even more important then its original configuration. In order for a deck to be well constructed, it must have a well-constructed sideboard. Similarly, in order for a player to master a deck they must know how to sideboard it in every matchup.

Know Your Enemy

An understanding of the metagame is necessary before a sideboard can be built. This makes the first step in building a good sideboard figuring out what decks people are playing. For large events, the best way to gather this intelligence is to consult Top 8 deck lists posted on the Sideboard and other strategy sites. For local tournaments however, an examination of what has been played in that area for the past few weeks will yield more accurate information.

When preparing for the debut tournament of a format (like the 2000 State Championships), players must rely on themselves and their play test group to build a large variety of decks. With any luck, the more successful decks out of this pool will make up the metagame for the tournament.

Know Yourself

Once the field is studied, the deck must be tested in every matchup, including the mirror. During this testing it is important to take note of the easy matchups, but special attention should be paid to the deck's weaknesses. What, if any, are the weak or useless cards in each matchup? Which cards or strategies of the opposing decks are the most devastating? Which decks are the hardest to beat?

Once these questions have been answered, it is important that the information is recorded so that it may be referenced when creating the sideboard. A good method for doing this is to make a table with 4 columns. The first column contains the name of each deck in the testing, the second column records the number of games won and lost, the third column lists any weak or useless cards in the matchup, and the fourth column is for notes.

Knowledge to Power

Often, players will put a large number of cards in their sideboard to deal with a problem matchup only to find they have to take cards that are good in the match up out in order to fit these sideboard cards in. This over-commitment of resources leaves the player without enough sideboard slots to properly address the rest of the field. In order to avoid this pitfall, it is necessary to consult the information gathered in the playtesting stage.

The value of a sideboard card is not simply determined by the power of the card against the opponent, but by the difference in power between it, and the card it is replacing. Maximizing the change in power ( P) is the goal. With this in mind, the first priority in creating the sideboard is to replace the weak or useless cards in each matchup. For each deck in the metagame, chose a number of sideboard cards equal to the number of cards shown to be weak or useless against that deck in the testing. When choosing sideboard cards in this first pass, a player need not be concerned with the total number of sideboard cards chosen. He or she should simply choose the best possible sideboard cards for each matchup. Reducing the total number of cards down to 15 will come later.

In the cases where there are no problem cards to be replaced, an attempt should still be made to find sideboard cards. When choosing these cards, disregard any cards that are not extremely powerful in the matchup. Because there are no weak cards to be replaced, the incoming cards must be much better to maintain the same P. If no cards of appropriate power can be found, then no sideboard slots will be allotted to this matchup.

Efficient Allocation of Resources

The methods outlined above are likely to result in a pool of cards in excess of the 15 cards allowed in the sideboard. The final stage in sideboard development is reducing the number down to the legal limit.

Often when organizing, things get messier before they get neater. This is no exception. Another search will be made for yet more potential sideboard cards, this time with an eye for consolidation. Before the goal was to find the best possible card in each matchup. This time, it's to find cards that are useful against multiple matchups.

Once these alternate sideboard cards have been chosen, three factors need to be examined to determine in which cases to stick to the more specific sideboard cards from the first pass, and in which cases it is best to use the more general cards form the second pass.

The first question is how much of the all-important P is lost when the more general sideboard card is used. The second is the difficulty of the matchup. In those matchups where the win percentage was high before sideboarding, a smaller P can be tolerated. Finally, one must consider what percentage of the field the deck in question will make up. The more likely facing a deck in the tournament is, the more important it becomes to have the highest quality sideboard cards against it.

If, after this process of consolidation, the sideboard is still above the 15-card limit, then it is necessary to simply cut the least valuable cards until the magic number is reached.

When a sideboard card is used in a matchup, it has a value in that matchup. Determining a card's value in a match up is done almost identically to the consolidation process above. One must look at the P, the difficulty of the matchup, and the percentage of the field that matchup represents. A card's value in a match up is probably best estimated without number crunching, but the concept can be represented by the following formula:

value in matchup= P x (( # of test games lost to this deck)/(# of Games Played)) x % of Field

Some sideboard cards can be used in more than one matchup. If such a card is cut, it will affect each of those matchups. This needs to be taken into consideration when determining a cards total value to the sideboard. In other words the total value of a sideboard card is equal to the sum of its value in matchups.

Put Plans to the Test

Through the very process of creating the sideboard with this method, an exact sideboarding plan has also been created. It is known for every matchup which cards are to be taken out and which cards should be added. Many players do not come to tournaments with this in mind. It is necessary to commit this information to memory so that time is not wasted, nor are mistakes made when sideboarding in a tournament.

Before the deck and sideboard are played in a tournament, it is necessary to see if the sideboard crafted in theory works in practice. The sideboarding plan for each match up should be tested to see if the results are acceptable.

Use Your Enemy's Strength Against Him

The method outlined above is meant to perfect routine sideboarding techniques. Under normal conditions, the focus is on increasing the chances for victory by maximizing the increase in power between cards sideboarded out and those sideboarded in. The deck's strategy in the post-sideboarded games is be fundamentally unchanged. There is another sideboarding method known as Transformational Sideboarding.

Transformational Sideboarding is an advanced technique that changes or adds to a deck's victory paths. The concept is to alter the way the deck wins games radically enough that the opponent's sideboarding will actually weaken their position in the next game. If the match goes to a third game, the opponent is off balance, and does not know whether to sideboard against the deck he or she faced in game one, or game two.

This technique is not suited to all decks. Because only 15 cards can be swapped between games, this tactic works best in deck's where a small number of cards are devoted to the victory path, and a large number of cards address other areas such as counter magic, hand destruction, or deck manipulation.

Trix can get savage

Another indicator that a deck is a good candidate for Transformational Sideboarding is an underlying mechanic or engine that makes it work. Combo decks like High Tide and Trix tend to fall into this category. These decks tend to rely heavily on every card in the main deck to maintain the engine and pull of the combo. It is exceptionally difficult to find sideboard cards good enough to make up for taking out these critical components. This means that these decks can only afford to sideboard one or two cards in most matchups, and the improvement those cards offer is slight. The opponent, however, often has cards that are dead in the matchup to take out, in exchange for cards specifically designed to take down the combo deck. This unfavorable P ratio for the combo deck results in post sideboarded games being much tougher than game ones.

In this scenario, taking out the combo cards the opponent is sideboarding against and bringing in an alternate victory path keeps the number of dead cards in the opponents deck high. A classic example of this type of Transformational Sideboarding can be found in the Trix deck. This deck's strategy is to attempt to wins game one with the Illusions of Grandeur, Donate combo. It then has the option of taking this combo out in game two in favor of Phyrexian Negators, Skittering Horrors, and creature control cards like Firestorm or Contagion.

Slow controlling decks like Draw-go or Blue/White Control decks are also good candidates for transformational sideboarding. In this case, the slow controlling elements of the deck are replaced by quick beatdown creatures, like Rebels. In addition to the normal advantage gained by disorienting your opponent, this sideboarding plan also gives the painfully slow decks a chance to come back from a time-consuming game one loss.

Once it has been determined that a deck is a good candidate for Transformational Sideboarding, the most important decision is the number of cards that will be used for the transformation. Because these added cards will be the main or only victory paths, it is important to devote enough slots to get the job done right.

For any remaining space in the sideboard, the normal technique for determining cards is used.

Hide Your Strength from Your Enemy

Whatever the sideboard, it is important not to let the opponent know how many cards are being brought in against him. To accomplish this, the entire sideboard should be shuffled into the main deck between every game. The player then goes through and removes the 15 undesired cards from the deck. This procedure should be followed even if there are no cards to sideboard in.

Time is a Resource

Many of the steps in the sideboarding techniques discussed here will seem obvious or unnecessary to advanced players. These detailed procedures are meant to give players having trouble with the sideboard building process a step by step method to follow. As a player become more proficient in the process, many of these steps will come automatically, leaving more time for playtesting.

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