How to Sideboard with Control Decks

In Magic, you play up to two thirds of all games postboard. If you want to win at Magic, it's imperative for you to be proficient at sideboarding. This article focuses on one archetype which the author is known to have mastered. Let's take a deep look at your control deck's fifteen, how to pick and how to use them.

In this article, I'll describe the process of dissecting a control deck's sideboard in relation to macro-archetypes. I'll also detail the method that should allow you to seamlessly transition from deck to deck and still be able to easily sideboard with it. Based on my long experience as a control player but also a Magic coach, I see how important sideboarding is — it is one of the skills which are key to becoming very good at Magic, similar to keeping or mulliganing your hand. However, sideboarding is easier than deciding whether or not to keep your hand because here you can do your homework away from the table and come to your tournament already prepared. At the end of the article, I will go through a couple of sample decklists and sideboarding scenarios.

A Brief Overview: How to Construct a Sideboard

making plans

When I build a sideboard from the ground up, especially in Eternal formats, which I play the most, I tend to think of the four main macro-archetypes: aggro, combo, big mana, and grindy matchups like control or midrange. All of them require a different approach and different cards. When I look at a metagame, I first look at it from a macro-archetype perspective rather than the perspective of individual decks. Subsequently, I roughly assess the number of slots I want to commit to each group depending on how popular an archetype is or how good of a matchup I've got with the archetype. As an example, when I'm playing a very greedy control deck with an excellent late game that cannot be ground out, I will most likely devote my slots more to the other three groups. Conversely, if my deck is good at beating aggro decks, for example by having a lot of removal main, I will put fewer aggro-focused cards into the sideboard; my deck is, so to say, preboarded against the archetype.

A natural question would be how many slots exactly, but that's a question that is impossible to answer. If a deck consists of 75 cards and it needs to function within a metagame and within a certain format, these numbers will fluctuate greatly. On top of that, it also varies from control deck to control deck: some control decks are tap-out style, some are combo-control like Splinter Twin or Blue Scapeshift, some of them are permission-based and some of them are not. By playing the control deck of your choice with time you'll see against which archetypes you struggle the most. One of the main points here is — don't just copy and paste a sideboard for you control deck from another, possibly differently constructed control deck. On top of that, remember that your fifteen-card sideboard, and hence your whole 75, will never be set in stone and unchangeable. On the contrary, you should be tweaking it regularly based on shifts in the meta or cards other archetypes start to incorporate.

Last but not least, a perfectly constructed sideboard will be easy to use, with all the choices planned out and an established number of cards to bring in and take out in a given matchup. All the conceptual work described below can and should be done at home. This way you will be able to focus on other things rather than stress over cutting and bringing in cards. I also suggest that, as you are reading this article, you take your own control list and try to figure stuff out as you read on — for instance by thinking of a matchup in which you would like to improve your sideboarding. Maybe you struggle against a monored Burn deck, in the control mirror, or against a graveyard- or spell-centric combo deck.

The Basics

fact or fiction

I want to begin by explaining some basics of sideboarding. The first most basic step is to take a look at what cards are dead in a matchup. Due to the nature of control decks, you will most likely have a handful of completely dead and useless cards which you will know to cut right away: for example Supreme Verdict when your opponent doesn't play to the board or Force of Negation when your opponent doesn't have noncreature spells or Spell Snare when the opponent's deck features none or very few 2-drops. Then, to continue the obvious work, determine the number of cards you will 100% put in: for example removal and lifegain cards against an aggro deck, card advantage tools in a grindy matchup, or a graveyard hate piece against a graveyard deck.

The Advanced

deep analysis

Once you have decided what to do about the obvious cards, you can start to delve a little deeper. One of the key aspects of postboard games is that they tend to be longer, more interactive, and more grindy than first games. It is due to the number of efficient answers that each deck gets to play postboard, but also a higher number of relevant threats. Your opponent will want to either interact with your threats or interact with your interaction which means that instead of action spells they will have counter magic, discard, or effects such as Nature's Claim or Veil of Summer.

This also means that for game three you should take into consideration what you've seen so far and potentially adjust the card choices — for example when your opponent on Monored Prowess sides in Blood Moon or your control opponent plays Monastery Mentor or Young Pyromancer postboard, but you've cut all the removal. Now, be careful because your opponent also knows all of that so they might try to outsmart you and board out the creatures again if they see you pick up your Path to Exile. Such mind games won't take place very often, but they might. To prevent giving away information you can always put fifteen cards into the deck and take fifteen out so they don't know what you have done; or you can try to next level your opponent and just pretend to put the removal back in. But be careful as your opponent might be using the same trick and pretend to cut the creatures.

In most cases, you just need to be aware of your opponent's possible postboard configuration, and not focus on their game one configuration. If you know that in a given Standard environment monored players tend to bring in 4-mana planeswalkers for grindy matchups, then you should have that fact always in your mind when sideboarding and not tunnel vision on their strategy for game one. You care about their strategy for game two, which seems obvious enough when you say it out loud but might not be when you're down playing the game. Let me show you how it works by citing a couple of examples. Normally, you wouldn't think to side in Celestial Purge against a Modern Storm deck. However, once you realize that postboard they'll rely more on additional win conditions such as Blood Moon or Aria of Flame, then it becomes obvious that not only is Purge not bad, you actually very much ought to bring Purges in. A second example to illustrate the idea: when playing against Modern Jund you might be thinking about their creatures and planeswalkers as threats they present. Unfortunately for us, postboard you often see cards like Fulminator Mage, Stone Rain, Boil, or Choke as another angle of attack we should have on our radar at all times.

If you are doing the exercise with your own deck and a chosen matchup, consider now how your opponent might be sideboarding against you. Will they bring in more threats? What threats? Maybe some interaction? Do they try to attack on a different axis?

The Proficient

teferi, master of time

So far, we've established the obvious ins and outs and have analyzed our and our opponent's approach for postboard games, allowing us to determine which cards we should have in our deck for games two and three. In this section, I would like to go over a number of key concepts to help you sideboard even better.

Each match of Magic being best-of-three doesn't just mean that you might have to change some cards based on what you see between games two and three. It also means that there will be a change between who's on the play and who's on the draw. We need to find a balance between underestimating and overvaluing that fact. In practice, the cards whose usefulness is most impacted by who begins are counterspells. Due to their inherent nature, namely being unable to affect the board state, they are basically useless in your hand if the board isn't contained. It means then that on the play we are much more likely to actually counter spells on curve starting from turn two.

Let's consider the following sequence: on turn two we play a counterspell such as Mana Leak and on turn three we intend to play a threat or a planeswalker such as Monastery Mentor or Narset, Parter of Veils. On the play, we can counter their 2-drop, untap, and play our threat on an empty board. On the draw, we will hopefully Mana Leak their 3-drop, but our threat will not be played on an empty board because of their previously played 2-drop. On top of that, if our opponent multispells turn three, by playing a 2-drop and a 1-drop, we'll be able to counter only one of them and then we will play the Narset on a board which has multiple threats. Tthe dynamic is drastically different. On the play we can push the advantage more easily and on the draw we have to play more defensively, which in turn means that we might not want to have as many win conditions or card advantage spells on the draw — purely because we might not have time to cast them. It might also determine who is the beatdown. If you are on the play, you ought to take advantage of that fact and try to execute your gameplan, while on the draw you will want such a postboard deck configuration as to make sure you stifle your opponent's plan.

Be efficient, don't play cards just because they have text, know how the games play out, and which resource is relevant. It's a lot, but all these points are important to sideboarding at a higher level.

As we've already established, our opponents will be playing more efficient answers and more efficient threats postboard, basically upgrading their tools, and if that's the case, we also have to be aware that we ought to do the same. A controversial example of how I sideboard in relation to efficiency is siding out Absorb against aggro/burn decks, especially on the draw. In theory, it's a pure two for one — I can counter their creature and, by gaining 3 life, counter a future burn spell. Why do I tend to cut the card then? I cut it because, even though the card has relevant text, it's way too inefficient. I can't rely on a 3-mana piece of interaction that doesn't affect the board when my opponent keeps playing 1-drops and 2-drops. In this regard, a card like Aether Gust is much much better due to its flexibility and cost.

Against board-focused decks, you don't want cards that don't affect the battlefield/game such as the aforementioned Narset. She does not help against the board or the stack and she makes you commit mana during your main phase. A lot of people tend to keep Teferi, Time Raveler in their deck postboard against decks like Dredge, Titanshift, Tron, or Green Ramp across different formats. But the truth is that in practice in these matchups he's often a 3-mana sorcery that draws a card, which is the exact opposite of "being efficient and affecting the game."

The last point I want to make is to emphasize the importance of looking at how the games play out and which resource is relevant. For instance, against Modern Burn our win condition does not have to be a 5-mana sorcery in the form of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria or some other expensive finisher. In practice the games boil down to surviving and then creating an insurmountable advantage by casting Timely Reinforcements multiple times. Against decks like Modern Jund, Pioneer's Sultai Delirium, or Niv-Mizzet I have often cut all the mass removal effects. Because if you look at how the games play out you'll notice that neither deck gets on the board quickly and the games revolve around recursive threats or planeswalkers way more than going wide. Hence mass removal out.

Against Inverter of Truth in Pioneer, I have identified that the typical play pattern is them one-for-one-ing us with their efficient discard and then refueling with Dig Through Time. That's why my plan against them involves Rest in Peace which, on the surface, might make it easier for them to combo off. But in practice it shuts off their primary card advantage engine while making them have to combo off fully in one turn. If they just cast Inverter, they'd die on their next turn. Rest ties up their mana, as they cannot split up their combo over two turns and they cannot refuel via delve. Similarly, I have sometimes boarded in Mystical Dispute against monogreen ramp decks because a 3-mana Mana Leak was enough, as I couldn't let any of their big spells resolve.

Now I want to go through some sideboarding scenarios with a couple of sample decklists. Let's start with my White-Blue Control in Pioneer:

1. In game one you see some hasty creatures and a bunch of burns spells, but you die on turn four. How do you sideboard?

Answer: First of all, I want to cut all the 3-mana counterspells, because they will be too slow against a creature-heavy haste deck. That's four out. T3feri is just okay, because it affects the board state, but he's very slow to do so. Veto might not be stellar if our opponent has burn as plan B rather than plan A. What do we potentially want to side in? Two Gust and two Surge are great interactive early tools in the matchup; one Settle is a great fifth mass removal spell; two Gideon are our way to affect the board, and if the game is stabilized his emblem can basically seal the deal. This makes seven cards to bring in. In this situation, you cut four copies of Sinister Sabotage and two Veto plus one Teferi of either kind or four Sabotage, two small Teferis, plus one big Teferi. There are a few permutations here, but the logic behind it stays the same: you want to be efficient early, affect the board, and you don't need any over-the-top finishers.

2. You know you're playing against a flavor of Inverter; you win game one.

Answer: Being on the draw does not change much here. Our game plan is to be efficient, attack their primary plan of trying to combo off, but also not lose to their value sideboard plan with Narset and Jace. I'd board in three Dispute; two Gideon whose emblem stops the combo and who's a threat; two Stroke which tags both a combo piece in Inverter and a card advantage spell in Dig/Jace; and two Rest in Peace which stops their Dig and makes them have to combo off in one turn. Out go four Verdict as they don't play creatures. If they turn out to have a creature-heavy sideboard plan, we can consider some Verdicts for game three. We also cut two Dig as we bring in Rest in Peace, one Elspeth whose only relevant ability is to make tokens which is very inefficient, and two Azorius Charm — it's basically 2-mana draw a card, which is bad.

3. Your opponent is playing a graveyard strategy with Vengevine.

Answer: This game will not revolve around card advantage at all — tempo and lifetotal are key here. We want two Timely Reinforcements to get a bit of life, block, and act as a kind of timewalk, one Soul-Guide Lantern and two Ashiok as graveyard hate, and Mentor — when it gets going it can dominate board states and our opponent most likely won't have creature removal postboard. The very first instinct would be to cut Force of Negation and Veto and that's probably good; we don't know if they play any key noncreature spells, but because they want to trigger Vengevine, they probably don't. The last two cuts could be Teferi, Time Raveler as he barely affects the game.

4. Your opponent is playing a Jund midrange strategy.

Answer: We are not afraid of their creatures but rather of their planeswalkers and potentially cards like Boil. With that in mind we will cut three Force of Negation (card disadvantage) and two Verdict (Jund does not overextend so it would basically be 4-mana point removal). I'd board in two Aether Gust (hits Goyf, Ooze, Wrenn, Command, Kroxa}, two Veil (for Command, discard, Liliana minus}, and one Celestial Purge (a catch-all against Bloodbraid Elf, Wrenn, Liliana, Kroxa.)

I hope this article has been of some help to you and that your sideboarding will be better and better. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter or here in the comment section. Until next time — hold my hand and let's pass the turn together. Cheers!

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RonePro(25.06.2020 13:34)

Amazing content, I am a huge fun, keep up with the good work!

Benkill(24.06.2020 07:22)

Great and interesting article, more from this kind of topic please :)