Top 5 Most Important Sideboard Cards for Modern Control
- Filip Skórnicki
Sideboarded games make up up to 67% of your games. To be competitive in Modern, you have to make sure that your fifteen cards are up to the job at hand. It's especially key for control decks, which need to adjust their answers all the time. Let's take a look at the most important cards you should include.
While everybody knows that Magic's centerpiece is sideboarding, its composition does not get anywhere close the attention that the main deck commands. People often talk a lot about their 60 cards and then add fifteen at the end. Rather, you should think of the whole as an interconnected 75 in the context of a specific strategy, the meta it's in, or a specific tournament. While I already wrote about how to construct a sideboard and about the process of sideboarding with control decks, today I'd like to draw your attention to the most crucial cards you ought to be playing.
Like I did with my Top 5 Most Annoying Cards a Control Player Can Face, I want to divide the cards into five groups and show the most prominent representatives of each.
The first group of important sideboard cards are those that pressure the opponent. As about most control topics, I've also got an article about turning the corner with such decks. The cornerstone of this approach often is Monastery Mentor. I cannot imagine a situation where I'd play a control deck based in white and blue and not include the powerful Monk. Its application is twofold.
a) It acts as a win condition. Postboard your opponent will have cut down on removal, so the likelihood of a creature surviving is much higher than preboard. Additionally, opponents rarely expect you to actually want to kill them instead of passing the turn and drawing cards. This element of surprise can win you many games. However, at higher level people do expect you to increase the threat density. Still, against archetypes such as ramp or combo it's not sufficient to keep interacting and disrupting without actually closing the door. This is where Mentor comes in. You tap out turn three, possibly hold up Force of Negation, and from this point on you never tap out again. You play your normal control game while putting pressure and popping out more and more Monks. When the moment is right, you tap your opponent's team with Cryptic Command and swing for the kill.
b) It acts as a quasi mass removal spell. This point might sound weird at first, but hear me out. If you play against a creature deck postboard, you expect them to have loads of creatures and barely any removal spells. As a consequence, if you stick your Mentor onto the battlefield early, you can keep destroying their creatures, countering their spells, casting your Opts and Archmage's Charms all while expanding on your own board presence. At this point, you can use the Monks as infinite chump blockers. It is also likely that the opponent will stop attacking altogether at some point as they must be afraid that one Opt midcombat can boost our five Monks from 1/1s to 2/2s, which completely throws off any combat math. Thus, it's rendering your opponent's board meaningless. Just like a Supreme Verdict would.
I could write a whole separate article on Mentor. It's unbelievably versatile. Some other cards which belong in the pressure sideboard slots are Vendilion Clique, or an additional planeswalker. However, none match the Mentor in the scope of their impact. It's no coincidence the card is restricted in Vintage.
The most over-sideboarded card in Magic. I have to say at the very beginning—do not bring it in against fair decks! Okay, with that out of the way, let's begin. The slot I typically dedicate to Surgical Extraction is the anti-combo/graveyard-hate slot. While it is usually associated with being a graveyard-hate card, its application is much wider.
However, let's start with its anti-graveyard application. It can remove any/all the copies of a given card, which have already hit the bin. It can tag Vengevine or Prized Amalgam, or Arclight Phoenix, or even Snapcaster Mage targets. Speaking of which, it works well with Snap as it's an instant, contrary to other options such as Rest in Peace or Relic of Progenitus. Not only is it actively good with Snappy but also does not impede him, which is the case for cards like Rest in Peace. Additionally, it does not cost mana. This matters for two reasons. First, you can use it on turn zero, which is useful against hyper-fast decks like Oops All Spells or some other bizarre constructions. Second, it can be used in conjunction with other spells. For example, on turn two I can play both a two-mana counterspell and Extraction. Last but not least, it allows me to extract something on turn two and immediately follow it up with Snap Surgical, which is typically lights out for graveyard-oriented decks.
If you play a two-color control deck, it's quite likely that you also run Field of Ruin. In that case, you can Field opposing Tron lands or Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and then Surgical them all away, getting rid of the problem permanently. Its last application is against decks that are heavily centered on one specific spell. In such cases, you counter or remove that one threat, say Primeval Titan, and remove all the rest from the library. This trick is especially useful against combo decks that rely on very specific cards such as Grapeshot, Thassa's Oracle, or Devoted Druid.
Ceremonious Rejection is our postboard permission spell. Control often brings in counterspells with narrow but powerful effects such as Mystical Dispute, Dovin's Veto, or Aether Gust. I want to focus on Rejection as it tackles one of the most notable control weaknesses—Tron. There are two main Tron decks in Modern, Green Tron and Eldrazi Tron. Rejection helps against both. The enablers, the interaction pieces, the threats are all colorless. Being able to interact with them for just one mana is absurdly efficient. In conjunction with our beloved Snapcaster Mage, it creates a deadly duo. On top of that, if we you use the Monastery Mentor earlier mentioned, we can easily play the threat on turn four, hold up Rejection, and won't have to worry about a thing. You can play Jace, the Mind Sculptor on turn five and hold up Rejection as well, et cetera—it enables you to establish pressure safely.
Bear in mind that it specifically counters spells that are colorless. They don't have to be artifacts. All Is Dust and even World Breaker are fair game. However, it fails to counter artifacts that are not colorless such as Thopter Foundry.
Modern is full of aggressive decks. People even speak of the so-called "Burn Test"—meaning simply, if your deck has a tough time against Burn, you should strongly reconsider your deck choice in the format. Nowadays, prowess decks are also at the top alongside Burn, so the need for anti-aggro cards is ever-growing. Control decks can rarely afford main-deck life gain effects as they are typically very weak against all the rest of the format, though. The period when Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath was legal was the golden age for control, as we always had this powerful incidental life gain in the deck.
Now, however, we need to equip our decks with some life gain for postboard games. While other color combinations don't have access to such tools, W/U/x control decks do. The most common weapon of choice, especially in pure white-blue, is of course Timely Reinforcements. Not only does it provide 6 life, which against Burn is a clean two-for-one trade in cards, but also bodies to chump block opposing creatures. It's the ultimate cheap stabilization card. Thanks to it being a sorcery spell, we can flash it back with Snapcaster Mage, further adding to the spell's utility. It even helps against other decks that aggressively attack our life total too, such as Dredge or Humans. Another popular option right now is Kaya's Guile, but it makes you have to play Esper.
I love this card. Anybody who knows me is perfectly aware that there is no way I construct a Modern control sideboard without two copies of the magnificent Swiss knife that is Engineered Explosives. First of all, it slots into any control deck, since it's colorless. I've heard a million times that it's not worth it if the deck is only two colors. Rubbish. Modern is brutally efficient and most stuff you want to hit costs one or two mana anyway.
The real question is—why would you ever play EE instead of a clean wrath effect like Supreme Verdict, Damnation, Anger of the Gods. It's true that all control color combinations have access to better board wipes. To be honest, I see no reason not to play a sweeper effect in addition to EE. However, the main rationale behind EE's auto-inclusion, contrary to wraths, is how efficient and versatile it is. While the aforementioned spells cost three or four and come at sorcery speed, EE allows you to spread the cost across turns. In practice, it means that when you're up against a low-to-the ground creature deck, you can just play EE with X equals one on turn one and be ready to use it as soon as the next turn. If the opponent overextends into it, you're happy. If they don't, you're also happy, as they are not adding to the board and, therefore, giving you more time. You can also play EE and wait with sacrificing it until your opponent's next combat step in case they add a hasty creature to the battlefield. At this point, it's almost an instant speed wrath effect. EE's next upside is that it works wonders against tokens whose mana value is 0.
Furthermore, it hits all nonland permanents, not only creatures. In practice, this means it can hit Relic of Progenitus, Hardened Scales, Colossus Hammer, Aether Vial, Pithing Needle, Wrenn and Six, Mesmeric Orb, Utopia Sprawl, plus Blood Moon, Choke, Sword of Fire and Ice if you can pay X equals three, and the list goes on. As you can see, EE's application is so wide that it always warrants two slots in any deck I play. That much will probably remain true until the end of time.
I hope after reading this article you'll have a better idea of what cards to put into your sideboard. And as always—hold my hand and let's pass the turn together. Cheers!
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