The Seven Sins of Sideboards and Sideboarding in Modern

In this article, I walk you through the pitfalls of sideboards and sideboarding, and there’s quite a few of them! Could you be committing any of these cardinal sins? Take a look and find out if you are and what you can do to stop making these easy-to-fix mistakes!

Constructing sideboards and sideboarding are both difficult topics that could easily be their own individual articles, but today I wanted to touch up on the simple mistakes that I often see in any given Magic tournament.

Why are sideboard mistakes so prevalent? One part of the problem is the lack of content that addresses these kinds of issues. While there are plenty of videos on the latest deck or streamers explaining the ins-and-outs of a meta-deck, the topic of sideboards and sideboarding are generally dry and not quite as interesting as seeing the next brew that tries out four copies of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Bloodbraid Elf.

My hope is that this article can help the Modern community in cutting down on these common errors while also providing a resource for players looking to learn about common boarding tactics and mistakes. So, without further ado, let’s jump right into the mistake that inspired this article!

1. Boarding in Surgical Extraction.

Surgical Extraction

Phyrexian mana wasn’t only a mistake because it completely and utterly broke the color pie and the fundamental rules about Magic design, it was also a mistake because it caused a generation of players to board in Surgical Extraction in matchups where the card is just not needed.

How do players board in Surgical incorrectly? One incorrect usage of the card is to board in Surgical Extraction because the opponent simply uses his or her graveyard as a resource. However, an opponent playing Snapcaster Mage, Lingering Souls, or Faithless Looting should not be considered grounds to board in Surgical. The issue in the case of Surgical Extraction is two-fold: it relies on the player putting the target card in the graveyard and it provides card disadvantage.

Surgical Extraction does nothing if the card a player wants to Surgical away isn’t already in the graveyard – in other words, Surgical relies on the opponent setting up the graveyard targets for surgical. If an opponent knows that he or she may be facing an extraction, he or she is going to play around the card, provided that they care about Surgical. If the card isn’t a relevant target, however, the player will simply go ahead and play the card because they still get the value of casting the card and do not particularly care if the card is extracted. In this case, he or she won’t mind a card being Surgical’d away because their opponent went down a card, which was significantly worse than removing a Snapcaster target or the remaining faithless lootings from their deck.

This bring me to the second point of the problem with using Surgical Extraction willy-nilly: casting Surgical Extraction to get rid of a card that isn’t in play or in the hand. It’s essentially a trade of one-for-zero, the equivalent of a Healing Salve. In some cases, of course, the player casting Surgical Extraction can get value by nabbing a card (or even multiple cards!) in the opponent’s hand, but these cases are few and far between. Furthermore, they also reinforce the myth that cards like Surgical Extraction have some sort of secret card advantage mode built into them. To put it into perspective, if my opponent were casting Surgical Extraction on a card against me in a grindy matchup, I’d be ecstatic! My opponent is throwing away cards when resources are at a premium and games are expected to go long. Surgical provides terrible value in these scenarios.

That’s not to say there aren’t cases where bringing in Surgical Extraction is correct. Surgical backed up by land destruction (via Field of Ruin or Fulminator Mage) against Tron and Valakut decks are a great way to severely disrupt the decks’ plans. Dredge is another matchup in which Surgical Extraction greatly hampers what the deck is trying to do. In some graveyard-based combo matchups, the card can shine as well, such as against the Black-Red Goryo’s Vengeance decks. However, you’ll notice that these aren’t grindy, midrange matchups – all of the decks above have key cards that they rely on to carry out their game plans. These are the scenarios in which players should be boarding in Surgical, and if you’re even having to ask yourself, “Should I be boarding in Surgical?” The answer is usually going to be a resounding, “No.”

2. Overboarding in Games Two and Three.

Miscalculation

Overboarding is the issue of bringing in too many cards from the sideboard in post-boarded games, and this is an easy mistake to make when a sideboard hasn’t been properly built. What do I mean when I say that a player is bringing in too many cards from the sideboard? Let’s take a look at this Temur Aetherworks Marvel deck by Caleb Durwald:

The Temur Marvel deck is a combo deck that tries to cheat in an Eldrazi titan via Aetherworks Marvel or Through the Breach. Because the primary plan is weak to artifact hate such as Stony Silence and timely counterspells that can answer Aetherworks Marvel and Through the Breach, in games two and three it could be tempting to board in all the Nature’s Claim, Explosives, Negates, and Dispels. The problem with bringing in so many cards is the issue of having to take out cards in the main deck for them – specifically, the cards in the main deck are there in the first place to enact the primary game plan. While cards such as Dispel and Negate can be solid, overboarding will lead to a diluted deck that will prevent Temur Aetherworks from assembling the necessary cards for its necessary combo. Decks, especially combo decks, are going to be weak to certain hate – don’t make the job of the opponent easier by unnecessarily boarding in cards that make the overall deck weaker and less consistent.

3. Filling up Most of the Sideboard Slots for One Bad Matchup.

Nemesis Trap

Every deck has bad matchups, and some matchups are worse than others. What’s important to remember is that when a sideboard is constructed, the fifteen available slots are used to not assign too many cards to these bad matchups. Every deck is expected to get better in a matchup in post-board games, both by taking out irrelevant cards and bringing in impactful ones, and dedicating too much of the sideboard to just one matchup – regardless of how bad it may be – will lead to the deck suffering in other, closer matchups.

Take the example of Blue-Green Merfolk, an archetype that struggles mightily against Affinity.

Despite its horrid matchup against Affinity, this Blue-Green Merfolk deck doesn’t dedicate more than four cards to fight it. The deck correctly identifies in its seventy-five that it is better to have a sideboard plan that has play against a wide range of decks in Modern, rather than trying to combat a single bad matchup.

4. Following a Sideboard Guide to a T.

Mindslaver

Tournament reports are great sources of information for players, not only because they give us an insight into how particular decks performed in events, but also because they are accompanied by sideboard guides. However, following sideboard guides every step of the way can be detrimental when opponent's sideboard cards that are either unconventional or unexpected due to the shifting of the meta since the time that the sideboard guide was written. The Modern metagame can change quickly and even more quickly online, and rather than simply memorizing which cards come in and go out, it’s much better to understand why cards are boarded in/out for any given match.

Here’s a pop quiz: a Bant Eldrazi sideboard guide recommends that the deck boards out Thought-Knot Seers against Abzan Midrange. What’s the reasoning for this, and what does this point say about how Bant Eldrazi is supposed to sideboard against other decks?  

5. Failing to Mulligan Hard Enough for Hate Cards.

Stony Silence

Modern has plenty of powerful hate cards against certain strategies, and decks utilize these cards in post-board games to greatly swing the games in their favor. In some cases, decks have to heavily rely on these hate cards to make sure that they have a fighting chance in an unfavorable matchup.

If this is the role that a certain sideboard card plays in post-board games, players are making a mistake when they don’t mulligan harder for these cards. For example, traditional midrange decks have an extremely hard time beating Green-based Tron decks. If the midrange deck plays Stony Silence, a card that shuts off a large number of utility cards in Tron decks, in its sideboard, it’s much more important to aggressively mull to a hand that has a Stony Silence rather than keeping an otherwise serviceable hand.

Don’t be afraid to mulligan – a seven-card hand that loses because of a lack of hate is infinitely worse than a four-card hand with a key sideboard card that gives you a realistic chance to win.

6. Playing Very Specific/Narrow Sideboard Cards.

Display of Dominance

After the news of the unbanning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, discussions sprang up all over Internet forums regarding how to combat the powerful planeswalker. One suggestion for dealing with Jace that was posted was Display of Dominance, one of the color-hate cycles printed in Dragons of Tarkir. While I expect some players to slot this card into their sideboards, allow me to be the first to say that this is a terrible card and a terrible idea.

Cards such as Display of Dominance are traps because of their narrow application and their tendency to convince players that they are clever for playing obscure cards. Display of Dominance is a narrow card because of how conditional it is – the first mode of the card can destroy blue or black noncreature permanents, but the actual range of targets is fairly small when you think about it. Even considering the second mode, the biggest targets for Display of Dominance are Jace, Liliana of the Veil, Liliana, the Last Hope, Search for Azcanta, Fatal Push, and Dismember, but nothing too significant beyond that. Narrow cards that have the surprise factor shouldn’t be played just because they’re unusual or because they’re not well known – there needs to be a compelling reason behind playing a card that is more restrictive than its less-restrictive brethren.

In what cases are super narrow cards justifiable? Take the example of Display of Dominance – if the expected metagame is going to be 50% or more Blue-Black Tap-out Control (i.e. on average, at least half of the matches at a given tournament is going to have at least one player on Blue-Black Tap-out Control), perhaps Display wouldn’t be such a bad sideboard card – but that’s nowhere close to what Modern is like. And even if it were the case that Blue-Black Jace Control became the format menace, there are better catch-all answers (such as Pithing Needle) that would be applicable in more than one matchup.

7. Not Boarding Out a Land.

Mountain

Last, but not least, the mistake of not boarding out a land can make the difference in post-board games. The most relevant case is on the draw when playing Burn. The most common way Burn loses any given games is flooding, preventing the Burn player from drawing the necessary burn spells to finish the game. The Burn deck will get an extra card on the draw, so it’s beneficial to shave a land in post-board games on the draw to lower the chances of flooding.

Shaving a land isn’t just limited to Burn, however. If a player is boarding out his or her top end, it can also be a good idea to board out a land because that land won’t be needed to play the high-cost card.  For example, if a player is playing Bant Eldrazi against Blue-Red Storm and boarding out all of his or her Drowner of Hopes, boarding out a Yavimaya Coast is a way to mitigate the chances of flooding out when the deck’s curve has become lower.  

That’s it for this week! I hope that this article was helpful in identifying mistakes that you might be making with your sideboards and sideboarding in Modern – if you have any other common mistakes you can think of, feel free to leave them in the comments below!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.

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