But it’s not just you
One of the more big things that I have learned from talking with other players of all skill levels is that sideboarding is really difficult. It’s one of the hardest skills to master, and unless you know your deck inside and out, you will not be able to perform it perfectly in every matchup or game. If you’re wondering where to begin your foray into this overwhelmingly deep concept, here is a good place to start.
Developing an archetypal framework
Before we begin to discuss actual sideboarding, we first need to understand the types of decks we are working with. While there are a multitude of different archetypes and classifications for decks; we can simplify it a little bit. For the purposes of this article, we will create two deck classifications / macro-archetypes: Synergy, and Antergy. Yes, I know ‘Antergy’ is not technically a real word, but it is the closest thing to an antonym of synergy as we can get. (Editor’s Note / fun fact: “Antergy” is a term used by chemists to describe anti-synergy in chemical compounding) The loose definition of this word is “The opposite of synergy, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.
According to Michael Flores, one of the famous old-school MTG players and author of the famous strategy article “Who’s the Beatdown?” ‘Synergy’ in Magic: the Gathering can be defined as
This definition encompasses most aggressive and tempo strategies, as well as combo decks. While these two sub-archetypes might sound pretty different at first glance, they can be extremely similar strategy-wise. They both look to end the game quickly, and they require several moving pieces to do so. The difference between them lies in the card pool, however, where aggressive decks require a mass amount of singular effects (small creatures, burn spells, etc.), combo decks require a lot of different and specific pieces in order to go off consistently.
Therefore, the antithesis of Synergy is Antergy, an archetype that we will define as “a strategy that looks to utilize the immense power-level of several cards as individuals, despite an inherent lack of synergy” The macro-archetypes of Midrange and Control fit well into this definition. Midrange looks to support powerful threats with efficient and targeted answers, while Control looks to use a wide array of broad strokes answers in combination with singular game-ending threats. These decks are usually very low-synergy due to a lack of necessity. Since these decks are traditionally a mix of impactful threats and answers, one would need each threat to have the greatest possible impact on each game, as the deck is looking to fight on different axes against different archetypes. Aggro and Combo decks tend to take the same role every game, while Midrange and Control decks need to have the tools to adapt.
Now that we have our definitions in place, I’m going to answer the question that I’m sure is burning in everyone’s minds:
“Why does any of this matter? Also who even is this guy I’ve never heard of him I bet he’s sh-”
Sideboarding with Antergy
Let’s start with the easier of these two macro-archetypes to work with. These styles of decks are looking for more general answers, as you will see these decks are more able to easily adapt to whichever role they need to take to gain the advantage in a particular matchup. (Yes, I know the more I write, the more this article is beginning to look like “Who’s the Beatdown”, what can I say, it’s a great piece.) Antergy decks want sideboard cards that are – like the rest of their deck – generally powerful on their own, and ones that are able to effectively answer a threat or situation an opponent can present that the main deck is generally weak to. Let’s take a look at Rakdos Midrange, one of the decks in Pioneer that most represents the concept of Antergy.
Every deck has a little bit of synergy. For example, discarding a Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger to a Fable of the Mirror-Breaker is great tempo, or copying a Bloodtithe Harvester with Fable can help win some grindy games, and drawing two extra cards off of Fable with a Sheoldred in play is a great bump in life (hey, maybe this Fable card is pretty good). In general, this deck is just a pile of good cards, and that’s ok because it’s clearly doing something right.
If we take a look at the sideboard, we see this deck taking advantage of a wide range of different cards, and instead of being niche cards that target specific archetypes (with a few exceptions), this sideboard looks to be attacking a more general metagame. Reckoner Bankbuster in particular is a stand-out card, as it’s not really trying to beat anything besides being a general “good card” for the grindy matchups. Skysovereign, Consul Flagship and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet are also cards that fit this description exceptionally, although they are there to improve its matchup against a specific deck (the Rakdos mirror and Green Devotion respectively), they are cards that are worse than other potential answers due to them being very good threats against other decks in the format.
This archetype is able to construct its sideboard in such a loose and far-encompassing way due to the fact that these Antergy strategies already don’t really have a set goal about their game plan when they sit down for a game. That is to say, they adapt to each game as it happens. This sideboard plan allows the Rakdos deck to decide which role it wants to lean towards as it gets ready for its post-board games, as it can really depend on the matchup. What is the plan against red-based aggro? It boards into Kalitas, Extinction Event, and Hidetsugu Consumes All while looking to emulate a decent control strategy – shutting down its opponent’s early attackers and eventually landing a large threat that they aren’t able to efficiently deal with. Against Green Devotion? It boards into Extinction Event and Duress, and looks to play a much more aggressive role, while also having a decent one-sided sweeper to wipe away its opponent’s blockers. This particular strategy is able to play a very dynamic game, and its sideboard helps facilitate this game plan. Decks that are made generally out of “good stuff” tend to succeed when their sideboard options are also flexible “good stuff”.
Sideboarding with Synergy
Unlike with Antergy decks, Synergy decks tend to not have a dynamic game plan. These are the decks where if you mess with their initial game plan too much in sideboarding, they begin to unravel. You can’t have a Lotus Field combo deck with four Monastery Swiftspear and four Sprite Dragon as a sideboard plan to beat anti-combo cards, as this dilutes your main game plan too much while your ‘fair’ gameplan is going to be nowhere good enough to beat other fair strategies. This concept is why transformational sideboard plans usually do not work out.
Synergy decks want to mostly stay on the same strategy that they brought into the first game of a match, with a few small tweaks to be able to stifle their opponent’s interaction more efficiently. You usually won’t see these decks bring in more than 3 to 5 sideboard cards at a time, and a surprising amount of the time they will just submit their original 60. This means that the sideboard cards you do bring in need to be impactful enough to warrant a swap for an integral part of your synergistic strategy. This is why you will see many Synergy decks that have a lot of ‘silver bullets’ in their sideboard, meaning cards that provide a very powerful effect but are very narrow in regards to the types of decks or effects they are looking to beat.
This is the Gruul Bushwhacker deck that I took to a second-place finish in an MTGO Challenge, along with several recent RCQ Top8s. This is what I believe to be a perfect example of what a streamlined aggro sideboard should be. I found that this deck’s main weakness was to creatures with three or greater toughness, as well as to the Mono Green Devotion strategy as a whole. Therefore, I have an entire section of the sideboard dedicated to removal spells. However, against most decks, I do not bring in all eight removal spells at once as that would dilute the aggressive game plan too much. When this deck plays against Izzet Phoenix, having a one-mana answer to Thing in the Ice and Ledger Shredder in the form of Rending Volley would be nice to always have, but that card can rot in hand when we would rather it be any other card that would be able to continue to apply constant pressure. Therefore, when we board in the Phoneix matchup we bring in three Lava Coil, but only two Rending Volley as too much of that effect would be detrimental to the deck’s main game plan.
As someone who has basically built their online brand around playing aggressive decks in Pioneer, I can say that one of the issues I see from people too often is putting the absolute worst card in their aggro sideboards to “for the grindy matchups”. Playing an efficient curve topper like Hazoret, the Fervent or Experimental Frenzy can be insane if it is the last card you play from your hand and if your opponent is already on the backfoot. However, a lot of the time you will end up hurting yourself by increasing the curve of your deck overall. These more powerful – but more expensive – cards may be good once they come into play, but if it replaces a key card you would have instead played on the first or second turn of the game, it has slowed down your game plan significantly. This is usually something that one cannot afford to do when playing aggressive strategies.
How Should I Improve?
When you are building a Synergistic sideboard, you need to be asking yourself two main questions:
- Will the addition of this sideboard card cause a deviation from the overall game plan that I want to follow?
- Is this card impactful enough in the matchup that I want it in that it is worth taking up a slot in the sideboard?
If the answers to these questions are No and Yes, then congrats! You found yourself a decent card to test out. It’s important that every card is in your deck to advance your win condition, whether that be to lower your opponent’s life total to zero as quickly as possible, or to out-grind your opponent’s resources. Either way, the best way to win is to stick to the plan.
When looking at an Antergistic sideboard, you are afforded significantly more flexibility. Included cards should provide benefit to several different matchups or cover a significant weakness in the deck’s strategy, and nothing else. Antergy decks don’t have a rigid game plan, and need to focus on being adaptable, so cards that follow that line of thinking are most preferred. Think modal cards along the line of Charms like Broker’s Charm and Commands like Kolaghan’s Command. The latter has seen significant play throughout its lifetime as a main deck or sideboard staple for Black Red Midrange based strategies due to its flexibility and even power distribution across all of its modes. Other times, it’s important to include access to generically powerful versions of typical sideboard options like Graveyard hate and Artifact interaction, and Antergy decks will lean on the sheer power of the best versions of these effects. However you slice it, you’re playing a Good Stuff deck, so the cards in your sideboard need to also be generally Good.
It’s important to remember that during deck construction, you aren’t building 60+15, you’re building 75. The cards in your sideboard need to be there for a reason and you need to have a plan for when they’re meant to come in. This is one of the major steps that players need to learn to hit that next level of play.
Until next time.