Riley's Modern Life: Lessons in Sideboarding

7 min read

Modern isn’t a format for everyone. I don’t pretend to understand it, but not all of us can be people of true taste and refinement, gaining pleasure from losing to Affinity nut draws and turn-three Blood Moons. One of the greatest criticisms of Modern as a format is the linear nature of the decks that traditionally dominate it, and how that then consequently influences the construction and implementation of sideboards. It’s a legitimate criticism, too.

“The nature of the Modern format is such that in most or all of the matchups you play, the influence of a single card in your hand is enormous.”

Owen Turtenwald wrote that eighteen months ago, when we were all freezing to death during Eldrazi Winter – before the space blanket that was the banning of [mtg_card]Eye of Ugin[/mtg_card] came and warmed us all back up. It’s still true today, however, and nowhere is it more apparent than when it comes to sideboarding.

Why is sideboarding so influential in Modern?

The reason that the fifteen on your bench are perhaps more important in Modern than in any other format is due to the fact that almost all Modern decks have a single game plan – a “linear strategy” – and with a card pool that spans over a decade’s worth of cards, there’s bound to be two or three cards that significantly mess that plan up. The sheer number of cards available to Modern players means that most strategies can be counteracted by something, somewhere – some 14th-pick draft chaff or shonky bulk rare from ten years ago can be the spanner to your works.

The classic example of this, is, of course, Affinity. Affinity is a low-to-the-ground aggressive deck that relies heavily on extremely powerful synergy between otherwise embarrassing cards. [mtg_card]Vault Skirge[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Memnite[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Galvanic Blast[/mtg_card] – none of these cards are impressive on their own, but chucked together with enough other artifact synergies and, baby, you got a stew going!

The problem for Affinity players is, of course, the fact that there are obscenely powerful answers to the questions their deck poses. From [mtg_card]Shatterstorm[/mtg_card] to [mtg_card]Hurkyl’s Recall[/mtg_card], the raw power of Affinity is kept in check by a single copy of a sideboard card. [mtg_card]Stony Silence[/mtg_card] – the marquee anti-Affinity card – can single-handedly win its owner the game if it comes down on turn two.

When you consider the linear or mostly-linear angle of attack from many of the premier Modern decks both today and throughout the history of the format, it’s very easy to see that silver bullet sideboard cards heavily skew matchups post-board. For some, that’s a reason to stay away from the format altogether, as losing to a single card isn’t something they’re interested in doing. For others, it poses a very interesting deckbuilding challenge, as you can’t hate out the entire format with only fifteen cards.

Are all decks in Modern so linear?

Broadly speaking, it’s unfair to characterise every single successful Modern deck as being completely linear, but it’s not a stretch to claim that much of the power of these decks comes from having a clear, consistent, and usually single path to victory. Whether it’s exploiting synergy, executing a combo, or relying on a narrow mechanic, many Modern decks thrive when their particular china shop is kept free of bulls. The problem is that most sideboards are built to resemble Pamplona in the second week of July, and a large proportion of decks simply fold to a well-timed piece of sideboard hate.

[mtg_card]Scapeshift[/mtg_card] eats it to [mtg_card]Blood Moon[/mtg_card], Tron goes down to [mtg_card]Crumble to Dust[/mtg_card], Elves can’t beat a Linvala, Eldrazi gets hosed by [mtg_card]Worship[/mtg_card], and meteorologists everywhere will cancel a Storm warning as soon as they get a single sniff of a [mtg_card]Rule of Law[/mtg_card]. It gets worse for a deck like Burn, as you can more or less pick your favourite life gain card and call it a day against them – and for Dredge, hoo boy. The list of anti-graveyard cards is as long as my arm. Assuming you write big enough, that is. My arms are kinda long.

What about Death’s Shadow? This deck has enjoyed a good amount of success in recent months, and perhaps one of the reasons for this is that it is a little less linear. Undercosted beaters are the name of the game, of course, but using both your life total and the graveyard as a resource means it’s harder to lose to a single card from the opponent’s fifteen. I would argue, however, that it’s no exception to this silver bullet trend, as a [mtg_card]Chalice of the Void[/mtg_card] on one is more or less lights out (except if you have the Slap-Chop of Modern, [mtg_card]Kolaghan’s Command[/mtg_card]).

It will come as a shock to no-one to hear me announce what I consider to be the only real deck that doesn’t have a linear game plan and therefore can’t be hated out by a single sideboard card – UW Control. Of course, that’s not to say nothing is good against UW Control out of the board, as things like [mtg_card]Negate[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Thoughtseize[/mtg_card], Thrun, and many others still do a huge amount of heavy lifting – but the fact remains, [mtg_card]Celestial Colonnade[/mtg_card] decks simply don’t have to slog through a “resolve it and it’s game over” type card.

In a similar vein, GB Rock-style decks are the definition of nonlinear, and rarely have to worry about sideboard hate. The decks are literally just the best cards in their given colours slammed together, whether it’s Jund, Abzan, or just straight GB – you can’t expect to have access to a card that stone-cold hoses them. Then again, you don’t need to, because unless you get paired against Reid Duke, you don’t have to worry about facing Rock decks as no-one plays them any more.

Pivoting Post-board Postures

Given that so many decks in Modern have something of a glass cannon feel to them in post-board matches, what’s the best way to approach game two (and again, game three, if you’re a scrub)? It’s critical to remember that you should be sideboarding against their sideboarded deck, not against their main deck. For example, if you’re playing against Storm – a virtually creatureless deck – you should still bring in [mtg_card]Anger of the Gods[/mtg_card] in anticipation of their post-board [mtg_card]Empty the Warrens[/mtg_card].

Virtually all linear decks will have either an alternate route to victory post board (such as Empty the Warrens in Storm), or alternatively answers to their opponent’s answers. [mtg_card]Ad Nauseam[/mtg_card] cannot beat Rule of Law, so will either bring in ways to remove it or instead win with [mtg_card]Laboratory Maniac[/mtg_card]. Scapeshift, on the other hand, gains access to [mtg_card]Reclamation Sage[/mtg_card], which it can then Pact for so as to remove opposing Blood Moons. In this way, these two decks have post-board ways to win through post-board answers, and that’s good, smart Magic.

What I believe we don’t see enough in Modern, however, is completely transitional sideboards. Rarely do we learn important lessons from the profoundly less powerful wizards who play Standard, but today, the premier Standard aggro deck demonstrates the advantages brought on by altering your game two posture. Ramunap Red looks to go much bigger post-board, bringing in [mtg_card]Chandra, Torch of Defiance[/mtg_card] alongside the G-Banger itself – which leaves opposing [mtg_card]Magma Spray[/mtg_card]s looking pretty silly in game two.

How can we apply this philosophy to Modern? I’ve always been a fan of cards like [mtg_card]Vendilion Clique[/mtg_card] and even [mtg_card]Geist of Saint Traft[/mtg_card] in my UW Control deck’s sideboard, and of course options like this exist across all the colours. Scapeshift can look to beat down with [mtg_card]Obstinate Baloth[/mtg_card], although that’s not why it’s there, primarily – it’s looking to contest both Burn and Liliana. But the validity of this approach is nonetheless highly evident – you board removal against the creature-light Scapeshift, and next thing you’re beating beaten to death by a 4/4 on turn three.

There are too many decks to suggest the ways that all of them can adopt a different game plan in sideboarded games. On top of that, a deck like Affinity or Storm can’t hope to change its entire plan with a mere fifteen cards – they’re too synergy-dependent. But decks like Grixis Shadow and even Burn are more flexible than they seem at first blush. We saw Loic Le Briand crush the finals of GP Birmingham with Burn after deliberately adopting a “controlling” strategy after sideboarding. It sounds insane, but he’s the one with the trophy!

Sideboarding defines the texture of Modern

It’s crucial to predict and allow for the ways that matchups will change in post-board games. You should always remember to sideboard to fight postboard games, not preboard ones – and you’ll win more games of Magic if you can outmanoeuvre your opponent with clever and unexpected sideboarding strategies.

Next week, we’re going to break down the sideboard cards that tussle with the best decks in the format, and look at ways to optimise a fifteen against the expected field with redundancies and flexibility. And in time, we’ll also look for ways to include transitional strategies that can catch an opponent off guard, and make their sideboarding look very silly. Nothing quite compared to slamming a sideboarded Geist against a hand full of [mtg_card]Negate[/mtg_card]s and [mtg_card]Dispel[/mtg_card]s, so let’s see if we can expand that to other decks in the format.

What are your thoughts? What do you play in Modern, and what does your sideboard look like? How could you find room for a transitional posture post-board? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter – @rileyquarytower. @mtgdotone has all the latest from the team, don’t forget to follow them as well!