Fact not Fiction – How to Build a Proper Sideboard by Michael Maxwell

Fact not Fiction – The Winners and Losers from Pro Tour Paris by Michael Maxwell


It’s round 3 of the PTQ and you have just dispatched your opponent in 2 quick games. You head over to table 9, where your friend Dave is finishing game 1. He is playing the U/W Caw-Go deck that you lent him for FNM last night and he liked it so much he asked to play it at the PTQ. You get there just in time to see his mono-red opponent finish him off with a Bolt to the face. Dave picks up the sideboard he threw together on the car ride this morning, and quickly pulls out the 2 Celestial Purges, 3 Timely Reinforcements and 3 Mental Missteps. Fair enough you think, those cards are all decent against mono-red. Dave then starts leafing through his maindeck. He takes out the Sun Titan and Consecrated Sphinx. Looks fine, don’t really want the 6-drops against aggro. He then flicks through the deck a couple more times with a look of consternation on his face. Finally he shrugs, pulls out 2 Mana Leaks, a Spell Pierce, an Into the Roil, an Oblivion Ring and a Preordain, and shuffles up for game 2…

Sounds Familiar?

Given that over half the games you play at an event are with your sideboard it’s astounding how little attention a lot of people put into building them. Here I’m going to give you a few tips on how to build an effective sideboard.

When most people build a sideboard they think what the most popular decks are, think of a bunch of cards that are narrow in application but good against certain popular decks, then whittle that list down to 15 cards. This is a pretty ineffective way of doing it. In fact I would argue that you’re doing it backwards.

When building a deck, it is important to remember that you aren’t building a 60 card deck with 15 supplementary cards, you are building a 75 card deck. If you ask most people what the point of a sideboard is I would bet most would say ‘so you can bring in cards that are good against the deck you are playing against‘. This is right to an extent. My answer would be the opposite – ‘so that you can take out cards that are bad against the deck you are playing against‘. When building a sideboard the first thing you should do is look through your maindeck and figure out which cards you want to take out against the most popular decks. If you can’t figure that out, then it’s clearly the case that you haven’t tested enough.

So, going back to the previous example, lets say you’ve decided to run U/W, the version with Hawks and Swords but without creatures like Blade Splicer and Hero of Bladehold, similar to what GerryT won the last SCG Open with. You’ve settled on your 60, having played a few game ones against the mirror, Tempered Steel, Valakut, mono-red and some Splinter Twin decks. You should now be in a position to look through the deck and figure out which cards you never want to draw against certain decks, and which you want to draw one of sometimes but rarely multiples.

Now you make a quick note of how many cards you want to take out against each of the popular decks. Lets say (and I’ve made these numbers up but should help make my point) you want to take out 8 cards against Tempered Steel, 7 against mono-red, 6 against Valakut and Splinter Twin, and 3 against the mirror. That’s 30 cards, and we haven’t even included some of the other strategies like Vampires or U/B control. We need to narrow that down to 15, so some cards are going to have to come in against multiple decks.

It’s easy at this point to start thinking ‘ok, I’ll start with 4 Flashfreeze because everyone says it’s good against Valakut and mono-red, then 3 Day of Judgement for any aggro deck.” etc. What it’s important to do here, and indeed when deciding which cards to take out, is to think ‘what is my plan against deck X?’. It’s all well and good having Flashfreeze to bring in against Valakut, but you need to know why it’s there. Are you going to counter a turn 2 ramp spell with it or will you be playing Squadron Hawk? Is it just there to counter Primeval Titan or would you rather stop them getting to 6 mana in the first place? The same goes for Mental Misstep against mono-red. If you don’t know why it’s there then you might use it on a turn 2 Grim Lavamancer when you have a sweeper in hand. If you know it’s there because you don’t have any other way to stop an early Goblin Guide and to be hard counter against some burn spells in the late game then you’ll know not to counter that Lavamancer.

Right. Now that we know what our plan is post-board against each of the popular archetypes and which cards in our maindeck don’t fit in with that plan, we can look at actually putting some cards in the sideboard. Just a quick reminder – we need this many cards against each of these decks:

Tempered Steel – 8

Mono-red -7

Valakut – 6

Splinter Twin – 6

Mirror – 3

Now obviously it depends on exactly what is in your main deck, but a rough list of cards against each of those decks might go as follows:

Tempered SteelDay of Judgement, Ratchet Bomb, Revoke Existence, Divine Offering, Gideon Jura, Timely Reinforcements, Condemn

Mono-redCelestial Purge, Kor Firewalker, Timely Reinforcements, Condemn, Mental Misstep, Spellskite

ValakutFlashfreeze, Deprive, Twisted Image, Day of Judgement

Splinter TwinSpellskite, Dispel, Mental Misstep, Dismember, Deprive

MirrorSword of War and Peace, Jace Beleren, Deprive, Consecrated Sphinx, Sun Titan, Volition Reins, Divine Offering

That’s just a quick look at which cards we might want, and you can see there is quite a lot of overlap. A first draft might look like this:

2 Day of Judgement

3 Flashfreeze

3 Timely Reinforcements

1 Deprive

2 Condemn

3 Mental Misstep

1 Sword of War and Peace

Which would be 7 for Tempered Steel, 8 for mono-red, 6 for Valakut, 4 for Splinter Twin, and 2 for the mirror. That’s close to what we need, but not quite. A little fiddling around, maybe change a card or 2 the maindeck to free up some sideboard space, and voila, a well thought out, streamlined, 75 card deck. It doesn’t take very long to go through this process, and it forces you to think about what is actually important in each matchup and if you really know what you are trying to achieve. By taking the time to properly work out what needs to come out as well as come in for each matchup you are giving yourself a much better chance to do well. No longer will you sit there with 9 cards to bring in for a matchup and only 5 to take out, or taking out one of everything because you don’t know which of your cards aren’t any good against Tempered Steel.

If you take just one thing away from this article, I hope it is that at the next PTQ you attend, as you write down your decklist, just make a quick note of what you plan to put in and out against the 3 or 4 most popular decks. Better to find out now that the numbers don’t add up than halfway through round 3. I have been to several tournaments where I have lost most of my game ones but still done well, because I have a properly planned sideboard with an actual strategy for games 2 and 3, rather than a collection of cards which are ‘good’ in theory but don’t help with my plan, and I have the same number of cards to bring in for each matchup as I want to take out.

Although I’ve focused on U/W in Standard, the same principles apply to any deck in any format. If you would like me to go through this sort of example again either for a different format (most likely Legacy, where you have to plan for a massive variety of decks) or a different deck, going through building a whole deck including sideboard from start to finish, then let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading,

Michael Maxwell

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