The Best 5 Sideboard Cards In MTG Modern Right Now, by Kerry Meyerhoff
Modern is Magic: the Gathering’s second most popular format, and it features cards from all Magic sets stretching back to Eighth Edition and original Mirrodin block. There are hundreds of different playable archetypes, both mainstream and fringe, constructed of thousands of set-legal cards, with only thirty-five currently on the banned list. In this series, I’m going to explore Modern in-depth, looking at the format in its current state, analysing what existed in the past, and giving you an idea of what sort of cards to play, or play around.
In this, the second instalment, I will be talking about sideboard cards. With Modern edging towards an increasingly aggressive and fast metagame, sideboard cards are becoming much more important for those early turns, to stop your opponent’s game plan in order to properly execute your own. There are many different kinds of cards to combat a wide and varied meta, but of these, a few stand out head and shoulders above the rest, and are commonly played in well over three-quarters of the sideboards you will see at any competitive Modern event.
I have had to narrow these down to only five of the ‘best’, but it’s important to keep in mind that this is subjective, as sideboards change constantly with the meta, and a card that is great for hating out graveyards is difficult to compare to one that is included to combat burn decks. However, after a lot of thought and research, here are what I believe to be the top five sideboard cards in Modern right now:
This card has somewhat fallen from grace in recent times, as back in the Splinter Twin heyday it was by far and away the best card you could hope to draw in those matchups. However, although its true glory days are behind it, Spellskite is still a very potent card and one which can have a big impact on many games. It allows you to pay 2 life (or the rare one blue mana mode) and redirect any spell or ability to itself.
- Jeskai Nahiri
- Death’s Shadow Zoo
Spellskite’s main draw is that it is colourless to play and (essentially) free to activate, so it can go in any deck. The fact that it comes down on turn 2 means that you can get in early and present your opponent with a problem to solve before they can execute their game plan properly, or a way to protect your big threat which you intend to play next turn. In the case of decks like Burn, it’s also really important that it’s a 0/4, as it can handily block a Goblin Guide or Wild Nacatl every turn for free, unless they want to use up a burn spell from their hand to kill it, in which case, that burn spell is not killing you. Of course, a Spellskite isn’t the end of a game against a Burn player – far from it – but it may buy you a turn or two to find what you need to stabilize.
The 4 toughness is also really important against the Jeskai decks. Providing a shield for your threats that can’t be killed by a single Lightning Bolt or Lightning Helix is actually surprisingly annoying, and requires them to use up two cards on it, or be unable to pick off your creatures (or burn your face). To some extent, this is also true when playing against Jund or Grixis, but the existence of Kolaghan’s Command has tempered Spellskite’s usefulness in these matchups somewhat, as you can essentially kill it for free the turn after it’s played, and get some more value on top. However, if you are facing these decks with a bad matchup and don’t have any other options, Spellskite can still be great in some spots, and is worth considering as an inclusion.
The best part about Spellskite, though, comes from its ability to not only redirect kill spells, but also beneficial ones. This is what made it so fantastic against Twin, and today it is still an excellent card to play against Death’s Shadow or Infect. If you can play a Spellskite on turn 2, you force them to have an answer to it before they can kill you, due to the fact that you can simply redirect every pump spell they have onto the Spellskite and prevent them making their creatures any bigger. Of course, there are some great answers that Infect has in its arsenal like Twisted Image – but you have to make them have it. If they don’t, their game is slowed down and suddenly, you can turn the corner.
There are countless situations where Spellskite is a fantastic card, and I can’t possibly describe them all. Suffice to say, though it doesn’t enjoy as much glory as it once did, it’s still a very solid sideboard card almost no matter what you’re running, and it is well worth owning a couple of copies if you enjoy playing Modern. They will always be useful.
Fulminator Mage has risen in popularity over the last year as a great answer to some of Modern’s most difficult problems. Due to the fact that there is no Wasteland in the format that isn’t extremely conditional or puts you behind on mana, having a creature with that effect taped onto it is an excellent ace up your sleeve.
- Titan Breach
The best thing about Fulminator Mage is that it can answer decks that other cards struggle to answer. Lands are difficult to handle and with decks like Tron and Valakut brews, you will quickly lose unless you can interact with them and slow them down. There are very few cards in Modern that effectively deal with troublesome lands, and of those, Mage stands out. The fact that it can be played early on as a 2/2 creature to provide pressure, with the ability to instantly sacrifice it in response to any shenanigans, is a great plus, and it can also act as a deterrent to your opponent animating their man-land and pressuring you back. The other way to play it is as a “gotcha” to take someone off Tron or off of their third colour to keep the game in your control. There are a lot of greedy manabases in Modern thanks to fetch and shock lands, so there are almost always targets for it, even if you are playing a game that doesn’t involve utility lands (for example, Jund’s awkward mana). Most decks that run Fulminator also run recursion in the form of Kolaghan’s Command, and this combo can be very effective in the late game.
Now, of course, many people will point to Blood Moon. If you are trying to cope with decks which excel at fetching out the right lands, surely a permanent catch-all answer is better; and in some respects this is true, if you can land it early and make it stick, Moon is probably better. However, it does also have some serious drawbacks. You will have to drastically alter your game plan if you are trying to run a three-colour manabase yourself, because it is a symmetrical effect, which severely limits your options and may confine you into taking sub-optimal lines of play in case you draw it. It is also very susceptible to removal, particularly against the combo versions of Valakut, and this is where Fulminator is much better; where the Mage can respond to whatever they’re doing by removing their combo land, or at worst make them wait to play around it, Blood Moon can be wiped off the board and then you can be freely killed with no concern. Abrupt Decay, Nature’s Claim and Fragmentize all deal with it handily and cheaply. At least in the case of Fulminator, if it is removed, you can sacrifice it in response to take one of their lands with you, even if it wasn’t the one you wanted to hit.
All said, Fulminator Mage is an excellent option for dealing with difficult lands. It’s flexible, cheap and at worst, can be a 2/2 beater or a free chump block; and if it dies, it always gets you value as well by taking a land out with it. It is certainly one of the best options Modern has to offer.
As sweepers go, there are few that can beat out Anger of the Gods for effectiveness, efficiency and affordability. Supreme Verdict, Damnation and Wrath of God all see Modern play and all have their various places in the metagame, but they are all also four mana, and by the time you reach that much, it might already be game over. Anger is the baby brother to these all-out destruction effects which actually, does a remarkable impression of its more expensive counterparts.
- Abzan Company
Anger of the Gods has, since its printing in Theros, become a sideboard staple in Modern. As mentioned above, sometimes 4 mana is too much to ask against fast aggro-combo decks, where 3 is the perfect amount to wipe their board the turn before you die and leave them completely out of gas.
Anger has become the card to play around if you are running a creature list of any kind. You have to be constantly weighing up the pressure you want to apply to the board without overextending into a sweeper, and Anger is usually the card in your mind if your opponent is running red. If you are playing any deck with Lords, it complicates your maths considerably, as you want to play more creatures and get the game over with quickly, but if you play your best creatures out at only three toughness then you can get blown out by this card. Even playing enough Lord of Atlantises or Elvish Archdruids to make everything four toughness can be a trap, as Bolt + Anger can still demolish your board. If you are playing combo Collected Company, you don’t want to play out your combo pieces too early in case you get hit by this card. Anger is just simply the antithesis of every creature list.
Again, there are many good sweepers in Modern, and some people will point to Engineered Explosives as an alternative. This, too, is a good card, and will have much the same effect as Anger against some decks like Elves, Affinity or Zoo – also a low mana cost to play and blow up all the 0- or 1-drops – but against decks like Hatebears, Merfolk and Company, it is slower, and in some spots arguably worse than an Anger. The advantage is that you can blow it up anytime, but keeping two mana up can be a severe tempo swing, and the downside is that it can be destroyed by artifact hate, forcing the issue before you want to use it.
Anger encounters none of these issues, and has a very important upside in the current meta as well: exile. With Dredge being a very popular archetype right now, and all their creatures being conveniently 3 toughness or less, it’s very easy to let them set everything up and then end the game on the spot by not only removing their board, but making it impossible for them to bring it back via dredging. This card is simply game-ending in most spots where you’ll play it, and very, very good in the rest of them. Don’t sleep on it.
This card is a large portion of what keeps Affinity from being the best deck in the format. Its existence, and its potential presence in every sideboard is what stops people sleeving artifact combo lists up and bringing them to tournaments; it is simply a game-ending card against most decks which rely on artifacts.
- Lantern Control
- Ad Nauseam
- Krark-Clan Combo
Stony Silence can be cast on turn two, and can potentially win you the game. The power of this card cannot be overstated. It is, obviously, nonsense against anything that doesn’t use artifacts, but against any deck that relies on them for ramp, or tutoring, or to further their game plan, it stops them dead in their tracks and makes them look frankly like poor draft decks trying to play a Constructed format.
Against Affinity, suddenly they have a bunch of small vanilla creatures that can’t be buffed, because Cranial Plating can’t be equipped and forget about Arcbound Ravager. Against Lantern Control, if they can’t remove it from your hand on turn one, they will suddenly be playing a deck with only 4 real cards in it (Abrupt Decays), and the rest of their game plan has gone immediately to hell. Same for Eggs, same for KCI – and although Stony isn’t the game-ender against Tron or Ad Nauseam that it is against the rest, it stops them ramping their mana quickly and allows you to get your own board established first, and hopefully buys you enough time to win the game.
Not only that, but Stony Silence is a great answer to Spellskite, and to Engineered Explosives, two cards discussed in the list above. If you can predict your opponent is going to bring these in against you, you can counter their sideboarding. Put simply, this card is fantastic. It does have its drawbacks – it can easily be blown up, in the same vein as Blood Moon – but the idea is that it will last you long enough to win the game before they find an answer, and crucially, it doesn’t affect you. Blood Moon forces you to alter your plays around it, where Silence only really affects your opponent in the decks you will reasonably play it in. It is a one-sided permanent problem for them. It is great.
Of course, there are many other artifact-hate cards in the format, and Ancient Grudge is one of the best ones, as is Nature’s Claim. These have the advantage over Silence of being instant speed and, in the case of Grudge, a two-for-one; however, I can only put one card in this list, and personally, I think Silence is a better answer the majority of the time.
This brings us to our final hate-card:
Of course, it wouldn’t be an article about sideboard cards without mentioning some kind of graveyard hate. There is a lot of hate available for graveyards in Modern, but I believe Cage is the absolute pick of the bunch. It does everything you need it to do, and incidentally works against a plethora of other decks without you even asking it to; there are very few matchups in which this card isn’t at least slightly good. And it’s one colourless mana.
- Abzan Company
- Jeskai Nahiri
So, Grafdigger’s Cage works like this: If a creature would enter the battlefield from a graveyard or a library, it just doesn’t. So, all those Dredge creatures trying to trigger, sorry, you’re staying put. Your opponent’s cast a Collected Company? That’s nice, they get to look at the top six and put them on the bottom. They’ve Chorded to try and fetch Kiki-Jiki? Awful shame he has to remain in the deck and be shuffled away.
Obviously, since you won’t be playing Cage at instant speed the vast majority of the time, you won’t see these plays actually happen, but you get the idea. Anything trying to enter from the graveyard can’t, and that includes Persist creatures like Kitchen Finks, so Abzan Company can forget trying to combo off too, even if it finds all its pieces. Even a Nahiri, the Harbinger ultimate which fetches Emrakul from the library doesn’t work against this powerhouse of a card.
But wait, there’s more. More, you say? Yes, more.
Players can’t cast cards from graveyards or libraries. In this case, the library bit is slightly irrelevant in most cases, but – graveyards? Well, that means that Ancient Grudge the Dredge player just milled away is useless – looks like your Cage is sticking around. Lingering Souls only represents two Spirit tokens, not four. Your opponent’s array of options with Snapcaster Mage is reduced to just “play a 2/1 with flash”. And your Storm opponent is going to struggle to go off without being able to use Past in Flames, that’s for sure.
Yes, this card has flaws. It does nothing against Living End, because of technicalities in the way the Cascade mechanic works circumventing the library clause, and the fact that the creatures enter from exile rather than from the graveyard directly meaning the first clause also has no effect. It’s easily removed by some decks which can run Kolaghan’s Command or Nature’s Claim, or even Fragmentize. But for one mana, this little cage puts in much, much more work than we can reasonably ever ask for. It’s simply brilliant.
Now, while on the subject of graveyard hate, I would like to talk quickly about this card. It didn’t make it into the five because I had to choose between Rest in Peace and Cage for the graveyard hate of choice (it’s not a very interesting article otherwise), and honestly, I think Cage does a lot more in many more matchups than Rest in Peace does. However, it is still one of the best sideboard cards there is, and I would like to mention it here. Where Cage isn’t so good in some matchups, this picks up the slack, and so depending on your particular meta, this may well be a better sideboard option for you.
- Living End
- Grixis Control
- Abzan Company
- Jeskai Nahiri
So, if your meta is full of Chord of Calling and Jeskai decks, having the extra tutoring and library hate is much better. However, if you’re playing solely against graveyard decks, Rest in Peace tends to be a more permanent option than Cage, because it exiles everything that goes into the graveyard throughout the game, keeping Tarmogoyf at 0/1, and meaning that if they manage to remove your hate card, they have to build their yard up again from scratch, where once the Cage is gone, the floodgates have a tendency to open.
What are your top 5 sideboard cards for Modern right now?
So, that concludes my list of the top five sideboard cards in Modern. Do you agree or disagree with my choices? Is there something you think should have been included, or shouldn’t have been? Let me know in the comments below!
Look out for my next article in the series, Top 5 Utility Lands in Modern – coming soon!
Thanks for reading,