The Best Magic: The Gathering Sideboard Cards In Standard Right Now, by Joseph Dunlap
Well, this one was a doozy. After many hours spent watching every Standard match from this past weekend, I have compiled what I believe to be a complete record of the top Standard sideboard cards from Pro Tour Aether Revolt.
This is based solely upon games featured by the WotC coverage team, so while this is pretty close to an accurate representation of sideboarding at the Pro Tour and how it was affected by the overall metagame, bear in mind that the cards listed below may not behave in quite the same way at your local game store.
When I started working on this article, I set out to answer the question: How much of a role did sideboarded cards play in PT Aether Revolt featured matches? By the end of it, I expect we will all have learned something about the overall Standard metagame, but more specifically, how effective these cards were in the context of the incredibly skewed metagame that was Pro Tour: Mardu Vehicles. There are important lessons to be learned here, I believe, if we are willing to dig deep enough.
The Duds of the Pro Tour
First off, these two former kings of Standard were complete duds on screen.
Ironically, this former control kingpin found himself outmatched in a metagame full of interaction. Kalitas only made two onscreen appearances over the course of the weekend.
In the deciding game of Round 16 between Lucas Esper Berthoud (Mardu Vehicles) and Dimitris Triantafillou (BG Constrictor), Triantafillou attempted to play two Kalitas’s (Kalitasses?) in a row that are both hit with an Unlicensed Disintegration. Berthoud was able to stay ahead on pace and win the match, advancing to the Top 8.
In the third game of the Quarterfinals match between Jan Ksandr (BG Delirium) and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa (Mardu Vehicles), Kasndr’s Kalitas was also answered immediately with a Disintegration. Damo da Rosa went on to win Game 3 after landing his second Gideon.
Queller made a grand total of three appearances on coverage, two of which occurred during the Top 8. While it did generate some advantage, ultimately it couldn’t quite get the job done.
Queller clinched a win in the only Copy Cat mirror match shown on screen, during Round 4 between Pierre Dagen (4c Copy Cat) and Mike Sigrist (Jeskai Copy Cat). Sigrist cast a game winning Saheeli Rai, prompting a Negate from Dagen. Sigrist responded with Spell Queller to win the match.
In Game 4 of the Quarterfinals match between Liu Yuchen and Eduardo Sajgalik, both players had slow starts. Declining to respond to a removal spell, Sajgalik instead flashed in Spell Queller during combat to block and kill Pia Nalaar. Though Sajgalik did achieve his goal of removing Pia rather than protecting his own creature, Queller later died to an Unlicensed Disintegration that also finished off Gideon with the extra damage effect.
In Game 5 of the Semifinals, between Sajgalik and Lucas Esper Berthoud, Sajgalik tagged Scrapheap Scrounger with Queller, which killed Berthoud’s Gideon the following turn with the help of Sajgalik’s Gideon emblem. Unfortunately, Berthoud killed Queller a few turns later to get back Scrounger, crewing Skysovereign and clearing the remainder of Sajgalik’s board.
What went wrong: The metagame in which Kalitas and Spell Queller were king now seems like ancient history. The heyday of Collected Company was focused on creature interactions, board stalls, flexible removal spells like Dromoka’s Command, and creature-generated card advantage. Kalitas easily preyed upon creature decks like Bant Company and 4c Rally, while Spell Queller was one of the main culprits behind Bant Company’s dominating success.
The creature decks of yesteryear could not afford to run less than, on average, 23-25 creatures. In Aether Revolt Standard, with the exception of the many fringe combo decks, every deck packs a healthy dose of removal, ranging from Unlicensed Disintegration, to Fatal Push, to Skywhaler’s Shot, to Declaration in Stone, and the list goes on and on.
Removal is just too good right now for players to slam a Kalitas on Turn 4 and expect it to survive the turn. Conversely, with the sudden flood of vehicles and other aggro decks, players also can’t afford to wait until they have a full grip of removal. Kalitas simply doesn’t fit into the overall tempo plan of Standard right now. Spell Queller falls prey to the same problems. Unless a player has an unending stream of Quellers and counterspells, the average life expectancy of a 2/3 flier sitting on an important spell is pretty low right now.
The “Almost” Category
Now we move on to two cards that were effective, but something didn’t quite line up for them.
Many Magic players were saddened to see such a focus on the most popular archetypes of the Pro Tour – Mardu Vehicles, BG variants, Copy Cat, etc. – especially when there were some intriguing lists floating around that didn’t quite make it to the top seats. The ones I found most interesting were those that took full advantage of the new counterspell, Metallic Rebuke.
Sadly for Metallic Rebuke fans, it only made its way onscreen once all weekend, in the Quarterfinals Mardu Vehicles mirror match between Liu Yuchen and Eduardo Sajgalik. In Game 3, Yuchen cast two Metallic Rebukes at full cost and rode them to victory. In Game 5, Yuchen countered Gideon, Ally of Zendikar with Metallic Rebuke, tapping a Clue token to help cast it. Unfortunately, Yuchen started the game with a costly mulligan to 5 and he was unable to close out the match.
There were essentially two separate sideboard plans that players brought to the Pro Tour. Ultimately, the more effective plan was more proactive and brought in extra removal, while some lists splashed blue for a small complement of counterspells. Metallic Rebuke pulled its weight for Yuchen in the Quarterfinals, despite the rough final game. This is definitely not the last we’ve seen of it at the Pro Tour level.
This one’s a real head-scratcher, so strap in. Fragmentize showed up several times over the weekend, but for some reason had it had an overwhelmingly low success rate (40% win rate onscreen). Interestingly, several of these losses were due to players being unable to make land drops, which must be purely coincidental unless there is a correlation to risky opening hands kept with one or more sideboard cards.
In the Quarterfinals match discussed above between Yuchen and Sajgalik, Yuchen drew Fragmentize in all three sideboarded games. Yuchen hit Heart of Kiran in Game 3 and won the game. In Games 4-5 he hit the equally worthy target Cultivator’s Caravan, but ultimately lost both games with a lone Scrapheap Scrounger unable to block.
In Game 4 of the Finals between Lucas Esper Berthoud and Márcio Carvalho, Berthoud had a slow start due to mana screw. Carvalho was able to capitalize on this, casting Fragmentize on Berthoud’s Heart of Kiran and gaining an overwhelming advantage over the following turns.
Fragmentize remains a solid answer against a handful of legal targets, but it begs the question whether bringing in more than a single copy of the inflexible spell from the sideboard is a source of inconsistency for Mardu Vehicles players. Both finalists stuck with a single copy of Fragmentize in their sideboards, while the rest of the Mardu players in the Top 8 housed two copies (with the exception of Damo da Rosa, who did not run any).
The following cards only made a single featured match appearance, but they had a positive (while not overwhelming) influence on the game.
Nissa’s lone appearance came in Round 13, between Daniel Gräfensteiner (4c Copy Cat) and Tatsuhiko Ohki (Mardu Vehicles). In Game 3, Gräfensteiner was able to use multiple blink triggers on Nissa to bring back two Felidar Guardians in the same turn. Though he never found Saheeli Rai to combo off, he did use Nissa’s animated lands to present a clock on Ohki and win the game at 3 life.
It’s important to note that Nissa would have been far less effective if Gräfensteiner had not prevented a near-lethal attack with Elder Deep-Fiend. However, had Gräfensteiner been unable to close out the game but later drew into Saheeli, Nissa’s ability to recur both Felidar Guardians would have been instrumental in stealing the game.
Sadly, Avacyn only popped by for a visit for a few seconds in the Semifinals between Donald Smith and Márcio Carvalho. In Game 4 (referenced above), due to Smith never finding his third land drop, Carvalho was able to gain an overwhelming advantage. After developing a full board of creatures and attacking for near lethal damage, Smith attempted a Fatal Push to buy himself more time. Carvalho flashed in Avacyn and won the match.
Avacyn may have been overkill at this point in the game due to Smith’s unfortunate draws, but I suspect she would have had just as strong an impact even if the board state had been less favourable.
For a few moments before we move on to the Top 4 list, let’s take a look at the cards that didn’t have many moments to shine on camera, but had a strong impact on the games in which they were played.
I believe we would have seen more of these popular sideboard counterspells if more Copy Cat and control archetypes had made it to the top tables. Sadly, we only got two examples of their overall effectiveness during the Pro Tour.
In the Copy Cat mirror match mentioned earlier between Dagen and Sigrist, Negate was also a deciding card for Game 2. Sigrist, who had just won Game 1, prevented Dagen’s Saheeli Rai from resolving with a Negate. Dagen later attempted a Negate on Sigrist’s Saheeli, but Sigrist won the match with a timely Spell Queller.
Dispel had a similar showing in Round 13, between Daniel Gräfensteiner (4c Copy Cat) and Tatsuhiko Ohki (Mardu Vehicles). This time, Gräfensteiner cast Dispel to answer a removal spell on his Felidar Guardian, but the Vehicles player finished the stack with his own Dispel. Ohki was ultimately unable to build up an aggressive front and Gräfensteiner went on to win the match.
While Obsolescence and Appetite are often sideboarded for the same sort of threats, the former is most effective in dealing with Scrapheap Scrounger, while the latter is able to buy more time through life gain. These different uses are evidenced through each card’s single appearance in the Pro Tour featured matches.
In Round 6, Victor Fernando Silva (BG Constrictor) removed Alexander Hayne’s Scrounger with Natural Obsolescence and won the game shortly afterward. In this context, nearly any removal spell available in Standard would have achieved the same result, except for Obsolescence’s ability to prevent any sort of recurrence – especially relevant if the caster is behind on the board, since Scrounger becomes useless on defense with no vehicles in play.
In Round 13, between Alexander Hayne (Mardu Vehicles) and Ken Yukuhiro (BG Constrictor), Yukuhiro ended up with a fully developed board in Game 3, but still found himself on the back foot. Near the end of the game, Yukuhiro removed Cultivator’s Caravan with Appetite for the Unnatural. Many turns later, Hayne topdecked Chandra, Torch of Defiance, which would have been lethal damage if Yukuhiro had not gained 2 life earlier in the game. Yukuhiro went on to win the match with three Walking Ballistas and a Winding Constrictor.
While Tireless Tracker is not what most would consider a “sideboard” card, many BG players opted to run two to three copies of Tracker in their maindecks and leave the remaining copies in the sideboard. As it is wont to do, Tireless Tracker was able to completely run away with multiple games.
In the final game of Round 12 between Martin Juza (Jund Energy Aggro) and Ben Rubin (BG Delirium), both players started off the game with a Tracker. After sacrificing two Clues, Rubin was forced to trade his Tracker in combat with Juza’s Verdurous Gearhulk. As a result, Juza outpaced Rubin with Tireless Tracker clues and gained a huge board advantage. The match was won after Juza landed his second Gearhulk.
Also in Round 12, between Thierry Ramboa (BG Constrictor) and Lukas Blohon (Jeskai Control), Ramboa started off Game 2 with multiple Trackers in his hand. Blohon killed the first, but Ramboa protected the second with Blossoming Defense. While Blohon struggled with a slow hand, Ramboa accumulated a total of five Clue tokens and drew into all four copies of Tireless Tracker. Ramboa won the match with a Murder on his opponent’s Torrential Gearhulk to clear the way for a lethal attack.
Speaking of Blossoming Defense, this (usually) defensive spell found its way into sideboards and maindecks across the various black-green lists.
In addition to the Round 12 match mentioned above, Blossoming Defense also showed up in Round 6, between Victor Fernando Silva (BG Constrictor) and Alexander Hayne (Mardu Vehicles). At the end of Game 2, Silva used Blossoming Defense as a combat trick to win the game with Grim Flayer. In Game 3, Silva used Blossoming Defense again to protect Grim Flayer from Chandra, Torch of Defiance. Unfortunately, Silva eventually ran out of gas and lost the match.
Finally, we have a black sideboard all-star, the permanent solution that is Transgress the Mind. The only player to sling Transgress on camera was Jan Ksandr, playing BG Delirium. Both games in which it was cast resulted in wins for Ksandr.
In Round 15, vs Daniel Gräfensteiner (4c Copy Cat), Ksandr opened up Game 2 with Transgress the Mind to exile Felidar Guardian. With a combo piece and vital blocker gone, Gräfensteiner had few early plays and found himself outpaced by the Delirium deck.
In the Quarterfinals, vs Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa (Mardu Vehicles), Damo da Rosa started behind in Game 4 due to missed land drops. Ksandr found Depala, Pilot Exemplar, one of Damo da Rosa’s few outs, with Transgress and spent the rest of the game easily answering Damo da Rosa’s threats.
The Top 4 Sideboard Cards of Pro Tour Aether Revolt
And now, finally, the moment we’ve all been waiting for (drum roll)…
4. Skywhaler’s Shot
Coming in at#4 is the new craze in flex slot removal. While Skywhaler’s Shot can’t hit everything (in a meta full of vehicles, it’s basically the yin to Fragmentize‘s yang with a tiny bit of overlap), it’s a nice complement to the most popular removal spells in Standard, which is why Skywhaler’s Shot comes in a close 4th place. It’s not always game-winning, but it does a lot for overall deck consistency by adding a removal spell that can hit most of what it needs to hit, as well as a crucial “Scry 1” clause.
Decks that are less reliant on creatures can slot in Skywhaler’s Shot easily with little issues. However, one of the downsides of drastically increasing the amount of removal in a creature-based deck is failing to pressure the board adequately.
Take, for example, Round 6 between Kelvin Chew (Mardu Vehicles) and Ben Rubin (BG Delirium). In Game 2, Chew played a total of five removal spells (including a playset of Fatal Push, one of which was sideboarded in), finishing off with Skywhaler’s Shot on Verdurous Gearhulk. Unfortunately, Rubin still outpaced Chew and took the game. This also happened in Game 4 of the Finals between Lucas Esper Berthoud and Márcio Carvalho, when Berthoud unleashed a barrage of removal at Carvalho’s threats but lost momentum after being stuck at 4 lands.
While we’re on the topic of lands, it’s worth noting that Skywhaler’s Shot would have had a higher win record on camera if not for a handful of games where the player sideboarding it in ended up short on lands. For example, Márcio Carvalho was a victim of some bad beats in Game 3 of the Semifinals against Donald Smith when he was unable to find any additional lands, even through multiple scry attempts from the various tools available to Mardu Vehicles.
Overall, Skywhaler’s Shot had a great showing at the Pro Tour. One shining example also involved Berthoud, this time in Round 16 vs Dimitris Triantafillou (BG Constrictor). In Game 2, as Berthoud maintained a stream of removal against Triantafillou’s threats, Skywhaler’s Shot took care of a pumped Winding Constrictor. In the following game, Berthoud removed the ever-crucial Aethersphere Harvester a few turns before clinching his spot in the Top 8.
3. Chandra, Torch of Defiance
Surprisingly (to all the Chandra naysayers), Chandra, Torch of Defiance proved to be an incredibly effective sideboard card at Pro Tour Aether Revolt. An overwhelming majority of red-based decks had a few copies of Chandra in the sideboard, and a few even packed a couple in their main deck.
Chandra’s main use over the weekend was clearing important creatures and either soaking up an attack over the following turn, or digging further into the deck. Out of the popular archetypes showcased on camera, Copy Cat and Mardu Vehicles made the most use of Chandra. In Round 13, Daniel Gräfensteiner (4c Copy Cat) sideboarded Chandra against Tatsuhiko Ohki (Mardu Vehicles) and made a small but crucial difference in Game 3. Ohki had a fair sized board, so Gräfensteiner cast Chandra and used it to remove Depala. Chandra was killed in the following combat, but it bought Gräfensteiner enough time to move into late game and win the match.
Pro Tour champion Lucas Esper Berthoud made good use of Chandra throughout the weekend. One such example occured on Round 16, against Dimitris Triantafillou (BG Constrictor). In Game 2, Chandra took care of Triantafillou’s first Winding Constrictor and started to tick up. A few turns later, Chandra removed a crucial blocker allowing Berthoud to win the game. In Game 3, Berthoud hit Sylvan Advocate with a Turn 4 Chandra. The planeswalker was killed the following turn by an Aethersphere Harvester, buying Berthoud enough time to land Skysovereign and take control of the game.
2. Release the Gremlins
As we move toward the top of the list, it’s time to tip our hat to one of the true MVPs of Pro Tour Aether Revolt: Release the Gremlins.
While many have heralded Gremlins as a new Shatterstorm bordering on Modern-playable, it was interesting to see the various lines of play related to Gremlins at the Pro Tour. Most commonly, Release the Gremlins was cast for X=1. This enabled aggro players to fire it off on Turn 3, getting an early 2-for-1 of unconditional artifact removal and a 2/2 Gremlin token. There are many examples of this 2-for-1 providing game-winning momentum, primarily among Mardu Vehicles players prepared for the mirror match.
Release the Gremlins was an early but vital play in the deciding game of the Semifinals match between Berthoud and Eduardo Sajgalik. On Turn 3, Berthoud cast Release the Gremlins for 1 on one of Sajgalik’s two Clue tokens, preventing Sajgalik from potentially pulling too far ahead on card advantage and giving Berthoud an early attacker. After a long interactive game, Berthoud was able to win the match with an active Skysovereign.
Gremlins was also a crucial card in the Finals between Berthoud and Carvalho, but we’re going to dive deeper into that match in a moment.
1. Skysovereign, Consul Flagship
By an overwhelming margin, the most influential sideboard card at Pro Tour Aether Revolt was Skysovereign, Consul Flagship.
It makes a lot of sense if you look the metagame: Mardu Vehicles, BG/Jund Constrictor, BG Delirium, Saheeli/control archetypes, GW Tokens, Energy Aggro, and BR Aggro. With the exception of the control archetypes, there is an overabundance of targets for Skysovereign to gobble up. Here are just a few examples:
- Round 5, between Martin Juza (Jund Aggro) and Jon Finkel (Mardu Vehicles): In Game 3, Juza kills Pia Nalaar and her Thopter token with Skysovereign, leaving Finkel stuck with an uncrewed vehicle.
- Round 13, Dimitris Triantafillou (BG Constrictor) vs Donald Smith (Mardu Vehicles): In Game 2, Smith starts out behind against a developed board. After using some removal and strong attacks, Smith casts Skysovereign to kill Triantafillou’s remaining blocker to win the match.
- Round 14, Martin Juza (Jund Energy Aggro) vs Gabriel Nassif (Mardu Vehicles): In Game 3, Juza kills Depala with Skysovereign. Nassif takes Juza down to 7 life, but Juza kills off two Thraben Inspectors with Skysovereign and barely keeps Nassif from being able to crew Heart of Kiran for multiple turns.
- Round 14, Shaun McLaren (BG Constrictor) vs Owen Turtenwald (Mardu Vehicles): In Game 2, Skysovereign does a lot of work for Turtenwald, clearing many of McLaren’s threats. Turtenwald wins with a Skysovereign attack while at 4 life.
Yet again, perhaps the best examples of Skysovereign’s dominance can be found in the last few rounds played by Berthoud. In the final game of the Semifinals match with Eduardo Sajgalik, Berthoud’s Scrapheap Scrounger was exiled under Sajgalik’s Spell Queller. Berthoud took care of Queller with a removal spell, getting back the Scrounger to crew Skysovereign, which he then used to kill Thraben Inspector and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.
The Final Match, and the Pro Tour Decided by Sideboards
As a parting word, let’s take a moment to examine the last two games of the Pro Tour Aether Revolt Finals between Berthoud and Carvalho. If the final match of Pro Tour Kaladesh was a masterclass in control decks, the final match this weekend was a masterclass in sideboarding for the mirror match.
Magic players across the internet may complain about how boring a mirror match final is, especially with a deck as dominant as Mardu Vehicles, but I respectfully disagree. If the most dominant deck of the Pro Tour is also one of the most interactive, so be it. Not only are interactive games fun to watch, but examining their intricacies makes us all better Magic players.
The following Mardu Vehicles sideboard cards played a role in the final match (in order of appearance):
- Release the Gremlins
- Skywhaler’s Shot
- Needle Spires
- Skysovereign, Consul Flagship
- Chandra, Torch of Defiance
Let’s start with Game 4. On Turn 3, Berthoud hits Heart of Kiran with Release the Gremlins for 1. The following turn, he also takes care of Scrapheap Scrounger with Skywhaler’s Shot. Unfortunately, Berthoud is stuck at 4 lands. Carvalho draws Fragmentize off a Clue token to kill Berthoud’s Heart of Kiran. Carvalho gains a strong advantage after casting two Gideons to Berthoud’s one and wins the game.
In Game 5, as the game reaches the mid-point, Berthoud forces a chump block with Needle Spires and clears a blocker from being a hindrance later. Carvalho kills Berthoud’s Gideon token as he resolves Skysovereign, but on the following turn Berthoud hits Skysovereign and a Thopter token with Release the Gremlins. Carvalho is put on the back foot, forced to dig for removal with Chandra and prevent a lethal attack. Chandra finds a land, and Berthoud wins the Pro Tour with a perfect 12-0 Constructed record.
So then, what did you think of the list? What conclusions did you draw about the most influential sideboard cards as you watched the Pro Tour unfold? Which cards are you most excited to try out in the coming weeks of Standard play? Let me know in the comments below, and I look forward to hearing from you!
Thanks for reading,