Arcane Teachings: Sideboard Planning on Starcitygames.com
Seasoned players tend to talk about “sideboarding plans,” which is not a surprise since sideboarding well is really all about planning. Tom looks at some decks and asks you to think about how their sideboards do or do not fit with the decks’ game plans. He wants to convince you that you need to be aware of and take into account your deck’s plans to build the most effective sideboard you can.
Magic players worry a lot about their deck. Whenever things get shaken up by a new format becoming important, the results from a major tournament, or a set release, suddenly no one really knows what decks are the best and people start looking for guidance. Conveniently, tons of articles appear about what deck are good, what decks are bad, and what deck you should play. A casual observer of Magic would have the impression that your deck choice is by far the most important thing you do when you play. I’m here to tell you the opposite. Your deck choice doesn’t matter.
This is an obviously hyperbolic statement; of course your deck choice matters, since it is the cards you play with. However, I think your deck matters in a very different way than most people think it does. It’s tempting to begin exploring of a format by searching for what Adam Prosak calls a “seventy-five card Jesus”- that one specific pile of cards that will take a player to fame, glory, and prizes. However, that deck does not exist. There are reasonable decks, and there are bad decks, but most of the time there is no one deck that will solve all of your problems.
Think of a deck as you would a weapon. Even if you spent years building a perfect sword, you would not walk up to an enemy, show him your perfect sword, and expect him to simply agree that your sword was better and then let you kill him with it. You still have to use that sword to defeat him using his weapon. Magic works the same way. You and your opponent both bring a deck, and then you fight with them. It is true that you will have no chance to win if your deck is hopelessly bad; even the most expert swordsman is drawing dead against a gun. However, the rewards for having the best deck as opposed to a good deck are often very small, and quite regularly they are not nearly as great as the rewards for being an expert with the deck you choose.
When you choose a deck for a constructed tournament, you should be looking for a “reasonable” deck. This means that you aren’t looking for the “best” deck. You’re looking for a deck that is “good enough” to win a tournament with. It may be hard to to tell if something is good enough, but it’s easy to tell if it isn’t. If a deck is markedly underpowered compared to the rest of the field, has an unwinnable matchup against a deck that is very popular, is completely hated out by sideboard cards that people are already playing, or loses to itself too often, it’s not good enough. You’re only looking for problems that would cause you to have no shot at winning the tournament. Don’t climb for the peak of the mountain; just make sure you don’t fall into any holes.
When I approach constructed formats, I try to go through all of the available decks and identify problems with each deck. If I can’t find a glaring problem with a deck, then I see it as being reasonable. This may leave you with only one deck, or it may leave you with a ton. If there’s only one deck left, play that one, but be aware that you’re probably wrong that there’s only one reasonable deck. If there are a lot, pick your favorite and that’s fine. Formats almost always have four or five reasonable decks, so you won’t be limited in your choices most of the time. If a format is completely new, you’ll have no choice but to figure this out on your own. If it’s not new and you don’t want to put in the work yourself, look at tournament results, find something that has top eighted a lot, and just play it. If a lot of people are winning with it, it’s probably good enough to win with.
I would go so far as to say that at this moment, your deck matters less than it ever has in Magic’s history. This is because Wizards now designs sets with flatter card power curves. In Mirrodin and Kamigawa, the cards that were good were overwhelmingly better than the cards that were bad. If you didn’t show up to a Mirrodin block tournament with an affinity deck, you were drawing close to dead. If you brought something other than Gifts to a Kamigawa block tournament, you weren’t drawing dead but you were at a definite disadvantage. On the other hand, Ravnica and Time Spiral block have comparably flat card power curves. Pro Tour Charleston showed that Ravnica block constructed had something on the order of a hundred reasonable decks, if you could even distinguish between them all. Time Spiral block had at least four in Teachings, Pickles, Predator, and blue-green. I would argue that by the end of the season Teachings and blue-green were obviously better than the other two, but you could argue back at me that all four of those decks won PTQs and top eighted Grand Prixes and you’d be right. Any of those four decks gave you a shot at winning any given Time Spiral block tournament, so as long as you brought one of them you weren’t dead in the water.
The flatter the card power curve is, the less your deck matters. Since there are a large number of reasonable decks in any modern format, you can just bring one of them and be secure in the knowledge that you won’t be too far behind anyone on deck. Similarly, the closer together all the good decks are in power level, the more your skill level with a deck matters when you are choosing decks. It’s not hard to imagine that you might be so good with one of a format’s reasonable decks that even if you know it isn’t the best one, you still should play it because your increased skill level with the worse deck makes up for more than the deck power difference.
Going even further with this logic, if the decks in a format are close enough in power, it could actually be wrong to try to pick the best one. In that case, it might be better to just pick one and practice a ton with it so that you gain on skill with your deck. I think that Time Spiral Block constructed was this kind of format. With one exception, every reasonable PTQ player I know and can think of who just picked a deck and sat on it eventually qualified, while not everyone who bounced around did. I chose to ally myself with Teachings. I played in three PTQs; I X-2′d the first, top eighted the second, and won the third. I don’t really think of myself as being an exceptionally skilled player, but the combination of me, my deck, and a month of practice with that combination meant that by the time I won the PTQ it was close to inevitable that I would win one eventually.
Here’s another reality check. The great majority of Magic players don’t play in tournaments that are more competitive than PTQ’s. I would guess that most players don’t even regularly play at that level. This means that most of the time your average tournament player plays tournament Magic, they’re at a local event. To be frank, the competition at that level is not very sophisticated. Some people will bring pet decks and homebrews, others will think their deck is reasonable and be wrong, and still others play a deck that they know is bad with a smile expecting to lose. Those who do bring reasonable decks will probably have outdated versions. There will be card access problems. If you bring a reasonable deck into such a world, you’re already ahead, so it doesn’t really matter which one you bring. Just bring one of them, and play well enough that you don’t give up the hopefully large advantage you’ll have from your deck.
There is one caveat: really high levels of play can make your deck matter. At Grand Prixes, your deck kind of matters. If you’re winning, you’re going to play at least ten to twelve rounds, and the last of them are going to be against the world’s top players. Your skill advantage against those players is going to be either reduced or nonexistent, so your deck becomes a much more important way to differentiate yourself from the rest of the field. At a Pro Tour, your deck is very important because those conditions begin in round one. By the end of the tournament if you’re winning, you’re playing against the best players in the world bar none. Even if you are one of them, you’re going to need an exceptionally good deck to be competitive because everyone else is as good as you and everyone else got to the top tables at least partially because of their deck and not their play skill.
I think that most Magic players worry too much about the deck they bring and not enough about knowing how to play it. Your deck obviously matters somewhat, but as long as you bring a reasonable deck you won’t have a hopeless matchup against anyone. Because there usually isn’t a big difference between the power levels of a format’s reasonable decks, you’re probably better served by learning to play one of them well than figuring out which of them is best. Choose your weapon, practice, and go to the tournament confident that you know how to wield it.
How many of the following statements could you truthfully make about your upcoming tournament? What can you do to make more of them true?
- I will get a good night’s sleep before the tournament.
- I know how I am getting to the tournament.
- I will give myself ample time to travel to the tournament.
- I will eat a balanced breakfast.
- I will pack snacks and drinks, or do what it takes to eat and drink enough during the tournament.
- I have all the cards I need for my deck.
- My deck contains no marked cards.
- My deck contains no foils, because foils can become marked during the course of a tournament.
- Every copy of each different card in my deck is from the same set and printed in the same language so that my opponents cannot figure out how many copies of a card I am playing by noticing differences between different copies.
- My deck has sleeves.
- My sleeves are not marked.
- My sleeves are brand new.
- My sleeves are brand new and have solid-color backs with no pictures.
- I will have a pen and paper to keep track of my life.
- I will have a pen and paper, as well as a randomization device.
- I will have a pen and paper, plus any dice and counters I need to play cards in my deck.
- My deck is legal.
- My deck is good.
- I have the best deck in the room.
- I have the best deck in the format.
- My sideboard has useful cards in it.
- My sideboard is aimed at solving problem matchups and fixing specific holes.
- I know exactly how I will sideboard against all my opponents.
- I know how to play my deck.
- I know how all the other decks in the format play.
- I know how to beat all the other decks with my deck.
- I think I can win some matches.
- I think I am going to do well.
- I have a real shot to win the tournament.
- I have no idea who in the room could possibly beat me.
It is very rare that I win a tournament of more then twenty players without being able to truthfully make almost all of the above statements. Have fun and good luck.
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