The Art of Transforming

Posted in Reconstructed on October 21, 2014

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

It's a classic movie trope: there's a stranger, perhaps the new kid at school or a company employee, who's a

Maybe our main character catches him slurping ice cream with a straw, or putting deodorant on his face. Something isn't quite right about this person. How strange. Huh. Well, I guess you can't judge. I mean, maybe that's just how he was raised, or maybe he has a unique skin condition, or ma—


Welcome to Things Are Not What They Seem Week.

Wandering down the intersection of deck building and something not quite looking as it seems leads straight to one thing: transformational sideboarding.

When people send me sideboards, I see a lot of transformational ones. They're clearly popular to think about and build. But when is it right to actually use one? What purpose do they serve?

Let's get into it today. Here we go!

What is a Transformational Sideboard?

The first question to answer, before we go further, is, well...what are one of these transformational sideboards in the first place? Is it a sideboard of fifteen Innistrad transform cards? Does it involve Optimus Prime? What's going on?!

I'll always remember the first transformational sideboard I saw. I was fifteen years old, just starting out as a fledgling deck builder, and Terry Soh won the Magic Invitational (and later make Rakdos Augermage) with this deck:

Terry Soh's Tooth and Nail

Download Arena Decklist

It's not that there weren't transformational sideboards before this, but this is the first one in my competitive career I remember getting so much publicity. The few months after this deck came out, at least where I played, transformational sideboards seemed to become a fad. Like froyo places or expensive cupcakes with twice as much frosting as cake, they were everywhere.

So, backing up, what was Terry's sideboard doing that was so different?

The Tooth and Nail Standard deck was essentially a combo deck. You raced to nine mana (often aided by the "Urzatron" lands), cast Tooth and Nail, and then put something like Sundering Titan and Kiki-Jiki Mirror Breaker onto the battlefield, and it would be curtains for your opponent. The deck had some other things to do with its mana as well, of course—you could always just Mindslaver your opponent and put him or her in a rough spot—but that's the general scope of it.

So, naturally, the opponent would bring in cards to combat this. But Terry—he juked to the left. Rather than try and make his core game plan more resilient or bringing in cards to fight his opponent's hate cards, he essentially switched decks using his sideboard! He would bring in a combination of Troll Ascetic, Razormane Masticore, Iwamori of the Open Fist, Molder Slug, Plow Under, and Vine Trellis—very potentially all of them—and then remove several of the combo elements from his deck entirely.

In essence, his opponent would be looking up at the sky with a rifle, waiting for Terry's deck to fly overhead, when instead Terry's new alligator deck would lumber up on the ground and bite off the opponent's leg. Plus, if you weren't expecting the transformation into a much more aggressive deck, there's a good chance you may have just sideboarded in a bunch of cards that didn't do much relevant.

In short: a transformational sideboard is when you bring in several sideboard cards to radically change how your deck looks and plays.

The Benefits of Transformational Sideboarding

Transformational sideboarding gives you a few major benefits.

The first I'll mention, and definitely not to be underestimated, is surprise. Transformational sideboards are most effective when people aren't expecting them. (This is often why transformational sideboards aren't something you see in the same deck over long stretches of time, instead showing up and doing really well at a couple events before people adapt and move on.) You can get a lot of free wins out of having cards that people just don't know how to play around.

A second big reason is to fight off hate cards. Transformational sideboards can give you a ton of free sideboard wins, as you attack your opponent to death with the likes of Savage Knuckleblade while your opponent is forlornly looking at a grip full of anti-combo cards. You can use transformational sideboards to attack the weak spot: if you know your opponent is sideboarding out his or her removal versus your creature-less combo deck, then bringing in creatures will give your opponent a rough time.

A third big reason is to fix really bad matchups. If your combo deck has, say, no chance against a popular control deck with twenty counterspells, you could sideboard into an aggressive deck and completely beat down the opponent to turn the matchup in your favor.

Another small benefit is that it lets you play the game plan you want against certain decks. If you want to usually be the beatdown deck when fighting midrange, having a transformational sideboard into something that better fits your play style and the format can be useful.

The Drawbacks to Transformational Sideboarding

Transformational sideboarding sounds really sleek and cool, and it's easy to start constantly walking down that path. However, there are many perils associated with it that will make it a suboptimal choice a reasonable amount of the time.

First, you need to be really comfortable having this be something you're going to do a lot, because one huge problem with transformational sideboarding is how many sideboard slots you eat up.

You can expect most transformational sideboards to eat up at least eleven of your cards in your sideboard, if not more. To ensure your sideboard works you need to make sure you can draw those cards, and you only get fifteen extra spots to play with.

Second, even if you overcome the density of spots in your sideboard that are now occupied by your transformational cards, it can still be a bit of a one-trick pony. If your opponent catches onto you, he or she can sideboard in ways that will make your transformational sideboard work worse. A savvy opponent will go back to his or her sideboard if there is a Game 3. You don't have as nearly as many options and sideboarding flexibility when you need to bring in a critical mass of cards—often it's "Do I bring in the package or do I not?"

Those are two pretty huge reasons to not go down the transformational sideboard path. So that leads to the question...

When Should I Use a Transformational Sideboard?

There are a few kinds of decks and metagames where transformational sideboards are going to be best. The question you always have to ask yourself is: "Why am I transforming instead of just having good sideboard cards?"

The best kind of deck to have a transformational sideboard is certainly a combo deck. Combo decks traditionally have good Game 1 matchups. But once the hate cards come in, life becomes a lot harder. Well, you can sidestep that entirely with a transformational sideboard.

Additionally, the loss of sideboard spots hurts combo decks less than other decks. Quite often, you can't effectively sideboard more than a few cards before you dilute your combo anyway, so having a huge chunk of cards you can swap straight in and out actually works out pretty fine.

Another great time to have a transformational sideboard is when your deck is pretty heavily favored against most decks, but has one or two bad matchups that transforming will fix. If that's what you need to do to patch holes, a transformational sideboard is worth trying. (Although it's worth noting that often it may not end up worth it anyway, since if you're going to lose Game 1 that's a lot of sideboard equity to throw away just for a chance to maybe win the next two games.)

There are a lot of times when I see transformational sideboards that don't seem like good fits, however. Going back to the question posed above, you need to have a reason why you're transforming rather than just having sideboard cards for a matchup.

For example, if the matchup you're transforming for is already favored, you don't need a transformational sideboard. If the matchup you're transforming for could be solved by playing sideboard cards that are naturally good against that deck, you don't need a transformational sideboard. And, finally, if it just moves your deck sideways—it was good and bad in this matchup before, now it's good and bad in different ways—you don't need a transformational sideboard.

In general, I would say that most of the time you don't want a transformational sideboard. They're really cool looking and sleek, and they feel smart to use. They're attractive. But, overall, I see a lot of decks where it's not really what they want. However, with that said, when a transformational sideboard is good it can be brutally effective—so never discount it as an option until you've thought it through.

The Half-Transform

One last thing I want to quickly touch upon is the half-transform. This is when you have some cards you can bring in to tweak how your deck works, but you aren't entirely transforming. For example, take Lee Shi Tian's deck from the Pro Tour a couple weeks ago:

Lee Shi Tien's Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir Deck

Download Arena Decklist

Lee can bring in Savage Knuckleblade and Polukranos (plus a smattering of pinpoint removal) to accelerate into and smash with.

Now, it's not enough to do a full transformation—Lee is likely keeping his combo in. But this serves two major roles. First, it serves as a distraction. It forces your opponent to deal with the threat on the table. Does your opponent have the cards to fight both your combo and your creatures? Worst case, a good creature threat will buy you time to find what you're looking for.

However, it can also still serve the purpose of killing opponents who don't have the right sideboard cards. If your opponent brought in removal like Bile Blight that only kills small creatures because he or she fears the combo, Knuckleblade and Polukranos can run all over that.

Doing a half-transform can be more feasible than a full transform because of the smaller number of sideboard slots it takes up. However, it only works in specific decks, such as this one, which can leave its combo intact if you just sideboard out a few cards. It is a good option to keep in mind, even if you won't use it too often.

Transforming into Jeskai

That about covers transformational sideboarding. It's another tool in your deck-builder's tool belt—use it sparingly, and when you use it well, crush people with it.

In two weeks, it'll be time to look at a Jeskai deck for Jeskai Week! Let's see what ideas you might have to send in:

Format: Standard
Restrictions: Your deck should be exactly blue, red, and white
Deadline: October 27, at 6 p.m. Pacific Time
Submit all decklists by emailing me at .

Decklists should be submitted with YOURNAME's DECKNAME at the top. Underneath should be one card per line, with just a leading number. For example:

12 Mountain
4 Firedrinker Satyr
3 Ash Zealot
4 Lightning Bolt

...and so on. Please don't use anything but a space to separate the card numbers and names—don't write "4x Lightning Bolt," for example. Well-formatted decklists have a much better chance of being read and making it into the column. Poorly formatted decklists are more likely to be ignored. (If I can't read your decklist, I certainly can't talk about it!)

Also, take note that, for this week, please send your decks to There is currently a bug that is causing difficulty with me seeing your decklists sent to my Wizards address.

Hopefully you found this week's look at transformational sideboards useful and something you can take and use on your own! If you have any questions or comments at all, I'd love to hear them—feel free to send me a tweet, or ask me a question on Tumblr. My inbox is always open.

I'll be back next week with a Commander (2014 Edition) preview! I'm excited to show you all something brand new for Commander—talk with you then!

Gavin Verhey

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