Zero to Sixty:
Zero to Fifteen

Posted in Reconstructed on November 20, 2012

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.

Since this column began, I have had more requests for one particular topic than any other. Week in and week out I'm asked the same questions: How do I build a sideboard? How do I sideboard?

While many players don't even really think about their sideboard, leaving it as the last piece of the deck they want to build, it is actually just as important as your main deck. Consider this: You will end up playing more games in a tournament post-sideboard than you will play games pre-sideboard. (Well, unless you win every single game you play... in which case you'll merely end up playing the same number of pre- and post-sideboard games.) The best decks often have some of the best sideboards.

Detention Sphere | Art by Kev Walker

At the highest levels of play, people tend to think of a sideboard not as a fifteen-card extra package, but as an organic extension of the main deck. Pro Tour players think of their decks as seventy-five cards, not just sixty, ensuring that the entire deck and sideboard together work in unison.

Today, we're going to take a look at some of the keys to sideboarding. If you're never sure how to build or use this important fifteen-card tool, then this is the week for you.

Let's get started!

Building a Sideboard

A lot of players who don't have a lot of experience build a sideboard by looking at what decks exist in the format and then going down the list, filling the sideboard with cards that are good against those decks. It becomes almost like a checklist to try and fill out: "Four cards for combo? Check. Four cards for control? Check. Four cards for beatdown? Check. Three spots for utility cards like Naturalize or Pithing Needle? Check."

That is the most dangerous way to build a sideboard.

Why? Well, there are two primary problems with that line of thinking. One, it leads to over-/under-sideboarding (I'll get into this more in a moment). But secondly, it puts emphasis on individual cards making a difference rather than having an overall plan.

Having a Plan

One well-kept secret is that not every matchup is about specific cards. You want to be thinking in terms of plans, not cards.

I'm going to give you two different trains of thought here to illustrate the difference. One train of thought thinks like this:

"Circle of Protection: Red is good against Burn, so I'm going to put it in my sideboard."

This line of thinking is more of an "individual cards" approach. Now, compare the sound of that concept to this one:

"Against Burn, my post-sideboard strategy is going to be to stick and protect a Circle of Protection: Red. My other cards will buy time until I can find a Circle of Protection, and once I've found one I will keep mana up for it every turn and sit back on it. Disenchant will fight off any Pithing Needles or anti-prevention enchantments the opponent has for the Circle."

Pithing Needle

The difference between the two is that the second option details how you are going to actually use the card, informing decisions behind how you should sideboard—and also whether it's a good option to sideboard that card at all. Simply using a card because it's a "good card" can lead to all sorts of pitfalls.

Imagine the same situation, only the deck you're playing is some sort of highly aggressive, low-curve white beatdown deck. If you only follow the "individual cards" heuristic, then Circle is a done deal: it's the generally accepted "best card" against burn, and so you want a card to fight off burn. Therefore, Circle is what you turn to...

...Only, the problem is, Circle isn't optimal in a beatdown deck at all! It's not proactive, your mana curve is so low that it is hard to maximize its usage, and it risks giving the burn player time to overload you with burn spells. This is the kind of thing you would only see if you looked at the big picture of how a card played in a matchup.

Sometimes, it becomes even more intricate than that. Let's say you're playing a White-Blue Flash mirror match in current Standard. Your decklists both look something like this:

Shane Remelt's White-Blue Flash

Download Arena Decklist

What are some cards that come to mind for the mirror match to you? What are you looking for?

If you were using a simple "individual cards" mindset, a card you would be unlikely to come up with is Sphinx's Revelation. Under the individual-card heuristic, that doesn't make a lot of sense here. It's not particularly "good" against the individual cards of the mirror.

Sphinx's Revelation

However, look at the overall plan. You are going to trade off a lot of similar resources in the early game, and the person who can find more gas in the long game is going to be at a tremendous advantage. Sphinx's Revelation does exactly that, putting you over the top of your opponent in the long game. If you sideboard into two more Sphinx's Revelations, the long game tremendously favors you. At that point, you only need to play in such a fashion that the game will go long—depleting your opponent's resources and trading off when possible—and you will be able to win.

If you just sideboarded by looking at which individual cards are traditionally good against your opponent's strategy, you are missing an entire range of sideboard options—and ones that are often superior.

Identifying Problematic Matchups

Another problem with the individual card method is that it doesn't take your deck's relative strengths into account at all! You simply don't need to sideboard in as many cards in a matchup that already favors you, where in matchups where you are unfavored you're looking to bring in cards to help you.

How do you determine this? Playtesting! You have probably heard this maxim before, but playtesting is a key to success. Once you can identify how all of your matchups are, you will know what strategies are good against them and what the key tipping points are. This helps make sure you have a firm battle plan against them—and it also shows which matchups you really need the help in.

Of course, it is important to keep one other thing in mind: your opponent will be sideboarding too! As simple as it sounds, a lot of people forget this. If a matchup is in your favor, you often still need to dedicate some sideboard resources to it simply because the opponent will be bringing in cards to help him or her. While you don't need to dedicate as many resources as a bad matchup, it is important you have some tools to optimize your deck further in good matchups as well.


One of the largest mistakes I consistently see made with sideboards is over-sideboarding.

What is over-sideboarding? Let me give you an example.

Let's say you want to be sure your red-white-blue deck defeats Jund. You hate Jund, and that little Jund punk isn't going to get the best of you this time. So, you decide to stock up your sideboard with a whopping ten sideboard cards for that deck. "Good luck beating this well-stocked sideboard, you Jund jerk!"

So then Game 1 finishes. You reach for your sideboard. Confidently, you move your ten hate cards to your main deck... and then promptly scramble to try and figure out what to cut. After racing to make a decision, cards like Mizzium Mortars and Restoration Angel end up on the cutting-room floor because you only had six cards that were actually weak in the matchup and you felt comfortable in taking out.

Mizzium Mortars
Restoration Angel

See the problem here? This player ended up cutting cards that were actually good in the matchup for cards that were only slightly better. When you're sideboarding a card primarily to serve as an upgrade instead of a major switch, the value of that sideboard slot is not being used optimally. There are always other matchups where you could really use another card or two, and so those slots should be spent focusing on those—not overkilling on one deck.

Fighting the Opponent's Sideboard

The last point I'd like to cover is making sure you can fight your opponent's sideboard cards. As previously mentioned, your opponent is going to be bringing in cards, too. It's all fine and good if you cackle as you bring in six counterspells to fight a Scapeshift/Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle combo deck... unless your opponent also brought in three copies of Boseiju, Who Shelters All!!

Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
Boseiju, Who Shelters All

Players are always looking for ways to get an edge in particular matchups, and sideboarding is usually a gigantic battleground for these edges. You have to stay on top of what people are doing—and make sure you can fight it.

In the above example, perhaps that means you start bringing in Annex as well to fight against Boseiju, or you could use something like Venser, Shaper Savant or Mindbreak Trap to try and fight Boseiju-protected Scapeshifts instead.

Venser, Shaper Savant
Mindbreak Trap

Niche sideboard cards can go a long way if you know what your opponent's plan is going to be ahead of time. If some crazy deck plans to sideboard in four Blightsteel Colossus to beat you in the control mirror, you could even use something like Splinter to fight them off. There are usually good options—provided you have enough advance notice to prepare your sideboard.

Rest in Peace | Art by Terese Nielsen

It's a game of sideboards—and Splinter is coming.

Okay, so we've looked at some keys to building a sideboard. Now, how do you actually sideboard with one of these things? How do you know what to take in and out?

It's a tricky thing to explain, because every deck in every format is different and has access to different sideboard cards, making it very difficult to draw hard-and-fast plans. It's not impossible, just a bit unlikely. However, fear not! I have a cheat sheet for you to use. It isn't going to be perfect in every situation, but it will get you 90% of the way there when you need to figure out how to sideboard. Proper playtesting should get you to the last 10%.

I give you: the universal sideboarding guide for beatdown and control decks! Most decks will fall into one of these two categories. (If you're wondering about midrange—most midrange decks tend to fit on the beatdown spectrum of sideboarding as far as advice goes.) Print it out, stick it on your fridge, and use it whenever you have questions about how to sideboard.

Sideboarding in Beatdown Decks

Beatdown decks are quick and will often be able win provided opponents don't disrupt them with removal or larger creatures. Therefore, the goal of their sideboard cards are most often to disrupt the opponents themselves (eliminating their removal or larger creatures) or to sideboard in creatures that can avoid opponents' removal and/or get around larger creatures.

Beatdown Mirror Match

In a beatdown mirror, the key is have the last—or the best—threat standing. To do this, you want to use removal to disrupt your opponent's creatures and then more expensive, powerful permanents that can win the game single-handedly. It's going to be an attrition war, so any source of card advantage—such as Planeswalkers—in a beatdown mirror is often sought after.

Examples of cards you might want to bring in are Doom Blade; Hero of Bladehold; and Elspeth, Knight-Errant.

Hero of Bladehold
Elspeth, Knight-Errant

Cards you want to take out are often smaller creatures that are quickly outclassed and situational cards or disruption not meant for fighting another beatdown deck.

For example, Loam Lion might be nice for one-drop redundancy against control or combo, but in a Zoo mirror, a one-mana 2/3 is quickly outclassed by every other creature cast. Non-removal disruption that isn't good in the matchup because it doesn't provide card advantage or parity, such as Unsummon, can also usually be taken out.

Loam Lion

All of these same principles are also true for when playing against midrange decks.

Against Control

Against control, the key is to kill your opponent before her or she can stabilize. Your opponent is going to be using removal spells and potentially lifegain to get in your way, so if you can land some early threats and then disrupt his or her answers you should be in good shape.

Cards you want to bring in here are anything that dodges removal or fights your opponent's removal/game plan. Additionally, Planeswalkers are very hard for control decks to deal with since they have to spend so much time reacting to you. Examples are Mana Leak; Thoughtseize; Thrun, the Last Troll; and Elspeth, Knight-Errant.

Mana Leak

Cards you want to take out are pinpoint removal spells usually meant for creature-based decks. While you may want to keep a couple removal spells in to help fight off blockers, generally cards like Path to Exile and Doom Blade can be removed.

Sideboarding in Control decks

Control decks plan to play a long game, aiming to survive the initial onslaught and take control by using removal spells and card drawing, and then winning with some sort of big finisher. They most often lose when they are overrun, when they get out-card-advantaged, or when the opponent resolves some sort of trump spell. Their sideboards often reflect these holes and contain tools to plug them against different decks.

Against Beatdown

When fighting against beatdown decks, your goal is to remove or nullify all of their creatures while slowly building up to some sort of single spell or threat that should win you the game. You will want answers to any kind of trump card the beatdown deck might try to play. Incidental life gain can also be helpful, buying you more time to reach your huge threat.

Examples of cards you might want to bring in are Doom Blade, Supreme Verdict, Wurmcoil Engine, and Kitchen Finks. If your opponent has a specific trump card you will need to fight, then playing some cheap countermagic can also be appropriate.

Supreme Verdict
Wurmcoil Engine

Cards you want to take out are often excess beatdown win conditions and anything based on fighting the card-advantage wars you will get into with control decks. I would also generally remove some cards that are expensive to cast and don't affect the board or your life total, since the key is all in surviving the early game. (Although it is important you have enough draw effects that you can find one to cement your position and reclaim resources after you've established control.) I would also remove disruptive spells that don't help against the key cards in your opponent's deck.

For example, I would consider removing cards like Opportunity, Duress, and win conditions (until you're down to about four or five in your deck).

Control Mirror Match

The control mirror is all about card advantage, not having your major threats removed, and hitting your land drops. Disruption, via either discard or countermagic, is crucial here, since it allows you to manipulate your opponent's strategy. A permanent threat—either a creature or a Planeswalker—that your opponent is going to have a hard time fighting can also be worth bringing in.

Example cards you might want to bring in are Sphinx's Revelation; Rakdos's Return; Thoughtseize; Counterspell; Jace Beleren; Elspeth, Knight-Errant; extra lands (especially nonbasics with useful abilities); and Morphling.

Rakdos's Return
Jace Beleren

The cards you want to take out are your removal spells. Usually, control is not defined by many creatures, and if you leave in a few removal spells (especially board sweepers) you should be in good shape against most creature shenanigans.

Examples would be cards like Doom Blade or Azorius Charm. It's worth noting that this is not true of cards that fight permanents, like Detention Sphere, since game-changing noncreature permanents like Jace Beleren or Future Sight can often define who wins a control matchup.

Of Boards and Budgets

Sideboarding can be tricky, but hopefully this helps unveil some of the mystery behind it. If you have any specific questions, I'd be happy to answer them—just send me a tweet with your question!

In the meantime, let's move from the art of 'boarding to the art of budgeting. Another ReConstructing on a Budget article has been a popular request—and the good news is it's just about time for another one!

Format: Standard (Innistrad, Dark Ascension, Avacyn Restored, Return to Ravnica, and Magic 2013)
Restrictions: Your deck is on a budget. For a loose definition, consider budget to contain few rares and very few, if any, mythic rares.
Deadline: Monday, November 26, at 6 p.m. Pacific Time

Send all decklists via email by clicking the "Respond via Email" link at the bottom of this article

What Ravnican budget decks have you been playing? What would you like to be able to play? Send me your decklist and we'll see what happens next!

In the meantime, if you have any questions, sideboarding or otherwise, feel free to send me a tweet or post in the forums. Let me know if this was helpful—and if there are any specific aspects to sideboarding you'd like to see covered in the future.

Next week, I'll be back with some Golgari goodness for Golgari week. I'll talk to you then!



Latest Reconstructed Articles


January 4, 2016

Kozilek's Return by, Gavin Verhey

Kozilek had quite an explosive reappearance. Everything on Zendikar was starting to go all right. And then, in one earth-rumbling swoop, the beast below awoke: Kozilek surged up and reap...

Learn More


December 28, 2015

Jumping for Jori by, Gavin Verhey

Welcome to Oath of the Gatewatch previews! This set has a lot of awesome elements going for it. Support. Surge. And—oh yeah—that colorless mana symbol, just to name a few. I was on the d...

Learn More



Reconstructed Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All