Sideboard Plans for Dark Jeskai and Abzan with Oliver Polak-Rottmann and Kenji Tsumura

Posted in GRAND PRIX BRUSSELS 2015 on November 15, 2015

By Frank Karsten

Sideboarding is an important skill in Standard, and the decision on which cards to bring in and which ones to take out in a certain matchup can be pivotal. Surprisingly, however, not much has been written on sideboarding strategies with the two most popular decks in Standard: Dark Jeskai and Abzan.

Fortunately, there are plenty of great players in attendance here in Brussels who can provide some advice. I sought out two sheer masters with these decks, each of whom wrote an article on one of these decks for their local shop's website recently: Oliver Polak-Rottmann on Dark Jeskai, and Kenji Tsumura on Abzan.

Oliver Polak-Rottmann's Dark Jeskai – Grand Prix Brussels 2015

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Oliver Polak-Rottmann made the Top 8 of Grand Prix Quebec City a few weeks ago with Dark Jeskai, so he certainly had a good grasp on the deck. "I have played the deck a lot," he told me. " Mana sequencing and playing fast is important, but sideboarding is important as well. I think how I do it is the right way."

Oliver Polak-Rottmann

Sideboarding in the Mirror Match

"Boarding in the mirror is really tough," Polak-Rotmann said. "First you have to guess what your opponent is trying to do. Some opponents board out all the creatures and try to kill you with Mastery of the Unseen, but most keep many of their creatures. So I have a stock sideboard plan against the creature plan for game two, but I will adjust for game three depending on what I see."

It's always interesting to see which cards players choose to board out, so I asked Polak-Rottmann why he would cut Soulfire Grand Master, Ojutai's Command, and Fiery Impulse in the mirror. "Soulfire Grand Master dies to every removal, and you don't want cards that get out-valued by Kolaghan's Command. The same applies to Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, but I still keep Jace because the impact it has on the game is much higher than Soulfire Grand Master if it lives. I dislike Ojutai's Command because everyone has Duress and Negate and everyone plays around it. You never want the full set of Fiery Impulse because they don't deal with Tasigur. Sure, they efficiently answer Jace and maybe Mantis Rider later on, but that's not good enough, especially when some players board out Mantis Rider."

I asked Polak-Rottmann about his choice to keep most fliers in his deck. "Mantis Rider doesn't provide card advantage, but it's still good on turn three. And Dragonlord Silumgar sometimes dies to Crackling Doom, but often you can steal their Jace, Telepath Unbound, immediately use it, and still get value."

Polak-Rottmann had a different plan depending on whether he was on the play or on the draw. "You can board out all the Fiery Impulses on the play because you have the three-mana removal spells to answer Jace in time when you're playing first."

So what would he change if he saw hardly any creatures and Mastery of the Unseen? "If I see the super control plan, then I would add Disdainful Stroke and Felidar Cub and shave Exert Influence."

Sideboarding Against Abzan

Against a stock list of Abzan, Polak-Rottmann had the same plans on the play and on the draw.

"Exert Influence out of the board is super great, and Dragonmaster Outcast is a good threat. The creature you fear the most is Wingmate Roc, so I want to add Disdainful Stroke. Fiery Impulse doesn't kill a lot against them, so you should cut it."

Seeing which cards go in and out is always interesting, but how about seemingly weak cards that remain in the deck? "Soulfire Grand Master may seem bad, but they don't have a lot of answers to them, they give you life even if you cut Fiery Impulses, and once you activate it it provides a huge benefit."

Sideboarding Against Red Aggro

"The final card I bring in depends on their version. Against Atarka Red with Dragon Fodder, I add Virulent Plague. Against R/G Landfall, which always has Outpost Siege in the sideboard, I add Felidar Cub instead.

"I shaved so many red hate cards from my initial sideboard that the matchup is not super great anymore, but I have the feeling that it's still good. I was actually cutting Jace, Vryn's Prodigy to make room for Arashin Cleric and Surge of Righteousness, but now I don't even have those cards in my sideboard anymore."

Sideboarding Against G/W Megamorph

"They try to win by flooding the board with Wingmate Roc, Den Protector, and Mastery of the Unseen. My sideboard strategy is designed with that in mind. Crackling Doom and Kolaghan's Command both are sometimes bad, but I still want to have access to at least two copies during long games so that I can reliably find one with all my card selection."

Sideboarding Against Eldrazi Ramp

"I can't see me winning a game without a turn-three Mantis Rider in this matchup. It may be surprising to keep all Kolaghan's Commands in the deck, but it can hit Hedron Archive, and discard is a real thing."

Sideboarding Against Esper Control

"I am a little weaker to Jace, Vryn's Prodigy after sideboarding, but I still have three Kologhan's' Commands and two Crackling Dooms to answer it."

Sideboarding Versus Esper Tokens

"In this matchup the sideboarding is relatively straightforward."

Kenji Tsumura's Abzan – Grand Prix Brussels 2015

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It was quite a surprise to see Hall of Famer Kenji Tsumura show up for this European Grand Prix, but he had good reasons. "I went 38-3 with Abzan on Magic Online, so I booked a flight to see if I could also win that much at an in-person tournament. It's also good practice for me for Grand Prix Kobe next weekend."

Tsumura's list was similar to the Pro Tour winning one from Kazuyiku Takimura except for the inclusion of Heir of the Wilds over Hangarback Walker, a choice that was also made by Andrea Mengucci and several other players here in Brussels. The deathtouch creature is great in the mirror when you're on the draw because it trades for Anafenza, the Foremost or Siege Rhino at an efficient mana point. Moreover, neither Dromoka's Command nor Abzan Charm can take it out in a one-for-one trade. "You need Heir of the Wilds to win the mirror when you lose the die roll," Tsumura told me.

Kenji Tsumura

Sideboarding in the Mirror Match

"Sideboarding is difficult with Abzan, and the plan can differ greatly depending on whether you are on the play or on the draw," Tsumura said. This could easily be seen in his plans for the mirror match.

"On the play, it is best to play aggressive. Dromoka's Command and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar are important for that. On the draw, you are often behind. So Gideon isn't as good, and the only good ways to deal with an opponent's Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or Wingmate Roc are discard spells."

I never got around to asking Tsumura about his sideboard plans against G/W Megamorph, but because Abzan and G/W Megamorph share many cards, I would imagine that the plan against the Deathmist Raptor deck is similar.

Sideboarding Against Jeskai

The plan against Jeskai differed depending on whether one was on the play and on the draw. Of course, it also depended on the opponent's specific version, but the plans below were written with a stock version of Dark Jeskai in mind.

"Heir of the Wilds is bad against Wild Slash; it's certainly worse than Hangarback Walker in this matchup," Tsumura said. "Dromoka's Command is not great, but it is not so bad on the play, and I would consider maybe leaving two or three. But what can you cut instead? It's very hard to sideboard with this deck."

Sideboarding Against Red Aggro

"In this matchup, it is always the objective to dampen their offensive, but you need to have an instant-speed removal so that you can answer their combo. So maybe I would keep one or two Abzan Charms after all; perhaps cut a Den Protector on the draw or a Silkwrap on the play."

Sideboarding Against Eldrazi Ramp

"You need the discard spells to disrupt their strategy."

Sideboarding Against Esper Control

"I board out all the removal to Jace. I focus on discard spells and attacking them with creatures."

Sideboarding Against Esper Tokens

"You need the discard spells to answer Secure the Wastes, because that card together with an emblem from Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is tough to beat otherwise."

Many thanks to Oliver and Kenji for taking the time to share their insights with us!