The Most Important Part

Posted in Event Coverage on February 22, 2015

By Marc Calderaro

Modern does not lend itself to 60 cards. Players need to use their full 75 to even come close to an optimal strategy, and some players have talked about wanting even more. When asked about the role sideboards play, the first response was, “they’re kinda gross.” As Grand Prix Orlando winner Eugene Hwang started, “It’s hard to stress just how important your sideboard is in Modern.” He continued that he was afraid of sounding trite about the idea, but the gains after sideboarding can be so drastic. “It can completely reverse a match-up.”

Eugene Hwang, as Robbie Schmidt mugs from behind

But those fifteen cards are often the hardest part to build. Modern holds tons of “whammy” cards that can just win the game on the spot when they resolve. Cards like Stony Silence, Blood Moon, Rule of Law, Leyline of Sanctity, Fracturing Gust just straight-up end games. But there is never enough room for all the cards you want, and never in the amounts you need. Almost thirty distinct archetypes made it to the second day here in Vancouver—you can’t “whammy” them all. So what do you do?

Some players advocate more diverse, less powerful cards. If you can bring in a card for five different match-ups, rather than just one, it could be better. Former Canadian National Champion Dan Lanthier has just a couple more Negate in the sideboard of his Splinter Twin deck than Dispel for this exact reason. “Negate comes in against Jeskai Ascendancy and Scapeshift, for example,” he said. Even though those decks are fairly fringe, with more diverse sideboards, you don’t have to throw your hands up and say, “Welp, I hope I don’t play against that deck!”

But diversity comes at a steep cost. As Pro Tour Gatecrash Winner Tom Martell said, “The diverse cards are all bad.” Though a tad hyperbolic, he illuminated his point well. He said that when it comes to sideboard cards, you can rate them in a match up as either 10s, 7s, or 4s. Because of the power of linear strategies, when you’re a dog in the first game, you can’t afford to sideboard in 7s.

“Zealous Persecution is probably the best ‘7’ in the format. But if the match-up is bad, you can’t just expect to sideboard in three of them and win all of a sudden.” Because right now Zealous Persecution is never a 10, Martell says they’re not worth it. To the same degree, a card like Stony Silence is a 10 against Affinity, but is basically unranked outside of that. Martell says you’re looking for the 10/7s. “A card like Blood Moon is a ‘10’ against Infect; it wins on the spot. And it’s a ‘7’ in a lot of other match-ups.”

“You want a bunch of 10/7s, not 7/4s.” This is why he said that Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Brian Kibler should play Fracturing Gust in his sideboard over Creeping Corrosion against Affinity. “You can afford the extra mana, and it comes in against other decks too”—Hexproof being the big one.

Brian Kibler and Tom Martell

This is all well and good, but as Brian Kibler pointed out, you can’t always find the 10/7s, and sometimes you just need the 10s. Kibler is on Wilt-Leaf Abzan, one of the format’s “fair” decks. And when you’re playing fair, to beat the unfair decks, sometimes you have to get down in the mud yourself.

“In certain match-ups, you need the whammies,” Kibler said. About his match-up against Affinity, he said, “two- and three-cost ground guys do nothing,” so he needs Stony Silence in some numbers to take the game. Though it’s not really applicable anywhere else, he doesn’t have much of a choice. Knowing where you need the unfair cards, and knowing where you can fudge is key. Sometimes you should put the one-of killers in there, then load up with some other, more diverse spells.

(My personal favorite one-of is Daniel Ward’s Fog out of his Hexproof deck. Buying him the one turn he needs against Affinity, Burn, Splinter Twin, whatever, can be just enough to sneak in with his Slippery Bogle and company. He’s also playing one Choke—kinda gross.)

The other strategy is the one Eugene Hwang believes in. It goes a little deeper. He puts some ‘10/7’ cards in his maindeck. He’s sleeving up both Vedalken Shackles and Blood Moon in the starting sixty of his Splinter Twin deck. He said, “To win a tournament like this, you’re going to need to spike, right? So you have to trust your read on the metagame, and try and give yourself the best possible chance.”

The Grand Prix worked out basically the way he planned. “I expected a lot of Twin and about the same Abzan; no one would play Amulet, because they picked it up and decided was too hard, and there wouldn’t be as many Burn players.” Because Shackles steals both Splinter Twin targets and Siege Rhino and Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Hwang gave it the maindeck nod. “I can even activate the Tasigur.” He smiled.

There are tons of ways to attack the metagame via the sideboard, and they all have some merit. You want some whammies because they are better than the diverse cards, but you want your whammies to be diverse. Get it? Or, as Paul Cheon interjected, “You can just play Splinter Twin.”

The answer, as usual, comes with preparation. If you know what match-ups your decks needs to shore up, and you know what metagame to expect, you can diversify your sideboard around the big necessary whammies. This is what will give you the best chance at the most important part of Modern.

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