Contextualizing the Sideboard
Today we are talking about the sideboard. We aren’t going to rehash specific matchup analysis which is covered extensively elsewhere on this site: Bryant’s sideboard guide and AJ’s matchup analysis. Instead we are going to take a high level look at how and why the value of specific cards in our deck changes based on how our opponent is trying to interact with us.
Before we get started however I want to go over a few high level rules for sideboarding with TES and combo decks in general:
- Have a sideboard plan and use it: At every level of magic you are allowed to refer to notes between games. If you are playing at a high level event, there is no reason to not have a well thought out sideboard plan and to refer to it mid round (not mid game). Even if you decide to deviate from your plan, it can be an important reminder of interactions that, in the heat of the moment, might slip your mind. If you are having trouble with sideboarding, this is the easiest way to up your game. Hopefully the rest of this article will provide more context on how and why we sideboard in specific situations.
- Don’t over sideboard: The Epic Storm is one of the fastest and most consistent decks in the Legacy format. The onus is on our opponents to craft a gameplan that beats us. Over side boarding can dilute the combo engine and decrease the efficacy of the deck. What is even more powerful about TES compared to other combo decks is that we play Burning Wish. This allows us access to specific pieces of interaction without needing to bring them into the main deck.
I like to think about a TES deck as being comprised of four macro components (plus the mana base):
- Fast Mana: Dark Ritual, Rite of Flame, Lion's Eye Diamond, Lotus Petal and Chrome Mox make up the fast mana package. These cards give the deck velocity and allow us to combo out quickly while building storm. We typically need a critical mass of fast mana in order to execute our combo.
- Combo Enablers & Engines: We usually need only a single enabler or engine, which we can build a game plan around. Conversely, without an enabler/engine we cannot win. Enablers are Burning Wish and Infernal Tutor which allow us to search up the combo engines, Ad Nauseam, and Past in Flames (in some builds). I lump our win conditions Tendrils of Agony and Empty the Warrens into this category as well.
- Interaction: Interaction is any card that allows us to interact with our opponents’ game plan, either protecting our own combo or slowing their deck down. Main deck we run Duress and Cabal Therapy as interactive pieces, and out of the sideboard (or with Burning Wish) we often have additional interaction in the form of artifact removal, creature kill spells, and additional discard spells.
- Consistency Enablers: Brainstorm, Ponder and Gitaxian Probe provide consistency to the deck. They allow us to sculpt a game plan and dig for the combo pieces or disruption that we need.
Our opponents will try and disrupt us on both a macro level as well as through specific and varied card interactions. Most decks will attack us on one or two axis which can be categorized:
- Targeted Hate & Specific Interactions
A Note on Ponder
Countermagic is the most common form of interaction we face. Almost every blue deck will have Force of Will and many decks will either main deck or sideboard Stifle, Spell Pierce, Flusterstorm and Counterspell. From a gameplay perspective we have various tools for interacting with countermagic such as being patient, baiting counterspells and comboing off when our opponent is mana constrained. Individual cards gain and lose equity against a counter magic focused strategy:
Cards that decrease in value
- Chrome Mox: is worse against heavy counterspell decks for two reasons. First, it is card disadvantage. We need to be careful with our resource allocation against decks looking to disrupt our combo and often don’t have the luxury of using two spells to generate one mana. Second, heavy counter magic archetypes can promote grindy game play. This means that we will be making our land drops and have less of a need for Chrome Mox to accelerate our combo turn.
Cards that increase in value
- Discard Spells: Interacting directly with our opponent’s hand is the best way to both clear a path for our combo, as well as check that the coast is clear.
- Combo Enablers & Engines: In some matchups we can overwhelm our opponent’s countermagic through sheer volume of win conditions. Against delver decks for instance slower storm decks will often sideboard into additional copies of Tendrils of Agony and Empty the Warrens. The Epic Storm already has access to additional win conditions through running eight tutors. Burning Wish and Infernal Tutor can also often double as additional discard spells. Past in Flames can also be very strong against counter magic focused decks, however it goes down in value post sideboard due to the potential for graveyard interaction.
- Permanent Based Disruption: Defense Grid & Xantid Swarm are hallmark anti Counterspell cards. An early Defense Grid can single handedly constrain our opponent’s mana allowing us to combo off through a hand full of Flusterstorm and Spell Pierce. Be careful however as these interactive pieces are at their worst against discard based disruption, which is sometimes run in tandem with counter magic.
Most black decks will run some amount of hand disruption which will often be paired with another macro strategy. Proactive combo decks such as Reanimator, Storm and Elves will have one for one hand disruption coupled with a fast clock. Black midrange decks will often either pair high impact hand disruption, such as Hymn to Tourach with heavy hitting creatures, and blue decks, such as Grixis Delver, will pair targeted hand disruption with countermagic.
Cards that Decrease in Value
- Chrome Mox: Card disadvantage from spells like Chrome Mox can be especially punishing against heavy discard suites. That said, most decks attack us on multiple axis, and Chrome Mox can shine against many decks that combine discard with a fast permanent based disruption (Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Chalice of the Void, etc), or combo matchups where the speed of Chrome Mox shines.
- Discard Spells: Our opponent’s discard spells will often be played off the top of their deck, meaning that we will have a harder time interacting with them with Duress and Cabal Therapy. We also want a higher concentration of proactive cards that can capitalize on the lack of instant speed disruption that discard focused decks can have. Against other combo decks the importance of disrupting our opponent’s gameplan outweighs the drawbacks of our discard suite.
Cards that Increase in Value
- Other Interaction: Discard focused archetypes will often interact with our deck on a secondary axis, either with a fast combo or a piece of permanent based interaction. We may want spells like Echoing Truth or Surgical Extraction to counteract the opponent’s gameplan.
- Brainstorm & Ponder: The ability to rebuild our hand and hide key combo pieces is an important avenue to fight through discard based strategies.
Chalice of the Void, Thorn of Amethyst, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Ethersworn Canonist, Eidolon of the Great Revel, Gaddock Teeg, and Leyline of Sanctity can be frustrating lock pieces to fight through. How we choose to interact with permanent based disruption will often depend on the turn in we expect the hate piece to be played, and how oppressive it is. We have a few strategies for interacting with permanent based hate:
- Go under them: Especially on the play, we can sculpt a sideboard plan that is focused on comboing off before hate pieces hit the battlefield. In this instance our fast mana such as Chrome Mox increase in value, as do some discard spells such as Cabal Therapy. Decreasing in value are slower components such as Ponder, which can also suffer against cards like Chalice of the Void, and Leovold, Emissary of Trest. Depending on our interactive suit and wishboard, we may or may not pair this strategy with cards that interact with resolved permanents.
- Remove them: Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is a whole lot less threatening in the graveyard. Especially in situations where we cannot reliably combo underneath hate pieces (such as Ancient Tomb + Chalice of the Void decks), or where we have other weak cards (i.e. Duress versus Death and Taxes), we will bring in targeted interaction to remove our opponent’s hate pieces. Our prefered interaction will depend on what we expect to face as well as the sorcery speed interaction out of our sideboard.
- Win through them: Some pieces of interaction such as Leyline of the Void and Null Rod we can win through. While it is possible we will use incidental interaction, it generally isn’t worth diluting our combo engine in order to deal with cards we can beat naturally.
Opposing combo decks will try and beat us before we can beat them. They will usually pair their proactive game plan with another form of interaction, such as countermagic (Sneak & Show), permanent based disruption (Mono Red Sneak Attack), and discard (Storm, Elves). It is important that we both maintain our deck’s velocity while interacting with their gameplan.
Cards that Decrease in Value
- Empty the Warrens: While enabling an early combo, Empty the Warrens is a somewhat slow win. This is usually our first cut against fast opposing combo decks.
Cards that Increase in Value
- Chrome Mox: Usually at its worst in discard heavy games, but shines when we need to maximize our chances of comboing off early and consistently. Most high level TES players leave Chrome Mox in against the Storm mirror and Elves, while most high level ANT players do not bring sideboard copies of Chrome Mox in against these same match ups. It is possible that power of Cabal Ritual and a lower reliance on accessing both red and black mana in the combo turn make Chrome Mox enough worse in ANT that it isn’t worth a slot, while it is still good enough in TES. I haven’t tested the TES versus Elves and Storm matches enough to know how valuable Chrome Mox is, so would recommend deferring to Bryant’s sideboard guide until you can test it out for yourself.
- Targeted Interaction: Our targeted interaction will be at a premium in matchups that can kill us as quickly as we can kill them. Duress, Cabal Therapy, Chain of Vapor, Surgical Extraction and Telemin Performance can all be important tools in disrupting the opponent’s game plan. Occasionally we bring in interaction to combat their interaction (Defense Grid against Show & Tell).
Versus Targeted Hate
There is no substitute for format knowledge, and often we need to sculpt a gameplan to beat specific interactions. For instance, need to avoid Empty the Warrens against lands or other decks that can crop rotate for Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale. Similarly we need to be wary of over reliance on our graveyard against a likely Surgical Extraction.
More than most decks, Storm rewards planning ahead and understanding the contours of a given matchup. We need to have a plan, but also to understand how why that plan works and in what context we should adjust it. I hope the tools here will help you sideboard more thoughtfully and in doing so, absolutely wreck your less prepared opponents.