How to Find the Perfect Sideboard Card

This article was originally published on in March 2018

I got to play Round 2 of the Team Modern Super League last week with Lee Shi Tian and Andrejs Prost on Magic Online, and the match was broadcast on If you’re not familiar with the rules, here’s a quick reminder: each team submits six Modern decks. The opposing team bans one of them, and then each team chooses one player and one deck for round one. They battle and winner keeps going with the same deck, while the losing team chooses one of the decks they have left and one player to take over. That goes on until one team reaches four wins.

We were paired against Team Madison: Matt Severa, Caleb Dunward and Sam Black. Knowing their play style, we were quite certain that they would line up Lantern Control and that Sam would be piloting it. Knowing that, we needed to have decks that had a good chance to beat it, or at least not be all underdogs so we had the option to ban another deck.

I have a lot of experience with Dredge, and I only lost once against Lantern in a sanctioned tournament. From what I heard from Lantern players, the matchup is great for them. It is true that since Dredge has no way to interact with Ensnaring Bridge in game one, even if it boards in four Ancient Grudge, Lantern has ways to dodge them with Grafdigger’s Cage, Welding Jar and Academy Ruins.

For some reason, I had a feeling the match would come down to that particular matchup, so I decided to look for ways to make this matchup really favorable for Dredge after sideboard. I had to think of a way to play around all of Lantern’s control cards, and I looked through a lot of cards to find the solution.

Leechridden Swamp was a possibility. It’s easily fetchable (it’s a Swamp, I just needed to tweak the mana base a little). I can retrieve it from the graveyard with Life from the Loam if it gets milled, and it doesn’t target if they have Leyline of Sanctity or Witchbane Orb. However, it was extremely slow and if they had a head start with an early Bridge, it was unlikely I would have the time to deal 15 to 20 damage (Inventors’ Fair was also a problem). Also, if it fell to Surgical Extraction, I was left with nothing – and Pithing Needle would just stop it at any time.

Pithing Needle was an answer to most of the solutions I found. It would stop Mikokoro, Center of the Sea to make their hand bigger so I had a window to attack (and since they had our decklist, they would play around it). Since the game was going to go long, I even thought of World Breaker, along with Karplusan Forest, to give me a way to destroy the Bridge.

The real solution came after a lot of research, and I kicked myself for not having found it earlier. I had to answer the following puzzle:

  • I need a card that I can retrieve from my graveyard (since it’s going to get milled one way or another)
  • I need it to not be cast (or come into play if it’s a creature) from the graveyard to dodge Grafdigger’s Cage.
  • I need its main ability to not be an activated ability that could be hit with Pithing Needle.
  • I need it to not target my opponent so it can’t be stoped by Leyline of Sanctity or Witchbane Orb.

The answer would come after I searched the terms: “From your graveyard to your hand.” I stumbled upon the recover mechanic from Coldsnap. Recover (cost) (When a creature is put into your graveyard from the battlefield, you may pay (cost). If you do, return this card from your graveyard to your hand. Otherwise, exile this card.)

I looked through all the recover effects, preferably from cards I could cast easily, and found this gem.

I went through all the possible scenarios:- Retrievable from the graveyard: check- Not affected by Grafdigger’s Cage: check- Not affected by Pithing Needle: check- Doesn’t target a player: check- Relevant in a Lantern Match: CHECK!

How relevant is the card? I believe it turns a 60-40 matchup for us into something that’s close to unwinnable for Lantern. For starters, it deals with Academy Ruins (destroys target land), meaning that they won’t be able to bring back your next targets. It triggers easily without having to make any changes to the deck: you already play four Insolent Neonate (self-sacrifice shell), and you have Darkblast to kill your own creatures. In addition to all this, it has a built-in protection from Surgical Extraction. If you don’t have the mana to pay for recover and they play the black instant to exile it, you can sacrifice a creature, trigger recover, decide not to pay and have their spell fizzle, given that you have more copies in the deck.

It is slow, but the match goes long and you get to see most if not all your deck. If one Icefall shows up within the first 30 or 40 cards, you are assured to win this game. Of course, it goes without saying that it’s good because it’s supported by the four Ancient Grudge that go with it that you need against Affinity anyway.Back to our match, we are up 3-2, Jeskai had beat our Infect deck and we lined up Dredge to beat Jeskai (which it did). They had to line up either Jund or Lantern to beat Dredge and they felt more comfortable with Lantern. I had never actually tested my strategy but I felt / thought / hoped it was good enough.

After I surprisingly won game one, I put my plan into motion. To the surprise of the commentators and the chat, my plan worked out perfectly.

Treat yourself by watching this game:

Intrinsically, I don’t think the current versions of Lantern decks can beat this configuration of Dredge. I can play around every one of their cards and they can’t deal with my angle of attack.

Before getting to my point, let me tell you another story.

At Pro Tour Chicago 2000, Rebels, White-Blue Control and Fires of Yavimaya were the most successful decks. I had decided to play Fires.

Creature 16
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Blastoderm
2 Kavu Chameleon
4 Llanowar Elves
2 River Boa
Spell 22
4 Assault // Battery
4 Chimeric Idol
2 Earthquake
3 Fires of Yavimaya
4 Rhystic Lightning
3 Saproling Burst
2 Wax // Wane
Land 22
2 Brushland
2 City of Brass
7 Forest
4 Karplusan Forest
3 Mountain
4 Rishadan Port

2 Aura Mutation
1 Earthquake
1 Forest
2 Kavu Chameleon
3 Lumbering Satyr
3 Mountain
3 Obliterate

Notice anything funky? That’s right, four basic lands in the sideboard. White-Blue Control had Blinding Angel as their win condition. Without Flametongue Kavu (that would only be printed a couple of months later), you had very few ways in red-green to shoot the Angel, so some Fires players played one or two Obliterates in their sideboard. I was expecting a lot of White-Blue Control decks. Their plan against Fires was to pile land after land, fill their hand with Fact of Fiction, counter the relevant spells you played, sweep the board with Wrath of God and beat you down slowly with Blinding Angel while you couldn’t attack them back. My plan was to rely on Obliterate to win. With three in the deck, there was a good chance I would draw it before it was too late. The problem was, 20 or 21 lands were not enough to reliably cast Obliterate when you wanted and recover from it afterwards – so I added four basic lands in the sideboard.

How did that work out? I managed to win five out of five matches against White-Blue Control. As planned, they would be stuck with countermagic and sweepers in hand with no way to cast them (they pretty much had to play a land a turn).

My point?

You have a few ways to think when considering sideboard options.

The most common way is to upgrade cards that aren’t optimal in the main deck into better-suited solutions. For example, you’ll want to take out creature removal for discard spells in control matchups. In most cases, it will improve your matchup a bit in case you have a lot of dead cards in the main deck. It’s the easiest, most common and also the laziest way to build a sideboard. But most of the time, you won’t have any other option.

Another way is to make a transformational sideboard. The most common application for this is to bring in creatures when your main deck isn’t running any.

This strategy works even better when you catch your opponent off-guard and they don’t sideboard accordingly. But it has its limits, because while you may have better matchups when you board in the creatures, it locks up a lot if not all of your sideboard slots that would otherwise help you improve matchups where you don’t need the creatures. Sometimes it’s the only chance you have to have a shot or turn a tough matchup around. The other problem with that strategy is to know exactly when to use it.

But there’s more to it than all that. Taking a deck online, copying the in-and-outs and sticking to the guide a pro has written will only get you so far. To be able to sideboard correctly, you need a deep understanding of how games against specific matchups work. If you never played these matchups, your experience in similar matchups or just your overall experience of the game will help you make these decisions.

When a decklist is posted with a sideboard guide, you need to make sure you understand the underlying plan. If you don’t, it’s probably better to replace it. The process of including a specific card in the sideboard comes from a necessity.

The most common mistake I see from people playing decks they found online is to blindly sideboard the way the guide said. The problem is, decks you’ll face aren’t always the ones the writer faced or is talking about. There’s only so much you can touch on in an article, and you can’t cover every single configuration of decks around. As soon as you understand the plan, you’ll be able to sideboard more accurately and build your own sideboards with a plan in mind for the specific format.

With that in mind, you’ll start to worry about what decks you expect and which decks you want to improve your chances against. You won’t have the time to test each matchup individually, so you might as well focus on the most important ones.

With deep understandings of how specific matchups work, you’ll be able to find the best angle to attack them. How does a deck win? What are its key cards? What do you have to play around? What is its weakness? Do you want the game to go long or do you want to finish the game as fast as possible?

You won’t always find the perfect card or strategy (in the Dredge vs Lantern case, the fact that Icefall even existed was awesome), but at least you’ll know how to sideboard.

In theory, the process I went through to find Icefall should be the one to use for all the important matchups. Knowing that I would be very likely to face made me want to look for the solution even more. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, and sometimes it will pay off.