The Art of Sideboard Construction - Sultai Energy
Although I’ve made the shift from East to West, I’m still here representing Massdrop for another season! This week, I’d like to share the process I go through before every tournament to build my own personalized sideboard. Hopefully it’s a useful exercise for anyone having trouble deconstructing plans from someone’s deck.
The reality of attending a lot of tournaments as a professional Magic player is that you don't always have as much time as you'd like to prepare for each one. Sometimes you have to rely on theorycrafting and research rather than grinding out an endless stream of test matches. That said, I will almost never straight up copy last week's winning decklist. Rather than trying to reverse engineer a sideboard plan over the course of the tournament, spending an hour or two constructing your own personalized version is a great way to force yourself to think about key matchups and increase your overall comfort level before you sit down to play.
Since I think some of these ideas would be hard to explain without the use of a concrete example, I've decided to use Seth Manfield's Pro Tour winning list from Pro Tour Ixalan as a case study. I played a lot of games with the deck on Pro Tour Sunday, trying to figure out how Seth might sideboard in a potential final against Pascal Maynard. I was impressed with some of the things the deck was doing and have had a decent amount of success playing it online. An unexciting Temur matchup probably keeps it from really being Tier 1, but it's a solid deck with very good matchups against a lot of the decks Temur has trouble with.
Sultai Energy - Pro Tour Ixalan 1st Place
Seth Manfield MAIN DECK 4 Attune with Aether 4 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner 4 Longtusk Cub 4 Winding Constrictor 2 Rishkar, Peema Renegade 4 Rogue Refiner 3 Hostage Taker 3 Walking Ballista 1 The Scarab God 4 Blossoming Defense 2 Vraska’s Contempt 4 Fatal Push 4 Blooming Marsh 4 Botanical Sanctum 4 Aether Hub 2 Fetid Pools 4 Forest 2 Swamp 1 Island SIDEBOARD 1 The Scarab God 2 Negate 3 Duress 2 Die Young 1 Essence Scatter 2 Nissa, Steward of Elements 3 Deathgorge Scavenger 1 Appetite for the Unnatural Seth Manfield is a great player and just won the Pro Tour. So why wouldn't I just copy his deck card for card? Well, for one thing, the Pro Tour was almost a month ago, and the metagame has shifted a fair bit since then. It's also not necessarily clear just from looking at the decklist what his plan was for every matchup, or if he was even happy with his exact 75. Even for a Pro Tour, players sometimes lock in on their deck at the last minute and don't have time to perfectly refine the list. Perhaps the most important consideration, however, is that I never want to register a sideboard I don't fully understand. Even if my changes aren't objectively better, I’ll at least have a plan for every matchup that I'm comfortable with.

Step 1: Identify the Main Deck Core
Although sideboards tend to vary, Tier 1 archetypes eventually develop fairly consistent main decks. This makes sense as players want to play the best cards, and core synergies require a certain amount of support. There will usually be some number of flex slots, but most will keep the essential components of the deck intact.
For a Sultai Energy deck based on Seth's list, I would say the following cards represent a fairly untouchable core:

Main Deck Core 4 Attune with Aether 4 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner 4 Longtusk Cub 4 Winding Constrictor 4 Rogue Refiner 3 Hostage Taker 3 Walking Ballista 1 The Scarab God 4 Blossoming Defense 2 Vraska’s Contempt 4 Fatal Push 21 Lands Total: 58 Cards Note that I am not going to worry about the specifics of the mana base for now, as it could change depending on sideboard color requirements. The deck relies on powerful synergistic two drops built around the Energy mechanic. I decided very early on that, while it can lead to some truly great starts in conjunction with Winding Constrictor, Rishkar doesn't do enough on its own to warrant a guaranteed slot in the deck.

Step 2: Identify Any Sideboard Essentials
You could make the argument that there are no must play sideboard cards, but often when I'm choosing a deck, part of the draw is the ability to play certain hate cards that I think are well positioned. In the case of Sultai Energy, the most obvious one is Deathgorge Scavenger. Although you don't really want it in the Energy mirrors, it's a great option against Ramunap Red and God-Pharaoh's Gift, as well as being a decent threat against control decks playing Torrential Gearhulk and Search for Azcanta. Duress is another reason to choose Sultai over Temur, as a lot of the decks that try to ignore midrange threats rely on expensive spells like Approach of the Second Sun. Essential Sideboard 3 Duress 3 Deathgorge Scavenger

Step 3: Research Other Possibilities
With 64 of our 75 already chosen, it may seem like we're almost done, but this is where things get difficult. The next step is to identify other cards we may want to consider. The possibilities tend to come from four different categories.
  1. Cards in the Original List
  2. Just because we haven’t locked them in, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider the other cards Seth decided to play. These include the following:
  3. Rishkar, Peema Renegade
  4. The Scarab God
  5. Negate
  6. Nissa, Steward of Elements
  7. Appetite for the Unnatural
  8. Die Young
  9. Essence Scatter
  10. Of these options, I immediately want to eliminate Nissa, Steward of Elements. Nissa is a powerful card, but not one that I've had great experiences with. She's pretty bad on the draw and hard to protect when your opponent is able to kill your first threat. The problem with a card that you only want on the play is that you're often stuck with mediocre replacements on the draw. Since I'm building my own personal sideboard, I'm going to leave this one out.
  11. More Copies of What We Already Have
  12. There are often good reasons to include less than four of a card, but it can also be just a question of mana curve or trying to make space for something else. Since we've decided to rebuild our sideboard from scratch, it's possible that we want some of those extra copies Seth couldn't fit in his deck. In particular, the cards I’m interested in potentially having more of are the following:
  13. Deathgorge Scavenger
  14. Vraska's Contempt
  15. Cards from Other Successful Lists
  16. It's been several weeks since Seth won the Pro Tour, and Sultai Energy has gone through several iterations online. This is the time to do some research. I usually look at recent 5-0 lists from Magic Online Leagues as well as other important tournaments like Grand Prix to see if anyone has new sideboard tech I might want to consider. A quick search yielded the following options:
  17. Gonti, Lord of Luxury
  18. Greenbelt Rampager
  19. Harsh Scrutiny
  20. Spell Pierce
  21. Vraska, Relic Seeker
  22. All of these have reasonable applications, but I'm going to eliminate Spell Pierce from consideration due to personal taste. It just seems too situational when I already have access to Duress and Negate.
  23. Original Ideas
  24. Finally, there's a chance to add your own creative twist to the deck. Every new idea starts somewhere, and there's nothing wrong with playing a hunch. While brainstorming for solutions, these are two cards I came up with that I think have real potential:
  25. Nissa, Vital Force
  26. Skysovereign, Consul Flagship
  27. Losing Nissa, Steward of Elements hurts a bit in the control matchups where you really want a resilient threat. Nissa, Vital Force seems like a great way to punish opponents who tap out for Fumigate or Approach of the Second Sun, while also providing value in attrition matchups. Skysovereign also helps against the Energy decks while presenting an evasive threat against something like a resolved Scarab God, or pressuring opposing planeswalkers.

Step 4: Evaluate Matchup Applications of Optional Cards If I was preparing for a Standard tournament this weekend, I would be most worried about Temur/4c Energy, Ramunap Red, and Sultai Energy. Although they may not significantly affect my deck choice, I would also want a cohesive plan for Esper Approach and UW Gift, both of which attack from unusual angles. Having narrowed things down to a list of fourteen possibilities, the next step is to figure out which matchups I'd want each of them for. Even without a lot of practice games under your belt, you can look at decklists of the popular archetypes and try to figure out what their post-sideboard configuration might look like, and think about how to beat it.
Having played Sultai Energy a fair bit over the past few weeks, my evaluation of the these optional cards we came up with in Step 3 would look something like this:
The quantities on the left indicate the number of these cards I’d realistically consider playing in addition to the amounts already locked into my main deck or sideboard. For example, the 1 Deathgorge Scavenger in the table above represents my fourth copy, as I’ve already committed to playing the first three.

Step 5: Trimming the Fat
We've done some good work, but the number of options might still feel a bit overwhelming. Before we start making hard decisions, let's clean up a bit of the mess. Going through the list of optional cards, there are some I want to eliminate right off the bat.
It seems like I don't want Rishkar, Peema Renegade in any post-sideboard configuration. This makes sense because it's weak to both Fumigate and opposing spot removal on my two drop. That's an easy cut. Die Young is mainly for the Ramunap Red matchup but just seems like a worse answer to Hazoret than additional copies of Vraska's Contempt, a card with applications in other matchups as well. Since I only need four more cards for this matchup, it's pretty easy to cut Greenbelt Rampager from consideration as well.
With access to extra Vraska's Contempts, I don't think I can play Gonti, Lord of Luxury. Even if it's good, it's not that much of an upgrade over Contempt or Hostage Taker, and I can't afford to play too many four drops.
After these eliminations, we're down to a much more manageable list of fifteen cards, of which we need to pick eleven. Here's what our options looks like now:

Step 6: Identify Cards to Board Out
Just as important as deciding what cards to bring in, you need to identify what you're boarding out in each matchup. There's no point in having ten sideboard cards for Ramunap Red if you only want to cut three cards from your Main Deck.
Since we're eventually going to combine this information with the work we did in Step 4, I'm going to evaluate all the known cards together: the 58 cards I know I'll be playing in the main deck along with my current 6 card sideboard. The point of doing it this way is to figure out how many of these 64 cards I will want to have in my various post-sideboard configuration. These totals are shown at the bottom of each column in the table below:

Step 7: Build the Most Powerful 75
Now that we have a more manageable set of information, let's construct an actual list of 75 cards. In this case, we only need to cut four. For the first pass, we'll cut the least powerful ones, by which I mean the ones least likely to change the outcomes of post-sideboard games in which they are drawn. Vraska's Contempt and Harsh Scrutiny are both reasonable cards to bring in against opposing Scarab Gods, but Contempt is a much cleaner answer. At this point, I don't mind sacrificing versatility as we can tweak the numbers later if necessary.
Based on this criteria, my four initial cuts were 2 Harsh Scrutiny, 1 Essence Scatter, and 1 Appetite for the Unnatural, yielding the following configuration:

Step 8: Tweaking the Numbers
As you can see in the table above, with the post-sideboard configuration totals at the bottom of each column, we’re not that far off. We’re slightly overboarded for the Approach matchup and could use another card against Temur.
Looking at the four cards we cut, we're mainly going to be interested in Harsh Scrutiny or Essence Scatter, as Appetite for the Unnatural doesn’t do anything to shore up this problem. To avoid getting too cluttered on reactive cards, I'll play the first Harsh Scrutiny over the second Essence Scatter. The most sensible cut seems to be Vraska, Relic Seeker, a card that I don't like against Temur and that’s already competing with The Scarab God and Nissa, Vital Force as a curve topper. This leaves us at 61 cards vs Ramunap Red, but I'm pretty happy to just bring in Essence Scatter on the play and Harsh Scrutiny on the draw. As for the Esper Approach matchup, I can make the numbers work by just cutting two Blossoming Defense. They do have Fatal Push and potentially some number of Vraska's Contempt, but you don't want to draw too many situational cards like this against a deck with mass removal.
After making these changes, the numbers work, with 60s across the board!

Step 9: Fill in the Main
At the start of this process, we identified 58 cards we knew we wanted in the main deck. We've now identified our full list, but we need to decide on those last two flex slots. The current Standard metagame doesn't really justify a niche card like Negate or Duress, so our choices are pretty much limited to proactive cards that are generally good in multiple matchups.
The obvious contenders are The Scarab God or Vraska's Contempt. With four Fatal Push already in the deck, we don't want to overload on removal in case we play against a creatureless deck like Approach. For that reason, we’ll prioritize The Scarab God, and only add one of the two extra Contempts to the main deck. With these changes, our final sideboard guide looks like this:

Step 10: Fix the Mana
We're not quite done yet. Although we could just play the same mana base, there's some reason to consider a small change. The extra Vraska’s Contempts and sideboard Harsh Scrutiny make us a little more interested in untapped black sources. We've also increased our mana curve slightly by adding a second Scarab God main and including Nissa, Vital Force and Skysovereign, Consul Flagship in our sideboard. This makes us less likely to want to cycle a land away, and, in my opinion, justifies cutting the second Fetid Pools for a third Swamp. Not a big change, but one that seems to make sense. After all that work, here's our final decklist:
Sultai Energy - Test Deck
Jon Stern MAIN DECK 4 Attune with Aether 4 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner 4 Longtusk Cub 4 Winding Constrictor 4 Rogue Refiner 3 Hostage Taker 3 Walking Ballista 2 The Scarab God 4 Blossoming Defense 3 Vraska’s Contempt 4 Fatal Push 4 Blooming Marsh 4 Botanical Sanctum 4 Aether Hub 1 Fetid Pools 4 Forest 3 Swamp 1 Island SIDEBOARD 2 Negate 3 Duress 1 Essence Scatter 2 Nissa, Vital Force 4 Deathgorge Scavenger 1 Harsh Scrutiny 1 Skysovereign, Consul Flagship 1 Vraska’s Contempt
Although we could have just played the Pro Tour winning decklist, the changes we made reflect a personalized approach to sideboarding, and showcase what I think are theoretical improvements. It took some time, but I would feel much better registering my own version after having gone through this process. It's something I try to do before every major tournament and would suggest for anyone who has trouble trying to deconstruct someone else's sideboard plan.

Looking Ahead Modern is up next with Grand Prix in Oklahoma City and Madrid, followed closely by Ixalan Limited events in New Jersey and Singapore. My next tournament will likely be GP Santa Clara in the New Year, where I’ll be playing the Standard portion of a Team Constructed tournament. Thanks for reading, and hopefully my procedural approach to deck tuning and sideboard construction gave you some ideas to incorporate into your own preparation!

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thumb_upMoguri, Jasson Martinez, and 4 others

Dec 1, 2017
Am I right in thinking you've got the tables in Step 5 and Step 6 the wrong way round?
You are! Thanks for the head's up. It should be fixed now. I changed the order of the steps and forgot that the images were already saved.