Play Patterns: Bluffing, Angle Shooting, and Ethics

The strategy of chess and the variance of poker, all wrapped up in a fantasy medium.

The strategic implications of Magic are intricate and complicated. The fantasy medium we all love is woven into the fabric of the game with its amazing art, lore, and role-playing. The variance aspect of the game however, can be somewhat polarizing. It means that even the worst player in the world with an intro deck has a chance to beat the best player in the world with a tier-one deck. For some, this is part of what makes Magic great; for others, this can be the most frustrating part of the game. But Magic and poker have more in common than just variance and statistics. Sometimes the way we execute the game in person can also be borrowed from poker, as Magic often does, through bluffing and angle shooting.

17082.9f8d8e8d.630x354o.a25678baefc6

Everyone bluffs in Magic. If you’ve ever held onto a land as your only card in hand, you’ve bluffed. If you’ve ever glanced at an irrelevant card in your hand just before saying “it resolves,” you’ve bluffed. You attempted to communicate to your opponent that you have interaction when you don’t and you did it intentionally to deceive them.

Don’t worry, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Bluffing is an important part of the game and it can come in many forms, to include body language, words, speed of play, and concealed information (like the land you kept in hand). Even though bluffing comes about through misleading your opponent and deceiving behavior, it isn’t frowned upon or scrutinized for damaging the game’s integrity. This is because no rules are being broken and it’s ultimately up to the opponent to decide how much they want to rely on information derived from your cues. They can ignore it, or they can draw drastic conclusions based on it.

Games can be won and lost on a bluff, all based on information that we’re collecting from our opponent’s, or false information we’re trying to convey. At the end of the day, it’s hard to ignore that there’s a human element to a game that involves an opponent sitting directly across from you.

Spike, Tournament Grinder

Blue mages separating their mana into groups of two and four (the four showing their ability to pay for Cryptic),  players picking up their graveyard after a draw to imply they drew a Snapcaster, and seemingly bad attacks that suggest combat tricks are all examples of bluffing. These are all very small actions that are meant to subconsciously lead you to draw conclusions based on unreliable information.

I’d like to go over a couple more examples of bluffing and the variety of ways they can express themselves and be implemented that I’ve experienced personally, and perhaps you have as well.

In a recent SCG Regionals I had an Affinity opponent that had a pretty intimidating board to include a Ravager, an Inkmoth Nexus, and more than enough artifacts to sacrifice for the Inkmoth combo kill. I had two lands in hand, that’s it. I was of course holding onto them so that I could try and convince my opponent that I had interaction, that I could disrupt the combo and punish him if he went for it.

He fired up the Inkmoth, attacked, and waited for me to pass priority.

I fervently studied my cards, let out a quizzical, “Hmmm…” as I pondered my options.

Put my fingers through my hair, deep in thought.

I sat up, began to tap my lands, then slouched again and untapped the lands, redacting my previous thought.

Again, I analyzed the board and then passed priority.

My opponent thought for a moment and then allowed for damage to happen; only one infect damage. On my upkeep, Dark Confidant reveals a Bolt.

I bluffed my way out of a deadly situation and lived long enough to find the interaction I desperately needed.

The most important thing about this bluff was that it didn’t break any rules. I was very clear in communicating what phase we were in, what I was doing, and in the end my opponent chose to use that information to make an educated guess about what I was capable of.

Deception

Bluffing is usually more subtle than the theatrics I pulled against my Affinity opponent but the cues are still there for you to notice. I once had a Scapeshift player play the namesake card and waited patiently for me to scoop, but I had already Fulminator‘d two mountains and there were many on board so I said, “Okay, show me the mountains.” He searched through his deck, and conceded.

The “Are you really going to make me go through the motions of my combo?” bluff is nothing new. Players have been doing this one since combos have existed. Usually this means they don’t have access to their win condition and are looking to shortcut, a common courtesy we give combo players sometimes, to convince the concession. In Competitive REL (Rules Enforcement Level) , always make opponents show you the combo before you scoop. You never know when it’s all just a bluff. The exception to this is if they have demonstrated a loop.

“The Pen Trick” is another common bluff. This is when your opponent is looking to declare attackers and you go to pick up your pen to record the impending damage as if you are accepting whatever comes your way. Your opponent may attack incorrectly or poorly based on this only to have you put down the pen and interact with their board.

Now, let’s imagine a scenario where a player names Krark-Clan Ironworks with Pithing Needle.

Does it accomplish anything? No.

Pithing Needle doesn’t stop mana abilities, but maybe the opponent doesn’t know that. KCI is still a legal card you can name with Pithing Needle even though it won’t stop the ability. This bluff is testing the opponent’s knowledge of how Pithing Needle works in the hopes to trick the opponent into not using the KCI. Bluffing is defined as misleading by a display of strength and confidence, and this certainly fits the bill. Cheating on the other hand is an act of dishonesty as a means to gain an advantage. This becomes cheating only when the KCI player goes to use the KCI and is stopped by the Pithing Needle player. In that situation the Needle player is trying to break the rules by claiming that Pithing Needle achieves something it cannot.

Pithing Needle

Rystic Studies has a great video showcasing a scenario with Pithing Needle. In the video, the opponent has tons of countermagic in hand, with a Dark Confidant, and three uncracked Polluted Deltas on the battlefield. The Pithing Needle player calls over a judge and asks, in front of his opponent, if Dark Confidant is a card they can name with Pithing Needle. The judge says yes, and the player casts the Pithing Needle. The opponent lets it resolve assuming they’ll name Dark Confidant and the player names Polluted Delta instead. This bluff reverses the role of the last example, playing as if they didn’t understand how the Needle worked to trick the opponent into letting it resolve. The Pithing Needle player mislead with a display of apparent ignorance rather than strength.

Mulligan body language can be another excellent opportunity to bluff. You can snap keep when the cards are horrible or you can ponder the hand meticulously when if fact the hand is easily keep-able. If you’re on the play and get to resolve your mulligan decision first, you can sometimes affect your opponent’s decisions. If you act as though it’s very strong, they may reevaluate the strength of their own hand. If you act as though the hand is close or not very good, they may keep a mediocre hand for the sake of keeping seven.

There are many more examples that I could list, but I think you get the point of what a good bluff can look like and the many different forms it can present itself in. The common theme among all of these examples of bluffing is that despite the intention to deceive or mislead the opponents, no rules were broken and the integrity of the game was upheld.

In Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica, Luis Scott Vargas made one of the most amazing bluffs we’ve seen on camera at the top level of competitive play. Jeremy Dezani is trying to figure out how he wants to attack and is obviously struggling to find the best line. LSV motions for a lifelink token which goes hand in hand with the bluff he’s already set up with his mana. By separating three of his lands from the Andanto, the First Fort, he’s already communicating the possibility of activating to gain an additional blocker. Dezani ignores it at first but then reaches for the token himself to aid in his combat math. After Dezani makes his attacks, LSV throws the token aside, knowing full well he never intended on activating the Fort, and plays Settle the Wreckage to wipe Dezani’s board.

j_DHya

The interaction was widely controversial, and LSV was criticized by some for fooling Dezani with false intentions, but it was really Dezani’s decision to allow the bluff to affect his actions that lost him the game. This is an honest bluff, and a card like Settle the Wreckage requires a certain amount of bluffing to play to its full potential. How does this example compare to a scenario where the equity of the game is actually being degraded?

Let’s say Dezani turns all of his creatures sideways, doesn’t say anything, and rests his hands under his chin. Then, LSV plays a Settle the Wreckage. Dezani could then say, “Woah, woah, wait. I’m still thinking about my attacks and I haven’t passed priority.”

In this example, Dezani has purposefully created an ambiguous situation where we are unsure what phase we’re in and who has priority as a means to gain an advantage. Now he knows LSV has a Settle and can play around it for the rest of the game. In this instance, Dezani has demonstrated what we know as angle shooting. Through underhanded methods, angle shooters can take advantage of unclear situations in order to deceive the opponent into breaking the rules or revealing information they normally wouldn’t.

phenax
“Phenax, God of Deception” by Ryan Barger

In poker, rules have been put in place to punish certain ways of angle shooting. In Magic, we have no such rules, so opportunities for angle shooting can often be taken advantage of without punishment. Good angle shooting will often be so ambiguous that it can be impossible for a judge to prove malicious intent, especially if the angle shooter is a good actor.

Another perfect example of this can be seen in plays involving Vendilion Clique.

A Vendilion Clique player cast their Clique and waits patiently remaining silent. The popular Clique target is of course the opponent, to get information and trade out their best card. While targeting yourself may be the less popular play, the Clique player is still a legal target. The opponent may assume that, as in most Clique scenarios, the target is them and the Clique player is simply waiting for them to reveal their hand.

Vendilion Clique

The opponent reveals their hand and then the Clique player explains that the Clique hasn’t resolved yet and is just waiting for the opponent to respond to it if necessary. Unfortunately, the opponent has already revealed their hand and given away important information, something that cannot be undone. Now the Clique player can decide to either target themselves or the opponent with perfect information. The Clique player wanted their opponent to be confused about whether the Clique had resolved and/or targeted them so they could take advantage of their opponent’s assumptions.

We can also see angle shooting in action when people try to go for the “Fake Scoop.” This is when an opponent, who is dead on board, scoops up their lands as if they are conceding the match without verbally communicating it. You assume that your opponent is throwing in the towel since they are dead on board and you begin to scoop up your permanents as well. Your opponent then claims that they are just rearranging their lands and try to make it appear as though you are in fact the one scooping to them. Again, the person faking the scoop is creating a confusing situation that takes advantage of the opponent’s assumption that by picking up their lands they are conceding when in fact they’re not.

I do my best to uphold the equity of the game, but even I’ve angle shot someone before. It was an accident, but that doesn’t mean the integrity of the game wasn’t damaged.

I had cast a Bloodbraid Elf and cascaded into a Thoughtseize. My opponent only had one card in hand and I knew it either had to be a Collected Company, a Path to Exile, or a land. Nothing else made sense as they would have simply played it on their turn otherwise. As I’m putting these pieces together in my head and coming to the conclusion that I shouldn’t cast it, my opponent waves a Path to Exile over the board. I quickly looked away and held out my hands trying to keep my opponent from saying or doing anything more. I explained that I was still considering whether or not I would cast the Thoughtseize and hadn’t put it on the stack yet. The damage was done though, I knew what they had in hand, and put the Thoughtseize on the bottom.

I had accidentally created an ambiguous situation where my opponent was unsure if the Thoughtseize had been cast or not and whether they had priority or not. We had an incredible game up to that point and I felt terrible that I had not communicated better with my opponent. He was thankfully very understanding as we talked about it more afterward.

Malicious Intent

I don’t think I can touch on every aspect of angle shooting without mentioning rules lawyering. Rules lawyering can be another ethical grey area and depending on your moral compass, some rules lawyering is fair game while others are frowned upon.

Did you know that Rest in Peace has a triggered ability when it enters the battlefield? Most of us associate the card with its static ability but the initial exiling of cards currently in the graveyard only happens when the ETB resolves. If you don’t announce it, you may run into a situation where the cards currently in graveyards aren’t removed from play on a technicality. This is a trigger that can be missed, and simply moving your graveyard to exile assuming the trigger has resolved is not the same as announcing the trigger when it happens.

“Chalice Checking” – referring of course to Chalice of the Void – involves the opponent of the Chalice player casting a spell into it to see if the Chalice player will remember the trigger that counters it. We all know how Chalice should work, but it’s still the controller’s responsibility to remember and announce the triggers. This is one of those plays that people proclaim to be straight up cheating, especially since on MtGO it does it automatically as a trigger that cannot be missed. There are a lot of triggers that do not say ‘may’ that can still be missed in paper, to include Noble Hierarch’s Exalted trigger and Dark Confidant’s reveal trigger. Just because it happens automatically online doesn’t mean it can’t be missed in paper. I’d be surprised if the same people saying Chalice checking is cheating would remind their Dredge opponent of their Prized Amalgam triggers. Chalice checking is not cheating, it’s rules lawyering. The only time this becomes cheating is when the Chalice owner tries to cast into their own Chalice. In that scenario, the owner of the Chalice is purposely ignoring their own trigger to make way for a play that would otherwise be countered.

Coming back to Pithing Needle (isn’t it such a fun card?), most will remember when Brad Carpenter named Borborygmos to turn off Bob Huangs Grishoalbrand combo. The problem was that even though we all know that Carpenter meant Borborygmos Enraged, the integral piece of Bob’s combo, a judge ruled that since an actual Magic the Gathering card was named in Borborygmos, that Borborygmos Enraged could still activate its abilities.

The difference between rules lawyering and angle shooting is that the intent is very clear when you are trying to win through technicalities. The motive in trying to gain these kinds of advantages cannot be misinterpreted and are very deliberate. The crossover comes simply by trying to manipulate the rules to your advantage, whether that’s based on ambiguity or on technicalities.

Rules Lawyer

Both bluffing and angle shooting are achieved through deception, so why is one frowned upon and the other okay? The answer is simply ethics; the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity. Gaining advantages at the cost of our opponents misunderstanding of board states is pretty unsporting. Trying to corral opponents into a situation where they are breaking the rules by playing cards when they don’t have priority or skipping phases is pretty unethical.

But, shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to win?

Of course, but only up to a certain point. After that, upholding the integrity of the game becomes more important than winning. Obviously, this is a point that is lost on people who cheat, but it’s up to the rest of us to defend the game’s honor. Without it, you’re tipping the scales to a disadvantage for those who play fairly and pushing them out of the game. That will eventually foster a hostile environment that will end with Magic’s decline in popularity and ultimately its demise.

When both players sit down to face each other at a tournament, it’s with a mutual understanding of what the rules are and what’s considered acceptable behavior. Deviating from that will earn you a less than an ideal reputation in the community with little to show for it.

cardheader_markedbyhonor
“Marked by Honor” by David Palumbo

The best way to keep yourself from accidentally angle shooting, being the victim of angle shooting, or even some rules lawyering, is to have impeccable communication. These confusing situations can only be misinterpreted if you allow them to be. Make sure you announce everything you’re doing as you’re doing it so that both players are on the same page. Just as you are communicating your own actions, be sure to reiterate what your opponent is doing if it’s unclear.

I still announce my discard targets and Liliana of the Veil edict targets even though it’s obvious what my intentions are when I play them. I don’t want there to be any possible way my opponent can misinterpret what I’m saying, doing, or take advantage of a situation. Don’t assume anything but instead be sure you know exactly what is happening.

I always offer my deck after shuffling and never proceed until they say they are good with the deck otherwise. I once had an opponent abstain from cutting after an end step shuffle when I motioned the deck towards the end of the playmat in his direction and then call a judge when I slammed a Siege Rhino off the top for the win. The judge ruled that because I didn’t explicitly present my deck and verbally ask him to cut, that I had shortcut past his opportunity to do so. I had to shuffle the Siege Rhino in and take a fresh draw step. I doubt he would have fussed if I had drawn a land.

The same goes for effects like Bloodbraid’s Cascade that puts cards on the bottom of the library randomly. Even if it’s two cards, I randomize the best I can and then ask my opponent if they are content with my shuffling. I usually get some scoffs and laughs at that, but I take this kind of player to player communication very seriously as to not taint the honesty of the game.

It’s worth analyzing how you’re playing the game and becoming more self aware. Think about how you are appearing to your opponent and the signals you may be sending, because every little thing you’re doing or not doing is being digested by your opponent and being used against you.

Of course all of this information requires a little bit of context as well. At FNM, I think it’s extremely important to allow for learning opportunities. This means talking through lines of play while we’re playing, allowing take-backs within reason, and having constructive conversations afterward. Bluffing is still a part of the game that you can practice and talk about at FNM but people should really avoid rules lawyering and under no circumstances should you ever angle shoot.

slivers-playing-poker

Magic is a fantastic game with deep and complex strategies paired with immersive fantasy components. The human element allows us to bluff and bend the variance of the game in our favor when we draw the short straw. It allows us to get inside our opponent’s mind and play this secondary game beyond what’s happening on the table. If you’re not using it, you’re missing out on the opportunity to gain small advantages throughout your matches.

Bluffing is as much a part of Magic as it is of poker, a tool for us to use and importantly doesn’t hurt the integrity of the game. You can’t always have the best opening hands or run hot every draw. Sometimes, you gotta take something mediocre, or even slightly bad, and turn it into a win.

“[It’s] not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.” ― Jack London 

 

Play Patterns: Advanced Sideboarding

By guest author FlyingDelver

You’re sitting across from a Dredge player at a tournament. You’ve just lost game one, and you reach for your deck box, hoping the match-up gets better post-board. You unfold your small side-board guide and start methodically swapping out your dead cards for more relevant ones, just as you have every match-up before.

Sideboarding often becomes a cookie-cutter guide of “cutting x copies of card A and bringing in x copies of card B.” It’s simple, and can become a habit to rely on. However, knowing why we are sideboarding certain ways and when to do so is a great skill to obtain. GBx decks naturally don’t have a linear gameplan to follow. Other than casting a Tarmogoyf on turn two and turning it sideways, GBx matches vary greatly turn to turn. They seek interaction; the more we are allowed to interact with our opponent the better our deck can function. This means we want to tune our deck to perfectly combat our opponent. Since we are a strategy of interaction at heart, our sideboards are far more precious to us than to other less interactive decks.

GBx decks plan A is to stop the opponent from executing their plan A.

However, with the vastly open modern format, this is impossible to do when we only have our 60 maindeck cards. Luckily, we have sideboards. And I really mean luckily.

maelstrom_pulse_by_ubermonster-e1444815782618-730x280
“Maelstrom Pulse” by Anthony Francisco.

Most people immediately grab their sideboards after game one in order to look for the  cards they want to bring in for that particular match-up. The problem is that you are likely focusing on what cards you want to bring in without taking your maindeck into account. It’s difficult to consider your maindeck that way, because you subconsciously put a barrier there, treating your maindeck and sideboard as separate. But sideboarding shouldn’t work that way, especially for GBx decks which are very dependant on their sideboards.

To overcome this subconscious separation, try this: after finishing game one of a given match-up, take your 15 sideboard cards and shuffle them right into your deck. By doing that, you are actively erasing that mental barrier of sideboard and mainboard, and creating a gauntlet of 75 cards. Your goal now is to make the best 60 card deck for the match-up out of your 75 cards. Go through your deck and remove every card you don’t want. This simple trick is actually nothing new, as many pros have already suggested this way of sideboarding. It really helps to understand how to sideboard by viewing it in a different perspective. Plus, you are getting the added bonus of your opponent not getting to know how many cards you exchanged. You shuffled 15 cards into your deck and removed 15 cards afterwards. You are giving away no free information. This way of doing it will be uncomfortable and difficult to execute at the start, but practicing it at home before the tournament will get yourself comfortable with it pretty fast. Pretend to play against a difficult match-up and just focus on sideboarding for it in particular.

Here are some other advantages of sideboarding 15-In, 15-Out (besides disguising the amount of cards that got exchanged):

  • You don’t get biased about certain sideboard cards which look good in vacuum, but might not be the card you want given the context of your deck. If your deck has better cards otherwise, then the card you are looking at can be cut.
  • You can pay attention to the manacurve you are changing, which might open up the possibility to cut a land.
  • You are forced to really think about the match-up you are playing. This evolves your skills and can help you to find the best sideboard options against new match-ups.

Keep in mind that we are always adjusting our deck in order to tackle our opponents sideboarded deck. For example, it might be appealing to bring in shatter effects against Aether Vial strategies, but Aether Vial is usually a bad card in attrition-based match-ups in the first place. It’s a horrible topdeck and since the Vial deck needs to expect an interactive game with lots of removal and sweepers, Vial becomes less effective. In fact, most Vial decks will board out the card against us, so bringing in extra shatter effects like Ancient Grudge is definitely not worth it.

This is a good method for basic sideboarding. Next, let’s check out some of the more advanced nuances of sideboarding.

Shaving instead of cutting

This aspect of sideboarding is pretty hard to master. The concept means that you should not think of cards being simply bad and good against a given match-up. Sometimes the question should be:

Is the last copy of a given card better than the first copy of a sideboard card?

or:

How does the power level of a given card change depending on whether you’re on the play or the draw?

When you are able to accurately answer those questions, you’ll be able to think with more flexibility about the proper numbers of each card. The amount of cards to run in the deck obviously reflects the frequency we want to see the card in the game.

  • Playing 4 copies of a card: We want to see the card as often as possible per game. We are happy to draw multiples and it could also be an essential part of our strategy.
  • Playing 3 copies of a card: We want to see the card about once on average in a given game. Drawing multiples is not the worst thing and sometimes wanted, but often we are fine with having just one copy.
  • Playing 2 copies of a card: We are less exciting to have this card in the opener, it is less essential and more geared towards specific situations. Endgame bombs or costly cards fall into that category.
  • Playing 1 copy of a card: We only want this card in very specific situations or moments in the game. In an average game, we don’t want to have this card in the opener.

Let’s look at an example of this concept. This is my latest Rock list:

Rock

If I were to sideboard against one of the popular decks of modern right now, the Bant Spirits deck, I would have a couple of bad cards among my 75. Let’s break it down in greater detail: Out of the sideboard, I don’t want Surgical, Spellbomb, Duress, Nissa, Damping Sphere or Fulminator Mage. So those cards certainly won’t end up in my game two configuration. The ‘maybe’ options are Choke and Kitchen Finks, but I am not fully convinced when looking at those cards in a vacuum. In that sense it would require some worse cards from the maindeck to cut in order to bring those cards in. The only cards I absolutely want in are Deathmark, Damnation, Grafdigger’s Cage and Collective Brutality. Since the Spirits deck is a creature-based strategy, I basically want every card in my deck that can kill a creature, even if it’s not super reliable such as Brutality. However, Brutality has some very strong upsides in being able to snag a Collected Company from the opponent’s hand before it gets cast.

So that means I have four cards I absolutely want, and two cards I could see being boarded in for certain circumstances. If we look at the current maindeck, I only see two cards I absolutely want to cut: Both copies of Thoughtseize. The life totals are just under too much pressure to justify them. I have Brutality for Collected Company as well and other than that, Inquisition of Kozilek can deal with the rest just fine. So, beyond Thoughtseize, which cards do I want to cut? I have my eyes on Liliana of the Veil, Dark Confidant, and Tireless Tracker. They are not completely bad like Thoughtseize, but they aren’t the best either. Dark Confidant increases the pressure on our life total, Tireless Tracker is way too slow for that fast match-up, and Liliana of the Veil doesn’t line up well against Noble Hierarch and their smaller creatures.

So, I have two cards I absolutely want to cut and four cards I absolutely want to bring in. Now, of the mentioned cards, what do I want to shave? And even further, do I want to shave more than two cards in order to fit in the extra “maybe” cards from the sideboard? I could simply cut both Tireless Trackers, which gives me enough space to implement my four wanted sideboard cards and call it a day, but that would be too easy. I didn’t apply the theory I was mentioning before. All these decisions depend on whether I am on the play or draw and on the basic concept of how many copies of a card I want to see in any given game. The first question is rather easy to answer:

Do I want to draw multiple Dark Confidants against Bant Spirits?

The answer is clearly no. And this answer doesn’t change whether I’m on the play or draw. So I want to cut at least one copy of Dark Confidant. Do I want to cut more copies of Dark Confidant as well? To answer this question, we should look at the dynamics of being on the play or draw. Dark Confidant puts pressure on your own life total and the Bant Spirits deck does that already as an aggressive strategy. When the Spirits deck is on the play, the pressure on our life total is much higher. Dark Confidant gets a lot worse on the draw, so I would definitely consider cutting one extra copy of Dark Confidant.

What about Liliana of the Veil? Liliana of the Veil is already only present in the deck as a three-of, which means we aren’t super likely to draw multiples, although it can still happen. On the draw, Liliana of the Veil also gets worse. I think she is actually somewhat good on the play. So, if we assume we are on the draw, we said we want to shave an additional copy of Dark Confidant, but we also said Liliana is worse on the draw. So, since we already have three cuts fixed (two Thoughtseize and one Dark Confidant) which card should be the fourth cut? Here, the answer is Dark Confidant. Liliana might not trade with a big creature from the Spirits deck, but she does still help maintain the mentioned philosophy of having access to every card that can kill a creature. So, in that sense, I would cut the second copy of Dark Confidant before I cut the first copy of Liliana of the Veil on the draw.

We are still not done though– we still have to decide whether we want to cut additional cards from the maindeck to bring in our ‘maybe’ cards or not. So, the question now becomes: Do I want Finks/Choke over the third Liliana, the second Tracker or the second Dark Confidant on the draw? We’ve already shaved enough Dark Confidants so I would shave the first copy of Liliana before cutting more Dark Confidants. Also, Choke is a card which could potentially cripple Spirits (especially since they board out Vials) but not on the draw; it is much stronger on the play. Despite that, Choke might not line up well with the non-island lands drawn by the Spirits player. This narrows the question down to: Do I want Finks over Liliana or Tracker? Tracker is always a little unexciting, regardless of being on the play or draw, but on the draw we are more likely to draw into lands which Tracker could make a little bit more useful as an endgame finisher. And because our life total is under a lot of pressure on the draw, some life gain from Finks could be nice. In addition it also blocks Geist of Saint Traft. All things considered, I would cut the third Liliana for the Finks on the draw.

If we add everything up, we end up with the following plan on the draw:

  • We take out one Dark Confidant because we don’t want multiples in this match-up where life totals are pressured hard.
  • A second copy of Dark Confidant gets cut because we are on the draw.
  • Both Thoughtseizes are bad due to the life loss and amount of overlapping targets with Inquisition of Kozilek.
  • Liliana of the Veil gets cut as she is worse on the draw, but she is favoured over Dark Confidant as she does at least follow the philosophy of “getting access to everything that kills a creature”. For that, only one copy gets cut.

And there we have a well thought-out sideboard plan against Bant Spirits on the draw. Remember everything you do should have a specific reasoning behind it. Always ask the question: What am I trying to accomplish? Simple guides that only show the numbers of ins and outs of a given match-up, while convenient, are not fully helpful. As a GBx pilot, we should seek for understanding of different match-ups in the first place in order to be successful, and that also applies to sideboarding.

city-of-the-dead-framed-640x427
“Overgrown Tomb” by Rob Alexander

Sideboarding lands

This concept is about adjusting your land count after you’ve adjusted your mana curve. Lands are rarely sideboarded, which is a missed opportunity. If you’ve ever complained about getting flooded too often with your 25-land Jund deck, I would advise figuring out a plan to adjust your manabase according to the match-ups you face.

There are many aspects to keep in mind when cutting lands against various decks. The decisions can be difficult to make, but these are the points to keep in mind:

We want a proper land count against fast strategies.

Usually, games against aggressive strategies won’t last very long. Either you will be overwhelmed very quickly and can’t come back or you were able to answer what your opponent was doing and able to stabilize. You may be tempted to cut lands in these matches, because you don’t want to flood out, but we want to hit our land-drops in the first few turns to be able to cast our spells in the first place. Fast match-ups are more punishing than any other for missing land-drops. You won’t have time to deploy excess spells in the most crucial moments of the game anyway. Flooding might be a possibility, but since the average game doesn’t last very long, the nature of the games are more likely to be determined by the opening hand you keep. If you keep a hand with two spells and five lands against Humans for game two, you are partly responsible for potentially flooding.

We want fewer lands against grindy match-ups.

Grindy match-ups usually last longer by nature. There’s often more time to draw out of a screw here because they typically don’t put you on a very fast clock. However, drawing a string of lands in the late game often means lights out. In those match-ups, the endgame threats are so dominant and powerful that we can’t come back after one or two dead draws. For that reason, it makes sense to err on the side of a lower land count.

We need less lands on the draw than on the play.

On the draw, the extra card we get helps to find land-drops on its own. On average, the probability of hitting land-drop X on turn X stay the same if you cut one land on the draw. In other words, due to the extra card drawn, the probability of hitting land-drops on time increases. This means we can cut a land and still maintain a similar probability compared to being on the play.

We always want a proper land count for the respective manacurve.

This is always the goal, whether you’re building a deck, or deciding how to sideboard lands, this is one point that you should always have in mind. The problem becomes the contradiction in some of these strategies. For instance, against faster match-ups, we typically lower our manacurve, so that should mean we are able to cut a land. However, as discussed before, the nature of the match-up makes it so that we want to hit land-drops in a timely manner and therefore don’t want to cut lands. In the grindy match-ups, our manacurve typically gets higher as we want access to more expensive endgame threats, and that would mean we want to keep all lands. But we also want to prevent flooding. So what should we do?

Look at the match-up individually. How much do you lower or increase your manacurve? For example, against creature based aggro decks, we often side in Damnation. As a four mana card, it doesn’t really help to lower the curve much, so cutting a land wouldn’t make sense. We want to be able to cast a timely Damnation if needed. In fact, aggro match-ups are so fast and linear at the moment, the need to hit land-drops on time and be able to cast relevant interaction is much more important. So, for those match-ups we can summarize:

Only cut a land against fast linear decks if you are on the draw AND are significantly lowering your manacurve.

We can follow a similar guideline when sideboarding against opponents with long-game strategies. On the play, the need for the extra land is higher, but we still want to balance the manacurve and flood prevention.

On the draw against grindy match-ups, cut a land if possible. On the play, keep the land if you are significantly increasing the manacurve.

Liliana-the-Last-Hope-2
“Liliana, the Last Hope” by Anna Steinbauer.

Sideboarding is one of the most difficult skills to master in competitive play. There aren’t many hard-and-fast rules that will apply to every situation, and in a tournament you have to make tough decisions in a short amount of time. The guidelines above should help to bring some context to the sideboarding decisions you make, and encourage you to think more critically about why you’re making them. Always think about: “What am I trying to accomplish?” By practicing these sideboarding skills, you can often take those close skin-of-your-teeth matches and tip the scales a bit more in your favor.

Until next time,

-FlyingDelver

FlyingDelver is deeply involved in the G/Bx Modern community as the author of MtGSalvation primers for Jund, Abzan, G/B Rock, as well as the administrator for the G/Bx Midrange Discord, and part of the administrative team for the G/B Rock Facebook page. Please find relevant links in the external resources section. You can support FlyingDelver through his Patreon page.