Welcome to another edition of Legion’s Landing, the Commander column aiming to help budget and experienced players alike get more out of their games. This week, we’ll look at the idea of sideboarding in Commander—how does it work? What is it? Should you do it? Let’s jump in.


Sideboarding, in Constructed 60-card formats (and Limited!) is the idea of taking some underperforming cards from your deck and changing them for cards that will perform better. This decision is usually made after playing the first game of a best-of-three round. The general discussion has been that sideboarding is a huge part of Constructed Magic, and a huge part of what makes the game enjoyable. The rumblings earlier this year about introducing best-of-one draft queues to Friday Night Magic caused quite a stir, and I’m firmly in the camp that believes this would detrimental. Certainly from a Limited point of view, I think that sideboards are integral to gameplay, and removing them would be removing a huge part of the format. 

So, how does a Sideboard work in Commander? Well, for starters, it’s technically not really a sideboard. Games of Commander aren’t played in a Swiss format, and are largely casual in nature. The competitive nature of a sideboard, then, doesn’t really apply. What does apply, though, is the theory behind a sideboard, and how that might improve gameplay.

The Problem with Best of One

Best of One isn’t a great format. It’s arguably fine for Limited draft queues, but other than that doesn’t account well for variance and ability to adapt. We’ve seen that you can increase win percentage in Arena BO1 queues by playing a more aggressive deck, or a non-interactive Solitaire-style deck. This doesn’t translate as well to Commander, though, with the threats coming from multiple axes and different styles of deck. It’s also necessary to temper a deck to a playgroup, so playing a Solitaire-style game in Commander might not necessarily contribute to the experience for the whole table. 

Consequently, when building a well-rounded Commander deck, it’s necessary to play enough answers to be able to deal with the ‘average’ deck. The rough guides on these numbers vary, but I like to have at least 5-8 board wipes, and 10-15 single-target removal spells (whether for creatures, or artifacts, enchantments, etc). It’s better to have some of these stapled to bodies or other effects you’ll generally want, but that’s the rough guideline.

The biggest struggle in Commander is arguably fitting enough answers in the 60 or so spells you can run in a Commander deck while still having a plan of your own. Contributing to your overall strategy while still keeping up with the rest of the table is the name of the game, and so it tends to be that anything modal (with choices) or with card draw attached is where you want to be. There’s a reason Austere Command is widely considered the best board wipe.

It’s also why I’m a huge advocate of running Scavenger Grounds and desert cards in decks. Putting graveyard hate in your mana base with cycling attached (Desert of the True, etc) and occasionally being able to take advantage of a utility land that can be cashed in for this effect is essentially ‘free’, and removes the need to play a Relic of Progenitus at all. 

The Sideboard in Commander, then, is a way to put aside the more niche and interesting effects that you’d like to play but simply can’t justify. They’re overly situational, and otherwise completely dead cards. They aim to help you have more of a game against decks that you may otherwise not be able to go toe-to-toe with. Let’s look at an example so you can see what I mean. 

Red Elemental Blast is a highly situational card, and one that is useless if you have no blue opponents. Boros decks will value this card highly on a table with two or three opponents playing blue, as the added utility of counterimg a counterspell or bounce wrath could be the difference between winning or losing a game. In a pinch, too, it can destroy a blue permanent. Maindecking this card would be suboptimal, as it doesn’t even have cycling; but being able to play it at the right table can actually help you to compete when you otherwise couldn’t.

There is however an art to the idea of sideboarding in Commander, and I’d like to move on to discuss what I believe is one of the more contentious issues.

Sideboarding vs Hosing

When discussing sideboarding, the first thing I’d like to get out of the way is that I don’t believe anyone should be going into this thinking they need to build a 15-card sideboard to fit every scenario. It’s simply not necessary, and you should be able to build a strong, adaptable deck within the 100-card limit already imposed on you.

The second is that, whilst a “sideboard” in this instance allows you to play cards like Red Elemental Blast; it can be used for more nefarious purposes, of which I would not approve. One example is having say, Rest in Peace and Leyline of the Void in your deckbox ready for when the Teysa Karlov player in your local group rocks up to the table. This kind of egregious and targeted “hate” is counterproductive to a healthy play environment, and can lead to some serious feel-bads for the opponent. There’s nothing wrong with maindecking these cards—and if you’ve built a deck able to play these cards to your advantage, like Anafenza, the Foremost, then fair play to you. The problem comes in feeling like you need a crutch to lean on that actually doubles as a way to punish a player at the table. Removing the ability for an opponent’s deck to function through the use of “sideboarded” cards is not where you want to be.

Another example that I feel is probably fair is a mono-green deck sitting down at a table with at least two players playing decks full of flying creatures. Keeping Gravity Well or Bower Passage in the deckbox for this occasion can help to even the playing field. On the flip side, siding in Bane of Progress and Creeping Corrosion when there’s a Breya player at the table is probably considered faux pas. Again, maindecking a card like Bane of Progress is completely fine—there’s a commitment to deckbuilding that has to be considered in order to play a card like this, and it takes the spot of a card you’re probably still wanting to play. Being able to relegate all of these cards to a sideboard in order to “pre-game” a table is the opposite of what a sideboard should be offering in EDH.

Perhaps sideboard is the wrong term, then? I can hear your question already: if there are no real sideboards in Commander, isn’t this merely editing a deck on the fly? Well, yes. I’m not going to debate you on that one—it sure is. The thing is, it’s really no different than editing a deck at home before meeting up with some friends. It’s a decidedly more underhanded strategy, but it can and does happen. We’ve all sat down against a regular opponent at one point or another and exclaimed “maaan, that seems to hose me so bad!” after being blown out by a new addition to a deck. It’s not like this concept doesn’t exist; it’s how we frame it. 

Reconciling Ethics & Efficacy

It’s undeniable that having a handful of interesting, metagame-dependent cards can have an impact on your ability to take part in a Commander game. In fact, I’d go as far as to suggest that it’s the quickest and easiest way to either increase (or better yet, decrease!) the power level of your deck in order to fit in a playgroup. In one of my previous articles, I argued that recursion was a stand-out mark of power in a deck, and how removing the recursion enablers can help to lower the deck’s power level.

Having access to some choice cards to help you compete at a stronger table is also a fair way to look at things. I know I’ve often considered Red Elemental Blast and even Lapse of Certainty as ways to improve my game at high-power tables where I expect a lot of resistance to an aggressive strategy. Similarly, I have a copy of Bitter Ordeal in my Meren of Clan Nel Toth deck box. I’ve tried to keep my Meren deck from breaching too high up the power level; but as it is an aristocrats style deck, I have also built it to scale versus some higher power decks I can’t handle with a pure aggressive strategy. Bitter Ordeal is a great card to have access to in a top-end metagame with lots of combos and redundancy, and is a card I would consider fair to side in at a table where I felt like I would have trouble keeping up.

One final example is Felidar Sovereign. I’m not a great fan of “I win” cards in general, and it isn’t the kind of EDH you’re likely to find me playing. My Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim deck has to jump through a lot of hoops to get access to a high life total, and I want to experience the challenge of how best to use that resource rather than simply being able to play a must-answer creature that can win me the game the following turn. I do, however, leave a copy of the card in my deck box—you never know when you’ll turn up at the shop and find only more competitive players to face off against.

In essence, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking a couple of extra cards with you in a deckbox, as long as the purpose of them being there is morally justifiable, and it doesn’t affect your general deckbuilding. You can’t and never will be able to account for everything with a 100-card deck, but you should aim as close as possible to not feel out of your depth. If you ever do, it should be because of inequality in power levels, and not because of the types of deck you’re facing. If you’re on a losing streak, consider rebuilding and adding more main deck answers, or ask your friends to build something a little more relaxed instead. Just don’t give in to the temptation to hose your friends—it’s not worth it.

Kristen is a lover of both Limited and Commander, and can most often be found championing the Boros Legion when called upon to sit down and shuffle up. Based in the UK, she works as a software developer, and her love for the Legion is second only to her appreciation for Lord of the Rings and Mass Effect.

Don't Miss Out!

Sign up for the Hipsters Newsletter for weekly updates.