Before I delve into my post I wanted to recap my sneak peek weekend, it was an amazing weekend hanging out with friends outside the tourney. I split for 1st on Saturday with Kyle (he wanted the mat more so I got more packs instead), split for 1st on Sunday with Danny (both got a mat and equal packs) and won the one on Monday for a second sneak peek mat. Split for first last night (not a sneak) with Zach, gotta say Dragons been treating me very well but hey I've put in a lot of time with that deck and what can I say it's too good :) Danny has put up his video recap of the weekend here.
This post is one I've wanted to do for a long time now so I'm glad I'm finally getting around to it. Naturally this will be catered more towards people that are striving to improve their game, rather than the completely casual or top-tier competitive player; somewhere in between. Now I must admit, looking back at my years of playing, side-decking is something that I never really had a fantastic grasp on and I believe it's something that is almost entirely based on your perceptions of the game. Your play style and your "theory-oh" are big determinants for what you side and how you side. It's one of the most important aspects of the game but something that I also feel is the most under-looked, under-utilized, and under-practiced.
Whenever one goes into a tournament, it's almost guaranteed that there's at least someone that rolls in with no side deck. Now if I'm playing let's say Mermail and half my meta is decks that main Macro and have D-Fissures in the side they'll bring in against me and I have no side, chances are I'm at the very least going to have a very uphill battle throughout the tournament. Even before entering I've basically set myself up for failure. I believe the principal use of the side is to make your bad match-ups better; in a game where there are a multitude of decks and decks that could be considered bad match-ups for yours, improving your odds in winning the 2 out of 3 is vital. One shouldn't go into a tournament knowing they only have like a 40% win ratio against a certain deck game 1 and not having a side that can improve that percentage for game 2. On the flip side, let's say you're playing something like Spellbook that has a phenomenal game 1 match-up against most of the meta. If you have no side, you have no way of handling the inevitable side deck hate that people will bring in against you. Of course it might not even matter since Spellbook is so powerful anyway, but do you want to leave it completely up to chance? Of course not. What I think many people forget is that even if you win game 1, if you lose games 2 and 3 you lost the match. I know that's a "duh" statement but when you're coming into a tournament with no side, there's actually a lot of truth in that they forget that. This is compounded when all people do is practice game 1's when they play-test. What about games 2 and 3, which consists of potentially 66% of a match?
OK so now I've picked 15 cards for my side and have cards that can handle my bad match-ups and the ones that I'd most likely face. Good to go. I win game 1, go into game 2, and reach for my side - but, "oh crap, I have no idea what all I should be siding out. Wait, should I side this in because my opponent might side that card in? Ah screw it let's try this." Regardless of what happens beyond this point (either win out the match or end up losing), this is a perfect example of a lack of practice in siding and lack of thinking about siding. Having a side is great but just having the cards in there can only go so far if you yourself aren't comfortable with what exactly you'd be siding in, siding out, and handling the potential counter-side. At the local level this is very player-dependent; someone that plays in locals often will have a better idea of how each individual person who plays at the local sides or what they side in. If all I do is play on DN and expect to roll in and win the local box tourney, well that's going to be harder to some certain extent because I'd have a lower likelihood of knowing local players' play tendencies, siding strategies, tells, bluffs, etc.
Something I highly recommend doing to improving with siding is taking a piece of paper and pen (or a notepad program on your computer or phone), simply laying your whole deck out, listing out all the match-ups that you could realistically face, and writing out what you'd take out. Just focus on what you'd take out first and write the number of cards next to the name of the deck. Writing this all out provides some additional form of reinforced memory rather than going simply off the physical act of siding out and in. The more you can train your brain in different ways to help remember these things, the less chance there is of those instances of "oh crap, I forgot to side out Card Destruction and I'm playing against Dark World" and the like. Time is also a very important factor in the game right now as it seems more matches go into time than ever before. If you're in a match where you know you need to play faster than normal, do you want to be in a position where you're taking an excess amount of time during siding due to the lack of practice for what you should be siding in and out? No. The more practice you get, the quicker you can side, which could be the difference between winning or losing in time.
Once you're done listing what you'd side out, then you can focus on what you want to bring in. The first step of making the list of side-outs is important because let's say you have 5 cards that you'd comfortably side out vs a particular match-up - so what good is it to have 10 cards in your side for the match-up instead? If you're at the point of siding those 10 but could initially only find 5 you'd want to side out, well that's going into the unknown/chance territory which could just lead to making your deck inconsistent and losing because of that. I've heard of people siding 10-13 cards just for the Dragon match-up, that just seems crazy to me because I can't comprehend how a deck could retain any form of its original consistency after changing a third of the whole deck, outside of it being a transformation side. Sometimes I ask what all they side out and half the time I get the "uh I dunno just whatever" response. As one decides what all they want to side in, they must also consider what deck they're playing with. A perfect example of this is using Electric Virus against Evilswarm when you're playing some type of Rank-4 deck. I know it seems oh so appealing to take their Ophion when you know they can't do anything against that move, but..then what? Just give it back to them at the end of turn and still be locked down from special summoning? How is that play any good outside of using the Ophion for a tribute summon? I usually hear the "oh but it could help me OTK that turn" rationale, but that is situational at best and I don't believe in siding situationally. Then I hear "well I side in EEV too so I can trib the Ophion for it". OK, well chances are the Electric Virus isn't searchable and neither is the EEV, so kudos if you can consistently have those 2 cards at the same time. Again, situational. Avoid siding situationally and situational cards, go for the more consistent, albiet less of a blowout, cards as a general rule of thumb.
Another thing I see sometimes in post-side games is a "natural conflict" - one of the popular ones is an on-field D-Fissure with either a Thunder King on the field or a Maxx C in hand. These cards aren't always the most symbiotic together, but alone they can be crucial to help in a particular match-up. Having both might be a necessity due to improving your odds of opening with at least one or the other. Against Mermail, both Maxx C and D-Fiss are great. But if the D-Fiss is live, the in-hand Maxx C is naturally dead. The Maxx C is live once they MST that D-Fiss, but a dead card is a dead card and could have resulted in your loss at some point (like say due to topdecking it as they just beat on you with a Dragoons). I don't think there's a right or wrong way of looking at this conundrum, again it depends on what deck you're running and your philosophy of the matter. I'm just highlighting this point to raise awareness of noticing any "natural conflicts" you might be bringing upon yourself due to what you're siding in and your card selection of your side overall.
Next we can discuss the strategy of counter-siding. Sometimes, a deck is consistent and powerful enough that simply accounting for the opponent's side is enough to handle the match-up. An example of this is something like Mermail vs Heroes; rather than going ham and siding in Puppet Plants and Kinetic Soldiers specifically for the match-up, why not just handle their backrows through S/T destruction or lockdown since your monsters should easily be able to handle theirs? Just focus on the backrow that could potentially slow you down. Me personally, I know people go ham with the trap-based hate cards like Mind Drain, Soul Drain, Gozen Match, Rivalry, etc to slow Dragons down. But the more traps you side in, the better EEV becomes and MSTs and Decrees are always live. Gold Sarc for Heavy is always a play. My main preference for EEV is for Spellbooks, but it coincidentally also handles the trap-heavy decks. Sure I won't always draw into a way to handle the million traps you boarded in, but go with the percentages and math, and look at things in a broader and less-situational sense. Another thing I notice is that some of the cards that people side in are only good if they can open with it turn 1 - I believe Anti-Spell Fragrance is a perfect example of this, say you don't open with it and once the Spellbook player has gone off and established their traditional lockdown field, how useful is a mid-game top-decked Anti-Spell Fragrance? Not so much. Again, avoid the situational.
A side deck is as only as good as the match-ups you'll face, so what I usually do before a tournament is scope out who all is there. There's no guarantee that what I think they're playing is what they'll be playing, but going with some sort of odds is better than not. Bring side deck cards for specific match-ups/players, and build your side depending on who shows up, but still retain the concepts you've practiced when it comes to siding in and out. With enough practice you'll always have a sense of balance between under and over-siding even when you're constructing your side at the tournament. I guess this strategy could be considered kinda dirty, but if I know if there are no Spellbook players at the tournament, what's really the point of having the Puppet Plant-Horus side in my side? Basically none. Let's say I got dominated by Dark World last week and a third of the players were playing it so I have 3 Gemini Imps in my side. But this week none of them are here - naturally, no point in keeping them sided. If all the "top players" are playing Mermail, don't just sit there with nothing in your side for that match-up. But at the same time, don't dismiss the other 90% of the tournament and get beat by rogue because 80% of your side was committed for just 1 deck (which we know to avoid for reasons listed above).
Aside from the factor of luck, I believe if two players of equal skill with the same main deck play each other, the one who sides better and makes fewer mistakes should be the winner in the majority of cases. Sometimes we lose because we don't draw into any side, but that's just something that can happen with a game like this. Not drawing into side shouldn't be an excuse to validate over-siding though, because then when you get those hands where your whole hand is your side and not what your deck is naturally striving to do, you can lose just as easily, if not easier. If siding is something you don't practice at all, consider doing so if you'd like to do better at your locals. Not properly practicing and just bitching about the format instead is a cop-out and the lazy way of approaching the game, at least in my honest opinion.
On that note, I wanted to point out Danny's video on "the loser mentality" which I also feel strongly about. Many times I sit down and people are all ready to lose the match before it even began; I think being mentally pre-defeated can contribute to losses, at least to some certain extent. Go into it a winner, and either come out a winner, or do some sort of self-reflection (either on the match, a play mistake, an inferior main deck card choice, siding flaw, side choices, lack of ruling knowledge, etc) to help you improve your odds of being the winner next time.