The Quest to Beat BG -or- The Fifteen-Card Sideboard

Hi! If you don’t know me, my name’s Paul Mitchell and I’m a competitive Magic player in Melbourne, Australia. I’m a fan of oldschool theories and concepts, especially when they’re relevant in current formats and metagames, so if you’re interested in that kind of thing (or just want to check out my take on Standard and other constructed formats) I’ll try to make the history books as interesting as possible right here on TGM!

If you’ve been keeping up with Aether Revolt Standard since the Pro Tour, you are probably familiar with the three-deck paradigm that many have put forward to describe how the Tier-1 decks of the format shape up against each other:

BG Snek > Mardu Vehicles > Copycat

Of course, there are many other decks you could play in the format to success (RG Pummeler, Temur Energy Control, UR Zombies, Aetherworks Marvel etc). However, as of writing this article the three macro-decks mentioned above make up over 75% of the MtgTop8 metagame, so when preparing your 75 and your sideboard plans you would be best served to prepare for these three decks more thoroughly than Tier-2 fringe decks which you may or may not come up against on any given day.

For budding Vehicles pilots such as myself (or any of the Tier-1 decks for that matter), you may be content to fit within the paradigm and accept your 40%-50%-60% matchup percentages as the case may be. However, sometimes the urge to break free from these predestined expectations becomes too strong, and you can’t help but try to have your cake and eat it too.

Here’s the Mardu Vehicles deck I’ve been trying out for about a week now, in preparation for the upcoming RPTQ weekend:

Mardu Vehicles by Paul Mitchell

Land: (24)
Aether Hub
Concealed Courtyard
Inspiring Vantage
Needle Spires
Shambling Vent
Spire of Industry

Spells: (36)
Thraben Inspector
Toolcraft Exemplar
Veteran Motorist
Scrapheap Scrounger
Pia Nalaar
Thalia, Heretic Cathar
Aethersphere Harvester
Heart of Kiran
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
Fatal Push
Unlicensed Disintegration
Sideboard: (15)
Inventor's Apprentice
Chandra, Torch of Defiance
Release the Gremlins
Painful Truths
Fatal Push
Skywhaler's Shot
Shambling Vent

A few quick words about the deck before we talk about the BG Matchup:

  • In my experience the blue splash isn’t worth it – you have access to powerful cards out of the sideboard in certain matchups, but it hurts your consistency in every matchup and I value consistency very highly.
  • 24 Lands + 4 Gideon maindeck hopefully positions this deck to be slightly bigger in the mirror to get something of an edge, and the three manlands help mitigate the effects of flooding.
  • Fewer vehicles total (1 Aethersphere Harvester main and 0 Skysovereign, Consul Flagship in the board) makes you less susceptible to Release the Gremlins in postboard games while still keeping your Toolcraft Exemplars and Spire of Industrys active (which also makes Thalia more appealing than Depala).

If you cast your eyes to the sideboard, you might see a few cards that you want to bring in against BG Snek. However, I’ve been trying out a radical idea vs BG – sideboarding all fifteen cards against them.


Who’s the Beatdown?

For a piece of Magic vernacular that is almost taken for granted these days, it’s hard to imagine someone actually having to sit down and write about it for the first time! For a better understanding of this concept, Mike Flores’ legendary (and still incredibly relevant) article Who’s the Beatdown is required reading.

However, for the purposes of this article, I’ll sum it up thusly:

  • In order to be successful at Magic at the highest level, you need to be able to identify which player is more incentivised to finish the game in a hurry (the Beatdown) by determining who will win if the game goes long (the Control).
  • Flores suggests three metrics to help correctly identify which player belongs in which of these two roles – who has more damage, who has more removal, and who has more permission / card drawing.

Role-assignment is easy when decks are attempting to achieve vastly different objectives. (e.g. it’s very difficult to misidentify your role in the Mono-Red Goblins vs UW Control matchup!) It becomes more and more difficult as the decks get closer and closer in strategies, and when the roles become muddied and difficult to interpret, being the player in the matchup who is able to decipher ‘Who’s the Beatdown?’ becomes highly advantaged.


BG vs. Mardu

So… who’s the Beatdown in the BG vs Mardu matchup?

This is what I’ve been wondering for a little while now, and based on traditional definitions it definitely feels murky. Let’s have a look at each of Flores’ metrics to help us out:

  1. Who has more damage? Whoever has more damage is likely to be the Beatdown. Thanks to Unlicensed Disintegration and also sometimes Shock and Chandra, Torch of Defiance, it definitely feels like Mardu with its red cards has the greater amount of direct damage, but a supercharged Walking Ballista can also throw around a scary number of pings. Based on this category, Mardu feels like it should be the Beatdown more often, but it’s certainly not clear cut and the right kind of draw from the BG player can change the equation.
  2. Who has more removal? The deck with the superior arsenal of removal is more likely to be the Control, but with both lists usually running about 8ish removal spells, this isn’t a great determiner. If anything, with Mardu’s Unlicensed Disintegrations being a bigger, badder catch-all than BG’s Murder and Grasp of Darkness, Mardu is more likely to be the control, but the card itself leans more aggressive due to the 3 damage to the face so this is more or less a wash.
  3. Who has more permission / card drawing? This is usually a key indicator that someone can lock up the late game with overwhelming card advantage, and while neither deck runs traditional blue-style draw spells like Glimmer of Genius, they do have incremental advantage cards. That being said, I don’t think BG’s mana sinks of Walking Ballista activations and the occasional planeswalker holds up to Mardu’s access to 3-4 Gideons, Veteran Motorist scrys, and Depala activations. I’m giving this one to Mardu, but not by a lot.

Based on these broad categories, by my reckoning, there isn’t a clear winner. What -is- clear is how well the BG cards themselves line up against Mardu, but that doesn’t help with our conceptual-level sideboarding strategies. In these types of situations, it turns out that play vs draw becomes a huge factor, and this is the key to the strategy I’ve been trialling recently to reasonable success.

(Keep in mind that there are many flavours of BG and different variations will influence sideboarding decisions. Keep your brain switched on when playing your matches!)


Mardu Sideboarding vs BG (on the Play)


1 Shambling Vent
2 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
1 Pia Nalaar
1 Thalia, Heretic Cathar
1 Aethersphere Harvester

3 Inventor’s Apprentice
2 Fatal Push
1 Shock

Mardu Sideboarding vs BG (on the Draw)


4 Toolcraft Exemplar
4 Scrapheap Scrounger
4 Veteran Motorist


2 Chandra, Torch of Defiance
2 Fatal Push
1 Shock
2 Release the Gremlins
1 Painful Truths
1 Skywhaler’s Shot
2 Fumigate
1 Shambling Vent

I’ll admit it – this plan is probably a bit too fancy. For instance, Gideon is a very powerful card against BG and maybe shouldn’t be coming out even on the play, and Release the Gremlins only really lines up well against Verdurous Gearhulk and sometimes maybe a vehicle because Walking Ballista is such a bad target when X=1. This tactic came to me when thinking about role-assignment in this matchup and what I could do to firmly establish myself in one of the two camps, while hopefully catching our opponents off-guard and misassigning themselves.

It’s a lot easier to be the Beatdown on the play. Your threats come out earlier, so if the game comes down to trading resource-for-resource and you started off with a Toolcraft Exemplar that’s been able to stick around since Turn 1, chances are your opponent has taken 6-9 more damage than you. If we are truly attempting to position ourselves firmly as the Beatdown in a sideboarded game on the play, then we can take out some 3 and 4 mana cards for a pile of 1-drops and smash our BG enemies with strong tempo plays before they know what hit them.

Similarly, if it’s easier to be the Beatdown on the play, you are probably best served by aiming to the Control on the draw. While we only have one true card draw spell in the singleton Painful Truths, cards like Fumigate, Skywhaler’s Shot and Release the Gremlins give us ways to load up on ways to answer our opponent’s assault while getting incremental advantages along the way.









Here’s the way this is supposed to play out:

  • Game 1: You get smashed. It’s not impossible to win vs BG, but they are the favourites and you’re more likely to lose.
  • Game 2: You’re on the play post-sideboard. The fumigate + skywhaler’s shot plan is well known by most BG players, so they might counter that strategy with cards like Ob Nixilis, Reignited or Heroic Intervention. Instead, they are met with a flurry of cheap creatures and cheap interaction, and they get run over with their value cards stranded in their hand.
  • Game 3: They rethink their strategy based on what they saw in Game 2. Maybe they readjust a bit, and hedge their bets by taking out one or two late-game spells for more early game action. Instead, you swap out FIFTEEN CARDS for the other cards sitting in your deckbox at this point, and you become a Mardu control deck which is fully prepared to be the Control roleplayer, with tons of removal, value plays and a lack of x/1’s to get eaten by Walking Ballistas.

Maybe this strategy isn’t optimal in the abstract. But the punishment for misassigning your role in a game of Magic is horrible, and by enacting this kind of plan you are very unlikely to misassign yourself while setting your opponent up for disaster. I would recommend considering a strategy like this when a Midrangey problem matchup in your metagame has roughly equal claim to the Beatdown / Control role as you (provided your sideboard slots are able to accommodate), as the reward for sidestepping your opponent’s expectations and causing them to mis-sideboard can be a match-winning advantage.

Got a better strategy to help beat BG? Let me know in the comments and we can chat about it!

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