Before one begins testing, one must build a deck – to do this, one must familiarize themselves with the card pool. It’s a good idea to limit your card pool to say, Extended or Standard – because building within limits makes for good practice. You might be wondering why you’d want to practise building decks with limitations – and the answer is simple; because it leads to problems. The most difficult problem most people still aren’t good at solving is a deck’s mana base. To some of us, building a multicoloured mana base as easy as pie – to others, it’s like an unfathomable pit of despair. This is among the first problems you must always be on the watch out for during testing.
This is among the most limiting factors for a deck – fixing your mana. In Extended and Legacy, there’s lands for nearly every situation – and fetchlands allow you to play more lands than you normally would – you could easily see decks with less than 12 mana producing lands that nearly never get bad starts, simply because they play with a well tuned mana base. This is something that you need to do a lot of testing to get right.
It might never seem like it, but taking out one land, swapping lands and even adding lands change the deck’s consistency a lot. You’d never think swapping out one [card]Swamp[/card] for one [card]Caves of Koilos[/card] would help too much in a black-white deck – but even [card]Caves of Koilos[/card], which has been now superseded by the likes of [card]Marsh Flats[/card] and [card]Godless Shrine[/card] – is way better than a Swamp.
The next thing to watch for is for key cards. Watch which cards in your deck win you games, like [card]Baneslayer Angel[/card], [card]Vampire Nocturnus[/card], [card]Hedron Crab[/card] and so on. Even better – play against your own deck and see which cards are really putting pressure on your opponent. A lot of good cards which might seem mediocre in your initial judgment like [card]Qasali Pridemage[/card] and [card]Chandra Nalaar[/card] may change your opponent’s play style in such a way that you never notice how good they are.
You should also identify every other popular decks’ key cards. [card]Lotus Cobra[/card], [card]Nissa Revane[/card], [card]Hedron Crab[/card], [card]Luminarch Ascension[/card] and even [card]Wall of Denial[/card] are some examples. This are cards that could easily win games for you and your opponent. Think about solutions – remember to think about whether you need to treat the symptom, or deal with the underlying problem.
For example, you could get rid of [card]Lotus Cobra[/card] – but the real problem is actually stuff being put into play with [card]Lotus Cobra[/card]. Similarly with [card]Hedron Crab[/card] in Unearth decks, destroying it might slow him down – but he might still eventually win. It might be wiser to steal stuff being put into play – stealing a [card]Baneslayer Angel[/card] is an awesome way to ruin someone’s day; [card]Act of Treason[/card] might be way more useful than [card]Pyroclasm[/card] in dealing with [card]Lotus Cobra[/card]. Graveyard hate like [card]Jund Charm[/card] and [card]Ravenous Trap[/card] might be a little better than trying to kill their [card]Hedron Crab[/card] (when they probably still have [card]Tome Scour[/card], [card]Traumatize[/card] and so on in their decks).
Make sure you know what your best hand looks like. A really awesome hand for one deck can be a nightmare for another – for an Unearth deck, [card]Hedron Crab[/card], [card]Grim Discovery[/card] and 5 fetchlands is an awesome hand – but most people will probably mulligan a hand with 2 spells costing less than 2 mana containing 5 lands. Similarly, make sure you know what the best hand for the popular decks in Standard looks like against you. Imagine how you’d deal with their ideal hand – it’ll help you a lot when it actually comes up instead of staring in wonder at your opponent’s miraculous plays. More importantly, imagine what cards you need to take on their ideal hand.
Why do you need to know these things? Your sideboard can only be at most 15 cards. Generally, unless your match up against a particular deck is ridiculously bad, you won’t be putting very narrow cards in your sideboard to deal with the problem. You want to put in cards that can deal with the problem in general. [card]Oblivion Ring[/card] is an example – it can hit everything but lands. It helps if you need removal against something unusual (like a planeswalker), it also helps if you just happen to need more removal to deal with something.
I don’t believe in single cards in the sideboard (unless you are playing tutoring cards like Gifts or Wishes), so in general that leaves with a choice of 4 cards to deal with the problem (4 + 4 + 4 + 3). Most of the time in Standard, it’s some kind of removal to deal with noncreature threats or graveyard hate. This can easily range from something simple like [card]Pyroclasm[/card] to something as complicated as [card]World Queller[/card].
Occasionally, people use a transformational sideboard – which can be useful for surprising your opponent in both the earlier games! Some people don’t even need a sideboard – because they’re playing a deck with multiple strategies. Hybrid combo decks are generally slower than their focused parent versions, but they’re something to be wary of as you can’t always tell what’s going to happen next!
Popular sideboard choices should also be taken into account during testing – you must know how vulnerable your deck is to disruption. If your Unearth deck strategy is vulnerable to [card]Jund Charm[/card], it might be wise to put counter spells into your deck – [card]Negate[/card] is a good choice – and it is bound to counter something else you don’t like – [card]Path to Exile[/card], [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] or even [card]Nissa Revane[/card].
Sometimes the card you might have to deal with is resistant to tampering – like a [card]Sphinx of Jwar Isle[/card]. You might need to look into less (or perhaps more) conventional manners of dealing with it, like blocking it with a [card]Vampire Nighthawk[/card] or hard casting an [card]Extractor Demon[/card] (how usual sounding if you don’t play Unearth).
It’s just as important to know how your deck does after sideboarding. It’s no good to win game 1, and then lose games 2 & 3. It’s important to ensure your deck isn’t easily disrupted, and make sure that you’re not particularly vulnerable to popular sideboard choices.