Feature Article from Zvi Mowshowitz

Who’s The Beatdown II: Multitasking

Zvi Mowshowitz


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Mike Flores’ “Who’s The Beatdown?” is one of Magic’s classic articles. If you haven’t done so, I highly recommend reading it. It references some old cards, but it’s easy to follow even if you don’t know the formats and cards in question. I had already figured out much of what he says, but I only knew it instinctively and didn’t have the right vocabulary with which to talk about it. Flores fleshed that out, providing a better way of thinking about and especially talking about the phenomenon.

Over the years, I’ve used what I learned many times, but I think of it differently. I’ve touched upon it, but I’ve never spelled it out. To me, by far the most important question in a matchup isn’t who the beatdown is, especially not in the pure sense of damage. Attacking for damage is just one means of gaining an advantage, and there are plenty of others. All of them, even damage, can be control or beatdown in the proper context. Instead of asking who the beatdown is, although this is one of many important questions, the proper central one is: Who has inevitability?

Definition: A player is said to have inevitability if and only if from the current position he will win a long game. A player is said to have inevitability in a matchup if and only if they have inevitability on turn one.

Yes, that definition is vague in some ways, but I think it is a good kind of vague because I have productively used all the different interpretations I can think of to describe different situations.

In a large percentage of Magic games and matchups, the goal of one deck is to have inevitability and then preserve it long enough to take advantage of it. Preserving inevitability sometimes just means staying alive, but it can mean other things as well. Often it means not losing too much card economy along the way. Every traditional control deck works like this. Psychatog would seem to be the best current example of such a deck. Psychatog’s strategy could be looked at purely as inevitability backed by a maximum amount of defense once that inevitability is established. The ease by which Psychatog seizes this advantage during deck construction may be its biggest edge. The deck gains inevitability in two ways. First, it has it because of the combination of Psychatog and Upheaval. If the game goes long it will automatically win off of that, unless it is facing another blue deck, in which case things become complicated. It also has it purely because of Psychatog. Every card it uses gives it an extra effect, while its opponents cards are simply lost. If the enemy has nothing to compete with this effect, all a Psychatog deck will have to do is trade off and it will win.

In traditional “Who’s the Beatdown?” terms, inevitability can be looked at as a close variant of the control role. The two are closely related. If the other player has inevitability, you obviously cannot play control without first radically altering the situation. If you do have inevitability, the opponent is in that position instead. That then means the other player must take the role of the beatdown player to have a chance, if the inevitability is strong enough. Things get weird when the beatdown role is redefined. Also keep in mind that the term inevitability is not all-or-nothing, and can easily be thought of in degrees. Often one deck has a long term advantage, but with little margin for error or a danger of being outdrawn. A control war can be thought of in terms of a war for inevitability, even if one player takes the beatdown role. To see how such degrees work, take some straightforward examples: Mirror matches where one player has dead cards he can’t get rid of. If my advantage comes from him having two extra copies of Force Spike, then allowing my opponent even one extra card will nullify what little edge I have, but if he also has eight dead creature removal cards then short of a real disaster I can do whatever I have to.

Now let’s turn our attention to the beatdown role. My view of the beatdown role is much more flexible than it was in the original model. Originally, the beatdown role was the player trying to beatdown, but to me there is a huge difference between engaging in beatdown, even in its most general form, and having the beatdown role. It is also not automatically in the hands of the player who does not have the control role, although the two will be in separate hands in almost all close games and matchups. If someone manages to seize both roles at the same time, that is a devastating advantage. That player will almost always win the game. In the original model, a matchup puts each player into one role with their opponent in the other. In my model, to the extent these roles exist they are both roles that players can compete for. Many matches seem to follow the old model exactly, but it is rare that things are that clear. For example, a Red/Green deck playing against a Psychatog deck in Standard. Here, it seems clear that Red/Green is satisfied to take the beatdown role, and Psychatog settles into the control role. This seems about as clear cut as it gets. But is that strictly the case?

It comes close, but even here things are slightly more fluid than that. Look at this matchup another way and it becomes a card advantage war. The Psychatog deck has ‘bought’ a form of inevitability by putting Upheaval into his deck, but that requires him to be prepared to play eight lands. The odd part of this matchup is that the Psychatog player’s plan is to ‘give back’ his advantage to gain board position by pitching cards to Psychatog. The only creatures in Red/Green that the Tog cannot deal with this way are Phantom Centaur and Grim Lavamancer. Sometimes a Centaur will dominate the game, but consider those cases where it doesn’t and a Psychatog has hit the table.

Grim Lavamancer ends up aiming at the Psychatog a lot. The fact that this has become necessary is a sure sign that the focus of the game has shifted. Both sides are now engaged in an exhaustion war. The Psychatog player can keep the board under control for a long time as long as he is willing to sacrifice cards in order to back up his removal. This is then racing against his card advantage from card drawing and the ability to turn his discards into ammunition. His opponent is trying to run him out of ammunition faster than he can refuel. The Psychatog player has forced his opponent to run him out of cards.

If both players are constantly casting spells and the winner is the one whose spells pack a larger total punch, then who is who? Red/Green will try and gain card advantage by playing cards that exhaust more than their share of resources the same way Psychatog does, and he will win when his opponent runs out of cards – not when he does twenty damage. By redirecting his opponents’ attacks from his life total to his cards, the Psychatog player could be said to be forcing a fight over the control war by sacrificing to nullify the beatdown one. In another sense, he has turned it into a race between two players trying actively to gain advantage, and both players are competing for the beatdown role. A contrary position would say that because Red/Green is still forced to attack, he is still a beatdown player, and the Psychatog player is preserving his life total and blocking so he is the control player. But what is the difference between taking away cards and drawing them? The fact that he is attacking to force the result is incidental.

While Psychatog will win the long game if he is left alone, he won’t be left alone. He is constantly being harassed, and has to give back to stay alive. If the opposing deck can create enough pressure over the long term, then HE has inevitability. The Psychatog player then has to be the one who takes the beatdown role. He must be aggressive, tapping out to draw cards and gain enough cards to regain his role. If he doesn’t have enough active card advantage, he could be in a virtually unwinnable game. Psychatog in particular is a deck that must be understood as switching roles in certain situations, because of what Psychatog itself does to the game – it allows you to defend against or even seize the beatdown role, but at the cost of so much inevitability that the control role can be put in danger. In this particular case, most of the time the roles will be preserved, but things are about to get less clear.

What is important in Magic is constantly changing from matchup to matchup, game to game and even turn to turn. The original concept of Who’s The Beatdown was to know whether you are taking the beatdown role or the control role, and that’s a very good way of starting to look at things, but there’s a larger principle involved here. The whole idea of Who’s The Beatdown isn’t that you need to know which of these two roles you’re taking, it’s that you need to know what each player needs to accomplish to win. As quoted by Flores, Finkel said it best: Focus only on what matters. The roles of beatdown and control player are simply the most likely pair of goals in any given game or situation. They are in no way mandatory, and the are certainly not static in time.

...The whole idea of Who’s The Beatdown isn’t that you need to know which of these two roles you’re taking, it’s that you need to know what each player needs to accomplish to win...

A better example of how a change in position can reverse roles can be seen in another Psychatog matchup. Go back to before Judgment and the rise of Wonder, and look at the battle against Blue/Green. In particular, look at what Merfolk Looter does to the match. If a Looter were to activate and there had not been a lot of Fact or Fiction action, this immediately reverses the roles. Blue/Green is drawing two cards a turn, and now has inevitability in a big way, even more than Psychatog would have had if it had kept that Looter off the table. Blue/Green also had a strong beatdown game from the start, with many games coming down to a quick overrunning of Psychatog.

By keeping that Looter on the table, Blue/Green has accomplished something great: He has seized BOTH roles. There’s no question that trying to attack into him directly would be suicide. In fact, he’s going to force his opponent to play defense even as he seals the long game. In this situation, his opponent has to try and fight for the right to beat down in the form of card advantage, by casting enough spells to outrace that Looter. This is why Deep Analysis was actually a card I hated seeing the Psychatog player have in this matchup. Without it, his position is hopeless, but with it he can at least try and turn the tables again by ‘beating down’ with card drawing. He can be the player doing something to disturb the status quo.

Note that card drawing and card advantage was just refereed to within one page as being both the beatdown role in one situation and the control role in another. That’s because which role any form of advantage takes depends on the context. Attacking for two is normally beatdown, but in strange cases it can be a form of control when facing a card like Necropotence. It can also be irrelevant or virtually irrelevant. Drawing cards is a form of control the majority of the time, but often in control wars, drawing extra cards is the ultimate form of beatdown!

Magic the Gathering Strategy Article
...Magic often about fighting over control AND beatdown...
Let’s now take this altering of roles based on position to extremes, and pit a White/Blue control deck with Wrath of God, say the one played by Jason Zila in the first Masters, against Countersliver. Whose side is time on? That depends on how many Slivers are on the table. If there aren’t any, then each turn favors the control deck. The control deck wants nothing to happen, and the Countersliver deck has to make something happen. At least, that’s what the control player must assume. This is the situation he was hoping for when he designed his deck and thought about this matchup.

If the Countersliver player will win a game in which he has nothing on the table for an extended period of time, then the control player never had a chance. He can’t win quickly no matter what he does, unless he decides to throw a creature like Morphling onto the table and hope it goes all the way. Doing nothing MUST be a route to victory for him. Because his deck is passive, that means guarding every opening every stage of the way, making sure his opponent can’t profitably make a move at any point until he’s ready to go in for the kill. If there is a certain point in the game, for mana reasons or otherwise, at which the Countersliver player can win from a neutral position without anything perverse having happened, then the control deck has no game. So let’s assume that there is no such point – if the control player untaps with an empty board and lots of land in play, he has won unless he made a huge sacrifice to get there.

As a side note, there was a very similar matchup that did indeed have this problem. In the finals of the Masters tournament at Nice, Alexander Witt was playing Miracle Grow against Justin Gary playing Oath. Normally, Justin would take the control role, but the problem for Justin was that his sideboard didn’t have enough removal to deal with his opponents’ Winter Orbs. In the long term, Alexander would likely be able to play a game he would win, despite his also playing an aggro-control strategy similar to Countersliver. As a result, Justin had no choice but to sideboard in Call of the Herd and attempt to go beatdown, even though he was ill-prepared to do so. It left him little chance and he lost the match, but a small chance is better than none. Also, when Zila played in his own final match against Tradewind-Survival, he lost because he could not convert a neutral table into a win before his Mana Leaks went dead, and that left him without enough answers to stop Back to Basics.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why I included the Countersliver match at all. It seems straightforward, right? I included it to point out what happens when two creatures resolve. Suppose there’s a Muscle Sliver and Crystalline Sliver on the table for five damage a turn. Which role is each player in? Yes, the Countersliver player is attacking and the control player is trying to stop him from attacking, but reverse that and it all makes more sense. The Countersliver player is trying to preserve the status quo. That means preventing the control player from resolving a Wrath of God or a Morphling, or be prepared to recreate his advantage immediately afterwards. He has control of the game right now, and he wants to keep it. To do that he’ll protect the board with counters.

He’s the control player now, and the control deck must now become the active player. He must ‘beatdown’ his opponent with test spells and threats and whatever else it takes to change the board position. Be careful not to confuse control player with control role, I imagine those terms might be a bit confusing and perhaps I should have used other terminology but didn’t want to make anything more up. A large hint that this is possible comes from the term ‘aggro-control,’ which is used to refer to strategies like Countersliver. It implies that they have the ability to act as control decks in certain positions, as well as being control decks in some matchups.

This phenomenon can also be looked at as a separate asset, which might be called ‘winning on the table.’ It corresponds to who would win if there was a Standstill out that neither player could ever break without losing, then modified to the exact situation as needed. It only matters when there is some reason that the player currently losing on the table can’t change the situation at will. One possibility is he has no hand or you’ve taken away all of his relevant cards. Another method is that he is facing counters, so it won’t be easy for him to resolve anything important. Both these concepts are often useful but also often meaningless. If two Yawgmoth’s Bargain decks were playing each other, then it makes zero difference who wins a long game. What’s a long game? Similarly, in matchups not involving control decks winning on the table only matters in situations where there is some reason for it to matter, and that will normally mean being so late that someone’s hand is empty.

In Magic, what is important is constantly changing. As what is important changes, players have to adjust to that by taking on different roles. In a sense, Magic can be looked at as the quest to obtain roles, and those roles are highly flexible at every level. They can change not only between matchups, decks and games but also between turns. In all but the most clear cut matchups such switches will be frequent. As Flores mentioned, many of the best sideboards are designed not only to put in good cards against an opponent but to change or even reverse your overall strategy. Part of that is often changing the role you intend to play. Even more important, you need to understand what each player needs to do in order to win. Assigning one player the beatdown role and another the control role is a matchup is valuable and will often grant new insight, but it only scratches the surface of the problem.

...Magic can be looked at as the quest to obtain roles, and those roles are highly flexible at every level...

Arguably the most valuable skill in Magic is the ability to recognize what matters so that one may as Finkel says focus on it. A large part of the reason I can still be fascinated by Magic after ten years is that while it may every once in a long while be the same game twice (I’ve played such decks as Yawgmoth’s Bargain and Zero Effect, so don’t tell me it doesn’t happen) but that often the game will force you to re-examine the situation and re-examine what matters. This is done intentionally with block themes, but even within a single game there can be many shifts – it might start out as a creature rush, then a card advantage war, then about counter allocation, then be about mana denial to keep the other player from casting Urza’s Rage, then finally about cards in each players’ library. Knowing in advance how all of this is going to play out is necessary if you are to decide how to play such a game.

- Zvi Mowshowitz