Deep Analysis – Taking “Who’s The Beatdown” Two Steps Further

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Thursday, December 4th – “Who’s The Beatdown?” by Mike Flores is perhaps the most influential and important piece of Magic theory ever written. Today’s Deep Analysis attempts to expand on the fine theories presented in Mike’s masterpiece with a few of Feldman’s own ideas and inspirations…

Combo, Beatdown, and Control

“Combo deck” is such a weird term.

We all know Elves! is a combo deck.

It’s not a two-card combo like the quintessential Donate plus Illusions of Grandeur combo, nor a three-card combo, nor even a four-card combo. Rather, it is a deck full of dozens of synergistic combo pieces; when these pieces come together in the right combination, they allow it to either generate enough storm for a lethal Grapeshot or enough creatures to Chord of Calling out a lethal Predator Dragon.

Elves! is a combo deck, and yet, this is how game 3 of Luis Scott-Vargas match against Kenny Oberg in the quarterfinals of PT: Berlin ended.

“For his turn, Scott-Vargas played Elvish Visionary, and Umezawa’s Jitte. Attacks took Öberg to 4, and after combat he ensured that he had an equipped creature, so that even in the case of Firespout, one Viridian Shaman would be back to get in there for the final points.”

If this was all you knew of the deck, it would sound more Mono-Green Beats than Combo.

Obviously, creature beatdown is not LSV’s ideal path to victory in the matchup against a Blue control deck. However, it’s not like he only resorted to this plan out of desperation – after all, he boarded in Jittes. He knew full well that his combo might not carry the day, but with the help of Jitte, he might be able to steal a win through attacking instead.

Even in beatdown mode, LSV can still make opportunistic use of his usual combo pieces. Say his board is Firespouted away. He can untap, play Glimpse of Nature, cast a Nettle Sentinel and a few other guys, and then fizzle out, failing to go the whole nine yards and kill his opponent. Still, vomiting out a half-dozen Elves in one turn (and cantripping off each of them) sounds like a pretty phenomenal turn for an aggro deck.

Speaking of aggro – unlike Elves!, Goblins is not a combo deck.

Rather, it is a midrange beatdown deck. Still, much like Elves!, it can “go off,” playing Goblin Matron onto a board with four lands plus Goblin Warchief and Skirk Prospector, then fetching up a Siege-Gang Commander, sacrificing the Prospector and the Matron to pay for it, and swinging with the Hasty team of two 2/2s and three 1/1s. Turns like this are very reminiscent of the example where LSV started going off in the middle of Plan B, but fizzled.

In fact, many beatdown decks have potential mini-combos like this. For those of you who remember Affinity back when Disciple of the Vault was legal, that deck was often as much about attacking as it was chaining together Thoughtcasts and sacrificing artifacts strategically to maximize Disciple triggers, while leaving enough mana and power on the table to finish the job.

Today, in Standard, we also observe such small combos in decks like Faeries. They’ll lead with Bitterblossom, segue that into Spellstutter Sprite to stop the opponent’s only play next turn, parlay that into Mistbind Clique to stop the opponent’s next turn, and crown it all with a crushing, Scion of Oona-fueled attack.

Okay, so what about the One Big Spell decks? Is Tooth and Nail plus nine mana really a combo? It generally wins the game if it resolves, after all.

Some people would argue that this “doesn’t count,” because the combo pieces are really just one business spell and then some lands that are just there to provide the mana required to cast it. Of course, many more elaborate combos work this way, using infinite loops that are “just there to provide the mana required to cast” a game-ending business spell with X in the casting cost.

Indeed, Tooth and Nail was a successful combo deck in its time. And all it did was ramp mana and cast one spell.

But what was Tooth and Nail’s Plan B? Did it have one? Certainly it was not beatdown, as with Elves! Rather, Tooth and Nail’s Plan B was to play control – and not very well, I might add. Most builds included cards like Oblivion Stone to clear the board and big fatties like Sundering Titan waiting to be Toothed out. Sure, it wasn’t very good at playing control, but that was preferable to the alternative tactic of lightning-fast Sakura-Tribe Elder beatdown.

Speaking of control – unlike Tooth and Nail, U/G Tron is not a combo deck.

It does, however, have a lovely combo finish built in: Academy Ruins plus Mindslaver plus a king’s ransom in mana. Between Gifts Ungiven, Tron pieces, and Life from the Loam, the deck is quite capable of setting up this combo over the course of a protracted game.

As with Tooth and Nail, U/G Tron’s combo is simply “a bunch of lands plus one supremely expensive spell” (in fairness, one land does have to be specifically Academy Ruins), but the two decks differ in that U/G Tron is not built for speed. Instead, it is built for interaction, keeping the opponent at bay long enough to slowly set up the lock. Like most control decks, it can also simply drop a fatty on a stable board position to win that way, and it often does not have a preference for the creature or the combo kill.

Plan A and Plan B

I’ve mentioned six decks so far: Elves!, Goblins, Affinity, Faeries, Tooth and Nail, and U/G Tron. I’ve discussed the combo components that each deck possesses, yet we consider only two of the five true combo decks. Why is this?

Simple: for those decks, combo is their Plan A. Both Elves! and Tooth and Nail are built to assemble their combos as quickly as possible, and only if that fails do they resort to a backup plan such as beatdown for Elves! or control for Tooth and Nail.

Conversely, each of the other four decks has a Plan A that is not combo. Affinity wants to play aggro, Goblins wants to play midrange beatdown, Faeries wants to play aggro-control, and U/G Tron wants to play control.

If one of these decks is zipping along with its Plan A, when suddenly it happens upon a combo that could quickly propel it down the road to victory – such as Disciple of the Vault plus Arcbound Ravager when the opponent is at five and your board is five artifacts plus the Disciple – it is generally a good idea to seize the moment. For these decks, the combo elements constitute less of a fall-back Plan B than they do an opportunity to steal a big advantage while going about their normal business.

However, this is not always the case. Sometimes your best path to victory lies in abandoning Plan A altogether, and switching to combo as a full-on Plan B. Even an aggro deck must sometimes start sacrificing resources and tempo in order to set up a combo – say, by chumping Chameleon Colossus with Mistbind Clique rather than Scion of Oona because your only out is to topdeck a Sower of Temptation for the Colossus and make sure it sticks – because Plan A has become infeasible.

Putting all this together, you can think of Goblins as a beatdown deck (plan A) accompanied by a group of weak mini-combos (plan B), or Affinity as a beatdown deck built accompanied by a somewhat stronger group of mini-combos.

Likewise, you can think of Tooth and Nail as a combo deck (plan A) accompanied by a weak control core (plan B), or Elves! as a combo deck accompanied by a somewhat stronger beatdown core.

Of course, there are more strategic archetypes in Magic than just aggro and control – in fact, last year Adrian Sullivan devoted an entire article to the lesser-discussed archetypes. We see varying degrees of combo assert themselves in every strategic archetype, even in the ones that do not aim for combo as their Plan A.

For example, Midrange Beatdown decks have often had incidental combos like Paladin en-Vec plus Worship to beat Red decks, and Midrange Control decks have often included some recursive combo that they could set up as the game dragged on to give themselves inevitability. Project X was a combo deck (infinite lifegain) that had a Plan B of going midrange with Castigate, Loxodon Hierarch, removal, and so on.

Really, almost no combo deck exists without at least some backup plan that falls somewhere between aggro and control, just like almost no aggro, control, or other deck exists without at least some combo elements in it.

Broadening Who’s the Beatdown?

Mike Flores begins “Who’s the Beatdown?”, the most important piece of Magic theory ever written, with the following:

The most common (yet subtle, yet disastrous) mistake I see in tournament Magic is the misassignment of who is the beatdown deck and who is the control deck in a similar deck vs. similar deck matchup. The player who misassigns himself is inevitably the loser.

You see, in similar deck vs. similar deck matchups, unless the decks are really symmetrical (i.e. the true Mirror match), one deck has to play the role of beatdown, and the other deck has to play the role of control. This can be a very serious dilemma, if, say, both are playing aggressive decks.

Throughout the article, Mike is careful to apply this theory only to decks that are similar, but not so similar as to be carbon copies of one another. In my experience, however, it is far more insightful than that, and has much farther-reaching applications than this limited scope.

Even in the true mirror, “Who’s the Beatdown?” is a crucial question to ask yourself. Let’s say you are playing the Zoo mirror, for example, and both of you decide, “I am the beatdown.” Even if you both have one hundred percent identical decks, and one hundred percent identical draws for the entire game, only one of you can win this game.

If you are both beating down as quickly as possible, most likely the player who went first will win. However, even with identical draws, there is a chance the player who drew first can win thanks to the single point of extra card advantage generated by his extra draw step. To maximize the chance that he will actually get to tip the scales with his extra card, though, he pretty much needs both players to exhaust their resources – that is, empty their hands.

To maximize the chance that the game state makes it that far, the player on the draw should take up the control role, trading with the opponent’s creatures wherever possible in order to slow the game down to the point where both players can empty their hands.

Even under the most similar of conditions, figuring out the role to assume – beatdown or control – can be the difference between victory and defeat. In other words, Who’s The Beatdown extends not only to “similar deck vs. similar deck” but to identical deck vs. identical deck.

This is the first step in expanding the application of Who’s The Beatdown from “similar deck vs. similar deck” to every possible matchup in Magic. The second step is to see how far it works in the other direction – to dissimilar deck vs. dissimilar deck.

Really, it goes all the way; no matter what two decks are involved in a matchup, it is critical for each player to identify whether he should assume a beatdown or a control role.

Sometimes this is easy to work out. Say you’re Zoo versus U/G Tron. You can usually call that one a mile away – Zoo should play beatdown, and U/G Tron should play control. Usually, that is.

There will be games where Tron will randomly jam out a Sundering Titan on turn 3. In those games, Tron will profit from putting on a beatdown hat and turning those Repeals from anti-threat answers into blocker-removing cantrips.

At that point, Zoo could easily look at its hand and realize that racing is a losing proposition. Thus, to have any chance at victory, it must adopt a temporary control posture, working to answer Tron’s monolithic threat at all costs – even if that means double-blocking and throwing a can and a half of burn at the Titan despite Remand and Condescend.

After eliminating the Titan, of course, Zoo should switch back to a beatdown stance; controlling the game long-term (stockpiling burn for future threats from U/G, and other such silliness) is definitely not the way to go.

Even when two decks are as diametrically opposed as a dedicated control deck and a dedicated beatdown deck, it can be crucial to ask yourself “Who’s the Beatdown?” on even a play-by-play basis. After all, the correct answer can absolutely change that quickly. (See also The Strategic Moment.)

Naturally, when you pick two decks even closer on the beatdown-control spectrum (such as midrange control vs. true midrange), the question becomes even more pressing. But what about decks that do not plan to beat down or control the game to win?

Finally, preferred roles can also change between maindeck and sideboard. I can imagine a burn-heavy Zoo deck whose smartest path to victory against Affinity in game 1 is to do a lot of chumping and burning the face. Post-board, though, when Kataki and Ancient Grudge enter the picture, the Zoo deck may now have enough weaponry to become the favorite if it starts pointing that burn at the opponent’s creatures and controlling the board instead.

What About Combo?

Ah, combo – the only remaining matchup in which it seems “Who’s the Beatdown?” might not be a relevant question to ask. Then again, imagine if “Who’s the Beatdown?” had instead been called “Who’s the Aggressor?”

Would this still be in doubt?

Let’s say Tooth and Nail (combo built around a weak control core) is battling U/G Tron (control with a dash of combo).

In this matchup, rather than trying to establish control of the game, Tooth is pushing as hard and as fast as it can to kill the opponent. Sure, it’s using a combo rather than a long sequence of attack steps to do it, but it is undoubtedly the aggressor here, just as Zoo would have been against U/G Tron.

It would take a very special flavor of derangement for Tooth and Nail to try and control U/G Tron using laughable answers like Oblivion Stone, Viridian Shaman, and Reap and Sow.

On the flip side, U/G Tron clearly wants to assume a control stance in this matchup. Trying to race for Gifts Ungiven into the million-mana Academy Ruins/Mindslaver lock against Tooth’s Sylvan Scryings, Reap and Sows, and (comparatively cheap) nine-mana win condition is a fool’s errand. It makes much more sense to start building up stores of countermagic, use Gifts to set up Ghost Quarter recursion with Life from the Loam, and only go for the finish after sufficiently kneecapping Tooth’s ability to finish first.

Who’s the beatdown? Tooth and Nail is the beatdown, if it knows what’s good for it.

Now let’s say Tooth and Nail is up against this deck:

Is Tooth and Nail still the beatdown?

Since TEPS typically goldfishes a full turn faster than Tooth does, this seems a losing proposition.

Everything varies by draw, of course (if TEPS is stuck on one land, for example, and has no Lotus Blooms, then combocombocombo!) but most of the time Tooth will need to exert a degree of control over TEPS’s combo pieces if it is going to win. What does that entail, exactly?

That means casting turn 3 Reap and Sow on the opponent’s land. It means you ignore the Sylvan Scrying in your hand in favor of turn 2 Elder, turn 3 Oblivion Ring, so you have five mana available to blow up his incoming Lotus Bloom when you end your fourth turn. It even means imprinting your only Tooth and Nail on a Chrome Mox so you can cast Plow Under on turn 3, because you’re not getting another chance to nail that Lotus Bloom with Viridian Shaman if he has access to all his lands when it arrives.

If you mosey along making land drops while successfully reigning in the opponent’s ability to combo off and kill you, you can emerge victorious when the dust settles. As long as you are simply walking forward while the opponent is reduced to limping because of your concentrated disruption efforts, you can turn a losing race into a fight you can actually win.

The Rule of Thumb

In the original piece, Mike gives three things to consider when determining the aggressor:

1. Who has more damage? Usually he has to be the beatdown deck.
2. Who has more removal? Usually he has to be the control deck.
3. Who has more permission and card drawing? Almost always he has to be the control deck.

I’ll simplify it even further:

Will you win a race? If so, you are the beatdown.

This question is important to you in every single moment of every single game of Magic you play. Not only when you are playing against a similar deck, not only when you are playing against an identical deck, not only when you are playing against a completely different deck, and not only when you just answered the question correctly last turn.

The savviest of players will know when it is time to change their answer – mid-sentence, if necessary – and having the right answer is often the difference between victory and defeat.

So thanks for reading! Until next time, may you remember to ask yourself “Who’s the Beatdown?”as often as you should.

Richard Feldman
Team :S
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