Eight Core Principles Of “Who’s The Beatdown?”

Lauren Lee suggested that Mike Flores rewrite the iconic “Who’s the Beatdown?” using modern Standard examples. Discover how Mike revisits his article’s ageless wisdom and applies it to the game today.

“WTF is a Cursed Scroll?” -Your readers

In the aftermath of the great Flores Friday Murdering of Last Week, Lauren Lee, editorial gun-girl (formerly coat hanger combatant), laid out some fourteen different topics for future exploration, the first of which was “Lies Your Teacher Told You; Truths Mine Told Me.

The second was a challenge of heretofore untold degree of difficulty: Re-write “Who’s the Beatdown?” using modern Standard examples.

For if one were to distill the most iconic, the most influential—I shudder to say “best”—Magic article of all time down to just one pick, certainly that article would be…

Timmy, Johnny, and Spike.

But if one were to apply that same lens to the best of the best of the strategy articles, it would be…

Magic: The Intangibles, Information Cascades, or perhaps How to Win a PTQ.

All kidding aside, through the years there has been one most-referenced, seminal strategy article, and that of course is “Who’s the Beatdown?” from 1999. It is in fact a very good, and dense, Magic article.

Rather than try to re-create the narratives of “Who’s the Beatdown?” via a contrived 2012 voice, I elect here to instead distill its ageless wisdom into eight salient points:

  1. There Are Two Kinds of Decks and Their Positions Are Fluid
  2. Greed Must Be Balanced Against Speed
  3. Thou Shalt Play Differently Going First and Going Second
  4. Inevitability + A General Rule
  5. All War Is Based on Deception
  6. Identify Position; Take Action
  7. One Definition of a Bad Matchup
  8. Sideboarding Can Be Used to Eliminate Dead Weight

I have often joked that “Who’s the Beatdown?” would not have fulfilled the minimum word count requirement of a StarCityGames.com article; so while it touches on and implies any number of profound ageless truths about Magic and game strategy in general, it’s not exhaustive in many of these respects (for example, Zvi Mowshowitz produced his own all-time article “Who’s the Beatdown II: Multitasking,” which coined the term inevitability as an extrapolation of #4 above). Ergo, we will take this opportunity to go a level further in each of the eight instances.

There Are Two Kinds of Decks and Their Positions Are Fluid

The core principle of “Who’s the Beatdown?” is that, rather than deal with decks by their macro-identities (beatdown, control, combo, and their eight or so sub-genres), the more useful model is to reduce those to just the two: beatdown and control.

This simplification was even more controversial in 1999 than it may be for you reading it thirteen years later. What do you mean there is no such thing as a combo deck? Or, PV says aggro-control is the best archetype… How can there be no such thing?

“Who’s the Beatdown?” argues that such macro distinctions are useless in context. Really the puzzle must be one of contextual identity, the Vorlon / Shadow questions of “Who are you?” and “What do you want?”

Are you…

1. The guy trying to kill the other guy, or…

2. The guy trying to get card advantage

How you answer that question ultimately dictates not your position everywhere and for all time or your identity as a player and a person (i.e., Joey Pasco has an “affinity for Island” and self-identifies as a Blue Mage), but simply how you should conduct yourself in the context of the game at hand.

For instance, let’s continue with Joey.

Joey loves Islands.

When he makes a Constructed deck, he loves to play a Mana Leak, a Snapcaster Mage…but might also play reanimation spells, planeswalkers, and combo-kill. Superficially (or had he never read “Who’s the Beatdown?”), Joey—self-identifying as a Blue Mage—might consistently position himself as “the control” seeing as he has Islands in front of him.

Can you see how this could be a problem, say, if Joey (Island) were playing Sam Black Esper Spirits against a G/R Wolf Run Ramp deck?

Traditionally—and certainly in 1999 when “Who’s the Beatdown?” was first printed—Mountain and Forests together, arm-in-branch, would’ve been default-considered “the beatdown” to anything-Islands being the control. However, in a Spirits-versus-Wolf Run situation, Spirits is less likely to be successful if it plays the control game of card advantage rather than as the aggressor.

Delver has the ability to drop three power on turn 1; it has permission, yes, but that permission is better for holding tempo, protecting a clock, or denying the opponent’s massive expenditure of mana than as a “control” spell buying time to acquire [further] card advantage. Spirits has some “board control,” sure (and like a legitimate control deck, specialized stuff like Revoke Existence and Divine Offering even), but the mode card Vapor Snag is actually awesome because it pokes the opponent for one…another way to aggressively gobble up time as a resource.

Which is the deck here focused on card advantage? Ramp plays things like Whipflare (a cheap red Wrath); it searches through its library like a blue deck and grabs up two and three cards at a time with Green Sun’s Zenith or Primeval Titan for bulk card advantage.

Rather than belabor a point that most of you understand already, let’s instead imagine a world where Delver holds back Mana Leak mana starting on turn 2, Draw-Go style, to eventually grind out Wolf Run with Lingering Souls and Moorland Haunt (an Outpost!) and pretends Vapor Snag (and Gut Shot and Dismember) is meant to play like Swords to Plowshares. Let’s say that—as sunk the Phyrexian costs are on some of those removal spells—Spirits pays retail for Gitaxian Probe (control must preserve its life total!)…

Does this seem like the kind of game Joey is going to win?

At its core, this is the story of “Who’s the Beatdown?”

As ridiculous as the wrongly positioned Spirits and Wolf Run decks may be in your imagination, these same decks have fluid positions depending on what they’re playing against. Against Wolf Run, the successful Spirits deck takes advantage of mana inefficiencies but picks its spot. It must stick a threat and ride that threat—while adding more and more power to the table, typically—to try to win before the opponent is in successful Titan range.

The early battle is one of mana exchanges, Delvers against Galvanic Blasts; while the middle turns are a series of questions… Will it be the steady threat of an impending Titan that will take control of this game, or will Spirits explode with an Overrun-like Drogskol Captain turn? And should a Titan stick… Will the crowd ooh and ah over a topdecked Dungeon Geists (again producing a control-like effect only while adding an offensive and evasive body)… Or will the status quo of card power, card advantage, and inevitability take it?

Put Wolf Run up against B/U Control, and it’s no longer the control. The opponent is perhaps less blue than the previous opponent in a literal sense, but Wolf Run loses its control position contextually. Galvanic Blast goes from being awesome to awful, and Titans go from being inevitable (so Spirits has to either cut them off, invalidate them, or race them) to test spells. How many of these in a row can you answer? Because it’s the last fatty that kills you.

Does that seem beatdown or control to you?

Put Spirits down against a real Delver deck and the same thing occurs—Spirits shifts from being the aggressor to being the control. Lingering Souls becomes a source of grinding card advantage; its job now is to trade with Delvers with value or to buy time. Drogskol Captain is still good, but the size it produces is less about the ability to swing a big turn than that 1/1 Spirit going to 2/2 to make for unproductive combat situations.

There are only two kinds of decks, you see… But because positions are fluid, you may not even know which one you are until the game starts.

Greed Must Be Balanced Against Speed

“Who’s the Beatdown?” talks about a situation where my roommate, Al Tran—playing for Top 8 of a PTQ—makes the disastrous mis-assignment predicted in the previous section…with a predictably unsuccessful result.

His crime?

He chose greed over speed.

Rather than use his mana immediately to deal with threats, he waited to maximize his cards’ effects in terms of life swing (he mis-assigned himself as beatdown even though his opponent—on the play—was laying down two-power creatures for one mana). The equivalent might be waiting to use a Day of Judgment to defend yourself against a first-turn Stromkirk Noble into second-turn Stormblood Berserker when you had a perfectly good Galvanic Blast and Incinerate in hand.

Now you might want very much to get a two-for-one out of the Day of Judgment, maybe hold your burn to deal a greedy seven to the opponent, but in the process you could find yourself taking between six and twelve damage depending on whether you were going first or second.

And if you missed your fourth land drop?


Mike Long once asked what any of us wanted out of Magic other than a two-for-one. I dunno, how about a fifth-turn untap with more than ten life?

That said, the control role typically does instruct us to play in favor of card advantage. It’s not so much that we have to do things now but rather that we balance our decisions with attention to time and long-term strategy, rather than just an overbearing deference to card advantage.

Separately, “Who’s the Beatdown?” gave us a general guideline that I think can be useful in terms of developing contextual plans when faced with a similar deck (you may have read this elsewhere):

“When two decks have the same end game, generally, the faster one will be favored.”

This is related to, but not identical to, the general concept of inevitability; rather, if you know you and your opponent both plan to kill by closing the damage gap and then finishing off the other guy with a big Devil’s Play, you will want to do one of two things:

  1. Have a significant life advantage at the point Devil’s Play starts becoming a relevant anti-opponent card.
  2. Figure out how to get Devil’s Play online either faster or with more available mana, especially if you’re the victim of early beatdown.

Thou Shalt Play Differently Going First and Going Second

“Who’s the Beatdown?” doesn’t go particularly in depth here, so there’s certainly no general rule. However, intuitively, you probably already know this.

Take a Mono Red mirror for instance. Perhaps on the play you have more incentive to be the aggressor, so you can take better advantage of a serendipitous curve or the opponent stumbling. However, on the draw when you have natural card advantage (you went second and got a free card), you have the liberty to use your mana to prevent damage instead.

Inevitability + A General Rule

Inevitability as a term in Magic doesn’t get its name until Zvi Mowshowitz “Who’s the Beatdown II: Multitasking,” but its existence is implied in the original.

Zvi’s definition:

A player is said to have inevitability if and only if from the current position they will win a long game. A player is said to have inevitability in a matchup if and only if they have inevitability on turn 1.

In addition to the practical truism that “when two decks have the same end game, generally, the faster one will be favored,” my 1999 article tells us something else:

Decisions in the very early game (say turn 1) can affect which player has inevitability in the game at hand.

To return to our Galvanic Blast / Incinerate / Day of Judgment discussion from two sections ago, we know that we can take ~12 damage essentially needlessly by playing for a greedy two-for-one rather than meeting the opponent with speed, and this might put us in a bad (if not insurmountable) position.

How does this change if we just Blast the Stromkirk Noble?

Will the opponent even try to play a non-buffed Stormblood Berserker?

When we are the control, we often find ourselves on our heels against aggressive beatdown starts. But what about beatdown? They’re very much restricted by what they draw and lose a lot of general liberty therefore. It’s entirely possible the opponent just does stone nothing on turn 2 and we get a free pass.

All War Is Based on Deception

I’m borrowing from Master Sun here, but the most famous line of The Art of War had a moment of sunshine in “Who’s the Beatdown?” too.

Just a general note on gameplay that not all players know to espouse: One way to gain an advantage in a game is to hide who you are. In “Who’s the Beatdown?” I described a situation where I essentially pretended to be a blue control deck; my opponent took actions consistent with his baseline gameplan. Then, while his mana was tapped, I killed him with my combo-ness.

Sound familiar?

Basically how I played Exarch Twin (what Gerry Thompson called the “control” Twin strategy) last year! Twelve years had gone by; no new tricks!

Obviously this isn’t a superpower you can draw on 100% of the time (in Top 8 situations, opponents often have each other’s decklists), but it is a tool you can use some of the time, and you can gain an advantage essentially because the opponent is taking actions inconsistent with their actual position.

To wit:

Identify Position; Take Action

The first step to playing a strategically correct game is to actually identify which role you are supposed to play in a game: beatdown or control.

In the original “Who’s the Beatdown?” I listed the following checklist, which I think should be revisited today:

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

In particular I am fuzzy on #3 today. A deck like Delver might have more card drawing than a deck meant to play control in a matchup (Gitaxian Probe, Ponder) and might use its permission to defend tempo rather than “control” concerns… So basically I would take exception with my own “almost always” there.

This is a process that most players—even in a much more sophisticated age of defined archetypes—don’t take enough.

The second part is actually even more important. I suppose if you are a “natural” like Jon Finkel you can actually take the correct actions without first evaluating what you’re supposed to do… But we mere mortals need to do both so that we can examine and choose from our true palette of options.

For instance, is there a way we can jockey into the position the opponent wants to be?

If we can do that successfully, we can actually usurp all his actions (i.e., he’ll take the wrong role’s actions).


Zvi and I at one point defined “the best deck” as the one that could play both beatdown and control in the most matchups.

So how do we accomplish that second half?

“Who’s the Beatdown?” doesn’t do a great job of telling us beyond generalizations, so I’ll borrow from process theory to close the loop:

  1. What is our goal? State our goal.
  2. Produce a strategy to accomplish that goal; take actions consistent with it / them.
  3. Get feedback. Is our strategy working?
  4. Adjust, if necessary.

In especially tight individual games of Magic (Legacy games that only last two turns, say) we can’t necessarily check and adjust, but in many other instances (longer games and other processes in life in general) we certainly can.

The important thing here is for our actions to be consistent with our strategy, and for our strategy to further our actual goal.

One Definition of a Bad Matchup

In the previous section we talked about one definition of “the best deck.” Can it be possible for a deck to be both the beatdown and the control?

When I wrote “Who’s the Beatdown?” in 1999 I didn’t realize that the answer to that question is yes.

One definition of “a terrible matchup” is for a role to be completely undermined. Imagine you’re playing a no-reach creature deck against Caleb Durward’s B/U deck from the Top 8 of that one Open a few months back when I was on the mic with Joey Pasco.

You’re supposed to be the beatdown.

You play little guys, attack with them, etc.

The problem is that Caleb’s deck was nothing but removal cards and Snapcaster Mages. There were games I watched where he did more damage to himself with Dismembers than his opponent did to him!

So you’re not doing a good job of being the beatdown.

Are you suddenly going to play control? You have no capacity to do so whatsoever.

Nature abhors a vacuum. So if you aren’t going to be the proactive attack deck… Caleb will do it for you. He’s going to make a proactive play like turn 3 Liliana of the Veil, and because you can’t keep a creature in play, Lilly ain’t going nowhere.

Who’s defining the terms of the game here?

If the B/U deck with all the card advantage is also determining the field of battle? You’re not in a good position, my beatdown friend. No position at all. Eventually he’s going to just have some threat and actually beat you down.

Sideboarding Can Be Used to Eliminate Dead Weight

I would guess that most of you have a general understanding of the concept of “addition by subtraction” or that by removing a negative you can gain value.

The original “Who’s the Beatdown?” argued a variation whereby a deck with little to no relevance in a matchup could acquire the opponent’s non-preferred (or even preferred) role via clever sideboarding. Can’t accomplish what you want as the beatdown? Is there some way you can morph into the control?

Take a designer like Patrick Chapin and his favorite strategy of Grixis Desperate Ravings.

Patrick recently made the finals of a Grand Prix with this kind of a deck, which was a series of trade-offs. Because he was a base-control deck, Patrick constantly had to make choices whereby he might get worse against X by bolstering his ability to contend with a more common Y rather than reinforcing a particular brand of forward movement.

Patrick asked me to brainstorm an anti-Humans sideboard strategy with him for #PTDKA. Humans was very fast on offense, their tokens gave them natural card advantage against point removal, and their creatures like Doomed Traveler made efforts at proactivity, such as with Liliana of the Veil, less effective.

I eventually proposed a transformation into a Reanimator deck that took advantage of the fact that Patrick was already playing Faithless Looting, Desperate Ravings, Liliana of the Veil, and that trademark Chapin “ambitious mana base”—he could play all the cards already.

Humans was in part a problem because even though the roles were unambiguous, Humans was card-advantageous enough to undermine Patrick’s identity in a practical sense. Other aggro cards like Strangleroot Geist had similar impact, putting him on his heels and challenging him to find the right solution on curve.

So why not be the beatdown?

Why not hit them where they live?

If the problem is that a turn 4 sweeper is too slow, why not pose a turn 4 insurmountable threat? Be the actor rather than the defender! A certain Grand Cenobite’s persistent ability would make both Doomed Traveler and Strangleroot Geist decidedly less, ahem, persistent.

Patrick didn’t actually adopt the idea, but my guess is it’s solely because I didn’t properly frame it in a “Who’s the Beatdown?” context, as I have here.