Flow of Ideas – Reassigning Your Role

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Thursday, July 16th – Over ten years ago, Mike Flores mounted the flag on the world of Magic theory when he wrote “Who’s the Beatdown” and made the claim that “misassumption of role = game loss.” As Magic has evolved over time more conceptual variation on these concepts have arisen, but the core idea remains the same.

Over ten years ago, Mike Flores mounted the flag on the world of Magic theory when he wrote “Who’s the Beatdown” and made the claim that “misassumption of role = game loss.” In his article, Mike posited that in matchups between similar decks, one deck needs to take the role of control and the other of beatdown. As Magic has evolved over time more conceptual variation on these concepts have arisen, but the core idea remains the same. The less looked at piece of the puzzle, though, is figuring out when you should be changing roles. From play to play, match to match, the role you should take can often differ.

One reason to change the role you choose to play in the matchup is because of a specific card your opponent has. This is very common in Limited when your opponent has a bomb you don’t have a way to beat. For example, if you know your opponent has an endgame bomb like Sphinx of the Steel Wind that you can’t deal with when the match starts, then you need to be as aggressive as possible from the beginning. Hands with four lands, two removal spells, and a three-drop are probably not going to be keepable even if they normally would be; you have to mulligan aggressively to find a better hand for the situation. You have to be aggressive, attacking when you can, and try and kill your opponent before the Sphinx lands.

Now, your opponent isn’t necessarily going to draw or be able to play the Sphinx every game, but if you turn the game into a long-game attrition war, he’s going to eventually find his bomb. The best way to beat a bomb is to kill your opponent before he can play it. This principle applies even to cheaper bombs, like the ubiquitous Umezawa’s Jitte. If your opponent draws his Jitte in Limited, with any kind of decent draw it’s going to be hard for him to lose, so you have to minimize the number of draw steps you allow him to have to find it. If it’s in his opening seven then you’re going to end up way behind anyway, so you have to take some risks and be the aggressor, even if you wouldn’t normally do so, instead of waiting and putting the game into a position where he can draw his Jitte and begin to control the game with it.

While one way to combat a bomb is to kill them before they find it, another option is to turn the tables and make your opponent think the game is all about their bomb when it really isn’t. You usually accomplish this during sideboarding. Now, you could sideboard in a lower curve to try and kill them before they can draw and play their bomb, and, true enough, that’s something I often find myself doing. However, you can alternatively try and sideboard such that you cause them to misplace their role in the matchup: something which can be devastating if done correctly. It’s very simple. Say you’re both controlling draft decks with a strong endgame, except your opponent has Sphinx of the Steel Wind to trump everything else in your deck, and even has a Sphinx Summoner to tutor it up. Now, you go to your sideboard and bring in two copies of Dispeller’s Capsule. Your opponent is going to play the control deck, and lean on the knowledge he has his Sphinx to end the game eventually. He taps eight mana after a long control attrition war, gleefully casts the mighty Sphinx, and you show him your Dispeller’s Capsule. Now who has the upper hand? You’ve spent the entire game trying not to cackle and crafting the game state to give you the upper hand as the control deck late game — your opponent just didn’t know it.

Now, the above example is a bit simplistic because games of Magic are not simply a subgame of “can I kill your bomb?” but you can set the game up to reach a position where you are favored to win going long if you can break through whatever is stopping you from reaching victory. (In this case, the Sphinx.) This point is where changing your role from the beginning of the game comes in as an important element. If you know from the get go that you want the game to reach a state where you are going to kill his Sphinx and eventually wrest control over the game, then you want to play to make that happen. Trade evenly matched creatures all the way up the curve on defense, preserve your life total, and make sure you know how you’re going to win when the dust settles. This is opposite to an aggressive “kill them before they find their bomb” strategy where you would be placing yourself as the beatdown deck and taking damage instead of trading creatures on defense, and so on.

Playing a particular way from the beginning of a game is one thing, but there are often times you need to switch roles within a game. In most cases, especially in limited, this switch often makes you want to go aggressive. For example, if your opponent knocks you down to six and has an Earthquake in his sealed deck that you are going to lose to if he draws it, then you have to be aggressive as possible. You have to bring him down to six or less before he draws his Earthquake, or the game ends. If you’ve been playing conservatively up until that point, you need to find a way to become the aggressor or you’re going to lose to the inevitability his Earthquake provides. It’s very easy to just stay in the mindset of playing defensively, no doubt he’s probably been the aggressor if you’re down to six, but each turn you let your opponent have yields him one more opportunity to find what he’s looking for and just kill you.

Both of those role changes also occur in Constructed; they’re just harder to spot because the more random nature of Limited is removed. Let me give you a simple example. You’re playing Faeries against Mono Red Sligh in Extended, and have managed to stabilize at two life. You have countermagic in your hand, along with Spellstutter Sprite and Riptide Lab with plenty of mana at your disposal, so keeping the Red player under control won’t be an issue. There’s just one extenuating factor: your opponent has cast a Sudden Shock this match. The dynamic changes how the Faeries player should play, forcing them to become aggressive or risk losing to Sudden Shock. The Faeries player would love to stay on the defensive, but that’s simply not possible: the longer Faeries waits to try and kill their opponent, the more likely it becomes that they will lose.

That example is a simple one, so let’s look at another, more common example from last Extended season. Mono Red Burn is playing against a deck containing Circle of Protection: Red. If the opponent untaps with a Circle in play, the Red player presumably loses because his cards are neutralized. The game no longer becomes a race of deal twenty damage eventually, but deal twenty damage before a Circle hits the table. But what happens if the Red deck sideboards in Pithing Needle? The deck with the Circle is going to play as conservatively as possible, when in reality they need to play more aggressively so that they are able to win before their opponent plays Pithing Needle and can begin to unload all of their burn. Now, setting the nuances of sideboarding wars and the question of if the Circle player boarded in an answer to Needle aside, the Red player brought in a trump to the opponent’s strategy and repositioned itself so that the opponent had to unknowingly be the aggressive deck when sitting behind a Circle — a situation not unlike the Sphinx example presented earlier.

There are also times when you need to reposition your role entirely. Look at the Reveillark versus Faeries matchup in Standard as an example. This matchup is a particularly peculiar one because either deck can successfully be the control deck or the beatdown the deck depending on how the players choose to play. Either Reveillark can try and exhaust Faeries of resources and win the long game with card advantage while Faeries tries to play beatdown via Bitterblossom and using countermagic as light disruption, or Reveillark can try and play beatdown by being aggressive with its Meddling Mages, Kitchen Finks, and even Reveillarks while Faeries plays the control deck with Countermagic, Agony Warps, and eventually Mistbind Clique.

While that matchup sounds like it could be interesting and evenly matched, in reality Faeries is the high favorite in the hands of a good player. Why is this? After playing the matchup for over a year from both sides, I finally figured it out. The secret to the matchup is that if Faeries attempts to play the same role as Reveillark then Faeries will usually win. Faeries can match and outclass Reveillark at either being the beatdown deck or being the control deck. However, the games where Reveillark can win is when the Faeries player chooses to take the opposite role as Reveillark, giving the Reveillark deck an unopposed niche in which to operate. So then, how can Reveillark the matchup if the Faeries player is allowed to match your role? The answer is for Reveillark to change its role once again.

As if the current strange nature of roles in this matchup wasn’t enough already, the Reveillark deck has a few more tricks in store. Through sideboarding, the Reveillark deck can either become more aggressive by sideboarding into a more creature-oriented plan with a lower curve, or by becoming more controlling through sideboarding in additional countermagic and answers to Bitterblossom. If the Reveillark deck transforms and the Faeries decks opts to try and match its role, the Reveillark deck will have a better chance of winning because, while before sideboarding it was okay at doing one of two things, both of which the Faeries deck could do well, now it’s very good at doing one thing: it trades flexibility for focus. Does it always work? Well, no, not always, but repositioning the deck through sideboarding makes the matchup a lot closer. The results of the matchup can change from game to game, depending on where each deck decides to position itself.

Roles are often seen as something predetermined when the match begins, but that’s not how roles are created. Roles are created based on needs and situations within the game, and it’s important to be able to change them when necessary. It’s very easy to play through each game with a role already set in your mind, but, no matter how many Executioner’s Capsules or Rip-Clan Crashers are in your deck, there are always times when it will suit you better to switch roles. It’s important to constantly reevaluate the game state to figure out which role you should be playing, or to see if you can switch yours to a better one through sideboarding. In Limited I often find myself sideboarding in and out creatures to better fit what my role is going to be for that game, while many other players just file away their 24th, 25th, and 26th cuts as cards that don’t have a way to be brought in. By being more flexible with your cards and being willing to shift roles, you can trump the strategy your opponent is leaning on and maximize the value of your strategy.

I’d be interested to hear about times where you found it beneficial to change your role, in either Limited or Constructed, and what strategies or plans you used to do so. Feel free to either e-mail them to me at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com or posting them on this articles’ forum thread. See you guys in the forums!

Gavin Verhey
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else