Updated: Apr 18, 2022
Image: WotC | Card: Overwhelming Stampede
Who's the Beatdown? by Mike Flores is widely considered to be one of the most important Magic articles ever written. To this day, the article is still considered a must-read for any competitive MTG player. Since it was written, there have been several follow-up articles written on the subject, as well as a YouTube video by the Elite Spellbinder himself, PVDDR.
When PV released his video on Who's the Beatdown, it ended up getting linked to the r/spikes subreddit. As I read through the comments in the Reddit discussion, I noticed that several people were really getting hung up on the "Roiling Vortex" example that PV used in the video. Something about the example doesn't feel right to some people, and ever since then I have put a lot of thought into why that is.
I decided to study the following articles (and video) to get a better grip on the concept of Who's the Beatdown:
Who's the Beatdown? by Mike Flores
Eight Core Principles Of “Who’s The Beatdown?” by Mike Flores
Who’s The Beatdown II: Multitasking by Zvi Mowshowitz
Role Assignment by Reid Duke
MTG - WHO is the BEATDOWN? (beyond the article) by Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa
(Before going further, I suggest that you make yourself familiar with these sources if you aren't already as I'll be referencing them frequently.)
I spent a lot of time thinking about the meaning behind each of the articles, and the more I thought about it, the more it felt like there are concepts within the scope of Who's the Beatdown that are still unclear. I really enjoy thinking about and writing about Magic, so I ended up deciding to write an article with the following goals:
1. Define more clearly what WTB (Who's the Beatdown) is referring to as the exact definition of what WTB refers to seems unclear and contradictory at times.
2. Consider whether being in a position where you do not have situational inevitability and are therefore not satisfied with the status quo and are compelled to act automatically makes you the beatdown; AKA the Roiling Vortex problem.
And the inverse:
Does being in a position where you have situational inevitability and are therefore satisfied with the status quo automatically make you the control player?
3. Consolidate the concepts from the four articles and one video into one source.
4. Summarize and condense the information into core concepts and drop the examples and asides in an attempt to be more concise.
5. Present the concepts more clearly and explicitly. Some of the concepts are alluded to but are not clearly spelled out. I'd like to clarify to avoid confusion.
With these goals in mind, I came up with the following.
1. Clearly Defining What "Who's the Beatdown" Refers To
If we're going to have a discussion about WTB we first need to clearly define exactly what it means. I strongly agree with Zvi when he writes,
"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."
We often fall into the trap of thinking of WTB in terms of damage and attacking. However, not all decks want to win through combat damage (or damage at all). Sometimes dealing damage can be more about controlling your opponent than it is about being the beatdown.
I believe that it's better to think of a deck working to advance its win condition or gain an advantage in general. Whether their plan is to grind their opponent out with card advantage, or to assemble a win/loss condition, or to win with a powerful late-game card, or to beatdown with creature damage, or to burn their opponent out, or to mill them, or assemble a combo is irrelevant.
Zvi says, for example, "A control war can be thought of in terms of a war for inevitability."
So, rather than thinking in terms of combat, the theory makes more sense if you think in terms of players working to advance their win-con or gain an advantage (proactive) versus disrupting their opponent's win con or advantage (reactive).
I propose that:
Beatdown = the proactive player. This player is trying to win first.
Control = the reactive player. This player is trying to stop their opponent from winning before them.
Proactive = trying to advance your own win-con or gain an advantage.
Reactive = trying to stop your opponent from advancing their win condition or gaining an advantage.
2. Situational Inevitability, the Status Quo, Being Compelled to Act, and Role Assignment
In his article Zvi talks about "winning on the table," saying,
"Winning on the table ... 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."
I feel that "winning on the table" is not the most accurate way to describe this phenomenon. Some decks don't play to the board much, or at all. In some games, the board state is largely irrelevant.
Picture a mirror match between two control decks, or two combo decks who win via a spell-based combo. Suppose both players have eight lands in play and nothing else on board.
Who is winning?
In this case, asking who is winning on board is unhelpful. I would argue that if one of those players has an empty hand and the other has a full grip, the player with a full hand is winning. But who has more cards in hand has nothing to do with the board state. Likewise, the person who has manipulated their hand closer to their combo or is better prepared to answer their opponent's is also closer to winning the game.
So, to me, it feels like a better question to ask is "who is winning situationally?" Asking this question rather than "who's winning on board" allows us to take other factors into consideration to determine who is ahead.
Anyhow, let's get to the core of the subject. According to the combined theory, Who's the Beatdown is based on the questions and answers below:
Based on the above, it's possible for one player's answers to lead them to be the beatdown in some senses, yet be the control in another sense. I believe this disparity is part of what feels "wrong" to some players. The fact that one player could be the beatdown in some senses but not others seems confusing.
So, let's discuss things a little further. When one player is situationally losing, they will not be satisfied with the status quo and will therefore be compelled to act. This brings us to the "Roiling Vortex" problem.
According to Zvi and PV, when a player is compelled to act they automatically become the beatdown (proactive player). Zvi argues that being compelled to act means you must be proactive. I believe that whether this is correct or not depends on how you define proactive.
If you define proactive to mean taking some kind of action, not just one of a specific type, then you could say that Zvi is correct. However, if you define being proactive as taking actions specifically to advance your win condition, then Zvi isn't necessarily correct.
As discussed earlier, I feel it is important to clearly define WTB. If you use the definition I proposed above, then being the beatdown (proactive player) means taking actions to advance your win con or gain an advantage. Proactive in the sense of taking actions is not necessarily the same as proactive in the sense of advancing your win-con / gaining an advantage.
I will assess the problem using my proposed definition of proactive.
The player who is situationally losing and is not satisfied with the status quo certainly must act—there's no question about that. However, I can find no logical proof that the action they take must automatically be proactive (trying to advance their win-con). I would argue that, depending on the exact situation and available options, they can choose to act either proactively or reactively when they are compelled to act. They aren't automatically the one who has to be proactive.
If you are compelled to act your options are:
1. Be proactive and try to put yourself into a position where you can win before your opponent.
2. Be reactive and try to stop your opponent from winning.
To use the Roiling Vortex example, the Ultimatum player who is low on life and facing a Vortex on board could:
Try to find an Emergent Ultimatum in order to take on a proactive role and win.
Try to be reactive (stop their opponent's win-con) by finding a Binding of the Old Gods to remove the vortex.
One of these actions is proactive and one reactive, yet both are reasonable actions to take in order to change the status quo.
That said, it does depend on the available options. Suppose the Ultimatum player knows that they do not have any ways to gain life or destroy the Roiling Vortex left in their deck. In this case, they don't have the option to be reactive and have no choice but to draw an Ultimatum or otherwise find a way to become the proactive player.
In summary, your response to being compelled to act depends on which options and outs you have available to you and whether being proactive or reactive gives you the greatest chance of success.
I might even go so far as to say that "the player unsatisfied with the status quo is compelled to act" is simply a truism about Magic. However, it in no way directly dictates who the proactive player should be.
I also might go so far as to say when one person is dissatisfied with the status quo and has less situational inevitability, their chosen action should be strongly influenced by who has a stronger late game.
In general, if one person clearly has less matchup-based inevitability they should more often than not default to a proactive way of changing the status quo, while the person with more matchup-based inevitably should usually default to a reactive strategy. However, this would be more of a heuristic, and it all depends on the exact situation.
The truth of the matter is that the player who is situationally losing is compelled to act, and must correctly determine whether they should contend for the proactive role and try to win first or play reactively and try to stop their opponent from winning.
Okay, now what about the flip side of being compelled to act? What happens if you are satisfied with the status quo? Are you automatically the control player?
If you define control as trying to stop your opponent from advancing their win-con, then I would argue that the player with situational inevitability is not automatically the control/reactive player. If they are capable of doing so, the player who is winning might want to take on a reactive role, but there is nothing proving that they need to. Depending on the situation, they could simply continue to be proactive and attempt to advance their win-con.
To understand what I mean when I refer to a deck being capable of playing a control role, think of a matchup between a mono-red burn deck and a Teferi lockout control deck. Suppose the red player is situationally winning. According to Zvi, the red deck is now the control player.
But how exactly is the red player supposed to take on a controlling role? Some decks literally cannot be meaningfully reactive in certain situations. Attacking or throwing burn spells at the Teferi planeswalker on board could be considered an action that prevents the Teferi player from winning, but aside from that, I cannot think of many other examples where the burn player can meaningfully be reactive.
Furthermore, aside from attacking Teferi, why should the red deck focus on stopping the control deck's win-con rather than remaining proactive and trying to win with direct damage first? The red deck is okay with the status quo, but I would argue that the deck cannot meaningfully play control, and is best served to continue focusing on being proactive. The Teferi deck has a stronger late game, so the red deck should keep up the pressure and try to win before that point.
Another question on this topic that I think is worth considering is: Is disrupting your opponent's disruption proactive or reactive?
Zvi uses the example of the sliver deck countering their opponent's Wrath of God as an example of playing the control role. I question whether countering your opponent's WOG is actually reactive or proactive.
I do understand that by countering the WOG you are literally being reactive in that you are responding to your opponent's spell. However, you are doing so to preserve your own win condition, not stop your opponent from winning. Does the purpose of your counterspell not make a difference? Although a counter is typically viewed as a reactive, controlling piece, it can just as easily be a play that protects your proactive strategy.
We've discussed proactive and reactive actions, but how do you classify the act of disrupting your opponent's disruption? I can't say for certain, but I think a reasonable argument could be made that it could be considered either proactive or reactive depending on the goal.
Disrupting your opponent with the intent to protect or further your win con is proactive.
Disrupting your opponent with the intent of stopping your opponent from winning (or maintaining your control of the game) is reactive.
All of the above assumes the definition of WTB that I've proposed is correct. Either the concept of compelled to act = beatdown is flawed, or the proposed definition of WTB is flawed. I can't say for certain which is the case.
That said, if my suggested definition is insufficient, I think that we as a community do need to come up with some kind of an agreed-upon definition. I feel that Zvi's implied definition of the beatdown being the player who "must change the status quo" is simply too vague.
What kind of action must they take to change the status quo? Are they trying to win first or are they trying to stop their opponent from winning?
3, 4, 5. CONSOLIDATION/CONDENSATION/CLARIFICATION
The following is my attempt at a version of WTB which consolidates all of the concepts into one place in a condensed and clear format. The core concepts of Who's the Beatdown are:
You can be proactive and try to win first or be reactive and try to stop your opponent from winning.
You must be able to correctly assess which role you should be taking. If you choose the wrong role you'll probably lose.
To determine which role you need to choose, you need to consider which deck will win quicker, and which deck has more inevitability over a long game.
A player is said to have inevitability if:
From the current position he will win a long game. (Situational inevitability)
If and only if they have inevitability on turn one. (Matchup-based inevitability, AKA a stronger late game)
Inevitability is not all-or-nothing, and can easily be thought of in degrees. Additionally, both speed and inevitability can be affected by who is on the play, how each player draws, and how the game progresses.
In general, the following rules should apply when considering role assessment:
If one player clearly has a stronger late game than their opponent, they should be reactive and try to slow their opponent down
If one player clearly has a weaker late game they should be proactive and try to finish the game quickly
The player who can win faster should be proactive and try to win the game
The player who can't win as fast should be reactive and must slow down the faster deck
The player who can't win as fast needs to have a stronger late game than the faster player
The player with a weaker late game should be faster than the player with more inevitability
When two decks have a similarly strong late game, generally, the faster one will be favored
On an empty board, the deck with a stronger late game is favored
The player who has situational inevitability is satisfied with the status quo and is not forced to act
The player who has less situational inevitability is not satisfied with the status quo and is forced to act.
Your response to being compelled to act depends on which options and outs you have available to you, whether one player clearly has a stronger late game, and whether being proactive or reactive gives you the greatest chance of success.
Importantly, remember that decks are not inherently always the beatdown or control. Assigning a role depends on the matchup, whether you are on the play or draw, how well each player draws, and how the game progresses.
A deck that typically beats down must reevaluate when playing against a deck that is faster than it. Likewise, a deck that typically plays control should reevaluate when playing against a deck with a stronger late game.
Sometimes the player who will win fastest or who will generate the most inevitability is obvious, but sometimes it's not clearly defined. This can lead both players to compete for the same role, resulting in a war for inevitability.
Just because a player is in a particular role doesn't mean their opponent must take the opposing role. Both players can vie for same role.
Similarly, who is in which role can change throughout a game as the board develops and each player works towards a win-con. It's essential to alter and reevaluate your game plan based on the matchup and how the game is progressing.
When assigning roles, keep in mind:
Some decks are good at switching roles but some are not good at switching roles
Sometimes you're forced into a role you are ill-suited for
Not every deck is capable of effectively playing a controlling or aggressive role in every situation
If your role is undermined it will be a bad matchup for you
Sideboarding can help to improve the position you need to play. In other words, you can better play a controlling or aggressive role after sideboarding
Sometimes you can try to disguise what your role is to trick your opponent
If you can get into the position the opponent wants to be in and they don’t readjust (if they keep playing control when they should switch to aggro for example) you can win because of it
It is possible to be the beatdown and the control player simultaneously
It’s possible to be faster than your opponent and to have more inevitability than them simultaneously
All ways of gaining an advantage can be control or beatdown in the proper context.
Sometimes being proactive or reactive can be accomplished by unconventional means. Attacking for damage can be considered a form of control if your opponent's spells cost them life to cast and you drop their life total.
Attacking may be more related to card advantage than damage in certain situations if your attacks will cause your opponent to use up resources in a way that's profitable for you.
Ultimately, you need to determine what is important. Are you playing for speed or inevitability or something else? Which resources matter?
What is important is constantly changing and you need to figure out what resource(s) matters in any given matchup and develop yours or hinder your opponent's (battlefield presence, life, card advantage, cards in library, etc).
You can use the knowledge of what role you should be in to guide your decisions. If you determine you should be the proactive player your decisions should reflect that goal and further your win con, and vice versa for reactive.
While this is certainly not a catch-all guide to assessing and assigning your role in a match, following the above principles will usually get you into a strong position. However, keep in mind that making these decisions takes a lot of practice. It doesn't happen overnight.
By practicing constantly asking yourself what role you should be in and working towards that role, you give yourself the best chance to win.
THE "IN A NUTSHELL" VERSION
If I were to try to boil it down to just the bare bones, I would say the heart and soul of Who's the Beatdown is:
If you can win first, go for it. If you can resist your opponent's attempts to slow you down you will win
If you can't win first you need to try to slow your opponent down until you can work your way into a position where you can win first
If you are playing against a deck with a clearly better late game than you, you should typically default to trying to win first
If are clearly faster, you should typically default to trying to win first
If you are clearly slower, you should typically default to trying to stop your opponent from winning
If you have a clearly stronger late game than your opponent, you should typically default to trying to stop your opponent from winning
If you are in a matchup against a deck with somewhat similar speed or a similarly strong late game you should use who is situationally ahead to determine whether you should be proactive or reactive.
If you are situationally ahead you can take actions to preserve or strengthen your lead and/or prevent your opponent from catching up. To determine which action gives you the greatest chances of winning, you need to consider the options you have available to you now, as well as options you may have in the future. You also need to consider what your opponent's current and future options may be.
If you are situationally behind, you need to determine if you have a more realistic chance of winning by racing to catch up and win first, or by stopping your opponent from winning until you can catch up. You need to consider the options you have available to you now, as well as options you may have in the future. You also need to consider what your opponent's current and future options may be.
STILL UP FOR DEBATE
-Is the proposed definition of Who's the Beatdown sufficient? If my definition is insufficient, what is a better definition?
-Does being compelled to act or content with the status quo automatically mean you are the beatdown or control?
-Does countering your opponent's Wrath of God count as proactive or reactive?
Let us know what you think about these ideas and your take on Magic's current state of being the beatdown in the comments below or on social media.
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