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Revisiting Who’s the Beatdown?


Who's the Beatdown? is one of the most important Magic articles ever written, if not the most important article ever written.

Why is it so important?

It deals with match-up positioning; specifically which deck needs to be the aggressor in any given match-up. It is one of the most fundamental questions when playing tournament Magic, and mistakes when dealing with questions like these are generally very costly; hence, Flores's maxim of "Misassignment of Role = Game Loss."

But Magic at its core isn't about match-ups. It's about situations. Match-ups matter, but only insofar as the situations they create matter. Each individual decision you make during the game is, in effect, a decision you are making under a certain situation. Sometimes they are easy (it's my first turn, and I have a land; I wonder if I should play it?), but sometimes they are more difficult (I just hit 4 mana, and my opponent tapped down to play Jace Beleren last turn, which I countered. He has U up. Do I run out my Mind Sculptor, my only Jace, now?)

Sometimes these individual decision points, even when they aren't trivial, don't have a huge impact on the game, but sometimes they do. The real question is, is there some guiding principle for situational Magic? Is there some way to look at a series of situations and evaluate multiple lines of play and their potential results?

I believe the answer is yes, and I believe the answer lies in the implications of what Flores talks about.

Deeper within the idea behind Flores's seminal article is a concept that is a core precept of many non-random strategy games (Go, Chess, Shogi, for instance) – initiative, or, as it is sometimes called, the "turn to play." Initiative relates to who has the ability to dictate the location and flow of play, and while it has no material value, it is prized in many non-random strategy games for one simple, basic reason – if you don't have initiative you can't win the game. In other words, if you are never able to dictate the terms under which the game is played, you won't win.

There are two types of initiative in Magic – match-up initiative, and situational initiative. They are separate entities. Match-up initiative is what Flores is talking about in "Who's the Beatdown?". What I want to talk about is how the principles and ideas Flores lays out in his article relate to situational initiative as well.

In order to demonstrate the difference between these two types of initiative, let's look at the classic aggro vs. control match-up. Assume Mono-red or Boros is playing UW Control. Of course, the aggro deck has match-up initiative here and is considered the "beatdown" as far as Flores is concerned. But how does situational initiative differ?

Consider the following game state:


Life Total: 19

Board: Mountain, Smoldering Spires (tapped), Goblin Guide (tapped)

Graveyard: Arid Mesa

Hand: 6 cards

UW Control (active player):

Life Total: 16

Board: Seachrome Coast, Island, Wall of Omens

Graveyard: Empty

Hand: Mana Leak x2, Condemn, Day of Judgment, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Glacial Fortress, Plains, Island

This situation resulted from UW being on the play and playing Wall of Omens to deal with a T1 Goblin Guide (which revealed one of the lands and one of the spells). Mono-red had no two-drop and simply played Smoldering Spires to stop the Wall from blocking, then passed back. Here, despite mono-red having match-up initiative (as previously discussed) UW has situational initiative. It isn't the "beatdown" in the traditional, Flores-ian sense, but it has arrived at a situation where it is able to dictate the terms of the game. It has its 3rd, 4th, and 5th land drops available, removal, countermagic, and a card advantage engine. The Goblin Guide on the table has already essentially been dealt with, so Mono-red might as well have an empty board, as far as UW is concerned.

No doubt it is easy to see that UW is heavily advantaged here, but that is the nature of initiative. By being able to control the terms under which the game is played you make your opponent react to what you are doing. This seems strange to say for this situation, since UW's "initiative" relies on reactive spells (Condemn, Mana Leak), but within the context of this match-up, UW has actually attained control over the flow of the game through the ability to dictate what tools (spells/creatures) mono-red has to work with.

This situation demonstrates one of the major strengths of blue as a color, and why it has been the dominant color throughout Magic history. Because of blue's reliance on instants (countermagic in particular), blue is the only color that can seize initiative through reactive spells. Other colors are not able to do this. They have to actively take initiative and maintain it. Blue's ability to dictate which spells resolve and which don't allow it to control a game from a reactive stance, and thus give blue the advantages of playing offense and defense simultaneously. In a Flores-ian sense, blue is able to be both the "beatdown" AND the control simultaneously. If blue can be both, what does that leave for the other deck?

So, what is situational initiative then? The main component of situational initiative is board initiative (although the stack, which only blue can control, does play into this, another reason why blue is such a strong color). Board initiative is related to who is advantaged on the table, generally in terms of permanents.

The first element of board initiative is positional initiative, which relates to your advantage with permanents. Planeswalkers and creatures are the most common way of achieving this type of advantage, but enchantments and artifacts can give them to you as well. In essence, if you are ahead on the board (your permanents are accomplishing more than your opponent's), you have an advantage in board initiative.

There are two ways of accomplishing this. The first way is "critical mass," which is a number or combination of permanents that can't be ignored. The second is to have a single, dominant permanent which changes the playing field of the entire game, making the game revolve around that permanent (Prismatic Omen, Luminarch Ascension, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Primeval Titan).

The person with the advantage on the board dictates the terms of play on the board. If I'm ahead, I dictate whether you should be attacking me or my planeswalkers, and I dictate when combat is practical, since I hold back if you have to attack (and use my defensive advantage), or I can attack you and put pressure on you.

Mana advantage is also a part of board initiative, but it is less important. The reason a significant mana advantage is important is because mana is what allows you to cast spells. If Player A is constrained on mana while Player B isn't, Player A's ability to utilize his spells to full effect (activating abilities or playing multiple spells per turn), is a definitive advantage. Assuming he is even on the board Player A gets to dictate the terms of the game, because he has a much fuller range of utilization of his spells, so he can push various angles of attack which Player B has to react to.

Mana advantage can even compensate for some board disadvantages, but at some point it becomes irrelevant. You can have more lands, but if you are too far behind on the board when you reach the point of interacting, you will lose the game anyway (limited demonstrates this very well). Thus, the first component of situational advantage is board advantage, but the second is mana advantage.

The issue is that stack advantage is also part of situational advantage. This is because controlling the stack allows you to affect the board, in the sense that it allows you to prevent spells from hitting the table. Since blue is the only color that can create stack advantage, blue is always advantaged over other colors in this respect, making it easier for blue to seize a situational advantage, since it always has a component of situational advantage locked down.

So initiative advantage breaks down into two parts. Match-up initiative is dealt with by Flores, but what are the Flores-ian questions for situational advantage?

Here they are:

  1. Does one player have an overwhelming mana advantage? If so, he can have board advantage.
  2. Does my opponent have a critical mass of permanents? If so, he has board advantage.
  3. Does one player have a dominant permanent? Almost certainly, he has the board advantage.

The important thing about situational advantage to remember is that it is transient. It can be lost and regained through play, but also through luck. Thus, situational advantage must be used when you have it, it must be taken advantage of. If you do so properly, you can push for a win.

Remember, the objective is to win the game, and wins must be seized along with initiative.

Chingsung Chang

Conelead most everywhere and on MTGO


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