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4. Who's the Beatdown?

Lemon Knuckles


Who’s the Beatdown? is probably the most iconic piece of MtG theory ever written.  It has proven exceptionally fertile as the ideas within have been grown, developed and re-harvested again and again over time, and ported out and across all kinds of other game systems to varying degrees of success.  It is not perfect.  It is not scripture.  But it was one of the first on the scene to look beneath the surface of the game and emerge with something truly fundamental, important and consistently relevant. 

I am aware of only a few attempts to apply Who’s the Beatdown theory to AoS.  None of them have been completely satisfying.  Yes, MtG is a very different game than AoS, but I don’t think that’s the problem.  The concepts are relevant, even if they have to be reframed a bit to match a different context.  The problem, I think, is that the current dearth of AoS theory makes it more difficult than it needs to be to fully develop Who’s the Beatdown in AoS terms.

So buckle-up buttercup.  We’re going to try to apply what we learned last time and see what sparks might fly.

Breaking Down the Beatdown

What’s at stake in Who’s the Beatdown is the idea that in any given game, and indeed, at any given point within a game, a player’s chance of success is significantly improved if they properly understand their role in game relative to their opponent.  A player’s role can be fluid and can change match-up to match-up, and indeed, can change back and forth within a given match-up.  Misunderstanding your role oftentimes means misunderstanding what’s important.  Misunderstanding what’s important oftentimes means losing.

Let’s start by reviewing a recent attempt to apply Who’s the Beatdown to AoS.  For this, we’ll use the relevant excerpt from THWG’s new workbook, reproduced in the spoiler below.  Please read through it before continuing on.  While reading it, take note of what you understand from the concept as outlined, what you can take away from it to help frame how you see the game (concept, from Latin concipere, “to take in and hold”).  I’ll share my take-aways below and we can compare notes, but I think it’s important that you meet it on your own terms first.  


Who is the beatdown?

Here, we get to the strategy of assessing and playing games, so bear with me as it's tough to do a general rule of thumb for a complex, but thrilling game I’m totally in love with.

Wargames are a lot more like Rock Paper Scissors than they are like chess.

Almost always, one army and therefore player has some kind of advantage and some of these are vast, but if you've done your prep, hopefully not too vast. The advantage may be due to the scenario win conditions or because they have units that are too fast or tough to deal with well. It's down to you to assess who has the advantage, or the beatdown, and it may be in your favour which is great, but make sure you don't get that wrong (yeah sounds easy Rob, I’ll just be a genius all the time).
So you have assessed who is the beatdown and now you need to act on that information and devise a plan.

You are the beatdown

This is now your game to lose and your opponents game to win, they might know know they are in a tough spot and may make moves that seem odd or risky. They should be looking to bait you and tip the advantage back in their favour. Your job here is not to make mistakes, play the game as your natural strengths versus their weaknesses allow.

Example 1

They have an elite army of good quality rerollable saves.

You have a couple of units that do excellent mortal wound output and on average over 3 turns will basically wipe them out.

Your job is to protect the mortal wound outputting units while at the same time enacting the win conditions for the scenario.

Their job is to get to those units ASAP as they know they are in the weaker position if they don't. The mortal wound unit is your pivot, the lynchpin, the key winning element of your army.

Example 2

You have a horde style army and they have a tank style army. Both armies are designed to play a limited war style game, but in different ways. You, however, have greater movement and can go first. Your job is to move onto objectives ASAP and score all the gold for as long as possible. Their job is to stop you in any way they can and bring some of or any of their damage units into effect.

They are the beatdown

Get ready, cause in my opinion, this is where the fun begins. Play safe and you are gonna lose. You are gonna have to take risks and use bait and dead drops and get matchups your opponent should not allow. This is where you must push the game and create pressure and opportunity. Your opponent may play safe ‘cause they know they are in an advantageous position, but they could play too safe, they may also not and over extend.

Example 1

You have an elite army of good quality rerollable saves.

They have a couple of units that do excellent mortal wound output and on average over 3 turns will basically wipe you out.

Your job is to kill the mortal wound outputting units while at the same time enacting the win conditions fo the scenario.

Your job is to get to those units asap as they know they are in the weaker position if they don't. The mortal wound units are your target

Example 2

They have a horde style army and you have a tank style army. Both armies are designed to play a limited war style game, but in different ways. They however have greater movement and can go first. Their job is to move onto objectives ASAP and score all the gold for as long as possible. Your job is to stop them in anyway you can and bring some if any of your damage units into effect. Maybe convince them that going first is a bad idea, the list of strategies is far too long to put here and can be found, and are still being discovered, on THWG and the world over.

For me, it seems like it gets some things right and gets some things wrong, and leaves the over-all concept a bit too blurry, and therefore less useful then it could be.  But like Flores’ original piece, it does provide fertile ground to work on, to nurture and harvest and regrow the seeds that it plants.

To do that work, I will have to introduce some new concepts.  But staying faithful to the original methodology, these new concepts will be derivative from our three starting elements (Space, Time, Variability) and therefore connected to our three essential resources (Presence, Pressure, Projection).  We don’t want to just create a pile of ideas; we want to create a framework within which each of our ideas are logically connected with each other, and through which a cohesive and functional perspective can emerge.

What I think THWG’s piece really gets right here is the notion that risk is one of the key differences between how to play the two roles, and that advantage is one of the key elements in understanding what role to take.  What I think the piece gets wrong here is the actual assigning of the roles themselves.  What I think is under-developed is the defining and assessing of advantage and coming to grips with what’s important to each role.

Let’s start with the roles.  In Flores’ original piece, he defines two possible player roles:  the Beatdown (or aggro) role, and the Control role.  Although the notions of Aggro and Control decks existed as archetypes way before Flores, what was inspired in his article was the insight that within the context of a particular match-up, an Aggro deck might actually be better served assuming the Control role, or vice versa, the Control deck might actually be best served playing the Aggro role; that is, although you may have designed your deck to be Aggro or Control, the specific context of the game might require you to play otherwise.  The key concept was to understand the power of the resources that you had available and that your opponent had available and their relationship to time.  An Aggro role was required when the resources you had available were less powerful than your opponent’s but were able to be brought online sooner.  The Control role was required when your resources were more powerful but required more time to deploy.  Thus the Beatdown player was the one who had a short-term advantage and thus had to try and win now, before they became outclassed.  They had to burn through their resources as quickly as possible and go for the throat.  They had to push the tempo and get more done in less time because if the game dragged on too long, they would lose.  The Control player, on the other hand, had to try and slow things down.  They had a long-term advantage.  Their role was to prolong the game however possible until the power of their late-game resources became overwhelming.  If they could hang on long enough and “turn the corner,” they would win.

If we want to successfully apply the lessons of Who’s the Beatdown to AoS, it is critical to preserve the element of time in our understanding, as it is critical to the entire original notion.  We know from our previous work so far, that Time is one of the three essential elements in AoS, along with Space and Variance.  Time is best understood as a measure of change.  We use points to invest in Time whenever we buy Pressure.  Pressure is used to attack Space, which we invest in whenever we use points to buy Presence.  Space can be used to attack Time whenever Presence is used to control its vector speed, Projection.

Here we can see that the fundamental difference between Pressure and Presence is their relationship with Tempo, which we will define here as the measure of the density of change generated per game-turn (how many moments they generate).  Pressure promotes tempo, Presence reduces it.  

From here, we’re well positioned to start connecting the dots.  The Beatdown role is a role properly assumed by the player who stands to benefit from increasing Tempo.  The Control role is properly assumed by the player who stands to benefit from decreasing Tempo.  In its most extreme example, we could ask the question, which player would win if no further time elapsed in game (e.g. if each player passed on each and every remaining subsequent phase).  That player would be the one who would benefit from decreasing tempo, and as such, is the one whose chances of winning are best improved by assuming the Control role.  The player who would stand to lose in this hypothetical situation would benefit from pushing the tempo, and as such is the one whose chances of winning are best improved by assuming the Beatdown role.  They need to break the current game-state within which they are at a disadvantage.  The bigger the advantage gap, and/or the fewer number of game-turns remaining, the more Risk should be assumed by the Beatdown player, and conversely, the less Risk should be willingly accepted by the Control player.  Risk is the second new concept we need to introduce today, so let’s do that now before moving on to re-examine the examples from the spoiler.

Risk is a derivative concept of Variance.  Variance is an essential element of AoS.  Pre-game, we are exposed to variance in the form of match-up uncertainty, scenario uncertainty, and (if you are using them) Realm rules.  In-game, Variance manifests in two powerful ways: unit action and turn initiative.  Almost all unit action contains some measure of randomness in order to quantify its effect: charge rolls introduce Variance into Projection; to Hit and to Wound rolls introduce variance into Pressure; save rolls introduce Variance into Presence, etc.  The sequence of play is also subject to Variance, as the turn order between rounds is determined by a roll-off.  Risk is the concept that we will use to talk about the implications of Variance on game-play.  We say that a play is advantaged when its odds of succeeding are greater than 1/2, and significantly advantaged when they are greater than 2/3.  Likewise, we say that an action is disadvantaged when its odds of succeeding are less than ½, and significantly disadvantaged when it is less than 1/3.  In a completely neutral game-state, we should consider action whenever it is advantaged, and avoid action when it is disadvantaged.  However, as our appetite toward Risk changes, so too should our assessment.  In high Risk situations, it may be completely appropriate for the Beatdown player to pursue significantly disadvantaged action (some chance of winning is better than no chance of winning), just as it may be completely appropriate for the Control player to avoid all but the most significantly advantaged actions.  Further, in high Risk situations it may be completely appropriate for the Beatdown player to plan for a sequence of events as if he was going to win the next turn initiative roll, just as it may be appropriate for the Control player to plan for a sequence of events as if he was going to lose the initiative roll.  Our Risk defines our disposition toward Variance—my chance of winning either depends to some extent on getting lucky, or my chance of losing depends to some extent on getting unlucky.  If the former, I need to consider ways of setting myself up to capitalize on that opportunity.  If the latter, I need to minimize the impact Variability can exert on my current position.

Let’s return to our two examples.  Example #1 seems to be a match pitting a high Presence army (elite, re-rollable saves) against a high Pressure army (MW output).  There’s not really enough information provided to be clear about the situation, but if we take the example at its word and assume that the MW units will be able to produce an overwhelming advantage in 3 turns, then it’s pretty clear that the Presence army has to assume the Beatdown role.  It needs to drive the tempo quickly before its resource allotment in elite Presence is overwhelmed by the opponents investment in MW Pressure.  It’s a tough situation for the high Presence army since it is an army designed to play a Control role.  But that’s the importance of Who’s the Beatdown.  Fail to recognize the role you are actually in (as opposed to the role you had in mind before the game started), and you are much more likely to lose the game.  The army now needs to abandon its preplanned strategy and adapt to the situation at hand.  It needs to drive tempo and beatdown if it is going to win.  Conversely, the Pressure army needs to assume more of a control role than it might have been planning for.  As was articulated in the example, it needs to protect its two MW units, and protection is always an anti-tempo play.  It is the strategic use of Presence (place) to control circulation and threat, and thin out an opponent’s capacity to create a flurry of moments in their turn.

In example #2 we see a match-up of a horde army with high Projection against a high Presence (tanky) army.  The strategy articulated in the example seems spot-on:  assume an immediate Beatdown posture relative to claiming the objectives, using initiative and superior projection to establish an advantage in Space that, if unanswered, will become inevitable over the long-term.  But note that as soon as that advantage is secured, the horde army needs to pivot and assume the Control role.  Once they have the advantage on objectives, they are no longer looking to play Beatdown.  They are looking to preserve the current state of affairs as much as possible.  Their primary concern from that point on is to slow the tempo of the game and ride out the victory, a task that they are well-suited to doing, since as a horde army they have a natural aptitude for controlling space through an abundance of place.  The tank army, on the other hand, is in an unenviable position.  They are forced early on into a Beatdown role for which they are poorly equipped.  The tanky army wants to play the Control role.  That’s the way the army is designed to work.  However for the player to succeed in this context he must identify that the roles have shifted, and do it early.  He must adapt to the situation by recognizing what’s important, what’s at stake, and what approach yields the best possible chance for success.  (Note, if they are playing a scenario with no central objectives, like, say, Total Commitment, the tanky army could conceivably reject the Beatdown role and play for the minor victory by committing to a Control role focused only on its own objectives.  If the horde army misplays, or if Variance produces some very favorable deviation, the path to a major might reveal itself).

What’s interesting in these examples is that in both there are armies that, in order to improve their odds of winning, must adopt a style of play that is probably not what their owner envisioned when putting the list together.  It reinforces the key insights of Who’s the Beatdown?  In every game, and in every game-state within that game, there are two roles available to players.  The first is the Beatdown role, which corresponds to the player with long-term disadvantage.  Their best hope is to push tempo and maximize the benefit of their resources while they can in order to change the game-state into one with better long-term implications.  The second is the Control role, which corresponds to the player that has long-term advantage.  Their hope is to decrease tempo and preserve as much of the current advantaged game-state as possible.  The bigger the long-term advantage, or the nearer it is to becoming inevitable, the more each player increases their unique disposition to risk, taking on more in the case of the Beatdown player, or taking on less in the case of the Control player.  

Let me know what your thoughts, reactions, criticisms or questions in the comments.        

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Well I finally had to make an account... Enough lurking.

So, first of, great series man! Appreciate the effort!
I think this is my preferred of your posts so far.
Especially the relationship between beatdown /control (though I would have preferred terms such as Aggressive and defensiv), and risk taking. Great stuff! Hope to see more of it!

I would like to give you some constructive criticism though.
I think some of your desertations can get a bit too abstract, in the sense that I feels to far removed from the actual play. Especially the 3rd post felt almost like a was reading about physics, rather than AoS.
So I guess that's my input: make it more accessible, and less abstract.

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@gronnelg, welcome!  Glad you signed up.  This is a great place full of friendly folks.

I accept the criticism fully, and am aware.  The abstract-ness was necessary for me to think through the idea.  Can appreciate that it made reading it a chore.  Kind of like listening to some guy muttering to himself in the corner.  Hopefully as it continues to unfold it will get less and less abstract and more and more accessible.  Kind of like building a house... a foundation is pretty boring and it's hard to visualize the house, but the more it's constructed, the more "interesting" and accessible it becomes.  I hope!

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Are you concerned that AoS is too variable for all but the broadest theory crafting? 

One reason theory crafting is so prominent in Magic is its rigid structure, allowing concepts like the beatdown to have real substance. In AoS, variability is so prevalent and strong that units' characteristics inflate and deflate in value in a very real sense. While this is true in Magic to some degree (such as the value of drawing a land at different times in the game), in AoS the much greater fluidity of game-state may exaggerate this phenomenon so much that it obviates the kind of sophisticated theory Magic can sustain. 

For example, in a previous post you floated the notion of assigning value in terms of Presence points and Pressure points. However, (even though Projection attempts to address this, from what I understand) consider how the value of Presence changes from a battleplan like Take and Hold, which is highly static and predictable, to one like Gifts from the Heavens, which is highly variable. If the objectives fall in a disadvantageous way, the actual value of investments in pure presence decreases, while Pressure spikes massively. In the same vein, the ability of a list to kill enemy units can either be paramount, such as in Take and Hold, which will often be decided on kill points, or almost irrelevant, such as in Border War, which will often be decided on victory points.

That being said, I do find the definitions you've outlined very useful so far. I think reading about them will help people understand how to win in different situations against different opponents, instead of just trying to find the best rock/paper/scissors interactions on the battlefield for their units.

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