What’s good, Spirit Squad! Today we’re gonna talk about a concept and article that’s been an integral part of Magic: the Gathering strategy for more than 20 years now: Who’s the Beatdown?

Back in 1999, Michael Flores wrote an iconic article that has helped players to define their role within a game of Magic, and knowing what role you play has always been integral to winning your games, whether you’ve used the term “beatdown” to describe it or not. While the term “beatdown” is specific to Magic players because of this article, the concept has existed for much longer than the article. Fighting game players will typically call it advantage, chess players call it being up-tempo, and even a newer game like Pokémon Unite tells players whether they’re in the lead or behind at certain points in the game.

At its core, the definition of beatdown is this: if the game continues exactly the way it is with no changes, the player who will win is currently the beatdown.

The opposite of the beatdown is “the control”, which is a term we should all be familiar with. The player who is the control actively wants or needs to do something about the current situation of a game in order to win. Decks like Azorius Control have been built around the concept of purposely not being the beatdown for decades.

This is where I come in, as someone who’s played a lot of Spirits. Spirits is a deck that’s both great at being the beatdown and provides opportunities for players to reclaim the beatdown status from opponents.

Spirits, like a lot of aggressive decks, aims to play creatures as early as Turn 1 in order to attack the opponent’s life total. Since the opponent has to remove the creature from the battlefield in order to prevent it from winning the game, this makes us the beatdown in that scenario. However, most of our creatures are 1/1’s or 2/2’s, and can quickly be outpaced by bigger creatures. When this happens, we need to either deploy more creatures in order to not be outpaced or answer the opponent’s creatures.

This leads to scenarios in which a Spirits pilot will often find ourselves switching between the beatdown and being the control. Some of Spirits’ most famous cards are designed around exactly this concept. Cards like Rattlechains and Spell Queller allow you to either establish the beatdown by virtue of being threats your opponents must answer, or protect your other threats from opponents who are looking to reclaim the beatdown from you. Cards like Shacklegeist and Skyclave Apparition simultaneously allow you to answer opposing threats while also being threats, giving you chances to reclaim the beatdown from bigger or faster opponents.

This concept is certainly not unique to Spirits decks, though. Just about every deck in Magic that players have classically called “tempo” aims to establish itself as the beatdown early in a game, while using defensive spells to either maintain the beatdown or reclaim it from opponents who establish themselves first. Izzet Delver in Legacy, Izzet Murktide in Modern, and even Grixis Midrange in Standard all look to achieve this same goal, despite the vast differences in power-level across those formats.

The biggest key to success when playing all of these decks is the same: knowing Who’s the Beatdown.

So how does one figure out who’s the beatdown?

One very basic way to know that is to keep track of the total power that you and your opponent have the ability to attack with on each turn. Doing this will allow you to do a tally of who will win first if nothing changes. With Creatures being an important part of most decks in Magic, this is a necessary skill for any player who wants to win games.

Once you’re able to do a tally of rallies, you can then work on figuring out what both you and your opponent can do to either keep or reclaim the beatdown status. This is commonly referred to as “playing around” cards that your opponent could have to mess up your path to victory.

Now that you know to do combat math and figure out how your opponent is looking to mess up your day, your last job is to figure out how to use your own cards to stop that from happening. This is the part that generally requires you to make the most in-game decisions, and will be the hardest to learn. However, once you do you’ll win more games and find yourself feeling unstoppable in even the worst matchups.

Hopefully today’s overview of this gem from Magic’s past and relating it to an archetype that’s seeing success today will shine some light on your gameplay. Until then, this has been your friendly neighborhood Spirit Master Dre, and I’ll see y’all on the next one!

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