Who’s the Limited Beatdown? Role Assignment in MTG Drafting and Deckbuilding
Recently, a friend of mine posted a screenshot of a Rivals of Ixalan draft deck he’d built.
It was a pretty solid red-blue Pirates aggro deck, with one exception. He was running Secrets of the Golden City over Crashing Tide. He’s an experienced player who I think of as better at Magic than I am, but he made what I consider to be a fairly fundamental mistake in his deck-building.
In a PPTQ top 8 draft during the Amonkhet season, I faced a well-known UK grinder in the quarter-final. He dispatched me handily in two quick games, and afterwards we spent some time talking about our decks. I noticed that he was packing a solid blue-red midrange deck, which topped out with a couple of 5 and 6 drops. However, his deck also contained a one-of Slither Blade, which struck me as a bit of an anomaly. Another player who’s definitely way better than me (in fact I’ve never beaten him), but in my view, another fundamental deck-building error.
Now, we all make mistakes, and I haven’t written this article to publicly call out these guys. Like I said, I think they’re both better at Magic than I am. But I do want to talk about these deck-building mistakes, why they happen, and what we can do to build better draft decks.
It’s all about “who’s the beatdown”.
If you don’t know what I mean by that, stop reading this article, and go read Who’s the Beatdown first. This classic of Magic fundamental theory dates all the way back to 1999, where a young Mike Flores defined a crucial strategic point: Misassignment of role = game loss.
At any one time in a game of Magic, one person is “the beatdown” – the one applying pressure, and the other is “the control” – the person trying to defend themselves. And if you try and take the beatdown role when you should be controlling (or vice-versa), you make yourself less likely to win the game.
In my view, both of the mistakes I mentioned earlier involved a misassignment of role. Not within the game, but within the draft and deck build.
Why do good players make these mistakes?
These mistakes come from a good place. In both scenarios, the player is making a decision that they think will improve their deck. Perhaps they know that card advantage is good. Or perhaps they’ve heard that Slither Blade is a strong card in Amonkhet draft. And both of those things are true!
But they aren’t universally true. Card advantage is good. But in some strategies, you don’t get card advantage from card draw spells, you get it from killing the opponent before they can cast their cards.
And Slither Blade is good in Amonkhet draft. But only if you can get a bunch of 1-drop creatures and beat the opponent with pump spells and auras. If your deck isn’t set up for that, then Slither Blade really doesn’t do a lot for you.
What I’m saying is that running Secrets of the Golden City in your aggro deck, or Slither Blade in your midrange deck, is a misassignment of your deck’s role. And that continuing to do this will result in you losing games.
Role misassignment #1: Secrets of the Golden City
First things first: I don’t think card advantage spells are bad in all aggressive limited decks all of the time. Treasure Cruise or Chart a Course can be cast for one or two mana and help you keep pressure on the opponent by allowing you to immediately follow up by playing another threat.
For this article, I’m making a more general point about cards which don’t affect the board, generate card advantage, and crucially, typically take your whole turn to cast. Let’s call them Divinations.
Divinations can be good in some decks. Typically, these are decks which are not looking to win the game quickly. They’ll probably try to trade card-for-cards in the early game, before winning late with card advantage and expensive finishers. In this type of deck, Divinations serve an important purpose. They dig for mana early, allowing the slower deck to hit its land drops and build towards the late game. And in the late game, Divinations help to overwhelm the opponent who is only seeing one card per turn. This type of deck doesn’t mind spending three mana to not affect the board, because it isn’t in a hurry to finish the game. They have inevitability.
But in the “Who’s the Beatdown” paradigm, this makes that the “the control”.
A beatdown deck, on the other hand, wants to use up all of it’s mana, starting from turn 1 or 2, to win quickly. In order to do that, it has to run a lot of cheap creatures so they can come down early. The cost of this, of course, is that cheap creatures aren’t as impactful on average as expensive ones. But when you cast a bunch of them really quickly, they can ensure that the person with all the Divinations dies with a bunch of cards in hand.
But what if, instead of playing a 3-drop on turn 3, (or a combat trick + 2 drop), you as the aggro player decide to draw two cards? In that case, you give the opponent a turn of breathing space. Extra time to set up defences, hit more land drops, and cast those powerful spells that might otherwise have been stranded in their hand.
But what if I don’t kill my opponent quickly? Won’t it help to draw more cards then?
We all know the feeling. We’ve whittled the opponent down to 6 or 7 life. But then we drew a couple of lands, and they got down a decent blocker. All of a sudden, things feel pretty hopeless. In that scenario, we’d love the opportunity to draw a couple of new cards, right?
Well, what if the cards we drew looked like this:
And our opponent’s draw for the turn was this:
What did drawing those extra cards achieve?
This isn’t a straw man. These are two commonly played beatdown cards, and the two of them combined are outclassed by a common five-drop. That’s the price of running cheap threats – they don’t scale well into the late game. So it doesn’t matter how many of them you draw, a beatdown deck has to win early. And Divinations actively stop you from doing so!
That’s why Divinations don’t belong in beatdown decks, and that’s why playing Secrets of the Golden City in your beatdown deck is a misassignment of role.
Role misassignment #2: Slither Blade
Christian Calcano has become well known recently for adopting hyper-aggressive draft strategies at high-level events. Most recently, he 3-0’d his draft at the World Championships by putting Swashbuckling on Blight Keeper. And at Pro Tour Amonkhet, he and his team-mates found success by forcing Jeskai coloured aggressive decks. In particular, his day 1 draft featured 6 Slither Blades.
What people forget though, is that those Slither Blades were backed up by three In Oketra’s Name and a Rhonas’s Monument. Without ways to mass-pump your creatures, or repeatedly allow them to hit for extra damage, a 1/1 unblockable isn’t great on it’s own. I discussed this a bit in my very first article on Manaleak.com.
A 1/1 blocks really badly, so it’s a terrible draw when you’re behind. It doesn’t hit very hard, so it’s not great at finishing off your opponent. It’s just very low impact at all stages of the game. But as I said in my previous article, it has synergy with equipment, auras, and pump spells. If your deck doesn’t contain those cards, and isn’t a linear aggressive strategy, it doesn’t matter how broken Andrea Mengucci tells you Slither Blade is, you won’t get the best out of your slithery friend.
So when my top 8 opponent put Slither Blade into his midrange deck, it was another misassignment of role.
So what can we do to avoid misassigning?
It’s not easy, but while you’re drafting your deck, think carefully about the role of your deck the entire time. At the beginning of the draft, identify what’s open – not just the colours, but the role of your deck. Then, adjust the cards you pick to best fit that role. If things change during the draft, make sure you adjust your role based on that change, and tailor your picks accordingly.
Once you’ve finished drafting, or if you’re building a sealed pool, assess your role again based on the cards you have available. You may have been aiming for a controlling deck, but it didn’t quite get there. In that case, maybe it’s best to leave your Divination in the sideboard. Or perhaps you wanted to be hyper-aggressive, but you ended up not getting enough two drops or combat tricks. In that case, perhaps Slither Blade belongs on the bench, rather than in your deck.
For further “reading” on this, if you’re a fan of podcasts, Limited Resources 273 is all about having a plan, and covers the draft portion as well as during games. I highly recommend it as a level-up for Magic in general as well as limited.
Who’s the Beatdown might be old theory, but there’s a reason it’s considered a classic. It still holds true today – and not just during games.
Thanks you for reading,