Perhaps the most common (yet subtle and often overlooked) mistake in competitive games is the misassignment of who is the beatdown and who is the control in any given matchup. The player who misassigns himself is inevitably the loser.
Who’s the Beatdown?
About 20 years ago, Ben Flores explained, in this article that our introduction paraphrases, that at any given point in a two player game of Magic the Gathering, one player is always the Control, and one player is always the Beatdown.
There are practically no exceptions to this rule.
As the Beatdown player, you want to end the game as quickly as possible.
As the Control player, you want to extend the game as long as you can until you get a favorable game state.
In Magic, the Beatdown player needs to deal 20 damage as fast as possible, before the Control player gets enough resources to gain more life, counter their opponent’s spells and all other fun stuff that blue is known for in Magic.
An example of this is Red Burn, a deck with small offensive creatures and spells that deal damage to the opposing player.
The Control player wants to extend the game as much as possible. The longer they play, the more resources they have access to, and their opponent’s are depleted or easily dealt with.
An example of this is Blue White Control, a deck built with counterspells, removals and card draws and often as little as one win condition only.
But here’s the intricate part of this theory: What happens when Red Burns plays versus another Red Burn (or the Control plays another Control, it works both ways)
Well remember, there’s always a Control and a Beatdown.
Sometimes it will be based on who has first turn, or it could be minor variations in the decklist that will command who’s the Control and who’s the Beatdown. It can also be determined by how the game goes, if one player misses a land, or one player has larger creatures, or more of them.
Whatever the case may be, correctly identifying each player’s role yields great results.
Translating Magic in 40K
This card thing is great and everything, but how does it translate to Warhammer 40k? You can’t really ‘end the game early’ since both players get to play their 5 turns.
The obvious counter-example would be the 2021 SoCal finals, where Sean Nayden conceded the game at the top of turn two. Obviously this qualifies as ending the game early, but how poor of a tactical advice is: “Well, just table your opponent on turn one”* Fear not, this is not how we want to use this theory.
Because the winning conditions differ from Magic, the application and how to determine who’s the beatdown also differs.
The best way to look at this is the following: The Beatdown is the player that’s rewarded for action. The Control is the player that wants the game to remain the same.
This is a little abstract, so here’s a simple enough example using a weird tournament setting where each player’s turn ends after 20 minutes. In our hypothetical tournament, my army consists of a single Chaos Space Marine squad. My opponent, Nick Nanavati’s, consists of a single Ultramarines Intercessor unit.
We each deploy our unit on an objective in our deployment zone. Then I suggest we go to the venue’s bar, to which he agrees, because, you guessed it, he’s here to party.
When we return from the bar some two and a half hours later, the game has sort of played itself out, because of our weird format. Much to my despair, Nick outscores me by 5 points because he collected a point on Oaths of Moment each turn for not falling back.
Let’s look at our CSM vs UM ‘action’ with more details. If absolutely nothing happens in the game, the UM will win because they will outscore the CSM. The onus is then on the CSM player to make something happen in the game that breaks this status quo, making them the beatdown.
There are multiple ways to determine and also alter who’s the beatdown.
Sometimes it’s the overall army design.
Magic has grown very distinctive archetypes of these strategies like Red Burn and Blue-White Control decks.
Popular in the early 9th edition days, the Necron Silverwall was a textbook example of a Control army: “You do whatever you want for 5 turns while my 120 warriors and I will be here chilling around, once you’re done with whatever it is you do, we’ll win the game”
Unless anything bad, say 15 plasma Inceptors, happen, the Necrons would win the game by just walking about, without killing much and just preventing their opponent from doing anything significant.
Another pregame factor to consider is your choice of secondaries.
This can sometimes determine who’s the beatdown in close case scenarios, or widen the extent by which a player is the control or the beatdown.
Using the Necron Silverwall example above, in a mirror match, where both players have the exact same list. One of them takes Code of Combat, which rewards you when a Necron Noble kills units. This player is going to be the beatdown almost by default, because they need to be proactive to score.
In similar matchups, the mere fact of who goes first and who goes second can dictate who’s the Control.
Keeping our example of the Necron Silverwall mirror match, this time, both players take the exact same secondaries.
The game will go something like this: Turn 1 through 4, both players score the same secondaries. Turn 2-3-4, both players score the same primaries. But in turn five, the second player only scores at the end of his turn, meaning that they know the entire score, and get to score any extra points they need unmolested.
Unless the first player commits at some point in the game, the second player will be able to outscore their opponent at the end of the game. This commit move is often called the push, and is a deep enough subject for an article of its own.
Another thing that happens with Warhammer that is not as common in Magic the Gathering is that the beatdown and the control will switch during a game. More often than not, this happens because of the unexpected: either a stroke of luck, or a player’s blunder.
When this situation arises, a player is faced with 2 options. Either let it slide, stick to their game plan and take the small win that comes with it. Or, go all in and punish their opponent and commit to a new gameplan. It goes without saying, but this works in reverse, so be prepared to switch gears if you commit a blunder or fall victim to a stroke of bad luck.
In Warhammer just like in Magic, sometimes, who’s who is quite obvious.
Other times, it is not, and this is where the introduction’s warning comes to bear. Let’s use our So-Cal example from before, that showcases how much of a monstrosity the Orks book originally was impact misassigning your role can have.
Let’s go back to the SoCal 2021 Finals, Sean Nayden plays a Drukhari Venom spam versus Logan Heath with the Ork Buggies.
Both of these armies want to be the beatdown: The Orks fill a kiddie pool with dice in the shooting phase to remove your army; and the Drukhari zoom across the board and trade aggressively for objective dominance.
Sean gets to play first and does what he probably did through all the tournament, pushes forward and tries to cripple some of the ork’s firepower**. The turn does not go his way, Logan then plays his 1st turn, sticking to his kiddie pool of dice strategy, and wrecks the Drukhari to oblivion, leaving only a handful alive to tell the tale.
We can look at this a bunch of different ways, but really, things went from bad to worse for Sean because of this strategy. Drukhari is not the beatdown in this example, because its best aggressive outcome- getting board position, killing some buggies and locking some units- doesn’t win the game outright. However, as it did happen, the Orks get to do that if they go on the offensive.
In all fairness, Sean was already in a rough position matchup-wise, so who’s to say if he would’ve won the game with a defensive strategy. However, it would’ve allowed him to play more than a turn, even from an unfavorable position. But again, playing from an unfavorable position is its own complex subject that deserves it’s own article.
So before you start your next game, consider your matchup and ask yourself: Who’s the Beatdown?
*I have actually said this when a top tier player asked me how I wanted to deal with our opponents in a double’s game. #noshameinmygame
**This is from Sean’s own recap on The Battle Brothers