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Role Reversal Art by Mathias Kollros

Roles of Engagement

This article expands upon the classic Magic Beatdown vs. Control strategy by introducing additional roles along a sliding scale of aggressiveness.

This article expands upon the classic Magic Beatdown vs. Control strategy by introducing additional roles along a sliding scale of aggressiveness.

Understanding and properly playing your role in a game of Magic is one of the most important skills that anyone can develop to level up their game. While most players are familiar with the roles of the beatdown and the control, I’ve expanded upon that approach by adding additional roles. I’ll be discussing these different roles, the ways to identify you should be in this role, and what you should be doing while there.

The most difficult part of determining your role is when you are playing a mirror match or against another deck with a similar plan to yours. The vast majority of matches in Limited Magic are playing some form of midrange against each other. I prefer to look at it as a sliding scale, where you take on a variety of roles determining how aggressive you are at different points within the same game.

It used to be a lot easier to determine the beatdown and control roles in constructed Magic, even when playing a similar deck, based off of card choices that made one deck trend more towards a longer game. Now due to the prevalence of netdecking and the insane amount of games being played it has led to a quick homogenization of formats making this expansion of roles more relevant to that as well.

The Control

Being in the control role doesn’t necessarily mean that you are even playing control style cards. It just means that you are playing the role of prolonging the game and trying to stay alive because you feel that you have an advantage in the long game. This can be the case because you have recursive cards or cards that go over the top of what your opponent is trying to do.

In some cases you are forced into playing the control role even when your deck should theoretically be the beatdown deck in the matchup. This can just be how the draws line up or because you lost the coin flip. If you are in this situation and lack any way to win a long game, it’s critical that you try to counteract some of your opponents tempo and place yourself back in a role that you can win from.

In the full control role, you are typically not making any attacks and trying to minimize the amount of damage you take. One of the key decisions in this role is whether you should be using spells to negate your opponent’s tempo. For example using a Shock effect on a two drop versus brick walling it with a defensive creature.

One of the hardest decisions of this role is when to use a sweeper. You have to factor in how much damage you can take compared to how much control you will have afterwards depending on your remaining cards versus what is most likely remaining in their hand.

The Why Not Attacker

An example of a why not attack is when your opponent has a tapped 3/3 while you have a 2/2 and a 3/3 that you would happily trade for theirs. The vast majority of the time that 2/2 isn’t going to be blocking anyways so why not attack with it. One of the common misplays that I see from people making level one plays is the misevaluation of thinking they have reached the why not attack point when they should still be acting as the control.

This is where thinking beyond level one begins to make a difference. I was in a Innistrad: Crimson Vow draft with the same position as described above and chose not to attack while the peanut gallery skewered me about missing two damage. My opponent went to their turn and played Ulvenwald Oddity and couldn’t attack without trading it down for a 3/3 instead of getting to crack in for four damage. I ended up winning that game at three life so choosing to not deal two “free” damage ended up making the difference between winning and losing.

In this case I choose to remain the control, instead of taking the why not attack because they were a heavily aggressive deck while I had a deck with some inevitability cards such as Hullbreaker Horror. It was extremely unlikely that dealing two damage to them was going to matter in the long term while the potential of them dealing a chunk back could have a huge effect. In a game like this, it really doesn’t matter whether my opponent was at eighteen or forty life as once it reached a certain point I was going to be able to win from almost any life total.

Before someone says that it’s just a corner case where they had a specific rare, there are plenty of other cards they could play that having the 2/2 back on defense was beneficial such as Daybreak Combatants or Nurturing Presence. The main point is that there are a lot of situations where having a gameplan and staying true to it will win you games, where making the objectively “right” play will not.

Another example when you should determine this role early, is when you play a turn one Traveling Minister and are presented with the turn two decision whether to attack for one or to gain one life. In Bo3 you should have an idea of the role you will be playing in game two and three, but in Bo1 you are usually forced to make this decision based on an opponent’s single land drop as well as how aggressive your hand is.

The Speculator

The speculative attacker role is when you think you have turned the corner and can start getting in there with one of your creatures. There is nothing more disheartening than when you are figuring out how to finish off a high level player and they send what seems like an aggressive attack at you because that means they know they have a way to deal with what you have coming.

Before sending that speculative attacker you need to consider a lot of factors. The biggest one is probably how much you need to value your life total as a resource. Trading off three damage for three damage isn’t actually an equal trade in most cases.

One way to gain pertinent information against a blue player before making your speculative attack is to play your presumed blocker before combat so you know whether or not it resolves before committing to the attack.

At Parity

Being at parity on roles is one of the most interesting game states, it takes a much deeper evaluation of the game state to determine exactly how much you should be attacking. While a lot of people are picturing the Spider-Man meme with creatures staring each other down, I like to think of board states where both players are the beatdown.

A great example from Innistrad: Crimson Vow drafts is the Blue Red deck trying to ping away with Kessig Flamebreathers while attacking with flyers against a Red Green deck who is trying to kill them with aggressive creatures. Since they are attacking on different axes with similar clocks they are both acting equally as the beatdown.

The classic constructed example of this is a combo deck versus a low to ground mono red deck. Especially in game one, both are typically just trying to win as fast possible with both acting as the beatdown. The determination of post sideboard roles relies on how much disruption each player has for the opposing game plan.

The Pusher

The pusher is when you start pushing damage, but hold back some creatures because of fear of the crackback. This doesn’t mean you just hold back creatures that aren’t profitable attacks, it means you actively are still trying to build a defense.

Another time that you should downshift into this from the full beatdown, is when you are far enough ahead, but not quite lethal and you go into “what are the only ways I can lose” mode. How deep you get into this is on a sliding scale based on how inevitable your way to win is and how dire your situation could be.

A great way to take advantage of your opponent not realizing that you are now in this role is to let them over commit. Not using a tap spell like Chill of the Grave before combat, will provide an opportunity for your opponent to overcommit on an attack, allowing you to spring it on them at the end of their turn. This obviously isn’t as effective with an on board tapper like Icy Manipulator because they will be immediately suspect of why you didn’t tap their attacker.

The Beatdown

The most obvious case of being in the beatdown role is when you drafted an aggressive archetype and are playing against a blue heavy control deck. In general, you are trying to end the game as quickly as possible because your cards can’t compete in the late game with your opponents.

One of the key limited sideboarding decisions is knowing when being the beatdown is your only option to win. For example, if your opponents deck outclasses yours and has two bombs you can’t deal with, you can sideboard down to a hyper aggressive deck and try to go underneath them. It may not be the deck you want, but it’s the deck you need.

The Nothing to Lose

This is when you are dead on board to your opponent untapping either through an evasive creature or a ping. In this case you are just all in and hope they somehow mess up blocks.

The other way you end up in this type of attack is if you determine you can’t win if they do have a certain card. An example of this is when you are determining whether you should go all in on enchanting a creature or using a pump spell when it could be easily blown out by a removal spell. If you can’t find another path to victory if they have that spell, you have nothing to lose by going for it.


There, now you know the Roles of Engagement! I hope this article helps you to both identify what role you are, and understand when you need to transition to a different role.

I’d like to give a shout out to Floridamun, 1cky, and TaJoordan for their discussions on this subject and contributions to this article.

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Josh is a member of the elite limited team The Draft Lab as well as the host of The Draft Lab Podcast. He was qualifying for Pro Tours, Nationals, and Worlds literally before some of you were born. After a Magic hiatus to play poker and go to medical school, he has been dominating Arena with over an 80% win percentage in Bo3 as well as making #1 rank in Mythic.

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