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Titandrake

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Who's The Beatdown? The Dominion Version
« on: May 21, 2016, 04:09:02 pm »
+54

Who's The Beatdown is one of the most influential Magic: the Gathering strategy articles of all time. Who's The Beatdown was written over 17 years ago, but its core principles are still applicable today, not just in MtG, but in gaming communities the world over. I highly recommend reading it if you're familiar with MtG terminology.

I don't expect to write a good article the first time through, so I'll post a draft now, and edit it when I have time to.

Version history: last updated May 21, 2016


There's a saying in the Dominion community: when in doubt between a money strategy and an engine strategy, build the engine. In practice, players who practice this philosophy have been among the strongest players of the game. Why?

The reason given by SCSN for this philosophy is that engine games are harder to play optimally than money games. Engine games simply have more decisions - what actions to buy, how and when to buy VP, what order to play actions, and so on. In other words, the skill ceiling of engine play is much, much higher than BM games. By trying to go for the engine, you get more experience in engine building, which is key to climbing the ladder. This is a fine argument, but I want to focus on arguments for winning the current game, not meta-arguments about improvement strategies.

My reason for preferring the engine is simple. Playing an engine gives you more control over the game. When properly built, an engine has more control over when the game ends than a BM deck. The engine dictates which piles get low at what times. The engine can limit the other player's options, by playing an attack every turn. An engine is always, always favored long term. If the Province pile was 16 or 20 Provinces instead of 8, even the most absurd engines would beat a BM strategy.

The reason, then, that BM is still relevant is because engines are not always easy to build. In games with hard engines, a money strategy can often race down enough Provinces to stop the engine from catching up in VP. This is what makes Rebuild-BM so monolithic - it grabs Provinces fairly quickly, while destroying the catch-up mechanism of buying Duchies, and can accelerate the game end by trashing Province -> Province. By itself, Rebuild gives an unprecedented amount of control over the game, and because it does so by itself, it's hard to justify adding too much to Rebuild-BM.

In short, in the classical BM vs engine question, BM is the beatdown player, and the engine is the control player. The BM player wants to end the game as quickly as possible, while the control player wants to prolong the game end to give time to build. This heavily influences how both players should play. When playing against an engine, the BM player buys Gold over Duchy much longer than they would in a BM mirror, because their win condition is emptying Provinces; little else matters. When playing against BM, the engine player can empty action piles much lower than in an engine mirror, because the BM player has fewer buys, and cannot easily contest actions without slowing down their deck.

The key realization here is that the beatdown vs control dichotomy appears in every game. In BM mirrors, in engine mirrors, there is always a player who wants the game to end quickly, and a player who wants the game to end slowly. Furthermore, a BM player is not always beatdown, and an engine player is not always control.

Consider the following scenario: in an engine mirror, the key action split is the Villages, and the split happens 4-6. The player with 6 Villages is now favored long term. If they have time to do so, the max capacity of their deck is bigger. Thus, the player with 4 Villages is now the beatdown, even though they're building an engine. Their goal is to end the game before the 6 Village player has time to build. The beatdown will still buy actions for their Villages, but will buy Treasures and Victory cards sooner. The 6 Village player, in turn, will try to stall the game by buying more actions, because their deck can afford to and will win long term if given the chance.

Here's a generalization of the same scenario: both players are playing an engine mirror. One player is ahead on building. This player is now the beatdown - they want to continue pressing their advantage, eventually buying VP at a time when the other engine both cannot afford to ignore VP and cannot afford to stop building.

What makes Dominion so interesting to me is that unlike MtG, the deck is created during the game itself. This tests your ability to recognize game flow more than any other game. An engine could be the beatdown in an engine mirror, dud for a turn, then have to be the control player.

These beatdown vs control decisions are not always overarching strategy decisions - they are implicitly baked into the cards each player decides to buy. If you open with a trashing card, you're implicitly making the following bet: "the short term economy loss I'll get from trashing cards is worth the long term improvements to my deck". Trashing is fundamentally a control player move, because trashing is only worth it if the game lasts long enough to make the short term loss worth it. This is why Chapel is so strong - it trashes so quickly that the long term is almost always going to come fast enough.

A single Herald is awful, but many Heralds are amazing. When a player buys a Herald, they're staking a claim. "I believe I can buy enough actions in time to make this cantrip for $4 worth it down the line." If you believe Herald isn't worth it, you're now the beatdown player - you need, absolutely need, to end the game before you die to a Herald stack.

A player who starts playing BM, then tries to switch to engine is going to lose, because they started out with a beatdown strategy, and tried switching to a control strategy. If you plan to take short term losses for long term gains, you should do so as early as possible, to make sure there's enough game left to reap your reward. Similarly, an engine player that tries switching to BM will often fizzle out, because they didn't finish their plan of buying enough actions to make their short term losses pay off. It can be scary, and it's not always right, but sometimes you have to have faith that your engine will come together in time, and not be intimidated when the BM player has 4 Provinces before you've bought one.

If you're playing engine or BM against a Gardens rush, you are the control player. The BM deck should not contest many Gardens, and neither should the engine, because it forces the game to end sooner. It is only worth doing so if you believe you can both deny enough VP and gain enough catchup VP to have more by the game end, while the Gardens player is ending the game ASAP. This is usually not true.

The greatest position you can be in is forcing the beatdown player to play like a control player, or vice versa. Gain enough VP to make the Gardens rush forced to stall and try to buy Duchies. Get action piles low enough to force the other engine player to buy VP for fear of a 3-pile. If you can get in a scenario where your opponent has to play against type, they'll do a bad job at it, because everything about their deck is pulling them the other way.

And, in turn, the greatest mistake you can make is playing against your role. Picking up VP when your engine has control and still has time to build. Contesting Duchies against Duchy-Duke as an engine player, instead of trying to rush down Provinces before the Duke player can buy 6 VP Dukes for $5.

If you do not identify whether you want the game to go long or short, and play against your best interests, you will lose, unless you have a big enough advantage to cover for your mistakes.
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Awaclus

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Re: Who's The Beatdown? The Dominion Version
« Reply #1 on: May 21, 2016, 04:14:07 pm »
0

TL;DR but +1'd anyway because the idea is super important.
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Re: Who's The Beatdown? The Dominion Version
« Reply #2 on: May 21, 2016, 04:28:26 pm »
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Fantastic article. I've played like this, but I could never quite put it all into words as this article has.
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Re: Who's The Beatdown? The Dominion Version
« Reply #3 on: May 22, 2016, 09:06:20 am »
+1

This makes sense, and makes me think of a Hearthstone comparison.

An aggro deck (lots of low-cost minions to damage the Hero directly) is essentially the beatdown deck, and can end the game pretty quickly.

A control deck (same definition - lots of removal) can stall that out, and will eventually win if it can remove the aggro nonsense before the player dies, and hopefully recover.

The most interesting matchups are control versus control (usually Warriors) where the game will typically go all the way to fatigue (your deck is empty, and you take damage when you draw a card), and games last 20-30 minutes.

Compare to Dominion: BM-only games are pretty quick.  BM v Engine games can be a little slower, but not too much.  But Engine v Engine games can go as long as you want to, because neither player really wants to end the game quickly, they want to "control" into a position of advantage and end the game on their own terms.  So the whole "you have to win in 16 turns" only matters if you're playing a BM opponent.
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Re: Who's The Beatdown? The Dominion Version
« Reply #4 on: May 22, 2016, 10:44:29 am »
+7

Great article.  Alt-VP often highlights and complicates the beatdown vs. control dichotomy.  Some examples:

Goons: The engine player who can play more Goons per turn is clearly in the controlling position.  Indeed, that player almost never wants to purchase green cards.  On the other hand, if you're behind in your ability to play Goons (whether it be due to losing the village split, the Goons split, or the draw-cards split), but have more economy, you are the beatdown deck playing for Provinces (with additional VP from Goons).

Fairgrounds: On a Fairgrounds board, one player might invest in 6-point Fairgrounds while the other player aims for Provinces with 4-point Fairgrounds as a consolation prize.  This case is complicated.  Often, the 6-point Fairgrounds player starts out in the control position.  They need a longer game for their investment in a bunch of cards to pay off.  Their opponent (who might have a more focused engine) wants to end the game quickly with more Provinces.  But the situation might change if the first player gets 15 unique cards before the Provinces are close to empty.  In this case, the 4-point Fairgrounds player might want the game to last longer, because their deck is (presumably) higher quality and they can (a) buy Duchies faster and (b) reach 6-point Fairgrounds of their own.

Vineyards: Also complicated.  Suppose both players go for Vineyards somewhat early.  One player wins the Vineyards split 5-3.  They (a) have more VP, and (b) have a lower quality deck.  Are they the beatdown deck or the control deck?  Well, the player with fewer victory cards has more control over the ending of the game, but it might be in their interest to end the game before the 5-Vineyards player can gain a bunch of action cards.  The 3-Vineyards player might want to aggressively empty low action piles and grab some Provinces to win on three piles before the 5-Vineyards player can pull ahead.

Feodum: Another complicated case.  Suppose there is a powerful Silver gainer on the board with Feodum (like Masterpiece).  One player goes all in on Feodums.  Their opponent ignores it and goes for Provinces with either with a moneyish approach or an engine.  A moneyish Province player doesn't have much control.  The game ends when they buy all of the Provinces, which is what they want to do anyway.  Perhaps they snag a Feodum or two for denial?  The Feodum player generally wants the game to last longer, but they don't have much control in that regard.  Perhaps the Feodum player grabs the 3rd-to-last Province to setup a penultimate Province threat.  Even if the Province player is playing an engine, it isn't obvious that they are the control player.  They have more control over the end of the game, but they might not want the the game to go long.  That would give the Feodum player time to max out on Feodums and snag some Provinces.  Silk Road can present a similar situation, where the Silk Road player wants the game to last longer but doesn't have much control over the end of the game.
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Re: Who's The Beatdown? The Dominion Version
« Reply #5 on: May 22, 2016, 01:55:15 pm »
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City is a very good example similar to Herald.
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Re: Who's The Beatdown? The Dominion Version
« Reply #6 on: May 23, 2016, 06:19:30 pm »
+1

Maybe it's because I've never played Magic before, but I don't really see the need to coin new terms for a pretty simple and already-established concept.  You're saying the player with more control is the "control player" and the other player is the "beatdown player".  Ok..  Can't you just say it's generally good to have control over the game (specifically, pile control)?  Not sure why we need new words.  But I guess if they help people, then whatever that's cool.

I also see a theme of "engine is always better than BM":
An engine is always, always favored long term.
in the classical BM vs engine question, BM is the beatdown player, and the engine is the control player.
But as we all know, BM can often beat a decent engine.  There are engines that truck right along but don't have any sort of economy and winning power.  Furthermore, BM can sometimes have some decent pile control with things like Stonemason or Travelling Fair.

I do agree that engines are pretty much always more fun than BM, at least for me personally.  And also that building an engine that eventually fails terribly is a great way to learn.

EDIT: Another reason why I don't prefer to talk about engines vs. BM with such dichotomy is because there's not a fine line between them.  BM can benefit from trashing Coppers.  Engines can truck along with some Golds or Spoils or whatever.  And Jack is a card that, although is probably most often associated with BM strats, can certainly be a strong engine component in many situations.

EDIT2: I guess what I'm trying to say is that I see a lot of over-generalization in this article.
The player with 6 Villages is now favored long term.
A player who starts playing BM, then tries to switch to engine is going to lose
And as we all know, the only tried and true generalization you can ever claim is that there will always be edge cases.
« Last Edit: May 23, 2016, 06:40:40 pm by Dingan »
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Titandrake

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Re: Who's The Beatdown? The Dominion Version
« Reply #7 on: May 23, 2016, 08:05:35 pm »
+7

Maybe it's because I've never played Magic before, but I don't really see the need to coin new terms for a pretty simple and already-established concept.  You're saying the player with more control is the "control player" and the other player is the "beatdown player".  Ok..  Can't you just say it's generally good to have control over the game (specifically, pile control)?

The intention here isn't that "control" == "pile control". Beatdown = tries to win quickly, sacrifices building economy if it can end the game faster by doing so. Control = tries to win slowly, spends its time building up to bigger payoffs later on. If it helps, mentally substitute "beatdown" for "short term" and "control" for "long term". I'm only using the Magic terms as an homage to the original article. (I also like the word "beatdown" more than "short term" FWIW.)

I can see why control is getting conflated with pile control because of how I start the article, but that wasn't my intention. The beginning was supposed to only be a prelude.

I also see a theme of "engine is always better than BM":
An engine is always, always favored long term.
in the classical BM vs engine question, BM is the beatdown player, and the engine is the control player.
But as we all know, BM can often beat a decent engine.  There are engines that truck right along but don't have any sort of economy and winning power.  Furthermore, BM can sometimes have some decent pile control with things like Stonemason or Travelling Fair.

An engine is always favored long term, but that long term might not exist. I'm not saying the engine is always better. I'm saying that if you give an engine enough time, it'll be better. BM strategies are the baseline that limit how much time an engine player can get on a given board; they keep the engine player honest. If the board has weak engine support, then the money strategy is better, not because the engine is impossible, but because the engine isn't possible in the time you get.

I'll say it again: make all the piles 10 times bigger, and you'll get more engine boards.

I do agree that engines are pretty much always more fun than BM, at least for me personally.  And also that building an engine that eventually fails terribly is a great way to learn.

I might change the introduction in a later edit, because again, this wasn't actually the topic I wanted the article to be about.

EDIT: Another reason why I don't prefer to talk about engines vs. BM with such dichotomy is because there's not a fine line between them.  BM can benefit from trashing Coppers.  Engines can truck along with some Golds or Spoils or whatever.  And Jack is a card that, although is probably most often associated with BM strats, can certainly be a strong engine component in many situations.

I'm not trying to continue an engine vs BM dichotomy. Most of my examples are engine vs BM because they're more clear, but the idea that one player would like to end the game sooner is universal.
The key realization here is that the beatdown vs control dichotomy appears in every game.
I'm actually sticking to this dichotomy. I can think of very few scenarios where this gets muddled - the only one off the top of my head is endgame VP posturing. (Edit: and actually, aku_chi's post shows other ways it can get muddled. But I'd argue that it's not that beatdown vs control doesn't exist, it's that it's occasionally hard to recognize what your position is.)

EDIT2: I guess what I'm trying to say is that I see a lot of over-generalization in this article.
The player with 6 Villages is now favored long term.
A player who starts playing BM, then tries to switch to engine is going to lose
And as we all know, the only tried and true generalization you can ever claim is that there will always be edge cases.

Duly noted, but for one, I'm trying not to hedge for better writing, and two, I don't think these generalizations are as big as you're implying. The 6 Village player is favored, assuming my idea of long term where the 6 Village player gets the time to reach max capacity of their engine. In practice, winning the Village split might distract you from getting a balanced collection of actions. Similarly, a BM -> engine transition usually doesn't work out against a player who stuck with BM or engine from the start (whichever is better on that board), but it can happen if the cards fall right.
« Last Edit: May 23, 2016, 08:06:54 pm by Titandrake »
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Awaclus

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Re: Who's The Beatdown? The Dominion Version
« Reply #8 on: May 24, 2016, 04:38:31 am »
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EDIT: Another reason why I don't prefer to talk about engines vs. BM with such dichotomy is because there's not a fine line between them.

Indeed. The line between them is not very thin at all. There isn't a point at which BM becomes an engine when you keep adding more and more engine elements to it, there is just a point at which it becomes an awful strategy (that is, the moment when you add the first non-BM element). The reverse is true for engines.
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Re: Who's The Beatdown? The Dominion Version
« Reply #9 on: May 24, 2016, 10:34:09 am »
+1

EDIT: Another reason why I don't prefer to talk about engines vs. BM with such dichotomy is because there's not a fine line between them.

Indeed. The line between them is not very thin at all. There isn't a point at which BM becomes an engine when you keep adding more and more engine elements to it, there is just a point at which it becomes an awful strategy (that is, the moment when you add the first non-BM element). The reverse is true for engines.

So in the imaginary kingdom of Mountebank, Warehouse, and 8 Scouts, are you going to buy Warehouse? That makes your BM more like an engine but it is certainly better.

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Re: Who's The Beatdown? The Dominion Version
« Reply #10 on: May 24, 2016, 11:19:14 am »
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EDIT: Another reason why I don't prefer to talk about engines vs. BM with such dichotomy is because there's not a fine line between them.

Indeed. The line between them is not very thin at all. There isn't a point at which BM becomes an engine when you keep adding more and more engine elements to it, there is just a point at which it becomes an awful strategy (that is, the moment when you add the first non-BM element). The reverse is true for engines.

So in the imaginary kingdom of Mountebank, Warehouse, and 8 Scouts, are you going to buy Warehouse? That makes your BM more like an engine but it is certainly better.

It doesn't make your BM more like an engine. It makes your BM more like BM.
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Re: Who's The Beatdown? The Dominion Version
« Reply #11 on: May 24, 2016, 01:15:13 pm »
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For the people who are confused by the Magic terminology, maybe a different word than control/beatdown will help: inevitability. 

One player will always be favored to win the long game; that player has inevitability.  The onus is on the other player to either steal back the inevitability, or (more commonly) to end the game with a win before the inevitability overcomes them. 

Note that having inevitability does not mean that you're favored.  It only means that your deck's potential output is greater than that of your opponent's.  That potential may not be realized if the game ends too soon. 

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