Cutting through Combat

Posted in Beyond the Basics on July 21, 2016

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

Combat is at the core of Magic—and it can be hard.

Last week, we looked at the careful art of trading creatures in combat. Our heroes, Glory Seeker and Bronze Sable, danced a dangerous duet.

But trading is just one aspect of combat. Today, I want to look at another huge chunk of attacking and blocking—and one that has been hotly requested. If you've ever looked over a board state cluttered with six creatures on either side and wondered what to do, this article is for you.

Buster, find us a channel to the ocean; it's time to talk about navigating large combats!

Take this situation, for example:

We're in the midgame. It's Andy's turn. Neither player has any cards in their hand. (Presume Andy just drew and played a land, which Buzz already knew was there thanks to a previous effect.) How, if at all, should Andy attack here?

(And if it helps keep it in your head as we discuss it: Andy starts with A, like the word "attack," and Buzz starts with B, like the word "block.")

Like last week's situation, of course context is very important—what's in your deck and what has been used are both certainly huge factors. But if you can, set that aside. Think on it. Give yourself a moment to come up with an answer.

Let's ruminate further by talking about some of the key elements of advanced combat.

The Defender Has the Advantage

This is a big one.

In large-scale combats, two things tend to give you the advantage. The first is being the person with untapped mana and meaningful cards in your hand, but that will vary from situation to situation. The second one, however, is being the defender. Being the defender in a big combat inherently gives you an advantage.

Here are three large reasons why:

  1. The attacker has to commit all of their information first.
  2. The defender gets to make all the final blocking decisions.
  3. Perhaps most importantly, the defender can double block while the attacker can't "double attack" a creature.

Let's go over each of these in turn.

Magic is a game of information. So knowing how your opponent chooses to attack means you know a little bit about their plan. Going back to one of the most important questions in Magic, you can ask yourself, "Why did my opponent do that?" and try to deduce their intentions.

Next up, when it comes to blocking, the defender gets to set things up in a way that most favors them. They get to decide if making any individual trade is worthwhile, or which attacking creature they most need to kill off.

And then, finally, the big one: double blocking. If I have two 1/2 creatures, I usually shouldn't attack into your 2/2. But those same two 1/2s will totally hold off that 2/2 on defense. This means that in larger combats you have a wide range of possible combinations to use to stave off your opponent's attacks.

 

Of course, with all that said, you still need to win the game. Unless you have Meglonoth, you're not going to win by blocking. So you need to find the opening and figure out how to get through. How do you make that happen?

Think Like Your Opponent

The first thing I always recommend when trying to navigate a combat phase is to think like your opponent.

If you make any given attack, how would you react in your opponent's shoes? Let's look back at the situation from the beginning of the article.

Let's say Andy is considering the attack of just his Hungering Yeti. How does he think Buzz would block here?

The first step you should take is to eliminate any extraneous information. In this combat situation, that Whisperer of the Wilds is mostly just white noise. Your opponent is unlikely to chump block at this point. (And if they do, that's fine.) You aren't worried about them chump blocking and making a really threatening attack back, even if they draw a removal spell to kill off your untapped creatures. Combat is tricky enough; if something isn't going to meaningfully affect combat, try and mentally set it aside to help you out.

Next, after that I'd check and process any combat-related abilities that are going to be relevant here. Elvish Visionary already did its thing, so in this case you can ignore this step. (But it's always good to keep in mind—don't accidentally be the person to run into their first-strike creature without realizing it!)

Okay. Now let's get into the actual combat.

Well, he probably isn't chump blocking with a 2/3—or the 1/1 or the 0/2. (And if he does, that's good for Andy, since Buzz can't really attack back into the 3/3.)

But an extremely likely outcome is that he double blocks the Yeti with a pair of Jwari Scuttlers. Then the trade is a Hungering Yeti for a Jwari Scuttler—which is generally not a favorable trade!

That would leave the board as such:

Andy: Hill Giant, Wicker Witch, 15 life.

Buzz: Jwari Scuttler, Elvish Visionary, Whisperer of the Wilds, 15 life.

That's not the ideal spot to be in—the Giant will get double blocked by the Scuttler and Visionary next turn, killing it off.

Even though the 4/4 is the largest creature, that doesn't mean that attacking with it is going to be successful.

We can do better than that.

Let's run through another one. What if Andy attacks with everything?

Well, once again, let's assume no chump blocks are going to be made here—there's no major reason to right now.

Well, that Elvish Visionary is basically always going to block that Wicker Witch. It's a favorable trade, and in any double block situation here the Visionary is going to be weaker than the Scuttler.

After that, one option is for Buzz to double block the Yeti with those Scuttlers, trading off with one of them, do the aforementioned Visionary-Witch trade, and then take 3 from the Giant. This leaves Andy with a Hill Giant and Buzz with a Jwari Scuttler and a Whisperer of the Wilds plus 3 less life.

Another option is for Buzz to double block the Hill Giant with two Scuttlers, then take 4 from the Yeti. However, this play is just worse than blocking the Yeti: it ends up with a 3/3 dead instead of a 4/4, and it involves Buzz taking 1 more point of damage.

So, from this, we can see that the best blocks for Buzz are double blocking the Yeti and blocking the Witch with the Visionary. That leaves the board state like:

Andy: Hill Giant (Tapped), 15 life

Buzz: Jwari Scuttler, Whisperer of the Wilds, 12 life

How happy are you here if you're Andy?

This is definitely better!

However, it's still not quite as good as possible. Trading that Wicker Witch for the Visionary wasn't a great trade, and neither was trading a Yeti for a Scuttler. All of that in the name of 3 damage, which isn't that crucial at this stage of the game. It does put Andy in a position to attack safely next turn—but I think we can do even better.

This kind of going through your play is crucial to making the best attacks you can. If you find it hard to keep in your head and you need to replicate this in a game, feel free to just take your creatures and line them up on the board with your opponent's.

This isn't ideal—you are giving some information away—but it's better than making a bad attack! As you do it more, you'll pick up more of a knack for it and be able to cut through complicated combats with ease.

Patience and Finding the Road to Victory

Many times, the right play is simply to wait.

Now, I want to be careful saying this. I do think that, by and large, one of the largest mistakes I see newer players make is not attacking enough. However, if you're unsure, waiting is still better than attacking and getting your army slaughtered!

One question to repeatedly ask yourself to figure out if it's right to be patient or not is: "How am I going to win from here?"

This depends a lot on your deck. Imagine the situation Buzz and Andy are in. If Andy isn't sure about his attacks and his deck is full of flying creatures, then he can feel secure playing defensively and waiting to draw some to help take over the game.

To take things a step further, let's imagine that original situation, except Andy's Hill Giant is instead a Wild Griffin.

In this instance, Andy has a road to victory—that Wild Griffin! Attacking on the ground isn't going to necessarily be good for him, but he should be okay playing defense here (remember: the defender is favored; that Wicker Witch can block a Jwari Scuttler even though on offense it would run into an Elvish Visionary) and chipping away with the Griffin.

On the flip side, let's say that Andy's deck has no evasive creatures at all...or, worse yet for Andy, Buzz already has a flying creature on the battlefield!

In that case, Andy is going to need to cut through the board—and the more creatures Buzz gets to amass, the more complicated the board is going to become and the better blocks Buzz can make. In this situation, I'd be more inclined to attack in general.

If you're in a complex board state, I always recommend thinking of how you're most likely going to win the game and keeping that in mind as you play your strategy. Magic mastermind Mike Flores once said, "Imagine how the game will look on the turn that you win," and that always stuck with me. If possible, you should try to know how you're going to get to victory.

Combat Card Advantage

Many of you might be familiar with the concept of card advantage. (And if you'd like to learn more, I recommend reading this article by Reid Duke.) Combat is one place you can produce card advantage.

If you presume that things are going to stay even (let's say players keep drawing lands), then trading one creature for two of theirs on an even board will mean that you end up with the creature advantage in the long term.

This means that if you can figure out their potential blocks and they have to two-for-one themselves to trade with you, it's a way to slice through more complex boards. If you can force that kind of advantageous trade, you'll be in good shape as the game develops.

For example, consider this (somewhat absurd) board state.

If Andy attacks with all three of his Yetis here, the best Buzz can do is double block two of them—trading two of Andy's cards for four of Buzz's, and leaving him with a Yeti intact! That's definitely a good attack for Andy.

That Sanctifier should stay back, though: it creates an opportunity to just get eaten by a Bear. Buzz can trade off the Bears next turn, gobble up that Sanctifier this turn, and go down a card. He's essentially trading the Sanctifier for 4 damage—which probably isn't worth it, considering life totals are 20 to 20.

Now, of course, there are card quality and effects to take into account—it's probably not worth getting rid of your Archangel Avacyn to take out your opponent's two Wind Drakes. (And this gets back into a lot of the trading strategy we talked about last week.) But on the whole, if you can trade off better than your opponent in big combats, you'll end up with the long-term advantage.

Thinking Ahead

Combat is about not just this turn, but future turns for both players as well.

For example, let's change up the situation just slightly.

What if in the original situation, Andy is at 4 life and Buzz is at 5 life?

In this situation with low life totals, it's tempting to crash in with everything and try to kill Buzz off! After all, you have a ton of power on the board, and to not die he's going to have to block and lose some creatures, right?

Well, not exactly. If you attack with everything, he just chump blocks the Yeti with the Whisperer of the Wilds, blocks the Witch with the Visionary, and then attacks lethally with the two Scuttlers on the next turn!

Always do the math.

But it can be much subtler than just "Am I going to die next turn?" It's about crafting your plan for future turns and setting yourself up for success.

Let's run through two more combat situations with the original scenario.

First up, let's say Andy attacks with just his two beefiest creatures: Hill Giant and Hungering Yeti.

This combat plays out very similarly to the one where he attacks with everything, except the Witch and the Visionary don't trade in this scenario. The Yeti and a Scuttler die, and the Hill Giant gets through.

How does this set us up for future turns?

Let's assume nobody draws a nonland over the next turn cycle. (Which is certainly not always true, and it's important to keep in mind what could be drawn if you know the shape of your opponent's deck, but it's hard to predict.) That leaves the board like this:

Andy: Hill Giant, Wicker Witch, 15 life

Buzz: Jwari Scuttler, Elvish Visionary, Whisperer of the Wilds, 12 life

Let's look ahead to next turn.

This turn, if Andy attacks with both his creatures, either the Scuttler and the Visionary block the Hill Giant, trading a Scuttler for the Giant and taking 3 damage, or the Visionary blocks the Witch.

The most likely situation here is the double block on the Hill Giant, since that leaves Buzz with a Visionary.

Over one more turn cycle, that means the board state would look like this:

Andy: Wicker Witch, 15 Life

Buzz: Elvish Visionary, Whisperer of the Wilds, 9 life

If the Witch attacks here, it trades with the Visionary—which isn't a good deal at all! This sequence of attacks gets us into a bad situation.

Now, granted, that's assuming that nobody draws any action over the next couple turns—but it's hard to account for what those might be. They could affect the board in any number of ways.

Let's look at one more attack. Let's say Andy attacks with just the Hill Giant but not the Yeti.

In this instance, Buzz likely blocks with two Jwari Scuttlers and trades one off. (And if he doesn't, then sweet—3 free damage!) If Buzz doesn't draw any action, that leaves the board at:

Andy: Hungering Yeti, Wicker Witch, 15 life

Buzz: Jwari Scuttler, Elvish Visionary, Whisperer of the Wilds, 15 life

Well, how about that.

In this situation, Hungering Yeti can attack without danger of trading with anything! This is an excellent position: the Yeti starts clocking Buzz for 4 each turn, and Buzz has to either throw creatures away to block it or take 4 on the chin.

That's pretty good.

Attacking with your 3/3 instead of your 4/4 is pretty unintuitive, and you might not choose that play at first glance. But if you think through how everything is going to go over this combat and through to the next turn, attacking with the Hill Giant is superior to attacking with the Yeti!

Knowing nothing else about the decks, this is the play I would be inclined to make.

Continued Combat

This article took a really close look at just one situation, but you will face thousands of combat situations in your time playing Magic.

Hopefully this gave you some of the framework to cut through combat—now it's time to put it to the test!

Here are five board states from some kind of grab-bag draft, with all kinds of different sets. In each, just like before, neither player has any cards in hand, for whatever reason you just played your land for the turn (your opponent knew what your top card was from a previous effect), and all of your creatures are able to attack.

How would you attack in each situation?

Think on it in a vacuum, as well as what you might do depending on specific deck contexts, discuss, and let me know on social media by posting on Reddit or sending me a tweet or Tumblr message. Let's see what you'd do!

Situation #1

You: 15 life

On the battlefield, you have:

Lands: three Forests and three Plains

Creatures: Vastwood Gorger

Them: 15 life

On the battlefield, they have:

Lands: three Swamps and three Mountains (all untapped)

Creatures: Hungering Yeti and Walking Corpse

Your opponent just played their land and passed the turn. How do you attack here?

Situation #2

You: 15 life

On the battlefield, you have:

Lands: three Forest and two Plains

Creatures: Dauntless Cathar, Imperiosaur, Wildheart Invoker, and Wildheart Invoker

Them: 15 life

On the battlefield, they have:

Lands: three Swamps and three Plains

Creatures: Dawnglare Invoker (tapped), Carrier Thrall, Thraben Valiant, and Typhoid Rats

Your opponent just attacked with Dawnglare Invoker, played a land, and passed the turn. How do you attack here?

Situation #3

You: 2 life

On the battlefield, you have:

Lands: three Islands and three Mountains

Creatures: Axegrinder Giant, Hill Giant, Mardu Scout, and Wind Drake

Them: 3 life

On the battlefield, they have:

Lands: three Islands (two tapped) and three Forests (two tapped)

Creatures: River Bear, Runeclaw Bear, Rusted Sentinel, and Skywinder Drake

Your opponent just cast River Bear and passed the turn. How do you attack here?

Situation #4

You: 18 life

On the battlefield, you have:

Lands: three Swamps and two Forests

Creatures: Carrier Thrall, Nantuko Husk, Tattermunge Maniac, and Wall of Wood

Them: 6 life

On the battlefield, they have:

Lands: four Forests (all tapped) and three Plains (all tapped)

Creatures: Enormous Baloth, Rumbling Baloth, and Tundra Wolves

Your opponent just played a land, cast Enormous Baloth, and passed the turn. How do you attack here?

Situation #5

You: 16 life

On the battlefield, you have:

Lands: one Plains

Creatures: Beloved Chaplain, Elvish Archdruid, Fangren Firstborn, Kessig Recluse, Immaculate Magistrate, Silhana Ledgewalker, Sylvan Safekeeper, and Sunblade Elf

Them: 14 life

On the battlefield, they have:

Lands: two Forests (one tapped), five Islands (one tapped), and Mutavault (untapped)

Creatures: Amoeboid Changeling, Death-Hood Cobra, Metropolis Sprite, Nantuko Disciple, Prodigal Sorcerer, Root-Kin Ally, and Silvergill Douser

Your opponent just cast Death-Hood Cobra and passed the turn. How do you attack here?

Closing Down Combat

Enjoy those situations! Let me know what you'd do.

Feel free to send me any feedback you have on this article through the aforementioned Twitter, Tumblr, or Reddit channels—or if e-mail is more your thing, you can contact me at BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com.

Hopefully this helped prepare you for the many combats in Magic! Whether you're playing Constructed or Limited, wacky drafts or Shadows over Innistrad-Eldritch Moon drafts, you'll encounter untold numbers of different situations. May you navigate them at least a little more easily now!

Oh, and don't forget: always do the math. If you have the win on board, take it.

Happy attacking and blocking! Talk with you again next week,

Gavin
@GavinVerhey
GavInsight
BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com

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