The Main Course

Posted in Beyond the Basics on August 3, 2017

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.

Each turn in Magic consists of many, many parts.

Untap. Upkeep. Draw. Countless priority passes back and forth as you cast spells and give your opponent an opportunity to respond. The intricacies of each part of the combat step.

But there's only one phase that comes around twice a turn. It's so important that, well, they told you this is the primary part of your turn just by its name alone.

And that, of course, is the main phase.

So good that Richard Garfield gave you two of them, the main phase is where a lot of the action happens.

But it's tricky—with two main phases, when should you be using them? After all, if you're going to attack this turn, what's the big difference between playing something before or after you attack?

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

Main Information

One simple thing many players learn early on is to take advantage of your second main phase. Some would even go as far as to say you should almost always cast spells and play lands in main phase two.

And here's why: information.

Let's say we both have a Glory Seeker.

It's now turn three. In my hand, I have a 3/2 Bastion Enforcer I'm planning to cast this turn.

If I play the Bastion Enforcer before attacking, I've told my opponent everything I'm going to do this turn—and they have all the information to work with.

For one thing, they know that I can't cast a combat trick to win combat, so the coast is clear. They get to make a decision knowing everything.

Second, they know the creature I just played. And, knowing that I have a 3/2, there's a good chance they'd rather keep their 2/2 out to block my 3/2 next turn. They may have chosen to trade creatures with you before, but now there is a likely chance that you'll make a worse trade later.

Compare all of this with if you just play the Enforcer after combat. You've lost nothing by doing so, and you get to control the information rather than showing it to your opponent.

This is one very simple example, but this general situation occurs over and over in games. As a solid default, it is good to get into the habit of playing things in your second main phase.

But, as we'll soon discuss further, it's far from always the right thing to do.

The Main Benefit

If you had a creature with haste in your hand you wanted to attack with this turn, you'd need to cast it before you attacked. Same goes for playing an enhancement Aura before attacking. This seems obvious, but the same concept can be extended to several less-obvious plays.

For example, if you're playing Zombies and Lord of the Accursed is in your hand, you probably—but not necessarily absolutely—want to cast it before attacking so you hit for extra damage. (However, if it's more beneficial to hold up a trick or removal, then maybe you want to wait and see what happens.)

To go a bit further, there's definitely an advantage to playing a land in your first main before attacking.

Playing the land first adds additional cards you could bluff to what your opponent has to worry about because it gives you a wider range of mana to work with. That is unless, of course, you have tons of lands and keeping the land in your hand is more beneficial for bluffing!

Also, playing your land before you attack is a good way to make sure you don't accidentally say "go" before playing a land in your second main phase. Hey, it happens.

In general, if you're going to do something that will positively affect your possibilities during the combat step, first main is the time to do it.

Main Insights

There's another good reason to do things before combat: learning additional information.

Sometimes, you may or may not want to attack based on what your opponent does. Knowing what they're going to do first can help you make a more informed play.

Let's say this time you have a Hyena Pack in your hand and a Glory Seeker on the table. Your opponent has a tapped Bastion Enforcer.

Normally, you'd just attack with the Glory Seeker and cast the Hyena Pack, right?

Well, except for one thing: your opponent has one card in hand, and you know their deck has Cancel.

Instead you may want to consider casting the Hyena Pack first. That way, if the pack gets countered, you can leave the Glory Seeker back to trade off.

Now, this isn't without risks. Maybe that's actually a removal spell they were going to use on your Glory Seeker and instead they will wait and target your Hyena now that they know about it. But depending on what you think your opponent has, it may be worth it.

This is just one situation, but there are plenty of others like it where you want to know what happens before attacking. Here are three other examples:

  • Seeing if your removal spell is successful before attacking;
  • Seeing if your pump spell resolves before making a big attack in case your opponent has a direct-damage spell in response; and
  • Casting a discard spell like Thoughtseize to see what your opponent has before attacking.

Think about whether spending your information now (by showing your opponent) is going to yield more useful information than waiting until later.

Mainly Tricky

There's one other place this comes up—but it is a bit advanced and can backfire, so proceed with caution.

With that exciting warning label out of the way, what is it?

Getting your opponent to make the play you want by giving them extra information.

Let me give you a simple example by going back to the one at the beginning of this article.

You each have a Glory Seeker, and you're going to cast Bastion Enforcer this turn. Earlier, we determined that you definitely want to wait to cast the Enforcer to reveal as little information to your opponent as possible. There's a greater chance they'll not block because they want to wait and make the better Glory Seeker-to-Bastion Enforcer trade next turn. Knowing that, you should wait.

 . . . That is, unless you want your opponent to not block this turn.

Let's say your hand has a card like Keening Banshee in it. Maybe you want to convince your opponent to not block so that you can Banshee away their Glory Seeker the next turn!

Now, this can be extrapolated to many situations that can differ at many levels of play. Against a savvy player at a high skill level, it may even broadcast that they should definitely block because why else would you give them the added information!

You have to be very careful with this one because if it doesn't work out, it can hurt you. For example, if your opponent does decide to block here, then your Banshee doesn't necessarily have a target next turn—if you just hadn't attacked, you could have Banshee'd away their Seeker. You are taking a risk for the potential benefit of 2 damage. When deployed well and mindfully, though, it can make a tremendous difference.

End of Main

Magic is a game of little edges, and they can absolutely make a big difference. With few exceptions, which main phase only matters if you are planning to attack that turn (Boiling Blood and removing mana your opponent has floated from their mana pool aside), but that tiny edge can be everything you need.

Hopefully, now you have a stronger idea of which main phase to cast your spells in and when to do it. Have any additional questions, thoughts, or comments at all? I'd love to hear from you! You can always find me online, so feel free to send me a tweet, ask me a question on my Tumblr, or send over an e-mail (in English, please) at BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com.

Next week is finally Commander (2017 Edition) previews! As the lead designer, I've been waiting years to tell you about this set, so I'm taking the next two weeks to write something a little different. Stay tuned for that. You won't want to miss some of the exciting cards in this set!

Talk with you again next week!

Gavin
@GavinVerhey
GavInsight

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