Attacking and Blocking

Posted in Level One on November 10, 2014

By Reid Duke

Over the span of the last nineteen years, since he was five years old, Reid has been a player, a deck builder, a collector, and a lover of the Magic world. Today, he’s a full-time professional Magic player and writer.

You've been very patient, my friends. You've stayed with me through many weeks of background information and tedious fundamentals. But you don't go see The Terminator for the love story, and you probably didn't learn Magic because you like building mana bases. Well, it's finally time for the action scene. This will be Level One's version of shoot-outs, car chases, and explosions!

Combat!

The only difference is that some people might argue cheesy action movies are a waste of time (for the record, I'm not one of them). They might say that fights and chase scenes have little substance and don't add enough to the plot of the film. They'd be fools, though, to say the same thing about Magic. Yes, mastering the fundamentals is important, but if you can't execute when the combat phase rolls around, then it's all for nothing. At its core, after all, Magic is a game of beating the guy or girl sitting across the table from you.

Chandra's Fury | Art by Volkan Baga

Your first lesson is that you should probably be both attacking and blocking much more than you are! This article will be dedicated to the task of trying to explain exactly why that is.

The Combat Phase

Unfortunately, I already have to break the promise I made above, as I have just one more boring topic to cover before we get into the good stuff. I'd like to go through exactly what happens during combat, as properly timing your spells is critical, and there's tremendous value in concealing your intentions until the last possible moment.

If you're reading this, then you know the basic rules of Magic. However, the devil is in the details, so let's go over a few things.

Having priority means that it's your turn to act—to either do something or do nothing. A simple way to explain it is that any time something happens (spell, ability, attack, block, moving from one step of the turn to another), each player gets priority. If both players do nothing, then the turn moves forward and you repeat the process. The vast majority of the times you have priority, you'll do nothing; to the point that the game can zip along without anyone ever mentioning who has priority at what point. It's simply good to know when you have opportunities to cast a spell, and exactly how things progress in the rare case that they do get complicated.

To illustrate what I mean, let's consider a turn where your opponent simply draws a card, plays a land, and says, "Go." Your opponent has whizzed through his or her turn, but technically speaking his or her upkeep, combat phase, and end of turn step have still happened, and you have the option to cast a spell at any of these times. Even in the simplest of turns, both players get priority many, many times. It's simply not mentioned unless someone decides to take an action.

The player whose turn it is, is called the active player. At the beginning of each step or phase, the active player always gets priority first. If the active player does nothing, the nonactive player gets priority, and if the nonactive player does nothing, the turn moves on to the next step or phase. You always get priority after you cast a spell or activate an ability, so even if you're not the active player, you have the first chance to respond to your own stuff.

Here are the steps of the combat phase:

Beginning of Combat Phase

The active player has exited the main phase, so he or she cannot play lands or cast spells other than instants right now. This is the last chance to cast a spell like Crippling Chill if you wanted to tap a creature to stop it from attacking.

Declare Attackers Step

First, the active player chooses his or her attackers and taps them. At this point, there's no turning back. Abilities like raid abilities have been triggered even if the attacking creature(s) leave the battlefield. This is the point where the nonactive player might cast a flash creature to ambush the opponent, after attackers have been declared.

Declare Blockers Step

First, the nonactive player chooses his or her blockers. Once blockers are declared, the active player has priority, and this is where he or she might use a combat trick like Awaken the Bear. Once the active player has done everything he or she wants to do, the nonactive player will take actions such as using his or her own combat tricks or removal spells like Kill Shot. If the nonactive player takes one or more actions, the active player can then take more actions, until both players decide to do nothing.

Combat Damage Step

Combat damage is dealt. Life totals are adjusted and creatures that die are put in the graveyard. After that, any abilities that trigger upon damage being dealt or creatures dying will happen.

End of Combat Phase

One final chance to take actions before combat ends. In some rare cases, you might want to wait until the last possible moment to use your Kill Shot, even though it means allowing the creature to deal damage first.

Kill Shot | Art by Michael C. Hayes

There's no reason to go explicitly through all of these steps every time; to do so would make the game slow and tedious. However, it's good to be aware of these details because they do come up from time to time. If there's a turn where combat is shaping up to be particularly complicated, slow things down and make sure both players are clear on exactly what's going on and when.

The major takeaway is that the active player must act first. If the active player passes priority and the nonactive player also does nothing, then it will be too late to go back and cast your Awaken the Bear. Getting the last chance to make a move is an advantage for the blocking player, because he or she has full information on exactly what the opponent is up to before making his or her own decisions.

Use Your Creatures

What is a creature for if not to attack and block? A common pitfall of newer players is to be too passive during combat. There's always something to fear in combat: losing your creature when you attack, the opponent having a combat trick when you block, letting your life total get too low when you don't block. However, you have to be bold to win. The value of your creatures plummets if you're unwilling to put them into combat.

A classic example comes up when your opponent attacks a morph creature into your Archers' Parapet. The morph could turn face up to be a 5-power creature, or the opponent could have a spell like Awaken the Bear in his or her hand. However, the whole point of putting a 0/5 creature in your deck is to block! If you block, you might lose your creature, but if you play the whole game without blocking, then you've lost virtually all the value from your creature anyway! Unless you have a very specific reason not to, you should generally block in a situation like this.

A long-standing joke is that having the ability "must attack each turn if able" makes a creature more powerful than it would otherwise be. Technically speaking, something that serves to limit your options can never be a good thing. The idea, though, is that the danger of playing too passively is greater than any possible rewards of choosing to keep your creature out of combat.

When two similar creatures face off, you should usually attack if you can and you should usually block if you can.

Imagine I attack my Wetland Sambar into your Wetland Sambar. You should block, because you're making an even trade and saving yourself 2 damage. You could take the damage with the intention of attacking back, but what if your opponent plays a bigger creature? Even if your opponent does not, you've traded damage, but you're behind in the race.

One way to think of things is that creatures provide value every turn that they attack or block. If you neither attack nor block with Wetland Sambar, then you've wasted a turn's worth of its value. If you decline to block and instead attack back, you've wasted half a turn's worth of its value. (Players don't always get the same number of turns in a game of Magic, so mirroring your opponent's actions when you're on the draw will often be a losing battle). That's why you should virtually always block an attacking Wetland Sambar with your own Wetland Sambar.

Why should you attack when the situation is reversed? Well, for one thing, your opponent might not block. He or she might be afraid you have Awaken the Bear or might simply make a mistake. Even if your opponent blocks nine times out of ten, that's still free damage some amount of the time. You'll win more games in the long run if you give yourself opportunities for free value.

More realistically, though, the Wetland Sambars are destined to trade off at some point in the game. If you do it sooner rather than later you leave fewer chances for things to go wrong. If you don't attack, your opponent will probably attack you back and you'll probably block (for all the reasons above). But now you've opened the door for things to go wrong. What if your opponent now has Awaken the Bear? What if your opponent plays a removal spell and takes away your ability to block? What if you allowed your opponent to trigger raid for a Mardu Warshrieker?

Sometimes you'll have a special reason not to trade creatures, like if you have Flying Crane Technique in your hand and are trying to set up a big turn for later. In the absence of that, however, you might as well trade off creatures sooner rather than later so your opponent can't take away your ability to do so.

Bluffing

Bluffing isn't a huge part of Magic. You can do well for yourself by simply playing your cards in the obvious way, and never trying to pull the wool over your opponents' eyes. That said, why not do it if you can?

The most traditional bluff is simply attacking a smaller creature into a bigger creature in the early turns of the game. If I attack my Wetland Sambar into your 2/3 Abzan Falconer, what will you do? I'd only make the attack if I had Awaken the Bear or Dragonscale Boon in my hand. Or would I?

There's no easy solution to this situation, and that's the point. Both players are considering risk vs. reward, as well as sizing up how bold a player the opponent might be.

From my perspective, let's say that I have nothing in my hand and I'm considering whether or not to bluff. How costly is it to lose my Wetland Sambar? How valuable is the 2 points of damage I stand to deal? How likely are you to block?

From your perspective, I've attacked a smaller creature into your bigger creature. What makes this special is that Abzan Falconer is quite a powerful card that's capable of giving you a big advantage as the game goes long. Doesn't that mean you shouldn't risk losing it in combat? But don't I know that, and wouldn't it make me more likely to bluff?

As I said, there's no easy solution. All I can offer is one piece of knowledge from my long experience with the game.

People bluff less often than you'd expect and people block less often than you'd expect.

If I found myself in this situation against an opponent I'd never met before, I'd most often not block with my Abzan Falconer thinking that my opponent probably had Dragonscale Boon. The question of whether I'd bluff attack with Wetland Sambar comes down to the exact situation. If I had a strong hand and felt that I could win the game without taking the risk, I probably would not bluff. If I thought the game would come down to a close race and that I could only win by sneaking in some extra damage here and there, then I would probably attack. If I did attack, I'd be surprised (although not shocked) if my opponent blocked.

Semi-Bluffing

It takes gall to attack a smaller creature into a bigger creature, especially in a high-pressure tournament setting. However, what players might be more willing to do is a semi-bluff. With a semi-bluff, you might prefer that your opponent not block, but it's not a catastrophe if he or she does.

You might consider attacking one Wetland Sambar into another as a semi-bluff. I hope that my opponent doesn't block and takes 2 damage, but if my opponent does block...oh well. We traded creatures of equal power that would've traded sooner or later anyway.

How about attacking your face-down Monastery Flock into a 3/3 creature? It's a great play to attack, because you might get in 2 free damage. If your opponent blocks, you spend a blue mana and nothing happens!

Maybe you have some direct damage to finish off a weakened creature. You attack your Wetland Sambar into Abzan Falconer. If your opponent blocks, you have to shamefully put your creature in the graveyard. However, at least you can finish off the Falconer with the Mardu Heart-Piercer in your hand. You're not thrilled about the exchange, but it's not a game-losing disaster.

Sometimes you have a combat trick as a back-up plan, even though you'd rather spend your mana on something else. You'd really love to just cast your Savage Knuckleblade this turn, but on the chance that the opponent does decide to block your Sambar with the Falconer, you have Awaken the Bear to save your creature; you'll just have to wait a turn to cast the Knuckleblade. As a side note, the fact that your opponent will have to spend mana on a combat trick instead of anything else (like casting another creature) should make you more inclined to block.

Exact situations aside, the concept of bluffing and semi-bluffing are just more reasons to use your creatures aggressively in combat. Every time you attack, there's at least some chance that your opponent won't block. Every time you block, there's at least some chance that your opponent was bluffing or semi-bluffing.

Combat Tricks

Combat tricks like Awaken the Bear, Dragonscale Boon, and Feat of Resistance can be extremely useful tools in Magic, but be careful not to overuse them. They offer the potential for big rewards when things go well. However, they also pose big risks when things don't go well.

I always advocate a high creature count in Magic decks. Nobody's ever complained that they drew too many creatures, but you'd better believe that there's a risk of drawing too few. When you don't draw any creatures, or if you only draw a small number that your opponent's able to kill, then all of your combat tricks will simply rot in your hand, unable to help you.

Along the same lines, if you draw a good hand with a single combat trick, then you can find the perfect window to use it. If you draw an awkward hand with too many combat tricks, you'll be forced to use them in imperfect situations, playing into your opponent's hands.

Playing Into Open Mana

Try your best not to use your combat tricks when your opponent has a lot of mana available. If you try to cast Dragonscale Boon on your creature and your opponent is able to Throttle the creature in response, you've probably just walked into a game-losing exchange. Your opponent just got two-for-one card advantage (your creature and your Dragonscale Boon for his or her Throttle) and also got tempo advantage from removing a creature from the board while you spent your mana accomplishing nothing.

Combat tricks are great when you can use them on your own terms, but are extremely risky when you're forced to play into your opponent's hands.

For this reason, you shouldn't plan to use combat tricks when you block, because your opponent will have all of his or her mana open. Dragonscale Boon is great in the case where your opponent taps out for a blocking creature and you're able to attack into it without fear. It's not great in the case where you have to cast it on your blocker and cross your fingers that your opponent doesn't have a removal spell or a combat trick of his or her own.

When a situation comes up where both players have open mana and the possibility of a trick, it's important to be very precise when moving through combat. Remember that the active player must make the first move, which is an advantage for the nonactive player, who gets to have all the information before he or she makes a move.

Play safe with your combat tricks to avoid messy situations. The more combat tricks you put in your deck, the more often you'll be compelled to use them at bad times. For Khans of Tarkir, I caution against playing more than two or three combat tricks in your main deck.

Attack and block aggressively with your creatures. That's what they're there for! Know how to use your own combat tricks safely and effectively, and force your opponents to play theirs right into the hands of your Kill Shot or Throttle. Mastering attacking and blocking will make every one of your creatures and spells more valuable than your opponent's. It's remarkably satisfying to be on the winning end of a combat exchange, and I hope you'll be on the winning end a lot!

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