Tactical Protocol: Your Own Turn

Posted in Magic Academy on April 7, 2007

By Jeff Cunningham

Field_Marshal Hello, and welcome to Magic Academy! This week we're going to look at tactical aspects of timing: when to play spells (mostly instants) and effects, and why. This will begin a series of articles focusing on tactics and strategy.

Each turn has five distinct phases, some containing multiple steps. The significance of each phase and step differs depending on whether it is your turn or your opponent's. The structure of the turn can motivate instants and abilities to be played during specific phases. Being able to recognize these structural elements and knowing how best to act on them is highly relevant. Let's take a look.

Your Own Turn

When and why to initiate spells *

1. Beginning Phase

Untap Step: All of your tapped permanents untap. Nothing can be played during this step.

Sensei's Divining Top
Upkeep step: The most significant tactical aspect of your upkeep step is that it is before your draw step. Generally, it's best to wait until your main phase to play spells, since by then you'll have the additional information of your draw. However, there are several types of effects that are likely to happen during your upkeep:
  • Draw-related: Instant-speed "tutors," deck-thinning effects, deck-manipulation effects: these range from having a significant effect on your potential draw (looking at the top of our library with Sensei's Divining Top), to a marginal but mathematically relevant one (sacrificing Polluted Delta to search for a land, which removes the chance of us drawing whichever land we search out).

  • Upkeep-effect-related: Many cards have abilities that trigger or are only usable during the upkeep. Sometimes, optimal play requires you to navigate upkeep effects, either playing spells and effects before, in-between, or after resolutions.

    Example: During my upkeep, with Imaginary Pet's ability on the stack: Shock you, to empty my hand.

  • Mana-deprivation-related: If your opponent tries to tap your mana sources with an effect of their own here, you might be prompted to play spells sooner than you'd like. Remember, though, your mana pool doesn't empty until the end of your draw step. You can wait until then to decide how to use any mana you might have added to your pool during your upkeep.

Lightning Blast
Draw step: It is unusual to have good reason to play spells during your own draw step.
  • Upkeep-spillover: Again, sometimes, in order to potentially make use of extra information, you'll wait until your draw step to spend mana added during the upkeep.

    Example: During your upkeep, your opponent targets your Llanowar Elves with Master Decoy. You tap it to add to your pool. You draw your card, and then tap three land and play Lightning Blast.

2. First Main Phase

The most significant tactical aspect of your first main phase is that it is before combat. Of course, this is one of the only two phases in which you can play sorcery-speed spells, but you will have a chance to play them after combat. In general, it's best to save your spells for the second main phase, so that your opponent has less information during combat. Your goal in your first main phase is to put yourself in the best position possible and your opponent in the worst position possible for the combat phase.

  • Contingency-related: In some situations, whether or not attacking is correct depends on hidden information. Here, you will want to force your opponent's hand in order to be able to make the best play.

    Example: Your opponent has Islands untapped. You're at 2 and he's at 4. He has a tapped Grizzly Bears in play. You have one Grizzly Bears in play and one in hand. Here, it's important to play the second Grizzly Bearsbefore combat, in case your opponent has a counterspell such as Cancel. If he does, you shouldn't attack. If he doesn't, you should.

    Volcanic Hammer
    Example: You are planning on attacking with Craw Wurm. You are also planning on killing your opponent's Elvish Warriors with Volcanic Hammer this turn. You should play Volcanic Hammer on the Warriors before combat, in case your opponent has a Giant Growth, to avoid an unfavorable trade. (Note that this example hinges on the fact that Volcanic Hammer is a sorcery and not an instant.)
  • Mana-assurance: This is marginal, but does come up and can affect games. You can play non-Instants in your first and second main phases, but not during your combat phase. Your mana pool empties at the end of your combat phase. During combat, especially in one that turns out more favorably than expected, an opponent may destroy a mana source. If it is critical that you play a sorcery-speed spell, and you are relying on a fragile mana source, you may want to play it during your first main phase.

    Example: Your opponent has a Master Decoy and a Hill Giant in play. You have a Grizzly Bears, a Llanowar Elves, three Forests, two Mountains, and a Craw Wurm in hand. Your opponent doesn't tap your Elf during upkeep because he wants to tap your Grizzly Bears if you kill his Hill Giant. If you move to your combat step and harmlessly pass through it, your opponent might as well tap your Elf. Now you can't play your Craw Wurm!

  • Permanents that affect combat: Auras with enchant creature, haste creatures, sorcery-speed removal, etc., are often played with good reason in the first main phase.

3. Combat Phase

Master Decoy
Beginning of Combat Step: This step is the last chance for your opponent to tap your creatures or otherwise prevent them from attacking. You declare your beginning of combat step before saying which creatures (if any) are going to attack. It's very rare to have a tactical reason to want to initiate a spell during your beginning of combat step. However, if your opponent is going to use spells or abilities to tap potential attackers, this is probably when they'll do it. Accordingly, the rare times that you play spells or abilities during this step, they will probably be as a sort of response to this: to untap tapped creatures.

Declare Attackers Step: You start your declare attackers step by deciding which creatures are going to attack and tapping them. Then, each player gets a chance to play spells and abilities. The most significant tactical aspect of your declare attackers step is that it is after your opponent's chance to tap your creatures to prevent them from attacking has expired, but before your opponent has blocked.

  • Blocker Removal: This includes formal removal (Dark Banishing), evasion effects (Jump), and tap effects (Lead Astray).

    Choking Tethers
    Example: This example is taken from Pro Tour–Chicago 2003 (Onslaught Draft). The tournament had begun badly, and by this round, though I was still in contention, I was unfortunately allowing myself to play somewhat sloppily. It was Game 3, and my black-blue aggro deck got off to a great start: I played a good creature every turn for the first four turns! Eventually, my opponent played enough blockers to stall the board, and was beginning to mount a comeback despite his low life total. Fortunately, I had a trump: Choking Tethers! I could tap all of his blockers and attack for the win. I untapped, and slammed it down (during my first main phase). My opponent merely shrugged and then played his own Tethers. After that, I had no way to break through and lost a few turns later.

    If, instead, I had waited until I was in my declare attackers step, it would have been too late for him to use his Tethers to prevent my creatures from attacking. If he used his Tethers before I used mine, then I could have just waited until next turn to play it. I had received an object lesson in the importance of proper timing.

Declare Blockers Step: At the beginning of this step, the defending player declares blockers. Then, each player has the chance to play spells or abilities. The most significant tactical aspect of the declare blockers step is that it is that last step before combat damage is assigned. Also, your opponent is now committed to their blocks.

  • Last Gasp
    Power- or toughness-related: This includes formal pump (Giant Growth), removal (Dark Banishing, Unsummon), and shrinking effects (Last Gasp). All function to either prevent a blocked creature from dying, ensure the death of a blocker, or both. In the case of the attacking creature being unblocked, formal pump means an increase in potential damage to the opponent. In the case that the attacking creature is blocked, but has trample, all three mean an increase in potential damage to the opponent.

    Example: Your opponent blocks your Havenwood Wurm with their Craw Wurm. You kill it with Dark Banishing, and then assign your opponent 5 trample damage.

Combat Damage Step: At the beginning of the combat damage step, each player chooses how creatures he or she controls will deal damage. If any of the creatures has first strike, there are two separate combat damage steps. The most significant tactical aspect of the combat damage step is that it is after damage has been assigned, but is the last step before it resolves.

  • Prevention-related: This includes formal damage prevention (Mending Hands), pump (Giant Growth), and bounce (Unsummon). At this point, pump no longer includes the possibility of the death of a blocker or increased damage to an opponent. Bounce on an opposing creature will not prevent your creature from dying, but bounce on your own creature will nevertheless result in your opponent's creature's death.

It's important to note that whether a card functions as pump or prevention (and the degree to which it does) is often situation specific. A Giant Growth shouldn't always be played before combat damage, or after combat damage; it depends on the situation.

Example: You block my Elvish Warrior with a Craw Wurm. I play Giant Growth. They trade. A Giant Growth after damage had been assigned would have done nothing.

Enormous Baloth
Example: You block my Silklash Spider with an Enormous Baloth. After combat damage has been assigned, I save my spider with Giant Growth. If I played it before damage, the Baloth still wouldn't die, but my opponent still has a chance to play pump to kill the spider.

Sometimes deeper analysis is required.

Example: You block my Craw Wurm with your Craw Wurm. If I play Giant Growth as pump, then I can kill your Craw Wurm even if you have some prevention. However, then I open myself to losing both cards to a Dark Banishing without even killing your Craw Wurm.

  • Phantom damage: This term refers to a specific but important play that takes place during the combat damage step. Certain permanents allow a creature to assign damage, but only prevent this damage once combat resolves. If you destroy such a permanent after damage has been assigned, damage will resolve, even if the damage source is no longer in play. In Limited this play comes up more than you'd think, and is often very relevant.

    Example: I attack with a Craw Wurm enchanted with Temporal Isolation, which will prevent the damage but not keep it from being assigned. 6 damage is assigned to you. Before combat damage resolves, I use Dark Banishing to kill the Craw Wurm (and, so, Temporal Isolation). Combat damage resolves and you take 6 damage.

End of Combat Step: The most significant tactical aspect of the end of combat step (during your own turn) is that it takes place after damage has resolved, but while combat is still technically taking place. Occasionally circumstances will arise when it is important to use a card like Desert (targeting your own creature), or Crossbow Infantry during exactly this step, but they are rare.

4. Second Main: The most significant tactical aspect of your second main phase is that it is your last chance to play non-Instant spells. This makes it the default phase for playing Sorcery-speed spells.

  • Pre-empt opponent's turn: Depending on the situation, you may want to play instants before your opponent has a chance to untap, draw, or have the possibility of attacking. **

    Example: You're tapped out. I ShockRoyal Assassin now.

    The status of your opponent's resources can vary. If your opponent already has mana untapped, then the option of safely killing a creature while your opponent is tapped out no longer exists. Instead, the best play is to wait until your opponent's upkeep. They will still not have drawn their card for the turn, and this way if they respond to your spell or ability at least they will have less mana on their turn.

    Example: All of your mana is untapped. Go. During your upkeep, ShockRoyal Assassin.

Balancing considerations of information and resources within the structure of the turn is a deep process that is regularly relevant. This is something we'll come back to.
  • Extra spell to start instant chain: In this phase, it is possible to initiate spell or ability chains (instants) with a sorcery. This is occasionally significant in giving you additional power to force your opponent's hand.

    Example: I have a Shock and a Volcanic Hammer. You have a Shock. We're both at 2 life. If I play the Shock during my upkeep, you respond by killing me with your Shock. If I wait until a main phase and begin with Volcanic Hammer, then even if you Shock me, I can Shock you first.

5. End Phase

End of Turn Step: This is when triggered abilities that happen "at end of turn" are put on the stack. The most significant tactical aspect of your end of turn step is that it is your opponent's last chance to play instants and abilities before they untap; it is an important step for your opponent.

  • Treasure Trove
    Post-effect Window: If your opponent has an instant they intend to play on your turn, they will likely play it during your end of turn step. This may give you a window while they are tapped out to resolve spells.

    Example: At end of turn, your opponent taps out to activate Treasure Trove. Now you play Shock to kill them.

Cleanup: This is when damage is removed from creatures and "until end of turn" effects end. Nothing can be played during this step.

I have excluded some more complex and specific situations from the main article, but they are included below for anyone interested. ***

That's it for this week. Join me next time when we look at the tactical design of our opponent's turn!


* Note that I am describing protocol that is phase-specific and am not mentioning general responsive cues. For example, if you have a Giant Growth and an important creature, and you know your opponent has a Shock, you will want to wait until whenever they play their Shock, whether it is in your declare attackers step or end of turn.

** Note that though the actual last time for you to play instants before your opponent's untap step is during your own end step, this is often done during the second main phase. Similarly, general beginning of turn effects are usually done during upkeep, not the draw step, and general combat damage effects are done during the combat damage step and not during the end of combat step. This is for two reasons: First, as shorthand. Second, because it is possible to do other effects (i.e., in the second main phase, playing sorceries) after the instant is played.

*** 1. The at-end-of-turn clause that sometimes motivates spells and abilities to be played during the second main phase (Astral Slide, Anurid Brushhopper). 2. The fact that your upkeep is the first time during your turn after you untap that you have priority. This sometimes motivates split second spells, and priority-related abilities, to be played immediately (Krosan Grip vs. Isochron Scepter). 3. Sometimes it is important to play certain damage prevention spells, ones that target an opponent's creature and not the damage itself, (Boros Fury Shield) before combat damage is assigned. This is because if your opponent counters them by destroying their own creature, then at least their creature won't deal combat damage. There are more examples that are too marginal to bother listing, but do notice them... they come up!

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