Wax On, Wax Off

Posted in Magic Academy on November 18, 2006

By Ted Knutson

Ed. Note: While we had hoped to have the new writer begin this week, contract delays and other issues forced us to push it back a bit more. Next week we don't have new updates at the end of the week because of the Thanksgiving holiday, which seems like an awful time to debut the new writer, so we're instead going to relaunch under the new writer on Saturday, December 2. However, at this point I can finally let you know that we did get our first choice, and I'm very happy to announce that it will be Jeff Cunningham taking over the column when it restarts on December 2. Jeff is easily one of the most talented writers in the game, and I'm happy to have found something that's inspired him enough to commit to a weekly column. In fact, when he first agreed to it his next email back had something like forty-plus topic suggestions for the column to start with, and I think that enthusiasm will show in his work. So, next week we'll have one more rerun and then we're off and running. Thanks again for your patience while we get everything back up to full speed.

- Scott Johns, magicthegathering.com producer

Hello again and welcome back to the series that hopefully proves that reading is truly FUN-damental. I'm your host Ted Knutson, and I could spit cheesy sayings like that at you all day long… but I won't, and not because you begged me not to. No, the reason is simply that I don't like cheese. It's also because when last I left you we were in the middle of some important business - namely that of learning how to block, and block well.

Rather than peppering you with jacked up sayings both gouda and bad, today I'll be delving into practical blocking applications, and hopefully helping you simplify situations that can seem too complex. If everything goes according to plan, by the end of today's lesson I will have transformed you from a blocking novice into a combat cuisinart, slicing and dicing through your opponent's creatures like a hot knife through some other dairy product that is definitely not cheese. If you haven't read last week's article, I highly recommend you take a few moments to do so now, because I'll be referencing some of the rules discussed there without explaining them again in this article.

The Answer to Last Week's Conundrum

I ended last week's column with a puzzle but no answer, so I suppose it's only fair to fill in the answer before we progress to anything new. For those who don't remember what the scenario was, it looked like this:

Opie, the top player, has 18 life, and you, the bottom player, have 10 life. Jumping right in, the first thing you want to do in this case is figure out if you have to block. Looking at how much damage you have coming at you (11) versus your life total (10), not blocking leads to death. Therefore, blocks are required.

Now that you know you will be blocking, you have to determine how. The correct answer in this case it to double-block the Crocodile and then block two of the 2/2s with your remaining creatures.

The reason for this is because it's the most efficient blocking plan in terms of making your opponent's creatures easier to deal with in future turns (which is another way of combining and expressing Rules 3, 4, and 5 from last week). Since your opponent has no cards in hand, you don't have to worry about any combat tricks that could kill your creatures while letting his live. In the end, you trade one measly Hill Giant for a 5/5 and two 2/2s, coming out of combat with less life, but clearly winning the skirmish. You could certainly choose to block in a different way for this scenario, but with no cards in hand and not knowing the contents of the decks this way is the best.

Those of you who chose to toss a 3/3 in front of the 5/5 by himself need to go back and review Rule #2. Chumping here is a) not necessary and b) does not help you win a race, and should therefore be avoided.

Scenario 2

Ben is once again in a pitched battle with Opie for kitchen table supremacy. This time the board looks like the following:

Opie In the red zone and tapped are: 1 Grizzly Bears, 1 Trained Armodon

Ben Untapped in the green zone are: 1 Lumengrid Warden, 1 Fugitive Wizard, 1 Scathe Zombies

The life totals here are 20 for Opie and 13 for Ben. Since this is another basic scenario, I want you to pretend neither player has any cards in hand and just focus on the creatures presented. Again, the question is simple: How should Ben block?

This one is similar to the last question in that it is simple, and designed to challenge your ability to use the resources at hand. Ben has superiority in numbers, but Opie has the biggest creature on the board. While Ben's life total does not dictate that he has to block here, I would still suggest blocking. There are good blocks available to him, he just has to find them.

In this case what Ben should do is not only set up the blocks for this turn, but also think ahead to what he would do next turn if the board remains exactly the same. By blocking the Armodon with Scathe Zombies and Lumengrid Warden while letting the Grizzly Bears through, you trade your 2/2 Zombies for his 3/3. In addition, you also give yourself a chance to kill the Grizzly Bears next turn by blocking with both the Fugitive Wizard and the Warden, if you should want to. Even though Ben's creatures are comparatively smaller than Opie's, he can still find good blocks and efficient trades on defense, something he would not be able to do if he were the attacking player in this scenario.

Scenario 3

I'm going to step away from Ninth Edition cards for this scenario and make it a bit more complicated just to illustrate a point about threat analysis. This time Ben and Opie are battling it out in a Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension draft. (Don't worry about it if you don't know what drafting is - I will be introducing the format and discussing it in detail in the near future.)

Opie had the upper hand for much of this game, but Ben has just cast his bomb rare, Niv-Mizzet, The Firemind (a “bomb” is a card that is considered to be very powerful). Opie has two cards in hand, and Ben has no idea what they are. He did see both Lightning Helix and Pyromatics from Opie last game though, so he knows that Opie has some good removal spells that double as targeted burn for players as well. Meanwhile, Ben only has Train of Thought in hand. Opie's life total is 16, while Ben's life is only 8.

The board looks like the following:

Opie Untapped: 2 Mountain, 3 Forest, 1 Plains
Tapped and in the red zone are: 1 Gruul Scrapper, 1 Simic Ragworm

Ben Untapped: 1 Soulsworn Jury, 1 Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind
Tapped: 3 Island, 2 Mountain, 1 Boros Signet

(Take a second to reread Niv-Mizzet and Train of Thought if you need to.) Knowing that Niv-Mizzet can just dominate games, how do you block this time?

The first question to ask is whether or not we have to block to avoid dying. Our opponent only has 6 points of damage coming at us and we are at 8, so blocking is not required, but knowing he has some burn spells in his deck, it's probably a good idea. If you choose not to block and he has either Pyromatics or Lightning Helix, you've just committed suicide. Doh. Additionally, your creatures aren't going to die to either of his attackers by themselves, so that likely means we should block at least one of them.

Although you could conceivably use Niv-Mizzet to block and kill one of your opponent's creatures, in this case I would advise caution. Looking at your own hand, if Niv-Mizzet lives until the next turn he'll be able to kill both of Opie's creatures by himself and draw an extra card to boot. He'll do 1 point of damage during your draw step, and then 3 more if you cast Train of Thought for three, and then 1 more if you tap Niv to draw a card, or exactly enough to kill both the Scrapper and the Ragworm. That is raw, unadulterated power.

(Assuming the Jury lives through combat, those of you who have read "Instant Gratification" can probably guess that you wouldn't need to do all of this on your turn if you didn't want to, but that's neither here nor there right now.)

With that in mind, I would simply block with the Soulsworn Jury, dropping to 5 life after damage resolves. Yes, this starts to creep into burn range, but Opie would need to hold or draw both Lightning Helix and Pyromatics to kill Ben, while Ben has refilled his hand with Train and has a very fast clock on the board in Niv-Mizzet (“clock” meaning Opie will not have that many turns to live). In the end, this one is close, but I'd do what I could to keep the big dragon alive long enough to get rowdy.

As you become more experienced with the game, one of the skills you will need to develop is knowing when to risk your best creatures, and when to keep them out of the line of fire so they can dominate on future turns. This is by no means an easy thing to learn, and even the best players don't always get it right, but it gets easier with practice.

Variations on a Theme

Variation A

Alright, let's take the exact same scenario I introduced last week and change one single variable to see how that affects our thought process. All of the creatures on the board are identical, as are the life totals. The only difference is that this time, Opie has two cards in hand, plenty of untapped mana, and just like in real life, you don't know what those cards are, but your intuition tells you one of them might be a Giant Growth. What blocks do you make now?

As some may have noticed last week, this attack seems quite bad for Opie. With no cards in hand it is clearly just a bad attack, but not everyone plays great Magic, so it's certainly possible you could see this happen some time. However, as soon as your opponent has a card in hand when he makes this attack, your mind should go all Admiral Ackbar on you and sound the warning. If it looks like a trap, sounds like a trap, and smells like a trap, it just might be a trap.

The problem here is that you are already on the defensive. You have the lower life total and your opponent has the biggest creature on the board, so you have to be careful. You also have some sense as to whether or not your opponent's card is some sort of combat trick (this sense gets better as you play more Magic), and if he has something like Giant Growth, you could be in real trouble. And, since his attack doesn't make much sense otherwise, guessing that he might have something like a Giant Growth doesn't seem crazy. In other words, in the same scenario as last time, but with your opponent holding a card in hand, you have to respect the trick (or possibility thereof). I can sense confusion among you, so give me a moment to explain why.

Suppose you block exactly the same way that we did last time, blocking with two Trained Armodons on the Croc and then a pair of 2/2s with your Hill Giants.

If your opponent then decides to cast Giant Growth on his Crocodile, he kills both of your 3/3s blocking it while keeping the Croc alive, and you kill two 2/2s, leaving you with two 3/3s against his 5/5, one 2/2, and a 1/1. You are definitely getting the shorter end of the stick here.

The question really becomes, what is the right way to block if you are pretty sure Opie has a Giant Growth?

I can conceive of two different ways that make sense. First, if you absolutely believe the 5/5 must die, you're probably better off triple-blocking the Crocodile. That way, even if he does have a Giant Growth to make him an 8/8, you still trade two 3/3s for his Crocodile and a Giant Growth while killing a 2/2 in the process. In terms of card advantage, it puts you up one card. (We'll cover much more on “card advantage” in later articles, but for now it's useful to note that in this case you lose one less card than your opponent.)

However, there's another way to do it that is probably the best choice. If you just want to get the best trade possible in terms of cards, blocking all of your opponent's 2/2s makes the most sense. In this case, you'll take 5 damage, but your opponent will have to use a Giant Growth just to save a 2/2 and kill a single one of your creatures, so you will be left with two Hill Giants and an Armodon to his Crocodile, Grizzly Bears, and Llanowar Elves. From a card for card perspective, you lose one card to three cards going to the graveyard from your opponent, and you are still in a good position to deal with your opponent's creatures again next turn.

Variation B

Opie Tapped and Attacking in the red zone: Spined Wurm, Goblin Chariot, 2 Grizzly Bears.
Not attacking: Llanowar Elves

Ben Untapped: 2 Trained Armodon, 2 Hill Giant

Now suppose you have the same situation as Variation A, except this time Opie has a Spined Wurm in place of Emperor Crocodile, and you have a Dark Banishing in hand and the untapped mana to cast it on the board. What blocks do you make then? (Remember, your opponent now has mana available and also has two cards in hand, one of which you have a strong feeling might be a Giant Growth.)

In this case, I'd go back to the exact same way we blocked in the basic scenario, which is double block the Croc and throw one Armodon each at the Grizzly Bears. Why? Because with an answer to Giant Growth in hand, you actually want to bait your opponent into casting his Giant Growth so that you can pounce on it. The best way to do this is by dangling the possibility of killing two of your creatures for one measly Giant Growth in their face, practically forcing them to make the play you want them to. Once they do, you simply cast Dark Banishing in response and wipe out the best parts of their squad, presumably winning the game shortly thereafter.

These scenarios have gone from simple to somewhat complex, but the point of all of this is to show that blocking can be tricky when there are a lot of variables to take into account. Due to the beginner nature of the column, we occasionally need to create some unrealistic scenarios, but the point isn't so much to toss you into a real game and make you figure out the right action - just by playing Magic, you will get a lot of that experience. Instead, the point is to give you the critical thinking skills to work through the limitless situations you will encounter when playing Magic and figure out how to best deal with them on your own when they arise.

I hope you've enjoyed this walk through the kinds of decisions that go into making good blocking choices. Join us next time when we flip the table around and discuss the art of effective beatdown.

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