Wizards of the Coast is out of the office for the Thanksgiving holiday, and will return with new articles beginning Monday, November 27. Next week in this slot if all goes according to plan we'll be featuring Jeff Cunningham as he begins his Magic Academy odyssey. In the meantime, what follows is the next of the Magic Academy articles by former author Ted Knutson that we've been rerunning in preperation for the column's relaunch next week. Have a great weekend, for our American audience happy Thanksgiving vacation, and we’ll see all of you Monday!
Scott Johns, magicthegathering.com Content Manager
Magic Academy is a column designed to help newer players get up to speed by teaching them more about the game and showing the resources available on the web for learning more. The column is written in linear fashion, like a book, so each lesson builds on material learned in previous articles. So, if you're new to the column, you can either start at the beginning or just check the articles so far to see where you'd like to begin. To see the column's table of contents or learn more, just go to the Magic Academy Welcome Page.
This column is written for players that can at least muddle their way through a game of Magic. If you're completely new to the game and don't know how to play at all, we recommend starting with playmagic.com and then returning to Magic Academy. Once you know the basics of getting through a game we'll take it from there!
Last week we discussed how the defender has a major advantage in Magic because they get to choose who blocks where and which creatures do not get blocked at all. The player on offense only gets to choose which creatures are making the attacks, but in doing so they do have one key advantage - they get to choose when to create the confrontation. In picking the timing, the attacking player gets to exploit an opponent's disadvantages to the maximum, often turning a slow start or a poorly prepared board into a bloodbath. Today's lesson will teach you how to see when the advantage is yours, and explain how to demolish opponents through effective aggression. Many new players either tend to attack too much or too little, so hopefully between this week's article and next week's practical examples, we'll be able to help you find a middle ground when it comes to beating down.
The Art of Beatdown
For future reference, the art and science of turning men sideways (fine... "attacking with creatures") is frequently referred to as "beatdown". As those of you who have read the blocking articles know, much of our time there was spent instilling a sense of caution in the attacking player. If the player choosing blocks is actually advantaged, that means good attacks should be much harder to find than good blocks. However, players like Brian Hacker and Dave Price have made entire careers out of being the aggressor, so it's obvious that it can be done... if you know the tricks of how to do it well.
One thing you should note up front is that just bashing with all your creatures every turn is not the route to success. This may seem like a strange analogy for a game played with pieces of cardboard, but attacking in Magic is a lot like being a boxer or a fighter in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Simply running at an opponent and swinging with all your might every fight is certainly entertaining to watch, but it's not brilliant strategy. In fact, regardless of how strong your attack is, by doing so you are as likely to lose at least as much as you win. Opponents will simply cover up or avoid you early until you start to get tired, and then once your tiredness leaves you open, they will counterattack mercilessly. If you want to be a champion, you need to always be ready to attack, but only strike when it suits your needs. Stay on your toes, look for openings to channel your aggression, and strike when it will hurt the most or when your opponent is on the ropes and you need to finish them off. In the meantime, protect yourself and your resources so that you have the firepower available to blow the doors off the game when the opportunity arises.
By learning the art of the beatdown, you will teach yourself to see times when you should attack. Many games in Magic come down to just a few points of life on either side, and a missed attack or two on your part might easily be the difference between victory and defeat.
Rules and Guidelines
This may seem backwards from what I taught two weeks ago, but the first thing you should generally think is, "I'm attacking unless there's a good reason not to." From there, you then search for good reasons not to. These come up far less than you might expect. Here's a sort of mental checklist to run through that will hopefully prove useful:
Rule 0 - Is the way clear?
Rule 1 - If I attack, how will my opponent block?
This is the main reason why we covered blocking first - you need to figure out what way your opponent is likely to block in order to determine which creatures you want to attack with. The better you understand defense, the better you can judge when it's the right time to go on offense.
Rule 2 - Is the attack productive?
There will be times where the board is stalemated and attacking will yield no trades and no loss of life for your opponent. This means that the attack is generally a bad idea and should be avoided. In some cases, attacking in these situations will actually leave you wide open to a devastating counterattack, so while I'm obviously trying to encourage you to lean toward attacking whenever possible, you should still think through the consequences of your attack before pushing all your guys forward.
Rule 3 - If any trades are going to happen, am I getting the better end of the trades?
Stated another way, this rule could also be: If my opponent can only trade with certain creatures, are his creatures ones that I want to see die? Are my creatures to be traded away ones I need to live in order to win?
Pay special attention to creatures with evasion (like Aven Windreader) and activated abilities (like Anaba Shaman or Master Decoy). Your opponent is likely to keep these creatures out of unfavorable blocking situations unless absolutely necessary, so by attacking into them you are probably either getting an excellent trade or free points of damage. In most cases, either outcome is good for you.
Rule 4 - Advanced - Learn which creatures have become expendable.
This one is advanced because once again it deals with threat evaluation. As the game progresses, creatures on the board typically become bigger and meaner, often outclassing ones that have been cast earlier in the game. As creatures become outclassed, they should generally be retired from the fighting unless they can be made to serve a specific purpose. Those purposes generally include: gang blocking to trade with a bigger creature, helping you sneak through extra points of damage, or chump blocking when necessary.
There will be times when your opponent will gladly block one of your smaller creatures to get it off the board, letting through damage from your bigger creatures that are harder to block in the process. This allows you to either use a combat trick to kill their blockers, or simply allows you to get through some extra points of damage on the attack that you might not have been able to do otherwise. Be careful when employing this principle not to simply throw away valuable resources, but also realize that sometimes you'll need to do this in order to win tight games. The more experience you get, the more comfortable you'll become with evaluating when to trade your smaller creatures for extra damage.
Rule 5 - Advanced - Am I going to win the race?
So, you simply calculate how long it will take you to kill your opponent from their current life total if your attacks continue unabated. Then you do the same for their creatures. Next you modify that by any chump blocks that could happen on either side (sometimes this will move the clock and sometimes it won't. Sometimes it's important to chump block a turn or two earlier in order to create an extra turn - an especially important concept to learn and put into practice.), and reassess the board and the dueling clocks in light of what is in your hand. This general assessment should tell you whether you are the beatdown (aggressor) or the control (defender) at the moment (once again, see "Who's the Beatdown" for more on this concept), and should guide your play appropriately.
Now there will be times when, in spite of having the slower clock, the only way you can win is by continuing to attack and hoping you draw something useful before you die. If you already know when those times occur, you probably don't need my help. I just want you to be aware that they exist and to watch for them.
Additional Guidelines include:
- If a creature isn't blocking for you next turn and the way is clear, it should almost certainly be attacking. This frequently arises when you have a creature with an activated ability that costs mana, you need to use all your mana to cast a new creature, and your opponent has no blockers on their side of the board. Get Anaba Shaman in there! Extra points of damage absolutely matter.
- Evasion creatures (creatures with flight, fear, unblockability, and even trample) are generally designed to attack. Their fragile toughness typically makes them worse on the blocking end, and you should only block with them if you deem it necessary to win a race or avoid dying.
In the end, solid attacking really comes down to simple math, predicting how your opponent will react, and exploiting whatever advantage you have. Also, as with any guidelines, remember that they are just that, guidelines. There will be plenty of times any or all of those will be wrong in certain situations. But, the better you understand the basics, the better you'll know when it's time to handle things differently based on the board position at hand.
Why Haste is Useful and Dealing With Defense
This also provides a good explanation of why haste (being able to attack or use abilities that require tapping on the turn a creature enters play) is so valuable - it screws up your opponent's planning and combat math. If they look at the board thinking they will only need to deal with 6 points of damage and you cast a hasty creature on your turn making them deal with 9 instead, it's possible their ignorance caused them to make a fatal mistake. It also goes to reiterate the concept that the less information an opponent has about the game, the better it probably is for you.
Resources on the board are typically more valuable than those in the hand. Why? Because they've already been paid for and represent an investment for a player. A creature in play took time and mana to cast, and - assuming it matters to your opponent's strategy - it has a replacement cost. Additionally, certain creatures that your opponent controls are actually designed to shut down aggressive strategies and should be marked for death post-haste, forthwith, and as soon as possible. Some defensive creatures can be so disruptive to your attack that there will be certain times where you need to make sacrificial attacks and/or trade two cards for one of your opponent's creatures to get rid of these meddlesome threats. You may hate to do it, and if your opponent trumps you with a trick of his own you may run the risk of losing, but there's a solid chance you will lose if you don't take the shot anyway.
This same principle is true for Constructed Magic almost across the board. Control and combo decks play actual defenders like (old) Wall of Blossoms or (current) Carven Caryatid to absorb damage without losing a card (both creatures draw a card when they come into play). Thus a classic battle is renewed where the aggressive player has to figure out how to either attack around or through these cards in order to win, while the control or combo player hopes those creatures create enough time to let them take control of the game and go on to win.
That covers the basic guidelines for now. I hope you have enjoyed this lesson and learned something in the process - it has been the toughest subject to cover by far because good attacking is often instinctive and the thought process behind it is difficult to distill. Next week we'll jump into some actual game situations and bombard you with real examples so you can get practice actually using these guidelines, but before I leave, I have some small pieces of homework for you, as well as some additional reading for those who like such things.
Your opponent has a pair of vanilla 2/2s on the board. You have one Hill Giant. Is this a good attack?
Your opponent has a pair of vanilla 2/2s on the board. You have two Hill Giants. Are there any good attacks to be made here? What other factors might change that?
Challenge question: Going back to our original blocking scenario from two weeks ago, Opie has decided to attack with all of his creatures this time, not even choosing to leave the Llanowar Elves back. What is the highest life total Ben can be at for this to still be a good attack? (Neither player has any cards in hand. Opie is still at 18 life.)
Limited Pro Tours typically feature tons of attacking and blocking - much more than Constructed and pretty much more than any format in Magic. This is because players are forced to make the most of the cards they see in their sealed decks and drafts far more than when they get to pick and choose four of each card out of hundreds or thousands available as in Standard and Extended. Therefore, to give you real world examples of how often players attack past each other as well as how often Pros are willing to trade creatures to keep the board clear, you should read at least the Top 8 coverage from Pro Tour--Prague. The draft format here is considered to be one of the most fun of all time, and the matches are generally action packed.
I mentioned above that Brian Hacker and Dave Price made entire careers out of attacking for two, but they were also solid writers to boot. Unfortunately, most of Hacker's work is not linkable on a family friendly website, but if you ever meet Mike Flores or Randy Buehler, feel free to ask them about Hacker's entertaining, brash, brilliant style. At one time, Dave Price was possibly the most popular man in Magic, appearing in numerous Magic Invitationals via fan vote alone. He was also a legendary Pro Tour Qualifier player, at least partly due to his inability to put up great results at the Pro Tour towards the end of his career, which in turn forced him to requalify again and again. Here are a couple of the best reports from his writing career:
For more on these two guys and just what they meant to Magic and the Pro Tour, check out Randy Buehler's eloquent Hall of Fame ballot from class 1.
For something completely different that still involves Dave Price, check out Mike Flores's "Why Dave Price Goes Second." It's not about beatdown exactly, but it certainly will give your brain plenty of interesting info to chew on when it comes to battles between two aggressive decks.