Simple and to the point. But the first time a planeswalker summoned a creature to do his opponent-injuring dirty work, a new era was born. The power, efficiency, and street cred you get for commanding creatures in your planeswalker-vee-planeswalker fight far outweighs the direct simplicity of bolt-your-face. It would not have taken long for creature combat to become the norm among planeswalker combatants, and it is the flavor of creature combat I want to explore today.
We'll take the combat phase step by step.
Beginning of Combat Step
Planeswalkers aren't always trying to hurl lethal magic at each other—just a whole lot of the time. There could probably be a game about planeswalkers cooperating to put together a swingset or something, I guess. But we might call that an off-camera activity for planeswalkers. It's not what gets the screen time. What gets the screen time? The deadly thrill of combat, is what. The summoning of impromptu armies that appear out of thin mana. The charging forth of familiars, allies, and barely-controlled horrors. The clash of steel and bone and hide and scale. In the context of a game of Magic, the focus is on making somebody dead with spell and skill. Swingset collaboration can wait.
The beginning of combat step represents that adrenaline-spiking moment when an attack is about to happen. Both mages have surveyed the creatures and magics active on the battlefield, and both know that only one of them has the initiative. It's the twitch of muscle right before one planeswalker sends his minions on an errand of doom, and it's the last moment either one of them has to conjure swift magic or set off tricks before the hordes are unleashed.
This might be when one planeswalker might blind his foe's best creature, or when the other finds out the whims of Ruhan of the Fomori. Most of the time, though, this is just a good time to hurl insults, conjure up action-star one-liners, or simply inform your opponent that she's about to become the recipient of a faceful of claws, swords, teeth, and fire.
Declare Attackers Step
A moment after that muscle twitch or insult-parade that signals combat has begun, the active mage commands his legions to go on the attack. This can be accomplished a number of ways, flavor-wise. The planeswalker can certainly issue vocal commands, if he wishes—shouting out, "Dragon! Destroy my enemies!" is never a bad way to go, in my book—but that's not strictly necessary. Some creature-summoners go with gestural communication or with body language: summoned creatures might respond to a head nod, a clench of the fist, or just a dramatic narrowing of the eyes at one's foe. But in most cases, not even that is required. The planeswalker controls those creatures with his will. The most efficient method—and most unnerving, from the defender's perspective—and frankly coolest, from the bystander's perspective—is simply to will those creatures to attack. You just think it and they go crashing in. Sometimes one can tell the neophyte from the master by how much visible effort he puts into sending his minions on the warpath.
The hurtling-forth of attackers is the "bolt your face" of the strategic, far-sighted mage. Summoned creatures can crash in over and over again, building up an advantage of damage and momentum that can overwhelm one's foe. Clever planeswalkers select their attacking minions carefully, weighing the likely results for the upcoming stages of combat, pushing through damage while leaving back just enough resources to keep themselves alive. Seen from an abstract eye, creature combat is a delicate dance, a ballet of turns, a back-and-forth protocol of violence.
In some cases, this step leads directly into injuring the pride and actual physical body of the opposing planeswalker. But often, there's a gratifying crunch first.
Declare Blockers Step
Missiles inbound. Target lock. Alarms shrieking their klaxons off. You have incoming, and it's time to decide how to react.
This is the split second of combat where planeswalkers parry. Their summoned allies become armor and shield, a bulwark against the tide of hurt coming their way. The attackers have already been sized up; according to the patterns of this chaotic dance, no more attackers will be part of this current offensive, so most—not all, but most—of the factors are known. This is when a planeswalker makes heroes of some of her minions and, unfortunately, victims of others. This is also when she measures how much injury she can sustain on herself, and balances that against the importance of her prior acts of summoning and of the other resources she has in the offing. Sometimes she decides it's best for her to let the foe's huge skaab lurch on through and do its worst, if she knows her own priests and soldiers aren't ready to take it on. Sometimes she recognizes the flying or intimidation abilities of the attackers will help them get by her defenses, or she might have a magical way to prevent all damage before it comes.
But nothing's as satisfying as the selection of a good block.
It's during this step that a planeswalker's priorities are made plain. One's creatures or one's life? The security of personal well-being or the thrill of combat? Playing it safe or daring to risk it all? A planeswalker reads the attack like an encrypted playbook, interpreting signals and weighing resolve. Was the attack a little off-balance, designed to represent more strength than her foe might actually wield? Was it a puzzlingly timid assault, designed to goad an overreaction? Has her foe misread the battlefield, falling into the trap of a late combat trick? In the end, this is the planeswalker's last chance to affect the outcome of this turn of the battle. This is the pencils-down moment where the defender's parry is complete, and the last chance for both planeswalkers to hurl spells and special abilities into the combat cauldron. It's the last moment before impact.
Combat Damage Step
Grit your teeth, planeswalker—this is going to hurt.
Whether you've thrown a phalanx of blockers into the fray or commanded them all to stand aside so you can bravely block with your face, this is ouch time. This is when every creature involved in the combat hurts whatever's in front of it with all its power, slicing and slashing and biting to its maximum extent, and sustains whatever damage it can soak up with its hide. This is when first-strikers and double-strikers get in their early jabs, sometimes spearing the life out of their assigned combatants before their foes can hit back. This is when the venomous bite or lethal gaze of deathtouch does its doom-delivering work and when a planeswalker's vital bond with her lifelinkers pays off. This is when tramplers' momentum carries them past the blockers and into the 'walkers, and when the extra damage from firebreathing or the resilience of regeneration kicks in. And, of course, this is when living things die.
As damage crisscrosses the Red Zone in rules terms, blood spatters the battlefield in flavor terms. The mortally wounded fall, joining the ranks of the dead in the graveyard. Weak geists fall to strong werewolves, equipment-wielding vampires fall to enormous demons, and evenly matched heroes fall to one another. Creature by creature, subtraction problem by subtraction problem, the dead are separated from the living by the choices of the two planeswalker foes, and the battlefield is left indelibly altered.
But the changes are not only to the creatures. In the course of assigning damage, planeswalkers sustain wounds of their own. Sometimes the damage is too great, and it comes to the point that one of them must recognize enough is enough and yield—or fight to the death, forcing her foe to press on until one of them is a blasted husk.
End of Combat Step
Just before the dust clears, there's one final moment before combat is over. A few last sputtering effects go off—Fog Elementals poof out of existence; clockwork creatures tick down; the Angel of Geist of Saint Traft vanishes; Jade Statue turns back into a lifeless lump. For the planeswalker combatants, the worst is over, and this is the first moment they're able to breathe—but also the first moment all the effects of that clash of creatures are made plain.
It's rough and often bloody work, being a planeswalker. When two world-traipsing mages go at it with their improvised magical armies, the results can be brutal—and that's just one round of combat. A few moments of further spellcasting later, and it will be time for another attack.
Or maybe they'll fall back on the classics: Lightning Bolt your face.
I want to make one more comment about the flavor of creature combat, although it involves an aspect of the rules that occurs outside of the combat phase. Players have running life totals that reflect the damage they've sustained over the course of an entire game. Similarly, planeswalker cards have loyalty totals that go up and down turn by turn. But in Magic, creatures don't work this way. Damage is erased from creatures at the end of turn, meaning that any amount of damage that doesn't kill a creature during the span of one turn is ultimately nonlethal. A Sanctuary Cat can't "chip away" at a Ghoultree turn by turn, unless multiple cats team up and block it in huge numbers all at once.
In terms of game play, this "healing up" at the end of turn helps Magic be about simple "dead or not" comparisons rather than extended number tracking for every body on the battlefield. In flavor terms, though, it helps Magic be about clashes of big monsters rather than gradual attrition by smaller ones. It might be strange that a nonlethal-but-substantial 4 damage on a Moonveil Dragon simply melts away at end of turn, no matter how much work it was to get to that point—but the fact that Moonveil Dragon can smash repeatedly into wimpy 4-power blockers all day long means it's bad ass and it gets in there. It means that planeswalkers tend to stockpile collections of fiery effects to throw all at one go rather than plinking away at mighty creatures, thousand-cuts-style. And it creates the impression that Magic creatures are good at what they're summoned to do—fight, and fight repeatedly. In the story of what happens to injured creatures on the battlefield, I think it's less about wounds magically closing and more about resilient monsters shaking off any succession of blows not quite enough to do the job. When you hire a 4-toughness Gravetiller Wurm, you are secure in the notion that it's going to be able to scuffle with any gangs with total power 3 or less and live to tell the tale. And if you time things cleverly and summon up an 8-toughness Gravetiller Wurm, you know it's not just going to be twice as laborious to kill it—it might be unkillable by your foe's entire existing forces.
Hope you enjoyed today's excursion into the Vorthosian Red Zone! See you in a week—right after I answer a popular question about maps.
Letter of the Week
Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Inboxing Day: Dark Ascension":
Okay, I've got a question or two. Does Wizards have a map of Innistrad? And, will they share it with the rest of us?
Actually, we don't have one. While we on the creative team have some thoughts about the relative positions of various locations on Innistrad—misty Nephalia is out on the coast, wooded Kessig fills up much of the interior of the landmass, the winding mountains of Stensia cut off part of the fields of Gavony, etc.—we didn't go to the step of creating a map. Our worldbuilding process generates pages and pages of rich detail so cards and stories can have plenty of great, unbounded material to draw from. On the other hand, maps have a way of nailing down continuity that, for most purposes, wants to remain un-nailed-down. If we had an authoritative document that would specify, say, the absolute distance between Avacyn's Cathedral in Thraben and the haunted town of Hollowhenge, then every piece of flavor text, story, or offhand Savor the Flavor comment (heh) could live in danger of contradicting that fact. If one expression of Innistrad flavor—one of Jenna Helland's short stories, say—wanted to depict a carriage ride from one side of the province of Stensia to the other, while another expression of Innistrad flavor—Ryan Miller's alternate reality game, for example—wanted to present a tale of correspondences that were mailed at certain times, then a definitive map might do more harm than good, generating more inconsistencies than it prevents. In general, we want stories of our settings to be drenched in the detail that makes them great, rather than to live and die by worries about distance calculations and movement rates. This allows us to jam the settings of Magic full of content, while still allowing multiple creators to be free to envision these worlds as they see fit.