MTG Core Concepts: Combat

Magic the Gathering can be complex. Even the most basic part of the game, the act of turning creatures sideways to attack opposing life totals, has a number of factors that need to be considered when pondering the best way to attack. In fact, some of the most strategically interesting things you can do in magic involve the combat step and some of the corner cases that exist within it. First, let’s take a moment to break down combat.

Round One

The combat step is actually one of the most involved aspects of the game because of the sheer number of steps involved. Combat features five steps, or stages, each of which gives players the opportunity to interact during that step. The five steps of the combat phase are as follows:

Beginning of Combat

Declare Attackers

Declare Blockers

Combat Damage (First strike, then regular damage, potentially further dividing this step)

End of Combat

Choosing how you time interaction, such as removal, is extremely important, often with it best to throw out a removal spell at the beginning of combat before any attacks are declared. However (as we’ll discuss some here), there are some corner cases where changing your timing can be hugely to your advantage. While we won’t be highlighting every combat step corner case, it seems wise to point out two common combat interactions you can take advantage of, and one that’s much less common.

Master Warcraft

The Sacrificial Blocker

The first, and notably common combat interaction is the ability to interact with permanents after blockers are declared, but before the combat damage step. If blocks have not quite gone the way you wanted, you can still burn removal spells to stop trades from going too poorly for you. More importantly, it also gives you time to use your own creatures as resources.

A creature that is blocked is legally “counted” as blocked, even if the creature blocking it should happen to disappear before combat damage. If you have something like an Altar’s Reap in hand, you can block with your creature, sacrifice it to draw cards, and still get away with preventing combat damage from the blocked creature. Recent Standard players are very familiar with the Cat Oven combo, which allows you to constantly block with Cauldron Familiar to blank an attacker, sac it, and repeat. 

Cauldron FamiliarWitch's Oven

Time to Strike

The next corner case worth highlighting has to do with the interaction of various keywords and how they potentially play with combat. Trample, for example, can be great when combined with timely removal- if you destroy the would-be blocker, 100% of trample damage will get through! Relatedly, deathtouch and trample interact quite well for the attacker- you only need to assign one point of deathtouch damage to a blocker for it to be considered lethal, and the rest tramples over. 

Archetype of AggressionArchetype of Finality

A lot of potential shenanigans can also take place between the first strike combat damage step and the regular damage step. You could, for example, give a creature with first strike Infect at instant speed, causing it to deal damage in the form of -1/-1 counters. Then, when regular damage comes around, the defending creature will be dealing damage based on its new, weakened power and toughness instead of what it entered combat with. This matters for anything that can impact power and toughness at instant speed, so be wary of those first strike and double strike creatures.

Tainted StrikeMirran Crusader

The End Is Not The End

Finally, there are some interesting corner cases at the End of Combat step that can be considered. Combat isn’t technically over until this step ends, so if any cards or effects dictate “during combat,” you still have the opportunity to use them. The most interesting and somewhat confusing corner case of this effect has to be Reconnaissance, which essentially gives all attacking creatures a form of pseudo-vigilance. You can activate Reconnaissance during the End of Combat step, even after you have dealt damage, and freely untap any creature you can target. 


Finish Them

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to interacting during combat, but if you keep the ordering of the steps and the timing of your instants in mind, you will find that you have much more success as damage is being thrown around. In particular, you may want to consider more cards that can interact with corner cases, keywords, or otherwise interact with combat, just so you can keep your opponent’s guessing. 

Basandra, Battle Seraph

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