Damage doesn’t kill creatures—state-based-actions kill creatures.
That axiom is a favorite among some judges I know. When you Lightning Bolt a 3/3, most players will place the creature in the graveyard without a second thought. However, I want to teach you today that if you understand what is actually happening here, then you will see smarter lines of play.
“State-based actions are game actions that happen automatically whenever certain conditions are met, they do not use the stack.” Personally, I like to think of SBAs as the unseen engine that makes a game of Magic tick. SBAs are more like the Game Master. Why do you die at 0 or less life? Because SBAs say so. Why do creatures that have taken lethal damage die? Because SBAs say so. SBAs are constantly checking the game to make sure that everything is happening as it should be.
While SBAs don’t use the stack, their use for carrying out game actions introduces some important quirks and I’ve picked some of my favorite to talk about today.
The absolute classic example is Tarmogoyf. If you haven’t tried to Lightning Bolt a Tarmogoyf and failed to kill it then you haven’t lived. Tarmogoyf gets +1/+1 for each spell type in the graveyard. Let’s imagine that your opponent has a Tarmogoyf in play and there is a Misty Rainforest and a Thoughtseize in the combined graveyards and Tarmogoyf is a 2/3. Excellent! We can use Lightning Bolt and kill it, yes? No. You resolve Lightning Bolt on the ‘Goyf, that 3 damage is marked on Tarmogoyf and the spell goes to the graveyard. At which point SBAs checks the graveyard to see how big Tarmogoyf is and whether it has taken lethal damage. There is now sorcery, instant, and land in the graveyards, so Tarmogoyf is a 3/4 with 3 damage marked on it. I’m sure it’s very angry with you for throwing fire at it but it has only grown stronger for it.
This constant checking of size and damage has implications in other places too. Take Pack Rat for example. Each Pack Rat gets +1/+1 for each other Rat in play. If you have 3 Rats and attack into your opponent’s board of a 3/3 a 2/2 and a 1/1, how many Rats can die? Answer: all of them (unless you can make another). If your opponent blocks one creature onto each Rat, when combat damage happens then SBAs will kill off the 3/3 Rat with 3 damage marked on it. At which point you only have 2 Rats, which are each 2/2s, one of which has 2 damage marked on it which SBAs sends to the graveyard. Your final Rat is now a 1/1 with 1 damage and so also dies. Players often neglect the shrinking of creatures by removal of “lord” effect. Against tribal decks such as Merfolk in Modern you can remove a Lord during or after attackers for complete blowouts.
However, I think my very favorite example of SBA blowouts during combat comes from Innistrad/Dark Ascension Block Limited. I had a Thraben Doomsayer in play. My opponent makes what looks like a very good attack. I have a lot of 1/1s but not much else going for me. I manage to arrange my blocks so that I will go to 4 life. I have to chump some 4/4s and a couple of 2/1s and 2/2s. What my opponent hasn’t realized, though, is that SBAs are on my side.
Damage happens with me going to 4 and my creatures taking damage. However, when SBAs check to see what dies, some of my creatures have 2 damaged marked on them—but they are now 3/3s because the condition for Fateful Hour has been met and Thraben Doomsayer is now giving all of my creatures +2/+2. As expected, this confused my opponent and the first judge that arrived at the table, but a quick appeal to the Head Judge resolved the matter. Unsurprisingly, my swing back was lethal. Only by understanding SBAs was I able to arrange my blocks not only to survive the attack but also to secure the win.
Another example of creatures “resizing” before they die is Serra Ascendant. If you are on 28 life and attack with two Serra Ascendants in what is clearly a suicide mission, it’s fine, because in combat damage you gain 2 life, putting you to 30 life which will make the Ascendants 6/6s before SBA can kill them (unless of course they both took 6 damage, in which case they still die).
All of these examples demonstrate the same point: size changes will have happened at the same time as SBAs try to kill creatures that have taken lethal damage, so they no longer fulfill the requirements for a trip to the graveyard.
There are a couple of non-damage-based ways in which SBAs can affect your game.
I have been playing the Magic Online Cube this weekend. I love Cube for a number of reasons, one of which is that it teaches you to draft actual deck archetypes. With so many strong cards, the way you win is to draft cards that fit together into the same game plan. Draft aggro? Then you probably don’t need Angel of Serenity. Drafting ramp? Then focus on the ramp cards because there are pretty much infinite big dumb creatures to pick up.
Cube reminded me of another SBA effect. Protection from X is continually checked by SBAs. It is for this reason that by giving a creature protection from a colour you can cause Auras to fall off. This can be both advantageous and disadvantageous. In my case my opponent had cast Faith’s Fetters on my one creature. Conveniently I had a Sword of War and Peace that, once equipped to said creature, granted it protection from white. Even though the Aura is already attached SBAs continue to check if the Aura can be attached, and as it is white, it falls off. Giving the same creature hexproof or shroud, however, would not remove the Fetters. Hexproof and shroud merely stop it from being targeted. If the Aura is already attached it doesn’t continue to target, but SBAs do check that it being attached is legal. Slightly confusing I know.
One last SBA which is relevant in Standard, and you often hear people asking about it: Dryad Militant, and whether the spell that kills it goes to the graveyard or not. Hopefully you can now work this out for yourself so think about it before reading on…
You didn’t think about it—you just scrolled down, didn’t you?!
The answer is: it depends if you are killing it with damage or destroying it. If you Doom Blade the Dryad Militant, then the order of events is that the Dryad Militant is destroyed as per the card text, and then the spell goes to the graveyard. Since Dryad Militant is no longer around at this point, it doesn’t get exiled.
If instead you Shock the Dryad Militant (presumably by some outrageous action) she will have 2 damage marked on her when the spell resolves and tries to go to the graveyard; SBAs then simultaneously note that the Shock should be exiled due to the static ability on the Militant and that the Militant has taken lethal damage and should go to the graveyard. Thus Shock is exiled and Militant is dead.
SBAs don’t commonly affect your lines of play. In general it is the secret engine that makes a game of Magic work, but awareness of what they are actually doing and how they are doing it will occasionally give you an edge in your decision making and edges win games.
One of the more awesome ways SBAs can allow you to win games of Magic is the following: You have Platinum Angel in play. Both you and your opponent are on 4 life. Sadly you can’t just kill the opponent with the Angel as it is Pacified. Conveniently you have a Hurricane. If you cast Hurricane for 4, your opponent will lose the game and you will not. Why? Because after the Hurricane resolves both you, your opponent, and Platinum Angel take 4 damage. SBAs then checks the game state and realize that a) Platinum Angel should die, b) your opponent has lost the game c) you can’t lose the game even though you too are on 0 life because of Platinum Angel’s static ability.
Just goes to show the SBAs can kill players as well as creatures.
I hope you have found this week’s article helpful. If you have an aspect of the game you’d like to see a piece written on, feel free to send my a tweet @onionpixie. I will see you same time next week.