Carrie On – The Combat Phase

Rather than join the tides of 2013 review articles, I instead want to suggest New Year resolutions for Magic players. Mostly these were based on frequent mistakes I see players make that, if fixed, would dramatically improve their win rates (and most of which are easily resolved with a little effort). One of these was gaining a proper understanding of the combat phase. About 800 words in, I thought I should probably just dedicate a whole article to this seemingly simple concept, so I apologize if this isn’t for you. But for everyone else, here is a guide to the combat phase (and how you can use it to win games).

My friend has a t-shirt from LoadingReadyRun that has the turn order written on it like this:


As awesome as this t-shirt is, it actually illustrates one of the laziest and most common misconceptions in Magic: that combat is one step.

Combat is a whole phase made up of 6 steps. Understanding each of them and when you get priority is really important. I use the different stages of combat to enable many different lines of play. If you don’t understand how the stages break down, then you can’t see these plays. One of the best ways to learn this is to play Magic Online. There, all the steps are displayed and you can get the program to stop when you get priority in each step.

You get priority up to 6 times in combat (depending on whether or not something actually attacks). Unfortunately, we like to shortcut combat, so we just turn guys sideways and record damage, which hides all these lovely stages and the potential they offer.

Here are the 6 steps of combat.

Beginning of Combat

Nothing really happens here except that each player gets priority before attackers are declared. When I say nothing happens here, I mean it’s just a priority step that is out of the main phase. However, lots of actions do happen here, as it is often beneficial to do stuff after exiting the main phase but before attackers are declared.

This is the best time to tap attackers. If you did this in your opponent’s main phase, they get dropped back into a state where they can cast sorcery-speed effects again, which could well be to your disadvantage. If you wish to attack with a creature that needs animating (such as a manland or Keyrune), then this is your last chance to activate. The very first thing that happens in declare attackers is that attackers are declared(!) so if your permanent isn’t a creature by this point, then you are out of luck.

Declare Attackers

Does what it says on the tin. As I mentioned just now, there is no chance to perform any other action before putting guys into the red zone now. If you forgot to animate something or flash in a haste creature then it is now too late to attack with them. If your opponent asks, “combat?” it is generally assumed they mean they want to move to declare attackers rather than to the beginning of combat. I will come onto the importance of communicating clearly later. However, if this happens and you say yes, then it assumed that you are passing priority to this step. If you have a tapper like [ccProd]Gideon’s Lawkeeper[/ccProd] then you just gave up the chance to use it. If you do want to use the beginning of combat step, say so! Say something like, “before you declare attackers,” or, “in the beginning of combat step.” If you are clear, your opponent can’t complain. The other common way people show that they are going to combat (and more common, as people are very lazy) is they just start turning guys sideways. It is best to stop people straight away when they do this. It’s a fine shortcut, but if you want to pause before passing priority through to attackers then just ask your opponent to wait or stop. Then either perform your action or say they can continue.

On the other hand, letting your opponent move straight to attackers can work to your advantage. Consider this situation:

You have a [ccProd]Gideon’s Lawkeeper[/ccProd] and no other creatures. Your opponent has a [ccProd]Snapcaster Mage[/ccProd] (yeah I don’t what format we are playing either) and a [ccProd]Celestial Colonnade[/ccProd]. If they animate the Colonnade, you want to tap it down as that is 4 damage as opposed to 2 for the Mage. If your opponent asks to go to attackers, then they are passing priority past the point at which they can animate their manland to attack. However, if you now do something (such as tap down their Mage), they get priority again and can animate their Colonnade to hit you with it.

Similarly, I have played against people who have simply forgotten. Once it’s clear that we are in attackers, if they try to animate it you can point out that they can’t do so, and any judge ruling arising out of this should go in your favor, provided that everything has been communicated clearly.

After attackers have been declared you both get priority. First the active player (the one doing the attacking) and then the non-active player. This is the non-active player’s last chance to do anything before declaring blockers (most commonly animating creatures to block with or casting non-targeted removal spells). For example, if I have [ccProd]Diabolic Edict[/ccProd], I don’t want to block first, otherwise my opponent is likely to sacrifice the creature I blocked. By casting it in declare attackers you get more information for your choice of blocks. Magic is essentially an information game so you should try to eke out as much as you can at every point.

The importance of having all the creatures you wish to block with in play before passing out of this step should not be underestimated. I remember a feature match at a GP where my opponent declared some blockers, then activated [ccProd]Aether Vial[/ccProd] to pop in another blocker and attempted to block with it. It was a clean ruling for the judge to give and I won a game on the spot that I would otherwise have lost. My opponent was similarly unaware that by declaring some blockers he had passed the point he could put more into play. This guy was 6-0 at a Legacy GP, he should have been 7-0.

If you want to make sure your opponent is done declaring all their attackers before you animate blockers then just ask!

Declare Blockers

The same as attackers but in reverse. The defending player declares blockers as they wish for any or all attackers declared. Again, the declaration of any blocks is the first thing to happen in this step, before spells or abilities can be used. If any creature is being blocked by multiple creatures then these need to be ordered by the attacker—again, this happens before anyone gets priority. This is really important if you have a pump spell. It’s really annoying in real life as, if you point out that blockers need to be ordered, its normally a huge tell that you have a trick and your opponent will order them accordingly. I’m trying to get into the habit of always asking my opponent to order blockers to hide this better. Magic Online makes you order blockers so this doesn’t come up.

After blockers are declared, both players get priority again (starting with the attacking player). This is your last chance to cast instants or activate abilities before damage occurs. If the attacking player passes priority but the defending player does something, then the attacking player gets priority again. If you think that opponent has forgotten to do something before they have passed priority, then you can decline to do anything in order to not give them priority again. This is a lot clearer online as priority is actively passed. In real life I tend to go with an expression like, “anything before damage?” to try to indicate where we are up to in the turn sequence.

Combat Damage (First Strike and Normal Damage)

Finally the creatures do damage! First strike damage is applied first and players receive priority after this, before normal damage is applied, if any creatures have first strike. It can be relevant to cast spells at this point. For example, you can let [ccProd]Spearpoint Oread[/ccProd] do its 2 points of damage before casting [ccProd]Lightning Strike[/ccProd] on the [ccProd]Nessian Asp[/ccProd] it was blocking to finish it off before it can kill your Oread. Yes, you could have cast [ccProd]Lightning Strike[/ccProd] in declare blockers, but by leaving it till the last moment you have restricted your opponent’s information and they may well have made plays which mean they can no longer prevent their Asp’s death in some way. It’s a tiny edge but Magic is won by the tiniest of edges. By timing your spells as accurately as possible you increase the chance that you generate a game-winning edge.

After any first strike damage (and the priorities it generates), normal damage is applied. If first strike or normal damage applies lethal damage to a creature then it dies as a state-based action. You can’t sacrifice a now dead creature to pay some cost or anything else once you have reached combat damage. If I think my opponent wants to do something like this, I make sure I’m very clear that we are going to “damage.” This makes it much easier to avoid arguments later. For example, if they have a [ccProd]Tymaret[/ccProd] in play and an attacker that is simply going to die to its blockers for no value, odds are they should be sacrificing it to get some value from it in the declare blockers step. If we have moved to damage then it is too late.

End of Combat!

This step is largely unknown as far as I can tell. You should have come across it recently thanks to spells like [ccProd]Celestial Flare[/ccProd]: target player sacrifices an attacking or blocking creature. This spell is so much better if you know of the end of combat step. Want to take out one particular creature but your opponent played around Flare by declaring 2 attackers? Well, if you can block and kill the other creature then (although you have to take damage) you can still cast [ccProd]Celestial Flare[/ccProd] in the end of combat step as their creatures are still “attacking.”

Example: a monstrous [ccProd]Nessian Asp[/ccProd] and a [ccProd]Nessian Courser[/ccProd] attack you, and your opponent has no other creatures in play. You block [ccProd]Nessian Courser[/ccProd] with an [ccProd]Agent of Horizons[/ccProd]. Once these have traded in combat damage, you can cast your Flare which forces your opponent to sacrifice the Asp. Admittedly you can do this in either the combat damage or the end of combat steps, but it’s cooler to show of your understanding of the game, right?

Remembering that you get priority while technically still in combat can open up some interesting lines of play.

Clear Communication and Timing is the Key to Success

I hope you have picked up that timing and communication during combat is essential to success. It can turn games. If you cast spells too early or activate abilities too late (or, worse, try to do something when you do not have priority) you can easily give up free information or allow your opponent to make better plays than they previously planned. The key to good timing, though, is excellent communication. While playing online this is all automated for you. In real life, however, you have to (don’t faint now) talk to your opponent in order to make sure you are on the same wavelength. By communicating clearly about what stage you are in, it is less likely that misunderstandings will arise which can lead to messy judge calls. If you communicate clearly, the judge will have a much easier time deciphering what has happened and giving the correct ruling.

Rather than asking to go to combat: ask if you can declare attackers. Once your opponent is done declaring attackers ask if you can declare blocks to ensure you are both on the same page, especially if they have declared bad attacks. You don’t want them to be able to argue that they were still thinking about attackers when you make the good blocks available to you. Equally, if you want to do something before blockers that would make their attacks bad (like flash in a [ccProd]Restoration Angel[/ccProd]) ask if they are done declaring attackers. In order to not tip them off, ask every time: it’s good practice and will hide when you actually have the trick—this practice is no different to asking an opponent how many cards they have in hand as a matter of course, rather than only the times when you’ve topdecked [ccProd]Rakdos’s Return[/ccProd].

Communicating clearly is the key to successful combat (and Magic in general). Unfortunately, many people are lazy, which means judges are needed more frequently for situations that are needlessly ambiguous and will cause rulings to be messy—this can lead to one or both players feeling that the ruling was unfair. If you are clear throughout and check with your opponent, then everything will be clean and unambiguous. Unfortunately, there are a small number of players that deliberately communicate badly so they can get away with stuff like this. It’s very hard to catch and punish these players, but if you force them to be clear they can’t get away with it.

Phew! I knew the combat step was intricate, but when you try to really break it down it grows even bigger! I really hope your found this useful. I use priority in all the different stages of combat regularly, and it really does make a difference. From basic mistakes to exciting plays, the combat step should be your friend so that you can use it against your opponent. Happy New Year everyone, here’s to an exciting 2014!

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