Have you ever been blown out by a Giant Growth? Not blocked and suddenly you’re dead to Become Immense? Not to mention the dreaded Skullduggery that swung many limited Ixalan matches. One of the first heuristics you learn in Magic is that combat favors the blocker. As the player blocking you are given the choice of where you want to block and with what creatures and you are also given the ability to conceal your tricks but we will talk more about this later. Having a real level up moment is realizing that things are a little more complicated and blocking incorrectly can lead to you losing a game that you may have otherwise won. Today I will try to break down the anatomy of a block.
In order to better understand this concept, I want to lay out the fundamental structure of a combat phase and how priority is passed. A couple terms to know before embarking on this level up are priority, active player, and non-active player. Priority refers to having the ability to take game actions such as casting spells, tapping lands for mana, etc. Active player is the player whose turn it is currently in the game and non-active player are all other players in the game that it is not their turn. Here are two relevant passages from the comprehensive rules.
116.3a The active player receives priority at the beginning of most steps and phases, after any turn-based actions (such as drawing a card during the draw step; see rule 703) have been dealt with and abilities that trigger at the beginning of that phase or step have been put on the stack. No player receives priority during the untap step. Players usually don’t get priority during the cleanup step (see rule 514.3).
116.4 If all players pass in succession (that is, if all players pass without taking any actions in between passing), the spell or ability on top of the stack resolves or, if the stack is empty, the phase or step ends.
The take away here is to understand that before anything resolves or before you move to the next step or phase both player must pass without taking any actions in between passing.
Combat is one of the more complicated parts of Magic but equipped with a better understanding of the phase I expect you to improve in battle. So first off are the steps of combat:
- Beginning of Combat
- Declare Attackers
- Declare Blockers
- Combat Damage
- End of Combat
Beginning of combat is where players are given one last opportunity to take a game action at instant speed such as crewing a vehicle before declaring attackers or removing a creature before it gets an attack trigger. It allows you to conceal information for as long as possible. Once priority is passed through beginning of combat the active player declares attackers and is given priority to make instant speed game actions then passes to the nonactive player. In the next step the non-active player declares blocks and and then priority is given to the active player. If the active player passes then the non-active player is given priority then you move to damage step where damage is dealt an then priority is given to the active player. The implications of this are that if you are the player blocking then you can just declare your block and wait to see if your opponent wishes to take an action. Imagine you and your opponent each have a 2/2 on the battlefield. You each have a combat trick in hand your opponent with “give target creature +2/+2 and you have “give target creature +3/+3”. Now your opponent moves to combat and attacks with their 2/2 into your 2/2. You can now declare block and cast the +3/+3 to win the combat but your opponent will then not use their +2/+2 because they know it won’t do anything. You can instead declare block before doing anything forcing your opponent to cast their trick first then you can respond with your trick getting a 2 for 1 with your trick and still have your 2/2 on the field. Things to keep in mind here are that sometimes your opponents may be bluffing and/or are fine with the trade and if you both pass then you may just trade so you have to be content with that going into the block. Understanding these concepts is one thing but applying them and using them as a framework and not a rulebook is how one truly becomes good at Magic.
Still Blown Out from the Block
Now that we understand combat a little better let’s talk about some situational tactics and how to sniff out traps. Imagine your opponent has a 5/5 on the field and you have a 2/4 and a 3/5. Your opponent is playing a Red/Green deck and moves through their precombat main phase and attacks with his 5/5 and 6 open mana into your untapped creatures. Level 1 here is to double block with your 2/4 and your 3/5 which means your opponent could theoretically only kill one of your creatures since they can only distribute 5 damage in total. The problem here is that you are leaving yourself wide open to a blowout. Imagine the same situation and you double block but your opponent casts a kicked Gift of Growth giving their creature +4/+4 killing both of your creatures and surviving the combat. This is a very important concept to understand but is so abstract that you have to know how to analyze a situation and use all the information available to you to make a good decision. Sometimes that means letting through that 5 points of damage since you have a removal spell for the 5/5 and hope to strand that combat trick in their hand. Other times your opponent could just be bluffing the trick and hope to sneak in some extra points of damage but even if they do does it mean they still win a longer game, most likely not, but if you see in game 1 they have a bunch of burn damage then maybe you pay a little more attention to your life total. Things you are looking for when considering a block are untapped mana, how many cards your opponent has in their hand, how many removal spells and combat tricks they have used so far and does it feel like they are due to have one. These are all things to be thinking about when deciding whether or not to block and can be warning signs that your opponent is attempting to blow you out. For instance, I was playing a game of Battlebond 2HG sealed over the weekend and there was a situation where we were in the late mid-game and our opponents had just played Boldwyr Intimidator. We had controlled most of the game and had gotten or opponents down to a fairly low life total but Boldwyr would completely take over the game since they already had several warriors on the field and just needed to turn our creatures into cowards to start wailing on us. I made a decision realizing we wouldn’t win the long game and had to make a big impact now or lose the game. I decided to immediately attack into their board with a couple of our decent sized creatures since we had a Giant Growth and a Thunder Strike and figured if we could get our opponents to block then we could get a couple of their creatures off the field and be able to continue to apply pressure to them so they couldn’t attack without fear of us cracking back to kill them. They still had a decent life total and a fairly big board and decided to double block with one of the creatures being Boldwyr thinking we couldn’t deal enough damage to kill both which was perfect because we could. After removing Boldwyr and another couple creatures we were able to continue to apply pressure and win the game. Had they not blocked at all then they may have taken a little damage but still would be alive and could try to apply some pressure back with Boldwyr and draw into something relevant and stabilize their board. Instead that block is what cost them the whole game and was exactly what I was hoping for.
You generally won’t have perfect information but it is up to you to make an informed decision taking into account all known variables and resources. Sometimes if you know they have the trick then you will lose the game and just need to take damage until you can find a way to stabilize the board otherwise you were going to lose the game anyways. If you allow all your creatures to die to careless blocks then coming back into the game becomes more difficult even if you do topdeck a bomb. Your life total is one of your most important resources so use it and don’t be afraid to take a couple hits if that means you will still win a longer game because 1 life is not 0. The most important thing is to really think about all the possibilities of your block because while sometimes you may be afraid to block for fear of being blown out other times if you don’t block your opponent might just pump up their creature and kill you out of nowhere. You won’t always be right with your decisions but it is important to think about your decision and have an educated reason to make it.