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The Combat Phase

Sheldon Menery

Overview

A majority of Judge questions you'll answer come regarding combat, wheel around which all else in Magic revolves. This week we'll break down the Combat Phase and pinpoint where you're likely to get the most questions and have the most problems.

Beginning of Combat Step (307)

When is comes to disagreements, this is the king of them all, specifically with variations on "I'm declaring an attack." A good portion will come from the ambiguity of the statement. Has the player already moved from Main to Combat, or does he think he's in Combat already and is passing priority during the Beginning of Combat Step? The other source of difficulty here comes from players remembering pre–Classic Edition rules. In days gone by, the Main Phase was the last opportunity for the defending player to play spells and abilities before attackers are declared.

While you'll occasionally get a player trying to trick his opponent here, you can generally assume that the majority of problems you'll encounter are genuine miscommunications or players playing too fast, not giving the opponent the opportunity to respond.

Your best bet is to teach your players a correct announcement and/or response.

Attacker: "I'd like to move out of my Main Phase and into my Combat Phase" or "I'm yielding priority to you at Beginning of Combat."
Defender: "In your Combat Phase, but before you declare attackers, I'd like to . . . " or "Before you move to your Combat Phase, I'll do such and such."

If you come upon a disagreement here ("you did that during my Main Phase" "No!" We're in Combat already!"), without compelling evidence to the contrary it's safe to assume that anything the defending player did was in the Beginning of Combat Step. At higher levels of play, we can expect that players know better. At lower levels, we're also instructors. Seize the opportunity to teach players the correct way early on in their tournament careers.

Before making a decision, check the board position and game state for telltale signs. One of the players may have had mana floating, or perhaps a player was trying to play an ability that can only be played as a sorcery. The details will let you know how to proceed.

Declare Attackers Step (308)

Declaring attackers is normally rather straightforward until we have creatures with attack restrictions. Attackers are declared as a set and then evaluated for legality (308.2), meaning creatures can fulfill each other's conditions.

Let's say that Thomas has two Scarred Pumas (can't attack unless a green or black creature also attacks) and Shifting Sky (all non–land permanent are the chosen color) set to green. He declares both Pumas as attackers, then evaluates. Each Puma sees the other-a green creature-attacking, and is satisfied.

Multiple conditions may render an attack impossible. If in the above example the defender controls Dueling Grounds (only one creature may attack each turn), the Scarred Pumas could not attack.


Even the most seasoned players can be confused by the combat phase.

Costs for attacking are paid after legal attack determination. Tapping is a cost of attacking (unless something says otherwise, like Serra's Blessing: "Attacking doesn't cause creatures you control to tap," or built–in abilities like Serra Angel). If there are multiple costs, they can be paid in any order. Once the attack is legal and costs have been paid, then the creatures becoming attacking creatures.

When a player makes an illegal attack declaration, he must back up and try again. Any costs paid are refunded and actions undone. Nothing triggers off of an illegal declaration. The player must also declare a different set of attackers (a player couldn't just keep declaring the same illegal set of attackers in order to stall, for example).

If the active player declares no attackers, the game passes immediately to the End of Combat Step, skipping the remainder of the Declare Attackers Step and intervening steps (308.4).

After a legal attack is declared, the active player gets priority. If anything triggered on declaring attackers, it goes on the stack here. There are players who still believe that untapping an attacker removes it from combat. This is not the case.

Declare Blockers Step (309)

This step is nearly identical to the Declare Attackers Step. The same rules on restrictions and conditions apply. A creature must be untapped in order to block. Abilities that trigger on declaration of blockers wait until the legal set of blockers is declared, and the go on the stack when the active player gets priority.

The consensus form for moving from Declare Blockers to Combat Damage is players agreeing to "put damage on the stack." Like the Beginning of Combat, sometimes players will play too quickly and begin resolving damage before giving the opponent the opportunity to play spells and abilities. In the case of a disagreement, you'll have to once again look at the board situation to determine the likely path.

If one player believes that the game is in the Declare Blockers Step and the other believes they're already in Combat Damage, there are two likely scenarios. First, one player was just playing too fast. If you determine this to be the case, put the game in Declare Blockers Step. Second, a player may have agreed, albeit implicitly, to go the Combat Damage Step, and then realized he wanted to do something beforehand. If this is your finding, keep the game in the Combat Damage Step. As always, Caution/Warn the players to communicate clearly with each other.

Combat Damage Step (310)

A major overhaul from pre–Classic editions of the game, the Combat Damage Step is still largely misunderstood by players. It is one of the most strategically complex game elements.

The first thing that happens is the aforementioned damage going on the stack as a single, indivisible action. The attacking player assigns damage first, then the defending player. If multiple creatures block an attacker, the attacking player assigns the damage to those creatures as she sees fit. Unblocked creatures assign their damage to the defending player.


Instruct your players to be very clear about their communication during the combat phase.

A creature that was blocked stays blocked. If a creature blocked and then was removed from combat, the attacker's damage will not be assigned to the defending player (unless the attacking creature has trample; see below). A blocker that is no longer in combat will not assign any combat damage.

Trample (502.9) is a static ability that changes how damage is assigned. It is another rule that has undergone a major overhaul from previous editions. A player with an attacking trampler assigns damage to all the creatures blocking it. If all the creatures would receive lethal damage-that is, if the damage assigned is equal to the blocking creatures' toughnesses minus damage previously received this turn-and there is still leftover damage to be assigned, the attacking player may assign it to the defending player or he may choose to assign it to the blocking creature(s). If there were blockers, but they're removed before the Combat Damage Step, all the damage will be assigned to the defending player.

Example: Blair attacks with Devouring Strossus (black, 9/9; flying, trample). Corey blocks with his Air Elemental (4/4; flying) and Gaea's Skyfolk (2/2; flying). If Blair wants to damage Corey, he must assign 4 to the Air Elemental, 2 to the Skyfolk, and up to 3 to Corey. He has the option of assigning it all to the creatures.

Trample doesn't care about what is going to happen to the damage after its assigned. All that need be assigned is what would be lethal, discounting any damage prevention. In the above example, substitute Nightwind Glider (2/1; flying, Protection from Black) for the Skyfolk. Blair would assign 4 to the Air Elemental, 1 to the Glider, and 4 to Corey. If the Air Elemental already had two damage, Blair could assign 2 to it, 1 to the Glider, and 6 to Corey.

After assigning damage, the active player gets priority. This is the perfect time to play damage prevention abilities. It is important to note, both for new players who may not understand the complexities of the game yet and for players who played under previous rules editions, that the damage will be dealt as originally assigned. This has two implications.

First, if the creature leaves play, its damage will still be dealt. Damage will not be dealt to it. Damage will still be dealt to a creature that has left combat for some reason but is still in play.

Example: Johnnie attacks Twana with his Gaea's Skyfolk (2/2; flying). Twana blocks with her Cavern Harpy (2/1; flying. Pay 1 life: return Cavern Harpy to its owner's hand). Damage goes on the stack. Johnnie assigns 2 from the Skyfolk to the Cavern Harpy. Twana assigns 2 from the Harpy to the Skyfolk. Johnnie then gets priority and passes. Twana pays 1 life and returns the Harpy to her hand. She then passes. Damage resolves. The Skyfolk take 2 damage (which kills them), but deal nothing because the Harpy is no longer in play.

Second, changing the power of a creature after damage has been assigned will not make it do more damage.

Example: Kona attacks Logan with his Morphling (3/3; for 1, give Morphling either +1/–1 or -1/+1). Logan blocks with his Air Elemental (4/4; flying). After damage is assigned (3 to Air Elemental, 4 to Morphling), Kona plays the ability that gives Morphling +1/–1, making it 4/2. When damage resolves, Morphling deals the 3 damage that it originally assigned.

Changing the toughness, however, may help a creature survive. In the same example, after damage goes on the stack, Kona uses the Morphling's ability twice to make it a 1/5 creature. When damage resolves, Morphling survives because it's a 1/5 creature with only 4 damage on it.


Rith with Armadillo Cloak is one of the scariest things that will ever be declared as an attacker.

A common problem here is a player taking an action which implies damage resolution-like putting a creature in the graveyard-and then wanting to take an action to save the creature. Unless you see an exceptionally good reason to back up, don't, even at lower levels of play. Resist sending the signal that players get "takebacks."

It's important to note that both players have the responsibility to ensure that everything in combat is played correctly. If a player puts a 4–toughness creature with 3 damage on it into the graveyard, her opponent is responsible for correcting the mistake. If a player knowingly allows an opponent to make such an error, he's guilty of intentional misrepresentation.

Two final notes on combat damage:

Combat damage is only done by creatures as a result of attacking and blocking during the Combat Damage Step, and not the result of spells and abilities. Using the Prodigal Sorcerer's poke during the Declare Blockers Step is not combat damage.

Combat damage doesn't lose its property as combat damage if it's redirected. It did in pre–Classic rules editions.

End of Combat Step

Relatively straightforward, the End of Combat Step begins with any "end of combat" triggers (like Saprazzan Outrigger: When ~this~ attacks or blocks, put it on top of its owner's library at end of combat) going on the stack. The active player then gets priority.

Conclusion

The Combat Phase is the heart of the game of Magic. Entire strategy volumes could be written on it. You'll spend a good deal of your Judging time dealing with it. Understanding how each step works enables you to solve any problems easily and efficiently.



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