C is for Combat

After a brief hiatus, BDM is back with the third of his alphabetized article series. More Limited plays dissected and discussed… this time, they revolve around the cornerstone of our forty-card format: attacking with monsters. An article full of invaluable advice, that will increase your win percentage in both Magic and poker combined!

“So C is for quitting?”
Sean McKeown

I am sure that if you look at my history as a StarCityGames writer, the past is littered with two installment chunks of article series about Team Sealed, Dilemmas, and Metagame Weather Reports, very much like the various Encyclopedia series we had in my childhood home that all only went to A.

No, Sean; C is for Combat.

In Limited formats combat is analogous to counter wars in Constructed. Grips full of Counterspells are replaced by handfuls of burn, removal, growth effects, and protection from color spells. More often than not, those spells are deployed during combat. Big creature gets taken down by little creature, with a boost from Gather Courage. A well timed Bathe in Light removes a Pillory, and an unexpected blocker steps up the red zone. In more complex scenarios you have sequences of removal, protection, and effects that people either hurry through without attaining a maximum advantage, or call attention to by making unfamiliar motions.

I am reminded of the old chestnut about playing a control mirror match – the player who cast the first spell loses. Both players sit there playing lands, sculpting their hands, and staring at each other while tumbleweeds blow across the red zone and Ennio Morricone music whistles in their ears. Finally, someone taps some mana and tries to put Mahamoti Djinn into play (depending on when you started playing Magic you can replace the Moti with Morphling or Meloku), and all the guns are unholstered. Generally, the guy that reaches for the gun first — in this case the Moti/Morphling/Meloku — ends up with a sucking chest wound, twitching in the dust.

There are certainly occasions when the counterspell factors into Limited, but more often than not the analogous element of the game is the combat trick. Too often, players hurry through their attack steps with all their guns blazing and end up gone up the flume. We have all seen Westerns where the excited young gunman thinks that being the fastest on the draw is going to win a lot of gunfights, only to lose to the more experienced but perhaps less physically gifted veteran of many a shootout.

I think for the sake of you and me both I am going to let this metaphor die here in the street, along with the impetuous young gun. My point is that players often give their opponents an opportunity to destroy them, by either make the first move or tipping their hand by some unusual motions. I will illustrate with a recent match I watched at Neutral Ground, between two regulars. We will move on this week to Player B and Opponent X.

Player B had a mana heavy hand, with a Civic Wayfinder and a sated Bloodscale Prowler on his field of play. Opponent X was grappling with mana issues of his own. Despite finding a third land in a third color, he could still not summon any of the creatures he had drawn – save for his turn 2 Ghost Warden that was in play and active.

Player B sighed as he drew yet another land, and sent both of his creatures into battle. He raised his finger to notify his opponent that he might have effects before blockers, but Opponent X could not get his Ghost Warden in front of the Civic Wayfinder fast enough. Player B backed him up and tapped four mana to Dogpile the Ghost Warden. Opponent X slumped and tossed away his lone creature. Still dejected, he looked at the six points of damage coming his way and decided to Lightning Helix the 4/2 Prowler.

Where to begin?

I asked Player B about the decision to utilize the Dogpile there before blockers to fully understand how the whole play panned out.

“My hand was basically nothing plus the Dogpile,” he recalled. “I figured his hand was also bad and that he might try to buy some time by trading the Ghost Warden for my Prowler. I decided that I wanted to get in six points of damage.”

How did Opponent X’s eagerness to shove his Ghost Warden into the red zone affect his decision? Could he have taken better advantage of that information?

“In hindsight,” he continued, “I realize it might have been better to let him block.”

Had Player B allowed the block he could have used the Dogpile in response to the activation of the ersatz Angelic Page. Player B was concerned that a third land meant Opponent X had Wildsize in hand. Still, he could have easily just allowed the block, and even put damage on the stack. If Opponent X attempted to save his creature with a Wildsize, he would have still been able to use the Dogpile to a very profitable effect, at the small cost of his Civic Wayfinder and the Dogpile.

It’s hard to put a player with three different colors of mana available and a grip full of cards on any particular spell. As it was, he could have just waited for the Ghost Warden to pump itself and, barring a pump effect still polished it off. Even with a properly timed Lightning Helix he could still kill the Warden and save his creature. If he was truly worried about the pump effect the correct play may have been to allow him to use the ability and stack damage, and then kill the Ghost Warden in response to a trick.

What could have helped him to decide how to play the turn better would be to allow the creature to block, and then walk through combat step by step. He could lock his opponent into a course of action that would allow him to trade an already cashed-in Wayfinder, or a so-so three-drop Red creature, for a board-dominating Ghost Warden. Should Opponent X try anything fancy, like the Wildsize, the exchange would turn out even more favorably for him.

I asked him about how often he slows the game down to wait through the combat step before firing off his trick, and his answer was extremely interesting to me.

“I am more likely to do it when I have a trick — which is probably giving away too much information. I shouldn’t be doing that,” he realized as we were talking.

As he talked, it reminded me of a recent trip to Finkel’s for a draft. I got there a little early, and while we waited for the crucial sixth to arrive a couple of the guys were playing poker. Mind you, these guys are all professional poker players of no small success. One of them had to do some work and could not step in and play his hand, and he asked me to play the hand for him.

Now, I don’t play poker. I know how to play the game, but only so far as hand rankings and some rudimentary betting strategy. I didn’t need much information to know to fold a couple of crappy cards. As they shuffled up for the next hand, they were reluctant to let me play with someone else’s matchsticks. (You didn’t think we were playing for money did you?)

I figured what the heck, and bought out Jeff’s box of matchsticks. I proceeded to play a couple of hands to see what I could pick up. I knew I would need to consult my hole cards often, due to my inexperience, and made a conscious decision to do that on each and every decision rather than in specific situations. I proceeded to do that and, interestingly enough, it actually factored into a hand a few times around the table later.

I had a pretty good hand — I don’t remember what it was now — and I caught something on the flop. I checked my hole cards before tossing some chips into the pot, and the player to my left felt he had noticed something.

“Checking your hole cards… must not have been very memorable.”

He proceeded to call my “bluff” and I won his box of matchsticks. Another player who had folded pointed out after the hand, “He checked his hole cards every time.”

So how does this tie into the adventures of Player B and Opponent X? Well, the idea is the same. By taking the time to announce each of your steps — even if it is as simple an exchange as:


By giving your opponent the same rundown each time, you don’t betray anything that might be in your hand or in your head. If you never take the time to stack damage in combat, and then suddenly do so, you may be tipping your hand to your opponent that you have a pump spell or some kind of damage prevention.

This is true in almost nay situation. On Magic Online, these concerns are addressed for you by setting your stops in the appropriate fashion. Think of it as setting your stops in real life. To briefly revisit Deadwood; don’t just go running out into the red zone with your guns blazing. Take your time, take aim, and shoot your opponents dead.

As for Opponent X’s failure to save his Ghost Warden by using the Lightning Helix and activating its ability… that was just a plain old fashioned brain-fart. Maybe we’ll come back to it when I get to F.

Stop laughing, Sean. It could happen.

Until next time,
Brain David-Marshall