First of all, thanks to everyone for the positive feedback on previous columns. Thanks also for all the kind personal comments, save those from Mr. WH of Fort Lee, New Jersey. I’m flattered and all, sir, but I draw the line when we get to the barnyard. Since the discussion on State-Based Effects generated so many responses, I’ll jump right into another deep rules discussion.
Combat is the central part of the game, yet most players don’t have a complete understanding of how it works. Since you’re fortunate enough to be reading this column, you won’t be one of them for long.
The Combat Phase is divided into 5 steps: Beginning of Combat, Declare Attackers, Declare Blockers, Combat Damage, and End of Combat. There are multiple chances for playing Instants and Abilities along the way. This will get involved, so pay attention. If you’re the product of public schools, it may help to take notes.
Before we start breaking them down, I have a major clarification: Under previous edition rules, the active player stating "I’d like to go to combat" or something similar meant the last chance for the non-active player to play instants before attackers were declared. This is no longer the case. "I’d like to go to combat" means, "I’d like to end my First Main Phase and go to the Combat Phase". As we’ll see in the following paragraph, there is still opportunity for both players to do stuff before declaration of attackers.
Beginning of Combat.
First, anything that triggers on beginning of combat goes on the stack. Then the active player gets priority. When both players pass on an empty stack, we move to the next step. This is the last chance for tapping the attacker’s creatures so they can’t attack and the like. Note that in the olden days, this was done in the Main Phase. While it can certainly still be done then, it can now also be done here.
This is the trickiest step: All attackers are declared simultaneously. Anything that triggers on attackers being declared waits until a player receives priority to go on the stack. If no attackers are declared, skip right to "End of Combat". This is called a "null attack". After all attackers are declared, the players evaluate whether or not the attack is legal. If so, then he pays all costs, which includes tapping the creatures (and things like the mana payment for Propaganda). If the attack isn’t legal or the attacking player can’t pay all costs, back up to the declaration of attackers. A new and different set of attackers must be declared. A creature is considered an attacking creature once the attack is legal and all costs have been paid. After a legal attack has been declared and all costs have been paid, the active player gets priority. Once both players pass on an empty stack, we move on.
Nearly identical to Declare Attackers. The defending player decides which, if any, creatures are blocking and which creatures they block. A creature can only block one attacker, but multiple creatures can block the same attacker. If the block is legal, then all costs are paid. If not, back up and try again. Once a legal block is declared, the participants are considers blocking creatures. An attacker with one or more creatures blocking it becomes a blocked creature. Attackers that have no blockers are considered unblocked at this point. The creature’s status as blocked or unblocked stays the same until either it’s removed from combat, or the Combat Phase ends. Once we have a legal block, the active player once again gets priority.
Now we’re getting to the nuts and bolts. The first thing that happens is that combat damage is put on the stack. The active player first chooses how each attacking creature will assign combat damage, then the non-active player does the same. Dividing combat damage is subject to a few restrictions:
a) Each attacking creature and each blocking creature will assign combat damage equal to its power.
b) An unblocked creature will assign all of its combat damage to the defending player.
c) A blocked creature will assign combat damage, divided as its controller chooses, to the creatures blocking it. If no creatures are currently blocking it (if, for example, they were destroyed or removed from combat), it will assign no combat damage.
d) A blocking creature will assign combat damage, divided as its controller chooses, to the attacking creatures it’s blocking. If it isn’t currently blocking any creatures (if, for example, they were destroyed or removed from combat), it will assign no combat damage.
Combat damage all goes on the stack as a single entity. Then, the active player gets priority – this is where it gets interesting. When combat damage resolves, it’s dealt as originally assigned. This happens even if the creature dealing combat damage is no longer in play or has had its power and/or toughness changed. If a creature that was supposed to receive damage is no longer in play, the damage isn’t dealt (meaning things triggering on damage wouldn’t trigger).
Let’s look at examples of cool Combat Damage tricks. First, an easy one: Gin attacks with Grizzly Bears, a 2/2 creature. David blocks with Gray Ogre, a 2/2 creature. Combat damage goes on the stack. Two damage is assigned to the Ogre and two damage is assigned to the Bears. Gini gets priority, and being the sneaky player she is, plays Unsummon on her Bears. David passes. The Unsummon resolves, putting the Bears back in Gini’s hand. The Combat damage then resolves. The Ogre takes 2, but the Bears are no longer in play to receive damage. The Ogre is put in the graveyard and the Bears are safely in Gini’s hand.
Now, we’ll get a little more complicated. Gini attacks with a Mogg Fanatic (1/1; sacrifice to do 1 damage to a target creature or player) and a Revenant (Flying, power and toughness equal to the number of creatures in its controller’s graveyard). The Revenant is currently 4/4 (because there are four creatures in her graveyard). David (who is at ten life) blocks the Revenant with an Air Elemental (4/4). Combat damage goes on the stack. Gini assigns 4 damage to the Air Elemental from the Revenant and 1 to David from the unblocked Mogg Fanatic. David assigns 4 damage from the Air Elemental to the Revenant. Gini then gets priority. She sacrifices the Mogg Fanatic to do 1 damage to David. Both players pass, so Combat Damage resolves. The Revenant is now 5/5 (because the Mogg Fanatic is now in Gini’s graveyard with the 4 other creatures), but since only 4 damage was assigned to the Air Elemental, only 4 damage is dealt. The Air Elemental deals 4 damage to the Revenant, who will now survive because its toughness is 5. David takes 1 from the unblocked Mogg Fanatic, taking his life total to eight (remember the one point from the sacrificed Fanatic). The Air Elemental is put in the graveyard and the mighty Revenant survives.
You play Regeneration shields and damage prevention effects after combat damage goes on the stack is the time. Let’s go back to the first example. Gini assigns 2 damage from the Bears to the Ogre; David assigns 2 damage from the Ogre to the Bears. Gini gets priority and plays Unsummon on the Bears. David responds by playing Orim’s Cure (Prevent the next 4 damage that would be dealt to target creature or player this turn) on the Ogre. Orim’s Cure resolves, putting the damage prevention shield up. Unsummon resolves, putting the Bears back in Gini’s hand. When Combat damage resolves, the two damage to the Ogre is prevented by the Orim’s Cure (meaning that the Ogre still has a 2-point shield left) and once again the Bears are safely back in Gini’s hand, no doubt snacking on some tasty salmon.
If anything triggers on damage being dealt, it triggers after the damage is dealt. Since there’s something on the stack, the active player then gets priority. The stack is resolved before moving on to the next step. The damage dealt in this step is the only damage considered Combat Damage (for the purposes of things that trigger on Combat Damage being dealt, etc.) Damage done in the Combat Phase by an activated ability of a creature IS NOT considered combat damage.
End of Combat
Anything that triggers "at end of combat" goes on the stack here. If both players have triggers, they go on the stack in APNAP (active player/non-active player) order. Then, as always, the active player gets priority. After both players pass on an empty stack, the Combat Phase is over and we move into the Second Main Phase. Remember to check for mana burn here since it’s the end of a phase.
There are two things I want to point out about Combat:
A creature that stops being a creature, a creature that is destroyed (even if it’s regenerated) or a creature that changes controllers is removed from combat.
Tapped creatures will still do their damage (this is a departure from previous editions of the rules). That means it’s possible for a Prodigal Sorcerer (1/1; tap to do 1 damage to target creature or player) can block and kill a 2-toughness creature. If you’ve been paying attention, you can figure out how (and since I have the smartest readers in the world, I won’t be getting any "Huh?" emails about this one).
You spend a good deal of time in your Magic game in the Combat Phase. Knowing what you’re doing gives you a decided advantage over the huddled masses.
And that’s my Final Judgement.