Math Is For Blockers: Combat In Magic

Are you a Quiet Speculation member?

If not, now is a perfect time to join up! Our powerful tools, breaking-news analysis, and exclusive Discord channel will make sure you stay up to date and ahead of the curve.

Let's Get Ready to Rumble

This week we're going to take a close look at the combat phase and some weird or tricky things that can happen in it. Personally, I'm not a big fan of combat. I'm a firm believer that the best win condition is a hideous Rube Goldberg contraption consisting of multiple cards and, ideally, some obscure rules interaction.

But on rare occasions, yeah, I want to turn some creatures sideways. And anybody in the business of turning creatures sideways should understand just how that whole thing works. Let's go!

What's "Combat"?

Combat specifically refers to things that happen in the combat phase of a turn. The combat phase consists of five steps normally: beginning of combat, declare attackers, declare blockers, combat damage, and end of combat. As the term suggests, "combat damage" only refers to damage dealt by attacking or blocking creatures in the combat damage step. Other things that have a creature deal damage, like Rabid Bite or Clash of Titans, are never combat damage.

Beginning of Combat Step

507.1. First, if the game being played is a multiplayer game in which the active player’s opponents don’t all automatically become defending players, the active player chooses one of their opponents. That player becomes the defending player. This turn-based action doesn’t use the stack. (See rule 506.2.)

Magic Comprehensive Rules

Obviously, in a 2-player game of Magic, the only other player is automatically the defending player. However, most people who play multiplayer formats like Commander technically use an optional rule without even knowing it. While this rule says I need to choose one opponent to attack, that basically doesn't happen in the vast majority of Commander pods. Instead, they use the Attack Multiple Players Option, covered in section 802. Basically, every opponent becomes a defending player. Anything that cares about the "defending player" is applied on a case-by-case basis.

Let's say I'm playing a game with Billy, Chris, and Danielle. I attack Billy with Avalanche Tusker and Chris with Armix, Filigree Thrasher. I can only force one of Billy's creatures to block, and I can only give one of Chris's creatures -X/-X.

Declare Attackers Step

The active player decides which of their creatures, if any, will attack. To be a legal attack, the declared set of creatures has to meet as many requirements as possible without violating any restrictions.

A restriction says a creature can't do something - Bonded Construct can't attack alone. Conversely, a requirement says that a creature must do something if able. An effect that refers to "all creatures" like Thantis, the Warweaver's gives a requirement to each individual creature.

Once a creature has been successfully declared as an attacker, it is an "attacking creature" until it's removed from combat, an effect says otherwise, or the combat phase ends. If no attackers are declared and nothing is put onto the battlefield attacking, the game skips the declare blockers and combat damage steps.

Go For the Goad

Goad creates two requirements, which can trip people up. Goad makes the creature attack if able and attack someone other than the person that goaded it if able. This can lead to some not-great situations for the goading player, usually because of something like Ghostly Prison.

It's Combat. What Could It Cost? Ten Dollars?

Effects like Ghostly Prison's that impose a cost to attack a player work opposite any requirements. The attacking player is never forced to pay the mana, even if doing so would increase the number of requirements met. For instance, if I control Ruhan of the Fomori and randomly choose an opponent who controls Ghostly Prison, I'm not forced to pay {2} to attack them. I can pay it if I want to, but I can also attack another player or planeswalker. I can even not attack at all (but if I'm playing Ruhan, what kind of choice is that?).

So what does that mean for a goaded creature? Let's say I goad Billy's creature, but Chris and Danielle each control a Ghostly Prison. Well, the goaded creature still has to attack if able! If Billy doesn't want to pay the {2} to attack either of them, then attacking me with the goaded creature meets the most requirements.

Declare Blockers Step

This step works almost the same as declaring attackers. The defending player(s) choose which creatures block and how. They again have to meet as many requirements as possible without violating any restrictions. Once blockers have been declared, a creature either becomes "blocked" if something is assigned to block it or "unblocked" if not. This is especially relevant for ninjutsu. I can't ninjutsu in my Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow before this step. A creature remains "blocked" or "unblocked" until it's removed from combat, an effect says otherwise, or the combat phase ends.

Immediately after blockers are assigned, the active player decides the damage assignment order for each of their blocked attacking creatures. Then the defending player does the same for their blocking creatures. It's hugely important to note that damage does not happen yet. So why does damage assignment order matter?

Let's say I attack my opponent with a 3/3 and they block it with Grizzly Bears and Willow Elf. I declare my damage assignment order as Grizzly Bears first, then Willow Elf. Once my opponent gets priority in this step, they can cast Giant Growth on their Grizzly Bears and save both of their creatures from death.

Combat Damage Step

510.1. First, the active player announces how each attacking creature assigns its combat damage, then the defending player announces how each blocking creature assigns its combat damage. This turn-based action doesn’t use the stack. A player assigns a creature’s combat damage according to the following rules:

Magic Comprehensive Rules

Yeah. Damage. That's the good stuff.

The attacking player assigns damage to blockers based on the damage assignment order. They have to assign at least lethal damage to each creature in order before moving on to the next. "Lethal damage" considers damage that's already marked on the creature or damage that's being assigned simultaneously. However, it does not consider any damage amplification effects like Furnace of Rath.

As an example, let's say I control Furnace of Rath and attack with Arrogant Wurm. My opponent blocks it with Durkwood Boars. I have to assign 4 damage to Boars, even though that damage will be doubled when the game processes it. I can't assign 2 to Boars with 2 trampling over to my opponent.

The defending player assigns damage to blocked creatures following the same rules.

Notice that I have to assign at least lethal damage. I can over-assign damage if I want to. This can matter in Modern if the opponent blocks with Death's Shadow.

Immediately after damage assignment, the game processes damage. Nobody gets priority in between "I'll deal 3 to your guy" and the damage actually being dealt.

The First Strike Is the Deepest

If any attacking or blocking creatures have first strike or double strike when the combat damage step begins, only those creatures assign damage. After they do their thing, the game creates another combat damage step. Note that players get priority in both combat damage steps.

End of Combat Step

The end of combat step has no turn-based actions. It exists mostly to clean up any lingering stuff that expires "at end of combat," such as Geist of Saint Traft's token. However, we can still be tricky here.

The game still considers a creature "attacking" or "unblocked" until this step ends. As such, I can activate Deep Reconnaissance targeting each of my attacking creatures to untap them as a weird pseudo-vigilance. Despite what the reminder text says, the game definitely can't go back in time and undo the damage they've already dealt.

I could also ninjutsu something into play in this step.


...No, combat doesn't have a cleanup step. But this article does! For any other burning questions about how to get over with some combat tricks, find me on Twitter or our Insider Discord.

Question of the week: What's the most damage you've dealt in a single combat step?

Join the conversation

Want Prices?

Browse thousands of prices with the first and most comprehensive MTG Finance tool around.

Trader Tools lists both buylist and retail prices for every MTG card, going back a decade.

Quiet Speculation