Cranial Insertion: Paradoxes of Defense



Cranial Insertion
Paradoxes of Defense
or, All About The Combat Phase

by Eli Shiffrin, Thijs van Ommen, and Tom Fowler

Welcome to another edition of CI, kids. From time to time, we’ve done several one-topic articles here, where we spend the entire piece telling you all there is to know about one Magical subject. We haven’t done one of those in a while, so it’s time for another one. This one will be all about what might be the most important phase in the game: the combat phase. After you read this article, you’ll know more about attacking for 2 than . . . well, than someone who didn’t read it.

As always, send your rules questions to us at [email][email protected][/email]. We’ll give you an answer, and we might use your question in a future column. The only easier way to get your name in lights is to headbutt someone in the chest before an audience of over a billion!

BTW, a bright, shiny no-prize will be awarded to anyone who knows what “Paradoxes of Defense” refers to without doing a Google search for it. Show off your random knowledge and claim your no-prize!

Let’s get down to the fisticuffs.

Quote from CompRules »
306.1. The combat phase has five steps, which proceed in order: beginning of combat, declare attackers, declare blockers, combat damage, and end of combat. The declare blockers and combat damage steps are skipped if no creatures are declared as attackers (see rule 308.4). There are two combat damage steps if any attacking or blocking creature has first strike (see rule 502.2) or double strike (see rule 502.28).


Q: I hear players at tournaments saying things like, “declare my attack phase.” Do I need to do that?

A: Yes and no. You don’t need to say that exactly, but you do need to make it clear to your opponent that you want to move the game to the combat phase. The easiest way to do this is simply to tell him so. I suppose you could also pull out a dueling pistol and say, “my good man, I propose that we settle this thru the gentlemanly art of combat,” but that might get you in trouble.


307.1. As the beginning of combat step begins, any abilities that trigger at the beginning of combat go on the stack. (See rule 410, “Handling Triggered Abilities.”) Then the active player gets priority and players may play spells and abilities.


Q: So what do I actually do during the beginning of combat step?

A: Usually, very little happens during this step. This is especially true of the attacking player. However, the defending player can have some saucy options. If you have an Icy Manipulator, Minister of Impediments, or some other tapping ability, this is your last chance to use it. Once the game goes to the declare attackers step, you’d only be able to tap creatures after they’ve started attacking. By then, that’s too late to accomplish anything (as 306.2b tells us, “Tapping or untapping a creature that’s already been declared as an attacker or blocker doesn’t remove it from combat and doesn’t prevent its combat damage.”).

Bonus: Strategically, the beginning of combat step is the best time to tap down an attacker. That way, the attacking player can’t do things like move equipment around, which he could do if the game were still in the first main phase. When you use an Icy-style effect, be sure to say it’s being used during the beginning of combat step. That removes any ambiguity over its use.


308.1. As the declare attackers step begins, the active player declares attackers (this game action doesn’t use the stack). If the game allows the active player to attack multiple other players, he or she declares which player each creature is attacking. Effects from a creature that refer to a defending player refer only to the defending player it is attacking. Then any abilities that triggered on attackers being declared go on the stack. (See rule 410, “Handling Triggered Abilities.”) Then the active player gets priority and players may play spells and abilities.


Q: Does this mean I can attack multiple different opponents in a multiplayer game?

A: In some official multiplayer formats, this is a legal option. Other formats limit your attack options. If you’re just playing in a casual group, your group should determine how they want to handle attacking multiple opponents. Some groups like the grand melee feel of it, while others don’t.


Q: Is this when Agrus Kos, Wojek Veteran’s ability triggers?

A: Yes. If you’ve declared Agrus Kos as an attacker, then his ability will trigger in the declare attackers step, once all attackers have been declared. When that ability resolves, the appropriate creatures will get their bonus(es).



When does 1 not equal 1?
Q: My opponent has an Ensnaring Bridge and two cards in his hand. I want to attack with Goblin Piledriver and a few other one-power Goblins. Is this legal?

A: Yes, it is. Goblin Piledriver has a triggered ability that triggers once attackers have been declared. When the game checks the legality of your attacks, the Piledriver still has a 1 power. At that point, Ensnaring Bridge is satisfied. After that, the Piledriver’s ability goes onto the stack. When that ability resolves, it will count the number of other attacking Goblins and boost the Piledriver’s power by the appropriate amount.


Q: So that means Goblin Piledriver can’t attack if my opponent has Reverence in play?

A: Not normally, no. Its power will be 1 when you declare attackers, and that will be an illegal attack because of Reverence’s static ability. If you had a way to boost the Piledriver’s power to at least 3, then you could legally declare it as an attacker. You’d also need some pretty brawny Goblins to go along with him if you wanted to get a decent boost.


Q: Speaking of brawny Goblins, if I control two Mogg Flunkies, can they both attack?

A: Yes. Mogg Flunkies has a restriction, that it “can’t attack or block alone.” Remember, though, that a card referencing itself really means, “this particular object.” So, if you have two Mogg Flunkies, each cannot attack or block alone. However, if you declare both as attackers, each will “see” the other attacking, and thus, neither is attacking alone.


Q: When does Ghostly Prison’s ability force my opponent to pay 2 mana for each of his attacking creatures?

A: After he has declared his attackers, but still inside the declare attackers step. The progression goes like this: your opponent chooses which creatures he wants to attack with and declares them as his attackers. The attacking creatures then become tapped, unless they have vigilance. Then, the attacking player determines any costs that need to be paid for the creatures to attack. This is when Ghostly Prison will hold out a skeletal hand and demand its tax.


309.1. As the declare blockers step begins, the defending player declares blockers (this game action doesn’t use the stack). Then any abilities that triggered on blockers being declared go on the stack. (See rule 410, “Handling Triggered Abilities.”) Then the active player gets priority and players may play spells and abilities.


Q: So blocking doesn’t tap my creatures?

A: Nope. I’ve seen several new players make that mistake. Blocking does not cause a creature to become tapped.


Q: How does the “spider” ability work?

A: It works well, if a bit confusingly for some players. The spider ability is “can block as though it had flying.” It was first seen on Giant Spider, and has appeared on many spiders over the years, so that’s the reason for its colloquial name. The ability means the creature is treated as having flying for the purposes of declaring blockers. This means a Giant Spider can block any flying creature, presuming no other abilities prevent the Spider from blocking (it can’t block something that has both flying and fear, for example).


Q: Does this mean a Giant Spider can block a creature that can only be blocked by flying creatures, like Silhana Ledgewalker?

A: Yes. When you declare the Spider as a blocker, it’s considered to have flying. That makes it a legal choice to block creatures which can only be blocked by fliers. The game will see the Spider as a flying creature while this is happening, and the block will be legal.

Check this out, from the Comp Rules glossary:

“As though”
Text that states a player may do something “as though” some condition were true or a creature can do something “as though” some condition were true applies only to the stated action. For purposes of that action, treat the game exactly as if the stated condition were true. For all other purposes, treat the game normally.
Example: Giant Spider reads, “Giant Spider can block as though it had flying.” Treat the Spider as a creature with flying, but only for the purpose of declaring blockers. This allows Giant Spider to block a creature with flying (and creatures that “can’t be blocked except by creatures with flying”), assuming no other blocking restrictions apply. For example, Giant Spider can’t normally block a creature with both flying and shadow.



Q: What’s the difference between “becomes blocked” and “becomes blocked by a creature?”

A: An ability that triggers when a creature becomes blocked will trigger just once, after blockers have been declared, regardless of how many creatures blocked. Take any Samurai as an example. If you throw three creatures in the way of your opponent’s Hand of Honor, its bushido ability will still trigger only once. Compare that to Tangle Asp. The Asp’s ability will trigger once for each creature that blocks it. So, if you shove the same three creatures in front of Tangle Asp, its ability will trigger three times, and those three creatures will be destroyed at the end of combat.

Also, some cards which only say “becomes blocked” will later say “for each creature blocking it.” Rabid Elephant is a good example of this. If two creatures blocked it, it will get +2/+2 for each of them when the ability resolves. The difference between this and “becomes blocked by a creature” is that the Elephant’s ability still triggers only once (it counts the number of blocking creatures upon resolution), while Tangle Asp’s ability triggers once for each creature that gets in its way.


Q: Once my opponent has declared no blockers for an attacker of mine, it’s legal for me to use ninjutsu abilities, right?

A: Correct you are. (Hmmm, sounded a bit like Yoda there, I did.) If a creature has had no blockers declared for it, it is considered an unblocked creature. As such, you can use it to sneak a ninja into play.


310.1. As the combat damage step begins, the active player announces how each attacking creature will assign its combat damage. Then the defending player announces how each blocking creature will assign its combat damage. All assignments of combat damage go on the stack as a single object. Then any abilities that triggered on damage being assigned go on the stack. (See rule 410, “Handling Triggered Abilities.”) Then the active player gets priority and players may play spells and abilities.


Q: How does trample factor into all this?

A: Trample modifies the rules for assigning combat damage. If you attack with a trampling creature, you first assign damage to the creature(s) blocking it. Then, if all those blocking creatures have been assigned lethal damage, you may divide any remaining damage between those creatures and the defending player however you choose. Let’s go thru some examples:


Hulk SMASH . . . with an ability that
modifies the rules for assigning
combat damage!
#1: Darksteel Colossus smashing into two Hill Giants. When you assign the Colossus’ combat damage, you assign 3 to each Hill Giant. This is lethal damage for them, since their toughness is 3. You still have 5 points of the Colossus’ 11 power left over. You many now divide those 5 points between the two Hill Giants and the defending player however you want. All 5 to your opponent’s face? Fine. One more to each creature and 3 to the face? Fine. Another 2 to one creature and 3 more on the other, in case you fear pump effects? Also fine.

#2: War Mammoth smashing into a Hill Giant. Nothing exciting happens here, since they’re both 3/3 creatures. The Mammoth will assign all 3 of its damage to the Hill Giant, and there’s nothing left to “trample over” with.

#3: War Mammoth smashing into a Hill Giant that already has 2 damage on it. This plays out differently. When you go to figure out what lethal damage is, you take into account any damage already on the creature. In this case, assigning 1 damage to the Hill Giant is lethal, since it will have taken a total of 3 damage in the turn. Thus, you could assign 1 damage to the Hill Giant and the remaining 2 to your opponent. You could also split it 2 to the Giant and 1 to the opponent, or all 3 to the Giant.

Bonus: If you don’t declare how you assign your trample damage, many judges presume that you choose to “trample over” any excess damage to the defending player. This will not always be to your benefit (like if your opponent busts out a Giant Growth to save his blocker), so be sure you indicate how you’re splitting up the trampler’s combat damage.


310.5. At the start of the combat damage step, if at least one attacking or blocking creature has first strike (see rule 502.2) or double strike (see rule 502.28), creatures without first strike or double strike don’t assign combat damage. Instead of proceeding to end of combat, the phase gets a second combat damage step to handle the remaining creatures. In the second combat damage step, surviving attackers and blockers that didn’t assign combat damage in the first step, plus any creatures with double strike, assign their combat damage.


Q: If a 4/4 creature blocks my Paladin en-Vec, can I Shock the 4/4 and let the Paladin’s first strike damage kill it?

A: Yep. After Shock resolves, the 4/4 will have 2 damage on it. When you assign the Paladin’s first strike damage, that’ll be a total of 4 damage on the 4/4, and it won’t be long for the mortal coil.


Q: I’m attacking with a creature that has double strike. Its first strike damage is enough to kill the blocking creature. Can I now assign the normal damage to my opponent?

A: Only if the double striker also has trample. Once a creature has been blocked, it’s considered blocked for the duration of combat. Creatures without trample can’t divide their damage between their blockers and the defending player. Your double striker will still take a mighty swing when normal damage comes around, but he’ll only end up wounding the breeze.


310.4. Combat damage resolves as an object on the stack. When it resolves, it’s all dealt at once, as originally assigned. After combat damage finishes resolving, the active player gets priority.




Denying Jitte counters since 2004.
Q: I’m confused about Umezawa’s Jitte. My Jitte-wielding creature was blocked by a Sakura-Tribe Elder, my opponent sacrificed the Elder in response to combat damage going onto the stack, and he said my Jitte would not get any counters. Was he right?

A: He was indeed. Toshi’s Broken Pointy Stick will only get counters when the equipped creature deals combat damage. If the blocking creature is no longer there, however, the attacker will not deal any combat damage.

310.4c If a creature that was supposed to receive combat damage is no longer in play or is no longer a creature, the damage assigned to it isn’t dealt.


Since the Jitte bearer will not assign any damage to the nonexistent blocker, the Jitte will gain no counters.


Q: Once combat damage has gone onto the stack, is it too late to play Giant Growth?

A: It’s not too late to play it, but it’s probably too late to get the effect you want to get. When Giant Growth resolves, your creature will get +3/+3, but that won’t change the amount of damage that was put onto the stack. It might change whether the creature lives thru the damage it’s receiving, however. A 3/3 that was slated to receive 4 damage will live thru it as a 6/6, after all.


311.1. As the end of combat step begins, all “at end of combat” abilities trigger and go on the stack. (See rule 410, “Handling Triggered Abilities.”) Then the active player gets priority and players may play spells and abilities.


Q: Does anything happen at the end of combat step?

A: Not often. There will sometimes be triggered abilities which need to go onto the stack (like the delayed triggers from the aforementioned Tangle Asp, which will destroy the creatures it . . . er, tangled with), but otherwise, this is a rather uneventful step.


311.2. As soon as the end of combat step ends, all creatures are removed from combat. After the end of combat step ends, the combat phase is over and the postcombat main phase begins.


Looks like the combat phase is over. That means this article is over, too. Take your newfound knowledge of the combat phase and use it to smite your opponents’ creatures. (Smiting your opponent is, after all, illegal in most places.) Join us next week, when we’re back to the questions and answers on a wide variety of topics.

-Tom Fowler

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