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Ruling Combat

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The letter R!eady or not, the Magic 2010 rules changes go into effect on July 11. The rules changes mean that some cards will get better (toughness enhancing cards like Kabuto Moth are better now than they used to be, as people have to order blockers before you choose what to pump) and some cards will get worse (cards that are commonly activated after lethal damage was stacked, such as Mogg Fanatic and Thopter Foundry, take big hits).

But that's just the way Magic works: it evolves.

It evolves when new sets are released, it evolves when the rules change, it evolves when you develop a better understanding of the rules, it evolves when you get better at the game, it evolves when you play in your first draft, it evolves when you play in your first tournament, it evolves when you play in your first PTQ, it evolves when ....

Sure, it might turn out that you liked it better when you got to stack combat damage, just as you might have enjoyed drafting Lorwyn better than you enjoyed drafting Lorwyn / Morningtide.

While I can't predict how you personally will react to the rules changes, just as I can't predict how you personally will react to the release of a new set, I can confidently say that the depth of decision-making has not suffered from the rules changes.

For evidence of this, let's just take a look at last week's seemingly simple bonus exercise questions.

You are playing in a Shards / Conflux / Reborn draft. Magic 2010 rules are in effect.

Question #1


You're attacking with a Woolly Thoctar that is being blocked by Canyon Minotaur and Cylian Elf. You and your opponent are both at 20 life.

Your hand: Mosstodon, Sylvan Bounty, Nacatl Outlander, Predator Dragon

Your lands: Forest, Forest, Forest, Mountain, Plains (all untapped)

Your creatures: Woolly Thoctar (tapped, attacking, blocked by Canyon Minotaur and Cylian Elf)

Your opponent's hand: Four cards

Your opponent's lands: Jungle Shrine and Forest (untapped), Plains and Forest (tapped)

Your opponent's creatures: Cylian Elf, Canyon Minotaur (blocking Woolly Thoctar)

How do you order the blockers?

If we assign damage to the Canyon Minotaur, then the Cylian Elf, then we run into trouble if our opponent has a +3+3 effect such as Resounding Roar or Sigil Blessing.

If that happens, we won't actually kill any of our opponent's creatures. Leaving us in a position where we trade our Woolly Thoctar for a giant growth effect.

So with that in mind it's better to assign damage to the Cylian Elf first, then the Canyon Minotaur.

Easy question, right?

Let's move onto the next one!

... Not quite.

If your opponent has a Giant Growth effect, he or she could just block with Canyon Minotaur, then pump it, never giving you the chance to trade your Woolly Thoctar for a Cylian Elf + Canyon Minotaur (or pump spell).


Taking this into account, the first question that you have to ask yourself in a situation like this is why your opponent would double block.

The most likely answers are: because he or she does not have a trick, or because he or she has a trick (such as a Might of Alara or a Colossal Might) that will not allow either the Cylian Elf or the Canyon Minotaur to survive through combat, or because he or she has a trick, but is afraid that you might have a trick of your own (such as a pump spell or a removal spell) that could leave him or her absolutely devastated.

If your opponent does not have a trick, then it doesn't matter how you assign damage, so that isn't much of an issue.

If your opponent has a trick that will not allow either the Cylian Elf or the Canyon Minotaur to survive through combat, then you need to decide if you want him or her to use it or not. If you do want him or her to use it, then it's better to assign damage to the Cylian Elf then the Canyon Minotaur, as your opponent is more likely to try to save the 3/3 than the 2/2.

If your opponent has a trick but is afraid that you might have a trick of your own that would leave him or her devastated, then you want to make the play that suggests that you do have that trick that he or she is afraid of. If you are able to convince your opponent that you do have that terrifying trick, then he or she will mold future actions around the misguided belief that you have said trick.

So, in this situation, how do you make your opponent believe that you have a trick when you don't?

If you select the Canyon Minotaur first, then you give your opponent another opportunity to risk a pump spell and the Canyon Minotaur for your Woolly Thoctar. If your opponent guesses right, and you don't have a removal spell, then that pump spell will trade for your 5/4. Only now if you do have a removal spell, your opponent will also lose Cylian Elf.

If your opponent is concerned about a removal spell, he or she probably isn't going to use a pump spell here. If that were the plan, he or she would have blocked with just the Canyon Minotaur and pumped it after blockers.

But what if your opponent is concerned that your trick is not a removal spell, but a pump spell of your own? Then it makes sense for your opponent to double block and try a Giant Growth.

In this case y

Mosstodon
Order Up!
ou probably want to assign damage to the Cylian Elf first. Even if you did have a pump effect of your own, you probably wouldn't want to use it as you (actually) have a Mosstodon that you really want to cast this turn.

If you assign damage to the Canyon Minotaur first, then your opponent could pump Canyon Minotaur, potentially trading a Giant Growth for your 5/4. And even if you do have a Giant Growth effect of your own, you would need to spend some of your mana to cast it, leaving your turn in a severely damaged state.

Using first-level thinking, if you have a removal spell, then it makes sense to put the Canyon Minotaur first because you would be able to three-for-one your opponent. If you have a pump spell or no trick at all, then it makes sense to assign to the Cylian Elf first, because you probably don't want to cast the pump spell this turn anyway since you have a Mosstodon that you want to cast.

So unless you have a removal spell, or you want to suggest that you have a removal spell, it's better to assign damage to the Cylian Elf first.

Before I give my answer to this question, let's take a brief look at Question #2.

Question #2


You're attacking with a Woolly Thoctar that is being blocked by Canyon Minotaur and Cylian Elf. You and your opponent are both at 20 life.

Your hand: Mosstodon, Sylvan Bounty, Nacatl Outlander, Resounding Thunder

Your lands: Forest, Forest, Forest, Mountain, Plains (all untapped)

Your creatures: Woolly Thoctar (tapped, attacking blocked by Canyon Minotaur and Cylian Elf)

Your opponent's hand: Four cards

Your opponent's lands: Jungle Shrine and Forest (untapped), Plains and Forest (tapped)

Your opponent's creatures: Cylian Elf, Canyon Minotaur (blocking Woolly Thoctar)

How do you order the blockers?

So what if you have a removal spell and you want to suggest that you have a pump spell?

Then you assign damage to the Cylian Elf first. But that prevents you from getting a chance to blow out your opponent this turn, as there is almost no chance that your opponent would cast a pump spell in this spot if it merely allowed him or her to save a single creature.

If your opponent is thinking about the idea that "Unless you have a removal spell, or you want to suggest that you have a removal spell, it's better to assign damage to the Cylian Elf first." Then he or she might see your assigning damage to the Canyon Minotaur first as an indication that you do not have a removal spell, but that you want to suggest that you do.

This might lead your opponent to cast a pump spell, allowing you to destroy him or her with your Resounding Thunder. But if you assign damage to the Canyon Minotaur first, it will be a very strong signal that you do have the removal spell, making it very unattractive for your opponent to put him- or herself at risk for getting three-for-oned.

But how much risk would your opponent actually be taking?


Assuming neither your opponent nor you do anything, then your opponent is going to get two-for-oned. That's guaranteed.

If you assign damage to the Cylian Elf first, then your opponent is going to get two-for-oned even if he or she has a pump spell. If you assign damage to the Canyon Minotaur first, then your opponent has the chance to risk an additional card, a pump spell, to try to save both of his or her creatures. If your opponent guessed right and you don't have a removal spell, then he or she successfully gets a one-for-one trade. If you assign damage to the Canyon Minotaur first, your opponent would have to feel confident that you don't have a removal spell, or feel that his or her back was far enough against the wall that it's necessary to try to get out of it by making a risky Giant Growth play.

But if your opponent really felt that his or her back was so far against the wall that he or she needed to hope that you had little to nothing, then he or she could have blocked with just Canyon Minotaur and pumped it, or simply let combat damage be dealt on the double block without casting a pump spell.

In this case, it does make sense to assign damage to the Canyon Minotaur first, just in case your opponent is able to talk him- or herself into casting a pump spell (which he or she may or may not actually have).

If I'm playing against someone I do not know, then I will just play question #1 and question #2 honestly. That means that I will assign to Cylian Elf first in question #1, and I will assign to Canyon Minotaur first in #2.

If, on the other hand, I'm playing against someone I do know, then I'll mix it up a bit. I'll assign damage "correctly" about 80% of the time (Cylian Elf first in question #1 and Canyon Minotaur first in #2), and "incorrectly" the rest of the time. By mixing it up a bit, I am more likely to lure my opponents into walking into a trap of mine. By playing extremely rigidly, you risk becoming too easy to read. By bluffing every once in a while, you can greatly expand your game.

Question #3


You're being attacked by Woolly Thoctar. You are at 5 life and your opponent is at 28.

Your hand: Sigil Blessing, Colossal Might, Might of Alara, Gleam of Resistance

Your lands: Forest, Mountain, Plains, Plains, Plains (all untapped)

Your creatures: Cylian Elf, Canyon Minotaur

Your opponent's hand: Two cards

Your opponent's lands: Jungle Shrine, Forest, Mountain, Plains, Plains (all untapped)

Your opponent's creatures: Woolly Thoctar (tapped, attacking)

How do you block? What do you do after (or before) you block?

I have to apologize for not giving enough information about this question. If your deck has a 4th land type or not makes a significant difference in how you should play this turn.

I had meant to present this question with you being unable to landcycle for a fourth land type. That means Forests, Plains, and Mountains for basic lands in this deck.

If your deck does have a fourth basic land type in it, then I would block with the Canyon Minotaur and cast Sigil Blessing before damage. Even if your opponent does have a trick, you will still be able to draw for your turn and, if need be, landcycle for a fourth land type with Gleam of Resistance. Then on your opponent's next attack you would be able to Might of Alara your Cylian Elf, allowing it to live while taking down your opponent's Woolly Thoctar.

If your deck does not have a fourth basic land type in it, then I would once again single block with Canyon Minotaur and Sigil Blessing it before damage resolves. In this scenario you have a wealth of pump spells, so you can afford to risk getting two-for-oned (not that you have much of a choice in the matter), but you can't afford to put both of your creatures at risk.


It's better to cast Sigil Blessing than Might of Alara in this scenario because you might draw a land and need to cast both Might of Alara and Gleam of Resistance in a single turn.

Question #4


You're being attacked by Woolly Thoctar. You are at 5 life and your opponent is at 28.

Your hand: Sigil Blessing, Plains, Plains, Plains

Your lands: Forest, Mountain, Plains, Plains, Plains (all untapped)

Your creatures: Cylian Elf, Canyon Minotaur

Your opponent's hand: Two cards

Your opponent's lands: Jungle Shrine, Forest, Mountain, Plains, Plains (all untapped)

Your opponent's creatures: Woolly Thoctar (tapped, attacking)

How do you block? What do you do after (or before) you block?

We're struggling in this scenario. We don't have much life, and we don't really have all that much going for us. The fact is, we can't afford to play around anything. That means that we have to block with our Canyon Minotaur, cast Sigil Blessing and hope for the best.




If our opponent has something to put us further behind, we'll have some shot at staying in the game thanks to our Cylian Elf and whatever our draw steps might bring us. But if our opponent does not have anything, and we are able to trade our Sigil Blessing for our opponent's Woolly Thoctar, then we might suddenly find ourselves ahead in a game that we were monstrously behind in only moments before.

What Do these Questions Teach Us?

Questions #1 and #2 are endlessly complex and interesting questions that don't really have definite answers to them. There are so many additional levels that I could take my analysis of these scenarios, but I have to save them for another day. I would encourage people to continue discussions about these questions (or questions like them) in the forums. There's a lot going on here.

(If you're looking for a jumping-off point, one big thing that I did not address in questions #1 or #2 is why you wouldn't cast your removal spell pre-damage if you have one. Why do you think that a player might choose not to cast a removal spell before damage? )

Questions #3 and #4 are not particularly complex. Under pre-M10 rules, they wouldn't have been particularly complex either. Question #3 would have seen you double-blocking, stacking damage, and casting Gleam of Resistance without giving it a second thought. Question #4 would have seen you double-blocking, stacking damage, and casting Sigil Blessing without giving you anything to think about other than "Which creature should I pump?"

While I don't feel comfortable predicting too much about how Magic will change after M10 rules go into effect, I can confidently say that Magic is going to present us with a lot of fascinating game theory questions such as the ones we looked at today.

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