Guidelines for when and how to block attacking creatures.

The Art of the Block

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The letter G!reetings and welcome back to our weekly clinic on the game of Magic. In our last installment, I walked through a turn with you in an effort to cram a lot of rules knowledge, execution, and timing into your brains, while hopefully not inducing too much of a headache. I also promised that we would be coming back the Combat Phase in particular because a lot of action occurs there, and it deserves more time and explanation than I could devote in that article. Thus, this week will be a combat-centric article, and it will be devoted almost entirely to one specific topic: blocking.

I was initially going to delve into attacking this week, but at some point my puny little brain realized that a lot of attacking takes place when your opponent has no good blocks. Therefore, defining “good” blocks and separating “good” blocks from “bad” blocks took on a higher priority. I'm also covering blocking first because that's the area where I tend to see new players make the most mistakes. Creatures are valuable resources, and learning to block prudently will not only help them live longer, but should help you live longer (and win more) as well.

Two quick definitions before we get rolling:

Trade - When two creatures kill each other in combat. Blocking a 4/2 with a 2/2 is a trade. Blocking a 3/3 with a 2/2 gives us our next definition.

Chump Block - When one creature blocks another with no hope of trading (or winning). The only purpose for this is simply to stave off the beats for a turn. So, when a 2/2 steps in front of a 3/3 then gets sent off to the graveyard and that's that, it's a chump block. If some spell after the combat then kills off the attacker thanks to the extra damage from the blocker, that's not considered a chump block, since the point of blocking was to help take the bigger creature down in combination with some other effect. So, when it comes to chump blocking, we're speaking strictly about when a creature steps in front of an attacker and then dies with no other benefit aside from having bought some time.

Secrets of the Trade

To start things off, I feel the need to let you in on a little secret, but only if you promise to tell it to every new player you meet. The way combat works in Magic gives a sizeable advantage to the player that is blocking. Strange but true. Because the defending player gets to choose which creatures are getting blocked and which creatures will be doing the blocking, the player on defense gets a major edge over the attacker.

Blocking Basics

If you remember back to last time, there are a couple of basic rules regarding Declare Blockers. First of all, you can only declare legal blocks. If your opponent is attacking you with fliers and you don't have any creatures with flying or any creatures that say "can block as though it had flying" (like Giant Spider), then you aren't blocking. The same goes for fear or any other sort of evasion. Additionally, you will need to remember that each creature you control may only be assigned to block one attacker, though multiple creatures can be assigned to block the same attacker.

What is a Good Block?
Good blocks are those that wind up with your creatures living and their creatures dying. It doesn't have to be all of their creatures, mind you, just enough so that you come out with the better end of the deal.

Good blocks can also be blocks that wind up with their important creatures dead, and your important creatures living. Executing blocks that accomplish this will give you a major leg up as the game progresses.

Good blocks also occur when you trade cheaper creatures for their more expensive ones. The block I mentioned above where a 2/2 trades with a 4/2 is a trade, but it's likely a good block for the guy with the 2/2, since he probably paid considerably less mana for his creature than the owner of the 4/2 did for his.

Finally, good blocks can merely be blocks that save you from taking any damage while allowing your creatures to live. Obviously you'd prefer to kill your opponent's men if you have a chance, but if you come out of a combat with your creatures and your life total unscathed, you probably did a good job.

The truth is that you can't always find good blocks during combat, so if that happens, don't get discouraged. What follows are guidelines and ideas that I have learned over the years while covering Magic at the Pro Tour and Grand Prix. Magic is often about the specifics and favors the detail-oriented, but with the right guidelines in mind, it will make figuring out the right play much easier.

Blocking Guidelines

Rule #0 – Your life total is a resource.
For many new players, getting this simple concept dramatically changes the way they think about the game. Welcome to your first Magical paradigm shift. Knowing this concept and what it means will almost certainly cause you to play Magic differently - and likely better - than you would otherwise.

Here's the skinny on how it works. In Magic, the more life you have, the more options exist to you. Sitting at 20 life means you can absorb a lot of damage before you approach death, so you can choose not to block creatures or not to counterspell direct damage spells, or not to do lots of things without it having lethal consequences. However, if your life total rests at a measly 1, that means that any damage or loss of life will kill you and end the game right then and there. With this in mind, it becomes easier to see "not blocking" is a viable option in many combat situations. By strategically trading some of your life for more time to fill your board with lands and creatures, you will frequently create better situations for yourself down the road. When you have plenty of life, it's often perfectly fine to skip an unfavorable block and just take the damage.

If nothing else, just remember this: You do not need to protect every point of life you have, you only need to protect the last one.

Rule #1 – If not blocking means you are going to die, then you need to block.
This rule seems pretty obvious, but it's actually the first step in the blocking checklist. During every defensive combat phase, you have to think, “If I don't block, will I die?” If the answer is yes, then you have to block. How you block from there is still quite important and I'll give you tips for that in a bit, but the first thing you need to know is whether you have to block or not.

Rule #2 – Chump block only when necessary.
One of the major flaws in how most new players handle combat is that they are far too willing to chump block, particularly early in the game.

Look at it this way - creatures cost mana. You paid for them and they are a valuable resource. They should not be thrown into the graveyard without a good reason. It's your job to watch out for them, to make sure their sacrifices are not for naught. Granted, Grizzly Bears are not particularly impressive when you get into the late game where Vampires, Angels, and Dragons reign, but they aren't worthless either.

In that block above, you save 4 life by chumping with your bear, but now your bear is dead and it's going to be that much more difficult to kill off the Phyrexian Gargantua. Whereas, if you take the 4 damage and save your bear, you give yourself the chance to draw an answer, even if it's something as simple as another bear!

See? By waiting a turn, now you get the most out of that bear by using it in combination with another card to take out a bigger creature you didn't have an answer to otherwise. In this scenario, now you've stabilized the board. By comparison, many beginners would have just chump blocked with the first bear, then done the same thing with the second bear, and then have no creatures at all to try and take down the Gargantua.

By delaying chump blocking until it is necessary either to survive or win a damage race, you can better use both the creatures you have already invested in, and your life total.

Rule #3 – Block to maximize opponent losses while minimizing your own.
This is another one that quickly becomes second nature after you've been playing for a while, but might not be obvious at the beginning. When your opponent attacks you, you should make that attack as painful as possible for them by killing as many important creatures they control as possible.

To put this another way, when your opponent attacks you, your preference should generally be to leave them with a bunch of undersized men ("men" is often used as slang for generic creatures) while killing all their fat. Should your opponent's army be reduced to nothing more than a handful of undersized men, it will make your future choices in blocking and attacking easier than if you kill all their small men, but still have to deal with their fat. Additionally, by generating good trades while keeping as many creatures of your own alive as you can, you will make your opponent's choices that much tougher. Expect us to spend a lot of time here next week when we delve into practical applications of blocking principles.


Some creatures are more valuable than others.

Rule #4 – Advanced - Prioritize creature threats and block accordingly.
Since this rule involves some threat evaluation, it can be considered an advanced topic that you may not understand right away. There will be some creatures your opponents control that you really need to kill in order to win the game. By attacking with them, they place those creatures at risk, and when they do so, you should generally try and kill that creature if the situation allows.

The same principle holds true for your own creatures. There will be times where, if you can just live through a turn with a particular creature in play, you will dramatically increase your chances of winning the game. Therefore you should be careful about risking these creatures in combat unless you are sure you can protect them, or are pretty sure your opponent doesn't have any tricks. Magic combat is all about making the right choices when faced with numerous risk/reward scenarios, and the more you play, the more you will come to understand which risks are good and which ones are probably bad. This is one rule where experience will likely play the greatest teacher.

We'll discuss combat tricks a bit more next week, and threat evaluation somewhere down the line.

Rule #5 – Advanced – Adjust how you block based on the board situation, the life totals, and your deck's plan.
This rule includes at least two advanced ideas - board analysis and understanding your deck's plan. The life totals mentioned above references understanding whether you should be racing (playing offense) or playing defense, plus how that changes according to which cards are in your hand and which cards you expect your opponent might be holding. In short, this is the big picture, where you put together all of your knowledge of the game and focus it into one tight, searing laser beam of concentration to figure out whether you should block, how you should block, and what the likely outcome will be afterward.

The specifics of this particular rule are way too involved to explain adequately in these confines, which is why I'm linking you to your homework for today: reading Mike Flores's "Who's the Beatdown?" The cards used in that article are old, but the logic and lessons contained therein are timeless. It introduces the idea behind a "deck plan" and how that plan can change from turn to turn during the course of the game.

Practical Application

Most of the practical examples for this topic will come next week, but for now I have a single puzzle for you to mull over. For the purposes of this particular puzzle, neither player has any cards in hand. Also, because lands are irrelevant here, I'm leaving them off. I want you just to focus on the creatures on the board.

It is Opie's turn. Once he declares his attacks the board looks like this:

Opie Tapped and Attacking in the red zone: Emperor Crocodile, Goblin Chariot, 2 Grizzly Bears.
Not attacking: Llanowar Elves

Ben Untapped: 2 Trained Armodon, 2 Hill Giant

The question for this one is simple: You are Ben, and you have 10 life. Your opponent, Opie, has 18 life. How do you block and why?

That's all for now. Now that you've got some guidelines to work with, I'll be back next with more examples for you to practice with as well as the answer from today's puzzle.

Additional Reading

As mentioned above, Mike Flores's "Who's the Beatdown?" is required reading for anyone who wants to get better at the game of Magic. It is likely the most referenced Magic theory article of all time because the lessons it teaches are some of the most valuable strategic lessons you can learn. It also represents the foundation for a variety of theory topics that have been covered in the succeeding years. Just for reference, Flores delves further into the whole "plan" thing in "Picking the Right Plan," another fine article from the Flores portfolio.

Additionally, earlier this year, I started a series called Thinking It Through at StarCityGames.com. The series is designed to take relatively common game situations and ask the pros for their thoughts on what decisions they would make when in the same position. The larger concept here is to get a clue as to how the pros think about the game, and then form guidelines based on what you learn from that information. In a sense, the entire Magic Academy series does this exact same thing, except at a much more basic level. While I haven't had time to revisit the series recently (expect more once Time Spiral debuts), I highly recommend reading Volume 2, since it has two separate scenarios that deal with the attack step and how one figures out whether blocking is a good idea or not.

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