There’s a widespread stereotype in the Magic community that judges aren’t very good at playing our great game. While that’s often true – a lot of judges play EDH far more often than they playtest the new tech – many others find their rules knowledge can also be invaluable in tight situations. I’ve been a level two judge for a little over two years, and in the process of studying for the various tests, pushing in chairs, talking to other judges, pushing in chairs, working at events, pushing in chairs, and all the other various work involved with being a judge, I’ve learned several pieces of info that have served me again and again in my competitive games.
These won’t come up every game, but when the situation arises, these rules tidbits can be the difference between squeaking into victory and heading home early. I’ve watched quite a few players lose winnable games at GPs and other competitive tournaments because they didn’t know one of these, and forgetting one of them cost a player a match early last weekend, in the World Magic Cup!
1) The rules say: There is an End of Combat step.
Most players are familiar with how the turn works, generally speaking – untap, upkeep, draw, main, combat, main, each player has to pass priority with no actions before the game can move to the next step, yada yada. The detailed anatomy of the combat phase, however, isn’t as well known.
After the active player has attacked, the non-active player blocks, active player decides what order to deal damage (if there were any multiple blocks), then damage happens. The key here is that there’s another step, after damage, still in the combat phase. This is the last point in the turn where attacking creatures are considered attacking – once the active player begins their second main phase, any creature that attacked are no longer attacking.
When it matters: You have a card that says “attacking creature,” but the opponent has multiple attackers.
Situation: You’re playing a Bant Eldrazi mirror in Modern. Your opponent draws for their turn, taps four land and a Noble Hierarch for a Reality Smasher, then attacks with it and a Thought-Knot Seer. Your only blocker is a Thought-Knot Seer, you’re at 9 life, and you’re holding a Blessed Alliance. How are you going to block?
If you don’t know about the End of Combat step, this is not a great situation. If you fire off the Alliance before blockers, the opponent will undoubtedly sacrifice the TKS, leaving you outclassed on the field. If you trade and save the Alliance for the next turn, you’re constraining your mana and giving your opponent a chance to sniff your plan – they may send the Hierarch along with the Smasher for protection.
Once you know about the End of Combat step, it gets easier. You trade Thought-Knots, then fire off the Alliance after damage, before letting your opponent move to their second main phase. The board is clear and you live to fight another day.
A few Standard rotations ago, I used this to put the nail in the coffin against a monored player by attacking with Archangel of Thune and gaining life, then putting it on top of my own library with Azorious Charm before clearing the board with Supreme Verdict.
2) The rules say: Lightning Bolts don’t kill creatures, state based effects kill creatures.
Whether you realize it or not, Magic relies on shortcuts all the time. Most of the time, these make our lives easier – it would be pretty tedious if we had to acknowledge passing priority every time it went back and forth. Once in awhile, however, knowing the technical details of what is happening is crucial, and using a shortcut will result in an incorrect board state.
In normal gameplay, you can Bolt your opponent’s 3/3 or smaller creature, you both put the cards in the graveyard more-or-less simultaneously, and life goes on. Technically, however, this is not quite accurate.
The detailed version of that exchange is: you cast Lightning Bolt and it deals three damage. The Bolt then goes to the graveyard, as the last part of resolving. The game then sees that someone is about to receive priority, so first it checks state based effects to make sure everything is legal and correct. This is a thing that just happens – it doesn’t use the stack and no one can respond to it. This is the game checking there are no problems – no Daybreak Coronets hanging around on creatures with no other enchantments, no multiples of legends or planeswalkers that need to be cleared up, and no creatures with lethal damage marked on them.
If the game sees anything along those lines, it fixes it by moving the Daybreak Coronet to the graveyard, making you sacrifice the appropriate legend or planeswalker, or moving the “dead” creature from the battlefield to the graveyard.
When it matters: A lhurgoyf is about to be dealt damage
Tarmogoyf is by far the most common card to make this technical detail relevant, because its stats are updating every time the game checks state based effects, at the same time the game checks if there are any creatures with lethal damage marked on them that need to be moved to the graveyard.
Situation: You’re playing against Jund, piloting Blue Moon. Jund led with a fetchland into Thoughtseize, taking your Anger of the Gods. You played a land and passed, and Jund deployed everybody’s favorite lhurgoyf, which is currently a 2/3 (land and sorcery), and you’re debating firing off your Lightning Bolt to kill it or saving the Bolt for a potential Grim Flayer or Dark Confidant down the road.
If you pull the trigger, the Bolt will deal its three damage, then go to the graveyard when it resolves. Then the game will check state based effects, at which point it will see the goyf is now a 3/4 with three damage marked on it, so it will live. You’re better off saving the Bolt for a better target.
At the World Magic Cup, someone forgot about this and cast Harvest Pyre on their opponent’s Goyf, exiling 4 cards, while the opponent had a land, a sorcery, and a creature in their graveyard. The Pyre resolved, adding instant to the types, and the Goyf was a 4/5 with four damage on it – they paid two mana and exiled their graveyard for the privilege of discarding one of their better spells. Not exactly how they drew it up.
3) “Upgrade” spells check on resolution, not casting.
Spells that can “upgrade” if certain conditions are met will check those conditions when they’re trying to resolve, not when they’re cast and go on the stack. The trigger conditions can go from true to not true and back again a dozen times while the spell is on the stack, and the game doesn’t care in the least – it only matters whether the condition is true when the spell is resolving.
When it matters: You have the ability to make a trigger condition on a spell become true or stop being true after it was put onto the stack.
The most common way this can come up is when you have an opportunity to “downgrade” a spell an opponent cast, depriving them of the full value they were expecting. It can go the other way as well, of course, but opportunities are significantly rarer.
Situation: You’re piloting Jund against Robots in Modern. After a long and grindy game, your board is a pair of 4/5 Tarmogoyfs squaring off against the opponent’s Etched Champion, two Ornithopters, Memnite, and Glimmervoids. The opponent knows your hand is an Abrupt Decay from a now-deceased Dark Confidant, while you know their hand is a Galvanic Blast, thanks to an earlier Inquisition of Kozilek.
You’re at 7, and the opponent, at 9, is attacking with just the Memnite, presumably hoping to force a trade for one of your Tarmogoyfs. Do you have a way out of trading the kingly Goyf or versatile Decay for a lowly Memnite?
If you take the damage, you’ll be in range of Champion+Blast on the following turn, with no clear way out, so you’re priced into blocking. The opponent, knowing about the Decay, won’t cast the Blast before combat damage is dealt – then you could just Decay the Memnite, saving your Tarmogoyf.
After blockers are declared, you both look at each other as awkwardly as sixth graders at their first dance, hoping the other will blink, then allow combat damage and the Memnite goes to the graveyard. They cast their Galvanic Blast on the damaged Tarmogoyf, and you can Abrupt Decay away one of the Ornithopters in response, leaving the opponent now on only two artifacts, which means the Galvanic Blast will only deal two damage as it resolves. Knowing more about the rules and how the Blast would resolve has given you an edge over your hapless opponent, and the world is yours.
Like Jedi Mind Tricks, knowing the intricacies of the rules won’t become important every tournament you match you play, or even every tournament. Eking out every possible win, however, requires recognizing when an opportunity is knocking, and being familiar with the corner cases can be a huge benefit in the right match.