PV’s Playhouse – Chump Blocking

 

Hello everyone!

My intention for today’s article was to write a report on GP Madrid, but since I just came back from Oakland and San Diego I don’t really want to flood you with tournament reports, so I decided to write something different today and then resume my reports next week. The format is Legacy, so there isn’t really a rush to talk about it, as it’s not going to disappear in a week, and I’ve wanted to write this article for some time anyway, so there you go.

There are many basic concepts that one must understand to excel at Magic – card advantage, tempo, assuming a role, having a plan, mulliganing, sideboarding. Sometimes, though, people focus so much on those advanced things that they forget the most basic of them all – combat. Combat is basically attacking or blocking, but the concept that you really must master is blocking. The reason for that is that the blocking player always has the last say on what is going to happen – when you are the attacking player, what you must do is put yourself in the shoes of the blocking player, and see what decisions he is going to make, to then see if you can live with the consequences of those actions – the blocker’s actions. So, no matter which position you are in, the attacker or the blocker, you always need to think as if you were the blocker. You need to master blocking, or you are going to fail attacking. And then, of course, you need to know blocking for when you are, well, blocking.

The idea for this article came from watching a team draft match between Martin Juza and Shota Yasooka, on the Sunday of Pro Tour San Diego. Martin had a Plated Geopede in play, and then Shota played Khalni Garden. Martin attacked and Shota took three, then Martin played a Trusty Machete. Next turn, Shota played another Khalni Garden, and Martin had no land, so he equipped and attacked for three again, and Shota again didn’t block. Next turn Martin again did not find a land, and again attacked for three, and this time Shota blocked with one of his 0/1s.

Now, why did Shota take the first two hits and block the third? Why did he not block the first? Why did he not take the third? Might it be that he has a rule in his mind that says “do not go below 14 life”? Probably not. Then, how does he know exactly when to block? He does not – every time one of those situations happens, we have to make an educated guess. He does not KNOW that blocking is correct there, but he thinks it is. The difference is that he is going to be right most of the time, and a bad player is going to be wrong most of the time. I wish I could tell you exactly when to block, but there is no such guideline – what I can do is try to give you the mindset so that, when you have to make that educated guess of when to block, you will be more likely to get it right. In this article, I will focus on this specific type of blocking – chump blocking. I understand that it is a somewhat narrow topic, but I do think it has applications across many decks and formats, and I think it’s worth spending some time with.

So, when do you chump block? As a general rule, most of the time chump blocking is wrong and you want to just take the damage – after all, people pay life for cards all the time, but it is very rare that people want to pay cards for life, and this is essentially what chump blocking is. It is very common for young players (young game-wise, not age-wise) to chump block too much – the old “I NEED MY LIFE” joke. No, you do not need your life. I mean, you do need one of your life points, but that means you have 19 others to spare. What you do need are your cards, so stop throwing them away. Of course, sometimes you have to block. As a general rule, I like to think this: you do not want to block, unless you will not have the opportunity to do it the next time.
Now, why would you be unable to block the next time? That could be for a couple of reasons:

– You are now dead, and therefore can’t block the next attack. If you are going to die, I would advise you to block instead.

– You will not be able to block next turn because the opponent will remove the blocker. This happens fairly often, and a lot of people make that mistake and do not block, only to have the opportunity taken away from them. Imagine the following situation:

You have a [card]Fireball[/card] in your hand, and all you need is another land to kill your opponent. You are at six life, and your opponent has a 3/3 and two [card]Wall of Roots[/card] in play (or whatever that means you are not attacking for the kill). You have a 2/2 out. Your opponent attacks. You don’t block, going to three. You draw a land that comes into play tapped, and pass. Your opponent draws, points a removal spell at your creature and kills you. Oops. In this scenario, it is clear that you want to block as soon as you can, because you know you are going to block at some point, so it might as well be now – you don’t have any reason to let him topdeck that removal spell to effectively turn it into a burn spell.

It might be, though, that your opponent did not even topdeck that removal spell. Imagine, for example, that it that he has a bounce spell – he could not have bounced it last turn to attack for three, because then you would just replay it and block the lethal attack. Bounce spells must be cast on the last turn to be of any effect on a chump blocker, and it is completely within your power to make it impossible for him to cast it on the last turn, because you can make it so that your creature is no longer there. Or he might have a Terminate in hand, but, at that point, he simply cannot use it – what if he does that to put you at 3 and you draw a 4/4 next turn? If you let it get to the point where he is going to kill you with one hit, though, he can happily use his Terminate on your chump blocker.

In those examples, what happens is a sudden kill, but it might be that you are confronted with that choice way before you are actually dead – if, say, your chump blocker is a 0/1 plant and you are at 9 and your opponent has a 3/3. You don’t always have to leave it for the last possible moment, because your opponent might not leave his removal for the last moment either. I remember walking by as Luis was practicing for his BW vs. Faeries Top 8 match in Kyoto, and Luis had a Bitterblossom out (with only one token) to face his opponent’s Mistbind Clique. Luis was at a fairly high life total, yet he kept chump blocking with his token – he understood that in this match sometimes the Faeries player just goes creature + Cryptic Command + Cryptic Command to kill you through your Bitterblossom, so he hurried to block with his guy while he had the opportunity instead of just waiting. He had to understand what could happen, and had to make the choice of chump blocking or not a couple turns before the choice was actually relevant, because if he wanted to chump block the Mistbind, he would have to do it at that right moment.

It is important to notice that, if you understand this, it also applies to when you are attacking. Most people only remove their opponent’s blockers when their attacker is lethal, and this is sometimes wrong for the reasons I just mentioned. There are instances in which you should just remove the chump blocker and attack, because there is a chance that he will block, and then your spell will be useless – you don’t want to give him the chance. What happens here is a fight of interests, so to speak – both players want to delay the usage of their cards to the last possible moment, but at the same time they want to do it before the other player. The attacking player doesn’t want to use his removal that early, and the blocking player doesn’t want to block that early – he would rather see what he draws, for example – but whoever acts first has the final decision. It is almost like an auction, where each player bids turns – you want to win, but you don’t want to bid too much, you want to get it cheap. Regardless of whether you are attacking or blocking, you have to try to put yourself on their shoes, and try to understand when they are going to act, so you can act before them – ideally, you kill their guy the exact turn they are going to block, and ideally you block their guy one turn before they are going to kill it.

– You will not be able to block next turn because there is a new threat that can no longer be stopped by your chump blocker. For example:

Your opponent is playing UG and has a Mold Shambler and a 3/3 Aether Figment in play. You have a Nissa’s Chosen that is not going to kill your opponent, but you have a lot of burn spells in your deck that might, and you are on nine life. Your opponent attacks and you take, going to three. Then you draw another creature, but die to the Figment next turn, because you can’t block that. In this situation, you can clearly chump block with the Chosen – you know that you can’t block the Figment, but every turn you do not take three damage from Mold Shambler it is the same as blocking the unblockable guy. By blocking, you give yourself the chance to block again next turn, but if you don’t block there isn’t much you can do, because no matter what you draw, Figment cannot be blocked.

This might also happen when the threat is a spell, and not a creature.
Imagine you are playing versus Jund, and your opponent attacks with Bloodbraid Elf when you are at six life and have a Noble Hierarch. You take the attack, going to three, and then he Lightning Bolts you and you, well, can’t throw the Hierarch in front of that, so you die. To prevent that, it is very important to know the kind of spell that each of those decks pack, and the magical number for each matchup. In most matchups, the magical number is three and its multiples – if you are playing Standard, it is very likely that putting yourself from six to four is not worth chump blocking, but from six to three is. Numbers to keep in mind:

1 life:

Cunning Sparkmage, Searing Blaze. This will generally only be relevant when your opponent is playing Naya and you are playing a combination of green, white and blue that is not UW, so that he boarded in Sparkmages against you. Searing Blaze is generally not worth playing around, since if they have a land it will deal three anyway, but it is nice to keep in mind. For all other intents and purposes, being at one is the same as being at two (which is probably the same as being at three), so you can afford to, for example, trade with a smaller guy instead of chump blocking the big one. One is also the number to keep in mind if you are playing against Black in draft, because of Piranha Marsh, Blood Seeker, and Pulse Tracker – against most other colors you don’t mind dropping your life total, but against black I would try to stay above one. It is also important to stay at higher than one if you have fetchlands in your deck and might need the mana or the shuffle effect.

2 life:

Goblin Guide, Siege-Gang Commander token – keep in mind that playing around Siege-Gang token is only relevant when you can actually deal with the Siege-Gang in the following turn, or kill them before they untap, and they have 7 but not 9 mana. Most of the time, 2 is the same as 3. It might also be relevant if you have Putrid Leech that you want to pump.

3 life:

Blightning, Bloodbraid Elf, Lightning Bolt, Ajani Vengeant – for all those you want to be at higher than 3, and those are generally played in multiples and in the same deck, so 7 is better than 6 and 10 is better than 9. For example, in Madrid I was playing against mono red, I was at 9 and had a Noble Hierarch, and my opponent played [card]Ball Lightning[/card], which I blocked – I am trading my Hierarch for one life, which is not much, but that one life is from 3 to 4, which means I’m effectively trading it for his next Bolt. If I was at say 7 instead of 9, I’d never have blocked.

4 life:

Hell’s Thunder, Celestial Colonnade – Hell’s Thunder is easy to play around, since it is there only in Mono-Red and it is easy to see, but Colonnade is a lot harder, because sometimes you have to play around it before it is in play – you just have to see it coming. Against Bant, for example, if you have to choose a number to be, make that 4+N, where N is the number of exalted guys they have. If you are going from 4 to 1, you generally shouldn’t mind, as you are going to have the opportunity to block again next turn, but If you are going from 7 to 4, you might just want to block while you can (of course if your chump blocker is Birds of Paradise that doesn’t apply).

5 life:

Tribal Flames in Zoo. Against Zoo, you can justify pretty much any number as the magic number you want to be – 4 gets you out of one burn spell, 6 gets you out of Tribal Flames, 7 out of two burn spells, 9 out of Tribal Flames + burn and 11 out of two Tribal Flames range, which leaves 8 and 10 as spots that generally do not matter much and you can afford to lose – I am much more likely to crack a Fetchland when I am at 8 than when I am at 7, for example. Keep in mind that they might not have all basic types out, and in that case everything changes because Tribal Flames only does four.

6 life:

 

Ball Lightning 

10 life

Guul Draz Vampire, Vampire Lacerator, Ruthless Cullblade, Bloodghast in Zendikar Limited. This is actually really important to keep in mind, because 11 is much better than 10 (and because of the “1” reasons, 12 is better than 11). Chump blocking to keep you above this life total is not uncommon.

When I started, I said chump blocking was bad by default, because you generally did not like to trade cards for life. The entire picture changes, though, when those life points translate into something else – which might actually be more cards. To simplify it, if you have Necropotence out and your opponent attacks with a 2/2 and you block with your Ornithopter, you have to understand that you are not trading one card for two life, which is generally lousy – you are instead trading one card for two cards, which is good.

For example, at the Legacy GP, in Madrid, I was at 6 life and my opponent attacked me with Lord of Atlantis and Silvergil Adept. My board was a tapped Rhox War Monk (that he was locking with Cursecatcher/Riptide Laboratory) and a bunch of Noble Hierarchs, and I had a Misty Rainforest in my hand. When my opponent attacked, I could have chump blocked his Lord with a Hierarch, going to 3 instead of 1. That doesn’t do anything to his clock, since his islandwalker is a 3/2 so I am dead if I can’t answer the Lord one way or another, but I considered blocking just so that I could topdeck a Top, look at the top 3, and then use the Rainforest to shuffle and try to find a Swords to Plowshares. In the end I decided against it, because I wanted to keep the Hierarch in there, for extra points in case I ever connected with my War Monk (and also the mana could be relevant I suppose, I only had two lands, but I really did have a lot of Hierarchs), but the more I think about it the more I think I should have blocked. In this situation, it is important to recognize that by blocking you are not trading your Noble Hierarch for two life, you are trading it for a new look at three cards if you happen to draw Top – possibly six, if the game goes on. When your only out to win the game is drawing Swords to Plowshares from the top, having the ability to turn a topdecked Top into six cards instead of three goes a long way towards helping that – probably more than a Hierarch in play would.

One card that I’ve played a lot and that taught me a lot about chump blocking was Bitterblossom. Bitterblossom was a weird card, in the sense that every time you block you are losing damage (i.e. if I have one token and I block every turn, I will deal no damage. If I take one hit and then block every subsequent hit, I deal one damage a turn. If I take the first two hits and then block every turn, I deal two damage a turn. Essentially, to maximize damage in a vacuum, you want to delay chump blocking until it is actually necessary), but at the same time every time you do not block you are losing turns of life, which means you are also losing damage. With Bitterblossom, you have to understand what each life point means – it means an entire turn, a new token, a new chance at attacking – and only then you can do the math and block accordingly.

Another situation that I watched and it got me to think was during GP Tampa, in a team draft (I believe) where coverage reporter Bill Stark was playing against someone I do not recall. Bill’s opponent had a Blood Seeker in play, and Bill had a Kor Hookmaster (that was tapping a Giant Scorpion) and was at a healthy life total – let’s say thirteen. Bill’s opponent tappqa two mana and played Goblin War Paint on his Blood Seeker, and attacked. Bill could not have blocked faster with his 2/2.

When I watched that, I thought it was rather interesting, because I know not many people would have chump blocked there (at least not many average to better people – the I NEED MY LIFE guys would have probably blocked, but I know Bill is not one of those guys), but it only took me a glimpse at Bill’s hand to know that it was the correct play – His hand was something like Roil Elemental, Shepherd of the Lost, Whiplash Trap, Pillarfield Ox, another creature and a land. With this hand, you can probably assume that, barring some shenanigans, you are going to win the game – and the easiest way to prevent shenanigans is by just blocking, because in this case “shenanigans” looks like attacks at your life total, with the Blood Seeker being there and all that, so that you will either die before you play all your powerful cards or establish control and lose to direct damage spells or hasted guys – it doesn’t look like your opponent will be able to win by overpowering all your threats. There is also the fact that his opponent had a Giant Scorpion in play, which makes the 2/2 somewhat irrelevant – so he is not really trading a card for three life here, he is trading a card that is not going to do much for the possibility to play all the powerful cards in his hand and to not die once he establishes control. Overall this is more than you can probably expect that Hookmaster to ever do in this game! You could also look at it this way – Bill is not trading Hookmaster for three life, he is trading Hookmaster for the time to play and use his Roil Elemental. In this case, it is almost like he is trading the Hookmaster for the Elemental itself – a very fair trade!

So, I’ve already said that, to me, the default is to not chump block, except when one of those situations apply. There are also some situations though that will actively make me not want to block. Those are:

– The creature is going to deal more damage next turn, so you’d rather chump block it later. This is pretty obvious, yet a lot of people miss it. If your opponent has, for example, a Raging Ravine out, it is clear you want to delay the blocking for as long as possible, because every time you do not block it and leave your creature to block later you are blocking a bigger creature. This is mainly when your opponent has creatures that you know are going to grow – Tarmogoyf, Plated Geopede/Steppe Lynx with fetches, Knight of the Reliquary, Psychatog – in this case, you generally do not want to block when they are small. It is also relevant if you know your opponent has equipment or enchantments of sorts – for example, if you have Sakura Tribe-Elder in play and your opponent has Umezawa’s Jitte in his deck, then there is nothing wrong with just taking the damage until he actually plays the Jitte, and then blocking the Jitted creature does much more for you than having chump blocked it in the previous turn.

– You need this card to win the game. In most of the examples I used, the person only needs to buy time – they have a burn spell in hand, or they need to draw a burn spell, or something that means they are “drawing live”. There are cases, though, in which you cannot chump block because that drastically lowers your outs. Imagine you are playing Naya and you are at 20 life and have a Birds of Paradise in play. Your opponent is at one, and has a 19/19 creature attacking. If you take the 19 damage here, then you can draw Noble Hierarch to kill him. If you do not draw the Hierarch, you can always try to hope he doesn’t have anything and chump block again next turn so you try to draw Lightning Bolt and Ajani Vengeant. Unless you have specific reason to believe your opponent has a direct damage spell, then you should just not block here – if he has it, that’s too bad.

Another special case in favor of not blocking is that, sometimes, you can just double block instead of chump blocking twice if you happen to draw a creature. For example, if your opponent has a 5/5 and you are on 6 life and have a 3/3, it’s generally better to take and go to one because then you can draw a 2/2 or bigger and double block to kill your opponent’s guy. Even if you are looking for a special card, like a burn spell, waiting for a double block will generally provide you more time by killing the creature than just chump blocking every turn.

The biggest problem, though, comes from the fact that you generally do not have any of those factors in isolation, but all of them together. Take, for example, that you are playing against Jund and you have a Ranger of Eos out. You are on 7 life and your opponent attacks with Raging Ravine, which just became a 4/4. He is on 9. Now, you might think that you don’t want to block – you want to save blocking it for when it is bigger. At the same time, you want to block because if you don’t you will be on three, and three is not a good number to be. But if you block, you lose the possibility of winning with Bloodbraid Elf into Lightning Bolt, for example. If you draw Tectonic Edge, Path to Exile or Ajani Vengeant, then you’ll be missing a guy to kill them with.

In this situation, it’s important to notice that, though Raging Ravine will be bigger next turn, the fact that it is bigger doesn’t mean anything, since you will be at 3 and it is big enough to kill you regardless, so this is not relevant for this situation. If you were at, say, 10, then it would be relevant, because by taking you can take two attacks (4+5) and block the third, but if you block you cannot take the next two (5+6). You also have to consider if you can actually beat a Blightning or a Bolt – if you cannot, then it is no use chump blocking to try to stay out of the range. It is all a question of whichever is more probable that he has based on the way the game went, and on what cards you can beat by blocking or by not blocking, and what requires less of your draw steps to kill him, and in each game each of those things are different.

In the end, do we know why Shota Yasooka blocked the third attack with his plant token? We do not, and I doubt even he does. We can estimate, though, what went through his mind – he did not block the first attack because he was at a very high life total and he wanted to see if he could get more mileage out of his tokens. He did not block the second attack because his opponent had a Trusty Machete, which meant the Geopede might become a 5/4 next turn – it is better to chump block the 5/4 than the 3/2. He blocked the 3/2 Geopede the next turn regardless because he was playing against black/red, and he probably felt like 11 was too low a number to be in to the point where the token was worth those three life points. Or perhaps he was afraid of Marsh Casualties getting rid of his two tokens, and he figured next turn would be the turn where Martin would play it if he had it, so he had to make his move first. Was he correct? Again, I hardly think anyone can tell you for sure if he was right or not, not even him. I do hope, though, that I could help you understand why sometimes it is correct to block and sometimes not, and that this made it easier for you to make your own decision when time comes.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article, and I hope you were able to get something out of it. See you next week, with a GP Madrid report!

PV

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