It’s your third turn: Should you attack with your Runeclaw Bear into your opponent’s? The answer, of course, is that it depends. This is a classic, recurring situation in Magic. If I were trying to evaluate a player’s ability, their answer and explanation to this question would be more valuable than watching them play a single game. There are several variables that you should consider when choosing whether or not to attack on turn 3 in the above situation:
Is My Opponent Likely to Block?
In game 1 without any additional information, it will be difficult to answer this question. You could try announcing combat and seeing if your opponent touches their creature or their pen to indicate that they are either blocking or taking the damage. But I try not to rely on physical tells—they’re unreliable, and indicate the correct play less often than the cards in your hand and library. In a sideboarded game or a game of Constructed against a well-known deck, you will have a much better understanding of your opponent’s deck list and play style.
Do I Want to Race?
In this scenario, I am on the play and it is my turn 3 to my opponent’s turn 2. I am slightly, but not significantly, more likely to want to race and be aggressive than if I were on the draw. It is an inherent part of modern Magic that the attacking player generally has an advantage over the blocking player because of the mechanics and cheap combat tricks in recent years (raid, exert, landfall, Arbor Armament). The factors that should influence your decision the most are the cards in your hand, the cards in your library, and then the cards you believe to be in your opponent’s hand and library. Your cards are obviously more compelling because they are certain to be in your deck—you don’t know what is in your opponent’s deck with certainty. In game 1, you’ll be guessing, and in games 2 and 3 they may sideboard cards in or out.
Important cards to keep in mind are creatures with haste and burn spells. If you have no follow-up creature this turn and you have seen Goblin Warchief from your opponent, you may not want to attack. If you have two Lava Axe in your deck, then every last point of damage you can inflict will increase your chances of winning, and you should attack simply in the hope that your opponent may not block. If your deck contains multiple cards like Dark Bargain, then you should probably plan to block, preserving your life total in the hopes that your card advantage will give you inevitability.
Do I Want to Trade?
Whether or not you want to trade depends on a few factors:
Do I have pump spells?
If you have Arbor Armament in your hand, then attacking provides a high upside potential play. If you have multiple Arbor Armament in your deck but not in your hand, then you may decide to wait until you draw one. If you have Wild Onslaught in your hand and a creature to play on turn 3, then you do not want to trade a creature right now. Shanna, Sisay’s Legacy is similar to Wild Onslaught in that it compels you to avoid trading. If you have a spell like Run Amok that can only target an attacking creature, then you are basically forced to attack, compared to a trick like Arbor Armament that you could use on defense. You do not want to risk the chance that the game may end with a Run Amok still in your hand, or that your opponent will have available mana the next opportunity you have to cast it.
Does my opponent have pump spells?
If you have zero pump spells in your deck, then you will likely want to attack and offer a trade. If you have zero pump spells your opponent will either have an equal number or infinitely more reasons not to trade. If your opponent is not going to block to set up an impactful Wild Onslaught, then you should at least charge them a few life points to do it. After you have seen many cards deep into game 1, or in a sideboarded game, you will be able to make your decisions with more information. Keep in mind that many players get tricky and sideboard in and out instant-speed spells based on what their opponents have seen.
Do I want the board to be simpler?
It is a common mistake among pros and amateurs alike to simplify the board. Magic board states can become overwhelming to think about. While I understand the desire to make things simpler, ultimately trades generally benefit one player more than the other. Cards like Alpine Grizzly, Rampaging Cyclops, and Yargle, Glutton of Urborg care about the board being as clean as possible. You will want to take both your own and your opponents cards into consideration when deciding who wants the board to be cleaner. If you trade 2-drops and then play Alpine Grizzly, you are immediately threatening 4 damage and the potential to turn your removal spells into a super-powered Searing Blaze on opposing blockers.
What if the creatures have minor abilities?
In the example, I used Keldon Warcaller because it is from Dominaria and is, in my extensive experience, only a Runeclaw Bear. I have yet to see the trigger be relevant. Now let us imagine that on our turn 3 it is our Keldon Warcaller facing off versus a Relic Runner, Kitesail Corsair, Dark Confidant, Kavu Predator, or Leaf Gilder. Against all five of these types of creatures I would attack most of the time. Relic Runner and Kitesail Corsair will be tough to block with your Keldon Warcaller. Dark Confidant and Kavu Predator generate an advantage each turn that they are in play and will likely not want to trade for an inferior 2-drop. You should always attack into Leaf Gilder and other mana creatures, because the opponent will probably want the mana. Regarding Relic Runner and Kavu Predator: each players’ deck lists will be extremely relevant, but I would start with the assumption that the opponent has some ways to trigger their own abilities.
As the Opponent, Should You Block?
My default is to block in these situations. There is a V-shaped curve that depicts on the X axis a players’ experience in Magic and on the Y axis how much they value life total as a resource. Yes, only the last point of your starting 20 matters, but all else being equal, who would decline a free point of life? Take into account all of the variables I discussed earlier. As the defensive player, there is one major difference from the offensive player. If you do not initiate a trade, you will have to pay 2 life.
Techniques to Remember a Deck List
Much of my advice requires that you memorize your own deck list. If you are playing online, you can easily reference it. If you are playing in a professional REL event, then you will be required to register one—writing anything down helps with memorization. If you are playing a casual event, you may still want to be competitive. I recommend that you lay out your deck and mana curve to visualize which spells you have at each mana cost and stare at it for a few minutes. Before each game you play, count your library with the cards facing you. This will give you a refresher on what’s in your deck and will double as a check to make sure you are presenting both a legal deck and that you have sideboarded as you planned. While you are playing, you may take notes on your life pad of important instant-speed tricks and haste creatures in your opponent’s deck to consult during sideboarding and future games.
As I have started to branch outside of Magic, I realize that I don’t even know where to begin in many fields and other games, which has motivated me to write about fundamentals of Magic. Please let me know in the comments which areas in Magic you have difficulty thinking about!