The New Combat Rule Change Is the Best Fix Available

With all of the hype around Amonkhet and talk of bannings, you might have missed a subtle rules change from the beginning of the week. Toby Elliot’s full post is here.

The most interesting change is this:

“If the active player passes priority during their first main phase, the non-active player is assumed to be acting in beginning of combat unless they are affecting how or whether a beginning of combat ability triggers. However, if the non-active player takes no action, the active player has priority at the beginning of combat. Beginning of combat triggered abilities (even ones that target) may be announced after any non-active player action has resolved.”

I love this change. I hated that saying “combat?” would fast-forward you straight into the declare attackers step. That works if everyone is aware of it and if everyone speaks English. Assigning specific meanings or shortcuts to certain words is terrible. Sure, among the North American competitive event regulars it’s fine. Outside of that, you just run into all sorts of dumb trouble, and this game is played all around the world. “Beginning of attack step” could directly translate to “combat” in some other language.

This change brings us close to Magic Online. And that’s good. I expect a large percentage of people playing in competitive tournaments to also play some amount on Magic Online. Having the combat step work differently in real life and online is obviously problematic.

A few examples to the above ruling:

I have a 4/4 with “at the beginning of combat, deal 20 damage to all opponents.” I say, “combat?” and you play an instant that destroys the creature. This is happening in main phase 1 before we enter the combat step, because logically that’s when you want to kill a creature that wins the game once we enter the combat step.

Next scenario: I have a 4/4 in play and a 20/20 with haste in my hand. You have a permanent that has “tap: tap target creature.”

I say, “combat?” You use your permanent to tap it. Now we are inside the combat step as I, as the active player, indicated that I wanted to pass priority in the main phase 1 and I can’t cast the 20/20 to win. This is the same as the old ruling. You are not supposed to be able to trick someone to play effects in main phase 1 by saying combat. That stays the same.

A few players think this ruling is horrible and will open angle shooting of all sorts. Another also brought up that this will waste a lot of time as you have to announce combat twice. I just don’t understand where either is coming from. That’s exactly why the rule adds the “if non-active player acts”—it’s largely supposed to be at the beginning of combat unless it’s negative for him (the beginning-of-combat-takes-20-damage trigger, for example).

95% of combat steps will still go like this:

Active player: Combat.
Non-active player: Sure.
Declare attackers.

It’s probably more in the 99.5% region, but I’m willing to go low here. Contrary to popular belief, your opponent isn’t always this guy:


In the very vast majority of my games, there isn’t always a tapper or the possibility of a tap-all-creatures effect around. Claiming this slows combat down with a tapper is also invalid. Games with a tapper in play are already slower. Neither play speeds through their combat step if that’s the case. It won’t change much, if at all.

And while we are on topic of Cryptic Command, here’s a scenario where the new ruling is worse:


In this quite specific scenario your opponent is on 8 life and you really want to activate your Mutavault to attack for lethal. But if your opponent has a Cryptic in hand, it’s way better for him to tap the Mutavault too. Under the new ruling you can say “combat” and hope that your opponent then uses the Cryptic if he has it. If he knows how the ruling works, he just says “okay” and waits for you to pass priority at the beginning of combat before deciding if he wants to use it or take 6.

Now that’s admittedly clearly worse under the new ruling, as it adds one additional “do you want to do something?” step. It’s also a very rare scenario in Modern that pretty much never happens in Limited or Standard.

Under the old ruling if you tried to fish for the Cryptic and announced “combat,” you’d be straight into declare attackers so there are fewer mind games to be played.

Now the problem with this scenario is that it only matters if your opponent is on exactly 8 life. If your opponent is on 15, you’d most likely not want to activate the Mutavault and risk getting everything tapped anyway.

But yes, for similar board situations like this, the old ruling is clearly better. But is that really that common? There aren’t many “tap all creatures” effects in the game and then it only really matters in combination with a creatureland or a Vehicle. And in the Vehicle case, it doesn’t even apply that often. If you tap all creatures, you can’t crew the Vehicle anymore.

I already went through the “declare combat, opponent uses his tapper, cast haste creature” scenario—that is not allowed with the new rules. So that would cover declaring combat and then casting a new creature to crew a Vehicle that couldn’t otherwise be crewed as well. You can’t do that—if you announce combat, you still leave your main phase. You can’t do any stunts like that under either ruling.

There might be some other issue that we can’t foresee. Magic is a complex game with a huge rules set. You won’t stop someone that knows every rule and fishes for an advantage, unfortunately. Just at the last Pro Tour, I know of two people who lost games when they wanted to play effects at the beginning of combat. There won’t be a perfect ruling that removes any rules lawyering or angle shooting. Magic has too many corner cases and is too complex for that.

The new ruling is way more friendly to new players as this is how you would logically expect things to work, especially if you also play on Magic Online and are used to being able to crew your Vehicles in the beginning of the combat step. I believe the new ruling offers fewer ways for people to abuse the rules, especially against new players. If you find some scenarios where this can be abused in current Limited and Standard, please let me know so it can be discussed and people can be made aware or it.

And remember, the old rule was abused as well. Quite a bit. I like the new ruling as it protects people who don’t read every post on magicjudges.org and it makes language barriers less problematic. If most problems with the new ruling happen in Modern, well, that’s even better. If you sign up to play a format with Cryptic Command, Storm, Dredge, and whatever else, you know what you’re in for. Cards in Modern are way more complex and people are more familiar with them as well.

Someone playing in their first Grand Prix, saying “combat?” and clearly wanting to crew their Vehicle before they attack shouldn’t be told that Toby wrote a few years ago on a judges blog that saying “combat” means you’re straight into declare attackers. That is rules lawyering and angle shooting at its best and will improve substantially now.

Under both rulings, if someone maliciously wants to angle shoot, they can do that. Under the old ruling the problematic case comes up more often and is more punishing. Maybe there’s a perfect solution to all of this. I am not aware of it. If I have the choice between old and new ruling, it’s new all day long for me.


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