Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Hot Topic - The 'Beginning of Combat' Shortcut: Is it Broken?

Hello everyone, and welcome back to our Path to Exile!

NOTE:  This blog entry on how the Beginning of Combat Short-cut works is now out of date, as of the publication of Policy Changes for Amonkhet, which can be found HERE.

My original blog post about how the old (and now obsolete) BOC Short-cut used to function is left here for posterity.  

This weekend was a fun weekend of Magic for both myself on a personal level, and for all of us Magic-loving folk who happened to watch some of the action of the Pro Tour Aether Revolt coverage from Dublin, Ireland.  As some of you may have heard, there was a bit of confusion resulting from a ruling that occurred during the feature match of Round 8 on Friday.  I'll leave a convenient link for you to watch the ruling in question by clicking HERE.

A lot of discussions happened on reddit, Facebook and other social media almost immediately, as everyone was confused by the situation.  People were asking if the current Magic tournament rules actually prevents players from being able to do things they are completely entitled to do at the beginning of combat?  Are judges enforcing the short-cut incorrectly?  Could a player of the highest caliber, who had traveled to Ireland to compete with the best players on the Pro Tour actually make such a blatant mistake simply because he didn't understand how one of Magic's most commonly used short-cuts works?   Fortunately for us I've spoken to some of Magic's most experienced judges on this topic and I am able to help explain what happened here and perhaps more importantly, I can finally tell you...

Just what the heck is the 'Combat Short-cut' anyway?
One of the documents that judges use when we officiate Magic tournaments is the very aptly named 'Magic Tournament Rules' document, also known as the 'MTR'.   Most casual players will never need to read the MTR, as it is a very long and detailed document.   However, if you often play in Competitive REL tournaments such as PPTQs, Face To Face Opens, or Grand Prix, I would suggest you take a look for yourself sometime with this handy link right HERE (current as of  Feb 5th, 2017).

I'll allow the first paragraph of Section 4.2 to do the explaining of what a short-cut is:

"A tournament shortcut is an action taken by players to skip parts of the technical play sequence without explicitly announcing them. Tournament shortcuts are essential for the smooth play of a game, as they allow players to play in a clear fashion without getting bogged down in the minutiae of the rules. Most tournament shortcuts involve skipping one or more priority passes to the mutual understanding of all players; if a player wishes to demonstrate or use a new tournament shortcut entailing any number of priority passes, he or she must be clear where the game state will end up as part of the request."

Short-cuts in tournament Magic are used in order to allow players to be able to play the game without having to constantly pass priority or verbalize other things that almost never have an impact on game play.   

The short-cut that everyone is discussing this week is the one that affects what happens when an active player attempts to end his pre-combat (or "first") main phase.  Let's take a closer look at the Combat short-cut, shall we?

  • A statement such as "I'm ready for combat" or "Declare attackers?" offers to keep passing priority until an opponent has priority in the beginning of combat step. Opponents are assumed to be acting then unless they specify otherwise. 

Okay, but why do we need this 'Combat Short-cut'?

To answer the question of why we need this short-cut I defer to an article written by a far more knowledgeable and experienced Magic Judge on this topic: 

"More than a decade ago, one of the common “tricks” was to try to make your opponent use their Icy Manipulator in Main Phase 1 so you could cast your Ball Lightning. To achieve this, you would say “attack?” repeatedly before saying “Combat phase?” once. The habit would likely make your opponent not specify when they wanted to act.
This was not pleasant Magic. This was legal, extremely competitive, and at some point High Level Judges realized that this was undermining the tournament scene on the lower level."

   - Kevin Desprez, from the blog post:  [O]fficial: Attacking, blocking and shortcuts

Anytime a player in his or her first main phase says "Declare attackers?", "Move to combat?", or even "Move to beginning of combat?" it automatically advances the game to the 'Beginning of combat step', but after the Active Player has already passed their final priority opportunity before declaring attackers.   This short-cut exists as it does in order to prevent the non-active player (NAP) from being tricked into casting a spell during the active player's (AP) main phase.

Things the 'Combat Short-cut' gets right

Scenario:  AP has 2 creatures in play, both are  3/3 beast tokens.  NAP is at 3 life.

AP: "Declare attackers?"
NAP: "Wait, first I'm going to cast Consume the Meek and destroy your tokens."
AP:  "Okay.  We're still in my main phase, so now I'll just cast this Spark Elemental, swing with it, and you're dead.

Clearly NAP wanted to cast his removal spell after AP had left his main phase to prevent any other potential attackers this turn, but in the old times clever wordings and rules lawyering often led to 'feel bad' moments where people were left frustrated by counter-intuitive language costing them potential wins, such as in the scenario above.

Thanks to our handy 'Combat Short-cut', NAP always is now assumed to be casting any pre-combat spells at the most beneficial time, which is in AP's 'Beginning of Combat Step', not in AP's 'Main Phase' - unless NAP specifically states that they want to do something in AP's Main Phase instead

Things the 'Combat Short-cut' gets... not quite as right

Now let's take a look at some of the things that can go wrong when players don't understand how the 'Combat Short-cut' works.  Keep in mind that when you say "Move to Combat" or "Declare Attackers" or anything similar to that, the next time you will get priority is in the 'declare attackers step' and the very first thing that happens in the 'declare attackers step' is that you have to choose what (if any) attackers you are going to declare.

  • Once you have used the short-cut to leave your main phase, you cannot activate your creature-lands (for example, Mutavault or Needle Spires) to attack with them.  You will already be at the point of declaring attackers (with just whatever eligible creatures you already have).   
  • In almost every scenario, you should be activating your creature lands before leaving your main phase.


If you have a trigger that happens at the Beginning of Combat and it is a trigger that requires a target to be chosen, you cannot simply use the standard "Go To Combat" wording, or YOU WILL MISS YOUR TRIGGER.  This is because the target for the trigger has to be chosen as the trigger goes on the stack, which happens during your priority in the 'Beginning of Combat' ('BOC') step.  Since the normal 'Combat Short-cut' skips right past your priority and ends at your opponents priority in the 'BOC' step, you will have missed your chance to choose a target and hence missed your trigger completely.  

This guy does not work well with the 
normal 'Combat short-cut'!

I know what you're thinking; "But Judge, how am I supposed to get my trigger if I can't use the short-cut?".   The answer is simple enough, you just have to add your target choice to your sentence when you ask to move to combat.

Bad:  AP:"Move to Combat."   
         AP: "Target my Heart of Kiran with Weldfast Engineer."    

Good: AP: "Move to Combat, targetting my Heart of Kiran with Weldfast Engineer"  
          NAP: "Excellent play, my good fellow!"

In fact, this is partly what happened during that incident at Pro Tour Aether Revolt that I mentioned earlier.  It looked like the active player used the short-cut to enter combat, and then tried to resolve his Weldfast Engineer  trigger afterwards.  His error was even further compounded by the fact that he hadn't crewed the vehicle that he wanted to pump with the trigger during his main phase, so even if he had used the wording "Move to combat, targeting my vehicle with my Weldfast Engineer trigger" it still wasn't going to work out for him as the vehicle he chose wasn't already a creature, so it wasn't a legal choice to a target of the ability at the time that it needed to be.

**Important Info**  

If you have a trigger that happens at the 'Beginning of Combat Step' and it does not require a target, you can use the normal short-cut.  In fact, you don't even have to mention the trigger at all before it resolves!  Now this next line is a very subtle point that a lot of people (including some judges) may not always realize, so pay close attention here:  

**While policy dictates that the normal Combat Short-cut ends with your opponent having priority in the 'Beginning of Combat' step, it does NOT state that the stack has to be empty when it gets to your opponents priority.**  *****

What this means is that if you say "Move to Combat" while you have a  Toolcraft Exemplar and an artifact in play, you will be offering to pass priority back and forth until it gets to your opponents priority in the BOC step.   What your opponent may not realize though, is that at your priority in the BOC step the Toolcraft Exemplar trigger goes on the stack, and since it doesn't make a visible change to the game state you won't have to announce it. 

This fellow works very well with
the standard 'Combat Short-cut'

Here is an example of how a BOC trigger that doesn't target can be handled in a game.

Scenario: AP has (2) Toolcraft Exemplar and (2) Heart of Kiran, (1) Mirror Gallery and no Planeswalkers in play.   NAP is at 7 life, and has (2)  3/3 beast tokens in play 

AP;  "Move to Combat"
NAP: "Okay, sure."
AP: "Cool, my Toolcraft Exemplar triggers resolve.  Use each Toolcraft Exemplar to crew each of my Heart of Kiran.  Swing for lethal in the air."
NAP:  "Oh....

The legality of this line of play is further confirmed in an article written by one of our most revered Magic Judges, Toby Elliot is his article 'Do Not Pass Go' which I totally recommend reading thoroughly.

End of the Line

Well then, I think that covers everything we really need to know about the Combat Short-cut.   I believe that if you've taken the time to read this whole article you'll likely gain an advantage at some point in your future matches, either by taking advantage of your opponents lack of knowledge for how the short-cuts and priority passes work, or by catching them when they make a mistake and lose the opportunity to make a key attack.

Best wishes to you, dear readers.  As always, I will remain here should you need me - walking along this path through Exile.



  1. hopefully this gets changed as follows: if I'm the active player and I say "combat?" that means I'm leaving my main phase and going to the beginning of combat step, but if I say "declare attacks" or "attacks?" or something along those lines, I'm in the declare attacks step. Do you see any problems with that, Jason?

    1. I think the biggest concern that policy makers would have with that is that it would open opportunities for language barrier issues to lead to some awkward 'gotcha!' type judge calls, where each player says they said or heard something different than the other player.

      Alternatively, I think a different solution might be to add an extra priority pass in the 'beginning of combat step' that would normally get ignored unless the attacking player specifically does something after stating "move to combat" - for example, AP could then activate a Mutavault to attack with, even though he or she had already used the short-cut to leave their main phase. I already know I am in the minority with that opinion though, as the people who have the ability to change how the short-cut works have repeatedly said that they don't want to add extra priority passes that are redundant 99% of the time. Perhaps there is a better solution out there, waiting to be brought forward.