Competitive Combat

Harvey McGuinness • June 1, 2023

Winota, Joiner of Forces | Illustrated by Magali Villeneuve

Thassa's Oracle. Witherbloom Apprentice. Heliod, Sun-Crowned. The deployment of any of these creatures in a game of cEDH spells the potential for a swift victory, with both their power and notoriety being due in no small part to their tried-and-true combo success.  These creatures win games, but not the way creatures were intended to win games. That is, like most of cEDH, they all ignore the combat step.

Combat has a tenuous relationship with cEDH; with double the players and quadruple the total sum lifepoints, Commander was designed for games to go long, something at-odds with high power competition. While ramming your way through opponents via combat is far and away from being the norm of cEDH these days, that doesn't mean we should abandon the combat step completely. And no, I'm not just talking about Winota, Joiner of Forces or Jetmir, Nexus of Revels decks, where combat is front and center in the strategy starting from turn zero. I'm looking at everyone, from Prosper, Tome-Bound to Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy.


Before zeroing in on combat, it's important to zoom out for a bit and talk about how games get to their endings in the first place. In principle, competitive Magic can be summed up - albeit rather crudely - in one word: control. Life total pressure, card advantage, interaction potential, each of these is an axis upon which the battle for game control is fought, with each player's game actions seeking to wrestle advantage from their opponents. In a one-v-one format like Modern, for example, a player resolving a game-winning spell, such as Living End, would put them strictly ahead both in resources and pressure, cementing their control over the game. Living End is by no means a control spell, but its effect does serve to control the pace of the game.

A handy-dandy Force of Negation, meanwhile, could put a dead end in the Living End player's plans, with the exchange of resources putting the Force of Negation player ahead in tempo. Viewed this way, while it was the Living End player whose prerogative initiated an exchange of resources, the end result put the Force of Negation player in a state of (temporary) game control.

Things get a bit trickier when we double the number of players. If we swap Living End out for Ad Nauseam and move from Modern over to cEDH, now the end state is ambiguous. The Ad Nauseam player is certainly out of luck in a way similar to that of the Living End player from earlier, but the Force of Negation player can no longer be assumed to be ahead. If anything, they lost out as well, as they are down a card (if not two) in order to keep the game going, while the two other players not implicated in this exchange are both still alive and ahead on resources.

What does this have to do with combat? We've talked about resource exchange and card advantage, so how do creatures turning sideways fit in with this? Well, if life is a resource, then combat is an opportunity to rob your opponents of that resource. It is true that there is no difference in the end state for a winner at 1 life versus a winner at 100 life. That player will have won either way, but what is equally true is that a player at 1 life is more likely to lose a game than their 100-life counterpart. The Turbo-Ad Nauseam player will be able to draw fewer cards, the Stax player will be able to grind fewer turns, and the Midrange player will have less opportunity to devote resources towards advancing their own gameplan. Combat pressure isn't just a way to win; it's resource management, just like managing the stack.

Going back to the four-player Force of Negation example, it's here that a combat comparison can be made and that life total management reveals itself as an important means for players to vie for control of the game. Just like with the stack, where players jockey for who is forced to respond to any particular threat, every 1 point of damage you deal is 1 less damage your opponents have to deal. This means that in Commander, the question isn't just "how can I reduce my opponents' life totals," but rather "how can I get my opponents to combat each other for me." Proper combat management isn't just timing your attacks, it's maneuvering around your opponents' as well. It might not quite be priority bullying, but it can be incredibly useful all the same.


Stepping back again for a bit to consider the role of combat over the course of the game, it's next important to go over the difference between combat as a clock and combat as resource management. Until you get to 1, life is always a resource. Whether it's cracking fetchlands or paying for Phyrexian mana with Gitaxian Probe, there are a plethora of opportunities to continually evaluate the cost-benefit analysis of reducing your own life total or in allowing your opponents to reduce yours for you. That being said, once 1 hits 0 it's game over, and for many players the clock starts ticking long before that.

Let's look at the weakest Magic environment, wherein life totals frequently act as a clock from as early as turn one: Sealed. Outside of very fringe circumstances, chances are that a Draft tournament isn't going to involve alternate win conditions or infinite combos. The result of this structure is simple: each player's life total is under constant scrutiny, as it is the number to beat. Comparing this against a format like Legacy, for example, and the role of life totals is very different: life doesn't really begin to matter until the board state becomes a race, something which is frequently addressed through resource management along other axes far earlier in the game. Couple these creature solutions with the format's vast array of combo decks (chances are a player who assembles Painter's Servant and Grindstone on the same board will be as happy at 5 life as they were at 20), and you're left with an environment which has a much greater appetite for risky life point spending.

The trend here to notice is that, as formats become more powerful and the race for control becomes more of a sprint, both the opportunities to spend life as well as the incentives to do so become much greater. The clock starts ticking at lower life totals, and the feats achievable thanks to proper life total management become much more impressive.

Now on to the combat clock and Commander. Here, the numbers are ridiculous: rather than facing down a one-to-one starting opponent life total, you're up against a triplicate opponent, 120-v-40. This immediately implicates two conditions:

  • The clock is almost certainly going to start later in the game.
  • The clock disproportionately favors each collective set of opponents, three combats and three life totals against any individual one.

With these structural differences in mind, we can now move to evaluating the role of combat in Commander across different power levels, as we did earlier with the evolution from Sealed through to Legacy. In casual Commander, wherein combat remains the principal means of securing a victory, the clock will start eventually, but even in the weakest of decks life totals won't be the primary concern in the early turns by any means. For many games of cEDH, meanwhile, the clock never starts. This isn't to say that cEDH is such a powerful format that it has evolved beyond the combat step; rather it reflects that the structural difficulties imposed by the significantly higher life totals at play put combat victories outside of the realm of most competitive decks. Akin to our Legacy comparison where the clock began far closer to one, the speed of resource management has pushed cEDH life total clocks to the brink, but the higher starting conditions have made that point a near event horizon. By the time you reach it, chances are the game is over.

However, just because combat isn't the same clock that it is in other formats doesn't mean that it should go ignored.

Incremental Value

Players might not care about their life totals in episodic cases - one non-lethal combat step over the course of the game isn't going to change much in most circumstances - but if managed well, combat can accrue incremental advantage, and anything extra that we can squeeze out of our Commander games to push us over the edge is certainly worth investigating. There are obvious circumstances where the value of combat explodes: limiting the Ad Nauseam or Sylvan Library players, for example, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are also times where games go long.

When players talk about games ending on the early turns - one, two, three, etc. - it's important that we don't forget that each turn cycle brings with it four combat steps. You may only be directly responsible for one quarter of those, but it's nonetheless true that there are a lot of combat steps happening as the game goes on. While the balancing of opponents means that you are more likely to be in a defensive position for the bulk of that time, this does not negate the fact that you are a part of the three-opponent turn cycle for each other player. From your perspective, you are facing down against three opponents, but from each opponent's perspective that player is fighting uphill against you and two others.

It's a bit tricky to wrap your head around at first, but the end result is that, while you don't spend the majority of the game in the pilot's seat during combat, you do spend the majority of the game as a passive pressure alongside two other players against any one given player at a time. Couple that with the sheer volume of combat steps in cEDH, and suddenly the appeal of combat begins to become much more apparent. You aren't just an individual combatant occupying a quarter of the time, but rather part of a larger pressure which each opponent must face.

Game duration aside, there is also the social component to incremental value. Part of the primary misunderstanding with combat value in cEDH is that, unless you are in a combat-centric deck, chances are that the game won't be won through combat. That being said, for individual players the game can certainly be lost through combat, and I should know: I've certainly lost my fair share of games post-Stax lockdown where the only thing players can do is move to combat.

This staggering of losses provides an opportunity to extract value in and of itself; whether it's cutting deals to pick off a particularly dangerous opponent, keeping another player alive to help contain an opposing threat, or just working to accelerate the pace of an individual clock, the social value of combat is key to its incremental success. Coordinating combats can turn even the most defensive of decks into key players responsible for securing an opponent's combat loss, so don't forget to look around you when it comes to declare attacks.

Wrapping Up

Many competitive Commander games with some players never having attacked at all, completely oblivious to the potential for combat interaction which their board states held. Just because winning a game exclusively through combat isn't an option for most decks, however, doesn't mean we should forget that we each have the opportunity to attack. Attacking with a Grand Arbiter Augustin IV and a Drannith Magistrate isn't much to most people, but doing it turn after turn in a unified front with a Malcolm, Keen-Eyed Navigator backed up by a Kediss, Emberclaw Familiar is certainly enough to tip the scales of the game vastly against a single and unlucky opponent.

Harvey McGuinness is a student at Johns Hopkins University who has been playing Magic since the release of Return to Ravnica. After spending a few years in the Legacy arena bouncing between Miracles and other blue-white control shells, he now spends his time enjoying Magic through cEDH games and understanding the finance perspective.