This week I am going to talk about a necessity of Magic that goes well beyond Legacy: combat math. Now I am far from an authority on this issue, but I do have quite a bit of experience with it. Combat math is also very important in Legacy for many decks. Outside of the corner cases where you are dropping a huge game winning spell, combat math is the core fundamental that will win you many games. It still tends to air on the side of simplicity in Legacy. Normally, decks are counting the number of turns their 3-4 creatures will win in or how long their huge creature will take to kill with.
I am, however, going to be talking about the more important half of combat math: the creature deck’s combat math. The biggest deck in Legacy right now where combat math seriously matters is Death & Taxes. It matters in other decks too, but most have shifted away from running an excess of creatures. Death & Taxes aims to cause troublesome or simple ineffective combat steps for their opponent, which eventually leads them to be able to attack their opponents until they die.
Aggro deck combat math relies upon you being able to figure out your opponents ideal blocks (as well as their probable blocks, which are often different) and how much damage you can put out on any given turn. This can break down to many different calculations. The most important thing that cannot be stressed enough from me is playing around removal, which was definitely something I had to learn as a new player. I am going to be using Goblins as my example deck because it is where my experience on the topic focuses. If you want to see my list or become very interested in the deck you can find my list here. The deck has harder combat math than many others because of Goblin Piledriver. The combat math became even harder, mostly because the most tempting attack of putting your opponent to 5 was commonly very bad because it was hard to deal the closing damage. The important part in Goblins was figuring out combat math against potential board wipes or multiple pieces of removal. Dealing the closing damage in Goblins was commonly very difficult, so one requires learning the principle of killing in one turn or killing in 3 or so turns.
I tend to ere on the conservative side, especially in Goblins, so I often prefer to aim for a kill in 3-4 turns rather than the 1 turn if they don’t have removal and 2 if they don’t. There are, of course, exceptions to such rules (in the case of Combo decks the fastest win is always ideal), but attacking slower against much of Legacy tends to pay off more commonly with a win because the format doesn’t often punish a slower game plan. The slower aggro deck game plan tends to still be worlds faster than the slow game plan of many other decks.
Now for the fundamentals that actually matter for doing combat. The first is calculating your damage output per turn based upon the creature that can attack this turn (this also includes haste creatures in your hand of course). The next step is to figure out your opponent’s ideal block, which (once again a basic statement) involves stopping the most damage per creature blocked (they hope to prevent as much damage as possible and leave as many of their creatures alive as possible). Then, we must calculate combat tricks that can come from both sides and how many creatures you need to survive this combat. Ideally for you: you can attack with all of your creatures and they are unable to block or counter swing on the following turn. If you are aiming to finish the game as quickly as possible, it is important to calculate your opponent’s counter swing against your alpha strike. The two most important components, therefore, lie in your ability to predict your opponent’s cards and figure out how you wish to spend your resources.
Knowledge of your opponent’s hand is a skill that is accumulated based upon knowledge of the metagame mostly. Your opponent’s hand (unless you’ve used a Peek effect) is a mysterious slew of cards that your opponent’s deck may contain. The skills of deducing them tend to lie in the knowledge of what is at their disposal given the popular versions of their deck. In Modern, for instance, Lightning Bolt is the most common instant-speed card played and is run in virtually every deck that plays Red. So, except in some corner cases, you should play around Lightning Bolt against red decks. But, it is also important to deduce what your opponent does not have. For instance, you can rule out different removal spells or counter spells based on how they would have already been spent on your opponent’s turn. This is a different, yet equally important step: deducing what your opponent does not have. For example, if your opponent has a Lightning Bolt and they would have used it last turn, then you are free to play into the card (and in that situation should probably should anyway). This is a very big component and could drastically change your plans into trying to kill your opponent faster.
The final part that must be discussed is the top of the deck, which is a whole jumble unto itself, but in Legacy it largely exists as a known entity. Between the commonness of Brainstorm to the other endless deck manipulations, the top of the deck is commonly an extension of the hand, especially for a deck like Miracles. This means that while your topdecks might be a mystery, theirs can be carefully sculpted. This makes it important to factor in what they may have hidden for later, or are ready to ship away unless you play the creature you just did. This is much less common because most decks run around 8 deck manipulation spells and many fetchlands, so the top of the deck tends to become unknown rather quickly.
It is hard to guarantee that your attack will be successful, but figuring out how to sequence your attacks is very important and can easily win you many more games. The most important parts are figuring out your fastest and most efficient route to victory and figuring out how your opponent can stop you. For combat in a format like Legacy, there tend to be fewer combat tricks lying around (outside of Infect) than in other formats, but knowledge of the opponent is still a very valuable asset. The most important part of combat math is figuring out how to add up your ideal attack or block against your opponent. When put like that, combat math sounds really simple (because for the most part it is). It is very important to understand that you can figure out how to find your path to victory because most of the time it’s right there on the table and you just haven’t noticed it.
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