Recently there’s been a rise in questions about the processes around going to combat. I think it’s due to the presence of Vehicles, though they’re no different than creature lands, and we’ve had those in every format for quite some time. Since people are talking about it again, this is an opportunity to explain why we have the shortcut, how it works in practice, and why we have such a hard line.
Kevin Desprez wrote an excellent article delving into this. I encourage you to read that. I’ll cover some of the same ground here by way of reinforcement, and add my own thoughts, some more background, and answer a few questions that have caused confusion since Kevin wrote that.
To summarize the effect of the shortcut for those who might now know about it: the active player can’t request to move priority to beginning of combat without stating what they are doing there. They’re assumed to be passing priority after whatever statement they make.
One thing that I think is important to highlight: despite the occasional grumble, things are working very well. Some complaints are due to bad information or a misunderstanding, and we’ll try to address them below. The current rules play out naturally and problems rarely come up in game play. Most objections are theoretical, revolving around the fact that you’re technically able to do these things, not that there’s intrinsic value to allowing it.
A Brief History of Why We Care
Back in the prehistoric ages of Magic, the following exchange was common:
“Use Icy Maniuplator to tap down your Ironclaw Orcs”
“OK, that happens. Since we’re still in my main phase, I’ll cast Ball Lightning. Combat?”
There was a more subtle variant that arose in the paleozoic era:
“Cryptic Command your team”
“OK, resolves. I’ll activate Mutavault and attack with it”
Do you see it? It’s sneaky, since that looks totally fine. But let’s flip the script.
“Activate my Mutavault and attack with my team”
“Attack with these creatures”
Now do you see it? The active player has used ambiguity to give themselves an additional priority pass, and the non-active player can only defend against it by being extremely technical. If the active player wants to attack with their creatures and their Mutavault, they can force the non-active player to act first (or know the extremely precise terms that get them out of it) and still benefit if the opponent doesn’t have a trick.
To put it another way: the non-active player holding a Cryptic Command should be able to choose whether the creatures attack or the Mutavault attacks (or neither if the active player is greedy). The active player’s choice should be activating the mutavault (and risk being blown out by Cryptic Command) or risking only being able to attack with their other creatures. But the ambiguity of priority there allows them to upend this.
This is not a style of game play we want to encourage, but we want to encourage organic play which does sometimes generate ambiguous communication. A Japanese player and a German player should be able to play a game of Magic with just a few basic shared terms. All players shouldn’t constantly have to be on guard for tricky phrasing which leads them to doing something at a time they didn’t think they were doing it.
The Two Underlying Philosophies
With very few exceptions, the non-active player doesn't want to act in active player's main phase.
Really, they don’t. And, if they do, they’re going to tell you to stop doing what you’re trying to do in combat and be clear that they’re acting in main phase. They want to act (if at all) right before you declare your attackers.
Asking the non-active player for permission to go from a game state where you have priority to a game state where you have priority is a waste of time. It either accomplishes nothing, or confuses them into doing something in main phase when they think they’re in combat. And, because the non-active player can only interact by using instants and activated abilities, it is rare that there’s a functional difference for the active player between acting in main phase and acting in combat. We can see this from normal play, where it is unusual for the active player to separate the two (“Draw, crew my vehicle, attack?”). As moving the turn forward while retaining priority is (usually) pointless, AP needs to demonstrate a compelling reason that they need do so.
With very few exceptions, the burden is on the active player is to act first.
This is how Magic is structured. The active player – who controls the entire flow of the turn – has to tip their hand first. Being able to get out of this responsibility is a huge advantage. We often talk about a player baiting a response from an opponent, but this should be done through action. The active player should not be able to bait their opponent through inaction.
The aforementioned “Draw, crew, attack?” is a feature, not a bug. It’s how we want players to play, because it preserves the active player’s burden while simplifying communication. By being strict here, there’s no ambiguity to exploit from phrasing, and that encourages this preferred, more natural, style of play.
Those “Very Few Exceptions”
There are a few situations where the active player does have a good reason to move to the beginning of combat without revealing what they want to do. The most common one is when the non-active player has mana floating. In this situation, all the active player needs to do is explain why it’s relevant that they move the priority marker. “Do you want to do anything with that floating mana before we move to combat” is an acceptable way of explicitly moving to beginning of combat while retaining priority.
This makes sense in the context of responsibilities. Because of the floating mana, the burden of acting first has fallen on the non-active player. This inverts the communication dynamic, which makes it reasonable for the active player to demand action rather than the non-active player.
Yes, You Can Act in Beginning of Combat
One confusion that has arisen is the idea that the shortcuts we have in place mean that the active player can never do anything in the beginning of combat. That’s completely wrong, and, in general, the default assumption is that they’re doing things that are logical to do then. For example, a player untaps, draws a card, then activates a Needle Spires. They haven’t said anything, but absent other information, we’ll usually agree it was at the beginning of combat (edit for clarification: if they want it to be. We’re not committing them to be in declare attackers here.)
If a player wants to be clear that they’re doing something in their beginning of combat, all they need to do is say so! “Beginning of combat, activate my Wandering Fumarole” is not merely allowed, but encouraged. The active player has made it clear what is happening while acknowledging their need to act first.
Triggers Are Still Around
The default when moving to beginning of combat is to move there with the non-active player having priority. It’s important to realize that this doesn’t mean any triggers have been missed. Once the non-active player passes back, “OK, Toolcraft Exemplar’s trigger resolves, I crew this Renegade Freighter” is a fine line of play, even if the non-active player didn’t realize this was going to happen. It doesn’t generate a priority that wouldn’t be there naturally.
One word of caution, though. A trigger that requires a target needs to be acknowledged as part of moving to combat. That’s because targeted triggers need to be acknowledged before passing priority.
So Why Not Just Have a Phrase That Lets You Explicitly Have Priority in Beginning of Combat?
I hope that this article has helped explain how unnecessary that is. More importantly, establishing that some phrases are OK empowers people to figure out what the most ambiguous thing they can get away with is. We’re not interested in enabling that line of thinking. Ultimately, Magic should be a game of strategic thinking, not an exercise in grammar, and putting in this hard line improved the game dramatically. One of the arguments for removing or loosening this shortcut is that “nobody tries this sort of thing.” But, there’s a reason for that!
Not to mention all the rules calls where you’d need to parse exactly what was said (and the players won’t agree), possibly in French.
The MTR Doesn’t Explicitly Support This Position
Agreed. Well, it doesn’t refute it, but over the years, we’ve come to adopt the hardest-line stance suggested by it. I’m looking at ways to rework the shortcut to make it clear that there really isn’t a secret phrase that’s worth trying here. The clearer it is that there’s no edge to be had here, the less people will be incentivized to try.