Mental Blocks

Ben Fischer • July 12, 2022

I’ve been blocking a lot less than I used to, and I believe you should do the same.

If you’re reading this, there’s a very high chance that you enjoy Limited. That also means there’s a good chance you’re a very smart and chill person. After all, you clearly have good taste, and there’s lots about limited to enjoy! People will often say that Limited focuses on creature-based combat more than other formats, which is mostly true. You rarely see combat tricks in Commander, and as you go to older and older formats, the focus tends to shift to noncreature spells. If you like attacking and blocking, Limited is the place to be.

Or, at least, that’s what I thought for a long time. Those that are familiar with Vector Theory know that I love making observations, and I was tipped off to this key observation by the accidental wisdom of one of my students (I teach high school physics). A student and I were testing out our Zendikar Rising draft decks. I attacked with all of my creatures while tapped out, knowing that I’d lose one of them to blockers but get in for a massive amount of damage. To my surprise, my student said “No blocks. What am I taking?” without even glancing at the board! As a rule, I try to allow my students to discover things about both science and Magic on their own, but this grabbed my attention. “Did you see that I was tapped out before declaring no blockers? Uhhhh...” To which my student responded, “Well, I was just doing what you always do.”

This is somehow both very funny and very informative. I know Zendikar Rising like the back of my hand, so it may have appeared that I was not even paying attention as I waved through damage over and over again. However, Zendikar Rising is emblematic of many of the recent Limited environments, and I believe a pattern is forming. Out of the last 10 or so Standard-legal draft environments, how many often come down to a tempo-oriented damage race? By my estimate, at least half of them, with sets like Streets of New Capenna and Midnight Hunt standing out among them. Midnight Hunt is currently available to play on Quick Draft on Arena, and I quickly remembered how important cards like Lunarch Veteran and Startle are in deciding the outcome of games. Join me for a walk around the, ahem, block, and consider how different understandings of blocking can help our gameplay in Midnight Hunt, New Capenna, and beyond.

Many Magic players begin learning about blocking at the kitchen table or local game store, and it has immediate appeal. After all, one of the first ideas about the game often taught is that you lose when your life total hits zero, and you can prevent yourself from taking damage by blocking. New players “chump block” much more frequently to maintain a high life total, sometimes even feeling defeated if they drop below 20. If this is you, no hard feelings -- just know that your life total is a resource, and you get to choose how you apply it productively. A win at 1 life is just as good as a win at 50 life. In Limited, newer players will tend to follow similar strategies, tossing something like a 2/2 in front of a 5/5 while at a comfortable 15 life. This is probably “level 1” of blocking (I guess level zero would be before you learned it was a thing), and it’s about where my student is at.

“Level 2” is when a player begins to get the hang of typical limited blocking interactions, such as trying to double-block, or set up a block plus a removal spell or combat trick. This is a dangerous level, as it is highly susceptible to interaction from your opponent. If you often find yourself getting 2-for-1’d by your opponent after a risky set of blocks, you’re likely at this level. There might be a “level 2.5” somewhere around this area where such plays are only made when the opponent is tapped out, or if it really is the only line to victory.

Level 3 is the level many experienced limited players are at: considering the context of the format, and using your life total as a spendable resource, make blocks only that align with your deck’s vector and forward your own gameplan (or keep you alive to do so). I have been exploring this level for a while, specifically re-evaluating the risks associated with what appear to be harmless blocks. For example, your opponent attacks a 1/3 into your 1/3. Maybe they want to try to trigger a damage-based effect, or maybe they have a combat trick, or maybe they just think you’re a coward. This type of block might look relatively low-risk, but considering the way modern Limited vectors are often designed, the advantage is very rarely with the blocker.

Consider New Capenna. The combat tricks that generally favor attackers include Daring Escape, Luxurious Libation, Antagonize, Fake Your Own Death, and so on. The ones that generally favor blockers are… Most Wanted? Refuse to Yield? The only thing I refuse to do is set myself up to get blown out by a removal spell. I recommend that you pull up a recent limited set of your choice and look at how many of the combat tricks are designed to be used while attacking, and the number that are designed to be used while blocking. By thinking very carefully about blocking within the context of a set, you really can become a master of a Limited environment. Talk about building blocks!

For more bad puns, overanalysis, and fun deep dives into Limited, check out the Draft Chaff podcast!