Playing a winning deck from a recent tournament and following the sideboard advice of a knowledgeable player will put you in a good position to do well in a tournament, but the factor that separates The Champion from the rest of the field is the champion's strong technical play. Today I will focus on one specific area of technical play that is often misunderstood and frequently misplayed, even all the way up to the pro level. Today I will answer the following question:
"When is it correct to attack?"
1. When you're on the play with an aggressive deck
The most straightforward time it is almost always correct to attack is when you're on the play with an aggressive deck. For instance, you're a burn deck in Modern and your opening play is Goblin Guide. It is correct to attack 99.9% of the time in this scenario. The one exception I can think of is if the opponent is playing a deck of all haste creatures and you have cards like Searing Blood, Searing Blaze, and some way to generate card advantage and thus inevitability if you assume a control role (e.g. Grim Lavamancer). The reason it's correct to attack in nearly every case is because the burn deck is designed to deal as much damage to the opponent as quickly as possible, especially with its creatures. It will sometimes use its burn spells to kill opposing creatures, but only to clear the way for its attackers or to disrupt an opposing combo. Blocking is rarely ever part of the game plan, especially on the first turn.
2. When you're ahead in the race.
Unless you're clearly the control deck in the matchup, if you're ahead in the damage race then you want to attack. For instance, let's say it's a Standard Abzan Aggro mirror match and you're on the play. You lead with Rakshasa Deathdealer on the second turn and then I do the same. It's nearly always correct for you to attack in this scenario because if I block, you pump your creature to kill mine and yours lives. So I can't block profitably and will just take two damage from the attack. You can then play another creature and always be a step ahead of me in the damage race. The primary advantage of being on the play in a matchup where combat is a central focus is that you are much more likely to get ahead in the damage race by attacking first. If you don't attack, then you're giving up that advantage and allowing the opponent to not only be up a card (from being on the draw) but also up on tempo.
3. When your creatures can't block profitably.
Let's say you're facing down a tapped Thunderbreak Regent from your Mardu Dragons opponent in Standard. You're playing GW Collected Company and only have a Courser of Kruphix. You're both at 12 life, which means the dragon is ahead in the race. It's still correct to attack because what else is the Courser of Kruphix doing? It can't block the dragon since the dragon has flying, and there aren't any haste creatures we're worried about blocking. It's a free attack since there is essentially no reason to keep him back on defense, yet there is a clear path to get through for two points of damage. These two points of damage can be the difference maker if we draw another creature to add to our offense and hence put us ahead in the race.
4. When the opponent has inevitability.
Sometimes it's a little more complex and you have to decide whether your best chance to win is to sit back and play defense or to enter into a race. As a general rule of thumb, whoever has inevitability is better off playing defense. This means if you determine that you are not the deck with inevitability, then you will want to enter into a race more often than not. For instance, let's say you are Modern Naya Collected Company against Abzan Collected Company. You know that if given enough time, they will find their combo and gain infinite life off Kitchen Finks for the win. So even if they are ahead in the race, you can't afford to play defense and prolong the game. Your odds are much better if you set up a race scenario where all you need is to topdeck a Lightning Bolt or a pair of blockers for the win. Even if you're only 25% to win the race, that's 25% higher than the 0% you are to win the game if you give them enough time to set up their combo.
5. When you can punish the opponent for blocking.
Let's say you are Standard GW Collected Company against Mardu Dragons. The opponent tapped out for two copies of Soulfire Grand Master. You untap with a Brimaz, King of Oreskos and a Dromoka's Command in hand. If you attack and they double block Brimaz, you can use the command to make Brimaz a 4/5 and eat both their blockers. Similarly, if they block the token then you can use the command to make the token a 2/2 and have Brimaz fight the other Soulfire Grand Master, thus also eating both their Soulfire Grand Masters. Unless it is important to keep your creature back on defense, it's generally correct to attack into a blocker if you can profitably punish the block. In this case Brimaz has vigilance and gives you a free token if you attack, so it's extra obvious to attack with Brimaz. The same principle would apply to creatures without vigilance too as long as it wasn't more important to keep the creature back as a blocker.
6. When you can profitably represent a trick.
You don't always have to have the card to punish a block in order for it to be correct to attack. For instance, let's say you're playing a monored deck in a Modern Masters 2015 booster draft and you play a third turn Cathodion as your first play of the game (on the draw). Your 5-Color opponent then taps out for Etched Oracle with four counters on it as their first play of the game, knowing you don't yet have enough mana to kick a Burst Lightning or cast Fiery Fall and that 4/4 is big enough to survive Lightning Bolt, so it's safe to run it out on turn 4. Blocking would open up the opponent to getting punished by all kinds of tricks (Brute Force, Mutagenic Growth, Gut Shot, or any other burn spell or combat trick). If the blocker were a vanilla 4/4 it is much more likely they block because eventually they have to deal with the trick and the vanilla 4/4 isn't offering much by sticking around, so they might as well make the trade for the combat trick now instead of giving us free damage and allowing us to progress our board. In this case, however, the Etched Oracle is significantly more than just a vanilla 4/4. The opponent could untap and leave the Oracle back to block the following turn and if we play a pump spell after blocks, the opponent can then pay one mana and activate the Oracle to draw three cards, thus gaining a huge four- for-one card advantage. Since blocking this turn would require the opponent to pass up such a great opportunity the next turn, it is very unlikely that they block. Hence you are in position to make a "free attack" by representing a trick, regardless of whether you actually have it.
7. When you're turning the corner.
Modern Faeries is a soft control deck that is setup to play defense early but lacks the inevitability of the combo and true control decks in Modern. On the contrary, it has cards like Bitterblossom that will eventually lead to its own death if it lets the game go too long. Therefore in order to win before losing to its own cards, it looks for an ideal point to "turn the corner" and transition from defense to offense. Turning the corner is really a combination of some of the previously mentioned principles. You start attacking when you are ahead in the race (principle #2), even though it might not seem like you are ahead in the race until you do the math based on your board presence increasing each turn. You also enter into a race because you lack inevitability (principle #4) due to your own Bitterblossom acting as a Time Bomb. You also want to attack any time you don't plan on blocking (principle #3). For instance, if you have a trio of 1/1 flyers and you only plan to block with one of them, then you should attack with the other two regardless of who is ahead in the race. 'Turning the corner' is really just a combination of these other principles but is common enough that it's worth mentioning as a single principle to look out for. 'Turning the corner' also comes up a lot when you're trying to end the game as quickly as possible before the opponent has enough time to draw into a winning card.
8. When the act of attacking advances your board.
If you're holding a Wingmate Roc and your only creature on board is a Goblin Token, suiciding the Goblin Token into a blocker advances your board because it allows you to trigger raid to get a 3/4 flying Bird Token out of the exchange. In Innistrad Block Limited it was often correct to attack in hopes that a creature would die in combat to trigger morbid for a spell you want to play, such as Tragic Slip. Attacking solely to trigger raid or morbid will often yield unexpected rewards because you incidentally represent a trick that can punish the opponent for blocking. For instance, the opponent might think "If I block the Goblin Token with my Anafenza, the Foremost, then I might lose my creature to a Lightning Strike, so I'll just take the damage instead." Hence instead of just upgrading your 1/1 Goblin Token to a 3/4 flying Bird Token, you also get a free point of damage and get to keep your Goblin Token!
9. When you have the answer to their trick.
You're playing Aggro Humans in Modern against BW Tokens. You lead with Boros Elite and pass. They lead with Swamp + Thoughtseize, seeing your whole hand and taking one of your copies of Dark Confidant. You draw, attack for one, and play the other Dark Confidant. The opponent plays an Isolated Chapel and passes the turn. You untap, reveal Champion of the Parish off Dark Confidant, and draw Zealous Persecution during your draw step. Since the opponent let you get a free card off Dark Confidant, it's unlikely they have a removal spell for it. They also played an untapped land on their second turn instead of a tapped land or a fetch land that can search out a tapped Godless Shrine. These factors lead you to believe their play is going to be cast Raise the Alarm mid-combat to try and kill your Dark Confidant and Boros Elite. Ordinarily this would be enough to halt your attack and cause you to wait until next turn, but since you drew Zealous Persecution, you have the Thwart to their plan. So you attack with both and if the opponent casts Raise the Alarm you then play Zealous Persecution before blocks to kill both their Soldier Tokens and have them take five damage from the attack. You can then play land and the Champion of the Parish after combat.
10. When it's your only way to win.
You're playing Standard GR Devotion against RG Dragons. Your opponent attacks you down to eight life with their Stormbreath Dragon and then plays a Thunderbreak Regent post-combat. You have a 4/4 Genesis Hydra, a Deathmist Raptor, and seven lands and the opponent is at 13 life. You have no way to deal lethal to the opponent this turn and no way to stop the opponent from hitting you for lethal in the air next turn with their two dragons. What's the correct play? Attack! The opponent doesn't know that you have nothing in hand. They might think trading is better for some reason. Maybe they want to try and play around Dragonlord Atarka, Hornet Queen, or Crater's Claws. By attacking you give the opponent a chance to keep you in the game and you force them to make one final decision correctly to beat. Conceding is premature and there is no reason to keep either of your creatures back to block since neither can block the opposing fliers. So when all other options have been exhausted, make an attack that causes the opponent to think and potentially compromise their winning board position.
As you can see, there are several different reasons to attack. Most scenarios in which it is correct to attack will fall under one or more of the ten reasons mentioned in this article. If you keep these reasons closely in mind and consciously look for them during your matches, then it will gradually become more and more intuitive for you to identify when it is correct to attack.
1. When you're on the play with an aggressive deck.2. When you're ahead in the race.3. When your creatures can't block profitably.4. When the opponent has inevitability.5. When you can punish the opponent for blocking.6. When you can profitably represent a trick.7. When you're turning the corner.8. When the act of attacking advances your board.9. When you have the answer to their trick.10. When it's your only way to win.
Any questions about when to attack are welcomed in the comments below.
Craig Wescoe@Nacatls4Life on twitter
(Note: The Master Deckbuilder Challenge results will be pushed back to next week to give me adequate time to determine the winner)