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Step by Step
Declare Attackers: The active player can declare one or more creatures as attacking. A creature can attack as long as it's untapped, doesn't have summoning sickness, and isn't a Wall. Attacking with a creature causes it to tap. Having a power of 0 or less doesn't prevent a creature from attacking. Creatures always attack individually unless they're organized into bands (see Banding). If any of your creatures are required to attack, you must declare them as attackers (if possible) either before or at the same time as declaring any other attackers. Otherwise, you may decline to declare any attackers at all, although such a null attack still counts as your one attack for the turn.
Typically, you simply declare all of your attackers and are done. Occasionally, however, you might have to pay a cost to let a creature attack, or it might be desirable for either player to play a specialized effect. Paying such a cost or playing such an effect follows the normal rules for playing specialized effects. At the end of this step, any effects that triggered during the step are resolved normally.
If you do pay attack costs or play any spells or abilities, break this step down into declaring zero or more attackers, then playing one or more effects, then declaring zero or more attackers, and so on.
Fast Effects before Blocking: There can be any number of batches of effects here.
Declare Blockers: The defending player can assign some, all, or none of her untapped creatures to block a single attacker each. If a creature is assigned to block a member of a band, it's considered to block the other member(s) of the band as well. Once a creature is blocked, it remains blocked for the rest of the combat, even if all its blockers are removed.
The process for choosing defense is much the same as for declaring attackers. Although it's normally done in a single step, it can be broken down into a series of assigning zero or more blockers, playing specialized effects or paying blocking costs, assigning zero or more blockers, and so on. The creatures assigned to a given attacker don't have to be declared all at once.
All creatures required to block something must be assigned as blockers, if possible, before any other creatures are assigned (or at the same time as the others). If a creature is required to block more creatures than it's legally allowed to (normally only one), it blocks as many of those creatures as it can. This includes attackers that force creatures to block them as well as creatures that are required to block whenever possible.
Evasion abilities, such as flying and landwalk, restrict the sort of creatures that can block an attacker. For example, a creature with flying can fly over creatures that don't have the same ability. If a creature has multiple evasion abilities, a would-be blocker has to satisfy all of them before it can be assigned to block the attacker. For example, a creature with flying and islandwalk can't be blocked, even by creatures with flying, if the defending player controls any islands. These abilities apply only at this step; whether an attacker had an evasion ability before this step or gains or loses one later is irrelevant. Thus, it's not possible to cancel a block by giving the attacker an evasion ability later in combat.
Fast Effects after Blocking: There can be any number of batches of effects here. Remember that killing a blocker or otherwise removing it from combat doesn't cause whatever it blocked to become unblocked. Once this step is over, fast effects can't be played before the main phase resumes.
First-Strike Damage Dealing and Normal Damage Dealing: The two damage-dealing steps follow virtually the same rules. The only difference is who deals damage during each step: creatures with first strike during the first step, and creatures without first strike during the second.
All damage assigned during a step is considered to be dealt simultaneously, but if the order of assigning damage is important, the active player makes all such choices first. Attacking creatures that aren't blocked deal their damage to the defending player. Attacking creatures that are blocked assign their damage to their blockers, if there are any left. If all of a creature's blockers have disappeared, it doesn't deal damage at all (unless the creature has trample).
Untapped blocking creatures deal their damage to whatever they're blocking. A blocker that became tapped before its damage dealing step (to pay for an ability, for example) doesn't deal its damage.
If damage is being assigned to a group of creatures, the player assigning the damage decides how to distribute the damage among the group. The damage may be piled on one creature, distributed among all the creatures, or anything in between. A creature that can't receive damage can't have any damage assigned to it at all.
If any damage is assigned during one of these steps, the step is followed by damage prevention and then by putting creatures with lethal damage into the graveyard.
End of Combat: Process all effects that occur at the end of combat and then check for mana burn. Next, check the players' life totals, just as if a phase were ending. Then resume the main phase.
This Is Your Life
You begin the game with 20 life. As the game progresses, your life total goes up and down, slowly at times and quickly at others. If you drop to 0 or less life for any reason, you're treated as being at 0 life for all purposes except climbing back up to 1 life. If your life total is 0 or less at the end of any phase or at the start or end of an attack, you lose the game. If your opponent is also at less than 1 life, the game is a draw. There's no limit to the amount of life you can have, but you can't spend more life than you currently have on effects that have life as a cost.
Sue, tired of being the victim in these examples, blasts Bob with a 10-damage Fireball when he's at 5 life. Bob doesn't prevent any of the damage, so he drops to -5 life. If he doesn't get to more than 0 life before his life total is checked (assuming Sue has more than 0 life), he loses. However, he hase to gain 6 just to get back to 1 so that he can stay in the game.
If you're instructed to lose some amount of life, simply deduct that amount from your life total; you can go to a negative life total in this way. It's not possible to prevent or redirect any loss of life that results from effects that flatly reduce your life total, because that's not considered damage. If an effect says to lose some fraction of your life and you're already at negative life, your life total doesn't change.
Other Ways to Lose
In addition to losing because she runs out of life, a player loses if she has to draw a card from her library but can't because it has no cards. Also, certain cards will create a new losing condition for one or both players.
If a player loses by means other than running out of life, she doesn't survive until the end of the phase; she loses immediately. If both players lose during the resolution of a single effect, the duel is a draw.
An effect instructs Bob and Sue to draw three cards each, but Bob has only one card left in his library and Sue has only two in hers. Since they both lose because they can't draw enough cards, the game is a draw.
A player can concede the game at any time, in which case he or she loses immediately. Nothing can be done in response to this action; the game is simply over.
Drawing and Discarding
When you're instructed to draw a card, put the top card of your library into your hand. Effects that trigger when a card is drawn or that modify how cards are drawn apply only when you're told specifically to draw a card. If the effect simply moves cards around and happens to move a card from your library into your hand, that isn't considered drawing a card.
When you're instructed to discard a card, put a card from your hand onto the top of your graveyard. If an effect tells you to discard but doesn't say how to pick the card, assume you get to choose which card you discard. As with drawing cards, effects that move cards from your hand to your graveyard are considered discard effects only if they say so.
If a player is required to draw or discard more than one card during a single effect, the cards are drawn or discarded one by one, not all together. Thus, an effect that modifies the drawing or discarding of a card applies to each one in turn and is handled before drawing or discarding the next one.
Bob plays Hymn to Tourach on Sue, which forces her to discard two cards at random. Sue has a Library of Leng in play, which allows her to discard to her library instead of her graveyard. When the Hymn resolves, Bob randomly chooses one card from Sue's hand and she discards it to either her graveyard or her library. He then randomly chooses another card in her hand, which is discarded to her library or graveyard. If the card is put into Sue's graveyard, Bob gets to see it; if it goes to the library, he doesn't.
If you don't like one of the rules of the game, or if you find yourself in a situation that the rules don't seem to cover, you're welcome to come up with a "house rule." Obviously, there are a variety of commonly used house rules, such as the ones listed here.
"Land Mulligan": If you get no land or all land in your initial seven-card draw, you can reshuffle and draw again.
Deck Construction: Each deck must have at least sixty cards, with no more than of four of any individual card other than basic lands.
Always make sure that you and your opponent agree on the house rules before beginning a duel.
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