[Outdated; Inaccurate] Overview -- Combat

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Originally by John Carter:

The Combat phase is the most common realm of player interaction. Combat is divided into five steps with each step having special actions associated:

I. Beginning of Combat step
A. Beginning of combat triggers
B. Last chance to generate, modify, or tap creatures before declaring attackers
II. Declare Attackers step
A. Attackers are declared simultaneously and all costs are paid
B. Attacking triggers
C. Last chance to generate, modify, or tap creatures before declaring blockers
III. Declare Blockers step
A. Blockers are declared simultaneously and all costs are paid
B. Blocking triggers
C. Last chance to modify (such as pumping) creatures before putting damage on the stack
IV. Combat Damage step
A. Damage is assigned and goes on the stack as one action
B. Last chance to modify (pump defense, generate prevent and regeneration shields) creatures (or players) before damage resolves
C. After resolving damage, damage triggers go on the stack
D. Last chance to play spells and abilities before handling end of combat
V. End of Combat step
A. End of combat triggers
B. Last chance to play spells and abilities before leaving the Combat phase

Beyond the basic steps to Combat, there are also a few other rules. Tapped creatures cannot attack or block. However, tapping or untapping a creature after declaring it as an attacker or blocker does not remove it from combat (it just changes the tap status). Leaving play, changing controllers, no longer being a creature, and regeneration will remove a creature from combat. Note that if the creature’s damage is already on the stack, removing it from combat will not stop the damage from resolving. Also, once damage is on the stack, increasing a creature’s power will not increase the amount of damage dealt by that creature. Increasing a creature’s toughness after damage is on the stack (but not yet resolved) is often a wise method of making sure an opponent doesn’t pump the damage that creature would take (because it’s already on the stack and cannot be increased).

When a group of creatures is declared as attackers or blockers, that group is first checked as a whole to make sure the declaration is legal. If the declaration is not legal, it is negated, and a new declaration must be declared. Once a declaration is determined to be valid, abilities trigger and the game continues as normal. If no attackers are declared, the game proceeds directly to the End of Combat step.

If a creature is required to attack, it must attack if there are no effects preventing it. However, if there is an additional cost to attacking with a given creature, that creature’s controller may refuse to pay the cost and thereby avoid the required attack even if the cost is payable (such as spending zero mana).

Declaring intent to attack is not the same thing as declaring attackers. Announcing in the main phase “I attack you” is the shorthand equivalent to “the stack is empty, and I am passing priority to you before I leave the main phase and enter the combat phase.” Responding to this declaration of attack leaves the game still in the main phase. If a player intends to tap a creature or play another effect before attackers are declared, that player should wait for or specify that their spell or ability is played “before declaring attackers” (not attack) or better yet “during the beginning of attack step”. While the rules are clear on priority and game flow, judges should be aware of and willing to point out that not allowing opponents an opportunity to respond is also unwarranted.