Magic is a game of powerful mages who summon creatures and spells to battle their opponents. Sometimes, you cast a massive Fireball to win in one hit. Other times, you attack them with a 1/1 Saproling token—essentially sending a walking plant over to kick them in the shins. Those small attacks are often overlooked in the grand scheme of things, but they can turn out to be quite important in a game of Commander.

What is “chip damage” in Commander? Simply put, chip damage is when you attack a player for small points of damage with the intent of helping move the game along. Though it seems insignificant on the surface, chip damage can really make an impact on the game as a whole. If used correctly, this practice will lead to more interactive and exciting gameplay for everyone at the table.

Before we go any further, let’s get into some common misconceptions about chip damage. The most frequent excuse for someone not attacking is “I don’t want to make enemies this early.” Other players might say that they don’t want to leave themselves exposed, or position themselves as too big of a threat. While all of these reasons are good-intentioned, they can often lead to clogged board states that grind the game to a halt.

When it comes to making enemies, it’s easy to do so when you counter someone’s win condition, or hit them with a one-sided board wipe. However, hitting someone with a Fleecemane Lion on turn three isn’t going to make them your enemy. The game has barely gotten going, so a few small and early attacks won’t be anything more than a minor annoyance. As long as one player isn’t singled out over another, then everything will be fine for the balance of power. Some players like using a die to randomize these early attacks, although the choice is yours. Personally, I prefer not to, because then it gives my actions more of a sense of conviction, instead of simply letting the die tell me what to do.

If you’re worried that you’ll leave yourself exposed for a counterattack, don’t sweat it. The counterattack will likely be just as small as the one you make. With your life total starting at forty, you have plenty of breathing room while the game develops. Also, taking a few on the chin will help you from being perceived as too big of a threat, which can only help your position in the game. More on that can be found in my previous article.

Why should we be getting in for chip damage? The reason lies in the second half of the definition: moving the game along. An attack with Fleecemane Lion might not seem relevant in a game of forty life, but we have to start getting in there if we want to get them to zero. Commander is quite different from other constructed formats, especially in this area. We can absorb these hits easily from our opponents, but at the same time it feels like our small creatures barely get us anywhere. Three damage is fifteen percent of your opponent’s life total in other formats, but only seven and a half percent here. Other formats aren’t multiplayer like Commander is, so four players-worth of chip damage can really add up.

The lack of chip damage can be a contributing factor towards a game slowing down. For instance, if left unthreatened, players can amass impenetrable walls of permanents. While this also touches on the need to put good removal and board wipes in each deck you play, I ask this question for you: would you rather have the game reach “battlecruiser” status when everyone is at thirty-five life, or at ten? When you’re staring down a complex game state with multiple factors to consider, it sure is a lot easier to get in for only ten points of damage instead of something more. All of those little, seemingly random early attacks will have paid off by this point.

Now that you’re thinking about getting in there with your Fleecemane Lion, how much chip damage is too much? How much can you poke the bear before someone really comes after you? Personally, I believe that any attack under five points of damage is the sweet spot. It’s enough to start making progress on your opponents’ life totals, but not too large for the receiver to feel threatened. It’s good to spread the damage around too, or at least to go after the players with the most life to give. That way, it’s easy to rationalize in case your opponent asks why you picked them to attack.

As long as everyone chooses to get in on the action, chip damage is a great way to make the game more interactive. When people start trading blows with Wood Elves and Coiling Oracles, then you start seeing more conversations popping up. The more people are choosing to interact with each other, then the more excitement and intrigue the game can have. It’s the Magic equivalent of being the first person out on the dance floor, getting everyone else to join in. And who doesn’t love a few little kicks to get the party started?

Travis is a Connecticut-based player and writer, who has been turning things sideways since Starter 1999. He primarily plays Commander, Pauper, and Modern, and has a passion for introducing new players to the game. When he isn’t attacking with red creatures, he can be found mountain biking or playing the guitar. You can follow his exploits here on Twitter and Instagram.

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