Home Strategy Putting your life on a clock in Magic the Gathering


During the load screens of Magic the Gathering Duels of the Planeswalkers, the player is presented with tips intended to give beginners some useful information:

  • “Creatures can’t tap or attack the round they’re summoned.”
  • “Don’t eat the cards!”*
  • “Having one life is fine… as long as your opponent has zero!”

Some are serious, some are silly, and some seem obvious… especially that last one. After all, a game with life totals is about having more life, right?

Absolutely not.

You see, while having zero life is generally unfavorable in Magic the Gathering, one’s life total alone isn’t the best indicator of who’s going to die soon. Instead, there’s a much more important measure of which player needs to get his shit together before it’s time to bite the big one.

It’s called the Clock.

“Goddammit WiNG, you didn’t invent the Clock!”

Look, I never claimed the come up with “the clock,” nor did I claim to coin the term.** But it’s something fundamental to the game that most new players simply don’t grasp at all, and one of the most important considerations from a strategic point of view in any match. So yeah, if you know what the clock is, feel free to read some other gaming articles. But for the uninitiated, this is going to be kind of a big deal.


Tick, tick, tick: That’s the sound of your life running out

What is the Clock, exactly? To put it simply, the Clock is the number of turns a player would live, given the board position remains the same. That may sound a bit complicated, so I’m going to plagiarize my own example from a previously written work for your immediate benefit:

If one player has one or more creatures that can’t be blocked or are not prudent to block, his/her opponent is essentially on a clock. At 20 life, a 1/1 puts you on a 20 turn clock. A 4/4 puts you on a 5 turn clock. An 11/11 puts you on a 2 turn clock, etc.

The concept of the clock is important because it forces you to consider how quickly you must neutralize a threat in order to win. It also allows you to judge your relative odds of winning in combat damage “trades.” If your opponent has an 8/8 creature and you’re at 17 life, you’re on a 3 turn clock. But if you have a 3/2 flyer and he/she’s at 5, you have the advantage.

Don’t let specific numbers scare you. Always ask yourself who has more turns on the clock, and make decisions that add time to your clock or subtract time from the opponent’s clock. For instance, if your opponent is at 2 life, and is on a 2 turn clock, playing another creature is not likely to decrease that player’s clock unless you expect he/she may remove one of your creatures from play.

What does this all mean? It means life totals are irrelevant outside of the context of the status quo. Having over 9,000 life isn’t useful if your opponent has a 10,000 power creature on the board. And having 3 life isn’t so scary if you can deck your opponent next turn. It also means that making decisions based solely on one’s life total is stupid.


A practical scenario and the underlying mechanics

Image a round in which you have two 1/1 creatures, and your opponent has one 1/1 creature. For the sake of simplicity, neither of you has cards in hand. If your opponent is at 12 life and you’re at 7 life, in most situations you should attack with both creatures. The reason is simple: assuming the board position doesn’t change, and assuming both players attacked each round and never blocked, you would win in six turns (dealing two damage a turn) and your opponent would win in seven turns (dealing only one).

If your opponent chooses to block, he will be left with no creatures, but you’ll still have your single 1/1 critter. Now your foe is on a 12 turn clock, while you’re not on a clock at all. The board position isn’t complicated, but it has drastically swung in your favor. Unless the other player draws something that can stop or stall your 1/1 in the next 12 turns, he will lose the game.

Some might ask what your opponent should do – block or not block? This certainly depends on a great number of factors. If he doesn’t block, he has only six turns to draw a game-changing card, compared to twelve if he trades 1/1 creatures with you in battle. Up front, it would seem blocking was the safest bet. But what if he had a card in his deck (like Giant Growth) that could give his creature +3/+3? He could ignore your assault, hoping to draw it, then use it either to finish you off or block and kill one of your creatures.

Of course, your decision to attack must take the same variables into consideration. If you know your opponent has exactly three Giant Growths left in his deck of 30 cards, there is a non-negligible risk your clock calculations could suddenly be turned on their cardboard ears. Ultimately, this type of risk assessment, both of one’s own deck and of one’s opponent’s deck, is part of what makes Magic strategy so consistently exciting.


Some kind of pun about the three blind mice

While the Clock is great for estimating the situation at hand, plenty of cards can quickly make your calculations irrelevant. For example, when you have five life and a board full of creatures, you’re not necessarily safe if your opponent has Lava Axe in his or her library. Likewise, stalling indefinitely is pointless if you have significantly fewer cards in deck then your adversary. Your defensive game may in fact lead to your running out of spells and land to draw. The Clock is integral to performing smart Magic the Gathering plays, but it is only a single cog in the machine.

That said, I hope you make Clock estimation a regular part of your strategic plan. That way, the next time you’re about to assign blockers, you’re not thinking about how you’re about to be dropped to four hit points. You’re thinking about how your opponent’s not going to have a way to bring you from four to zero after your killer play next turn.


* Yes, this is one of them.
** Okay, maybe I did once… but I take it back, I swear!

4 replies to this post
  1. “Tick, tick, tick: That’s the sound of your life running out”
    lol isn’t it one of the quotes in the tv series “Dexter”.

    Great idea by the way i never played thinking like turns while playing but i’ll definetely try it

  2. Eladamri’s Vineyard used to be such a good clock when Mana Burn was still around. I miss those days.

  3. Never heard the term, but I believe any player will instinctively drop in that at some point… after all mtg is a strategy game, and, in general, will draw attension of that kind of player.

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