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First Strike in MTG – Rules, Best Cards + Decks!

First strike is an evergreen Magic: The Gathering ability. It allows creatures to deal damage first without taking damage themselves. In this article, I look at what first strike does in MTG with examples, the best first strike cards in all colours, and cover a fabulous first strike deck that you can use to smash your opponent to pieces!

Ballynock Cohort MtG card. Image: Wizards of the Coast. Artist: Jesper Ejsing.
Ballynock Cohort MTG card. Image: Wizards of the Coast. Artist: Jesper Ejsing.

MTG First Strike Rules

What do the MTG first strike rules say?

“This creature deals combat damage before creatures without first strike.”

Magic: The Gathering Comprehensive Rules 702.7. “First strike”.

First strike is an ability that allows creatures to deal damage first and not sustain any damage. In a typical combat phase, both creatures deal and take damage simultaneously. First strike bends this rule and creates an additional combat step where only cards with first strike get to deal damage and then moves on to the next combat step.

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Here’s how the combat phases look without and with first strike.

A combat phase in a typical turn of MTG looks like this:

  • Beginning of combat
  • Declare attackers
  • Declare blockers
  • Assign combat damage
  • End of combat

Creatures with first strike or cards with double strike (mentioned later in this article) effectively create two ‘assign combat damage’ steps. So the combat phase with first strike looks like this.

  • Beginning of combat
  • Declare attackers
  • Declare blockers
  • Assign combat damage (additional combat step)
  • Assign combat damage
  • End of combat

A card with first strike will assign combat damage in the first combat damage step. Then, if the opposing creature is not dead, the opposing creature will assign combat damage in the next step.

So if you attack or block with a creature that has first strike, that card will deal damage first and will not take into consideration any damage being dealt by the opposing creature.

If two creatures have the same power and toughness, the creature with first strike will destroy the other before it has a change to hit back. If it didn’t have first strike, the traditional rules would apply and both creatures would die.

First Strike Example

Sanguine Guard and Prismari Apprentice MtG cards. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
Sanguine Guard and Prismari Apprentice MTG cards. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Let’s say I attack with my Sanguine Guard, a 2/2 with first strike. My opponent blocks with Prismari Apprentice, also a 2/2 creature. In a normal combat step, because both creatures have equal toughness and power, they would both die.

However, because my Sanguine Guard has first strike, it deals damage in the first combat step that first strike creates and destroys the Prismari Apprentice before it has a chance to deal damage to it.

Can You Block A Creature That Has First Strike?

As the first strike rules say, a card with first strike will apply combat damage in the initial combat damage step. But this doesn’t mean you can’t block it. 

By blocking with a creature card of your own, that damage will be assigned to your creature’s toughness. If the damage is greater than your creature’s toughness, it will die, but if the damage is lower, then it will not. 

Sanguine Guard and Generous Patron MtG cards. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
Sanguine Guard and Generous Patron MTG cards. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

For example, your opponent attacks with Sanguine Guard and you block with Generous Patron. The amount of damage that Sanguine Guard applies to your creature in the first combat step is not enough to defeat it, and it will block successfully. 

In the next combat step, your card will not apply enough damage to destroy Sanguine Guard either. 

Can You Kill A Creature That Has First Strike?

You can definitely kill a creature with first strike.

If you have blocked your opponent’s creature that has First strike and it did not defeat your creature, then your creature will apply damage to it in the next combat step. If your creature’s damage is greater than the other’s toughness, it will then kill it. 

Sanguine Guard and Terastodon MtG cards. Images: Wizards of the Coast.
Sanguine Guard and Terastodon MTG cards. Images: Wizards of the Coast.

In this example, your opponent attacks with Sanguine Guard but you block with Terastodon.

In the first combat step, Sanguine Guard will not apply enough damage to your creature to destroy it, and it will be blocked. In the next combat step, your Terastodon will apply enough combat damage to kill Sanguine Guard. 

You can also use removal spells to destroy or get rid of a creature with First strike by using burn spells, destroy spells, or exile spells. Unless the card you want to remove also has other abilities such as Hexproof or Indestructible which protect it from such spells.

 

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First Strike vs First Strike

Sanguine Guard and Razormane Masticore MtG cards. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
Sanguine Guard and Razormane Masticore MTG cards. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

What happens when a creature with first strike versus another creature with first strike?

Both cards damage each other simultaneously (just like regular damage) but it happens in the first combat step and not the second combat step.

First Strike vs Deathtouch

It can get confusing when abilities start to pile up, for example, how first strike works against deathtouch.

Simply put, the deathtouch ability means that any amount of damage that card deals to another creature is enough to kill it no matter what the other creature’s toughness is.

Hired Poisoner and Terastodon MtG cards. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
Hired Poisoner and Terastodon MTG cards. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Deathtouch means a card like Hired Poisoner can kill a card like Terastodon. However, things work a little bit differently when first strike comes into the equation.

We now know that creatures with the First strike ability will apply damage first, and this is the case when it comes to creature cards with the deathtouch ability as well.

A card with deathtouch will apply combat damage (even though it is lethal combat damage) only in the second combat step if it is still alive.

Sanguine Guard and Hired Poisoner MtG cards. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
Sanguine Guard and Hired Poisoner MTG cards. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

For example, let’s say Sanguine Guard fights Hired Poisoner. Because Sanguine Guard applies damage first and its power is higher than Hired Poisoner’s toughness, Hired Poisoner will die.

Even though Hired Poisoner has deathouch, it will not apply it to Sanguine Guard because it doesn’t get the chance to. 

If two cards are attacking and blocking, the one with first strike will apply damage first and will not be affected by deathtouch unless that creature survives to apply damage in the second combat step. 

Let’s look at another example where things could be different.

Razormane Masticore and Hythonia the Cruel MtG cards. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
Razormane Masticore and Hythonia the Cruel MTG cards. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Let’s say your opponent attacks with Razormane Masticor that has first strike, and you block with Hythonia the Cruel. Their creature won’t deal enough damage to kill yours in the first combat step, so both creatures will go to the next combat step.

Razorman Masticore will not deal damage again in the next combat step. Only cards that have double strike can do this (see the next section on double strike). Hence, Hythonia the Cruel will deal damage in the next combat step and because it has deathtouch, any amount of damage that it applies is lethal and so Razerman Masticore dies.

What is the Difference between First Strike and Double Strike?

Cards with first strike only apply combat damage in the first combat step, whereas a card with double strike applies damage in the first and second combat steps.

The sequence below shows in which combat steps first strike and second strike creatures deal damage.

First strike and double strike combat sequence

  • Beginning of combat
  • Declare attackers
  • Declare blockers
  • Assign combat damage (first strike and double strike creatures)
  • Assign combat damage (double strike creatures and normal creatures)
  • End of combat

Creatures with double strike apply damage in the first combat step as first strike damage, then also apply damage again (the same amount) in the second combat step.

In the second combat step, the double strike creature acts like a regular card applying damage and taking damage simultaneously with the creature it is fighting as usual. See my Double Strike Explained article for more details.

Sanguine Guard and Fencing Ace MtG cards. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
Sanguine Guard and Fencing Ace MTG cards. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Sanguine Guard has first strike so will only apply damage once in the first combat step.

Fencing Ace has double strike and will apply damage twice. Once as first strike damage in the initial combat step, and then once again in the second combat step as regular damage. Thus essentially dealing 2 damage over two combat steps.

First Strike vs Double Strike

Sanguine Guard and Fencing Ace MtG cards. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
Sanguine Guard and Fencing Ace MTG cards. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

What happens if these creatures with first strike and double strike fight?

Well, both cards deal damage to each other in the first combat step simultaneously. Sanguine Guard is a 2/2 and Fencing Ace is only a 1/1 so it dies.

Best MTG First Strike Cards

Mirri, Cat Warrior (Green First Strike Creature)

Mirri, Cat Warrior MtG card. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
Mirri, Cat Warrior MTG card. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Mirri, Cat Warrior, is a fantastic green legendary creature with first strike. It also has vigilance, which means it doesn’t tap to attack (see my Vigilance article for more info), and it has forestwalk. Forestwalk means that if an opposing player controls a forest, then this card is unblockable. 

Because it can attack without having to tap and it has forestwalk, this card can be devastating if playing against another green deck. 

Kari Zev, Skyship Raider (Red First Strike Legendary Creature)

Kari Zev, Skyship Raider MtG card. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
Kari Zev, Skyship Raider MTG card. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Kari Zev, Skyship Raider, is another legendary creature, but this time it’s a mono-red card. Even though its power is only 1, it is supplemented by first strike and menace, making it difficult to block. Costing only 2 mana, you can get this card out quickly. When it attacks, it creates another token that is tapped and attacking, meaning you can put huge pressure on your opponent at the beginning of the game!

Drana, Liberator of Malakir (Black First Strike Legendary Creature)

Drana, Liberator of Malakir MtG card. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
Drana, Liberator of Malakir MTG card. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Drana, Liberator of Malakir, is a legendary black creature with first strike and an activated ability that gives it a +1/+1 when it deals damage to a player. 

What great about this card, is that it is cheap to cast and has moderate power and toughness with first strike. You can put it out early game, and due to its toughness, your opponents likely won’t have a creature that can handle it. Then when it does damage to the player, it gets a counter making it even bigger. By turn 5, you could have a 4/5 with first strike if you play your mana correctly. 

Illusionary Wall (Blue First Strike Wall)

Illusionary Wall MtG card. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
Illusionary Wall MTG card. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Illusionary wall could arguably be one of the better defenders (walls) in the game. Being a 7/4 with flying and first strike, your opponent is going to be hard-pressed to get rid of this card unless they have removal spells in their deck. The only downside is that you have to pay 1 blue mana each upkeep to keep it in play. But it’s worth it. 

Brigid, Hero of Kinsbaile (White First Strike Legendary Creature)

Brigid, Hero of Kinsbaile MtG card. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
Brigid, Hero of Kinsbaile MTG card. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Brigid, Hero of Kinsbaile, is a legendary white creature that costs 4 mana to play. It costs so much not because of the first strike ability and its 2/3 power and toughness, but because of its activated tapped ability. If you tap this card, it deals 2 damage to your opponent’s attacking or blocking creatures. This card can single-handedly change the board state to your favour with a single tap!

Many creatures your opponent plays will have a toughness of 2 or less, so this card will destroy them outright. If they have a pesky creature with a higher toughness, you can bait your opponent into blocking or attacking and then activate Brigid’s ability, reduce their toughness, and destroy it!

Anax and Cymede (Multicoloured First Strike Legendary Creature)

Anax and Cymede MtG card. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
Anax and Cymede MTG card. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Anax and Cymede is a multicoloured (red, white, and colourless) creature card with first strike and vigilance. It has an incredible activated ability that it gets +1/+1 and Trample until the end of turn when you target it with a spell.

This means it comes come into play quickly and does some major damage. White and Red have some cheap instants and enchantments that could really make the card overpowered early on in the game, allowing you to control the board as soon as it comes out!

MTG First Strike Decks

Mardu First Strike

Mardu is a multicolored deck consisting of Black, White, and Red. It is jam-packed with creatures that all use the first strike ability. All the creatures have abilities that complement each other or the deck’s mechanics, but it relies heavily on Kwende, Pride of Femeref, along with its enchantments and instants to reach the full potential of the deck. 

When Kwende comes into play, it gives all creatures with first strike Double strike, essentially doubling all your creature’s damage and giving them all two combat turns where they can deal damage!  

Enchantments buff up the creatures so they can deal with your opponents bigger creatures. They also help you draw some additional cards if your creature dies. The instants can be used as removal spells or to give your first strike creatures deathtouch.

The deathtouch and first strike combination is incredible! First strike creatures are often quite weak but deathtouch gets around this weakness. So long as you hit your opponent’s creature first and do even 1 damage, your opponent’s creature is gone! Bye!

This tactic of buffing weak first strike creatures with instants, enchantments and artifacts, is a great approach when building a first strike deck. It makes them almost unstoppable!

You can put out a lot of small creatures in the first few rounds and bait your opponent into blocking them, thinking that they can sustain the damage. But then you play your instants or flash cards to buff all your creatures at the last moment when your opponent thinks they have the upper hand! By doing this, your opponent will be left with nothing!

How to Play Against First Strike

Take the damage

Creatures with first strike tend to be quite weak, so you can choose to just take the damage while you build up creatures of your own.

Block them with tougher creatures

Even though first strike creatures get to deal damage before normal creatures, it doesn’t mean that damage is enough to defeat your creatures. You can simply block the first strike creatures with tougher creatures that will survive the initial combat step. Then you can hit them back harder in the next combat step and defeat them!

Use spells to destroy buff cards

First strike creatures are often buffed with enhancements and equipment to make them tougher. Use spells and abilities to remove those buff cards.

Don’t take the bait!

First strike decks often have weak creatures and instants that can immediately buff them. Beware if your opponent attacks with several weak cards at once – especially if they have mana to spare! They could have an instant up their sleeve which they’ll play and buff their cards to defeat your blockers when you thought you had everything under control!

First Strike FAQ’s

Does First Strike Work When Defending?

First strike works the same way whether a creature is attacking or defending. A defender with first strike deals its damage before an attacking creature without first strike.

Arguably, first strike is even more powerful as a defending ability than an attacking one.

It’s very difficult to get attackers through a line of first strike creatures, even if they are very tough, because the first strikers can team up to multi-block tough creatures and take no damage themselves.

A Note: First Strike MTG

First strike in MTG lets your creatures to deal damage before your opponent’s creatures do.

You can build a first strike deck out of just about any colour which gives you lots of options to play with when deck building. As an evergreen keyword, plenty of cards have first strike and there will be more to come in the future!

I hope you found this look at first strike useful and plan to put some first strike creatures in your next Magic deck!

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Emily
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