Wikia

Magic: The Gathering

Priority

Talk0
4,482pages on
this wiki


Priority and the Stack Priority and the stack are two of the most important aspects of the rules of Magic. Practically every action in the game involves them, either directly or indirectly. However, there are a number of players, both new and old, that do not understand the subtleties of these two things. In this article, I will try to explain the stack and the priority system, starting with very simple rules and then moving on to more complex rules. I think the problem is that there are so many rules that it can sometimes be overwhelming. If players can understand the basics, the exceptions and peculiarities become much easier to pick up.


What is the stack?

The stack is how the game of Magic decides and regulates when spells and abilities resolve (meaning, do their effect, such as a Lightning Bolt dealing its 3 damage). The name comes from the actual stacking of the cards on the table. In fact, this is a good way to keep track of what order things are happening and I encourage you to do it whenever things start getting complicated. Let’s go through some examples and see how this thing works.

Example #1: Player A has Flying Men and a Forest in play and a Giant Growth in his hand. Player B has a Mountain in play and a Lightning Bolt in his hand. Player B would very much like to kill Flying Men. So, Player B plays his Lightning Bolt, targeting Flying Men. Player A doesn’t like this very much, so he plays Giant Growth “in response”, targeting Flying Men, hoping that he will save them. What happens?

Ok, let’s take this one step at a time. Whenever a player plays a spell, that card goes on top of the stack. So, when Player B plays his Lightning Bolt, it goes on top of the stack (which was empty). The stack therefore looks like this:

Top of stack Lightning Bolt Bottom of stack

Lightning Bolt has to sit there for a moment because a player still wants to do something. A spell does not resolve immediately. Instead, both players have to say “I won’t want to do anything right now” before a spell resolves (I’ll address the technical points of this in a moment). So, Lightning Bolt stays on the stack for now. After Player B played his Lightning Bolt, Player A played his Giant Growth. The expression for this would be “Player A is playing Giant Growth in response to Lightning Bolt. So, Giant Growth goes on top of Lightning Bolt on the stack. The stack now looks like this:

Top of stack Giant Growth Lightning Bolt Bottom of stack

Again, Giant Growth, like Lightning Bolt earlier, does not resolve immediately; both players have to have the opportunity to play a spell if they want to before a spell can resolve. Both players decide that they don’t want to do anything else right now. So, the rule is: when both players decide that they don’t want to do anything, the spell on top of the stack resolves and only the spell on top of the stack resolves. In this case, it is Giant Growth. So, Giant Growth resolves and Flying Men become a staggering 4/4.

Magic' is less like this than you thought.But wait, wasn’t Lightning Bolt played first? Shouldn’t it resolve first since Player B played it first and therefore was faster? No. This is where many players get tripped up initially. Basically, the way that spells resolve in Magic has no basis in reality. In a “real” wizard battle (I know, bear with me), you would think that whichever wizard played his spell first would have his spell resolve first because he was “quicker.” While the slow wizard was screwing around, the quick wizard was getting things done. Unfortunately, that is not how things work in Magic. The sooner you detach the timing rules of Magic from the timing rules of reality, the better off you’ll be. Just remember: whenever both players don’t want to do anything else, the spell on top of the stack resolves and only the spell on top of the stack resolves.

We’re not done yet though because Lightning Bolt is still on the stack, waiting to resolve. Both players again say they don’t want to do anything, so Lightning Bolt resolves and deals 3 damage to Flying Men. Unfortunately for Player B, Flying Men are bigger now with their toughness of 4, so Flying Men will remain in play. Tough break for Player B.


Example #2:

This time, Player A still has Flying Men in play and let’s just assume each player has enough mana to do whatever he wants to do. Player B, determined to get Flying Men, again plays Lightning Bolt targeting Flying Men. This time, Player A doesn’t have Giant Growth, although he does have Brainstorm, a much beloved staple of the Vintage format. Player A plays Brainstorm. The stack looks like this:

Top of stack Brainstorm Lightning Bolt Bottom of stack

Both players decide they don’t want to do anything, so Brainstorm resolves. Player A draws 3 cards and then puts 2 back on top of his library. Fortunately for Player A, he drew Counterspell. But, can Player A use his Counterspell to counter Lightning Bolt?

Yes, he can. From the rule I gave in example #1, the top spell of the stack resolves when neither player wants to do anything and only the top spell of the stack resolves. But Player A wants to do something (in this case, play Counterspell), so he gets the opportunity to do that. Player A plays Counterspell, targeting Lightning Bolt.

Top of stack Counterspell Lightning Bolt Bottom of stack

Both players again decide that they don’t want to do anything else. Therefore, the spell on top of the stack resolves, which is Counterspell. Yes, that’s right, Player A managed to get two spells played and resolved before Player B got a chance for his Lightning Bolt resolve. Unfortunately for Player B, Counterspell is going to counter Lightning Bolt, so Flying Men will again avoid certain doom.

Are you with me so far? I hope so. As you may have noticed, I’ve been using this vague language of “nobody wants to do anything else, so the spell on top of the stack resolves.” I did this for simplification to avoid adding too many steps along the way. The way you figure out who gets to play what and when they get to play it is under a “system of priority.”


What is priority?

”It’s my turn to play a spell!” “No, it’s my turn!”I personally dislike that priority is called “priority” because I think it sounds unnecessarily technical and does not really tell anyone what it is or does. The reason that the word “priority” was chosen, I would guess, is because the word “turn” already had a special meaning within Magic. So, let me make this as clear as possible: priority is the way that players take turns taking actions. It is the ability to do things; it has nothing to do with speed or quickness (which don’t really have any meaning within Magic anyway).

When a player has priority, the player has two choices:

1) play a spell, or 2) pass priority to the other player

That’s it, nothing else (well, that’s not really it, but that’s it for right now). To go back to example #1, Player A had Flying Men in play and Player B wanted to kill them with Lightning Bolt. Let’s say Player A started with priority. Player A decided he didn’t want to do anything, so he passed priority. Player B, having priority, chooses to play Lightning Bolt. Simple enough, but who has priority now? Well, did Player B pass priority? No, he chose to play a spell. Therefore, Player B still has priority, even though he just played a spell. 

The rule is: whenever a player plays a spell, that player gets priority again until he passes it. So, in theory, a player could play four Lightning Bolts in a row, with a kickered Urza’s Rage on top of that if he wanted to. As unfair as this might seem, it does not generally give the player any special advantage. Each spell still resolves one at a time; the fact that the player played the spells one after the other does not give the spells any special status. So, regardless of how many spells a player plays in a row, the other player will always get a chance to respond.

Going back to the example, Player B kept priority after playing Lightning Bolt. But, Player B didn’t want to do anything else, so he passed priority to Player A. Player A again faces the choice: play a spell or pass priority. The situation is different now, however. Remember earlier how I mentioned that “if neither player wants to do anything, the top spell on the stack resolves”? Well, when both players pass priority in a row, that’s how the game knows that nobody wants to do anything. If Player A had chosen to pass rather than play his Giant Growth, his Flying Men would have died because the Lightning Bolt would have resolved.

But, that’s not how it happened, so Player A played Giant Growth and then Giant Growth resolved after both players passed priority in a row. So who has priority now? Alas, things have to get more complicated still. When a spell resolves, the active player (the player whose turn it is) gets priority, regardless of whose spell just resolved. Note a very important distinction here:

Whenever a player plays a spell, that player keeps priority. Whenever a spell resolves, the active player gets priority.

If you can get these two rules down, you will be well on your way to getting all this stack and priority stuff figured out. To answer the question posed above, it depends on whose turn it is. One thing that is important to note about keeping priority after playing a spell is that players often assume that a player is passingpriority after playing a spell. As a practical matter, if you intend to play one spell right after the other without passing priority, you probably need to say something like “I’ll Lightning Bolt Flying Men and in response to that I’ll Shock you.” Otherwise, the game may skip ahead when you don’t want it to.

Don’t let the silence throw you from what’s really going on.Furthermore, you have probably noticed that Magic is not actually played with players saying “I pass priority” a whole lot. That’s because Magicinvolves a lot of shortcuts. Typically when someone plays something, that player just stops and waits for his opponent to respond, either by that opponent playing something or just saying “resolves”, or in my case “go nuts” or whatever remark comes to my mind at the time. This is also true when a player wants to end his turn; rather than passing priority back and forth seven or so times, the active player will just say “pass the turn” or something, indicating that the other player can either play something at any of those intermediate steps he wants to or just let the turn end. The important thing to realize, however, is that sometimes (particularly in the combat phase), who has priority and whether that player has passed it can be important. Regardless of how players do things in reality, what is really going on is the process I have described above, even if a lot of the technical steps are cut out.


Let’s see if we can put it all together now.

Example #3:

Player A has Flying Men in play, has priority, and it is his first main phase. Again, each player has enough mana to play whatever he wants to play. After all these attempts by Player B to kill Flying Men, Player A is concerned, so he hopes to dig up an answer by playing Ancestral Recall, targeting himself.

Top of stack Ancestral Recall (targeting Player A) Bottom of stack

Player A passes priority. Player B does not like Player A’s attempt to abuse Vintage brokenness, so he plays Counterspell, targeting Ancestral Recall, and he passes priority.

Top of stack Counterspell (targeting Ancestral Recall) Ancestral Recall (targeting Player A) Bottom of stack

Because Ancestral Recall is so important to resolve, Player A plays Mystical Tutor and passes priority.

Top of stack Mystical Tutor Counterspell (targeting Ancestral Recall) Ancestral Recall (targeting Player A) Bottom of stack

Player B passes priority back and Mystical Tutor resolves. Player A tutors up Cancel and puts it on top of his library. The stack looks like this:

Top of stack Counterspell (targeting Ancestral Recall) Ancestral Recall (targeting Player A) Bottom of stack

Player A has priority now (because it is his turn). Player A plays the last card in his hand, Brainstorm, to try get Cancel off the top of his deck. Player A passes priority. However, Player B’s plan has finally come together. Player B plays Lightning Bolt, targeting Flying Men, and passes priority.

Top of stack Lightning Bolt (targeting Flying Men) Brainstorm Counterspell (targeting Ancestral Recall) Ancestral Recall (targeting Player A) Bottom of stack

The less popular Falling Men.Player A, with no cards in hand and his two draw spells on the stack underneath Lightning Bolt, is forced to pass priority, so Lightning Bolt resolves, killing Flying Men. Player B has triumphed at last!

Top of stack Brainstorm Counterspell (targeting Ancestral Recall) Ancestral Recall (targeting Player A) Bottom of stack

Player A gets priority again after Lightning Bolt resolves, because it is his turn. It doesn’t matter whose spell just resolved. Player A passes priority and Player B passes priority. Brainstorm resolves. Player A draws Cancel, as expected, and puts the other two cards back on top of his library. 

Top of stack Counterspell (targeting Ancestral Recall) Ancestral Recall (targeting Player A) Bottom of stack

Player A gets priority because a spell resolved and it is his turn. He plays Cancel, targeting Counterspell.

Top of stack Cancel (targeting Counterspell) Counterspell (targeting Ancestral Recall) Ancestral Recall (targeting Player A) Bottom of stack

Player A passes and Player B passes. Cancel resolves, countering Counterspell.

Top of stack Ancestral Recall (targeting Player A) Bottom of stack

Ancestral Recall finally resolves and Player A draws his 3 cards. Unfortunately, it is already too late for Flying Men.

The stack is empty now and Player A has priority. He passes priority and Player B passes priority back. There isn’t a spell on the stack to resolve, so what happens? Whenever both players pass in a row with an empty stack, the game moves on to the next step, which in this case would be the “beginning of combat step” since we were previously in the first main phase. This tends to be important during the combat phase, although it can be important at other times.


As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, I took some liberties with the rules to explain some things in a simpler way. There are a few things that, while complicating, are important enough that you should know. First, there are things other than spells that use the stack. Activated abilities (like Prodigal Sorceror’s deal one damage ability) use the stack just like spells. Don’t let the fact that there is not a physical card on the stack confuse you; it works in exactly the same way as a physical spell card. Triggered abilities (likePrimordial Sage’s card draw ability) also use the stack (precisely how triggered abilities work is beyond the scope of this article). Just know that whenever a trigger event occurs, that ability goes on the stack and then the player that has priority gets a chance to do whatever he is going to do. As a short example, if Player A plays Flying Men and has Primordial Sage in play, the card drawing ability will go on the stack before Player A would get a chance to respond to his own Flying Men. If Player A then responded to his own Flying Men with Brainstorm, the stack would look like this:

Top of stack Brainstorm Primordial Sage triggered ability Flying Men Bottom of stack

All combat damage (again, the rules for that are outside the scope of this article) is dealt at the same time as one object. If Flying Men gets blocked by Air Elemental, they both deal their combat damage at the same time when the damage event resolves (assuming first strike and double strike aren’t involved).

The rules of when a player can play spells still apply. A player can only play sorcery and creature spells during his main phase and only if the stack is empty.

Wasteland’s mana ability doesn’t use the stack, but its destroy ability does.While this stack stuff is pretty exciting, there are some things in Magic that don’t use the stack. While there are number of things that don’t use the stack, the two most important ones that you should be concerned with right now are mana abilities and playing a land. A mana ability is any activated ability that puts mana into your mana pool (tapping a Forest for mana being a very simple example). Rather than having to wait for your mana, you get it immediately after using the ability and without passing priority. When a player plays a land, that action does not use the stack. Instead, the land just comes into play and the player keeps priority. Note the distinction, however, between playing a land and things that put a land into play. If a player plays Untamed Wilds, that spell will use the stack just like any other, as will the ability from fetching an Island with Polluted Delta. Also, lands can only be played when the stack is empty.

That about wraps up the basics, so let’s try some problems.


Problem #1: Player A controls Squire. During Player A’s turn, Player A plays Giant Growth targeting the Squire. In response, Player B plays Shock. What happens to Squire? Problem #1 solution:  

Problem #2: Player A controls Goblin Hero. During Player A’s turn, Player A passes priority to Player B. Player B plays Brainstorm and Brainstorm resolves. Player B then plays Sudden Shock, targeting Goblin Hero. Player A says he wanted to play Extirpate, targeting the Sudden Shock in Player B’s graveyard. Who is right? Problem #2 solution:  

Problem #3: Both players are at 1 life. Player A controls Prodigal Sorcerer. Player A taps his Prodigal Sorcerer to deal one damage to Player B. Player A says he wins because he dealt one damage to Player B. Player B says that the damage hasn’t been dealt yet. He tries to play Brainstorm in response. Over Player A’s protests that the game is over, Player B draws 3 cards and puts 2 back. Player B then plays Lava Dart, targeting Player A. Who wins? Problem #3 solution:  

Problem #4: Player A has  floating in his mana pool (it was left over from a Dark Ritual he played earlier). Player A forgets that the has  in his mana pool and passes priority. Player B taps a Mountain and then plays Shock, targeting Player A. Player A remembers that he has  floating in his mana pool and says that he is playing Extirpate, targeting the Shock in Player B’s graveyard, in response to Player B tapping his Mountain for mana. What happens? Problem #4 solution:  


In summary, there are basically three things to keep in mind:

1) When a player plays a spell or ability, that player keeps priority. 2) When a spell resolves, the active player (the player whose turn it is), gets priority. 3) The thing on top of the stack resolves when both players pass in a row.

I am curious as to how helpful this article was. If you found it useful (or if you found it useless), please let me know in the forums, as I am considering writing more articles like this one. Have an idea for a tutorial? Let me know. Thanks for reading.

All credit is given to http://www.mtgsalvation.com/794-priority-and-the-stack.html.

This was what they said.

Advertisement | Your ad here

Around Wikia's network

Random Wiki