Understanding turn structure and how to use the stack.

The Dynamics of a Turn

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Magic Academy is a column designed to help newer players get up to speed by teaching them more about the game and showing the resources available on the web for learning more. The column is written in linear fashion, like a book, so each lesson builds on material learned in previous articles. So, if you're new to the column, you can either start at the beginning or just check the articles so far to see where you'd like to begin. To see the column's table of contents or learn more, just go to the Magic Academy Welcome Page.

This column is written for players that can at least muddle their way through a game of Magic. If you're completely new to the game and don't know how to play at all, we recommend starting with playmagic.com and then returning to Magic Academy. Once you know the basics of getting through a game we'll take it from there!


The letter G!reetings and welcome back to the little column we like to call Magic Academy. Once again, I am your host Ted Knutson. In the past two articles, we have covered the anatomy of a Magic card and discussed building your first deck. Now that you've got a feel for your cards and have enough of a deck to get up and running, it's time to talk about actually playing. Today we are going to build on your knowledge by explaining the phases and steps of a turn, and then walking you through a turn or two against an imaginary opponent to show how a game typically progresses. Remember that, like the previous installments in this series, this one article isn't intended to do everything on it's own. You won't be a contender for the World Championships after this one article. But, what you will have is enough of a feel for how the turn works to start working your own way through games and getting the experience you need to learn more.

Just the FAQs, ma'am

All right, to start this adventure, allow me to point to two handy resources that you may not have accessed before, but that you will want to be aware of now and in the future. The first handy resource is the basic rulebook (1 MB pdf). This is what I expect you to have some knowledge of as we stride forward into the great unknown. While I am going to repeat some of the information contained therein, it's possible that what we discuss today will be moderately confusing if you haven't walked through the basic rulebook at least once. The rulebook is written in an easy-to-understand fashion, and the info there is still good for an occasional refresher course even for the more advanced player. If questions should arise during your early playing days, go to the section of the basic rulebook that talks about whatever subject you are having a problem with and see if the answer presents itself.

The next, slightly-more-daunting resource is the Comprehensive Rules, which can be found here. This is where the in-depth rules for tournament players can be found, and it's designed to answer pretty much any question that would arise in the course of any Magic game. Of course, when you are new to the game, it can also be like slapping you upside the head with a baseball bat of information overload, so for now just expect me to touch on the basics.

Assuming you have skimmed the basic rulebook (this class will have some minor homework), it's time to get started.

The Stack

Before we get into the structure of turns, we should talk a bit about "the stack". The stack is a simple concept that allows the game of Magic to be incredibly complex. Sound strange? It's not. Like I said, it's simple. It's also probably the most important long-term concept you will take out of this article, so sit up straight and pay attention.

Created with the addition of the Sixth Edition rules, the stack is where spells and abilities reside while they wait to see if they resolve. Spells go on top of the stack in the order they were added to it. (In visual terms, it's helpful to actually picture this as a literal stack of cards, with the newest card always going on top of the stack.)

How does it work? Well, a player (we'll call him Ben) with priority plays a spell or ability, and it is added to the stack. At this point, Ben has the option of adding additional spells or abilities on top of the stack (note: this means you can respond to your own spells or abilities), or they can choose to pass priority to their opponent (we'll call him Opie) and see if the spell or ability resolves. Once Opie has priority, he can then add spells or abilities to the stack on top of Ben's, or he can pass. Priority goes back and forth until both players pass in a row. When both players pass, the spell or ability on top of the stack (the last card played) resolves. This is commonly referred to as "Last In, First Out" or LIFO. After each spell or ability resolves, the active player (the player whose turn it is) gets priority again.

At first that may sound complicated, but as you get used to using it in practice it will become second nature. To show this using an example, Ben decides he wants to cast Grizzly Bears, so he adds the Grizzly Bears to the stack. Opie doesn't have any way of stopping the Bears from resolving, so he passes, meaning the Grizzly Bears are now in play and the stack is now empty.

Ben says he is done casting spells for now. Opie has a deep-seated hatred of bears from a previous forest hike, and decides that the bears must die. Therefore, now that the bears are in play, he places a Shock onto the table, targeting the bears. Ben decides he wants the bears to live, so he casts Giant Growth, also targeting the bears. The Giant Growth goes on the stack, on top of the Shock.

Opie has no response to that except to frown, so the Giant Growth resolves, giving the bears +3/+3 and making them a 5/5. Next on the stack is the Shock. Neither player has any further responses to the Shock, so that resolves too, dealing two damage to our 5/5 Grizzly Bears, which is no longer enough to kill them. This means they will live to maul opponents another day.

Three major things do not use the stack. First of all, mana abilities do not use the stack, so as soon as you use the ability (like tapping a land), you get the mana. There is no opportunity for an opponent to respond to this by tapping your land or destroying it, or anything silly like that - you just get the mana and they get to sit there and be polite until you decide what to do with it.

Next, "static abilities" (constant effects, which we'll get to in more detail in a later article) also do not use the stack. For example, take the card Glorious Anthem.

If you have a Glorious Anthem in play, all your creatures in play get a +1/+1 bonus as a static effect. So, if you cast a 2/2 creature, it will become a 3/3 as soon as it comes into play, which doesn't leave a chance for the Shock to knock it out.

Last but not least, playing land does not use the stack. Land cards are not spells, so you just get to put them into play.

To clarify, saying something "does not stack" simply means that there is no chance to respond to that action before it occurs.

It's Just a Phase

Each turn is constructed of five phases, and each phase consists of discrete steps that happen regardless of whether or not you do something during them. Phases also signal the length of time you can float mana before you take mana burn. (You can float mana from step to step through a phase, but if the phase ends and you still have mana in your pool, you burn for whatever amount of mana you have not used.)

The five phases look like this.

1) Beginning Phase
2) First Main Phase
3) Combat Phase
4) Second Main Phase
5) End Phase

Today we're primarily going to focus on phases 1, 2, 4, and 5 with the knowledge that we'll be hitting the Combat Phase in more detail in the next two articles.

1) Beginning Phase

This phase consists of three steps: Untap, Upkeep, and Draw.

a. Untap Step - During your untap step, you untap all your tapped permanents. You are not allowed to do anything else during this step.

b. Upkeep Step - This happens directly after untap and is the first time players may take action during a turn. Abilities that trigger at the beginning of upkeep go on the stack, and then players can play instants and abilities.

c. Draw step:
The first thing you do during your draw step is draw a card. Once that is done, both players may play spells and abilities.

2) First Main Phase

There are no spiffy steps in this one, just one giant phase where lots of stuff usually happens. Assuming it is your turn, you can play any type of spell or ability during this phase. By contrast, since it's your turn, opponents can only play instants or abilities at this time (not creatures, sorceries, etc). Main phases are also the only time that you can play lands. During the early turns, you will normally want to play your lands during your first main phase so that you have more mana up to bluff or cast combat tricks.

While you will generally want to cast combat-oriented sorceries or enchantments during your first main phase (like Blanchwood Armor), for the most part you will want to wait to cast other spells and creatures until after combat occurs. This leaves your opponent uncertain as to what you might play or do during and after combat and gives you more options and information with which to make your decisions. So, as a general rule of thumb, you often won't cast any spells before you attack unless it would help you out in that attack.

3) Combat Phase

The combat phase is perhaps the trickiest of all of them. It is comprised of five steps and typically has more action than a Michael Bay movie (with better dialogue to boot).

a. Beginning of Combat Step
Before you actually get to declare which creatures are attacking, players once again get a chance to play instants and abilities. This is commonly the time where you would use "tappers" like Master Decoy or Icy Manipulator on defense to tap down a possible attacker your opponent controls. You would normally do this inside their combat phase at the beginning of combat step. (By waiting until they are in their combat step, they don't have the opportunity to cast any more creatures, sorceries, artifacts, or enchantments after you tap the creature.)

b. Declare Attackers
The player whose turn it is decides which creatures are attacking. Once all attackers are declared, both players get a chance to play instants and abilities.

c. Declare Blockers Step
The player getting attacked decides which untapped creatures of his own will be declared as blockers. Unless it explicitly says so on a card (like Valor Made Real), creatures may only block a single attacking creature at a time, but multiple creatures can be assigned to block the same attacking creature. (Using multiple creatures to block an attacking creature is often referred to as "gang blocking".)

After blockers are declared, both players again get the chance to play instants and abilities.

d. Combat Damage Step
This is when creatures deal damage in combat. This is also one of those times where you will use the stack. Combat damage goes on the stack, so you get a chance to play clever abilities before damage actually resolves. The most common kinds of "tricks" (which is what we often call instant spells and abilities) used during this step are instant damage effects like Anaba Shaman and Shock, or instant damage prevention effects like Master Healer and Mending Hands.

There's quite a bit more to the combat damage step, but we're going to spend a lot of time discussing this entire phase in more detail in the coming weeks, so we'll come back to it. Right now, consider rereading the "Combat Damage Step" section of the basic rulebook your homework.

e. End of Combat Step
Players can play spells or abilities during this step, but there's usually no reason to do so.

4) Second Main Phase

This is just like the first main phase, except post-combat. You can play the exact same things here that you could play during the first main phase, including playing a land, provided you did not play a land during your first main phase. (Remember, you only get to play one land a turn unless some card says otherwise.)

Strategically, this is when you should probably cast most of your creatures, sorceries, and enchantments. It's the last chance you will have to do so before you have to pass the turn to your opponent.

5) End Phase

There are two things you will want to pay particular attention to regarding the wording of cards that reference "end of turn". They both refer to things that happen during the End Phase, but one happens during the end step and the other occurs during cleanup.

a. End of turn step
Players can play instants and abilities during this phase.

Cards that say "at end of turn" (like the Viashino Sandstalker below) have their trigger occur at the beginning of the end of turn step.

So, if you play a Viashino Sandstalker during your first main phase and then attack with it during your combat phase, once you get to the beginning of your "end of turn step" the Sandstalker's return to hand effect will trigger.

But remember, "at end of turn" effects trigger at the beginning of the end of turn step. So, if you do something during your end of turn step after "at end of turn" has already happened, the "at end of turn" effect will have to wait around until next turn to trigger. That might sound tricky the first time you hear it but it will become second nature as you get used to it. Let's use an example to show what we're talking about.

Say you have an Elvish Piper in play and tap it during the end of turn step (players will often just call this the "end step" for short) to put a Viashino Sandstalker into play.

Because the beginning of the end step has already passed, the trigger to return the Sandstalker to your hand hasn't happened yet. So, the Sandstalker will stay in play until the next end of turn step, which would actually occur on your opponent's turn. This means the Sandstalker would actually be around to block your opponent's creatures, something that would shock and appall the entire Viashino community. (Like wearing white after Labor Day, blocking is something Sandstalkers normally just don't do.)

This sort of play isn't that common in beginner games, but it is used frequently during tournament Magic. Check out the additional reading section for some classic examples.

b. Cleanup step
If you have more than seven cards in your hand and it is your turn, choose and discard cards until you have only seven. Next, all damage from creatures is removed and all "until end of turn" effects end.

These actions take place in that order because if they didn't, that Grizzly Bears we cast Giant Growth on to save from Shock would die, and nobody wants that. Since damage is removed first and then "until end of turn" effects disappear, the Bears are 5/5 when the damage is removed, and then revert back to 2/2s with no damage on them. To reiterate, cards that say "until end of turn" (like Giant Growth) go away during the cleanup step.

Additionally, no one can play spells or abilities during this step unless an ability specifically triggers to allow that to happen. This is pretty rare, so you should generally assume that the end of turn step will be your last chance to do anything.

Whew! That was a lot of material to cover for something that typically passes very quickly. The key things to remember beyond what is stated above is that:

a) The Untap and Cleanup steps are the only two times where players do not get priority to use instants or abilities.

b) All of the steps occur, regardless of whether or not something happens during them.

c) You don't get to just change steps - the game itself pulls you along. When all players pass priority on an empty stack, the game automatically moves to the next step/phase in the line, but you can't skip forward to wherever you want without allowing the opponent the chance to make a play during each step as well.

Practical Application

Ben is squaring off against Opie in the battle of the kitchen table. Ben is playing our Green/Red deck from last week, while Opie has his own black/white concoction. The board currently looks like this:

Ben (cards in hand): Giant Growth, Llanowar Elves, Trained Armodon, Verdant Force, Forest

Opie (cards in hand): Mending Hands, Dark Banishing, 2 Swamp

Take a second to note how the cards are laid out on the board. Lands go in the green zone closest to the player. Creatures, artifacts, and enchantments go above that, and then the red zone is where you put creatures when you are attacking with them. Arranging your cards in this fashion is the standard at Grand Prix and Pro Tour events, and it makes it a lot easier to see what resources each player has so it's a good habit to get into right from the start.

Okay, it is Ben's turn.

Beginning Phase: He untaps his cards, his upkeep comes and goes without any action, and then he draws his card (Shock).

First Main Phase: In his first main phase, Ben plays a Forest, and then passes priority without any further actions. Opie also passes and the game moves into the combat phase.

Combat Phase: Ben declares both Grizzly Bears and Trained Armodon as attackers. Opie blocks the Armodon with his Giant Cockroach. Ben decides to save his elephant, casting Giant Growth targeting his Armodon. When that goes on the stack, Opie casts a Dark Banishing, putting it on the stack on top of the Giant Growth. Opie doesn't have any play in response so he passes priority back. The Dark Banishing resolves first, killing off the Armodon. Next comes the Giant Growth, which no longer has a legal target, so it goes to the graveyard without accomplishing anything.

Both players pass, so combat damage is stacked. Both players pass again, so damage resolves with Opie taking 2 from the Bears. Since the Armodon wasn't around to stack any combat damage, the Giant Cockroach will live to see another day.

Second Main Phase: Ben casts another Trained Armodon, and a Llanowar Elves.

End Phase: Both players pass on an empty stack.

It is now Opie's turn.

Beginning Phase: Opie untaps his tapped permanents. At the beginning of his upkeep, Opie draws a card (Enfeeblement) and loses one life from his Phyrexian Arena. He then moves into his draw step and draws his card for the turn (a Swamp).

First Main Phase: Opie decides he wants to attack with his Giant Cockroach this turn, so he casts Enfeeblement on Ben's Trained Armodon. Neither player has any further actions, and the game moves into combat.

Combat Phase: Opie declares both Hypnotic Specter and Giant Cockroach as attackers. During the declare attackers step, Ben decides to Shock the Hypnotic Specter. Opie responds to this with Mending Hands, also targeting the Hypnotic Specter. That means Opie puts Mending Hands on the stack on top of Shock. Resolving those from top to bottom, first the Mending Hands goes off. This lets the Specter live and prevents the next two damage dealt to the Specter beyond the Shock. Since his Armodon is now a 1/1, Ben blocks the Cockroach with both his Llanowar Elves and his Armodon, combat damage is stacked and resolved with Ben taking two damage and discarding a card at random (Verdant Force). Additionally, the Giant Cockroach, Trained Armodon, Llanowar Elves, and Enfeeblement all go to the graveyard.

Second Main Phase: Opie decides to do nothing here. So does Ben, and the turn moves to the End Phase.

End Phase: Neither player has any instants or abilities to use here, and the turn ends. It is then Ben's turn again.

That is how a turn of Magic progresses. In that small span of time there was an upkeep effect, attacking and blocking, and numerous responses to spells on the stack. None of it was terribly complicated, but each of them is a fundamental of the game that occurs all the time, whether it is played around the kitchen table or in the finals of a Pro Tour.

That's all I've got for today, folks. Next week we'll discuss how you figure out when attacking is a good idea, the first of a series of articles taking a closer look at the combat phase. Until then, practice what you've learned today and don't forget to do the homework (rereading the section in the basic rulebook that discusses Combat Damage).

Additional Reading

Nothing yields an enormous stack quite like a counterspell war. For those of you interested in a sample mammoth stack, check out this monster from a match during German Nationals in 2003, pictured to the right.

One of the classic "end of turn" decks of all time was Astral Slide, piloted to a Pro Tour victory by Osyp "Joe Black" Lebedowicz. Here's a nasty Astral Slide mirror match from round 13 of Pro Tour--Venice where both players are doing tons of stacking and using end of turn triggers in a battle for a Top 8 slot, showing the kinds of things you'll be capable of as you get more comfortable with how turns work.

For those of you interested in more information about "priority," might I suggest reading this classic judge article by Lee Sharpe that even includes a handy dandy flowchart and introduces the advanced concept of "Last Known Information" as well.

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