I just can’t wait – Timing and priority

In a nutshell

  • Priority is the system Magic uses to decide when players get to take game actions. Players can only cast spells, play lands, or activate abilities if they have priority.
  • When a new phase or step starts, after any turn-based actions are completed, the active player gets priority. An exception to this is that no player gets priority in the untap step, and players only get priority in the cleanup step if state-based actions were performed in it or if triggered abilities need to go on the stack then.
    • Turn-based actions include the following:
      • Untapping permanents during the untap step
      • Drawing a card in the draw step
      • Declaring attackers in the declare attackers step
      • Declaring blockers in the declare blockers step
      • Discarding down to maximum hand size in the cleanup step
      • Removing all damage from permanents and expiring “until end of turn” and “this turn” effects in the cleanup step (both of these happen one simultaneous action immediately after discarding)
  • After a player finishes casting a spell or activating an ability, that player gets priority.
  • After every spell or ability on the stack resolves, the active player gets priority.
  • If a player has priority, but doesn’t want to do anything, that player passes priority. The next player in turn order then gets priority.
  • Players do not get priority at any point during the casting or resolution of a spell or ability.
  • If all players pass priority while the stack is empty, the game progresses to the next step or phase.

Q: Amy untaps her permanents, then draws for turn. She plays a land, then attacks with her Geist of Saint Traft because Nicole used her Bident of Thassa on it during the beginning of combat step. Nicole takes six, then Amy exiles her token. In her second main phase, Amy plays a Grizzly Bears, which Nicole Counterspells, then says “go”. What happened?

A: You (and Amy and Nicole) know what happened perfectly fine. Nothing about that is confusing at all. On the other hand, check out this in-depth description of what actually went down:

  1. Amy untaps her permanents. After that turn-based action is over, the game progresses to the upkeep step (no one gets priority during the untap step).
  2. Amy gets priority in the upkeep. She passes. Nicole then gets priority. She passes, too. Because both players passed priority in succession, the game progresses to the draw step.
  3. Amy draws for turn. This is another turn-based action. After drawing, Amy and Nicole both must pass priority to progress to the precombat main phase
  4. Amy plays her land. This is a special action, so no one can respond to it. It just happens. Special actions will be discussed in more detail in a future lesson.
  5. Amy gets priority after playing her land (after taking a special action, the player who took it gets priority again). She passes, and so does Nicole, so the game moves on to the beginning of combat step.
  6. Amy passes priority in the beginning of combat step. Nicole now has priority and uses it to activate her Bident of Thassa. Nicole then gets priority because she activated an ability. She passes, then Amy passes, then the ability resolves. Now Amy gets priority because she is the active player and an object on the stack resolved. She passes priority, then Nicole passes, which brings us to the declare attackers step.
  7. In the declare attackers step, Amy first declares her set of attacking creatures (in this case, Geist of Saint Traft). After this turn-based action, there is a triggered ability waiting to go on the stack (triggered abilities will be covered in more detail in a future lesson). This ability is put on the stack before either player gets priority. Then Amy gets priority. She and Nicole both pass, then the geist’s triggered ability resolves, and both players get priority again. They pass and move on to the declare blockers step.
  8. In the declare blockers step, Nicole declares no blockers. After that turn-based action, Amy gets priority, then Nicole, then we move on to the combat damage step.
  9. Combat damage is assigned and dealt. After this turn-based action, both players pass priority, then the game progresses to the end of combat step.
  10. Geist of Saint Traft’s delayed trigger goes on the stack before Amy gets priority in the end of combat step. Both players pass priority, and it resolves, causing Amy to exile the angel token. Both players must again pass priority during the end of combat step. After this, the game moves on to Amy’s postcombat main phase.
  11. Amy casts Grizzly Bears. She gets priority because she added an object to the stack. She passes priority.
  12. Nicole casts Counterspell. Nicole now gets priority because she added an object to the stack. She passes priority. If Nicole had passed priority here instead of casting Counterspell, Grizzly Bears would have resolved.
  13. Amy passes priority. Counterspell resolves, countering Grizzly Bears and putting it in the graveyard. Amy gets priority because she is the active player and an object on the stack resolved. She passes.
  14. Nicole passes. The game now progresses to the end step.
  15. Amy and Nicole both pass priority, and the game moves to the cleanup step.
  16. In the cleanup step, Bident of Thassa’s “this turn” effect wears off. No players get priority. After this happens, the game moves directly to Nicole’s untap step.

Whew! If you’re still here, congratulations! The game goes through all that sort of stuff every turn, whether the players realize it or not, although I have a feeling that if players couldn’t shortcut past the irrelevant stuff, Magic probably wouldn’t be as popular.

Q: Amy casts a Careful Study and draws 2 cards. Can she cast an instant that she drew before she has to discard?

A: No. She would need to have priority to cast that instant, but players do not receive priority during the resolution of spells or abilities.

Q: Amy Krosan Grips Nicole’s Counterbalance. What happens?

A: Counterbalance triggers. Triggered abilities don’t need to be activated; they just go onto the stack automatically the next time a player would receive priority. Split second on Krosan Grip doesn’t prevent players from getting priority, only from doing something with it. The Counterbalance trigger is put onto the stack and will resolve. If Nicole has a card with CMC of 3 on top of her library, Krosan Grip will be countered.

Note: Suppose Nicole knew that her top card wasn’t a 3, but had a Millikin in play. Millikin has a mana ability, so she could respond to the Counterbalance trigger by activating Millikin’s ability to change her top card.