Essentials for Every Magic Player: Priority and the Phases of Each Turn

Teferi, Time Raveler War of the Spark Art By Chris Rallis

Hello and happy holidays! I’m Drifter, back to enhance your knowledge this Christmas with a behind the scenes look at the rules of the game, followed by an in-depth demonstration of how those rules work in practice and the edges you gain from knowing them well. Priority is a phenomenal tool, not just in theory but in application, and there’s a lot more nuance involved in the step and phases of each turn than you might think… nuance you can exploit!

This is a fairly technical article, but it’s not just some rules enthusiast piece showing “the making of the game”. I provide a ton of strategic insight and practical information which you can use to directly improve your gameplay and give yourself more options; all of this is super important to know at any level of play beyond the very beginning. Without priority, instants work in a really weird and ambiguous way and priority defines precisely what you can and can’t do with them. Turns are so stacked and complicated in Magic that it’s very possible to miss things if you don’t know precisely how each step works. I’ll be breaking it down in a simple way, several times and with lots of examples as necessary.

The turns breakdown will help new players a lot, if just because it shows and explains the many steps in a clear manner. This article isn’t just for them though; priority is a pretty weird thing that most people, even if they’ve played for years, don’t understand fully and in the turns section, I’ll be going over a bunch of neat advanced tricks you can do at each step. The aim is that any reader who hasn’t played at a high level for a while learns a lot from this, and hopefully some of those people get some new toys to play with too! To understand priority, you need to know how the stack works (ctrl+f here for my explanation) and some strategies will require other specific knowledge but I’ll explain in as simple terms as I can, provide lots of examples, and you can always ask questions in the comments!

There are some important differences between how priority works in real life and on Arena – I’ll be talking about each case whenever this crops up, and I will tell you whenever you need to do anything strange for either medium.

Note: For the purposes of this article, we’re only really going to be talking about two-player games of Magic.  

What is priority and why should you care?

Priority in Magic is the primary thing that determines when you can take game actions. This includes casting spells, playing lands, activating abilities… really almost anything you do to play the game! That sounds simple enough, but it’s really anything but… priority can be very confusing and counter-intuitive, but it is crucial for determining what you can and can’t do at each stage in each turn. Magic Arena simulates priority to a large extent, but it doesn’t take you through all the stops for convenience’s sake – you have to set your own using the little buttons at the bottom (see the images).

Priority does this through the creation of windows at most steps in a turn (neither player gets priority in some steps; I’ll go into that later!). These windows are players’ opportunities to take game actions. Here’s the first crucial part: the active player in a turn gets priority first before the nonactive player. The active player just refers to whoever’s turn it is and in a two-player game, the nonactive player is the player not currently taking their turn.  So, if we put it all together, this means that the active player usually has first crack at taking any sort of game action. When we go over the steps of each turn later, you’ll see how that becomes really important but just bear with me for now!

If both players pass priority (decline their window to do anything by pressing the okay button on arena, or saying “I’m done” or “Move to next phase” in real life) and nothing was on the stack, you are now in the next step of the turn. If you wanted to cast anything in the last stage, it’s now too late – essentially if you chose not to do anything and then your opponent doesn’t do anything, you can’t then go “oh wait, I want to cast a spell” – you have already declined your window to do so. Priority is reset the next step.

Priority also forms an integral part of how spells resolve – priority is what allows you to respond to your opponent casting spells in the first place! As soon as most effects go on the stack, a window to respond is immediately created – the other player gains priority unless the caster holds priority i.e. says they want to take another game action at instant speed before the opponent can respond. Remember you can only cast sorcery-speed spells (sorceries themselves and any other spell that’s not an instant and doesn’t have flash) while the stack is clear – so you can’t play a creature, hold priority and then play another creature if it doesn’t have flash, nor can you play a creature, hold priority, and then play a land. You can, however, play a creature then hold priority and activate another creature’s effect, or tap your lands for mana as you can do all of that at instant speed (tapping a land for mana is a mana ability so it doesn’t go on the stack, but it doesn’t need to). I’ll go into specific examples of when you should be holding priority later.

It’s worth noting that only some game actions create an effect that goes on the stack, and therefore give your opponents a window to respond – casting a spell or activating a non-mana ability will (I explain what mana abilities are here; they never go on the stack) but playing a land won’t. This means your opponent can never respond to you playing a land or activating a mana ability; they’re special actions – if your opponent taps The Great Henge, they immediately gain 2 life and add two green to their mana pool, and there’s nothing you can do.

If there’s anything on the stack and both players pass priority, the top effect on the stack resolves. If I cast Murder and you cast Negate without holding priority, and then I say okay, the Negate resolves immediately, counters my Murder and I have to put it in the graveyard without resolving it – if I say okay, I have declined the option to do anything in response to Negate. I can’t then go back and say “Oh I wanted to counter back” – the window has passed. That means it’s really important to think during these windows, and you have ample opportunity to do so. After the stack has cleared, active player gains priority again – so after both Murder and Negate resolve, whoever’s turn it is gets another window to take game actions and as usual, nonactive player gets priority if they decline. This might seem really finicky, but all you’re really doing is just saying okay a bunch or pressing the okay button.

Priority doesn’t want us going back in time, it knows we’ll break things…

As the active player, you can hold priority whenever you have it. On Arena, this is why you have to press Full Control before casting Expansion // Explosion on your own Growth Spiral, for example – if you didn’t, then your opponent would get priority and if they passed it without doing anything, Growth Spiral would resolve immediately. If you didn’t signal your intent to hold priority, it’s automatically assumed you meant to pass priority.
After I hold priority and cast my two spells, my opponent gets their window to respond as normal – they can’t do anything between my spell casts so they can’t Counter my Growth Spiral before I can Expansion it. Holding priority isn’t done automatically in real life either – you simulate it by casting two spells very quickly or ideally by just saying the words “hold priority”. If you were to cast Growth Spiral and then stare at your opponent instead of immediately casting Expansion, that would indicate that you’ve passed priority and if your opponent said “okay”, then you wouldn’t have the option to cast your Expansion before Growth Spiral resolved (at least at competitive REL: rules enforcement level).

If you didn’t understand some of that, don’t worry! Once I put it into context, everything will become clearer, and you’ll be able to see the direct advantages of knowing precisely how things work.  Let’s get onto that!

The Phases and Steps of Each Turn in Order

Untap Step, Upkeep Step, Draw Step, Main Phase 1, Combat Phase, Main Phase 2, End Step, Cleanup Phase, with a section on each. There are several steps within combat, which I will go over individually. If you’re trying to learn these, just say “Untap, Upkeep, Draw, Main 1, Combat, Main 2, End, Cleanup” to yourself a lot!

-If you didn’t see my definition of active player in the priority section, it just means the player whose turn it is and the nonactive player is their opponent.

-Remember that if both players pass priority and there’s nothing on the stack, you immediately move to the next phase! Whenever you pass priority as the active player, there is the danger that your opponent won’t cast anything and you’ll miss your shot. If they do cast something though, you can respond and will gain priority again when the stack clears.

-Sorcery speed means any effect you can’t cast or activate at instant speed – a non-instant or spell that doesn’t have flash, an ability that says “Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery” etc. You can also only play lands at sorcery speed.

Note: For simplicity’s sake, I will talk as though you are the player the subheading refers to, and “they” are your opponent.

Disclaimer: I will be covering all general cases here. Magic has so many cards that you can engineer some real nonsense if you try – there are exceptions to every rule, and things might not always work the same way in one in ten thousand games, or whatever.

Untap

-Active Player untaps all permanents they control unless an effect prevents that – e.g. Queen of Ice or Frost Lynx stops them untapping for one turn, and Dungeon Geists or Charmed Sleep stop a permanent untapping for as long as those cards are on the battlefield[1].

-Nobody can take game actions in this step because no one gets priority.

-Triggers that are supposed to trigger when things are untapped will instead trigger in the upkeep immediately following this i.e. Wake Thrasher triggers won’t go on the stack until then (don’t worry about this if you only play on Arena!).

Upkeep

-On Arena, if either player wants to do anything now, they need to set a stop.

-Priority for both players (Active Player first as usual), most “each of your turns” effects activate. Active player stacks their triggers first (chooses the order in which they resolve – there is an option in settings on Arena that lets you do this, which is very important in some cases), then nonactive player has their triggers go on top. This means your opponent will make a 1/1 Saproling from Verdant Force before you draw a card and lose 1 from Phyrexian Arena, if it’s your turn.

Active Player (AP)

-Most of the time you won’t do anything on your upkeep, unless you’re responding to something your opponent is doing.

-It can be useful to scry on your own upkeep i.e. e.g. with Castle Vantress so that you can better influence what card you draw.

Nonactive Player (NAP)

-You can cast spells now to force opponents to use their mana on their turn before they draw so they can’t use whatever they draw/don’t have the information of their card for the turn.  This is especially relevant with countermagic – you can force them to use their mana for countermagic on their turn with an instant cast now and then on your turn play whatever you want.

-Casting spells now rather than on their end step means that if they draw a way to interact like a counterspell, they can’t use it. If you don’t really care if they respond and would rather them not have mana for your turn or you want more information, it’s better to cast things on their end step. If you care about those things, cast them now.  

Draw

-On Arena, if either player wants to do anything now, they need to set a stop.

Active [AP]

-AP draws before either player gets priority.

-You don’t generally want to do things on your own draw step – you can just wait for main phase and have more options.

-If you draw on your upkeep and your opponent has Narset, Parter of Veils in play, you cannot draw on your draw step.

Nonactive [NAP]

-You can cast spells now if you want your opponent to have their drawn card now, but don’t want them to be able to cast it on their main phase. You generally want to only cast spells now if you can affect their hand – you just have less information than by casting spells main phase or end step, and they have more options than if you cast spells on their upkeep.

-It is worse to make them discard on their draw step, if you don’t get to choose the card – they just have more options on what to discard. It is better if you do get to choose it – you have more options on what to discard! So if you can cast sorceries at instant speed like with Teferi, Time Raveler, cast Mind Rot on their upkeep but Thought Erasure now. Vendilion Clique in older formats is another classic spell you often want to cast now.

Main 1

AP

This is your first opportunity to cast sorcery-speed spells and play lands. You will have a second and final opportunity after combat.

-If you’re about to attack, you generally only want to cast spells or activate abilities that affect your combat steps here. If you cast other spells, that gives them more information and you less – you don’t know precisely what the game state will look like after combat, and neither do they. If you tap your mana before combat, they no longer have to play around tricks or other combat effects.

-Some things you might want to do now: remove one of their creatures, play a haste creature, tap a creature with Giant Killer so it can’t block etc. If you want to cast draw spells to look for cards to affect combat i.e. Opt with a bunch of mana left over to cast Murder, that can also be fine. You can also cast Opt to see if you draw something you want to play this turn, so you have more information about whether you want to spend 2 mana tapping with Giant Killer, or whatever. Basically, if you’re going to do things that don’t affect combat before you attack, have a good reason.

-If you can prevent your opponent from casting spells i.e. by playing Teferi (even if you’re not bouncing something), this can also be a good time to do that so that your opponents can’t impact the rest of your turn.

NAP (set a stop on Arena if you want to do anything now)

-You generally don’t want to cast spells that affect combat until the Begin Combat step. The only reason to cast spells now is if your opponent plays something with a beginning of combat trigger this turn, like Legion Warboss (or you want to flash in something with a beginning of combat trigger like Legion Warboss with Vivien, Champion of the Wilds’s passive ability) – if you kill the Warboss now, they don’t get a goblin.

-If you cast spells now, your opponent has the opportunity to play sorcery stuff or play lands afterwards. If you can deny your opponent options for free, do it.

Combat

Begin Combat

AP (set a stop)

-You don’t want to cast spells or activate abilities as the active player now unless you’re responding to something, because it’s better to do so on your main 1.

NAP

-You can cast spells or activate abilities that affect combat now rather than on main phase 1 to stop your opponents casting sorcery-speed spells after them.

Attack Step/Declare Attacks (set a stop)

AP

-You choose attackers at the start of this step. Your opponent may not respond, and neither player gets priority – nobody can cast spells or activate abilities before you choose attackers.

-After you choose attackers, active player then nonactive player get priority as normal.

-You generally don’t want to cast spells or activate abilities here as the active player – the reason to do so is if you forgot to do it before you declared attacks, but you have less information on doing so now as you’ve already committed your attackers. As always, you may also want to respond to what your opponent is doing on this step, especially if they flash in a creature – if you remove it now, your creature won’t become blocked and they’ll need another blocker for it. Remember that if a creature in magic is blocked and doesn’t have trample, it will deal no damage – even if the blocking creature is then removed.

NAP

-You can cast spells now with full information of what attackers your opponent has. This is the step in which you want to flash in a creature you intend to block with – if you pass priority now, you won’t be able to block with that creature.

Blocking Step/Declare Blocks (set a stop)

AP

-In this step, you’re mostly just responding to what your opponent is doing this step/has done in declare attacks.

-If your opponent declares multiple blockers for any of your creatures, you need to immediately choose the order of creatures you’re dealing damage to after they’ve declared blocks. Still no priority until after this – this is just a special choice you must do immediately.

NAP

-You choose blockers at the start of this step. Your opponent may not respond, and neither player gets priority – nobody can cast spells or activate abilities before you choose blockers.

-After you choose blockers, active player then nonactive player get priority as normal.

-Remember that once you pass priority, damage happens immediately – if you don’t cast a spell, then the active player never has a chance to cast one.

-Let’s talk a bit about pump spells. You mostly want to wait till after you’ve blocked to cast pump spells like Giant Growth because if you cast them in the declare attacks step, your opponent might remove your creature and then you’ll need a new blocker or will end up taking damage you would’ve avoided by blocking first.

Rarely, it can be right to cast them in declare attacks e.g. to play around countermagic. If you block first, and then your opponent counters your pump spell, you’re committed to blocking and will likely lose your creature. If you cast the pump spell in declare attacks, you have the option of not blocking with that creature. Also against trample creatures, you may as well cast the spell in declare attacks – you can’t stop the damage by casting in declare blocks anyway.

First strike damage step

-This step only occurs if there is a creature with first strike or double strike in combat (i.e. attacking or blocking). Otherwise, you skip it.
-First strike damage happens at the start of this step. Afterwards, AP then NAP get priority as normal. This means either player can let first strike damage happen and then cast a burn spell to kill a bigger creature and not lose their blocking or blocked creature – say your 1/1 Fervent Champion is attacking into a 3/3, you can let first strike damage happen and then cast Shock to kill the 3/3, and your Fervent Champion won’t die. You can also bounce your creature after it deals first strike damage and then it won’t die in combat to regular damage.

-Double strike creatures will deal their first instance of damage in this step.

Regular damage step (set a stop)

-All other damage happens at the start of this step. All damage is dealt at the same time – creatures that have sustained lethal damage are put into the graveyard in the same moment as the defending player is dealt combat damage.

Neither player gets priority until damage has happened, after which AP then NAP get priority as normal.

-Double strike creatures will deal their second instance of damage in this step.

End of combat step (set a stop)

-Players gain priority as normal – AP then NAP. This is the last step in which a creature is considered attacking or blocking. Sometimes you want to cast a spell like Blessed Alliance that says “Target player sacrifices an attacking creature” in this step, since other smaller creatures may have already died so they have to sacrifice a better one.

Main phase 2

AP

This is your final opportunity to cast sorcery-speed spells and play lands this turn.

-This is generally where you want to take most of your game actions – combat has already happened, so you have the information from that and you’re not giving anything away to your opponent. You no longer need to hold up mana for combat tricks unless you want to cast them while you’re blocking on their turn.

NAP (set a stop)

-You generally don’t want to cast spells here because you give your opponent the option to cast sorcery speed spells afterwards. Sometimes you can cast them to prevent your opponent from getting end of turn triggers: you might want to destroy or bounce Wilderness Reclamation on this step to prevent their lands from untapping, for example.

End Step

-Any end step triggers go on the stack, active player stacks their triggers first, then nonactive (see upkeep for an explanation of this).

Active player (set a stop)

-You don’t generally want to cast spells here, since you lose the option to play sorcery-speed spells afterwards. Remember you might still want to respond, since your opponent will probably be casting spells.

Nonactive player

-This is the last chance to use your mana before you untap, so if you have spells to cast you need to do it now. Your opponent can’t cast sorcery-speed spells afterwards, so this is the best time to bounce a creature and not have them immediately replay it, for example.

Cleanup Step

-Nobody gets priority in this step the vast majority of the time. The active player discards down to 7 cards. All end of turn or “this turn” effects end in this step, and all damage marked on creatures is removed.

-The main way to get priority in this step is to respond to discard triggers from discarding to hand size, if for some reason they are being produced – say if Drake Haven were in play, active player then nonactive would gain priority in response to its “pay 1 to create a Drake” triggers.

And that’s it, the turn’s over!

Some useful Arena shortcuts that’ll help you navigate the steps and phases quicker:

Ctrl: Turn on full control temporarily

Ctrl + Shift: Hold full control

Enter: Passes the turn until the opponent takes an action

Enter + Shift: Passes the turn even if the opponent takes an action

Space: Passes priority

L: Shows the phases of each turn.

Closing Thoughts

As you can see, there’s significant nuance and potential to make sweet plays at each step of the turn, and priority is crucial to many high-level plays! Don’t worry if you don’t get all of this immediately; it can be confusing and intuitive, and it will take some time to sink in – you can always use this article as a reference if you need to check things.

You can also see why Teferi, Time Raveler is a pretty stupid card to have in play – he breaks the symmetry of the game by disabling all the little edges you can get for knowing the game and removes a lot of counterplay. He’s the featured image of this article for shaming purposes only!

Thanks for your continued support, have the best holidays there can be, and I’ll see you next time!

Other Info

I write articles on quite the variety of subjects. Find all my articles and guides here: https://mtgazone.com/drifter/. My last general strategy article: https://mtgazone.com/a-guide-to-hypergeometric-calculators/.

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[1] If Dungeon Geists is transformed by Oko or a similar card, the effect will continue and the permanent still won’t untap. It’s a continuous effect created by the card and the card is still on the battlefield.

Drifter

Drifter

I'm MTGAZone's content manager! I'm an infinite drafter and offer draft coaching alongside my articles. Visit https://mtgazone.com/drifter/ or follow me at Twitter.com/mulldrifter06 for updates!

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