The Justice League – Priority

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Thursday, October 15th – In a game of Magic, especially in multiplayer, the game can seem somewhat hectic. Indeed, this was something that attracted me to Magic in the first place. After all, there are these tricky spells called Instants that can be played at any time, meaning there are relatively few times where you can execute a plan consisting of more than a couple of moves without your opponent having the chance to wreck you.

I’m going to be at Grand Prix: Paris on November 7-8th and the World Championships in Rome November 17th-23rd; if you feel like saying “Hi” then please seek me out! I’m pretty much always happy to chat about things in the judging world, but don’t ask me for any EDH tech – I officially suck.

Onto the article! In a game of Magic, especially in multiplayer, the game can seem somewhat hectic. Indeed, this was something that attracted me to Magic in the first place. After all, there are these tricky spells called Instants that can be played at any time, meaning there are relatively few times where you can execute a plan consisting of more than a couple of moves without your opponent having the chance to wreck you*.

But let’s back up a minute… Instants can be played at any time? Well, what if two players want to play instants at the same time? Fortunately, Magic isn’t actually played in real-time** so we need some kind of system which determines at any given moment exactly who can do what. That system is the priority system.

However, I’ll start my foray into priority with a huge disclaimer. Priority is a hugely “behind the scenes” kind of concept. Entire games of Magic can and will go by without anyone mentioning the word priority. Judges may well use the word priority to answer questions however, so it’s important you have a good understanding of the system if you are to play well. The priority system is a huge underpinning of the system of Magic itself, but you don’t hear it discussed much, and as a result few players have a full understanding of priority. Even harder to understand is the concept that priority means one thing to the game, and another thing to people. In other words, what the rules say about your actions, and what judging policy says about your action are sometimes in conflict. The biggest catch with priority is that your opponents might be breaking the priority rules without either of you knowing!

In the following text, (CR 115.1) is a reference to the Magic: The Gathering Comprehensive Rules, rule 115.1, and (TR 4.2) is a reference to the Magic: The Gathering Tournament Rules, section 4.2.

So, what is priority? Priority is something that only one player can have at any time, and whilst they have it they can cast spells, activate abilities, and take special actions (CR 115.1). You can think of priority as something like the baton in a relay race. Whoever has the baton is running, and everyone else must wait for the person with the baton to pass it on. Whilst 2 players can never have priority at the same time, occasionally no player has priority whilst the game itself does some important tasks. The game never take priority away from you, though; instead, when you pass priority to another player, the game intercepts that priority pass, does a few tasks, then passes priority on to that player. Specifically, the game checks to see if any State Based Actions need to act, and then puts any triggered abilities onto the stack (CR 115.5). I’m not going to go into any further detail here on SBAs and Triggered Abilities, that’s meat for another article.

What follows is a flowchart reproduced with permission from Lee Sharpe, which shows exactly what the game does whenever a player passes priority. It’s slightly off, as State Based Effects are now known as State Based Actions, but other than that the flowchart is bang up to date.

Go with the flow (chart)

Who Has Priority?

At the beginning of the game, we are in Player A’s untap step. As you can probably imagine, it’s highly unlikely that a has any tapped permanents or anything to phase at this point, as we just began the game (though some variants may care about this, e.g. Vanguard). So, who has priority? I’m afraid it’s a trick question – nobody has priority in the untap step (CR 502.3). Because nobody has priority in the untap step, the step just ends (CR 500.3), and we move to the upkeep step. Who has priority now? Player A does, because the active player always receives priority first. (CR 115.3)

Player A is again unlikely to want to do anything in their first upkeep step, they’re missing a few of those fundamental resources that help us cast spells, namely mana. So how does the game get out of the upkeep step? Firstly, Player A must pass priority to Player B (CR 115.3d). Passing priority is just Magic-ese for saying “I don’t want to do anything right now.” For similar reasons, B is unlikely to want to do anything, so passes priority straight back to Player A. Are we done with the upkeep step yet? Yes, because both players passed priority in succession, without anything happening in between, and the stack is empty (CR 115.4).

Most turns here we would begin the draw step, and have Player A draw a card. Who would have priority now? Well, whilst A is drawing the card, nobody has priority, but A receives priority as soon as the card drawing is done (CR 504). Two more priority passes and we can move to Player A’s precombat main phase. None of this matters on the first turn of course, because the first player skips their draw step on the first turn. As such, we skip straight from the Upkeep to the Main Phase (CR 103.7a).

Is there any time to do anything in between the two phases? No. (CR 500.11)

At last, the main phase. Nothing special happens at the beginning of the main phase, so we can now let Player A do something. For the purposes of this example, they are going to take advantage of one of the game’s 6 “special actions,” and play a Basic Land – Mountain (CR 114.2a). Repeat after me – Playing a land is a special action that does not use the stack. As far as the game is concerned, that land slams straight into play faster than just about anything else you can do in a game of Magic – Player A didn’t even have to pass priority for it to happen (CR 114.3).

Giddy with excitement, Player A wishes to cast a Raging Goblin. For a hasty creature, this process actually happens a lot more slowly. Firstly, A goes through all the motions required for playing a spell (See James Elliott article 2 weeks ago for an excellent description of how to cast a spell). Afterwards, A has a Raging Goblin on the stack, but who has priority? According to the rules, still player A (CR 115.3c). He desperately wants to get his Goblin off the stack and into play, so passes priority. It should be obvious that a priority pass is necessary here – after all without it how would counter-spells ever work? However it should be noted that in real life, and in MTGO, it is assumed that you normally don’t want to keep priority after casting a spell, so although the rules give you the right to retain priority, you must explicitly exercise that right (TR 4.2)

I think it’s safe to assume that a format with Raging Goblin being played probably doesn’t include Force of Will, so Player B is going to meekly pass priority back. Now, 2 players just passed priority in succession, so the phase ends right? No, not quite. That Raging Goblin is still on the stack, so it resolves (CR 115.4). We aren’t done with the Main Phase yet, and priority goes back to Player A (CR 115.3b). They’ve used their land drop for the turn, so with their options limited they simply pass priority. B passes back and we’re in the Beginning of Combat Step (CR 507).

A, the impatient Red player, doesn’t want to do anything before attacking, so passes priority to B, who passes right back. We move to A’s Declare Attackers step (CR 508). Something important happens here – a turn-based action. A must declare attackers here. Who has priority? Nobody – whilst the game is asking A to declare his attackers, nobody gets the opportunity to cast spells or activate abilities. We have to wait for A to finish the declaration of his attack first. He declares the Raging Goblin as an attacker, the game checks this is legal, it is, and so A receives priority (CR 508.3)

A and B both have nothing to do in the Declare Attackers step, so after passing priority back and forth we can move on to the Declare Blockers step (CR 509). However, if no attackers were declared, we would skip straight through to the End of Combat Step (CR 508.6). Instead, we get there the long way – B declares no blockers, then… well, he doesn’t do anything at this point. The game asked B to declare his blockers when we entered the Declare Blockers step, but the somewhat rudely turned around after B declared blockers and handed priority over to Player A (CR 509.5)! A passes, B passes, and we move to the Combat Damage Step (CR 510).

The Raging Goblin assigns 1 damage to Player B (CR510.1b), that damage is dealt (CR 510.2) and A again receives priority (CR 510.4). He passes, B passes, we reach the End of Combat Step (CR 511), A passes, B passes, we enter the second main phase for the turn, A passes, B passes, so we go the Ending Phase, which starts with the End Step (CR 513). A passes, B passes, we enter the Cleanup Step (CR 514). Weary from all this priority passing, A is overjoyed to hear that as nothing happened at the beginning of the cleanup step, he doesn’t have to pass priority to end the turn, as the game never gave him priority in the first place. We finally move into B’s turn.

Thank you so much for sitting through the previous 10 paragraphs for a finely detailed view at exactly what happens during a Magic turn. It’s a great example of how Magic rules and Magic play can sometimes be utterly divorced, as it has taken me some 1000 words to describe what Player A does in about 7. “Mountain, Raging Goblin, in for 1. Go.” Magic Online similarly passes through this turn at a frenetic pace – thankfully something the MTGO developers got right is that players do not want to be obsessively clicking through all of these pesky priority passes, so they invented “stops.” The attitude with stops is that you mark some parts of the turn where you explicitly want to receive priority, and MTGO duly gives it to you, but without a stop, MTGO assumes you intend to do nothing with your priority, and passes it for you. Duels of the Planeswalkers by contrast has the slowest Turn 1 in existence, making all these priority passes explicit. (That’s the last time I’ll mention DotP in this column – it does not reflect the rules of Magic accurately after all. They must have realised that all that priority passing was bogging the game down, so they trimmed a few parts out of the turn sequence to make up for it)

What technology does the real world use to handle implicit priority passes? You’ve used them all the time though you may never have given them a name – it’s shortcuts.

By now you’re probably wondering how you can use this new found priority knowledge to your advantage. Let’s give you a few quick examples.

Q) I control a Sakura-Tribe Elder, have nothing in my graveyard, and play an Eternal Witness. My opponent has some blue mana up, so I’m frightened of a counter-spell. I only want to sacrifice the Sakura-Tribe Elder when I know that my opponent won’t counter the Eternal Witness. How do I do this?

A) You can’t (legally)! Tricksy Blue players! With the Eternal Witness on the stack, you received priority. You could sacrifice the Elder now, whilst you have priority, but as you haven’t passed priority yet, you won’t know if you opponent will counter. So let’s imagine you passed priority. Your opponent could counter the Witness, at which point you would receive priority back. However, if he doesn’t, the game sees that you both passed priority, and the witness resolves. Before you receive priority, the Eternal Witness triggers, but the game removes the trigger from the stack for having no legal targets (CR 603.3d).

To cut a long story short, if you want to sac the Elder to return it with the Witness, you have to hope the opponent won’t counter, because at the point you know there is no counter, it’s already too late to sac the Elder.

Here’s the rub – how many people in the blue player’s seat would let their opponent sacrifice the Elder after giving the Witness the nod? My guess is that most of you would not realise the green player is violating the timing rules.

Q) My opponent is at 2 life, and has nothing but 4 Islands in play. I have a Knight of Meadowgrain and 2 Mutavaults. How do I kill my opponent this turn, playing around the Cryptic Command I fear in his hand?

A) Much like in the above example, you have a choice of doing something or passing priority at a crucial point in the turn. This time, it’s in the Beginning of Combat step. Do you activate a Mutavault or not? In this example, you pass priority, and your opponent plays Cryptic Command to tap down the Knight of Meadowgrain and bounce one of the Mutavaults. But, by acting in the Beginning of Combat Step, you get priority back, as we didn’t have both players pass in succession! Clear of the Cryptic, you animate the Mutavault and attack for the win.

Take the second example and put your opponent at 6 life. What’s the right play now? Well, it depends how much you like taking risks. You could activate the 2 Vaults and swing for 6, but if you opponent has the Cryptic they tap your team and probably draw a card. If you don’t activate the Vaults, and they don’t Cryptic, your Knight of Meadowgrain gets to attack, but your Mutavaults have to stay on the bench. Why? Because when both players pass in succession at the Beginning of Combat Step, we move to Declare Attackers, and the first thing you must do is declare your attackers, before you receive priority to activate the Mutavaults. (Thus, the Cryptic Command player will likely wait for you to declare your Knight as a lone attacker, then bounce it and draw a card when it swings.)

Again, put yourself in the Blue player’s seat. Have you ever had you opponent declare an attack, you say okay, then they activate the Mutavaults and swing with the team? If so, you might have just let them violate the timing rules, and neither of you probably realise!***

Q) My opponent plays their first Demigod of Revenge, which I counter. But then, he puts it into play anyway, using its triggered ability! That can’t be right, can it?

A) Yes it can. Without any shortcut in place that says otherwise, you’re expected to be explicit in passing priority. In order for Demigod of Revenge’s ability to resolve (and do nothing), both players must pass priority. It sounds like you didn’t pass priority, and jumped straight in with the counter-spell. Your opponent will successfully argue to any judge that the trigger is still on the stack, so when it resolves it sees the countered Demigod in the graveyard, and puts it into play. If you really wanted to counter the Demigod constructively, you need to explicitly resolve the trigger that does nothing, by passing priority.

Hmm, I wonder if I can come up with a priority example that doesn’t involve a Blue player?

Q) My opponent attacked me with some creatures and I noted the damage on my life pad. Then my opponent thought about things for a while, and finally said “Go.” Can I safely activate my Ballista Squad and tap out to kill a creature that just attacked me?

A) There’s a lot embedded in this question. For starters, Ballista Squad can only target attacking or blocking creatures, and those terms only make sense during the combat phase. Now, nothing has happened in the turn to indicate that we have moved past the Combat Damage step, so you can certainly activate the Squad. This is a pretty important principle – no amount of time elapsed can indicate passing of priority. It may be ‘clear’ to people watching the game that the opponent is thinking about playing a creature post combat, and therefore believes they are in the postcombat main phase, but that’s not actually the case. However, once you activate the Ballista Squad, your opponent’s promise to pass priority through to the end of the turn no longer holds. In other words, now you’ve tapped out for the Ballista squad’s ability, your opponent will get another shot at their postcombat main phase with the fresh knowledge that you’re tapped out.

There interesting interactions between the priority rules, shortcut policy, and Out of Order Sequencing. If you’re confused about any aspect of the above, please let me know in the forums, at GP: Paris, or at Worlds in Rome!

Before I go, a final quickfire question from my local mailing list:

Q) I control 4 lands and a Scute Mob in my upkeep. Can I Harrow in a 5th land to grow my Mob?

A) No. Whatever fancy tricks you’re considering, the ability never triggered, as at the beginning of your upkeep you only had 4 lands (CR 603.4), and in your untap step you don’t get priority.

See you again soon!

* In contrast, check out the board game Zertz – thanks to the “forced capture rule,” you can plan long sequences spanning multiple turns where you can essentially get your opponent to act as your puppet.
** Check out Light Speed for an awesome real time game – but find a decently sized table to play on!
*** Please see the section on Out of Order Sequencing (TR 4.3), and my earlier article on the subject. An opponent can ask the active player to back up and carry out the actions in the correct order and therefore permit him to respond to an earlier part of the sequence.
**** I designed a card in this article that should never be printed, not even in Unglued 3 (unzipped?): What Shortcuts? {U} Enchantment. Whenever a player passes priority, gain 0.1 life and shuffle your library. Hehe.