Are you a Quiet Speculation member?
If not, now is a perfect time to join up! Our powerful tools, breaking-news analysis, and exclusive Discord channel will make sure you stay up to date and ahead of the curve.
Who's This Guy?
Hello! My name is Andrew, and I do all of the rules things. I learned to judge in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. If you’ve attended basically any large Magic event in Texas in the last four-ish years you’ve probably seen me around. You can also find me hanging out in the rules IRC answering questions or writing for Cranial Insertion.
Starting today, I also write for Quiet Speculation! I'll write about something rules-related every week. If you have any topics you'd like to see covered, you should ping me on Twitter or our Insider Discord.
Today I want to write about priority. Players generally have a vague notion of it, but they tend to forget some of the finer details.
Some Basics of Priority
Magic uses the priority system to determine who can do something at any given time. A player with priority can cast spells, activate abilities, and take special actions. Each player in the game gets priority in each step of the turn except for the untap step and usually the cleanup step. We'll talk about exceptions later.
Any time a new object goes on the stack, there’s a fresh round of priority. Each player can choose to respond or not, and if nobody does, the top object of the stack resolves. If everybody passes priority without taking any actions while the stack is empty, the game moves to the next step or phase.
As a rule, the active player gets priority first at the beginning of each step and phase after the game handles turn-based actions and puts any triggered abilities on the stack. The active player also gets priority after a spell or a non-mana ability resolves.
Strictly speaking, a player gets priority after they cast a spell, activate an ability, or take a special action. However, we generally take a shortcut and assume a player passes priority after they do something. A player can hold priority if they explicitly say they want to do so.
I want to clarify a bit about what “holding priority” does. This enables a player to cast several spells and/or activate several abilities in succession, but that's it! I often see players think it somehow works like split second or otherwise locks players out of responding. This is simply not the case. You can hold priority and cast your two Lightning Bolts, but you have to pass priority in order for either one to resolve, and they still resolve individually. An opponent can let the first Bolt resolve and respond to the second one.
The Long Part About Shortcuts
“What’s a shortcut?” you ask. Without shortcuts, you'd probably enjoy paper Magic much less. For instance, if players had to clearly pass priority each time they wanted or needed to, games would take forever. Even in a turn where nobody does anything, each player passes priority eight times. Could you imagine playing a game of Magic like that?
Instead of having to be painfully specific about the flow of the game, we have some handy dandy shortcuts. Most shortcuts in the Magic Tournament Rules formed over the years by just watching Magic players play. Every time you say “Land, go,” congratulations! You just took a common shortcut that means “let’s both pass priority until it’s your turn.” That beats you and your opponent(s) having to say “I pass priority” back and forth for 30 seconds.
Several of the other defined tournament shortcuts involve priority.
The Combat Shortcut
If the active player passes priority with an empty stack during their first main phase, the non-active player is assumed to be acting in beginning of combat unless they are affecting whether a beginning of combat ability triggers. Then, after those actions resolve or no actions took place, the active player receives priority at the beginning of combat. Beginning of combat triggered abilities (even ones that target) may be announced at this time.Magic Tournament Rules, 4.2 - Tournament Shortcuts
That’s a lot of words, so let’s cover some situations. I'll always use a name starting with A for the active player and a name starting with N for the nonactive player.
Situation A: Abby controls a Goblin Rabblemaster. Abby says “combat?” Nate, not wanting the Rabblemaster trigger to happen, says, “Doom Blade your Rabblemaster.” Doom Blade resolves. The game is still in Abby’s first main phase. Abby has priority.
Situation B: Ant controls two Grizzly Bears. Ant says, “combat?” Nico says, “Doom Blade a Bear.” Doom Blade resolves. The game is in Ant’s beginning of combat step. Ant has priority.
Putting Multiple Objects on the Stack
Next up, we have this shortcut that was relevant during Walking Ballista’s heyday.
If a player adds a group of objects to the stack without explicitly retaining priority, they are assumed to be adding them to the stack individually and allowing each to resolve before adding the next. If another player wishes to take an action at a point in the middle of this sequence, the actions should be reversed to that point.Magic Tournament Rules, 4.2 - Tournament Shortcuts
Let’s say Anita has a Walking Ballista in play with six +1/+1 counters on it. If she says, “Activate Ballista six times targeting you,” what this really means is “activate Ballista once, then let it resolve,” six times. If instead Anita says, “Hold priority, activate Ballista six times targeting you,” this means “put all six activations on the stack one after another.” In the latter situation, none of the abilities start to resolve until they’ve all been put on the stack.
Making Choices Prematurely
We have one more shortcut that directly mentions priority, and it’s one of my favorites!
If a player casts a spell or activates an ability and announces choices for it that are not normally made until resolution, the player must adhere to those choices unless an opponent responds to that spell or ability. If an opponent inquires about choices made during resolution, that player is assumed to be passing priority and allowing that spell or ability to resolve.Magic Tournament Rules, 4.2 - Tournament Shortcuts
If Archibald casts Pithing Needle and Noelle asks, “Naming what?” Noelle has passed her priority to counter the Needle. On the flip side, if Archibald casts Pithing Needle and immediately says, “naming Flooded Strand,” he’s stuck with that choice unless Noelle responds to the spell in some way. If she cracks her Strand, Archibald can change his mind and name something else.
Earlier, I mentioned that players usually don’t get priority in the cleanup step. Of course, that means that sometimes you can get priority then, usually with the help of a triggered ability.
Let’s look at a card like Necropotence. Its activated ability lets me exile the top card of my library now, then put it into my hand at the beginning of my next end step. Let’s say I do this a bunch of times and end up with 15 cards in my hand. When we move to the cleanup step, I have to discard down to my maximum hand size of 7. Then Necropotence puts its triggered ability on the stack for each card I discarded.
In short, if any state-based actions have to happen or triggered abilities need to go on the stack in the cleanup step, the active player will get priority. I used a triggered ability as the example because it’s much more common than state-based actions happening here, though it’s possible!