Published on 12/22/2014

Take your Turn (again)

or, Turn Up The Volume

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Note: This article is over two years old. Information in this article may be out of date due to subsequent Oracle and/or rules changes. Proceed with caution.

The turn:
  • Beginning phase
    • Untap step
    • Upkeep step
    • Draw step

  • Main phase
  • Combat phase
    • Beginning of combat step
    • Declare attackers step
    • Declare blockers step
    • Combat damage step
    • End of combat step

  • Main phase
  • Ending phase
    • End step
    • Cleanup step

Thanks for turning up this week for a very special issue of Cranial Insertion. As it turns out, we have up-to-date articles covering the layer system and how to cast a spell, but in an unfortunate turn of events it's been almost a decade since the last time we covered one of the most important things in Magic: taking a turn!

So this week we're turning out a special article which will turn the pages of the rulebook (you can follow along, if you like, in section 500 of the Comprehensive Rules) to how to take a turn. And next week we'll turn up again with a regular issue, so if you've got rules questions — either about turn structure or something else — please send them to us by using the handy "Email Us" button, by sending an email to , or by tweeting at @CranialTweet.

Prioritizing and actionable items

Before we dive in, it's important to get two concepts down, because they're going to come up in almost every part of our tour through a Magic turn.

The first is priority, which may hold some sort of record for both the most misunderstood concept in Magic, and for the concept people most often overcomplicate when trying to explain it. If you've ever had to learn rules of right-of-way on the road for a driving test, you probably already understand the basic idea of priority: just as there are rules to decide who gets to go when multiple vehicles all want to proceed on a road, there are rules in Magic to decide who gets to act first when multiple players want to to something at the same time.

Most of the things you do in a normal game of Magic can usually (though some cards do let you do things at unusual times) only be done at a time when you have priority. You can only cast a spell when you have priority, you can only play lands or take other special actions when you have priority, you can only activate abilities of your cards when you have priority, etc. And priority almost never actually makes a visible difference on how the game flows; it's only in a situation where two (or more) players each want to do something at exactly the same time, and the exact order in which they do their things will matter, that priority actually makes a difference. Otherwise, players just do stuff and the game works as expected.

In most steps and phases of a turn, each player will get priority at least once. When you have priority, you either take some action with it (like casting a spell) or you "pass" — in other words, you do nothing. Then the next player in turn order will get priority. When all players in the game get and pass priority, in order, without taking any other actions, one of two things will happen: if there are any spells or abilities on the stack, the topmost one (and only that one) will resolve nad have its effect. Then players start getting priority again. If there aren't any spells or abilities on the stack, the current step or phase of the turn ends, and the next one begins.

The two most important things to remember about how priority works are, first, that the active player — that's the player whose turn it is — will get priority first during each step or phase of the turn, and that if a player has priority and takes some action with it, that player gets it first immediately afterward.

Q: I've heard something about "holding" priority and refusing to pass; does this mean I can cast a spell, hold priority, and my opponent can't respond to or counter it?

A: Well, when you have priority and do something with it, you get it right back after you do the thing (in this case, casting a spell). But just sitting there refusing to pass won't accomplish much; your opponents can't do anything yet since they don't have priority, but your spell also can't resolve, since that requires every player to get and pass priority in order, and as long as you keep hogging priority that won't happen.

Q: I have a face-down Abzan Guide and it's my opponent's turn. My opponent says "go", and I turn my Guide face-up. Since that was a special action, my opponent doesn't get priority again to try to kill the Guide before my turn starts, right?

A: Not quite. The key here is that a step or phase only ends if all players pass without taking any other action. If someone does take an action — like, say, the special action of turning a face-down creature face-up — then we have to start all over again, and all players will get priority at least one more time before the step/phase ends.

The other concept we'll keep running into is the idea of the turn-based action. These are things that the game causes to happen automatically at the appropriate point in the turn. They don't use the stack, and players can't respond to them or wait to do them at a more convenient time; they simply happen (most of them happen at the start of a particular step or phase, before anything else occurs) when it's time for them to happen.

As we progress through the turn, we'll point out the most common and relevant turn-based actions, but we won't cover the full list — some of them are only used in multiplayer variant forms of Magic, for example, and so aren't really useful to know about outside of those variants. Almost all of the turn-based actions happen at the beginning of specific steps, but there is one oddball that happens at the end, and happens over and over: any unused mana in a player's mana pool will empty out at the end of every step and every phase.

Begin at the beginning

The beginning of the turn occurs in... the beginning phase! It's made up of three separate steps: untap, upkeep and draw.

First we hit the untap step. The most relevant thing that happens here is that, on your turn, your tapped permanents become untapped. This is a turn-based action which happens automatically. Also, if you have any cards with phasing, this is when they'll automatically phase in or out (in fact, that one comes first, so things that phase in tapped can untap). And that's it! No player gets priority during the untap step, so nothing can be put on the stack here. No spells, no activated abilities, no triggered abilities, no nothing.

Q: If nothing can trigger in the untap step, how do the "inspired" abilities of cards like Pain Seer work?

A: They wait! The full process here is that any time a player would get priority, first the game checks for and applies state-based actions (like destroying a creature that's received lethal damage, or booting a player out of the game for being at zero life), then any triggered abilities that have triggered and are waiting to be put on the stack get put on the stack, and then the player gets priority.

But since no player gets priority in the untap step, any abilities that trigger then have to wait until a time when someone does get priority — that'll happen a moment later, in the upkeep step (and the result of this is that, yes, abilities which trigger from untapping actually go on the stack and resolve in the upkeep step instead).

Q: Well, what about the trigger to choose whether I'll untap my Vedalken Shackles? How can that wait until my upkeep, if it affects whether the Shackles untaps at all?

A: That one doesn't wait, but it's also not a triggered ability (remember: triggers use the words "When", "Whenever" or "At" to indicate their trigger conditions). Before you untap your permanents, if you control anything which lets you choose whether to untap it, you just make the choice. This doesn't go on the stack and players can't respond to it; it just happens automatically. Similarly, effects which keep a permanent from untapping during the untap step just happen, rather than having to use the stack to do their thing.

Q: I forgot to untap something during my untap step, and now my opponent is saying I have to leave it tapped because I forgot! Is that true?

A: Nope! Untapping your permanents in your untap step is not optional, and is not something you can "miss". So just go ahead and untap your stuff, and be more careful in the future (at some high-level tournaments, the decision might be based on how much has happened between the error and the time it was noticed, but don't worry too much about that — in any casual game, and at any FNM and most other types of tournaments in local stores, the enforcement level never goes that high).

Once the relevant turn-based actions have finished, we exit the untap step and move into the upkeep step. In a normal game of Magic there aren't any automatic turn-based actions that happen here, but it is the first point in the turn when players get priority, so any triggered abilities which were waiting from the untap step will get put on the stack now, along with any abilities which trigger at the beginning of the upkeep step (and lots of cards have abilities which do that).

Once everything has resolved, and everyone passes, it's on to...

...the draw step! There's only one relevant turn-based action here, and it's that the active player (the player whose turn it is) draws a card. Then, any abilities which triggered at the beginning of the draw step go on the stack, and players get priority and can do things (like cast instants or activate abilities). In a typical two-player game of Magic, this step gets skipped on the very first turn of the game.

Q: So, this means I can cast something like a Vendilion Clique in my opponent's draw step, see what they drew, and take a card from their hand before they move to the main phase and can cast it?

A: So long as the card you want to take isn't an instant and doesn't have flash, yup! The draw step doesn't end until every player has had and passed priority in order on an empty stack, and since Vendilion Clique has flash it's perfectly legal to cast it any time you have priority. So you can sneak it in during your opponent's draw step and nab a good non-instant card out of their hand before they can get into their main phase to cast it.

First and main

The end of the draw step also marks the end of the beginning phase, and the transition into the first of two main phases which will occur during the turn.

There aren't any special turn-based actions associated with the main phase, but it is the time when the active player (that's the player whose turn it is) has the most freedom to do things. Most other times, your options are limited to casting instants and activating abilities, but during your main phase you can — when the stack is empty — also cast artifacts, creatures, enchantments, planeswalkers and sorceries, activate abilities of planeswalkers (and any other abilities which say you can only activate them "any time you could cast a sorcery") and play a land from your hand (as long as you haven't played one already).

Q: So, why can't I kill a planeswalker on the turn it's cast?

A: You can, but sometimes it's not possible to immediately kill a planeswalker before at least one of its abilities gets activated. Suppose it's your turn, and you cast Sorin, Solemn Visitor. Everybody passes afterward, so it resolves and enters the battlefield. Now you'd like to activate Sorin's +1 ability, but your opponent wants to cast a Hero's Downfall and kill Sorin. On your turn, you get priority first, and so you get a chance to activate Sorin's ability before your opponent can cast Hero's Downfall. And since killing Sorin after his ability has been activated won't counter the ability, that guarantees you'll get at least one activation out of him, so long as you don't do anything else before activating his ability (since then your opponent could respond to whatever else you did with Hero's Downfall, at a time when you can't activate Sorin).

Q: How can I tell whether I'm allowed to play a land? Say, if I have Azusa, Lost but Seeking, play three lands, then Cloudshift Azusa, can I play two more?

A: There's a very easy way to tell whether you can play a land: simply add up all the land plays from rules and effects (like Azusa), then subtract the number of lands you've played so far. That's how many lands you can play. So in this example, start by adding up the normal land play you get from the rules of the game, plus the two additional land plays from Azusa, for a total of 3 land plays. Then count up how many lands you've played: also 3. Since 3 - 3 = 0, you have zero land plays left (note that this is a somewhat recent change to the rules, and was made to clear up precisely these types of situations and do away with the need to explicitly track which land plays had and hand't been used).

Let's get combative

Once the first main phase ends, we're on into the most complex phae of the turn: the combat phase. It's complex for several reasons: a lot of things happen during this phase, and it's made up of multiple steps, some of which get added or left out depending on what's happening. During the combat phase, the active player is the attacking player, and in a two-player game the opponent is the defending player. Multiplayer variants have their own rules for which players are defending players, and when they become defending players.

Q: How do I know when my opponent's main phase has ended and the combat phase has begun? I don't want to be facing down a creature with haste that gets cast out of nowhere!

A: In tournament play, there's an established shortcut which corresponds to how people mostly actually play the game: any statement about combat or attacking is interpreted as offering to pass priority until the beginning of combat step, and any actions taken after that are assumed to happen in that step. So if your opponent says something like "go to combat?" or "declare attackers?" you can feel safe knowing that their main phase is over.

The first step of the combat phase is the beginning of combat step. Not much happens here, except that players get priority, any "at the beginning of combat" abilities will trigger, and it's the absolute last chance to do anything that would affect which creatures can be or are going to be declared attacking. So, for example, this is the last opportunity to use the ability of Dazzling Rampart to tap a creature and prevent it from being able to attack.

Next comes the declare attackers step. The first thing that happens here is the turn-based action of declaring attacking creatures. This happens all in one go, doesn't use the stack, and can't be responded to; the next chance to cast spells or use abilities will be after the declaration is complete (so, despite players commonly saying it, there's no such thing as "in response to attacks" — either they act before the attack is declared, without knowing which creatures will attack, or they wait and act afterward but can no longer prevent an attack from being declared).

Attacking sometimes involves requirements and/or restrictions, or costs. Requirements force a creature to attack (like Valley Dasher's ability, for example), while restrictions say a creature can't attack unless some condition is met (like Mogg Flunkies). And costs simply say that a creature can't attack unless you pay (where the payment might be mana, or might be something else, like sacrificing another creature or paying life).

The interactions here can get complicated, but the general rules are: you have to obey the maximum possible number of requirements while not disobeying any restrictions, and you can ignore a requirement if the only way to satisfy it is by paying a cost.

Q: I have a Mogg Flunkies and a Runeclaw Bear. My opponent used Alluring Siren on my Flunkies. What happens?

A: You have a requirement (the Flunkies attack if able), and a restriction (the Flunkies can't attack alone). If you don't attack with anything, you'll obey all restrictions, and zero requirements. If you attack with the Flunkies and the Bear, you'll obey all restrictions and one requirement. Since that's a higher number of requirements obeyed, it's the only legal attack you can declare.

Q: What if my opponent has a Propaganda or a Ghostly Prison when they use the Alluring Siren?

A: Now you can legally ignore the requirement created by Alluring Siren, since satisfying it would require you to pay a cost. This means you could simply declare no attackers, and neither your opponent nor the rules can complain about it.

Once a legal set of attacking creatures has been declared, any abilities that triggered as a result of declaring attackers will be put on the stack, and then players get priority. It's important to note that only this set of attacking creatures is considered for abilities — like exalted on a Noble Hierarch — which count how many creatures attacked; although the set of creatures which actually are attacking might grow or shrink later, only this initial declared set gets counted when something asks how many creatures attacked.

And just as the beginning of combat step was the last chance to prevent a creature from attacking, the declare attackers step is the last chance to prevent a creature from blocking; if you want to prevent a block, you'll have to do it now, or else not get another chance until after blockers have been declared.

Also, if no creatures are declared attacking, the game simply skips over the next few steps (since they're not needed unless an actual attack happened) and goes straight to the end of combat step.

Q: So, if I have a card hidden away under Windbrisk Heights, and I attack with a Hero of Bladehold, can I activate Windbrisk Heights thanks to the two Soldier tokens the Hero made?

A: Nope! Although the set of attacking creatures has grown to three by the time the Hero's abilities are done resolving, only one creature — the Hero herself — was declared as an attacker during the turn-based action of declaring attacking creatures, and that's all Windbrisk Heights will look at.

Once everybody's passed priority in order to end the declare attackers step, we move into the declare blockers step. Once again, we start with a turn-based action: declaring blocking creatures. The defending player (or players, in multiplayer games) will state which creatures are blocking and what they're blocking, and once again this doesn't use the stack and can't be responded to (so, again, "in response to blocks" isn't game terminology — someone either acts before blockers are declared, without knowing what will block or how, or acts after blockers have been declared and it's too late to prevent a block).

Just like attacking, blocking can be subject to requirements (which force something to block) or restrictions (which say something can't block unless a condition is met) or costs (which require a payment in order to block). And once again, the general rules are to obey the maximum possible number of requirements without disobeying any restrictions, and that a requirement can be ignored if satisfying it would require paying a cost.

Once blocking creatures have been declared, if any attacking creature has multiple blockers declared for it, the attacking player announces a "damage assignment order" — in the combat damage step, the attacking creature will assign damage to its blockers in this order, and can't assign damage to any particular blocker until all blockers earlier in the order have been assigned lethal damage. Also, once declared, the set of blockers is locked in — abilities or effects that could prevent blocking won't undo an already-declared block at this point. Removing blockers, after this point, also won't cause a creature to become unblocked.

Finally, any abilities which triggered as a result of blockers being declared (including any abilities which check to see if a creature attacked and wasn't blocked) go on the stack, and players get priority.

Q: So what's the difference between "becomes blocked" and "becomes blocked by a creature"? Say, if I have an Ichorclaw Myr equipped with Infiltration Lens and two creatures block it, what happens?

A: The Myr will get +2/+2 until end of turn, and you'll draw four cards. An ability which triggers when something "becomes blocked" is just asking a binary yes/no question — either the creature is blocked or it's not, and any additional blockers beyond the first don't cause further changes to that status. Meanwhile, an ability which triggers whenever something "becomes blocked by a creature" counts each individual creature declared as a blocker.

Q: I attacked with Master of Cruelties, and my opponent used Flash Foliage to make a token and block. Does the Master's ability trigger?

A: Yup! Master of Cruelties waits until the turn-based action of declaring blockers is complete, then checks the set of creatures blocking it. At that point there weren't any blockers, so the Master's ability triggered, and no amount of flashy foliage will change that.

Once blockers have been declared and everybody's had and passed priority again, it's time to move on to the combat damage step. This step starts with two turn-based actions. First, each attacking and blocking creature will assign its damage; this is simply a statement of how much damage goes where, and doesn't take into account any effects that might increase, decrease, redirect or prevent the damage when it actually gets dealt. For an attacking creature with multiple blockers, this is where the damage assignment order (determined in the declare blockers step) becomes relevant. If, say, a Siege Rhino is blocked by a Hornet Queen and two of her tokens, the assignment order might be the Queen, then one token, then the other token. The Rhino would need to assign 2 damage to the Queen before assigning any to the first token, and would need to assign 2 to the Queen and 1 to the first token before assigning any to the second token. And it would need to assign 2 to the Queen, 1 to the first token and 1 to the second token before using trample to assign any damage to the player (and since there's no additional damage left — all 4 has already been assigned — there probably won't be any trampling in this case).

Then all the damage is dealt simultaneously. After that, any creatures which have been dealt lethal damage get destroyed, any abilities which triggered as a result of damage being dealt or creatures dying go on the stack, and players get priority. Under older rules, players got a chance to act in between these two turn-based actions (this was known as "combat damage on the stack"), but that was removed a few years ago in the Magic 2010 rules overhaul.

Also, there's a special case worth noting here: if any of the creatures — attacking or blocking — have either first or double strike, there are actually two, separate combat damage steps. In the first one, only the creatures which have first or double strike assign and deal damage. In the second one, only creatures which still have double strike, or which didn't have first or double strike to begin with (and which survived the first damage step) will assign and deal damage. The mechanics of both of these steps are identical, and work as described above; the only difference between them is which creatures get to assign and deal damage in each step.

Q: I have a Silverblade Paladin paired with a Glory Seeker. In the first combat damage step, they each deal their damage, but the Paladin dies because it was blocked by a White Knight. Does the Glory Seeker get to deal damage again?

A: Nope! Only creatures that still have double strike get to actually have a second strike. And the Glory Seeker lost double strike the moment his Paladin friend bought the farm in the first combat damage step. So he'll have to seek glory through some means other than dealing combat damage twice.

Q: I attacked with a Butcher of the Horde and my opponent blocked with a Wingmate Roc. I used Stoke the Flames to kill the Roc; does the Butcher get to deal 5 damage to my opponent?

A: Not unless your Butcher also has a way to gain trample; as noted above, once a creature is blocked, it's blocked, and removing its blockers won't unblock it or undo the block. So the Butcher just sort of flaps around, looking angrily at the big empty space that's keeping him from smacking your opponent upside the head, and won't deal any damage to anyone or anything (which means that, if you had given the Butcher lifelink, you won't be gaining any life).

Q: My opponent attacks me with Wingmate Roc and Courser of Kruphix. I block the Courser with Siege Rhino, then tap my Rhino to help convoke Stoke the Flames on the Roc. Does my Rhino still get to kill the Courser it blocked?

A: Yup! Way back in the day, tapping a blocker would prevent the blocker from dealing any combat damage. But that unintuitive bit of rules bit the dust a long time ago, and now tapped blockers deal damage just the same as untapped ones do.

After the combat damage step (or steps), there's one final step in the combat phase: end of combat. This is a final chance to act during the combat phase, and is the last point in the turn in which any creatures will still be considered "attacking" or "blocking"; once this step ends, they go back to being just plain old creatures.

Q: I activated a Celestial Colonnade and attacked with it; after the combat damage step, can I tap it for white mana and cast Condemn on it to gain 4 life?

A: You can, so long as you do it in the end of combat step. At that point the Colonnade is still an attacking creature, so it's a legal target for Condemn. Once the step ends, though, it'll stop being an attacking creature, so this really is the last chance to pull that kind of trick.

Q: What about using Maze of Ith on an attacking creature after the combat damage step? Is that legal?

A: It's legal, and it's a pretty good play; since the creature has already dealt its damage, the only thing that really happens is your creature is now untapped and available to block during your opponent's turn (or to use any abilities which would require it to tap to activate).

Second and main

After the end of combat step, the combat phase is over and we head right back into another main phase. All the same things that work in the precombat main phase work here too (except that if you used up all your land plays precombat, you don't get any new ones postcombat).

Q: Can I deliberately skip over my first main phase and combat phase to get to the second and cast a Goblin Rabblemaster without having to make and attack with a token?

A: You can't avoid those phases altogether, but you can just pass in your first main phase and your beginning of combat step, and then declare no attackers; after the declare attackers step the game will then jump, for you, to the end of combat step, where you can pass priority one more time and be safe in your postcombat main phase.

Here at the end of all things

And once the second main phase is done, we come — finally — to the ending phase of the turn. This phase has only two steps, and typically things only actually happen in one of them.

First is the appropriately-named end step. This is usually the last chance anyone gets to cast spells or activate abilities before the current turn ends, and is also the time when lots of delayed triggered abilities will trigger. Handle those triggers, and any instants or abilities players want to put onto the stack, and then when everybody passes it's time for...

...the cleanup step. Much like the untap step, the cleanup step begins with two turn-based actions, and mostly players don't get priority in this step. The two actions are, first, the active player discards down to his or her maximum hand size (which is usually 7), and second, all "until end of turn" effects wear off and all damage marked on creatures is removed (these two happen simultaneously as one action). Then, if any state-based actions need to apply, or if any abilities triggered, apply the relevant state-based actions, put the triggers on the stack, and players get priority. Once everyone passes with the stack empty, the cleanup step ends and then another one begins; keep adding new cleanup steps onto the end of the turn until you get through one without any state-based actions applying or triggered abilities triggering, and then the turn ends! Whew!

Q: I have Psychosis Crawler and my opponent flashed in a Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur during my end step. Does my Crawler die?

A: Unless something else is pumping up either the Crawler or your hand size, yes. During your cleanup step you'll discard down to zero cards in hand, making the Crawler a 0/0. Then the state-based action that puts zero-toughness creatures into the graveyard will apply, and the Crawler will die. Then players will get priority, and then there'll be another cleanup step.

Q: I used Become Immense on a Sidisi's Pet, and it also took 5 damage during the turn. Does it die during the cleanup step?

A: It doesn't! Remember that "until end of turn" effects and marked damage wear off simultaneously. So at one moment Sidisi's Pet is a 7/10 with 5 damage marked on it, and at the next it's a 1/4 with 0 damage marked on it. Neither of those is lethal, so it lives.

And that's it! We've been through a whole turn of Magic, explored each step and phase and what happens in them, and I think it turned out pretty well (if I do say so myself). And now it's time to turn over the reins to Carsten, who'll be back next week to take his turn at another issue of Cranial Insertion!

- James Bennett

About the Author:
James Bennett is a Level 3 judge based out of Lawrence, Kansas. He pops up at events around Kansas City and all over the midwest, and has a car he can talk to.

Surprised that in the combat damage step, there wasnt a question regarding Lifelink and "When X deals damage, gain that much life"
#1 • Date: 2014-12-21 • Time: 23:13:37 •
Lifelink versus un-errata'd pseudo-lifelink is a thing that doesn't come up as often these days, and isn't really related to turn structure like the other questions are. Plus, needed the article to be of finite length :)
#2 • Date: 2014-12-22 • Time: 12:54:11 •
The Flash Foliage one was tricky, since it seems pretty easy to cast the flash after the Master of Cruelties was declared as an attacker. The Oracle text (as well as the rulings) cleared that up though.
#3 • Date: 2014-12-22 • Time: 14:27:31 •

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