The Stack is indisputably the most important part of Magic: The Gathering. Whether you know it or not, you use the Stack every time you play Magic. You use it more often than attacking, blocking, or even drawing cards. Yet, most players don't learn about the Stack until they have been playing for several months, and even then, most players don't fully understand how it works. So what is this confusing, often-overlooked, yet indispensable part of the world's most popular trading card game? That's the question I hope to answer in this article.
Who is This Article For?This article is written for people who are new to Magic, or anyone who doesn't know exactly what the Stack is or how it works. If you are already familiar with the basics of the Stack and just want to know more about the intricate details of it, then check out our Stack FAQ. Of course, you could always just finish reading this article for the sheer enjoyment of it -- who knows, you may learn something.
What is "The Stack"Every time that you play any spell (Creature, Enchantment, Artifact, Instant, or Sorcery), or an ability (such as the ability of Prodigal Sorcerer Buy), it doesn't just "happen" right away. Instead, it goes onto an imaginary pile called "The Stack". The Stack is sort of a holding place for spells that are in "limbo" between the time you play them and the time they actually resolve (a.k.a. "happen"). Most of the time, this goes on without you ever knowing it. For example, the last time that you played a Creature, did you stop to think about it going on the Stack? Probably not. And there's nothing wrong with that. But, knowing how the Stack works may come in handy the next time that you play a creature and your opponent responds with a Counterspell Buy.
Priority and The StackHave you ever tried to play a spell at the same time as your opponent, only to begin an argument about who played their spell first? Did you know that it's actually impossible for two players to play a spell at the same time? Magic is based on a system of priority, which prevents situations like this from ever coming up. Priority works like a game of hot potato -- it's constantly passing back and forth between you and your opponent, but only one of you has it at any given time. The important thing to know is that you are only allowed to play spells and abilities when you have priority.
To demonstrate how priority works, imagine the stack as a pile of dirty plates on your kitchen counter waiting to be washed. Both players in the game are constantly adding plates to the pile (playing spells), and your mom (the game) is constantly taking plates off of the pile to be washed (resolving the spells). At the beginning of each step of your turn, the kitchen counter is empty (there are no spells on the stack), and your mom allows the Active Player (the player who's turn it is) to put a plate on the pile (play a spell). This is called "receiving priority". Whenever you receive priority, it means that you have the opportunity to play a spell or ability. If you do, then it will go on top of the stack. If you don't, then your opponent will receive priority and will be given the same option.
Whenever either player puts a plate on the pile, your mom will ask that player if he wants to put another plate on the pile. If he does, then she will ask him for yet another plate. She will keep doing this until he decides not to put any more plates on the pile. Then, she repeats this process with the other player (allowing him to add plates to the pile). Once the other player is done adding his plates to the pile, your mom asks the first player again. This cycle keeps going back and forth until both players decide not to put a plate on the pile. At this point, your mom takes the top plate off the pile and washes it. When she's done washing that plate, she starts the process all over again of asking each player if he wants to put more plates on the pile (starting with the Active Player).
The important thing to notice here is that plates are always added to the top of the pile. This means that the first plate that gets put on the counter will be last one to get washed. This is exactly how the Stack works. The spell or ability that gets put on the stack first will be last one to resolve.
If you've been playing Magic for any length of time, then you've probably heard somebody say the phrase "In response I..." Have you ever wondered what that meant? Well, as it turns out, you already know what it means -- you just don't know it. Playing a spell or ability "in response" to something simply means that there's already another spell or ability on the stack. The next section will demonstrate this.
A Real-World ExampleA common use of the Stack is responding to an opponent's spell with a spell of your own. For example, let's say that you have a Grizzly Bears Buy in play. On my turn, I decide to play Shock Buy, targeting your Bears. At this point, my Shock is the only spell on the Stack. Now, I have to choose to either play another spell or ability, or pass priority to you. Let's assume that I did the latter. Now, you get the opportunity to play a spell or ability. Obviously, your Bears are going to die unless you do something to save them, so let's say that you respond to my Shock by playing a Giant Growth Buy, targeting your Bears. Your Giant Growth goes on the Stack on top my Shock. So, the Stack now looks like the image on the left.
Now that you've played a spell, you have the option of either playing another spell or ability, or passing priority back to me. Let's say that you decide to pass priority back to me. Now that I have priority again, I could play another spell (like another Shock for example), but let's say that I just decide to pass priority. Since both of us have now passed priority in a row, the top spell on the Stack (your Giant Growth) resolves, turning your Grizzly Bears into a 5/5 creature. But wait! We're not done yet. My Shock is still on the Stack.
It's important to remember that after each spell on the Stack resolves, the Active Player gets priority again. For example, now that your Giant Growth has resolved, I could play another spell or ability if I wanted to. However, for this example, I won't be doing that, so I have to pass priority to you instead. Let's assume that you also decide not play anything, so you pass priority. Now that both of us have passed priority in a row, the top spell on the Stack (my Shock) resolves and deals 2 damage to your Bears. However, now that your Bears are a 5/5 creature instead of the 2/2 that they originally were, they survive the Shock.
This example may have seemed to be really complicated. After all, it did take three paragraphs to explain it. But in an actual game, most of these steps could be safely skipped. For example, in a typical game, this is what would happen:
You: "In response, I Giant Growth my Grizzly Bears"
See... it's not really that difficult.
Spells VS. AbilitiesIn the previous example, I played a spell and you responded by playing another spell. But spells aren't the only thing that can go on the Stack. Activated Abilities also use the stack, and they can be responded to just like a spell.
For example, let's say that you have a Master Healer Buy in play, and I play Lightning Blast Buy targeting it. In response to my Lightning Blast, you decide to use your Master Healer's ability (to prevent 4 damage to itself). Your Healer's ability goes on the Stack on top of my Lightning Blast just like a spell would. So, now the Stack looks like the image on the right. Because your Healer's ability is on top of the Stack, it will resolve first and put a "shield" around your Healer that will prevent the next 4 damage it receives. And that's a good thing too, because next my Lightning Blast resolves and tries to deal 4 damage to the Healer. Of course, the damage gets prevented and the Healer lives.
How Counterspells WorkNow that you understand how to respond to a spell, let's talk about how to counter one. There are a several different spells that allow you to counter another spell. The most popular one is obviously Counterspell Buy. These spells use the Stack just like any other spell, and they can be responded to just like any other spell. In fact, you can even respond to a Counterspell with another Counterspell. But where it starts to get a little complicated is when a Counterspell actually resolves.
To counter a spell means to remove it from the Stack and place it in its owner's Graveyard. The countered spell does not get a chance to resolve -- it is totally canceled. For example, let's say that I play a Tranquil Path Buy, and you respond with a Counterspell (targeting my Tranquil Path). Your Counterspell goes on the Stack on top of my Tranquil Path, so it will resolve first. When it resolves, it immediately removes my Tranquil Path from the Stack and puts it into my Graveyard. Once the Counterspell is done resolving, the Stack is empty. My Tranquil Path never got a chance to resolve, which means that no Enchantments get destroyed and I don't get to draw a card.
Now That You're an Expert...The purpose of this article was to give you a basic understanding of how the stack works, and I sincerely hope it accomplished that. However, for those of you with more advanced questions regarding the intricacies of the Stack, you should check out our Rules Questions forum (which just happens to have a Stack FAQ). The gurus that hang out in our Rules Questions forum are always ready to answer any question you may have.
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Special thanks to the rest of the eM Rules Team.