So you're in a game. One player tries to drop a bomb on the table, and the last person in turn order goes, "Well I... uh, I mean, Player 2, you have priority. Do you have anything?" Have you ever wondered what exactly is happening here? Why does Player 2 have to do something before the last player, who clearly has an answer? What is this song and dance we're going through? What do they mean by "you have priority"?
In this article, we're going to be talking about exactly what Priority is in Magic. Keep in mind, this article is meant to be a very down-to-earth and practical approach towards priority, so when I tell you a rule or how something works in-game, it may not cover 100% of all situations. I'll say something like, "80% of the time, the rule works like this." You are absolutely more than welcome (and even encouraged!) to comment about the other 20% of the time when the rule does not work like that, but for the sake of this article, I'm trying to simplify ideas for newer cEDH players.
I know, I know. I just got done talking about how I wanted to write this article to describe priority in simple terms, then I go directly into "vocabulary"?! Unfortunately, there are just some concepts in Magic that we can't avoid. I'll try to keep this vocab list short, but pay attention because there will be a test on Friday!
Active Player - This is the player whose turn it currently is. In examples which describe game states, it is common for the active player in the example to be named with a name starting with A. Ex: Annie untapped her lands, went through upkeep, and drew for turn.
Non-Active Player - These are the players whose turn it is not. Similar to Active Player's names, for Non-Active Player's it is common for their names to begin with an N. Ex: Ned blocked with his Spirit token. It is worth noting this may vary due to examples having up to 3 Non-Active Players, but N names are still a good rule of thumb to know.
The Stack - The stack is a shared zone where spells and abilities are placed before they resolve, so if Alex casts a Comprehensive Rules., they will place the on the stack before it resolves and enters the battlefield. For more about The Stack, I'd start in section 601 (Casting Spells) of the
(117) - If you see a number like this in parentheses, I am citing the Comprehensive Rule that applies to what I've just written. You can ignore it mostly, but if you want to look up exactly what the text of the rule(s) is/are, this will help you.
What is Priority?
In the simplest terms, priority is like a talking stick. The player whose turn it is gets to say something first. Then each player after them gets a chance to reply to what the Active Player said. If no one has anything else to say, we go to the next step of the turn and we start over again. We do this until the end of the turn and then the next player becomes the active player.
The most important part about priority, just like with a talking stick, is you can't "say" anything (you can physically speak and have above-board conversations, but you cannot declare game actions) unless you're holding the talking stick. In fact, it may even be in your favor to NOT "say" anything, but we'll talk about that in a little bit.
Here's a more technical example of priority working.
Ana, Nathan, Natalie, and Nick are playing a game of Commander. It is Ana's turn.
- Ana casts , placing on the stack. She then passes priority to Nathan.
- Nathan has no response and passes priority to Natalie.
- Natalie has no response and passes priority to Nick.
- Nick puts on a sad face, and passes priority.
- Because all four players have passed priority, the item at the top of the stack (in this case, ) resolves. enters the battlefield.
In this example, the talking stick is passed in succession to each player. After everyone's had a chance to act, and since no one did, Ana's spell resolved. What's important here is that in Step 4, when Nick had priority, if Nathan wanted to do something he could not, because Nick has the talking stick. Nathan doesn't get a chance to do anything to now that he's passed the talking stick. He may have thought Natalie had a counterspell, which is why he passed the stick, but after he passed the stick, it's too late to do anything.
In a real game of Commander, this exact situation won't usually come up because of something we call above-board conversations. Players will have a chat to try to figure out if other players have answers without actually passing priority. This is a completely fair and expected part of every cEDH game, but there are reasons why you may not want to tip your hand and give out too much information. We'll talk about that later in this article though.
Taking Advantage of Priority
Now we know what priority is, and how it works. How can you use this knowledge to your advantage?
Before we get into it, it's important that you keep in mind that all of these situations are cEDH-specific. These will almost certainly not work in a game of casual EDH, because the mindset of play is different (read: different, not wrong!). In casual EDH, it is not uncommon for suboptimal plays to be made for the sake of a joke or to the benefit of the table. In cEDH, we as a community strive for the most optimal play possible for ourselves. When we discuss taking advantage of your turn priority, it mostly results in us attempting to force the hand of players later in turn order to expend resources so that we don't have to, because for them, it is the most optimal play.
Adam has a hand of:
You have a hand of:
Nikki has a in play, one unknown card, and has revealed the following to you:
Ned is Hellbent (no cards in hand) from an early attempt to win with .
- Adam attempts to cast You can absolutely counter Thassa's Oracle with . and save the table from losing. But not losing isn't winning; it's just not losing, an important distinction. Here, you can use your turn order and knowledge of priority to win the game.
- You pass priority because you know A) Nikki has a counterspell in hand, and B) her most optimal play is to take action, because Ned is Hellbent and can't do anything.
- With no other option or safety net, Nikki casts , exiling a , targeting , then passes priority.
- Ned still can't do anything and passes priority on the to Adam.
- Knowing that the last card in Nikki's hand is , Adam casts , targeting the .
At this point, Adam has only one card in hand. You don't know for sure, but you suspect it is , because they are trying to resolve a . Nikki has only a , and Ned is still Hellbent.
You let counter (so that Adam has to pay 3UU during his upkeep, or lose the game), and then you cast countering the .
You have successfully used your position in turn order and priority to clear the counterspells out of every other person's hand, so you can resolve an , , and mill everyone out with repeated s next turn!
Weird Priority Nonsense
I just wanted to point out some fun interactions with priority that you might not be aware of. Not all of them are cEDH-applicable, but they don't hurt to be aware of.
It is not common for players to get priority during the Clean Up step; however, can do it pretty easily! Because has the triggered ability of "Whenever one or more land cards are put into your graveyard from anywhere, draw a card," when a player discards a land during their Clean Up phase, the triggered ability will go onto the stack, and priority will be passed around to each player during the Clean Up step. Because the player will have discarded from 8 cards in hand to 7, then drawn back up to 8 cards in hand, a new Clean Up step will occur after this Clean Up step has ended.
- An issue that came up in a game of mine recently is that effects such as or wear off at the beginning of the Clean Up phase, so if player discards a during their Clean Up phase to start their combo, and you cast hoping to stop them from going off, the 's effect will wear off at the beginning of the next Clean Up step after it was cast. Because now has 8 cards in hand again, they will enter a new Clean Up phase before the turn passes (causing the effect to wear off).
It is possible to get priority DURING the resolution of a spell or ability. Normally, you place a spell or ability on the stack. Once priority has passed around to each player, that spell or ability resolves, and then more spells or abilities can be placed on the stack. However, can be cast while you search your library. Because of how the ability is phrased, the cast occurs during the process of resolving the search. This has the effect of creating priority during the resolution of a spell or ability. If you really want to mess with your local judge, ask them what happens if you search your library for a land, and see Panglacial Wurm is the top card of your library and cast it, but use mana generated from , which would draw the top card from your library. This should have their head spin a bit!
Morph does not use the stack, and therefore no player is given priority when a card is turned face up with Morph. This is important to know because no one can respond to a Morph to prevent the card from turning face up (like with Stifle), though players can respond to any trigger caused by Morphing the creature, such as 's ability to redirect a spell. This is not especially relevant in cEDH, but in casual EDH, if Alice swings at Nate with a 3/3, and Nate blocks with a face-down , then pays the Morph cost to turn it face-up, Alice is not given priority to prevent the Abzan Guide from turning face up.
Potentially cEDH-relevant, ' ability is a mana ability. This is important to understand because it changes how something like or would work. These cards have Split second, which means that when one of these cards is on the stack, players can't add anything to the stack until it resolves. However, mana abilities do not use the stack, and triggered abilities can be added to the stack. If you try to stop a combo involving and , just know that Krark-Clan Ironworks can sacrifice a Myr Retriever and put the Myr Retriever trigger on the stack even through Split second. This is an important interaction to know if you're playing against and possibly .
Clean Up Phase
Now that you've seen some practical applications of priority, I strongly recommend you familiarize yourself with the intricacies of the rules. If you want to deep dive into all the nitty-gritty of priority (which I recommend, it's super fun!), you can check out the Comprehensive Rules (CR), section 117.
Thanks for reading my first article on Commander's Herald, and stay tuned for more!