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I'm a relatively new player to Magic: the Gathering. I was reading the expanded rules to try to understand exactly when it's okay to cast instants (e.g. Cancel) and use some abilities (e.g. Goblin Diplomats should be tappable sometime during other peoples' turns), but I don't seem to be making much progress: as I come to understand some things, others make less sense.

My confusion is boundless

For instance: to cast Instants one needs priority. Spells go on the stack, and priority gets passed at some points (I have no idea when), and effects on the stack are resolved when both players have passed priority. But when is that? I can't find any mention of when the other player gets the priority to cast an instant, except on their own turn. Furthermore, The Complete Turn states that during the Main Phase:

505.4. Second, the active player gets priority. Players may cast spells and activate abilities. The active player may play a land.

So players (plural) may cast spells, but only the active player has priority, so only the active player can cast an instant. The turn rules, and the rules on Casting Spells, never mention any point at which the other player gets priority, so when can they possibly Cancel?

In addition, you can only cast a spell when the stack is empty, so the entire stack must be able to be resolved in your turn at some point.

I need an explanation!

I could go on a bit more. There is also Counterflux which can be overloaded to "Counter each spell you don't control", which seems like it could only possibly work with an understanding of the stack.

Could someone explain, in simple English:

  • When can Instants be cast?
  • When can tap abilities be used?
  • What do Instants and abilities have to do with the Stack and Priority?
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If this is too broad, please advise me on how I should split it up! I would be happy to discuss how I should be asking this question in the Magic: the Gathering chat room, too, so if it's going to be a bit involved working out how to ask this, please join me there so we can work on it. –  Jonathan Hobbs Aug 6 '13 at 9:57
@user1873 I think so too, I'm just not sure exactly how I should split it up. –  Jonathan Hobbs Aug 7 '13 at 1:11
Your 2nd question is the odd man out, if it was "when can activated abilities be used?" Then the question is entirely about the Stack and Timing and Priority. My guess is that perhaps you haven't seen many Activated Abilities without {Tap} in the cost, or you didn't know the proper name for Activated Abilities. –  user1873 Aug 7 '13 at 3:12
@user1873 I didn't know the proper name, and until today I didn't fully recognise them as being the same thing: e.g. now I realise they're just like Duskmantle Guildmage's abilities, but with tapping being part of (or all of) the cost. –  Jonathan Hobbs Aug 7 '13 at 3:22
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4 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I am going to reiterate that the Basic Rules are sufficient for and a better way to learn how to play MtG rather than the Comprehensive Rules

When can Instants be cast?

Instants can be cast on your own turn, during your opponents turn, and in response to other spells. This differs from Sorcery cards, which can only be cast during your own Main Phase. (MtG Basic Rules, Page 6)

Instant - An instant is just like a sorcery, except you can cast it just about any time you want, even during your opponent’s turn or in response to another spell. Like a sorcery, an instant has its effect, then you put it into your graveyard.

When can tap abilities be used?

Anytime you could cast an Instant. There is nothing inherently different between an activated ability with the tap symbol in its cost and other activated abilities and their costs. Tapping is a cost, and just like any other cost, it must be paid before activating an ability.

Activated Abilities - An activated ability is an ability that you can activate whenever you want, as long as you can pay the cost. [...] Each activated ability has a cost, then a colon (“:”), then an effect. [...] Some activated abilities contain the {T} symbol in their costs. This means that you must tap the permanent to activate the ability. You can’t activate the ability if the permanent is already tapped. (MtG Basic Rules, Page 12)

Creature - [...] Unlike other types of permanents, creatures enter the battlefield with “summoning sickness”: a creature can’t attack, or use an ability that has {T} in its cost, until it has started your turn on the battlefield under your control. You can block with a creature or activate its other abilities no matter how long it’s been on the battlefield.(MtG Basic Rules, Page 6)

What do Instants and abilities have to do with the Stack and Priority?

Instants, Activated Abilities both go on the stack. The stack gives players the opportunity to respond to spells/abilities before they resolve. The stack is a First In Last Out (FILO) zone, where spells and abilities exist until they resolve or are countered. (Instants/Sorcery) spells have their effect and then go to the Graveyard, (Creatures/Enchantments/Artifacts/Planeswalkers) resolve and become permanents on the Battlefield, (Triggered Abilities/Activated Abilities) are not represented by a physical card, so they resolve and disappear into the AEther.

Priority is just the way MtG is designed to handle whose turn it is to do something. Players can cast Instants or activate abilities on other players turns, so the game needs a way to determine who goes first.

The Stack - Spells and abilities exist on the stack. They wait there to resolve until both players choose not to cast any new spells or activate any new abilities. Then the last spell or ability that was put onto the stack resolves, and players get a chance to cast spells and activate abilities again. (You’ll learn more about casting spells and activating abilities in the next section.) This zone is shared by both players.(MtG Basic Rules, Page 8)

Priority - Since players can cast instants and activate abilities during each other’s turns, the game needs a system that makes sure only one player can do something at a time. Priority determines, at any given time, which player can cast a spell or activate an activated ability.

The active player (the player whose turn it is) gets priority at the beginning of each step and each main phase—except for the untap step and the cleanup step. When you get priority, you can cast a spell, activate an activated ability, or pass (choose to do nothing). If you do something, you keep priority, so you make the same choice again. If you pass, your opponent gets priority, so now he or she gets that choice. This goes back and forth until both players pass in a row.

When both players pass in a row, if there’s a spell or ability waiting on the stack, it resolves. Then the active player gets priority again, and the system repeats. When both players pass in a row, if there’s no spell or ability waiting on the stack, that part of the turn ends and the next one begins.(MtG Basic Rules, Page 30)

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The thing that confused me about this was I didn't know if "passing" referred to ending your turn or something else (which would mean terrible things about when something like Enlarge would get resolved) - now I understand it's just part of some small process that occurs each time spells and abilities are used (and, I suppose, attacking too). Thank you for this. –  Jonathan Hobbs Aug 7 '13 at 3:26
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In plain English:

In most cases, players can only play sorceries, enchantments, creatures, artifacts, planeswalkers and lands on their turn. Instants and Abilities can be played on anyone's turn, as long as the ability does not say it is used as a sorcery.

When a player plays a card by paying its cost, they then have the opportunity to play any instant or ability on top of it in the stack. When they are done playing cards, any other player in the game has an opportunity to play things on the top of the stack.

'When they are done' means they are not taking any further actions or they have indicated they are done by asking 'does it resolve?'. The important thing to remember here is that there is always a time gap between when a spell or ability is placed on the stack and when it resolves. In this gap of time, other players have an opportunity to play instant spells and activate abilities to add them on the stack.

After everyone is done adding things to the stack, it starts to resolve from the top down to the bottom.

If everyone played magic using verbal cues to indicate the end of phases and steps, then the way this works would be obvious; no one I know uses verbal cues. Instead most seasoned players will occasionally ask if a spell will resolve or pause for a moment and make eye contact with the other players to indicate they are going to try and resolve the stack.

Priority, Timing and the Stack are the hardest parts of magic.

From the comprehensive rules:

If you are reading the comprehensive rules you need to check section 116, all parts.

So to answer your bullets:

As per 116.1a a player may cast an instant any time they have priority.

As per 116.1b a player may activate an ability any time they have priority.

And finally instants and abilities in most cases are very much the same with the way they interact with the stack, they can both be added to the stack, in most cases, when a player has priority and they can both be used, in most instances, on any players turn.

Priority is outlined in 116.3 all parts.

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Basically, the answer to this question lies in the understanding of the phases of the turn.

there are a number of phases and steps that a turn goes through, here is a brief overview:

  1. Untap step
  2. Upkeep
  3. Draw step
  4. First Main Phase
  5. Combat phase (has many sub steps, skipped for understanding)
  6. Second main phase
  7. End step
  8. Cleanup.

The above is not an exhaustive list, but it gives you enough understanding to get your head around what's going on.

Whoever's turn it is, that player is the Active Player. The other player(s) are Non-Active Players. This terminology will help with explaining things.

The best rule of thumb is "The active player has priority right now." 90% of the game this will be true. and during this time you can't do anything. To clarify a little, Whenever a new phase or step begins, the active player has priority. Think of it this way, the active player moves into their main phase, they have lands to play and spells (including creatures) to cast, and this is where that process all starts.

The next thing to understand is how the stack works. Again, a good rule of thumb is "if something happens, it usually uses the stack". For example, casting a creature uses the stack, activating Olivia Voldaren's ability uses the stack. Casting Oblivion Ring uses the stack, so does it's enter the battlefield trigger (there are numerous answers about these for further information) essentially, anything that doesn't directly generate mana uses the stack. I say directly, because Scalding Tarn's ability will get you mana after it resolves, but it does not generate mana and DOES use the stack.

Here is what happens with the stack:

  1. Someone puts something onto the stack
  2. That player gets priority and could cast additional spells if they wish.
  3. After that player passes priority, each subsequent player gets priority.
  4. After all players pass priority, the object on the stack resolves.

When a player has priority with something on the stack, they can cast instants (or spells with flash)

if someone chooses to cast something with something else on the stack, then the whole process repeats for THAT ITEM until it has resolved, and then steps 2-4 are repeated for the Original item.

let's look at an example:

Albert is in his main phase, he casts Ancestral Recall. Oh no! Nancy is wisely playing islands, and with Counterspell in hand, wants to tap 2 of them to make sure Albert's day is ruined.

Here is how this looks on the stack:

  1. Albert casts Ancestral Recall. Ancestral Recall Goes onto the stack.

     2. Albert wants to do nothing and implicitly (by sitting there doing nothing) passes priority.

     3. Nancy gains priority and responds with Counterspell.

        4. Nancy gains priority and implicitly passes by doing nothing.

        5. Albert gains priority and, looking smug, says "In response" and slaps his own Counterspell onto the table. Poor Nancy!

Uh oh, things are getting complicated now! Here's a look at the stack right now:

Albert's Counterspell

Nancy's Counterspell

Albert's Ancestral Recall

        6. Albert gains priority again, and again silently does nothing.

        7. Nancy doesn't have anything else to do so she disappointedly says "Resolves."

     8. Albert's counterspell resolves.

     9. Nancy's counterspell is removed from the stack, so we skip back down to just looking at Albert's Ancestral Recall.

  10. Crossing his fingers, Albert passes priority.

  11. Grumpily, Nancy says "Resolves." She has no more answers.

  12. Albert's Ancestral Recall resolves. He cackles maniacally as he draws 3 additional cards.

This demonstrates how things work with the stack. This passing of priority happens everywhere. If Albert wants to go to the combat phase, he passes priority and Nancy might do something in his main phase. If Albert wants to end his turn, Nancy gets an opportunity to cast some spells before her turn starts.

hopefully this has helped understand the stack, in answer to your bullet points:

  1. Instants can be cast at any point where you have priority, all required targets and no restrictions prevent you casting them (e.g. you can't cast Doom Blade with no creatures on the battlefield, and you can't cast anything after Silence resolves).
  2. Tap abilities can be used any time you can cast an instant, excepting abilities that state otherwise (such as Birthing Pod's). Remember that creature have "summoning sickness" (creatures that you haven't controlled since the beginning of your turn may not activate abilities with the Tap or Untap symbol unless they have haste).
  3. Instants and abilities are put onto the stack to resolve, and can only be placed there by the player who has priority. Hopefully the above has explained when this happens.

Most of the time, priority passing happens fluidly and implicitly. As a result, usually it is enough to know that "in response" means that the spell is still on the stack, and you get to do things if you want at the end of each part of the turn.

Here is an interesting situation with how the stacks and priority work to show how you can't do whatever you want, whenever you want.

  1. Alberta casts Lingering Souls, a powerhouse of a card against Norman's deck, and passes priority.
  2. Norman has a Surgical Extraction in hand and wants to use it to stop the spell being flashed back and clear the other copies away to limit the damage, but the spell is on the stack so he cant exile it yet, he passes priority and the spell resolves.
  3. Norman wants to cast Surgical Extraction, but since the spell resolved, priority reverts to Alberta. He has to wait until Alberta moves to a different phase or casts some other spell to get priority.
  4. Alberta gets greedy and fancies 2 more tokens, she flashes back Lingering Souls straight away. Poor Norman's Surgical Extraction is now a dead card. The Lingering Souls is on the stack and will then be exiled.

There are times where priority has a massive impact, and the above is one of them.

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i have tried to keep it simple, but i maybe have used too much depth. i have included summaries but if this is still confusing i can try and clarify. (I cant use chat at my current location, so could not discuss as you suggested) –  Patters Aug 6 '13 at 11:01
This is very helpful, thank you. One thing is unclear to me: do both players have the opportunity to cast more than one spell before passing priority? –  Jonathan Hobbs Aug 6 '13 at 11:26
@JonathanHobbs Yes, because when you cast a spell or activate an ability we'll pass priority again afterward. But, honestly, you almost never want to put multiple things on the stack at once, since you can just wait for the first one to resolve (or for another player to react to it) and then cast your second thing. –  Alex P Aug 6 '13 at 11:47
Minor nitpick, prompted by the previous comments: Note that the answer is incorrect for casting multiple spells; it says the Active player gets priority after the spell is put on the stack, but according to 601.2h, the player casting the spell retains priority. –  tengfred Aug 6 '13 at 12:23
@Rawrgramming it means that when you cast a spell, you are the first one allowed to respond to it (although it is rare that you would want to do so). –  David Z Aug 6 '13 at 18:51
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I will not answer any of your (somewhat) specific questions, as I feel they would not clear up much of the confusion you seem to be feeling. Instead let me give some general advice.

This document is designed for people who've moved beyond the basics of the Magic: The Gathering(R) game. If you're a beginning Magic(TM) player, you'll probably find these rules intimidating. They're intended to be the ultimate authority for the game, and you won't usually need to refer to them except in specific cases or during competitive games.

That is the first line of the expanded rules that you linked to, and you should not ignore it.

Reading the Comprehensive Rules is a terrible way of learning the basics of the game. Absolutely dreadful. I would have given up on the game long before I've played my first match if I first had to read and understand that brick, even though it was smaller back then. It's like studying quantum chemistry in order to cook a pack of instant noodles. I cannot stress this enough: Don't read the CompRules to learn the game. Only open the CompRules if you have a very specific question and are already familiar with the basic rules.

Instead you have 2 much better options:

Find a group of friendly, experienced players who are willing to play casual games with you, who can explain the basics, point out your mistakes, and let you take back moves, maybe even play with open hands. Or, if you feel more comfortable reading, read the basic rules by WotC.

That's really all there is to say. Don't get ahead of yourself, it will only frustrate you.

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I appreciate the advice and warning - I did read that first line of the expanded rules. Our group has already run into some confusion about precisely when an instant can be cast, hence I'm seeking some clarification from the rules. Our newbie (and probably not expanded-rules legal) approach is probably good enough for us to continue with, and I've no intention of diving too deep into the rules, but I do want to understand the process in the events we need the clarity of it. –  Jonathan Hobbs Aug 6 '13 at 11:32
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