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Say my opponent plays a planeswalker during their first main phase. I have a Hero's Downfall or some other effect that will kill it after it is already in play, but before they use any of its abilities. I could respond to them using a +1 ability, but I want to kill it before that effect goes on the stack.

In most casual situations, it would basically come down to whether I say "Hero's Downfall" first, or they say "+1" first. But I can't imagine that's how it's supposed to work. Is there a time between when the planeswalker hits the battlefield and when they activate its abilities that they must let me respond? It seems to me that situations like this arise frequently, and they are resolved simply by who speaks up first, which is horrible for such a rules-oriented game.

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MTG is a turn-based game. There is never a time when it matters who said what first.[CR 116.1]

After a spell resolves, the Active Player regains priority.[CR 116.3b] He can then activate one of his Planeswalker's abilities before anyone else can do anything. If you play a Planeswalker and it's not countered, you're practically guaranteed to get a free use of its loyalty ability if you use it immediately after the Planeswalker resolves.[1] The Planeswalker is effectively a very expensive Sorcery if your opponent proceeds to destroy it in response to its ability.[2]

If you pass priority[3], cast another spell or activate another ability, or if an ability triggers in response to the Planeswalker entering the battlefield, then you lost your chance to use the Planeswalker's loyalty ability, and your opponent could cast Hero's Downfall in response this new spell or ability. If your opponent said he's casting Hero's Downfall before one of these things happen, he's playing out of turn[4].


Notes:

  1. This doesn't apply if it's put into play, or if you somehow play it outside of your main phase or when the stack isn't empty. It also assumes that nothing triggers on it entering the battlefield.

  2. Compare Ajani Goldmane's +1 (2 life for 4) with Sacred Nectar (4 life for 2), although his -1 is better than common Marshaling Cry's for only one extra mana.

  3. For example, by declaring attackers. If you do so, your opponent can say "hold up" or similar (to "shorten your shortcut"), and cast Hero's Downfall.

  4. At which point, you say "hold up" or similar, and activate the ability.


Rules:

116.1. Unless a spell or ability is instructing a player to take an action, which player can take actions at any given time is determined by a system of priority. The player with priority may cast spells, activate abilities, and take special actions.

116.3b The active player receives priority after a spell or ability (other than a mana ability) resolves.

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As a matter of tactics, if the planeswalker's ability has already been activated, generally it would be better for the opponent to destroy the planeswalker at the end of the turn than in response. After all, you never know what other threat may come along that would make a better target for Hero's Downfall, right? I'm sure there's some edge case where it's better (killing it to lower devotion comes to mind, but you can still defer until that point so it still is bad to use it in response) but generally I'd not do it in response. –  corsiKa Feb 13 at 15:38
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@corsiKa: Usually yes, though it's possible you want it removed from the battlefield anyway, such as Gideon Jura activating its +0 ability when the opponent has Lightning Greaves in play. –  Chad Miller Feb 13 at 20:53
    
+1 for the first line. –  VolleyJosh Sep 22 at 17:20

Normally, when you cast the planeswalker, you have priority when it enters the battlefield. With priority, you can activate one of it's abilities (putting that ability on the stack) before any other player can put something on the stack. At this point, even if someone destroys your planeswalker, it's ability will still resolve.

But, planeswalker abilities are sorcery speed. If, at the point in time the planeswalker enters the battlefield, it is not your main phase and/or the stack is not empty, you will not be able to put one of its abilities on the stack right away and other players may target it with instant speed removal before you can use one of it's abilities. Some situations in which this could happen:

  • You cast the planeswalker either not as the bottom thing on the stack and/or not during one of your main phases (such as through Vedalken Orrery).

  • Something triggered when the planeswalker entered the battlefield, such as due to Arcbound Crusher and Mycosynth Lattice.

  • You try to do something else first, such as use Gilder Bairn on the planeswalker]

Another exception is if the ability requires the planeswalker to function. If the +0 ability of Gideon Jura is used and he is targeted with Hero's Downfall in response, the ability won't do anything on resolution because Gideon is no longer on the battlefield.

Exception to some of the exceptions: if you have the emblem from Teferi, Temporal Archmage, you can use one of a planeswalker's abilities in response to someone trying to destroy it.

Exception to that exception: you will not be able to respond with a planeswalker ability to removal with Split Second such as Wipe Away.

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Because of the way timing an priority works, your assertion that:

In most casual situations, it would basically come down to whether I say "Hero's Downfall" first, or they say "+1" first.

is incorrect.

The active player always has priority on their turn until they pass it. This means they always have an opportunity to cast spells and activate abilities before their opponent(s) in each of the phases of their turn.

So the only time in which you have a chance to 'respond' is if they start the stack again or they pass.


Since the active player gets priority after the planeswalker resolves, there is no time you can play an instant before they activate one of the loyalty abilites, unless they start the stack somewhere else with another instant or sorcery.

116.3b The active player receives priority after a spell or ability (other than a mana ability) resolves.

116.3c If a player has priority when he or she casts a spell, activates an ability, or takes a special action, that player receives priority afterward.

116.3d If a player has priority and chooses not to take any actions, that player passes. If any mana is in that player's mana pool, he or she announces what mana is there. Then the next player in turn order receives priority.

116.4. If all players pass in succession (that is, if all players pass without taking any actions in between passing), the spell or ability on top of the stack resolves or, if the stack is empty, the phase or step ends.

So here is how it breaks down:

  1. Player A puts a planeswalker on the stack.
  2. Noone wants to add to the stack, so it resolves and enters the battlefield as a permanent.
  3. Because the Active player now has priority again, they have the opportunity, as a sorcery, to activate a loyalty ability of the planeswalker and they do.
  4. Player B casts Hero's Downfall in response.
  5. Everyone passes so Hero's downfall resolves. The planeswalker is destroyed.
  6. The planeswalker's loyalty ability resolves because it is it's own entity once it is in the stack.

602.2a The player announces that he or she is activating the ability. If an activated ability is being activated from a hidden zone, the card that has that ability is revealed. That ability is created on the stack as an object that's not a card. It becomes the topmost object on the stack. It has the text of the ability that created it, and no other characteristics. Its controller is the player who activated the ability. The ability remains on the stack until it's countered, it resolves, or an effect moves it elsewhere.

Another way it could happen:

  1. Player A puts a planeswalker on the stack.
  2. Everyone passes, so it resolves and enters the battlefield as a permanent.
  3. Player A activates the ability of Gilder Bairn.
  4. Player B cast's Hero's Downfall.
  5. Everyone passes.
  6. Hero's Downfall resolves and the planeswalker is destroyed.

Because the loyalty ability of the planeswalker is not an instant, but a sorcery, they can't activate it in response to Hero's downfall and the planeswalker dies before the ability can be used.

It comes down to loyalty abilities can not be activated in response to anything because they are cast as a sorcery, not an instant.

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Well, it has nothing to do with using the loyalty ability as a response, since that's not the question, but the first part of your answer is relevant. The reason I have cause to doubt that I wouldn't have a chance is that every piece of software Wizards has published allows players to cast instants or use creature abilities during the main phase of their opponents, even when they haven't passed priority. Could just be limits of the medium I guess. –  Indigenuity Oct 14 '13 at 18:17
    
I put the first part in there because it shows that you can't use a loyalty ability as an instant. But I agree, it is not necessary. –  Pow-Ian Oct 14 '13 at 18:36
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@Indigenuity Actually in Magic software (as in paper Magic), you can only cast spells or activate abilities during your opponent's main phase after that player has had an opportunity to do so first. Sometimes it might not be clear that the player whose turn it is gets the first shot at playing things, but it is the case. –  David Z Oct 14 '13 at 21:03
    
@DavidZ Well, I've had many games where I used the Icy Manipulator to tap down an opponent's land during their first main phase on Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013. BEFORE they've done anything. I assume this is to 'simulate' the upkeep step that is skipped. –  Indigenuity Oct 22 '13 at 21:09
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@Indigenuity, Duels of the Planeswalkers is a poor simulation of the game when it comes to priority. In that game, reflexes do come into play in certain situations. –  Brian S Dec 3 '13 at 17:11

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