How to Play Magic – Part 5 – The Stack
So we've played a few turns of Magic and covered the very basics of the game - drawing a card, playing a land, casting creatures. If that's all there was to the game, however, it wouldn't be the most popular trading card game in the world. The skill and draw of Magic is found in the interactions between cards and their abilities, and those interactions are managed through a system called the stack.When you cast a spell or play an ability, all players get a chance to do things in response to that spell or ability. Think of it as seeing the spell coming and reacting to it. These reactions are handled by the stack. Let's say I want to play Shivan Dragon. I tap lands to add six mana, at least two of which is red, and Shivan Dragon goes on the stack. My opponent doesn't want that to happen, so they tap lands to add two mana, one of which is blue, and they play Essence Scatter targeting Shivan Dragon in an attempt to counter it. (When a spell or ability is countered, it's removed from the stack without resolution and if it's a spell, it's placed in its owner's graveyard.) The Essence Scatter goes on top of the Shivan Dragon on the stack. Once all players decide they don't want to do anything in response to a spell or ability, the topmost spell or ability on the stack resolves. If it's an instant or a sorcery, all the text on the card takes place in the order it appears on the card, and then the card is put into its owner's graveyard. If it's an ability, all the text on the ability takes place in the order it appears in the ability. If it's a permanent, the permanent enters the battlefield. Then, if there are any more spells or abilities on the stack, the process continues again - all players get a chance to cast instants and play abilities. Whenever something gets added to or taken off the stack, the process repeats. Once all players pass on doing anything and there's nothing on the stack, the game moves to the next step. Some examples:
- Player 1 casts a Runeclaw Bear. Both them and Player 2 decide to do nothing in response to the Runeclaw Bear, and it resolves, coming into play. The stack is empty again.
- Player 1 casts a Runeclaw Bear. Player 1 decides to do nothing in response to the Runeclaw Bear, but Player 2 plays a Cancel targeting the Runeclaw Bear. Both players decide to do nothing in response to the Cancel, and the Cancel resolves. The Runeclaw Bear is countered and placed in Player 1's graveyard, and Cancel is placed in Player 2's graveyard. The stack is empty again.
- Player 1 plays an Oakenform targeting a Stampeding Rhino. Player 1 decides to do nothing in response to the Oakenform, but Player 2 plays a Doom Blade targeting the Stampeding Rhino. Player 1 plays a Negate targeting the Doom Blade. Both players decide to do nothing in response to the Negate, and the Negate resolves. The Doom Blade is countered and is placed in Player 2's graveyard, and Negate is placed in Player 1's graveyard. Oakenform is still on the stack, and both players decide to do nothing in response to the Oakenform. Oakenform resolves and comes into place attached to Stampeding Rhino. The stack is empty again.
There are a couple of concepts that you need to know about how spells and abilities interact with each other on the stack, state-based effects and resolving targeted spells.
State-based effects are game rules that are checked whenever a player gets an opportunity to do something (called priority). There are a lot of these effects, but the ones you should remember are:
- If a player has 0 or less life, they lose the game.
- If a player has been instructed to draw a card and can't because there are no cards left in their library, they lose the game.
- If a creature has taken damage equal to or greater than its toughness, that creature is destroyed.
- If a creature has 0 or less toughness, it's put into its owner's graveyard.
State-based effects don't use the stack and can't be responded to. If a spell or ability is about to reduce you to 0 or less life and you can do something about it, you need to do it in response to the original spell - once it resolves, you lose.
Resolving Targeted Spells and Abilities
Some spells and abilities are targeted. Most targeted spells and abilities are easy to identify, because they'll have the word target somewhere in the rules text of the card. A spell or ability can have one target or multiple targets depending on the text of the card. An example of a targeted spell with one target is Lightning Bolt. An example of a targeted spell with multiple targets is Agony Warp.
Targets have restrictions. The card Doom Blade, for example, is restricted to targeting only non-black creatures. You can only target something that meets all the restrictions on the card. These restrictions are also checked as the spell or ability resolves. As the spell or ability resolves, all the targeting restrictions on the card are checked and one of the following things happens:
- All targets are still legal: The spell or ability resolves normally and all the effects on it are done in the order they're written in.
- The spell/ability has one target and it is no longer legal: It is countered. (Longtime Magic players refer to this as the spell 'fizzling'.)
- The spell/ability has multiple targets and all of them are no longer legal: It is countered.
- The spell/ability has multiple targets and some are still legal and some are not: It does as much as it can to the targets that are still legal. For example, Lunge deals 2 damage to target creature and 2 damage to target player. If the creature is no longer in play when Lunge resolves, it is not a legal target anymore. But the player still is, and they take 2 damage.
A couple of very similar examples will show how this works in practice with the last in, first out rule.
- Player 1 controls a Runeclaw Bear. Player 1 casts Giant Growth targeting Runeclaw Bear. In response, Player 2 casts Lightning Bolt targeting Runeclaw Bear. Both players pass and Lightning Bolt resolves, dealing 3 damage to Runeclaw Bear. State-based effects are checked after Lightning Bolt resolves, and Runeclaw Bear has taken 3 damage vs. its 2 toughness, so it's destroyed. Both players pass again and Giant Growth no longer has a target, so it's countered.
- Player 1 controls a Runeclaw Bear. Player 2 casts Lightning Bolt targeting Runeclaw Bear. In response, Player 1 casts Giant Growth targeting Runeclaw Bear. Both players pass and Giant Growth resolves, making Runeclaw Bear a 5/5 creature until end of turn. Both players pass again and Lightning Bolt resolves, leaving Runeclaw Bear a 5/5 with 3 damage dealt to it.
As you can see, even with the same cards, the order things are played in makes a huge difference! One of the big frustrations for new players is how the stack works and why things work in one direction, but reversing them gives you a different result.
Next, we'll go into detail about combat and talk about some of the common creature abilities that affect combat.