You Want to Respond to That? How the Stack Works

My ability triggered, what now?
Does it resolve?
Guide to understanding the stack and priority
— Last in First out

When I first started playing Magic, one of the most confusing concepts to me was the stack. It was mystifying, and it took me quite a while to get a handle on exactly what it was, how it worked, and the various tricks that can be done with it. Understanding the stack is an integral part of playing Magic and allows you to play much more competitively.

To understand how the stack works, first you have to understand what the concept of priority is. In Magic, the player who’s turn it is has priority, meaning that they are the only ones in the game that can put as many spells on the stack as they want to. Contrary to what a lot of new players think, if it is not your turn you cannot play instants at any time you want, and you cannot flash in creatures at just any random time. In order to play spells during your opponent’s turn, you must have priority passed to you. For example, you can repond to an action they take, whether it be adding spell(s) to the stack, activating an ability, or changing phases.

Whenever a player responds to another player’s action, their response goes on what we call the stack.

Even if you are a fairly new player to Magic you’ve probably heard of the stack and at least have a general idea of what it does. However at some points it can become quite confusing to use, especially for new players. So first lets make a clear cut definition of what the stack is. The stack is the sequence of spells created whenever a player plays a spell. It has one important rule called Last in First Out, meaning that the last spell put on the stack resolves first. In order to better explain how the stack works I’ll be using a few examples.

For the first example the Cards involved in the interaction are:

It is my opponent’s first main phase, they have Restoration Angel in play and all I have in hand is Lightning Bolt. Because it is my opponent’s turn they can put whatever spells they want to on the stack, so they cast Chord of Calling, finding Kiki Jiki. I can respond to them casting chord, but it wouldn’t affect the board state at all because Restoration Angel is a 3/4. I let chord resolve. After Chord resolves I can not bolt the Kiki Jiki, I have to wait for my opponent to move phases or take an action because of the way priority works. If I randomly just tried to bolt Kiki my spell would fizzle. My opponent proceeds to tap Kiki, putting Kiki’s ability on the stack targeting Restoration Angel to make a copy. Now I can respond, so I cast bolt targeting Kiki. Currently the Stack Looks like this.

1: Kiki Ability (Tap create a copy of target Creature it gains haste…)
2: Bolt targeting Kiki (deal 3 damage to target creature or player)

Because of the Last in First out rule bolt resolves first. Effectively Removing Kiki Jiki from the battlefield. However because Kiki’s ability was on the stack his ability still resolves and my opponent gets a copy of restoration angel with haste until the end of the turn, but is locked out of going infinite with Restoration Angel and Kiki Jiki because Kiki has been removed before my opponent has had a chance to activate the ability again.

Now in a different situation using the same cards it plays out a little bit differently:
We are in the same situation, but this time Kiki-Jiki is Chorded for at the end of my turn. My opponent moves to Untap, Upkeep and then Draws a card. They then attempt to move to First Main, in response to the phase changing I bolt the Kiki because I don’t want my opponent to go infinite. Because I put bolt on the stack first my opponent can add as many abilities and triggers to the stack as they want before I can respond again due to them having priority. So my opponent in response activates the Kiki-Jiki trigger. Which then resolves making a copy of Restoration Angel who’s ability immediately goes on the stack, targeting Kiki-Jiki, which resolves flickering Kiki and returning it untapped. My opponent then repeats this process until they have 100 Restoration Angel copies. Then, finally, they pass priority back and my bolt resolves removing Kiki, but it is too late as they already have enough Restoration Angels to attack in and win the game.

As you can see the first example demonstrates me properly using the stack to prevent an infinite combo. While the second example shows my opponent correctly using the stack and priority in order to go infinite due to my misplay.

Understanding these types of concepts and interactions is very important if you really want to become a stronger player. Even the slightest alteration in the timing of your spells can mean big trouble in the game down the road. Always remember the rule, Last in First Out, and be aware of priority.

I hope this article was helpful to you in some way. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please leave them in the section below.

And as always, happy gaming!



Sylvan Studies Team
- A swords a day keeps the goyfs away.

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