Magic: the Gathering is a complicated game. This is, in part, due to a wide variety of technical rules with a wide potential for convoluted interactions within the rules. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “how you think it should work” or “that looks right” and end up being completely off base. That’s because MtG is a very visually-oriented game, especially because of how it encourages the imagination.

I’ve found that one of the best ways to help a player understand the process of a situation is to help them find that bridge that completes the gap and brings them to the other side of that Raging Ravine of rules confusion. When a Grey Ogre damages a player in combat, who doesn’t enjoy imagining some ugly taking its equally attractive club to your opponents smug noggin?

Sure, you simply minus 2 from 20, but the visual idea of what that damage looks like is an enjoyable exercise and when people are having fun, they’re more likely to remember things. It’s just like how when you are frustrated or upset, you’re more prone to making mistakes you normally could avoid; the ability to visualize positively becomes hampered.

That’s why today’s article is about The Stack, in particular about how in multiplayer games it tends to give people a lot of headaches, much like a Grey Ogre smacking you about the face and toes, and I’m going to present it in that visual way without all the references to which section and subsection of the rules it’s in. Since the average player isn’t interested in reading a variation of legal text, I figured it best to leave it aside, but I’ll still explain some of the terminology I’ll be mentioning.

  • Active Player: This is whose turn it is. It doesn’t matter who is doing actions, if it’s your turn, you are the Active Player.
  • Non-active Player: If it isn’t your turn, this is you. As its name suggests, it is the opposite of the Active Player.
  • Priority: This is the cousin to Active Player. It represents whose action it is during a turn, and the Active player is the one who always starts with it. It is literally her ball for that turn, and she chooses when to pass it off first.
  • Turn Order: Turns progress in Clockwise order. If you are ever uncertain or forget what order things progress in, think about how the game runs like Clockwork.
  • Resolve: This is when a Spell or Ability succeeds. Not all Spells or Abilities, Resolve. You never know if they will until you try, though.

I like to think of The Stack as a literal object. If you’ve ever watched a tournament, even between experienced players, sometimes what you will see is them placing cards on top of each other as they cast them. This is because the order of when they are cast is of utmost importance. There is a very old saying in MtG that says “First in, last out.” I’ll put that into a visual for us.

When you go to the supermarket and you see a whole bunch of shopping baskets stacked on top of each other, the one that is picked up first was the last one placed there. The first basket placed will typically be the last one taken because it is at the bottom. Thus, the “first basket placed, is the last one taken”, just like the saying regarding The Stack. Think of how, when you cast a spell or an ability happens, and use this exact same logic.

Now, when you have that stack of baskets, sometimes people put more baskets on top. The first basket isn’t farther away from being reached, as it’s spot hasn’t moved, but it now takes longer to get to because there are new baskets in the way. Spells and abilities are, once again, no different than this analogy. I’m aware of how this isn’t the most fun example, but it’s a relatively easy one to visualize.

So, if you’re ever playing and you want to try and mitigate some confusion, suggest doing this to the other players, because once everyone can see what’s happening, it removes more debate of how people thought it should have happened.

Step by step, it will look like this:

  1. Johnny has a Craw Wurm in play, and it’s his turn, which makes him the Active Player. Johnny, wanting to get to the attack step with his green beater, passes Priority over to Tammy while declaring he would like to move to the Attack Step.
  2. Tammy isn’t a fan of giant Wurm’s, so she casts Doom Blade, targeting the Craw Wurm.
  3. Johnny, disgusted by Tammy’s prejudice of such a beautiful creature, casts Ranger’s Guile, targeting his beloved Craw Wurm.

If you physically placed the cards down, you would see this:

  1. Craw Wurm laying all alone on the table.
  2. Doom Blade, now sitting on top of the Craw Wurm.
  3. Ranger’s Guile, laying on top of the Doom Blade.

The spells would then resolve one after another, or at least try to, from the top card to the bottom card. If a Spell or Ability cannot successfully resolve, it is then Countered, and its effect does not happen and it goes to the Graveyard. As a Spell or Ability goes to resolve, you would then just remove the card from the pile of cards and go to the next.

Another key aspect of The Stack, is that while these cards are resolving, anyone can add more stuff on top of it at any point. Just like the stack of baskets, if you choose to add more baskets, it just means those new baskets will be taken away first while the baskets farther down continue to remain there until the pile would eventually empty.

While what I give is an example of keeping things in order in your mind. Visualization is an important key to keeping just about anything organized, while keeping things enjoyable keeps your mind more at ease. While chaos can certainly be an enjoyable factor of a game, Magic is still a game of rules and being able to understand those rules will help organize your game so that you can focus more on the fun, and less on what is going wrong.