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Magic The Gathering Turns Explained: Phase Guide

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No matter what format you’re playing, or what deck you brought to the table, one thing almost never changes in Magic the Gathering — the turns. Knowing your End Steps from your Upkeeps, when to clean up or when to untap, and how to go to combat is essential right from your very first game. And yet, it’s also one of the most surprisingly complicated aspects of the game.

Here is everything that happens in your average turn of Magic the Gathering, from beginning to end.

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Note: This guide assumes a few things: first, it assumes that you are the active player (that it is your turn). It also assumes that there are no effects in play that would change the flow of a turn, such as Sphinx of the Second Sun’s ability to add a second Beginning Phase after your Postcombat Main Phase. If a card contradicts a general rule, always follow what the card says.

Phases and Steps

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A single turn in Magic the Gathering is split into five phases, which are then divided further by steps. Phases and steps define when a player receives “priority” — when they can do things —, as well as what types of spells and abilities can be cast or activated.

The phases are:

  1. Beginning Phase
    1. Untap Step
    2. Upkeep Step
    3. Draw Step
  2. Pre-combat Main Phase
  3. Combat Phase
    1. Beginning of Combat Step
    2. Declare Attackers Step
    3. Declare Blockers Step
    4. Combat Damage Step
    5. End of Combat Step
  4. Post-combat Main Phase
  5. Ending Phase
    1. Ending Step
    2. Cleanup Step

Even if nothing happens during a particular phase, such as not attacking during combat, or not casting anything during your second main, you will still move through it over the course of your turn. This is important because, at the end of each phase, any unspent mana you produced (by tapping a permanent that makes mana) will dissipate.

It is considered good practice to say out loud when you’re moving between phases and steps, as there are times when other players can do things. However, most players either leave out smaller steps like the Cleanup Step or the End of Combat Step, and/or shorthand them with phrases like “going to combat” to signify the end of the Pre-combat Main Phase. At these points, if you want to act and are allowed to, you are welcome to interrupt and say “at the end of your [phase or step]” or “on your [phase or step]”.

Beginning Phase

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Untap Step

The first thing that happens is the untap step, where all permanents (lands, creatures, enchantments, artifacts, and tokens) untap, unless an effect already played prevents it, such as a creature enchanted with Charmed Sleep. All permanents untap at the same time.

If any of your permanents have phased out since your last untap step, they phase back in at this point. Any creatures summoned on your previous turn will also lose summoning sickness.

In the untap step, no player has priority. Priority simply means that the player who has it is allowed to do something. Once a player receives priority, they can either play something or pass it to the next player — once priority has been passed around every player without an action, the ‘stack’ is considered finished and a new one can begin. Without priority, spells can’t be cast and activated abilities (abilities on cards you can choose to activate yourself, rather than ones triggered by something else happening) can’t activate. Certain abilities that trigger when a creature untaps, such as a creature with Inspired, will be triggered, but the effect won’t go on the stack until you next receive priority.

Upkeep Step

Upkeep is the earliest point in your turn where you’ll receive priority. You can play anything that is instant-speed, such as an instant or a creature with flash, and you can use activated abilities. If any ability is triggered on your untap step, they will be put onto the stack in your Upkeep Step.

While upkeep is often passed through with nothing happening, there are a lot of effects that trigger during it. For example, Ill-Gotten Inheritance, Celestial Force, and Colossal Majesty all trigger at “the beginning of your upkeep”.

One important thing to note is that the “beginning of your upkeep” happens as soon as you’ve finished the untap step. This means you can’t remove a permanent before its undesirable upkeep trigger goes off, as its effect has already gone on the stack by the time you receive priority.

Draw Step

The Draw Step is pretty self-explanatory, in that it’s the point in the turn where you draw a card. There are some effects that can interact with this step, such as Howling Mine and Dictate of Kruphix increasing the number of cards you draw, but on the whole few things actually trigger during the Draw Step.

One thing people often forget about the Draw Step is that you do receive priority during it. If you’ve drawn into any instant-speed plays that you’d like to resolve before moving to your first main phase, you can do so during your Draw Step.

As you move from your Draw Step into your Pre-combat Main Phase, any mana you have “floated” (through tapping lands, artifacts, or ‘mana dork’ creatures) will dissipate. Make sure you don’t create more mana than you need to avoid wasting resources.

Pre-combat Main Phase

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The Pre-combat Main Phase is one of two phases in your turn that isn’t segmented into smaller steps. The Pre-combat Main Phase is going to take up the majority of the time spent in your turn. It is where you’ll likely enact most of your plans and set up for combat.

At the start of this phase, any effects that trigger at the beginning of the main phase trigger, and you receive priority for the third time. However, this time you are allowed to play sorcery-speed spells, such as creatures without flash and, of course, Sorceries. You are also allowed to play a land — lands aren’t cast and can’t be responded to by your opponents, but you can only play one per turn.

When all players have done everything they’re legally allowed to on the Pre-combat Main Phase, and the stack is empty, the game then moves into the Combat Phase. It is important that you’ve set up everything you need for combat before moving to the next phase, as, again, any unspent mana is removed as you leave your Pre-combat Main Phase.

Combat Phase

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The combat phase is the most complicated part of the turn and is split into five steps.

Beginning of Combat Step

In the vast majority of games, this step will pass by without anything major happening. In it, either one or all other players (depending on the format) are defined as “defending players”, which makes them legal targets to attack later in the phase.

You also receive priority in this step, letting you cast instant-speed spells or use activated abilities.

Declare Attackers Step

In your Declare Attackers Step, you designate which of your untapped creatures are attacking which opponent.

Any abilities that trigger when a creature attacks (rather than “deals combat damage”), such as Boast or Myriad, will trigger once the creature has been declared as an attacker. If the creature doesn’t have Vigilance, it will also tap once it has been declared as an attacker.

All attacking creatures are declared at the same time, and the designation is final. You can’t attack with one creature, see the outcome, and then decide to attack with another as well. Likewise, you can’t declare an attacker and then take it back if the outcome isn’t favourable once this part of the step is over.

After you’ve declared attackers, you receive priority. You’re free to cast instant-speed spells and use abilities (spells cast at this point are informally known as “combat tricks”), and opponents are free to respond to the declared attackers.

Declare Blockers Step

If at least one of your creatures is attacking and is a valid blockable target, your opponent can declare as many blocking creatures of their own as they like in this step. Blocking doesn’t tap the creature down the same way attacking does.

Once all blockers have been declared and assigned to attackers, it is your job to divvy up the damage your creatures will do to them. You must assign as much damage as you can before running out of either damage or creatures — when one dies, you move on to the next. If your creature has trample, any leftover after all the blocking creatures have had the full amount of damage assigned to them will then go to their controller, your opponent.

However, the damage doesn’t actually happen at this step. Before that, there is another round of priority, giving you and your opponent one last opportunity to buff up creatures or play combat tricks before the damage is dealt.

Combat Damage Step

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In this step, all attacking and blocking creatures deal their damage in the way that was assigned in the Declare Blockers Step.

In the majority of cases, damage blockers and attackers deal to each other simultaneously. If a creature has either double strike or first-strike, the step is split into two sub-steps:

  1. First, a creature with first strike or double strike will deal its damage to the creature without first strike. If both the attacker and the blocker have first strike (double strike doesn’t apply to blockers), the effect is cancelled out and both deal damage at the same time.
  2. If that first strike damage was enough to kill the blocking creature, the blocker dies before it has the chance to deal any damage back.
  3. If the blocker survives the first strike attack, it will then deal its damage to the attacker as normal. If the attacker has double strike, the second attack will happen at the same time as this, just as it would in normal combat.

An odd quirk of the combat damage step is that, if a blocking creature was removed before damage is calculated (such as a Path to Exile at the end of the Declare Blockers Step), the attacker will do no damage at all, unless it has trample. If it does, all damage will go directly to the opponent’s life total instead.

Once damage has been dealt and any creatures who were killed have been moved to the graveyard, the turn then moves to the last step of the Combat Phase.

End of Combat Step

Like the Beginning of Combat Step, not a lot tends to happen in this step. The attacking player will receive priority, and any “until end of combat” effects will end. Any attacking or defending creatures still surviving after the Combat Damage step are officially removed from combat, and the phase ends.

Post-combat Main Phase

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Commonly called the “second main”, this phase works identically to the Pre-combat Main Phase. You receive priority and can cast either sorcery — or instant-speed spells. If you didn’t play a land in your Pre-combat Main Phase, you can play one now. There are some cards that trigger in the Post-combat Main Phase, such as Sphinx of the Second Sun’s, or Belbe, Corrupted Observer’s.

The big difference between the Pre- and Post-combat Main Phase is that you have now attacked this turn.

This is an important distinction to make, as there are lots of cards with the Raid mechanic. Raid gives you benefits if you’ve attacked this turn, however many of them are on creatures that can only be casted during a main phase.

Once you and all of your opponents have passed priority, your unspent mana goes away and the last phase of the turn begins.

Ending Phase

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The Ending Phase is the bit of your turn that happens immediately prior to the next player’s Beginning Phase.

End Step

Confusingly, the Ending Phase and the End Step are two slightly different things. In the End Step, any “until end of turn” effects end, and any “at the beginning of your End Step” effects trigger. You then gain priority for the final time in your turn — if there is anything you want to do before the start of your turn, the best time to do it is on your opponent’s End Step immediately before.

Even more confusingly, there are cases where the End Step isn’t the end of the turn. For example, Obeka, Brute Chronologist’s ability simply ends the turn without going through the End Step. Any “until end of turn” effects wear off, but any End Step triggers don’t happen. It’s a minor difference that isn’t explained very clearly on cards that care about it, but it is an important one to know about.

Cleanup Step

The absolute final thing you do on a turn is the Cleanup Step. In this step, you must discard down to your maximum hand size, which, by default, is seven cards. If anybody does anything to make you draw cards in your Ending Phase, that will happen before the Cleanup Step.

In general, you won’t receive priority in the Cleanup Step. The only time that you will is if an effect triggers. Only a handful of older cards do this, like Parapet and Mystic Veil, and so it is unlikely you’ll encounter a Cleanup Step trigger in normal play.

At the end of the Cleanup Step, it is the end of your turn. You stop being the active player, and the next person’s turn begins at their Beginning Phase.

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