Magic: the Gathering has a set of rules unlike almost any other game in existence. Its rules have to cover every conceivable interaction between every card, like a piece of software needs to be thoroughly tested to make sure its users can’t exploit a bug in the code. One of the most important rules features for keeping things comprehensible is the concept of “zones.” Zones divide the cards in a game of Magic into several areas which each have their own rules. To understand why this complicated-sounding system actually makes things simpler, we first need to understand what the system is. Let’s dive in!
First, what is a zone? The comprehensive rules define a zone as “a place where objects can be during a game.” There are seven zones in a game of Magic*, and they are:
*There are some very old cards that mention “ante,” which is now considered a zone, however those cards are banned from all sanctioned formats so I won’t be talking about that.
- The Stack
Each player in a game of Magic has their own Library, Hand, and Graveyard. All other zones are shared by all players.
Zones fall into two categories: public and hidden. The graveyard, battlefield, stack, exile, and command zones are all public, which means that unless otherwise specified any player may look at cards in those zones. Conversely, the hand and library are considered hidden zones, which means that players by default cannot look at cards in those zones. Even if all cards in that zone are revealed, for rules purposes, the zone is still considered a “hidden zone.”
When a game of Magic begins, the deck of cards that a player is using to play becomes their library. It is kept in a single face-down pile, and no player may look at or change the order of those cards unless a card specifies otherwise.
According to rule 401.3, “Any player may count the number of cards remaining in any player’s library at any time.” However, taking the time to do so when there is no reason for it is considered what we call in Magic culture a “dick move” (and in competitive play will result in a slow play warning).
Normally I paraphrase rules to make them easier to understand, but this one is very clear:
401.5. Some effects tell a player to play with the top card of their library revealed, or say that a player may look at the top card of their library. If the top card of the player’s library changes while a spell is being cast, the new top card won’t be revealed and can’t be looked at until the spell becomes cast... The same is true with relation to an ability being activated.
Even though a card is put onto the stack as soon as a player begins casting it, this rule says the next card does not “show up” until the previous top card becomes cast (see Casting a Spell for more info).
If an effect would put a card to the top or bottom of a library, and there are no cards in that library, the card simply becomes the only card in that library. Similarly, if an effect would put a card a certain number of cards from the top of a library with fewer than that number of cards in it, that card will be put on the bottom of that library.
The hand is where a player holds cards that have been drawn, and other effects can add cards to the hand as well. Although the hand is a hidden zone, each player may look at and rearrange their own hand however they like. A player may count the number of cards in another player’s hand at any time.
By default, players can play cards from their hand. This is the only zone from which this is true, unless the format being played involves a Commander in the command zone.
The battlefield is the only zone where permanents exist. In any other zone, permanent cards are just cards, but once they enter the battlefield they become permanents. In fact, only permanents exist “on the battlefield.”
Previously, the battlefield was simply referred to as being “in play.” Any card that “comes into play” or “leaves play” is actually referring to entering and leaving the battlefield.
Spells and abilities that check for specific conditions only check the battlefield, unless they mention another specific zone or player.
The graveyard is the place that cards go after they are “spent,” like what most games refer to as a discard pile. Any object (card, permanent, token, etc) that is countered, discarded, destroyed, or sacrificed is put on top of its owner’s graveyard. When an instant or sorcery finishes resolving, it also goes to its owner’s graveyard.
According to the comprehensive rules, players may not reorder cards in their graveyards. This is because cards like Barrow Ghoul care about the order of cards in a player’s graveyard. However, there are very few cards that care about this, and if no one is playing with those cards in a game it will make no difference.
If more than one card would be put into a graveyard at the same time, the cards’ owner may put them into the graveyard in any order.
The stack is the zone where spells and abilities go as they wait to resolve. When a spell is cast, the physical card is put on top of the stack, while abilities simply “go on top of the stack” with no physical representation.
Each time an object is put onto the stack, it goes on top of all other objects there. When all players pass priority, the object at the top of the stack resolves, then leaves the stack.
Exile is a zone that was created to fix confusion caused by early cards that “remove X from the game.” Those cards that were “removed” often came back to another zone later, or players tried to use a “wish” effect (like Burning Wish) to get them back. Exile fixes this by adding an extra zone, which is simply “not anywhere else”:
406.1. The exile zone is essentially a holding area for objects. Some spells and abilities exile an object without any way to return that object to another zone. Other spells and abilities exile an object only temporarily. 406.2. To exile an object is to put it into the exile zone from whatever zone it’s currently in. An exiled card is a card that’s been put into the exile zone.
By default, cards in exile can be looked at by any player and are kept face-up. However, if a card is exiled face down, it cannot be looked at by any player unless otherwise specified. If a player is allowed to look at a card that is exiled face down, that player may look at that card again as long as it remains exiled face down even if the effect that let them look at it no longer applies.
Cards in exile should be kept separated from one another based on when and how they were exiled. Many effects that exile cards have their own rules for returning to the battlefield or a player’s hand, or other allowances like casting the spell. Keeping exiled cards organized is necessary to avoid confusion between these effects!
The Command Zone
The Command Zone is a game area reserved for certain special objects that are not permanents and cannot be interacted with by normal effects.
In a “normal” game of Magic, the command zone is only used for emblems, created by Planeswalkers. These emblems are objects that have some form of effect on the game, and cannot be interacted with in any way.
Other formats, like the zone’s namesake Commander, allow players to start with specially designated cards in the command zone. These formats each have their own unique rules for those cards.
Moving Zone to Zone
Objects in a game of Magic move between zones very often. Every time a land is played, a spell is cast, or a creature is destroyed, objects move zones. Doing so is normally a very intuitive process, but the actual rule about doing so is a giant block of text:
400.6. If an object would move from one zone to another, determine what event is moving the object. If the object is moving to a public zone and its owner will be able to look at it in that zone, its owner looks at it to see if it has any abilities that would affect the move. If the object is moving to the battlefield, each other player who will be able to look at it in that zone does so. Then any appropriate replacement effects, whether they come from that object or from elsewhere, are applied to that event. If any effects or rules try to do two or more contradictory or mutually exclusive things to a particular object, that object’s controller—or its owner if it has no controller—chooses which effect to apply, and what that effect does. (Note that multiple instances of the same thing may be mutually exclusive; for example, two simultaneous “destroy” effects.) Then the event moves the object.
Let’s break it down. If an object would be moved:
- Determine who would be able look at the object after the move.
- Those players look at it and determine if any replacement effects will apply to the move.
- If any of those effects are mutually exclusive (trying to move the object to two different zones, or two effects moving it to the same zone), that object’s controller/owner decides which to apply.
- The object is moved.
So, those are the zones and how things move between them. It keeps things a little straighter, I suppose, but how does having so many zones actually simplify the game? Well, if any object moves from one zone to another, the game treats it as a brand new object with no “memory” of anything that previously happened to it. By applying this “reset” every time a card goes to another zone, the rules can DRASTICALLY reduce the amount of information that players need to track during a game. Imagine if you had to remember which spell destroyed a creature in your graveyard, or which player you hit with a particular copy of Lightning Bolt! The game would quickly become totally unplayable.
Exceptions: The Best Part of Rules
With all that said, there are a few exceptions to this “memory reset” that need to be mentioned, because they are necessary in order for certain mechanics to function:
400.7a Effects from spells, activated abilities, and triggered abilities that change the characteristics or controller of a permanent spell on the stack continue to apply to the permanent that spell becomes.
For example, if we Commandeer an opponent’s artifact spell, we get to keep the artifact permanent it becomes. Similarly, if we Thoughtlace a creature spell, that creature will enter the battlefield as a blue creature.
400.7b Prevention effects that apply to damage from a permanent spell on the stack continue to apply to damage from the permanent that spell becomes.
This one really threw me for a loop. I keep reading and re-reading this rule thinking I must be understanding it incorrectly, but I asked a judge and I was told that I was right; If we cast Hallow targeting a creature spell, and that creature would deal damage this turn after entering the battlefield, Hallow prevents all damage that creature would deal and we gain that much life! I look forward to breaking out this new silliness in future Magic games, myself.
400.7c An ability of a permanent can reference information about the spell that became that permanent as it resolved, including what costs were paid to cast that spell or what mana was spent to pay those costs.
This rule was just introduced with the release of Throne of Eldraine, so that Gadwick, the Wizened actually works as a card! Before the rule was added, the creature’s ability would not have “known” the value of X, because X was applied on the stack and not on the battlefield.
400.7d Abilities that trigger when an object moves from one zone to another (for example, “When Rancor is put into a graveyard from the battlefield”) can find the new object that it became in the zone it moved to when the ability triggered, if that zone is a public zone.
This rule has the perfect example already in it, so I don’t think I need to explain further.
400.7e Abilities of Auras that trigger when the enchanted permanent leaves the battlefield can find the new object that Aura became in its owner’s graveyard if it was put into that graveyard at the same time the enchanted permanent left the battlefield. It can also find the new object that Aura became in its owner’s graveyard as a result of being put there as a state-based action for not being attached to a permanent.
This is a very similar rule to the previous, only this one cares about why the card went to the graveyard. For example Angelic Destiny‘s ability only triggers if its enchanted creature dies, which makes it different from Rancor‘s ability, so this rule makes sure to cover it.
400.7f If an effect grants a nonland card an ability that allows it to be cast, that ability will continue to apply to the new object that card became after it moved to the stack as a result of being cast this way.
400.7g If an effect allows a nonland card to be cast, other parts of that effect can find the new object that card becomes after it moves to the stack as a result of being cast this way.
This pair of rules simply allow cards like Melek, Izzet Paragon to function as intended; Melek only effects the top card of our library, and casting a spell card moves that card to the stack. If this rule did not exist, that spell would no longer “remember” that Melek allowed it to be cast! The second rule applies after the spell is cast, and it allows Melek‘s ability to determine whether a spell was cast from the top of our library.
400.7h If an effect causes an object to move to a public zone, other parts of that effect can find that object. If the cost of a spell or ability causes an object to move to a public zone, that spell or ability’s effects can find that object.
This one allows cards like Altar of Dementia and Mercurial Chemister to function. When we sacrifice a creature or discard a card to pay a cost, that card goes to the graveyard. In order to “find” that card’s power or converted mana cost, we need this rule to exist!
400.7i After resolving a madness triggered ability (see rule 702.34), if the exiled card wasn’t cast and was moved to a public zone, effects referencing the discarded card can find that object.
I covered this one in my article about Madness, but here’s the gist: If we discard a card that has Madness with Mercurial Chemister, and we choose not to cast it, his ability can find that card’s converted mana cost. However, the opposite is also true: If we do cast the discarded card using its madness cost, Mercurial Chemister cannot find that card’s converted mana cost when his ability resolves because that card will move zones due to being cast.
Cute Lil Extras
That’s it for Zones! Thanks for reading my Big Wall of Rules™. Now here’s a couple goofy rules that make me smile because I know they have to exist, but the fact that they do exist is funny to me.
406.7. If an object in the exile zone becomes exiled, it doesn’t change zones, but it becomes a new object that has just been exiled.
Pop! This little card is already all by its lonesome in exile, and then it gets exiled again. What happens? It gets sent away… to where it already is. It forgets how long it’s been lonely, and who exiled it the first time! It’s a fresh lease on… well, not life, but I guess it’s a fresh lease on exile.
401.6. If an effect causes a player to play with the top card of their library revealed, and that particular card stops being revealed for any length of time before being revealed again, it becomes a new object.
This means the rules of Magic are like a child playing peek-a-boo! If you reveal the top of your library, hide it, then reveal the same card, the rules have no idea that’s the same card. The rules say “Hey, that card has the same name and all other attributes as the last one you revealed” but they don’t know. It reminds me of this official ruling for Jadelight Ranger:
"If you reveal a nonland card the first time Jadelight Ranger explores and leave it on top of your library, you’ll reveal the same card the second time it explores. If you don’t pretend to be surprised, you’ll hurt Jadelight Ranger’s feelings."
Here’s a bummer for Melvins everywhere:
400.4a If an instant or sorcery card would enter the battlefield, it remains in its previous zone.
No Manifest-copy-morph shenanigans can get an instant or sorcery onto the battlefield, and neither can anything else. The rules don’t care how you try it, they just say “no.”
The End Zone
That’s all I have for you for now, writing this article has got me thinking about the intricacies of exile and the way the game treats objects in general, so keep an eye out for articles about that in the future! Thanks for reading, let me know if you have any questions in the comments or via Twitter, and tune in next time when I use March of the Machines and Deadeye Navigator to blink a Panharmonicon a bunch of times with Mirror March on the battlefield.