Getting into the Zone and Zoning Out
- Gianluca Aicardi
Magic's virtual board is divided into a number of distinct zones. During the game, objects are created in one of these zones, and then moved between them as the players take actions — a seemingly simple yet intricate mechanism that has in time been defined by a proper nomenclature worth exploring.
With the notable exceptions of combat, the manipulation of life totals, the use of abilities, and the creation of tokens and counters, most everything that happens in a game of Magic boils down to the movement of cards from one zone to another. Even when we intuitively perceive a game event differently, at the end of the day, we're just taking one or more cards from Zone A and then placing them into Zone B. This constant traffic of cards sits at the very core of the gameplay.
This article offers the occasion to take a deeper look at what these so-crucial zones are, and how the movement to and from each of them is called in game terms, where terminology exists. If you want to hear Magic's head designer Mark Rosewater talk about the same topic, here's his Drive to Work podcast about the zones, first published in August 30, 2019.
We'll consider the seven main zones that almost every game of Magic can bring into operation, regardless of which of the major formats you play. In roughly chronological order of expected appearance in the average game, they are: library, hand, battlefield, stack, graveyard, exile, and command.
Zone 1: The Library
The library is where everything begins. Games of Magic can exist in which a few of even the most commonly used zones aren't accessed at all. For instance, it's not hard to imagine a game ending without any card being exiled. But there can't be a game that doesn't involve two opposing libraries, because that's where the very objects that produce the game are initially stored. The term library was there since the beginning, part of the vocabulary that Magic's original designer Richard Garfield adopted to spice up his creation; classic card games would just call the pile of cards that you play with "the deck." The flavor of the library is the future (see for example Future Sight) but also the caster's long-term memory, containing their arsenal of spells (see Memory Erosion).
The library is the zone where the relative position of the cards, that is their order, matters the most, though it starts out completely randomized. It's also the only zone in which the cards aren't by design visible to any player. The movements that originate from the library are:
Library to library. This can happen with effects that make us look inside our library or the opponent's, since they will invariably instruct us to shuffle that library afterward, technically moving all the cards to a different position within the library. Scry effects and various selection spells (like Ancient Stirrings) can move to the bottom of the library one or more cards that were at the top or among those at the top. Fateseal (also known as what the first ability of Jace, the Mind Sculptor does) is performed offensively to the opponent's library.
Library to hand. This equals in many cases to the rules-defined act of drawing, which is moving one or more cards from the top of the library to the hand. A classic example of this is Divination. When a selection among the cards is involved, and the movement doesn't trigger effects that care about drawing, it gets the nickname of impulsing (from classic Visions spell Impulse). Another frequent way to generate a library-to-hand movement is through tutoring, that is, the searching of specific cards inside the library, an informal term derived from the first card of this type, Demonic Tutor from Limited Edition Alpha.
Library to stack. It happens when you're given the chance to cast from the top, for example via Experimental Frenzy or Vivien, Monsters' Advocate. In which case, the top of the library is treated as an extension of the hand. More rarely, the casting happens from a different point inside the library, like with Panglacial Wurm or Aetherworks Marvel. Most effects that let you look through the library and choose something to cast, like cascade or Emergent Ultimatum, use the exile zone as an intermediary. In these cases the movement happens between three zones, and not directly from library to stack.
Library to battlefield. A common instance of this movement is informally called fetching. Well-known examples are Natural Order and Tinker, but the most frequent is probably the use of fetch lands like Misty Rainforest or Fabled Passage. Additionally, some effects that look at the top of the library, like Oracle of Mul Daya, allow cards (usually lands) to be moved from the library directly to the battlefield. A spell like Genesis Ultimatum does it for multiple permanents revealed from the top.
Library to graveyard. For the most part, this movement denotes the action keyworded as milling in Core Set 2021, following 27 years of unofficial use of the word (after Millstone from Limited Edition Alpha). It's typically done from the top, although more unusual forms like Grenzo, Dungeon Warden use the bottom instead. Alternatively, a subset of tutors, like Entomb, places the searched card into the graveyard, to facilitate reanimation.
Library to exile. It's an alternative form of milling, usually one that gives fewer chances to the opponent to exploit the milled cards. Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver (but not Ashiok, Dream Render) and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger do it.
Library to command. This movement doesn't concretely happen. When an effect such as Condemn would place a commander into a library, an act called "tucking," its owner may choose to return it to the command zone instead — meaning, it never actually touches the library and the movement originates not from the library but from the zone in which the commander was before.
Zone 2: The Hand
The hand is the second zone of the game, chronologically, because the very first action taken by players at the beginning of their confrontation is drawing seven cards. It's the central hub from where cards move toward various destinations — and sometimes return to. It was never given any special flavorful name, defaulting to the generic term of the most classic card games, in turn derived from the fact that the cards are physically held in a player's hand for reviewing. Common concepts linked to the hand include the present, the conscious mind, and the thoughts the player is presently having, or their short-term memory.
The relative position of the cards in hand doesn't matter. The cards in hand are by design visible to their owner, but not to the opponents. The movements that originate from hand are:
Hand to library. Advanced disruption cards, like Chittering Rats, have this effect, forcing you to discard to the top of the library. The action is also performed as part of the resolution of certain draw effects, like Brainstorm and Sylvan Library.
Hand to stack. This normally happens when casting a spell from hand. Easily the most frequent occurrence in the average game of Magic.
Hand to battlefield. In many cases, the first action taken by a player on their first turn involves this movement — playing a land. So-called cheating effects can move a nonland card this way, bypassing the stack; popular examples include Show and Tell and Elvish Piper. Mechanics such as ninjutsu also accomplish it.
Hand to graveyard. What's normally known as discarding. It can be forced by the opponent with cards like Thoughtseize, or self-inflicted for a number of reasons, from paying a cost to aiming at some kind of graveyard value, like reanimation.
Hand to exile. Certain discard effects (Agonizing Remorse, Yarok's Fenlurker) use the exile as a destination rather than the graveyard. Cards can also be exiled from hand to pay for a cost (Force of Will, Elvish Spirit Guide); as a consequence of "capping" effects like Unmoored Ego; or to enable imprint (for example Chrome Mox).
Hand to command. This happens as a replacement effect when a commander is instructed to move from hand to library. It may return to the command zone instead.
Zone 3: The Battlefield
The battlefield is the most dynamic zone of the game, where more interaction happens than in any other zone. It wasn't given a proper name until Magic 2010; previously it was referred to simply as the "in-play" zone. The flavor is straightforward: it's literally the theatre of the conflict between the players.
The battlefield is technically one big area where all players' permanents reside, but local subsets of it are commonly perceived while playing. Similarly, the position of the objects on the battlefield doesn't have a mechanical function, but it's customary to arrange them in predetermined ways. For instance, lands are usually placed closer to their owner than their other permanents, and grouped by name. The movements that originate from the battlefield are:
Battlefield to library. This is more often called tucking. It can be applied offensively, for instance using Primal Command or Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, but can also be an inherent ability of a card, like the anti-reanimation replacement clause from Blightsteel Colossus.
Battlefield to hand. It's the case of the extremely common occurrence called bouncing (from Limited Edition Alpha's Unsummon onward). It's used both offensively and defensively, or even for value. Certain death triggers like the recursion ability of Rancor effectively result in a card moving from battlefield to hand, although the graveyard is a temporary midway station in this case.
Battlefield to stack. Currently, there aren't any instances of effects that return a permanent to the stack. The rules should support it, but it's doubtful it will ever be done, as it would result in the awkwardness of a permanent spell having to resolve again, potentially during a phase when it shouldn't be allowed to.
Battlefield to battlefield. Despite perception of the contrary, changing control of a permanent via Control Magic or Agent of Treachery doesn't actually move it, since there's only one battlefield for all the players. On the other hand, flickering (also known as blinking; Cloudshift, Restoration Angel) accomplish a sort of movement that relocates a permanent on the battlefield to a new iteration of itself, by using the exile zone as a fleeting in-between.
Battlefield to graveyard. All effects that cause death of a permanent are harbingers of this movement. This includes destruction (from spells like Murder to simple damage), toughness reduction (Dismember), as well as any kind of sacrifice, both those forced on the opponent (Diabolic Edict) and those made willingly for costs or value (Priest of Forgotten Gods).
Battlefield to exile. The most high-value form of removal exiles the affected permanents, either definitely (Swords to Plowshares) or conditionally (Oblivion Ring). Flicker effects are also part of this dynamic, if only for a fraction of second.
Zone 4: The Stack
The stack is the area where spells and nonmana abilities go before resolving, so that all players can react to them with instant-speed effects, which then take place in a "last in, first out" order (as of Sixth Edition rules). It's the most elusive of the zones, as it exists only intermittently and for brief periods of time. In fact, many games played with physical cards don't even bother representing the stack, unless a complicated chain of responses arises. As a result, the flavor of the stack is not well-defined; it's the transitional threshold between potentiality and actuality.
The stack is a single zone shared by all players, and the position of the cards on it is crucial to their resolution. But it's not easily rearranged, in part due to its ephemeral nature. The movements that originate from the stack are:
Stack to library. This happens when a spell on the stack is answered by something that sends it back to the library. Hinder and Aether Gust are common examples. There are also spells that shuffle themselves back into the library at the end of resolution like the Beacon cycle or Nexus of Fate.
Stack to hand. A different type of counterspell, of which Remand is the most popular one, causes its target to move from the stack to its owner's hand. Furthermore, the mechanic buyback is a way to prevent resolved instants and sorceries from going to the graveyard, returning them to the hand instead.
Stack to battlefield. The default occurrence for resolved permanent spells.
Stack to graveyard. Unlike permanents, resolved instants and sorceries end up in the graveyard, as does any spell that is countered.
Stack to exile. Yet another class of counterspells causes the affected spell to be sent to exile. Examples include Dissipate and Force of Negation. Also, spells deemed too dangerous if recurred are often given a clause that auto-exiles them on resolution as a way to balance their power level — for instance Wildest Dreams and Emergency Powers.
Stack to command. If a spell such as Hinder or Remand counters a commander, a replacement effect allows the commander to move to the command zone instead of the library or hand. The replacement is optional and thus more likely to see application in the former than the latter case.
Zone 5: The Graveyard
The graveyard is what other games would simply call "the discard pile." It's the place where used spells and destroyed permanents are stored, and it's more dynamic than the concept would suggest. After all, this is a fantasy game with necromancy and whatnot. The name has always been there since Richard Garfield created Magic, and the flavor is twofold, alluding sometimes to the past (perhaps as the memory of previous events) and sometimes to the literal place where dead things dwell.
A separate graveyard exists for each player. The position of the cards in it has relevance and can't be rearranged freely, since the occasional effect cares about their order or for what sits on top. The movements that originate from the graveyard are:
Graveyard to library. Called restocking, it takes place for instance when an effect returns one or more cards from the graveyard to the library, by putting them either on top of it (Mystic Sanctuary) or at the bottom (Junktroller), or by shuffling them into the library (Gaea's Blessing). Some creatures perform this action on their own; this is most notably the case with Lorwyn's Incarnation cycle. The original Eldrazi titans also reside in the graveyard only momentarily before shuffling themselves back in.
Graveyard to hand. The most typical recursion in the game, seen many times on the descendants of Alpha cards like Regrowth and Raise Dead. The dredge mechanic also creates a movement from graveyard to hand, at the cost of a separate movement from library to graveyard. The Hour of Devastation cycle of Gods, such as The Scarab God, "raise" themselves as part of their signature recursive ability.
Graveyard to stack. The movement of any of the numerous cards that can be cast from the graveyard, for example those with flashback (which then execute a further movement from stack to exile) or certain Zombies like Gravecrawler.
Graveyard to battlefield. The most popular form of "cheating" into play is reanimation. Major spells of this kind include Reanimate and Dread Return. Some creatures, such as Vengevine, are able to self-reanimate. Narcomoeba spontaneously moves from graveyard to battlefield as a consequence of first moving from library to graveyard.
Graveyard to exile. The nickname for exiling cards from the graveyard is cremating, and while it's ideally meant to stop graveyard synergies, sometimes it's also used to pay costs, like with the delve mechanic. Cards commonly used for cremating are Relic of Progenitus and Tormod's Crypt.
Graveyard to command. A commander that gets placed into the graveyard from anywhere can return to the command zone immediately afterward, as a state-based action. This is a recent rules change. Prior to June 2020, such a commander would move to the command zone instead, never actually touching the graveyard and not triggering any associated abilities. Now it does hit the graveyard, briefly, and triggers abilities accordingly.
Zone 6: The Exile
Previously called the "removed-from-the-game zone," Magic 2010 introduced the current terminology, mainly because the former was an oxymoron: the cards in exile are still very much affected by the game. The exile is the place where to put cards that have been subjected to a fate more final than death. The concept was created precisely to have a secondary "discard pile" from which, unlike the graveyard, cards don't come back. However, over time the exile has been opened to some degree of interaction — as parodied by the Unhinged card AWOL and its "absolutely-removed-from-the-freaking-game-forever" zone. It's also become a support area where to place cards temporarily that are headed elsewhere (Living Death) or a "limbo" for cards that are out of commission for the time being but with a defined mechanism to bring them back (Oblivion Ring).
The flavor is multifaceted, as it can refer to a metaphysical state of nothingness (Path to Exile); to a remote, inaccessible locale (Prison Realm); or simply to the condition of having lost the desire to partake in the conflict at hand (Swords to Plowshares). Cards that get transformed into a new form may also end up in exile, though it's not always the case. (It's true for Curse of the Swine and Incongruity, but not for Polymorph and Pongify.)
The exile is technically shared by all players at the same table. Cards can be exiled face-up or face-down. Their position within the exile zone doesn't matter. The movements that originate from exile are:
Exile to library. A very rare form of restocking shuffles cards from the exile zone back into the library. Riftsweeper is one of those.
Exile to hand. While most of the classic Wishes cannot pull cards from exile (since the term "outside the game" doesn't include it anymore), some of those effects explicitly reference the exile, like Karn, the Great Creator. Furthermore, Ashiok's Erasure leaving the battlefield causes the exiled card to return to hand, and the same is true of Watcher for Tomorrow, Brain Maggot, and others.
Exile to stack. This movement happens more often than one would think. For starters, it's used in all instances of impulsive drawing, like Chandra, Torch of Defiance, and by cards with suspend, like Lotus Bloom. Stealers such as Thief of Sanity and Robber of the Rich exile their plunder too. We also see it with Emergent Ultimatum as well as any card with cascade, like Bloodbraid Elf. Finally, we have the odd creature that can bring itself back from exile, like Misthollow Griffin and Squee, the Immortal.
Exile to battlefield. It happens most commonly every time an Oblivion Ring effect is removed. The act of flickering also technically includes this movement, if briefly. And mass reanimation spells like Living Death and Living End smartly use the exile as a temporary base of operations to achieve their switcheroo between battlefield and graveyard. Finally, some impulsive drawing spells, for instance Light Up the Stage, allow us to play lands too, and when we do, the result is this movement. Similarly, the hideaway lands are also able to play a land from exile.
Exile to graveyard. The Time Spiral card Pull from Eternity performs this movement for the caster; the Eldrazi processors, like Wasteland Strangler, do it for the opponent. In both cases, the flavor of the original setting justified the atypical action.
Exile to command. An exiled commander is allowed to return to the command zone as state-based action, the same way it can return from the graveyard.
Zone 7: The Command Zone
Born as the place where commanders reside at the beginning of the game, the command zone has been later expanded. Now it most significantly hosts planeswalker emblems, which makes it relevant in any format (save Pauper or similar). More specialized objects that belong to the command zone include planes and phenomena from Planechase and schemes from Archenemy. Only commanders are able to move to other zones. The movements that originate from the command zone are:
Command to library. No cards perform this movement. It would feel pointless to take a commander from the zone where it's more easily accessible to the zone where it used to be buried and lost (until the rules governing the tucking of commanders changed).
Command to stack. The usual consequence of casting a commander.
Command to battlefield. Some commanders have the ability to cheat themselves into play without passing through the stack, thus evading the commander tax. Derevi, Empyrial Tactician does it by paying a fixed cost, while Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow uses a special form of ninjutsu. The ultimate of Tevesh Szat, Doom of Fools influences opposing command zones as well.
Command to graveyard. Not explored yet, but conceivable in the case of commanders that are able to self-reanimate.
Command to exile. Still missing. Similarly to the movement from command to library, there doesn't seem to be a clear reason to pursue this movement.
With this, we've reached the conclusion of our journey around the zones. Honorable mention to the ante, the now banned zone where a random card from each player's deck was once placed at the beginning of the game, to be gambled away according to the game's outcome. The movement that took place from the ante zone was invariably accompanied by weeping and gnashing of teeth. Those were wilder times.
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