Starch phosphorylation by glucan, water dikinase (GWD; EC 188.8.131.52) is an essential step in the breakdown of native starch particles, but the underlying mechanisms have remained obscure. In this paper, the initial reactions of starch degradation were analyzed using crystallized maltodextrins as model carbohydrates. As revealed by X-ray diffraction analysis, the crystallized maltodextrins represent the B-type starch allomorph. Recombinant GWD phosphorylated crystalline maltodextrins with a high specific activity (55–60 nmol mg−1 protein min−1), but exhibited very little activity with the same maltodextrins that had been solubilized by heat treatment. Recombinant phosphoglucan, water dikinase (PWD; EC 184.108.40.206) utilized the crystalline maltodextrins only when pre-phosphorylated by GWD. Phosphorylation of crystalline maltodextrins, as catalyzed by GWD, initiated solubilization of neutral as well as phosphorylated glucans. In both the insoluble and the soluble state, mono-, di- and triphosphorylated α-glucans were observed, with wide and overlapping ranges of degree of polymerization. Thus, the substrate specificity of the GWD is defined by the physical arrangement of α-glucans rather than by structural parameters, such as the distribution of branching points or degree of polymerization. Unlike GWD and PWD, recombinant β-amylase isozyme 3 (BAM3), which has been shown to be essential for plastidial starch degradation, preferentially degraded soluble maltodextrins rather than crystallized glucans. In summary, two conclusions were reached. Firstly, carbohydrate targets of GWD are primarily defined by the molecular order of glucan helices. Secondly, GWD-catalyzed phosphorylation mediates the phase transition of glucans from a highly ordered to a less ordered and hydrated state.