The Five Worst Triggered Abilities of All Time (So Far)

So I spent a lot of time buried in triggered abilities these last few months, studying all sorts of structures, templates and philosophies. Fingers crossed it’s paid off; we’ll see over the upcoming weeks.

When you do that much studying, you learn the rhythm of things, and it’ll let you pick up on what works and what doesn’t, when a template is good and when it’s likely to be treacherous. Most of the time it works. But sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s its own special form of entertainment.

So here’s the (highly arguable) five worst triggered abilities of all time. None of these are technically problematic; they’ll all work flawlessly on Magic Online. Some of them are cool abilities. But when they run up against the realities of in-person tournament play, they cause headaches for judges and players alike. Their horrors can teach us a little bit about program history and philosophy

5) Braids, Cabal Minion

This one’s OK now, but back in the pre-IPG days, it was a horrorshow. As a special bonus, it’s still one of the more miserable cards ever printed from a gameplay perspective.

Braids triggers each turn, forcing a player to sacrifice a permanent. Back in the days of Procedural Errors, failing to do this before drawing your card for the turn was a Game Loss. Harsh. But, at least it was your card in your deck and it was reasonable to ask you to know how your cards worked… wait, your opponent would get a game loss if they forgot?

To say that tournaments were screwed up by this card for a while would be an understatement. It was a reasonable strategy to play the deck hoping to mise a few freebies from the most natural thing of all – drawing your card for the turn.

[As a total side note, people sometimes ask me what I would change if I was building Magic. There's a few things, but one that I don't see a lot is that I'd get rid of upkeep. It's not needed. Make the card draw for your turn the last part of untap, then have upkeep triggered abilities happen "at the start of your turn" (i.e. first main). This actually cuts out a lot of gotchas.]

Anyway, judges had to do a lot of handwaving here to make tournaments even slightly pleasant. There were a lot of “we’ll let opponents off the first time, but after that it’s a GL”-type remedies. But the fundamentals of the time were just wrong – I could get serious penalties for effects that you controlled – and making sure we didn’t get into this environment again weighed on us while we were writing the initial versions of the IPG.

4) Horizon Spellbomb

Sometimes, a card looks innocuous. Then someone asks a question at the prerelease and you realize that there’s a world of hurt ahead of you.

Unless you actually ran across the problem, it probably never occurred to you that Horizon Spellbomb has one of the messiest abilities ever. After all, all you do is pay 2G, search your library for a land, and draw a card.

Oops. No you don’t. The card draw comes first. So, if you break it down, what happens above is that you end up paying 2 for the activated ability, floating G (and this predated the “must announce floating mana rule”, if I remember correctly. Otherwise we have more infractions kicking around.) Then, you decline the may on the second ability, search for a land, shuffle up and draw a card where you weren’t supposed to… with nothing illegal happening before the card draw. DEC.

Yikes. That’s not exactly what we want to happen. It’s clearly just a minor mistake. Out of Order Sequencing can’t really apply here, because you gain advantage from your error: the library has one less land in it that you might theoretically draw.

Compounding the problem, the sequence of plays was *exactly the opposite* of the sequence we’d spent years training players to do for Krosan Tusker: the same effect, resolved the other way around.

For a while, we just put out the message to quietly let the error slide. It clearly wasn’t a Game-Loss-level infraction under any interpretation. We handwaved it into policy a little more officially by talking about how OOOS can apply to resolving items on the stack in the wrong order, and added the “reasonably” clause to be a little less strict in the definition of gaining information. But we still ignore that tiny percentage chance.

3) Frost Titan

Every ability on Frost Titan is bad in some regards, but it’s the first one that really puts it over the top. The second is just bad because of memory issues and what a pain it used to be to fix it before we had missable triggered abilities.

But that first ability is on the cutting edge of a set of nasty abilities that require an opponent to do something to prevent the effect (see Rhystic Study for another classic example.) First of all, it’s very easy for the opponent to forget about it, given the quantity of text and the high-profile nature of the second ability, so it triggers a lot more than you might expect it to. Then, controllers often believe that they don’t need to point it out – when the ability resolves, they just point and laugh, claiming that the other player forgot to pay 2. That, of course, is incorrect. They control the ability, so it’s their responsibility to make sure that the opponent has the choice; they don’t get to make assumptions.

It’s also a triggered ability that has a very tight timeframe for effect. Most abilities have an ongoing effect on the game, which you could start at a later point, or do something that’s still relevant (in the days when we’d put it on the stack later.) Once the Titan hits the graveyard and the game moves on, remembering the ability is pretty ineffective. “Oh, you forgot to pay 2″ isn’t going to bring the thing back, especially with the wrinkle of a situation where the player can no longer pay 2. This led to all kinds of bad moments and accusations.

For a long time, we dealt with this by making it clear over and over that the controller was responsible for asking and couldn’t sneak the ability by. The modern era of missed trigger rules has cleaned Frost Titan up a bit. Now, if you forget to point out the pay-2 triggered ability and just put him in the graveyard, you’ve demonstrated that you forgot. That goes for that not-quite-as-bad second ability as well.

2) Demigod of Revenge

Want to watch high level judges yell at each other? Ask them what happens when someone tries to counter a Demigod of Revenge.

It’s actually not so bad with a Demigod already in the graveyard. In that case, it’s reasonably clear that the ability hasn’t resolved yet. Even with the ability being missable, they certainly haven’t moved past the window yet.

But what if the graveyard is empty? Demigod gets countered. Does the triggered ability then resolve and return Demigod to play? Did the ability resolve – and do nothing – before the opponent cast the counterspell? Is that counterspell wasted?

The philosophies here are contradictory. We like to accommodate the idea of the ‘obvious’ play in places that it’s applicable (and that’s codified somewhat in rules like OOOS). On the other hand, we also favor the idea that the player taking action that needs precision or unusual timing should be responsible for being clear about the action they are taking. And there’s a general convention that opponents are adding stuff directly to the top of the stack. Not to mention that whole “awareness is an advantage” idea.

The best precedent we have is Mindbreak Trap, which is always held to counter all the Storm copies, even if it’s slapped into play without acknowledging the resolution of the Storm ability. But it’s not a great parallel. Unlike the trap, it’s far from clear here that the player countering is even aware that there’s something amiss – it’s a super-easy one to forget. There’s a good chance that neither player was even aware of this particular interaction, which means that it’s going to come down to exactly what was said and how it’s been played in the past.

1) Desecration Demon

Ugh. Where to begin?

It’s a detrimental trigger. It has to be, since it gives an opponent a choice. That means that forgetting it comes with Warnings.

It triggers in every combat step. This might include the one right after when you played it. It triggers whether or not the Demon is already tapped. It triggers when the opponent has no creatures. It triggers when the Demon is Pacified. It’s easy to forget, and annoying to have to bring up all the time.

So you have a Warning-generating machine that’s powerful in Limited, and it’s one that defies any attempts to write rules to make it better. We did manage to address the “no creatures” situation with the rule about triggered abilities that would do nothing, but the rest is pretty broken. So be really careful playing this card, even if everyone knows your opponent isn’t going to sacrifice the 8/8 trampler. Judges – be prepared to handwave a little bit.

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33 Responses to The Five Worst Triggered Abilities of All Time (So Far)

  1. LeRedditLeejun says:

    the le reddit army is here.

  2. “LOL!”
    – Dark Confidant

    • telliott says:

      Thought about it. It’d definitely be in top 10, just based on its impact on policy over the years. But the structure of the trigger isn’t that bad – the onus is on the controller to get it right or suffer the consequences, and it’s not ambiguous. The flaw is that it happens before turn draw.

  3. Allthefoxes says:

    Wow, never even thought about the spellbomb one.

  4. Alexis says:

    Pardic Dragon :-)

  5. Stealth says:

    Doesn’t Solemn Simulacrum work like the Spellbomb? I vaguely recall playing him with double Heartless Summoning. He enters the battlefield, then state-based actions are checked and he dies immediately, putting the death ability on the stack and thus resolving it first. First you draw, then you search.

    This is interesting because I played Solemn and that very Spellbomb in the same deck and I believe I always did it right without giving it 2nd thought.

    • telliott says:

      You can do the Solemn triggers legally in either order, since they both want to go on the stack at the same time. Plus, this piece of fun requires you to use double Heartless Summoning, which means you deserve what you get!

      • Zack says:

        I do recall something similar but different happening with Birthing Pod though. When you sacrifice your Solemn to a Pod, you always have to draw the card before searching up the land, correct?

    • Hanson says:

      I do recall something similar but different happening with Birthing Pod – No, Solem Sim has to have entered the battlefield and you have to have searched your library for a land before you can sacrifice to birthing pod as birthing pod can only be activated when the stack is empty during your main phase.

  6. Ming says:

    I think you mean “But that *first* ability…” at the beginning of the second paragraph about Frost Titan.

    • telliott says:

      You’re right. Fixed. The order of his abilities is also a little quirky thanks to the compound ability and trying to match up with the other four :P

  7. Redditor Druui says:

    WoW, I never thought you has to draw first before find the land with Horizon Spellbomb.

  8. Chris Lansdell says:

    Emrakul’s extra turn trigger was pretty gross before the latest revision

  9. Jen Wong says:

    The “must announce floating mana” rule is 106.4a in the Comp Rules. It was there when I started judging, which was before SoM was released, and as far as I’m aware it’s been there since the dawn of time.

    I’d say Emrakul is up there too, just for the sheer number of things that can go wrong with it.

    • telliott says:

      106.4a is a relatively recent addition (where relatively could mean 3 years ago). It’s newer than the graveyard order stuff, but I don’t remember exactly when.

      • Chris Ingersoll says:

        As a guess, it was instituted at or around the time mana burn was axed (so M10).

      • iirc, 106.4a was added in the first update after the M10 rules changes. It was at least in part a response to a vocal group of players claiming that the sky was falling because now their opponents could tap one too many lands when casting a spell to “run the sick bluffs” on their opponent’s with Mana Leaks.

        All told, I suspect that more problems have been a result of having the rules, rather than not having it, but that’s just a personal guess.

      • telliott says:

        To be fair, that’s a pretty obnoxious bluff, because it’s almost impossible for the opponent to work around it short of constantly asking if mana is floating. And it’s pretty unusual to have mana floating be relevant post M10.

        The bulk of the problems have just been people not knowing that the rule exists. That’s pretty inevitable. It gives us a club to wield on those occasions where we need it, and is largely irrelevant most of the rest of the time.

  10. Sluft says:

    Claustrophobia!!! It’s nasty but looking in the face of an surprised opponent who becomes attacked by a creature with a Claustrophobia on it, because he missed the trigger, was so funny at GP Manchester 2012.

  11. Chris Wong says:

    This sounds like the beginnings of a great Commander Deck!

  12. AaronB says:

    You don’t happen to have ever played at Legends comics and games in cupertino, CA before? I’m almost 90% sure i’ve played against you before! Also great article.

  13. Jacob says:

    Sylvan Library.

    • Nullzone says:

      Sylvan Library isn’t that difficult as a *trigger*, imo; it’s that it has weird memory issues when compounded with other draw effects, particularly ones coming from spells. Easy for a player to get left in a feelbad situation because they accidentally obfuscate what cards were drawn before finishing the SL resolution and are forced to pay life for those cards.

    • Doug S. says:

      Sylvan Library really doesn’t work and should probably be put in the same “unplayable under the rules” category as the ante cards. “Card you’ve drawn this turn” is meaningless, because, as far as your opponent is concerned, cards in your hand don’t have an identity unless they’re revealed. They know the number of cards in your hand and nothing else. (Miracles sort of work, because a card “being drawn” is identifiable.)

      Consider the worst-case scenario: Imagine that you control a Phyrexian Arena and your opponent controls a Sylvan Library and a Vedalken Orrery. In your upkeep, you resolve Phyrexian Arena, then cast Lightning Bolt. Your opponent, because he likes screwing with the judges, then Donates the Sylvan library to you, still during your upkeep. Do you now have to tell your opponent if the Lightning Bolt was the card you drew from Phyrexian Arena?

      The only way to make the card work *well* is with a functional change.

      Sylvan Library probably isn’t the grand champion of awful abilities, though. The one granted by Equinox is probably worse: “T: Counter target spell that would destroy a land you control.” Now, without looking it up, can you tell me if you can use this ability to counter a Lava Blister (Destroy target nonbasic land unless its controller has Lava Blister deal 6 damage to him or her)?

      • Seneschal says:

        Ante cards aren’t “unplayable under the rules”, are they?

        I mean, they’re banned in all the tournament formats, but the game itself can handle them OK – there’s still rule 407 on how ante works in the comp. rules. Or does 407 not actually run ante games properly (I’ve never tried to find problems with it)?

  14. Lasse BJ says:

    Great I have all of them in my Cube :-)
    And good reading by the way.

  15. MTG says:

    Played against spell bomb in limited at the Pro tour in paris. Opponent could not speak english hardly at all and did the triggers out of order. Then they had to locate russian judge to explain to the player what happened.

  16. Adam S. says:

    I’m sure Yavimaya Elder would fall into the same realm as Horizon Spellbomb and Krosan Tusker, yes?

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