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.