Keywords are words that are shorthand for certain commonly occurring abilities. Each block has its own block-specific keywords, and there are some evergreen keywords that are used in almost every set. This article focuses on evergreen keywords. For block-specific keywords, check the New Set Digest article for the set in which the keyword appears or the appropriate Returning Mechanic Review article.
Auras all have an enchant ability that tells what kinds of permanents they can go on. It’s not legal to cast an Aura targeting a permanent that doesn’t match the type of permanent described by the enchant ability. If a permanent stops matching that description, any Auras that are no longer enchanting a legal permanent will “fall off” and go to the graveyard as a state-based action.
Example: A player animates a Mutavault, then enchants it with an Aura that has enchant creature. During the cleanup step, Mutavault will stop being a creature, so the Aura will be put into its owner’s graveyard.
Example: A player casts a Faith Unbroken on her creature. Later, an opponent gains control of that creature with Threaten. Faith Unbroken is put into its controller’s graveyard as a state-based action because it’s no longer attached to a permanent that meets the characteristics set forth by its enchant ability.
Aura spells are the only type of permanent spell that has a target. The target is described by the enchant ability. If the target becomes illegal, an Aura is countered.
Example: A player casts a Pacifism on her opponent’s creature. The creature’s controller responds by casting a spell that gives the creature hexproof. Pacifism will have an illegal target when it tries to resolve, so it is countered.
Example: A player casts a Pacifism on her opponent’s creature. After Pacifism resolves, the creature’s controller casts a spell that gives the creature hexproof. Pacifism remains on the battlefield enchanting that creature because it only targets while it’s on the stack.
Example: A player casts a Dragon Mantle on her creature. In response, her opponent destroys that creature. When Dragon Mantle tries to resolve, it will find its target has become illegal, so Dragon Mantle is countered. Dragon Mantle will be put directly into the graveyard. Because it never entered the battlefield, its “draw a card” ability will never trigger.
Equipment are a special type of artifact that can give advantages to the creatures that wield them. Most commonly, this will be in the form of a power/toughness buff or by granting abilites, but there are other things Equipment can do, too.
Unlike Auras, Equipment enter the battlefield unattached. Each Equipment has an equip ability that can be used to attach it to a creature. “Equip [cost]” means “[cost]: attach this Equipment to target creature. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery.”
This is an activated ability, but it has a timing restriction so it can only be activated on its controller’s main phase if the stack is empty.
Also unlike Auras, Equipment aren’t put into the graveyard when the creature they’re attached to dies. Rather, if an Equipment is attached to an illegal permanent, or not attached to any permanent, it becomes unattached (if applicable) and remains on the battlefield.
If control of a creature changes, the Equipment doesn’t fall off, but it doesn’t change controllers either. Read the cards carefully to determine whether the Equipment’s controller or the creature’s controller will benefit from any abilities the Equipment gives.
Example: Amy steals Nicole’s creature which is equipped with Moonsilver Spear and attacks. Nicole puts an Angel token into play because she still controls Moonsilver Spear, which is the source of the ability that instructs its controller to create a token.
Example: Amy steals Nicole’s creature which is equipped with Nicole’s Blade of Selves and attacks. Amy puts creature tokens into play because Blade of Selves gives the myriad ability to the creature, which she now controls.
Example: Amy steals Nicole’s creature which is equipped with Nicole’s Blazing Torch. Nicole can’t activate the “deals 2 damage” ability because Blazing Torch gives the ability to the creature, which Nicole no longer controls. Amy also can’t activate this ability because its cost involves sacrificing Blazing Torch, which Amy can’t do since she doesn’t control the Equipment, only the creature.
In general, once an Equipment is attached to a creature, you can’t unattach it. You can only move it to a different creature.
Spells that have flash ignore the normal timing rules for casting spells. They can be cast whenever their controller could cast an instant (in other words, whenever that player has priority).
Example: Amy controls Hand to Hand. She attacks with a creature. Nicole casts an Ashcoat Bear and blocks. This is legal because even though Nicole couldn’t play an instant at that time, she does meet the requirements for being able to cast an instant spell, which is what that phrasing is actually looking for.
Ordinarily, creatures cannot attack or use activated abilities with the tap symbol in their cost unless their controller has controlled them continuously since the beginning of the turn. Some players colloquially refer to this as “summoning sickness.” Creatures with haste can ignore this rule and attack or tap right away.
Example: Amy plays a Berserkers of Blood Ridge. It doesn’t have haste, so it isn’t able to attack that turn.
Example: Amy Threatens her opponent’s creature. Variants of this type of effect generally grant haste to the creature that’s getting taken because otherwise, that creature wouldn’t be able to attack.
Example: Amy plays a Mutavault and animates it. Because it’s now a creature, it’s affected by the summoning sickness rule, which means that it can’t attack and it can no longer tap for mana. It’s legal to tap Mutavault for mana before animating it, but once it’s a creature, you can only tap it if you controlled it since the start of your most recent turn.
Example: Amy plays a Heritage Druid and taps it and two other Elves to generate GGG. This is legal because Heritage Druid’s ability spells out the word “tap” rather than using the tap symbol.
Creatures with hexproof cannot be the targets of spells or abilities cast by their controllers’ opponents. If a player casts a spell that targets a hexproof creature, the action is illegal and is undone if it was caught right away. In Competitive REL, this is accompanied by a Warning. In regular REL, the penalty is a Caution. If a creature gains hexproof in response to an opponent’s spell that targets it, that creature is no longer a legal target for that spell, and will not be affected by it. If the spell has no legal targets when it tries to resolve, it will be countered.
Example: Nicole casts Abrupt Decay on Amy’s creature. Amy responds by casting a spell that gives her creature hexproof. Abrupt Decay will have an illegal target when it tries to resolve and be countered. Because it is being countered by the game rules, not by a spell or ability, Abrupt Decay’s “can’t be countered by spells or abilities” ability is not applicable.
Creatures with vigilance do not tap when they attack. Like other creatures, they must be untapped in order to be declared as attackers, but this process doesn’t cause them to become tapped.
Creatures with defender cannot be declared as attackers. The game only cares about this ability at one point – as attackers are declared. If a creature with defender somehow ends up attacking, the game doesn’t remove it from combat.
Example: Amy attacks with a Yore-Tiller Nephilim and returns Ogre Sentry to the battlefield attacking. Even though Ogre Sentry has defender, it was legally put onto the battlefield attacking, so it will attack and deal combat damage normally.
In the past, the defender ability was inherent in all creatures that had the creature type Wall. As a consequence, it may only appear as reminder text on older cards, or it may not appear at all. Remember to check the Oracle text if there’s any doubt.
Some creatures have evasion abilities that make them harder to block
- Creatures with flying can only be blocked by creatures with reach and/or other creatures with flying.
- Creatures with intimidate can only be blocked by artifact creatures or creatures that share a color with them.
- Creatures with landwalk abilities cannot be blocked if the defending player controls a land of the appropriate type. For example, a creature with swampwalk cannot be blocked if the defending player controls a swamp.
- Creatures with menace can’t be blocked by just one creature. They can only be blocked if two or more creatures are declared as blockers for them.
- Protection also makes creatures harder to block, but see its specific section for detailed rules.
- Colorless creatures do not share a color with anything. An animated Mutavault cannot block a Bladetusk Boar because it is not red and it is not an artifact. It also cannot block an attacking colorless creature with intimidate.
- Landwalk only cares about land types or supertypes, not card names or artwork.
Example: A player controlling a Misty Rainforest can block a creature with forestwalk because Misty Rainforest does not have the land type “Forest.” For the same reason, a player who controls a Turntimber Grove can block a forestwalker despite that card clearly depicting a forest in its artwork.
Example: A player who controls a Breeding Pool cannot block a creature with forestwalk because Breeding Pool’s type line includes the type Forest.
If a block is legal when it is declared but becomes illegal later on, it stands. The game doesn’t back up to “fix” it.
Example: Amy attacks with a 2/2. Nicole blocks with a 3/3. Then Amy casts a spell that gives her creature flying. Amy’s creature is still blocked and will still take 3 damage from Nicole’s creature.
Lifelink is an ability that adds an extra effect to damage dealt by a creature. Damage dealt by a creature with lifelink also causes its controller to gain that much life. This happens at the same time the damage is dealt. This is a change from previous rules, so you may find players who have been out of the game for a while get confused about this point.
Example: Nicole’s 4/4 creature with lifelink blocks Amy’s 3/3 creature. The 4/4 deals 4 combat damage to the 3/3, so the Nicole gains 4 life.
Example: A player who has 4 life blocks a 4/4 with a 3/3 lifelink creature and allows another 4/4 to get through unblocked. All the combat damage is dealt at the same time, so the blocking player simultaneously loses 4 life and gains 3 life. She survives the attack and her new life total is 3.
Example: Amy uses the Blood half of Flesh // Blood to make her 2/2 lifelink creature deal damage equal to its power to her opponent. Amy will also gain 2 life.
Deathtouch is an ability that adds an extra effect to damage dealt by a creature. Any amount of damage that a creature with deathtouch deals to a creature is considered enough to destroy that creature.
Example: A 1/2 creature with deathtouch blocks a 4/5 creature. The 4/5 deals 4 damage to the 1/2 and takes 1 damage in return. The 1/2 dies because it has 4 damage marked on it (which is greater than 2). The 4/5 also dies because it was dealt damage by a source with deathtouch.
At least 1 damage has to be dealt. A creature with deathtouch that deals 0 damage does no damage, so nothing happens.
Example: A 3/4 creature with deathtouch is the target of a spell that gives it -3/-3. It blocks a 1/1 creature in combat. The 1/1 is dealt 0 damage by the creature with deathtouch, so it does not die.
First Strike/Double Strike
First strike is an ability that gives creatures an advantage in combat. Creatures with first strike deal their combat damage in their own combat damage step, before all the creatures without it. Then, all the other creatures get to deal their damage in a second combat step – if they survived. Double strike is a variant of this ability. Creatures with double strike deal combat damage at both times.
Example: A 2/2 first strike creature is blocked by a 2/2 creature. In the first combat damage step, the creature with first strike deals 2 damage to the creature blocking it. That creature dies before it gets a chance to deal its 2 damage back.
Example: A 4/4 creature is blocked by a 2/2 with first strike and a 2/2 without first strike. In the first combat damage step, the first strike creature deals 2 damage to the 4/4. In the second combat damage step, the 4/4 deals 2 damage to each of the creatures blocking it, and the 2/2 without first strike deals 2 damage to the 4/4. All three creatures die.
The game knows which creatures have assigned combat damage and which haven’t. Giving or removing first strike cannot be used to stop a creature from assigning its combat damage or let it assign extra damage.
Example: A player attacks with a 1/1 first strike creature. It is blocked by a 2/2. After damage is dealt in the first combat damage step, the 1/1’s controller activates an ability that removes first strike from her creature. The game knows that creature already dealt combat damage this turn, so it doesn’t get to do 1 more damage in the second combat damage step.
Example: A player blocks a 2/2 first strike creature with a 3/3 creature. After damage is dealt in the first combat damage step, the 2/2’s controller casts a spell that gives the 3/3 first strike. The game knows that the 3/3 hasn’t dealt combat damage yet, so it assigns its combat damage in the second combat step, even though it now has first strike.
Example: A player blocks a 3/3 creature with a 2/2 first strike creature. After damage is dealt in the first combat damage step, the 2/2’s controller casts a spell that gives her creature double strike. Because it now has double strike, the 2/2 deals combat damage in the second combat damage step also, even though it didn’t have double strike when the combat phase began.
Even though they’re similar, first strike and double strike are not the same.
Example: A player declares an attack with a double strike creature. In the declare blockers step, the defending player activates an ability that removes first strike from the creature. It still has double strike, so it still deals damage in both steps.
If no creatures have first strike or double strike as the first combat damage step begins, all creatures assign their damage in that step. The game doesn’t have a second combat damage step in this case.
Example: A player attacks with a 3/3. It is blocked by a 0/6. The attacking player casts a spell that gives her blocked creature double strike after combat damage is dealt. Nothing happens because the creature didn’t have double strike at the beginning of the first combat damage step. It won’t get to deal damage again.
Protection is shorthand for 4 abilities that “protect” the creature in various ways. Most commonly, protection will be from a color or set of colors, or even all colors. Less commonly, you may encounter something with protection from card types or subtypes or even something more exotic. One card even has protection from everything, and another has protection from things controlled by a player of your choice.
A creature with protection from [x]:
- Cannot be Damaged by [x] sources; all such damage that would be dealt to it is prevented.
- Cannot be Enchanted by [x] Auras or Equipped by [x] Equipment. There’s also a third type of card (fortification) that also falls under this category, but it’s not as impactful, since there’s only one fortification presently. If an Aura is enchanting something that has protection from it, the Aura will be put into its owner’s graveyard. If an Equipment is attached to something with protection from it, the Equipment will fall off, but remain on the battlefield. Equipment and Auras can have protection from the thing they’re attached to with no consequences, however.
- Cannot be Blocked by [x] creatures.
- Cannot be the Target of [x] spells or abilities.
These abilities are summarized by the mnemonic DEBT.
Example: A player has a blue Aura enchanting her creature. If that player casts a spell that gives that creature protection from blue, the Aura will be put into its owner’s graveyard.
Example: A player casts a Doom Blade targeting her opponent’s creature. If the opponent casts a spell that gives that creature protection from black in response, Doom Blade’s target will be illegal when it tries to resolve, so it will be countered.
Protection only protects from those specific things. Some things it does not stop:
- Non-targeted removal such as Day of Judgment, Massacre, Innocent Blood, and even Council’s Judgment can kill creatures with protection from them.
- Continuous effects such as Propaganda, Humility, and Glorious Anthem still apply to creatures with protection from them.
- Once it becomes blocked, giving a creature protection from the blocking creature won’t make it unblocked, although it will prevent the combat damage that the blocking creature will deal to it.
Creatures with indestructible are hard to kill. Destroy effects and lethal damage don’t destroy them.
Example: A 3/3 creature with lifelink blocks a 3/3 indestructible creature. The lifelink creature dies, but the indestructible one does not. The lifelink creature still dealt 3 damage, so its controller will gain 3 life.
Example: A 3/3 creature with indestructible blocks a 4/4 creature with deathtouch. Neither creature dies because lethal damage (even from a creature with deathtouch) cannot destroy an indestructible creature.
Example: A player casts a Naturalize on an indestructible artifact. The Naturalize resolves, but nothing happens.
Example: A 3/3 creature with indestructible is targeted by an Annihilating Fire. Dealing 3 damage to that creature wouldn’t cause it to die, so it remains on the battlefield and isn’t exiled. Note that if that creature would die later that turn for some other reason (for example, if it gets sacrificed), Annihilating Fire’s effect will still apply and exile it then.
While it protects creatures from a lot of things, indestructible permanents can still be dealt with.
- The “legend rule” still applies to indestructible permanents.
- Indestructible Auras are still subject to the rules that put them in the graveyard if they become unattached or are attached to an illegal object.
- Indestructible permanents can still be sacrificed, exiled, or countered.
- Indestructible creatures with toughness of 0 or less are still put into their owner’s graveyards.
Creatures that can regenerate are harder to kill. Regenerate kind of works like indestructible, but as a onetime effect. Usually, regeneration is worded as an activated ability – “cost: Regenerate [this permanent].” For example, Drudge Skeletons is worded this way. Activating this ability will put a regeneration shield on the permanent. The next time that permanent would be destroyed that turn, the shield is used instead. This causes the permanent to become tapped, removes all damage from it, and removes it from combat if it’s an attacking or blocking creature.
Example:Before attackers are declared, Nicole casts a Doom Blade on Amy’s Grizzly Bears. Amy responds by casting a Mending Touch to regenerate it. The bear survive the Doom Blade, but become tapped, so it can’t attack this turn.
Example: Amy plays a Lightning Bolt on Nicole’s Drudge Skeletons. In response, Nicole activates Drudge Skeletons’ activated ability to put a regeneration shield on it. Lightning Bolt resolves and deals 3 damage to Drudge Skeletons. The regeneration shield kicks in and keeps Drudge Skeletons from being destroyed. Instead it becomes tapped and all damage is removed from it. This second part is important because if the damage stayed on, it would just destroy the creature again.
Example: A 2/2 with first strike is blocked by a 2/2 with a regeneration shield on it. In the first combat damage step, the creature with first strike deals 2 damage to the creature blocking it. That creature would be destroyed, but is instead regenerated. The damage is removed from it and it becomes tapped. It is also removed from combat, so when the second combat damage step comes around, it will not deal 2 damage back to the creature that it blocked.
Despite its rather misleading name, regeneration does not bring creatures back from the graveyard. Rather, it prevents them from going there at all.
Example: Amy casts a Lightning Bolt on Nicole’s Thragtusk. Nicole regenerates her Thragtusk with Mending Touch. Thragtusk survives the bolt, but it stays on the battlefield. Neither of Thragtusk’s abilities trigger.
Regeneration will not apply in cases where the creature is not destroyed, for instance:
- being put into the graveyard as a result of the “legend rule,” “planeswalker rule,” or state-based action that puts unattached or illegally attached Auras into their owner’s graveyard.
- being sacrificed, exiled, or countered.
- dying as a result of having 0 or less toughness.
Example: Amy casts Swords to Plowshares targeting Nicole’s Drudge Skeletons. Nicole activates Drudge Skeletons’ ability in response. This isn’t a destroy effect, so a regeneration shield can’t stop it. Drudge Skeletons is exiled and Nicole gains 1 life.
Trample is a combat ability that allows creatures to get around “chump blocking.” A creature always assigns damage equal to its power in combat, but if that damage is more than the amount needed to destroy its blockers, the extra damage is wasted. Trample allows an attacking creature to assign lethal damage to its blockers and then assign any leftover damage to the defending player.
Example: A 4/4 with trample is blocked by a 2/2 and a 1/1. The attacking player may assign 2 damage to the 2/2, 1 damage to the 1/1, and 1 damage to the defending player.
Trample only lets a creature assign damage to the defending player, and only when that creature is attacking that player.
Example: A 4/4 with trample blocks a 2/2. Trample doesn’t do anything when blocking, so it will assign 4 damage to the 2/2.
Example: A 4/4 with trample attacks a planeswalker with 2 loyalty counters on it. That creature assigns 4 damage to the planeswalker. The extra damage does not trample over to that planeswalker’s controller (although if that player had blocked the creature with trample, damage could trample over from the blocking creature to the planeswalker).
“Lethal damage” for a creature takes into account damage already dealt to the creature, combat damage that’s being dealt at the same time, and abilities like deathtouch. Abilities like protection or indestructible that would prevent the damage or save the creature from dying are not taken into account.
Example: A 4/4 creature with deathtouch and trample is blocked by two 3/3 creatures. The 4/4’s controller may assign one damage to each of the blocking creatures and 2 damage to the defending player.
Example: A Foriysian Brigade is blocking a 3/3 and a 2/2 creature with trample. When the attacking player is assigning combat damage, the game knows that the 3/3 will also be dealing 3 damage to Foriysian Brigade, so the 2/2 can assign just 1 damage to it and have its other damage trample over to the defending player. Note that this would not work if the creature with trample also had first strike since the other creature’s combat damage will not be dealt until after the trample creature deals its damage.
Example: A 4/4 creature with double strike and trample is blocked by a 1/1 indestructible creature. In the first combat damage step, the 4/4’s controller assigns 1 damage to its blocker and 3 damage to the defending player. In the second damage step, she can assign all 4 damage to the defending player because the 1/1 already has lethal damage marked on it.
Example: A 4/4 creature with double strike and trample is blocked by a 1/1 creature with protection from the 4/4 creature. In the first combat damage step, the 4/4’s controller assigns 1 damage to its blocker and 3 damage to the defending player. This 1 damage is prevented, so in the second damage step, she again assigns 1 damage to the blocker and 3 damage to the defending player.
A creature with trample can “overkill” creatures by assigning more than lethal damage to them.
Example: Nicole controls Phyrexian Negator and 8 other permanents. She blocks Amy’s Darksteel Colossus with her Negator. Amy chooses to assign 8 damage to Phyrexian Negator and 3 damage to Nicole. Lethal damage destroys Phyrexian Negator. Then Nicole sacrifices 8 permanents.
Two creatures that “fight” each deal damage equal to their power to the other one.
While this is similar to what happens in combat, it is not combat damage. Neither creature is considered an “attacking” or “blocking” creature. Abilities that care about “combat damage” will not work, but abilities that reference “damage” will.
Example: A 3/3 creature with lifelink fights a 2/2 creature. The 3/3 will deal 3 damage to the 2/2, which causes its controller to gain 3 life. The 2/2 deals 2 damage to the 3/3. The 2/2 will die because it has taken lethal damage. The 3/3 will live, but the 2 damage that it took will last until the end of the turn. If it takes 1 more damage before then, it will die.
Example: A 3/3 creature fights a 2/2 creature with deathtouch. The 3/3 creature will deal 3 damage to the 2/2 creature and the 2/2 creature will deal 2 damage to the 3/3 creature. The 2/2 is destroyed because it was dealt lethal damage. The 3/3 is also destroyed because it was dealt damage by a creature with deathtouch.
Example: A 2/2 creature with first strike fights a 2/1 creature. Each one does 2 damage to the other. The damage is dealt at the same time, so both creatures die.
Example: A 4/4 creature with trample fights a 2/2 creature. The 4/4 assigns all 4 damage to the 2/2; its controller cannot have 2 damage trample over to the 2/2’s controller.
Example: Amy’s Flesh Reaver fights Nicole’s Flayed Nim. Flesh Reaver deals 4 damage to Amy because it dealt 4 damage to Flayed Nim. Amy does not lose 2 life from Flayed Nim’s ability because that ability only triggers on combat damage.