Let me Spell it out for you – How to cast a spell

In a nutshell

  • Casting a spell follows this basic process: Announce the spell and move it to the stack, make choices for the spell, determine the total cost, pay the cost. After this, the spell is considered cast.
  • Make choices for the spell includes the following (in order)
    • choose modes (choose one -)
    • reveal cards that are being spliced on
    • announce intention to pay alternative or additional costs
    • announce the value of X
    • announce the nonhybrid, nonPhyrexian equivalents of any such mana symbols in the cost
    • choose targets
    • divide or distribute (Usually damage or counters)
  • That may look like a lot to remember, but in practice, most spells only work sensibly when these steps are performed in the proper order. For example, Abzan Charm would not work if targets were chosen before modes, because it would not know what type or how many targets to ask for.
  • The same object cannot be selected more than once for each instance of the word “target”.
  • If a spell or ability instructs you to divide or distribute something, each target must receive at least one of whatever is being divided. You say which targets get how much as you cast it. If the spell itself does the dividing (with signal words like “divided evenly”), that will happen on resolution.
  • Some effects allow you to cast a spell with an alternate cost, such as Force of Will, Fist of Suns, or the cascade mechanic (“without paying its mana cost” counts as an alternate cost). These do not affect the converted mana cost. Only one alternate cost can be paid; multiple alternate costs cannot be combined.
  • Some effects require or allow an additional cost to be paid, such as Altar’s Reap, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, or the kicker mechanic. Paying additional costs does not increase a spell’s converted mana cost.
  • If a spell is cast using an alternate cost, the mana cost will not need to be paid, but this will not pay for any additional costs.
  • To determine the total cost of a spell, apply additional costs before cost reducers. Any effects that require a spell to cost a minimum amount of mana (to date, this includes only Trinisphere), are applied after both of these.
  • Cost reducing effects apply to the spell’s total cost, which is its mana cost plus any additional costs.
  • Once the total cost is determined, that cost is “locked in”, and will not later increase or decrease in response to anything that changes between that point and when the cost is paid.
  • Costs may be paid in any order, but mana abilities must be activated before starting to pay any costs.
  • If a target of a spell becomes illegal before the spell resolves, the spell doesn’t affect that target. If all of a spell’s targets become illegal before the spell resolves, the spell is countered and has no effect. This is sometimes colloquially referred to as the spell “fizzling”. Some reasons a target might become illegal include:
    • gaining hexproof, shroud, or protection (These will be covered in greater detail in the lesson about keyworded abilities.)
    • changing zones. If an object is not in the zone it was expected to be in, the spell can’t find it.
    • changing its characteristics so that it is no longer a legal target. For example, Human Frailty targets a human creature. If, in response to Human Frailty, something changes the target so that it is no longer a human or no longer a creature, Human Frailty’s target will be illegal, and it will be countered.

Q: Amy wants to cast a Fireball to take down Nicole’s Grizzly Bears and Phantasmal Bear. How would she go about doing this?

A: The first step is to announce Fireball and move it to the stack. There are no modes to choose; you can tell by the lack of “choose one -” or some variation thereof. The next step is to choose the value of X, then pick targets. The damage is not divided at this time because Fireball specifies how its damage is divided; there is no choice for the player to make. Because of this, Amy will only need to pay for X=2, since the Phantasmal Bear will be sacrificed by the time the damage is dealt.

After this, the total cost is determined. Fireball has text that increases its cost by 1 for each target beyond the first. Take this text, the value of X, and any other outside abilities that affect its cost into account to determine the total cost of the spell. In this case, [1 extra target] + [X=2] + R = 3R to cast Fireball. Then Amy may activate mana abilities to generate mana. Finally, the costs are paid, after which, the spell is officially considered cast.

Note: The text “Fireball costs 1 more to cast for each target beyond the first” is a good way to remember that targets are chosen before costs are determined. Otherwise, Fireball wouldn’t know how much extra it would cost.

Note: Suppose Amy had Rolling Thunder instead of Fireball. Rolling Thunder asks the caster to choose a division, so she needs X=3 damage: 2 for the Grizzly Bears, and 1 for the Phantasmal Bear, because each target must get at least 1 of whatever is being divided. The rest of the process would proceed exactly the same way. Rolling Thunder doesn’t cost extra for more targets, so it will cost [X=3] + RR = 3RR to cast.

Q: Can I target my heroic creature multiple times with this strive spell to get multiple triggers?

A: No. The same object cannot be selected more than once for each instance of the word “target”. None of the strive spells use that word more than once in their effects, so they can’t be used to target the same heroic creature multiple times.

Q: Can I use Cone of Flame to kill two 3/3’s by selecting one to take 3 damage and the other to take 1, then 2 damage?

A: No. While Cone of Flame does use the word “target” three times, which ordinarily means that such a play would be allowed, it uses the phrases “another target” and “a third target”, which indicate that the targets must all be different. For an example of a spell that can target the same creature multiple times, see Seeds of Strength.

Q: Amy’s hand is two Snapcaster Mages, and she has a Force of Will in her graveyard. Can she cast a Snapcaster Mage, use it to give Force of Will flashback, and then cast it by exiling her other Snapcaster and paying one life?

A: No. Casting a spell with flashback is an alternate cost. Force of Will’s “exile a blue card and pay one life” is also an alternate cost. When casting a spell, a player can only use one alternate cost; they cannot be combined.

Q: Can you use Snapcaster Mage to give Gitaxian Probe flashback, then cast it from your graveyard by paying 2 life?

A: Yes. The difference is that paying 2 life here is not an alternate cost. Rather, it is an alternative way to pay the cost represented by the {U/P} symbol in Gitaxian Probe’s mana cost. If this confuses you, imagine that instead of Gitaxian Probe, it was a Dream Salvage. Like Phyrexian mana symbols, hybrid mana symbols represent costs that can be paid in multiple ways. If you can flashback Dream Salvage with U or B, why shouldn’t you be able to flashback Probe with U or 2 life?

Q: If I cascade into a Fireball, how does that work?

A: Cascade instructs you to cast the spell “without paying its mana cost”. This means that you won’t have a chance to pay for X. When the game determines how much damage will be dealt, it will use 0 since there isn’t a real value for it to work with. You would still pick targets, and even have the opportunity to pay extra mana to pick additional targets, since alternate costs are separate from additional costs. That could come up, for instance, if a Horobi, Death’s Wail was in play.

Note: Since cascade is optional, you could also choose not to cast Fireball and put it on the bottom of your library with the other cards you revealed.

Note: If it were a Rolling Thunder, you would still have 0 damage to divide. This would mean that the only legal way to cast it would be to choose 0 targets, since that’s the only way each target could get at least 1 damage.

Q: Amy controls a Sphere of Resistance, an untapped Trinisphere, and four other artifacts. She wants to cast a Frogmite. What will the cost to play Frogmite be?

A: Cost increasing effects apply before cost reducing effects, and cost-setting effects (which, to date, includes only Trinisphere) are applied last. So Frogmite starts out costing 4, which Sphere of Resistance increases to 5, then Affinity tries to reduce this to -1, but cannot reduce the cost below 0. Finally Trinisphere checks the cost, sees it is less than 3, and sets it to that much.

Q: How much will it cost to bestow a Hopeful Eidolon onto a Thalia, Guardian of Thraben?

A: The choice to cast a spell with Bestow is made when the intention to pay alternate costs is declared, before the total cost to cast the spell is determined. The spell becomes an Aura spell and loses its creature typing as this choice is made. Therefore, by the time that the total cost for the spell is determined, it will be a noncreature spell and Thalia’s ability will apply to it.

Q: Amy’s only permanent is a Black Lotus. Can she cast a Frogmite?

A: Yes. Amy announces Frogmite and moves it to the stack. Then the total cost to cast Frogmite is determined. This cost is 3 because affinity reduces it by one. Then Amy can sacrifice Black Lotus for 3 mana. After this, she can use the mana to pay the cost. The cost does not change once it is determined, even though sacrificing Black Lotus changes how much mana Frogmite would cost.

Note: If Amy sacrificed Black Lotus before she announced Frogmite and moved it to the stack, she would not control any artifacts when the cost is determined. Consequently, affinity would not reduce the cost and Amy would not have enough mana to cast Frogmite.

Note: If that was the most value Amy could get out of her Black Lotus, she probably should have mulliganed.

Q: Amy’s only land is a Gemstone Mine with one mining counter on it. Can she cast Shard Volley?

A: No. She can pay the costs in any order, but she cannot activate mana abilities after she starts paying costs. If she taps for R before she starts paying costs, that will use up her mine and she will no longer have a land to sacrifice.

Q: Amy Magma Jets Nicole’s Grizzly Bears. In response, Nicole Cloudshifts it. What happens?

A: Cloudshift exiles the bear and returns it to the battlefield. Having changed zones, the game considers it an entirely new object – the bear that was targeted by Magma Jet doesn’t exist anymore. When Magma Jet tries to resolve, it will not be able to find the object that it targeted, so the target is now illegal. Because all of Magma Jet’s targets are now illegal, it is countered by the game rules. None of its effects will happen, so Amy won’t scry.