Triple A – All About Abilities

In a nutshell

  • There are four different types of abilities in Magic:
    • A spell ability is an ability on an instant or sorcery that is carried out as an instruction while the spell is resolving.
    • An activated ability can be recognized by the templating [cost]:[effect]. A player may activate an ability any time that player has priority.
    • A triggered ability uses the words “at”, “when”, or “whenever”. Players do not need to activate triggered abilities, they just happen. Anytime a player would get priority, the game checks to see if any triggered abilities have triggered and puts them on the stack automatically.
    • Any ability on a permanent that functions on the battlefield and isn’t an activated or triggered ability is a static ability. These don’t have a characteristic template or wording. They’re just written as statements that are always “on”.
  • These abilities can generate different types of effects:
    • A one-shot effect applies only once.
    • A continuous effect applies for a duration.
  • An activated ability that includes a loyalty symbol is a loyalty ability. Under normal circumstances, only Planeswalkers have loyalty abilities.
  • Some activated and triggered abilities are mana abilities. These will be the subject of a future presentation.
  • The process of activating an activated ability is more or less the same as the process for casting a spell.
  • The process of putting a triggered ability onto the stack is more or less the same as the process for casting a spell except that they are just put onto the stack; there is no cost to pay.
  • Certain triggered abilities are worded “[at/when/whenever][trigger condition], you may pay [cost]. If you do, [effect]”. This cost is part of the triggered ability’s effect, so it’s paid on resolution. The triggered ability will go on the stack even if the controller doesn’t want to pay the cost.
  • Similarly, optional triggered abilities (such as “may” or “unless” triggers) are always put on the stack. The choice of whether to perform the action is made on resolution.
  • If multiple triggered abilities have triggered since the last time they were checked for, the triggered abilities are put onto the stack in active player, nonactive player (APNAP) order. This means that the active player puts her triggered abilities on the stack first, then the nonactive player puts her triggered abilities on the stack on top of them.
  • If a player controls multiple triggered abilities that all need to go on the stack, that player chooses the order that they are put onto the stack.
  • A triggered ability worded “When/Whenever/At [trigger event], if [condition], [effect]” has an intervening if clause. Such an ability is put on the stack only if its trigger event happens while the trigger event is true. Otherwise it is ignored. The if clause is checked again as the ability resolves, and the ability will do nothing if it is false.

Identify the following abilities:

Q: Amy has a Wirewood Symbiote and wants to return a Llanowar Elf to her hand to untap it. Can Nicole respond by Lightning Bolting the Llanowar Elf?

A: Wirewood Symbiote’s ability is worded [cost]:[effect], making it an activated ability. Because the “return an elf” comes before the colon, it is a cost to activate this ability. No player receives priority to cast spells or activate abilities during the process of activating an ability, which is when such costs are paid.

Q: Amy controls a Thassa and an Pain Seer. Can she scry before she uses the Pain Seer trigger?

A: Yes. Triggered abilities aren’t put onto the stack right away when they trigger; they have to wait until a player would receive priority. That doesn’t happen in the untap step; the first time a player would get priority is during the upkeep, and by that time, Thassa will have triggered also. Because Amy controls both triggers, she chooses the order they are put onto the stack.

Q: Amy controls an Aerie Worshippers and a Ley Line. Can she put a creature token into play with the Worshippers then give it a +1/+1 counter with Ley Line?

A: No. Targets for triggered abilities are chosen when the ability is put onto the stack. Even though she can put both abilities on the stack in whatever order she likes, they are both put onto the stack before either one can resolve.

Q: Abyssal Gatekeeper and Doomed Traveler trade in combat. Can the Doomed Traveler’s controller sacrifice the token that Doomed Traveler gives?

A: It depends. Because both cards trigger at the same time, the abilities are put on the stack in APNAP order. If the active player controlled Abyssal Gatekeeper and the nonactive player controlled Doomed Traveler, the token-giving ability will resolve before the Abyssal Gatekeeper asks for a sacrifice, so this works. On the other hand, if the active player controlled Doomed Traveler and the nonactive player controlled Abyssal Gatekeeper, the gatekeeper would be on the stack above the traveler, which means that it would resolve first.

Q: Amy casts four Ornithopters. After that, she casts a Tendrils of Agony. Nicole controls a Counterbalance, and the top card of her library is a Jace, the Mind Sculptor. What happens?

A: Both the storm ability on Tendrils of Agony and the Counterbalance’s ability trigger when Tendrils is cast, so they’re put on the stack in APNAP order. That is, Amy, as the active player, puts her ability on the stack first, then Nicole, the non-active player, puts her ability on the stack on top of it. Nicole’s ability thus resolves first and counters Tendrils of Agony. The storm ability then resolves. This ability exists independently of its source and will still resolve even though Tendrils of Agony is no longer on the stack (it will use Tendrils’s last known information to create the copies). These copies are put onto the stack, not cast, so Counterbalance doesn’t trigger for them.

Q: Amy’s Carrion Thrash dies while there are no other creatures in her graveyard. Can she still pay 2?

A: No. There are no legal targets for the ability, so it is removed from the stack right after it goes on. The choice to pay 2 happens as part of the resolution of the ability, so Amy never gets a chance to pay it.

Q: The only creature on the battlefield is your Phantasmal Image which is a copy of Intimidator Initiate. What happens if you cast Dragon Fodder?

A: After you finish casting Dragon Fodder, it goes on the stack. Casting a red spell fulfills the trigger condition for the Intimidator Initiate ability, so it’s put on the stack. The target of that ability is chosen at this time, and the only possible choice is the Phantasmal Image. Becoming a target of that ability will cause its other triggered ability to trigger, which will make it be sacrificed. The initiate ability will then try to resolve, but all its targets will be illegal, so it will be countered. You will not have the opportunity to pay 1. After all of this, Dragon Fodder will resolve.

Q: Amy controls Felidar Sovereign and is at 39 life. She is tapped out, and it is currently Nicole’s turn. Can Amy cast a Healing Salve during her upkeep in response to the sovereign’s trigger to win the game on her next turn?

A: No. The templating “When/Whenever/At [trigger event], if [condition], [effect]” in Feladir Sovereign’s ability indicates that it has an intervening if clause. Such an ability is only put on the stack if the trigger event happens while the condition is true, otherwise it is ignored. Since the trigger event is the beginning of the upkeep step, Amy must have 40 life before her upkeep starts.

Q: Nicole has a Hexplate Golem and a Disciple of the Vault. Amy casts an Austere Command to destroy all artifacts and all creatures with CMC 3 or less. Will Nicole get a trigger?

A: Yes. The spell’s instructions are performed in order. Hexplate Golem is destroyed first, which will make the Disciple trigger, then Disciple will be destroyed. After Austere Command resolves, the Disciple trigger will be put onto the stack.

Note: If Amy had chosen the “destroy all creatures with CMC 4 or greater” mode rather than the “destroy all artifacts” mode, the Disciple would be destroyed before the Hexplate Golem, so it would not be around to see Hexplate Golem put into a graveyard, and would not trigger.

Q: Nicole has a Hexplate Golem and a Disciple of the Vault. Amy casts Day of Judgment. Will Nicole get a trigger?

A: Day destroys both creatures at the same time. This means that Disciple of the Vault “sees” Hexplate Golem going to the graveyard with it, so its ability triggers.