All about triggered abilities

Note: This article deals with advanced rules concepts related to triggered abilities. For an introduction to triggered abilities (and other types of abilities), see here. For the policy on missed triggered abilities, see here.

We talked about triggered abilities before in the All About Abilities article, but we only scratched the surface. This article reviews the finer points of triggered abilities, and how they interact with other parts of the game, like continuous effects, replacement effects, and state-based actions.

In a nutshell:

  • Anytime something happens in the game, the game checks to see if any triggered abilities exist that match what happened. Those abilities trigger at that point, but don’t go on the stack yet.
  • Anytime someone would get priority, the game first performs any applicable state-based actions. After that, the game checks to see if there are any triggered abilities waiting to go on the stack. They are put on the stack in the order described below:
    • If a player controls multiple triggered abilities that are all waiting to go on the stack, that player puts them on the stack in whatever order she chooses.
    • If multiple triggered abilities are waiting to go on the stack, the active player puts all her triggers on the stack first, then the nonactive player puts all her triggered abilities on the stack on top of them. The nonactive player’s triggers will all resolve before any of the active player’s triggers will resolve.
  • Certain trigger conditions are a little tricky. Sometimes it’s not immediately obvious whether an event will cause them to trigger once or more than once.
    • The trigger condition “Whenever [a player] gains life…” means “Whenever a source causes [that player] to gain life.”
    • The word “becomes” generally refers to a transition between two states. Read the trigger condition carefully to determine whether a particular event will match that transition once or more times.
  • State triggers are triggered abilities that trigger on a particular game state being true, not on something happening in the game. Examples: Emperor Crocodile, Darksteel Reactor (last ability). If a state trigger is on the stack, it will not trigger again until that trigger leaves the stack (it resolves, is countered, or some effect otherwise removes it). Without this rule, the game would probably be a draw any time one of these abilities triggered because it would just keep triggering over and over.
  • Triggers worded “When/Whenever/At [trigger event], if [condition], [effect]” have an intervening if clause. Such triggers will only be put on the stack if the if clause is true when the ability triggers. The if clause is checked again when it starts to resolve, and the ability is removed from the stack without effect if the clause is not true at this time.
  • Usually the game checks to see if any triggered abilities should trigger based on the game state immediately after an event happens. Some triggered abilities, like ones that key off a permanent leaving the battlefield, can’t work this way, so for these abilities, the game checks immediately after the event to see if they should trigger. Abilities that work this way:
    • Leaves-the-battlefield abilities (except ones that use the phrase “from anywhere”)
    • Abilities that trigger when a card leaves a graveyard
    • Abilities that trigger when a permanent phases out
    • Abilities that trigger when an object that all players can see is put into a hand or library
    • Abilities that trigger specifically when an object becomes unattached
    • Abilities that trigger when a player loses control of an object
    • Abilities that trigger when a player planeswalks away from a plane

Q: Amy attacks with her Willbreaker that has Throwing Knife attached to it. Her opponent controls a Grizzly Bears. Can Amy steal Grizzly Bears without killing it?

A: Yes. Attacking with Willbreaker causes Throwing Knife to trigger. As part of putting it on the stack, Amy chooses its target, in this case Grizzly Bears. Grizzly Bears becoming a target causes the Willbreaker to trigger, and that goes on the stack above the Throwing Knife ability. When it resolves, Willbreaker’s ability assigns control of Grizzly Bears to Amy. After this, Throwing Knife’s ability resolves. Since it’s not one of the choices specifically called out as being made during the casting of a spell (or in this case, putting an ability on the stack), the choice of whether to sacrifice Throwing Knife is made on resolution. Of course, by this time, there’s no reason to sacrifice it because at that point Amy is the one who controls Grizzly Bears.

Q: Amy casts Eternal Witness while Nicole controls Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. Can she use Eternal Witness’ ability to return itself to her hand?

A: Yes. After Eternal Witness resolves, it enters the battlefield. Its triggered ability triggers at this point, but is not put onto the stack yet. First, the game performs state-based actions. Because the Witness has less than 1 toughness, it’s put into Amy’s graveyard. Then, triggered abilities that have triggered since the last time a player received priority, including the one from Eternal Witness, are put on the stack. As part of putting it on the stack, Amy picks a target for it. Eternal Witness is in her graveyard by this time, so it’s a valid choice.

Q: Amy attacks with two Archangel of Thune, which both go through unblocked. How many counters does her team get?

A: Four. A trigger condition worded “whenever you gain life” means “whenever a source causes you to gain life.” Although both Angels deal their damage at the same time, each one is a separate source. Therefore, each will trigger twice, for a total of four counters.

Q: Amy attacks with Ichorclaw Myr. Nicole blocks it with a 2/3 and a 1/1. What happens?

A: Ichorclaw Myr may have been blocked by two creatures, but it only “became blocked” once. This trigger condition refers to the event of “this creature becomes a blocked creature,” which doesn’t happen twice. Ichorclaw Myr’s ability triggers once, resolves, and makes Ichorclaw Myr a 3/3.

Note: The triggered ability doesn’t go onto the stack until after the turn-based action of declaring blockers is completed. This includes Amy announcing the damage assignment order for Ichorclaw Myr. This could be significant if, for instance, Nicole has a way to counter the Ichorclaw Myr’s trigger, as knowing her myr will only be a 1/1 may change what order Amy wants to order her blockers.

Q: Amy attacks with Cave Tiger. Nicole blocks it with a 2/3 and a 1/1. What happens?

A: Cave Tiger’s ability reads “Whenever Cave Tiger becomes blocked by a creature…” If Nicole blocks this way, Cave Tiger will become blocked by two creatures, so it will trigger for each one. It only “became blocked” (i.e. transitioned from being an unblocked creature to being a blocked creature) once, but it “became blocked by a creature” (i.e. had a creature block it) two times.

Note: If this way of thinking about it confuses you, consider the ability on a card like Elven Warhounds or Kolaghan Aspirant. These “becomes blocked by a creature” abilities wouldn’t make sense if they only triggered once in a case like this. Which blocking creature would be affected? They only work properly if they trigger once for each creature that blocks.

Q: Amy activates Vampire Hexmage targeting her Dark Depths. After that resolves, Dark Depths triggers and the ability goes on the stack. Nicole Stifles that ability. What happens?

A: Stifle is able to counter this trigger just fine. Unfortunately for Nicole, Dark Depths has a state trigger (not to be confused with state-based actions). After the trigger is countered and removed from the stack, the game sees that its trigger condition is still true and it triggers again.

Note: State triggers trigger on a game state, but game states generally don’t change all that much, say, between when a trigger goes on the stack and when it resolves. This is why state triggers need their own rule. Otherwise, Dark Depths would just keep triggering and triggering and triggering until the players just gave up. None of them would ever get to resolve because new triggers would just keep getting added to the stack in response.

Note: This is, of course, an unrealistic question, since the Stifle would have been much better used on the Vampire Hexmage’s ability.

Q: Amy casts Glory Seeker while her opponent controls Stronghold Taskmaster and Darkest Hour. Amy has a Sword of the Meek in her graveyard. Does it trigger?

A: Yes. Continuous effects don’t wait to apply. They happen immediately when they are applicable. There is no time when Glory Seeker is on the battlefield that Darkest Hour isn’t making it black. There is no time when it is black that Stronghold Taskmaster isn’t giving it -1/-1. Accordingly, the game sees it enter the battlefield as a 1/1 creature. After that event happens, the game will check to see if that matches any trigger conditions, and it does.

Q: Amy Clones her Alpha Myr. Does her Leonin Elder trigger?

A: Yes. Clone has a replacement effect that applies even before it enters the battlefield; it enters the battlefield after Amy has chosen a creature. As before, Clone’s continuous effect applies immediately as Clone enters. There is no time when Clone is on the battlefield and it isn’t a copy of the Alpha Myr. Therefore, the game sees an artifact has entered the battlefield, which causes Leonin Elder to trigger.

Q: Amy’s Clone of Alpha Myr dies. Does her Disciple of the Vault trigger?

A: Yes. The continuous effect making Clone a copy of the chosen creature ends as soon as Clone leaves the battlefield. This means that in Amy’s graveyard, Clone is just a simple non-artifact creature. Disciple of the Vault, however, has a leaves-the-battlefield triggered ability, which means that the game looks back in time to determine if it should trigger; any information it needs is gathered from the game state immediately before the event. At this time, Clone was still an artifact, so Disciple of the Vault triggers.

Note: If Disciple of the Vault’s ability were worded “Whenever an artifact is put into a graveyard from anywhere…” the answer would be different. The words “from anywhere” exempt an ability from being treated as a leaves-the-battlefield triggered ability. Thus, it would trigger, as usual, based on the game state immediately after the event, at which time Clone is no longer an artifact.

Q: What’s the point of leaves-the-battlefield abilities? Why do we need different rules for them?

A: Abilities in Magic generally only work on the battlefield. If my Warmth is in the graveyard, I shouldn’t be gaining life every time you cast a red spell. That wouldn’t make any sense. The rule of “check the game state after every event to see if it matches any trigger conditions” works great a lot of the time in this context. For example, after an Arashin Cleric resolves, it’s on the battlefield. When the game checks to see if what just happened matches any trigger conditions, a permanent is on the battlefield with the ability “when this enters the battlefield…” which matches what happened. Great!

Where this doesn’t work so great is with triggered abilities like Anodet Lurker. If I kill it, then after that event, the game would check to see if any triggered abilities should trigger. There’s no longer a permanent with the ability “when this dies…” on the battlefield, so that ability could never actually work. Couldn’t we just change the rules so abilities like that would work in the graveyard? We could. There are certainly examples of cards like Genesis that have triggered abilities that work from the graveyard. The problem is that there are a lot of other things that can happen. We need to account for all the possibilities. What if I exile my Soul Scourge? Or even worse, move it to a hidden zone with something like Unsummon or Condemn. For “checking the game state after every event” to still work, we would need such abilities to work from any zone, even a zone where the game doesn’t have access to the card’s identity. That would be a real headache.

The cleaner solution is to have these abilities only function on the battlefield, but for the game to recognize that they need to be treated specially and look back in time to check the game state before the event happened. And that’s exactly how it works.

Q: Nicole’s Grizzly Bears is equipped with her Grafted Wargear. Amy Threatens the Bear and attacks with it. In her second main phase, she casts Boomerang on Grafted Wargear. What happens?

A: Abilities that trigger when something becomes unattached fall under the category of triggered abilities for which the game “looks back in time” and checks their existance before the event happened. Therefore, this event causes Grafted Wargear to trigger. Because Nicole controls Grafted Wargear, she controls the ability, and when it resolves, she will be instructed to sacrifice Grizzly Bears. At this point, however, she does not control Grizzly Bears; Amy does. Nicole will be unable to sacrifice the Bear, and it will return to her when Threaten’s control-changing effect wears off in Amy’s cleanup step.

Note: If Amy Boomeranged Grizzly Bears, that would also cause Grafted Wargear to trigger. Of course, in this case, the sacrifice would also be impossible, this time because Grizzly Bears is no longer on the battlefield when Nicole would sacrifice it.

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. Because Disciple has a “leaves the battlefield” ability, it triggers based on its existence immediately before the event, not after. The game will see that an artifact has been put into a graveyard, and that immediately before that, a trigger with that trigger condition existed, so the Disciple will trigger.

Q: Amy has Bridge from Below in her graveyard when her Grizzly Bears trades in combat with Nicole’s Forest Bear. What happens?

A: Both of Bridge from Below’s triggered abilities have trigger conditions that match this event. Amy controls both these triggers since their source is in her graveyard. Therefore, Amy can decide what order they are put onto the stack. Suppose she puts the Zombie-making ability on the stack first and the bridge-exiling ability on top of it. Bridge is exiled, which means that the intervening if clause in its Zombie-making ability will see that bridge is no longer in the graveyard when that ability tries to resolve. Because it failed the intervening if check, that ability is removed from the stack without doing anything.

A better play would be to order the abilities the other way. In that case, the token would be created by the first ability while the bridge-exiling ability was still on the stack. After Amy gets her Zombie, the bridge will be exiled.

Q: Amy activates Eldrazi Displacer targeting her Thought-Knot Seer. What happens?

A: During the process of resolving this ability, Thought-Knot Seer is exiled, which causes its “leaves the battlefield” ability to trigger, then is returned, causing its “enters the battlefield” ability to trigger. These triggered abilities will be put onto the stack the next time a player would get priority, which is after Eldrazi Displacer’s ability finishes resolving. Because they both triggered since the last time triggered abilities were put onto the stack, the game wants to put them on the stack at the same time. Of course, that’s not how the stack works; we need an order. Because Amy controls both triggers, she chooses which is put onto the stack first.

Note: Since either order is legal, the contents of the opponent’s hand are different depending on which order is chosen. Savvy players will put the leaves-the-battlefield ability on the stack last. This “backwards” ordering ensures that the player can see and if necessary exile the card drawn from that ability.

Q: Amy controls Shadows of the Past when she reaves the soul of Nicole’s Runed Servitor. Does Amy scry first or draw first?

A: Both Shadows of the Past and Runed Servitor trigger when it dies. These triggers are put onto the stack in APNAP order. That is, Amy, the active player (the player whose turn it is), puts all her triggered abilities on the stack first, then Nicole puts hers on the stack on top of them. Therefore, the trigger from Nicole’s Runed Servitor will resolve before the trigger from Amy’s Shadows of the Past. Amy draws first, then scries.

Note: If Amy killed Runed Servitor during Nicole’s turn, she would get to scry before drawing.

Note: If Amy controlled both Runed Servitor and Shadows of the Past, it wouldn’t matter when Runed Servitor died. In this case, Amy would control both triggers, so she would get to pick the order they went onto the stack.

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 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: Amy controls Abzan Beastmaster while Nicole controls Grizzly Bears. Amy wants to cast Giant Growth on her Beastmaster in response to its triggered ability to draw a card. Does this work?

A: Yes. The Beastmaster’s ability triggers and goes on the stack every turn regardless of who controls the creature with the greatest toughness. It does not have an intervening if clause because the “if” appears after the effect, not between the trigger condition and the effect. It’s subtle, but this is another case where the exact wording makes all the difference.

Q: Amy casts Living Death while her graveyard contains three Grizzly Bears and an Orc Sureshot. Nicole’s graveyard contains Skulking Fugitive and Silumgar Butcher. What happens?

A: Living Death puts all those creatures onto the battlefield as part of its resolution. After that event, the game checks to see if any triggered abilities exist that match what happened. Orc Sureshot triggers three times and Silumgar Butcher’s exploit ability triggers once. These are not put onto the stack immediately, though. First Living Death finishes resolving and is put into Amy’s graveyard. Then, the game will try to give Amy priority. At this point, those triggered abilities go onto the stack. Amy puts all her triggers on first. Suppose she targets Skulking Fugitive with all three. This causes Skulking Fugitive’s ability to trigger three times. Nicole now puts Silumgar Butcher’s trigger on the stack. She does not put the Skulking Fugitive’s triggers on yet because it had not triggered at the beginning of this process. The game again wants to give Amy priority here, but there are more triggered abilities waiting to be put on the stack. Nicole puts three instances of Skulking Fugitive’s “sacrifice me” trigger on the stack. Now everything can resolve.

First, Skulking Fugitive is sacrificed. The other two instances of that ability don’t do anything when they resolve. Nicole then gets a chance to sacrifice a creature for Silumgar Butcher’s exploit. Since Skulking Fugitive is gone, let’s say she sacrifices Silumgar Butcher. This generates another trigger that goes on the stack above the three Orc Sureshot triggers. Whatever creature she targets with this ability will get -3/-3 until end of turn. If she targets Amy’s Orc Sureshot or any of her Grizzly Bears, it will die before the game moves on to the remaining triggers on the stack. Finally, the three Orc Sureshot triggers will all be countered because all their targets are now illegal.

Suppose that Amy targeted Silumgar Butcher with her Orc Sureshot triggers. In this case, the stack would end up being three Orc Sureshot triggers with Silumgar Butcher on top of all of them. Since it’s dying anyway, Nicole will probably choose to sacrifice Silumgar Butcher with the exploit ability. After this happens, the game wants to give proirity to Amy, but a creature was exploited with Silumgar Butcher. This is a leaves-the-battlefield ability (it triggers when a creature is sacrificed, i.e. leaves the battlefield, for the exploit ability), so it triggers based on the game state immediately before the event. Silumgar Butcher’s triggered ability is put on the stack above the Orc Sureshot’s. No matter which creature Nicole targets, the end result will be the same: That creature will die as a state-based action, then the Orc Sureshot’s triggers will all be countered when they try to resolve because their target is no longer on the battlefield.

Note: That question was rather complex, and had a lot of things going on. If you managed to note all of them (without first peeking at the answer), this shows you have an excellent understanding of how priority, state-based actions, and triggered abilities interact.