Missed triggers

The policy covering missed triggers is among the most important ones to be familiar with because it comes up during every tournament. It’s rare for me to judge an entire day without at least one call on the topic. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most complicated, and it’s undergone several material changes over the years. A solid knowledge of this policy is therefore both very important and requires careful study, two ingredients that make it a great place to start your policy study for competitive REL.

In a nutshell:

  • A triggered ability can be recognized by its characteristic use of the words “at,” “when,” or “whenever.” If an ability doesn’t use one of those three words, it isn’t a triggered ability.
  • A triggered ability’s controller is the player who controlled its source when it triggered, or, in the case of a delayed triggered ability, the player who controlled the effect that set that trigger up.
  • The general guiding principle is that a triggered ability’s controller must demonstrate awareness of the trigger before the first time it would affect the visible game state. The IPG lists several specific examples:
    • A triggered ability that requires its controller to choose targets (other than ‘target opponent’), modes, or other choices made when the ability is put onto the stack: The controller must announce those choices before they next pass priority.
    • A triggered ability that causes a change in the visible game state (including life totals) or requires a choice upon resolution: The controller must take the appropriate physical action or make it clear what the action taken or choice made is before taking any game actions (such as casting a sorcery spell or explicitly moving to the next step or phase) that can be taken only after the triggered ability should have resolved. Note that casting an instant spell or activating an ability doesn’t mean a triggered ability has been forgotten, as it could still be on the stack.
    • A triggered ability that changes the rules of the game: The controller must acknowledge the trigger or prevent an opponent from taking any resulting illegal action.
    • A triggered ability that affects the game state in non-visible ways: The controller must take physical action or make it clear what the action is by the first time the change has an effect on the visible game state.
  • Unlike other types of mistakes, the player controlling the trigger is 100% responsible for it. If you see your opponent make any other type of mistake during a match, you are obligated to call attention to it; ignoring it for your advantage is Cheating. Triggered abilities are the exception. If your opponent misses one, it’s legal for you to say nothing and profit from their mistake. It’s not legal to intentionally ignore your own triggered abilities.
  • The default remedy for a Missed Trigger is for the controller’s opponent to decide whether it goes on the stack immediately or is simply missed. There are four exceptions to this default:
    • If the triggered ability specifies a default action associated with a choice made by the controller resolve it choosing the default option. Usually these are worded “If you don’t …” (Pact of Negation) or “… unless” (Energy Flux).
    • If the triggered ability is a delayed triggered ability that changes the zone of an object (AEtherling, Sneak Attack), resolve it.
    • For these two types of abilities, the opponent chooses whether to resolve the ability the next time a player would get priority or when a player would get priority at the start of the next phase. These abilities do not expire and should be remedied no matter how much time has passed since they should have triggered.
    • If the triggered ability creates an effect whose duration has already expired, and isn’t covered by one of the above, it’s simply missed.
    • Likewise, if the ability was missed prior to the current phase in the previous player’s turn and isn’t covered by one of the above, it also is skipped.

Q: Is Phyrexian Arena a detrimental trigger? What about Nyx Weaver‘s? How can you tell?

A: Some triggers do two things, one good and the other bad. Others do something that may be beneficial in some cases, but detrimental in others. In cases like these, it’s not always obvious whether a trigger should be “generally considered detrimental” or not, and therefore, whether it merits a Warning. Some useful guidelines include:

  • The vanilla test: Would you play the card if it didn’t have the triggered ability in question? Would you expect the card to cost more or less without the ability? Example: Phyrexian Arena would not be a playable card without the triggered ability. This trigger is generally not considered detrimental.
  • The ignore intent principle: When considering whether a triggered ability is generally considered detrimental or not, do not consider what the intentions of the game or deck designers were in making the ability or including a card in a deck. Only look at what it does to the game state and whether that gets you closer to winning or losing. Example: Nyx Weaver’s trigger is intended to stock your graveyard, for example to synergize with Pharika or Whip of Erebos. Seen in this light, the trigger may be considered beneficial. But what it actually does is get you closer to being milled out, so it’s generally considered detrimental.
  • The missed trigger guides. When all else fails, you can visit this page and look it up. Judges update this database of every triggered ability in the game every set, so you can just check here if you’re not sure.

Q: Amy casts Howling Mine, then passes. Nicole draws for her turn, but doesn’t draw an additional card for Howling Mine. She finishes her turn and passes. Amy also forgets to draw from Howling Mine. She plays a land, and then realizes the mistake and calls a judge. What do you do?

A: Amy has missed two Howling Mine triggers here. She is the one responsible for remembering both of them, because their source is a permanent she controls. Only one of these merits a Warning, however, because Nicole drawing a card is normally considered detrimental to Amy, but drawing a card herself isn’t. For the fix, Nicole’s card draw should have happened over a turn ago, so it is simply missed [IPG 2.1 A]. Amy’s card draw was caught within a turn, so Nicole will decide whether it is put on the stack now or skipped.

Note: Suppose Amy had not played a land before she noticed. In this case, unless the players had specifically said they were moving on, I would tend to rule that the players were still in Amy’s draw step. This means that Amy would get a draw with Howling Mine because it had not yet been missed. Drawing a card for the turn is a special game action that takes place before any “at the beginning of the draw step” triggers occur. On the other hand, in this case, the other trigger that was missed no longer would have taken place “prior to the current phase in the previous player’s turn”, so Nicole would then be given the choice of whether to put that trigger on the stack now or skip it.

Note: The different remedies for these two scenarios bring up a valid concern. If Amy notices the missed trigger while drawing for her turn, whether she plays a land or not essentially decides which remedy will be applied. It isn’t legal for her to intentionally miss her own triggered ability. As a corollary, it also isn’t legal for her to draw for turn, decide that both players missing the Howling Mine is better for her than both players getting the extra draw, play a land, and then call a judge. The judge taking this call should perform an investigation to determine when Amy first became aware of the missed trigger.

Q: Amy is at 1 life and she draws for the turn. At this point, her opponent points out that Amy has missed her Dark Confidant‘s upkeep trigger. How do you rule?

A: Amy’s opponent chooses whether Dark Confidant’s ability is added to the stack or simply missed. If this had not been caught within a turn, then it would be skipped entirely. There is no penalty for Amy since Dark Confidant’s ability is generally not considered detrimental. The fact that most players would consider it a detriment in this specific case is immaterial to the ruling, although if the judge suspects that Amy intentionally missed this trigger to save her life points, an investigation for UC-Cheating is in order.

Note: If the trigger is put onto the stack. Amy will lose life equal to the converted mana cost of the top card of her library, not the one she has already drawn for her turn. Because the ability is put onto the stack, both players will have a chance to respond to it (perhaps Amy has some sort of library manipulation she can use to increase her chances of hitting a 0 drop).

Note: In shady situations like this, a penalty can still be recorded in WER even if it isn’t given to the player. This can be useful in tracking suspicious behavior that, taken alone, could be purely accidental, but, when considered with other things the player has done, forms a pattern. You can enter this penalty by talking to the scorekeeper (at a time when he or she isn’t busy!) and explaining what happened. Be sure to add “FOR TRACKING ONLY” to the penalty description so it isn’t accidentally included in the count for an upgrade.

Q: Amy casts Craterhoof Behemoth, then attacks with it and a Nessian Courser. Nicole blocks the behemoth with a 6/6, and the courser with a 4/4. The players then have the following exchange:

Amy: Go to damage?

Nicole: Sure

Amy: OK, all your stuff dies.

Nicole: What?

Amy: Yeah, my craterhoof trigger makes my guys bigger than your guys.

Nicole: No way! You didn’t say anything when it triggered. You missed it.

At this point, the players call a judge. While you’re interviewing them about what happened, Nicole mentions that, had Amy declared her trigger at the proper time, she would have let the creatures go through unblocked and cast a Fog. How do you rule?

A: Amy’s trigger is not considered missed until the first time it would affect the visible game state. In this case, that is when damage is assigned, and that’s when Amy pointed it out. Therefore, the trigger is not considered missed. Amy’s creatures have the appropriate p/t buff and have trample.

Note: Nicole may ask if she can cast Fog now to save her creatures. Unfortunately, she cannot. Since they have gone to the combat damage step, neither player will receive priority to cast spells until after combat damage has been assigned and dealt.

Note: Nicole’s position is a difficult one. Her blocking decision was affected by whether the trigger was remembered, but she didn’t want to remind Amy of it. This situation is covered in the Philosophy section of the Missed Trigger policy in the IPG: “If an opponent requires information about the precise timing of a triggered ability or needs details about a game object that may be affected by a resolved triggered ability, that player may need to acknowledge that ability’s existence before its controller does.” This doesn’t mean that Nicole needs to be obvious when she asks about it. For example, since the trigger grants trample also, she could have asked, “Do any of them have trample?”. A “No” answer would mean the trigger was missed.

Note: In the example conversation above, Amy hasn’t assigned any damage to Nicole, even though, because her creatures have trample, she could have legally assigned 2 damage to her. It is legal to assign more than lethal damage to a creature blocking a trampler, and there is no tournament shortcut that establishes a default assumed action in this case. Unless Amy says that Nicole takes damage before moving on, she will miss out. Note that Out-of-Order Sequencing may apply if, for example, Amy assigns the damage to Nicole after killing her creatures but before moving on.

Q: Amy casts Dragon Mantle on her creature. Nicole declares “It resolves.” Then, Amy casts Lightning Strike on one of Nicole’s creatures. After Nicole puts her creature into the graveyard, Amy says, “Oh yeah, I get to draw a card”, and draws a card from her library before Nicole can react. Nicole calls a judge and explains what happened. What do you do?

A: At first blush, this may look like Amy missed her trigger, then committed Drawing Extra Cards, but because Lightning Strike is an instant, it is legal to cast it in response to Dragon Mantle’s triggered ability. The IPG gives players the maximum benefit of the doubt when it comes to determining when a triggered ability is missed. They are “assumed to be remembered until otherwise indicated.” For this reason, Amy has indeed demonstrated awareness of her trigger before the first time it would visibly affect the game state. The line of play described above is assumed, and Amy gets her draw with no infraction.

Q: Amy exiles her Obzedat at end of turn, but forgets to return it next upkeep. Three turns later, her opponent attacks her with two 3/3’s, and Amy realizes that she forgot to return Obzedat. What happens?

A: Obzedat’s “return to the battlefield” trigger is a delayed trigger associated with a zone change. This means that it does not expire, and will be put onto the stack even though several turns have passed since it should have triggered. Amy’s opponent doesn’t choose whether the ability will be put onto the stack, but she does choose when – either immediately, or at the beginning of the next phase. This option exists just for cases like this. Amy’s opponent won’t get blown out mid-combat if she waits until the next phase to bring Obzedat back.

Note: It’s possible that her opponent’s attack reminded Amy that she used to have a creature in play that she could have blocked with. On the other hand, it’s also possible that Amy didn’t know that her opponent could postpone the trigger until the next phase and thought she could eat an attacker by bringing it up mid-combat. If the latter is the case, Amy has committed Cheating. For this reason, the judge who takes this call should investigate for awareness and intent.

Q: Amy attacks Nicole with a Blind Creeper. Nicole blocks with a Grizzly Bears. After the bear dies, Amy casts a Village Bell-Ringer in her second main phase and untaps Blind Creeper. She then passes the turn. Nicole draws for her turn, then attacks with a Forest Bear. Amy blocks with Blind Creeper. Nicole asks, “Hey, shouldn’t that have died last turn?”. At this point, Amy realizes what happened and calls for a judge. What do you do?

A: Amy has not demonstrated awareness of Blind Creeper’s triggered ability before the first time it would visibly affect the game. In this case, that would be after she casts Village Bell-Ringer, at which point Blind Creeper should have been destroyed for having lethal damage on it. Because she has missed a triggered ability that is ordinarily considered detrimental to her, she gets a Warning for Missed Trigger. The standard additional remedy would be for Nicole to choose whether or not to put Blind Creeper’s ability on the stack now, however, Blind Creeper’s ability creates an effect whose duration has already expired, so it is simply missed.

Note: If Blind Creeper had not attacked, there would have been no visible change in game state from its trigger, and Amy would not have been penalized at all for missing it. Since players are not required to demonstrate awareness of triggers that have no impact on the game, there’s no way to show that she actually missed it.

Q: Amy controls Deathrite Shaman, while Nicole controls The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale and a Marit Lage token from Dark Depths. Amy untaps her permanents, then draws for her turn, then passes. Nicole then untaps, draws, and attacks with Marit Lage. At this point, the players realize that Amy didn’t pay for her Deathrite Shaman and call a judge. What do you do?

A: The Tabernacle gives Deathrite Shaman a triggered ability that should have occured during Amy’s upkeep. Even though Nicole’s tabernacle is the reason this ability exists, Amy is responsible for remembering it, since its source is a permanent she controls. Because this triggered ability is generally considered detrimental for Amy, she gets a Warning for Missed Trigger for forgetting it. Although the error occured more than a turn ago, it is not skipped because it specifies a default action associated with a choice made by its controller. Instead, it’s resolved by choosing the default action. Nicole will choose whether this happens the next time a player would get priority or when a player would get priority at the start of the next phase (in this case, Nicole’s postcombat main phase).

Note: Amy will probably be very salty about this, and will likely suggest that Nicole should also get a Warning and have to lose her Marit Lage. Unfortunately for her, Marit Lage is indestructible, so the default action (“destroy that creature”) will do nothing to it. For this reason, Nicole also will not get a Warning for missing this trigger, since it’s not an infraction to miss a trigger that would have no effect on the game.

Note: The language in the IPG specifies that the trigger is “resolved” rather than put onto the stack in this case. This means that if Nicole chooses to resolve the ability the next time a player would get priority, Amy will not have a chance to activate Deathrite Shaman before it dies.

Note: This ruling depended critically on the exact text of the cards. If it were printed today, The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale would probably cause the creatures to be sacrificed (reference Magus of the Tabernacle). Also, it was important to know that the trigger originated from Deathrite Shaman, rather than tabernacle, which is not evident from the printed text. This underscores the importance of checking the Oracle text of cards involved in a ruling, especially with cards that were printed before modern templating.

Q: At an FNM where you are the head judge, Amy attacks with two Archangel of Thunes. Nicole lets the damage go through. Amy then puts one +1/+1 counter on each of her creatures. Nicole is well known for having an intimate knowledge of the rules and for being intensely competitive. You strongly suspect that Nicole knew that each of Amy’s creatures should have gotten four counters, but didn’t say anything to help her position. What do you do?

A: First, Nicole has committed no violations. Unlike other game errors, players are never required to point out their opponent’s triggered abilities. At Regular REL, the choice of whether to intervene in the case where a player has missed a triggered ability is left up to the head judge’s discretion. This choice should be influenced by the tone that the store owners want to set for their events. The more casual the environment, the more likely I would be to point something like this out.

Note: If the head judge chooses not to intervene, the choice of whether to point the missed triggers out to Amy after the match should be guided by the head judge’s knowledge of Amy’s personality. Some players always appreciate such advice, while others resent having their play errors pointed out to them.

Note: At higher REL’s, judges may not intervene unless they intend to issue a Warning or have reason to suspect a player has intentionally missed his or her own triggers. Issuing a Warning would not be appropriate here because putting +1/+1 counters on her creatures is usually not considered detrimental for Amy.

Q: You’re called over to the table and have the following conversation with the players:

You: How can I help?

Amy: My Grizzly Bears has first strike, and her Soldier token that she blocked with is indestructible. What will happen in combat?

You: Can you explain exactly what happened?

Amy: I attacked with these two Grizzly Bears and a Legion Loyalist, so my creatures have first strike. Nicole blocked with her Soldier token, then played Ajani’s Presence, so now her token is 2/2 indestructible. Will her token be able to kill my bear even though it has first strike?

You (to Nicole): Does that summarize everything that happened?

Nicole: Yeah, that’s right.

You: First, taking lethal damage doesn’t remove indestructible creatures from combat, so the token would stick around to deal damage back to the bear, but I have another question for you. Why does the bear have first strike?

Nicole: Because of Legion Loyalist’s ability.

You: Then how did it get blocked by a creature token?

Both: …Oh yeah…

What do you do?

A: If you’re like all the other judges I talked to, this is what you probably thought:

(1) Nicole has made an illegal block. She gets a Warning for a Game Rule Violation. Amy gets a Warning for Failure to Maintain Game State. The situation is simple enough that a backup should be considered. This would be accomplished by undoing the casting of Ajani’s Presence and undoing the illegal block.

This ruling has the potential to be correct, but consider the following lines from the definition of Missed Trigger in the IPG:

“The point by which the player needs to demonstrate this awareness depends on the impact that the trigger would have on the game.”

“A triggered ability that changes the rules of the game: The controller must prevent an opponent from taking any resulting illegal action.”

This suggests a second ruling:

(2) Amy, by allowing her opponent to make a block that would not be legal if the trigger resolved, has missed her trigger. No penalty is given because this trigger is normally not considered detrimental. Amy’s creatures do not have first strike or trample at this point because the trigger has been missed. Nicole is given the option of whether to allow Amy to put the trigger on the stack. Even if she allows it, Amy’s bear will still be blocked. In this scenario, the block was legal to make, so it will not be undone.

Which ruling is appropriate depends on the first time Amy acknowledged the trigger. If she did not indicate the battalion trigger until after allowing Nicole to block, ruling (2) is correct. If she attacked, mentioned the trigger, then Nicole blocked, ruling (1) is appropriate. Once a trigger is acknowledged, further problems are treated as a Game Rule Violation.

Q: Amy attacks with a Hill Giant that has a Sword of Fire and Ice equipped to it. After Nicole declares no blocks, Amy says “I’ll deal 2 damage to your Phantasmal Bear and draw a card.” Nicole replies, “Sounds good,” and puts her bear in her graveyard. Amy then draws a card. Amy passes, and Nicole untaps her permanents. At this point, Nicole asks “Wait. Should you get to draw a card for that?” and calls a judge. What do you do?

A: First, what should have happened is the following: Phanasmal Bear triggers when it is targeted by the Sword ability. It’s sacrificed before that ability resolves, so that Sword of Fire and Ice’s ability will have no legal targets remaining. Then, that ability will be countered by game rules.

Nicole put her bear into the graveyard without clearly indicating why she was doing so. It could have been because of its ability or because it was dealt lethal damage by the sword. We must go based on context to determine which makes more sense.

The IPG specifies that a player has missed a trigger if “the player controlling the ability doesn’t demonstrate awareness of the trigger’s existence the first time that it would affect the game in a visible fashion.” In this case, that time would be when Amy drew her card. Since Nicole did not do anything to acknowledge that her bear was sacrificed and that the card draw shouldn’t happen, I’m inclined to rule that the Phantasmal Bear’s trigger was missed. If this is the case, every part of Amy’s play is completely legitimate, so there is no penalty for her. Nicole on the other hand, has missed a trigger that is generally considered detrimental to her, so she gets a Warning.

Note: Even though in this case, the bear’s trigger may have actually been beneficial, this is an exception to the norm. We give warnings based on whether the triggers are “generally” considered detrimental. Otherwise, there is a risk of showing (or seeming to show) favoritism or missing some relevant detail in the game state.

Note: Suppose that everything else was the same, except that Amy had targeted Nicole’s Phantasmal Dragon. In this case, it does not make sense to say that Nicole has missed her trigger, because the dragon’s “sacrifice me” trigger is the only reasonable explanation for why Nicole would have put it in the graveyard. For this reason, the act of drawing the card for Sword of Fire and Ice was the first illegal action. It is not Drawing Extra Cards because Nicole confirmed the card draw when she answered “Sounds good” [IPG 2.3 D]. Thus, we give Amy a Game Rule Violation and Nicole a Failure to Maintain Game State. Both players get Warnings. In addition, this situation is simple enough that I would perform a backup. Nicole would undo the action of untapping her permanents, then a random card would be returned from Amy’s hand to the top of her library. The game would continue from the point immediately after the sword trigger was taken off the stack.