Casting Spells and Activating Abilities Part 3 of 3

Welcome back to Journey of Discovery!  This week, we wrap up the three-part series of casting spells and activating abilities.  Activated abilities are written as “[Cost]: [Effect.] [Activated Instructions (if any)].” An example of an activated instruction would be “Activate this ability any time you could cast a sorcery.”

Activating abilities and casting spells function in a very similar manner.  So much so that the rules actually tell us that the process is identical with the exception of the first step.  If you remember, when a spell is cast the first thing that is done is the spell is moved to the stack.  When we activate an ability, we simply announce which ability we are activating, reveal the card that is activating the ability if it is in a hidden zone, and then the ability is created on the stack.

An example of when we might have to reveal a card when activating it’s ability would be from abilities such as cycling.

The remainder of the process for activating an ability is identical to the process for casting a spell.  In fact, the CR document tells us to reference 601.2b – I for the additional steps.

Abilities Exist as an “Object” on the Stack

A spell has an easy representation on the stack, a physical Magic card.   Activated abilities exist on the stack as an “object,” but not a physical card.  So let’s say I were to activate Grim Lavamancer,  and then my  opponent were to cast Lightning Bolt in response, killing the Grim Lavamancer, Grim Lavamancer’s ability would still exist on the stack.

Some cards’ activated abilities cause them to be sacrificed as part of the cost.  Take fetchlands, for example.

Fetchlands’ activated abilities cause them to be sacrificed.  Once the ability has been activated and exists on the stack, it cannot be targeted by Wasteland’s activated ability.  Further, if its activated ability is countered by an effect like Stifle, the fetchland would already be in the graveyard.

Loyalty Abilities

Planeswalkers are simply permanents that are chockfull of activated abilities!  Each loyalty ability is an activated ability that has a cost (adding or removing loyalty), an effect (the printed text), and the rules of Planeswalkers determine the timing on when the abilities can be activated.

The rules of activated abilities are in play with Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Lightning Bolt.  Once Jace resolves, if the active player activates Jace’s +2 ability, their opponent cannot respond with Lightning Bolt to kill Jace.  The two loyalty counters are a cost to activate the ability and cannot be responded to.

Mana Abilities

One of the most common activated abilities in Magic is mana abilities.  Mana abilities are typically printed in the same way as other activated abilities [Cost]: [Effect.] [Activated Instructions (if any)] but have a slightly different set of attributes that define them:

  1. Mana abilities don’t have targets
  2. They could put mana into a player’s mana pool when they resolve
  3. They are not a loyalty ability


Since Deathrite Shaman’s first ability has a target; therefore, it is not a mana ability.  The difference between Deathrite Shaman and Llanowar Elves might seem minimal at first, but look at the steps in activating a spell or ability.  When we place a spell on the stack, or declare an activated ability, priority is not changed throughout that process.  Since Deathrite Shaman has a target, its activated ability can’t be a mana ability. Because it is not a mana ability, our opponent has a chance to respond. To use Deathrite Shaman’s activated ability to cast a spell, we would have to activate it, float mana, and then begin the process of casting our spell.

There are a few exceptions to the rules of activating mana abilities versus those of non-mana abilities:

Mana abilities can be activated while casting a spell or while activating an ability that requires a mana payment

We know that activating mana abilities is one of the steps to paying for a spell or activating an ability, so being able to activate mana abilities while casting a spell is very intuitive.

Mana abilities don’t use the stack and immediately resolve after being activated

If mana abilities used the stack, weird situations like this would happen:


BEGIN FICTITIOUS SCENARIO: Amy controls Hypnotic Specter and puts Altar’s Reap on the stack.  In response to her tapping a swamp, her opponent, Nate, casts Beacon of Destruction killing her Hypnotic Specter and causing Beacon of Destruction to be shuffled into Nate’s deck.  Since Alice can no longer complete casting her spell (because she can’t pay the additional cost, we would rewind the game to before Altar’s Reap was put on the stack.  Now we’d have to return Hypnotic Specter to the battlefield, return Beacon of Destruction from Nate’s Library to his hand and reshuffle the library again. END FICTITIOUS SCENARIO

That would be miserable, and a nightmare for managing how the game is played.  This is one example of why mana abilities do not use the stack.

Whenever a rule or effect asks for a mana payment, even if it is during the casting or resolution of a spell or ability.

Soft counterspells like Spell Pierce, Daze, and Mana Leak allow their target’s controller to pay mana to negate their effect.  This payment happens during the spells resolution, and a player does not receive priority during the resolution of a spell.

Once a player begins to activate a mana ability, that ability can’t be activated again until it has resolved.

Initiates of the Ebon Hand and Ashnod’s Altar leverage point number five (605.3b), which is a relatively recent addition to the CR.  This means I can’t put Initiates of the Ebon Hand’s ability on the stack, then activate the ability again, and then sacrifice Initiates of the Ebon Hand to Asnod’s Altar to create BB.

That’s a Wrap

Thank you for reading along over the past three weeks.  The steps to casting spells and activating abilities are fundamental knowledge and a key component on the L2 exam.  Hopefully this content has provided value on your Journey of Discovery!

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