Triggers in Competitive Events

Written by Brook Gardner-Durbin Level 2, United States

Written by Brook Gardner-Durbin Level 2, United States

Bitterblossom. Stoneforge Mystic. Kitchen Finks. Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle.

What do all of these multi-format all-stars have in common? Their power comes from triggered abilities.

What is a Triggered Ability?

A triggered ability is anything that happens because something else happened — it might be that you started a certain part of the turn, another permanent entered or left play, your opponent drew a card, or nearly anything else. Triggered abilities are usually worded as “When/whenever/at (time), (do a thing).”

Examples include: “When Restoration Angel enters the battlefield, (do some stuff).” “Whenever Primeval Titan enters the battlefield or attacks, (have a party).”  Or Dark Confidant’s text, “At the beginning of your upkeep, (enjoy your value).” All of these have one of the three magic words that almost always mean you’re looking at a trigger, “When”, “Whenever”, or “At”, and then have some sort of instructions to follow.

Types of Triggered Abilities

Triggered abilities come in two big categories: detrimental and non-detrimental. This tells us whether the card is being played even though it has the ability, or because of its ability.

Some great cards have won tournament after tournament despite having some triggered abilities that hurt the controller — Goblin Guide and Desecration Demon, to name a few, are both cards with detrimental triggered abilities. These are good cards even though they would be better cards with the abilities removed.

Stoneforge Mystic and Dark Confidant belong in the other camp, with non-detrimental abilities. It’s been quite a while since a 1/2 or 2/1 for 2 mana and with no abilities was good enough to see play in constructed, so we can tell these two are being played because of their abilities — removing the ability would make them worse cards, not better.

Deciding if a trigger is detrimental or non-detrimental will determine what happens when it is missed, discussed more below.

Intervening If Triggers

For most triggers, once it’s put on the stack, that’s the end of the story. It’s going to resolve at some point, and it doesn’t particularly matter what happens between it being triggered and it resolving. A Lightning Bolt hitting your Stoneforge Mystic won’t stop its ability from happening.

With some triggers, which we call “intervening if” triggers, it’s a little more complicated.

These triggers are worded slightly differently — usually as “When/Whenever/At (time), if (condition), (instructions to follow).” These triggers have to have their conditions met in order to go on the stack, and the condition still has to be true for the ability to resolve.

Valakut, trigger, magic

The most commonly played example is Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, which reads “Whenever a Mountain enters the battlefield under your control, if you control at least five other Mountains, you may have Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle deal 3 damage to target creature or player.”

Valakut’s ability will not be placed onto the stack unless the land entering play is a Mountain and you control five others, just as Dark Confidant’s ability won’t trigger unless it’s the beginning of your upkeep. Though one ability has a lot more words than the other, they both basically boil down to “When/Whenever/At (condition), (effect).”

The big wrinkle is that Valakut has that big “if” sitting in the middle of its text. This means that Valakut’s condition needs to be true when the ability is resolving, as well as when it is being placed on the stack. It doesn’t matter if the condition stops being true, becomes true again, back and forth fifty times before the ability is resolving — it just has to be true in order to go on the stack, and when it’s resolving. This is why Ghost Quarter is less effective than it would seem against the Valakut decks — destroying a mountain in response to the triggers might mean the triggers would fizzle … but the player can get to get another mountain from the Ghost Quarter’s ability. So long as there are basic mountains left in the deck, there’s no way for Ghost Quarter to stop a Valakut trigger.

Player Responsibilities

When it comes to triggers, what each player is responsible for in the game has changed several times over the years as policy was tweaked to give the best player experience. These days, a player is responsible for their own triggers, but not for reminding their opponent of the opponent’s triggers. If your opponent casts a Kitchen Finks and moves on with their turn without acknowledging the trigger, you have no responsibility to point it out to them — it can be missed, even though it doesn’t say the word “may”.

However, you are still responsible for managing your own triggers. If you control a trigger that does not say the word “may,” you may not deliberately skip it. You have to point out your Goblin Guide trigger when you attack if you remember it, or you are cheating. If you both remember your Dark Confidant trigger at the beginning of your upkeep and fail to follow its instructions, you are probably cheating and will be disqualified from the event.

Acknowledging Triggers

Depending on the exact wording of the trigger, it needs to be acknowledged at a different point in the game, or it can be missed. The Infraction Procedure Guide spells out four different times different triggers need to be acknowledged:

  • 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.

An example here is Weldfast Engineer — the ability needs to be acknowledged when the ability is put onto the stack because it has a target other than the opponent (in 1v1 games, “target opponent” triggers are assumed to be clear enough to not need specifying). If the player controlling the Engineer does not acknowledge the trigger before passing priority, it is considered missed.

  • 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 acknowledge the specific trigger before taking any game actions (such as casting a sorcery spell or explicitly taking an action in the next step or phase) that can be taken only after the triggered ability should have resolved. Note that passing priority, 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.

The second point covers cards like Elvish Visionary or Magmaroth. Their abilities resolving cause visible changes in the game — drawing a card or adding or removing a -1/-1 counter, respectively. These triggers need to be acknowledged before taking any actions that could only be taken after the ability should have resolved. A player controlling these abilities does not need to point out when they are put onto the stack, only to resolve the trigger before doing anything that shows they’ve moved past the trigger.

For example, suppose Alice cast an Elvish Visionary. If she then went to attack, she has missed her trigger because she’s doing something that could only be done after the trigger resolved. In another situation, she could cast the Elvish Visionary, say nothing when it resolved, then activate her Scavenging Ooze. After the Ooze ability resolved she could go to draw her card for the Elf’s ability, and that would be fine — activating the Ooze can be done at any time, so she has not moved past the point the Elf’s ability should be resolving, and it is supposed to sit in the stack waiting to resolve.

  • 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.

This covers cards like Blinding Angel, Emrakul, the Aeons Torn’s first trigger ability, or Xantid Swarm. Each of these cards has a trigger which changes the way the game works after the trigger resolves. In these cases, the triggers controller can acknowledge the trigger right away, or by stopping the opponent from doing something that is now illegal.

For example, Angie might attack with her Xantid Swarm, and start to cast a spell in her second main phase. If her opponent Nathan tries to cast a counterspell, Angie can then point out her trigger and remind Nathan he is not allowed to cast spells this turn. It is not a problem that Angie did not point out the trigger as it went onto the stack — stopping her opponent clearly shows that she was aware of the trigger and knew it had resolved. If she had allowed Nathan to counter her spell, it would show she had forgotten the trigger. If Nathan wanted to know whether Angie remembered her trigger, all he had to do was ask.

  • A triggered ability that affects the game state in non-visible ways: The controller must make the change known by the first time the change has an effect on the visible game state.

Examples here include Jace, Architect of Thought, Noble Hierarch, and Monastery Swiftspear. Jace’s first ability, Noble’s Exalted ability, and Swiftspear’s Prowess ability all need to be pointed out the first time they become relevant to the game, but don’t need to be pointed out as they’re put onto the stack.

How do we know whether the ability is relevant to the game? That will vary from game to game, based on the other cards in play and player communication. Most often it be when damage is dealt. It could be if the opponent asks “How big is that?” or moving to resolve damage and telling the opponent “Exalted happens, so take 5, not 4.”

Handling Missed Triggers

All that tells us how to tell whether a trigger has been missed or not. But what happens when a trigger is missed?

There are four types of triggers that will happen when it’s noticed they were missed, regardless of how long ago they were supposed to happen:

  • A triggered ability that specifies a default action associated with a choice made by the controller (usually “If you don’t …” or “… unless”). The opponent may choose not to resolve this trigger. Otherwise the default action must be chosen.

A “default action” is found on a card when it says ~“You may do X. If you don’t, do Y.” Force of Nature and Cultivator of Blades have this kind of trigger; they make you choose to do something (pay GGGG or put two +1/+1 counters on the creature), or else something else happens by default (take 8 damage or create two 1/1 thopters). If one of these triggers is missed, the opponent of the player who missed it will get to choose if they would like the default action to happen, or nothing at all.

  • An enters-the-battlefield trigger of an Aura that affects only the enchanted permanent and causes a visible change to that permanent.

Claustrophobia is the best example here — when it enters, it is supposed to tap the enchanted creature. If Arthur casts it on Nicole’s creature but doesn’t acknowledge the trigger when it enters the battlefield, before moving on with his turn, the trigger will happen when he notices it.

  • A delayed triggered ability that changes the zone of one or more objects defined when the ability was created. For this trigger, 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.

This case covers permanents that are going to move from one zone in the game (hand, graveyard, battlefield, stack, exile, or library) to another from their trigger, like Prized Amalgam or The Scarab God. If a player misses one of these triggers and forgets to move their card from one place in the game to another, when they notice it, their opponent will get to choose: add the trigger to the stack right now, or add it to the stack at the start of the next phase.

  • Abilities consisting of an action followed by “when you do” in the same ability are considered communicated by the announcement of the action. This is most commonly the case for exert and similar abilities.

This exception has been added as usually the action triggering the ability (e.g., exert) is only taken to make the ability trigger. As such, announcing the action is enough to remember the corresponding trigger. This is only true for abilities written in the same paragraph as the connected action, like Champio of Rhonas.

If a trigger doesn’t match one of those four specific options, the judge will determine whether too much time has passed since the time it was supposed to happen or not. If not too much has happened, the judge will give the opponent of the player that controlled the ability the choice if they would like to put it on the stack. If they want, it is added to the stack now; otherwise it is ignored and the game continues.

Penalties and Warnings and Game Losses, Oh My!

Once we have determined whether a trigger was missed or not and decided how to fix the situation, there’s only one question left: the judge has to determine whether to issue any penalties.

If a player misses their non-detrimental (helpful) trigger, the player is not going to receive a Warning. Their opponent probably won’t want to put it on the stack, so the player has lost the benefit of their trigger, but they aren’t going to be punished in any other way.

Missing a detrimental (hurtful) trigger, on the other hand, has a penalty of a Warning. If a player receives three Warnings for a Missed Trigger in the same day of the same event, the third Warning will be upgraded to a Game Loss.

One last important note: when evaluating a trigger to determine if it is detrimental or non-detrimental, take it out of all game context. Dark Confidant is played because of his ability, not even though he has the ability, so it is a non-detrimental trigger no matter what. It doesn’t matter if Confidant’s controller is at 1,000 life or 1 life.

As a spectator, if you notice a player who is missing a triggered ability don’t say anything, call a Judge away from the table and explain him the situation.

And with this ends our journey through triggered abilities. ¡Don’t MISS the next articles!


Aruna Prem Bianzino Editor

Aruna Prem Bianzino Editor

Fabio Pierucci Editor

Fabio Pierucci Editor