Targeting is one of those things in Magic that seems pretty simple in premise, but can have a rather complicated application. Fortunately, Magic 101 is back to take you through both the simple and complicated issues that can arise when targets are involved. What targets and what does not target?
Identifying cards that target is easy and intuitive most of the time. The vast majority of cards that target will have the word "target" right on them. As a rule of thumb, if the word "target" does not appear on the face of the card, that card does not target. Take for example Stroke of Genius and Mind Spring. Stroke of Genius uses the word "target," so it targets. Mind Spring, though it affects one particular player (you), doesn't target because it does not use the word "target."
Consider a card like Spectral Searchlight. Instead of having you select a "target player," this card tells you to "choose a player" (for reasons that aren't important for the sake of this article). Does Spectral Searchlight target? No. It may feel like targeting in that you have to pick a particular player, but the magic word "target" does not appear on the face of the card. Consequently, Spectral Searchlight does not target.
There are a few exceptions, however. Some cards, while they may not have the word "target" on their faces, have the word "target" in their rules text due to keywords; these include "target" in their reminder text, if it's present. As of the time of this article, those keywords are: provoke, haunt, equip, fortify, modular, soulshift, reinforce, and (by virtue of the Aura subtype) enchant. Whenever you're using one of those keywords, the card targets. Note, however, that once a card becomes attached to another card (for example, Curiosity enchanting Scryb Sprites), it ceases to target. Basically, something only targets while it is on the stack. After that, it no longer targets.
Just because the word "target" appears on the face of the card, that doesn't mean that it targets. For example, Troll Ascetic says "Troll Ascetic can't be the target of spells or abilities your opponents control." Clearly, however, Troll Ascetic doesn't target; its ability just tells you that it can't be targeted. So when you're trying to decide if a card targets or not, look for a noun right after the word "target." Some of the most common nouns you'll see after "target" include player, opponent, permanent, creature, enchantment, artifact, spell, triggered ability, and activated ability.
Suggesting this wording as an R&D
employee today might get you fired.
While cards today are all generally pretty clear about whether they target or not, it has not always been this way. Some cards, such as Ancestral Recall, do not have the magic word on their faces, yet target anyway. This is because they have received errata for one reason or another. Ancestral Recall's current text with errata is "Target player draws three cards." Consequently, it targets. When it comes to trying to decide whether older cards target or not, if you want to be absolutely positive you should check the Oracle wording on Gatherer, Wizards of the Coast's official database of card wordings. Of course, if you're in a tournament, you won't have Gatherer at your fingertips. When in doubt, you should call the judge and ask; the judge will be able to give you a correct answer within moments. Barring those possibilities (which you should be using first), a rule of thumb you can use with old cards is that if the word "target" appears on the face of the card, the card almost certainly targets. If the word "target" does not appear on its face, it only might target. Sadly, you'll just have to look it up.
This lack of wording standardization has led to some unusual errata. Take The Abyss for example. If printed today, The Abyss would probably read "At the beginning of each player's upkeep, that player sacrifice's a nonartifact creature." However, when The Abyss was printed in 1994, they decided to include the word "target." Consequently, The Abyss targets. Even more interestingly, not only does The Abyss target, but its successor, Magus of the Abyss, also has the strange wording. Why? Because the word "target" appears on The Abyss's face. This is how strongly Wizards of the Coast adheres to the policy; if "target" is on the face of the card (followed by a noun), the card targets, end of discussion.
In summary, for modern cards, a card targets:
1) If "target <noun>" appears on the face of the card.
2) If it involves one of the targeting keywords: provoke, enchant, haunt, fortify, modular, soulshift, and reinforce.
This talk about whether something targets or not is nice and all, but why does that matter? Well, actually, there are a lot of reasons.
You can't play a spell or an ability if it doesn't have a legal target.
This situation has come up from time to time in the Rulings Forum.
Example #1: Adam wants to play Afflict so that he can draw a card instead of having Afflict uselessly sit in his hand. There are no creatures in play. Unfortunately for Adam, he can't play Afflict, even if he wants to. There is no target at all that can be chosen.
Example #2: Barry has Silver Knight in play, a creature with protection from red. Because the Silver Knight has protection from red, it can't be targeted by red spells or abilities from red sources. Adam forgets that Silver Knight has protection from red, taps a Mountain, and announces that he is playing Lightning Bolt targeting Silver Knight. Barry points out that the Silver Knight has protection from red and that it isn't a legal target. So what happens?
Well, first, Adam has attempted to make an illegal play, as opposed to a bad play. Consequently, that means the judge will probably have something to say. Whenever he's done, barring cheating of some sort, Adam would most likely be required to put the Lightning Bolt back in his hand. Note that it's not "Adam has to pick a different target." It's just "Adam has to take it back."
The take home message here is that you can't even begin to select an illegal target. The game doesn't allow it, at all.
Example #3: Adam plays Duress targeting Barry, his opponent. Barry has Yawgmoth's Will in his hand, the on-high king of broken cards, so he really doesn't want to have to discard it. So Barry plays Misdirection, hoping to make Adam discard instead.
Okay, so what have we got here? First, let's look at Misdirection, a card notorious for the targeting issues that it can create. The word "target," or a variant thereof, appears four times on Misdirection! But, does Misdirection have four targets? No. Misdirection actually only has one target. Surprised? Well, let's think about it. First, Misdirection's relevant text currently reads "Change the target of target spell with a single target." So, the errata eliminates one of the four right there. Next we are told to "change the target." It does not say "pick the target." Instead, it just says that you have to change the target, whatever that might be. That eliminates another possible target. Next we have "of target spell." Here we have "target <noun>" and that means that this part of Misdirection requires you to pick a target. Finally we have "with a single target." This part of the spell just describes the type of spell you are allowed to target; it does not require that you specify a target. Therefore, Misdirection has one and only one target (meaning Misdirection can target another Misdirection!). With this in mind, Misdirection's target (Duress) is initially legal because Duress is a spell with a single target. There isn't a "take back" issue, which was the case with Example #2.
That issue aside, Misdirection resolves because its target is still legal. Barry says that he wants to change Duress's target to Adam. Adam says he can't do that because Duress specifies that is has to target a "target opponent" rather than a "target player." Quick rulings note: since Adam controls Duress, any reference on it to an "opponent" means someone that is not on Adam's team, regardless of whether someone else might change the target. So Barry looks around the table and realizes that he is the only opponent Adam has. Consequently, he can't change the target at all; Barry is going to have to discard! Barry groans and reveals his hand. Sure enough, Adam chooses Yawgmoth's Will. Targets are announced when a spell or ability is played, even if other choices are made upon resolution of the spell or ability.
The Duress example leads into something else that is important to understand about targeting. Whenever a spell or ability has a target, that target is announced upon playing the spell or ability, or, in the case of triggered abilities, when the ability is put on the stack.
Example #4: Cursed Scroll has been my favorite card for a very long time. Colorless targeted damage every turn? How could it possibly get better for red? Know that I did eventually get a playset for Christmas (Thanks, Aunt Susan!), but I traded them away when they were about to rotate out of Extended. In hindsight, it was definitely the right decision, but finally getting my hands on Cursed Scroll was really, really cool. While we're walking down nostalgia lane, I will also tell you that the timing of Cursed Scroll confused me when I was younger. While I eventually got it, I know that I asked about it three or four times to make sure I understood it correctly. Sorry to everybody that I needlessly bothered. Consequently, I am glad that today I can share my knowledge with you all regarding how Cursed Scroll works.
Barry still has Silver Knight in play and Adam is sick of it. Fortunately, Adam draws Cursed Scroll and has enough mana to play it and activate it, which he does. Ignoring the technicalities of the rules for a moment and reading the text of Cursed Scroll, there are two choices that need to eventually be made: 1) the target, and 2) the named card.
While there are a number of steps that go into playing a spell or an ability, picking targets is actually the third thing you do (after saying "hey, I'm playing this spell" and making some alternate-cost or "choose one" choices). The important thing to realize is that targets are selected when you play the spell or ability. For Cursed Scroll, this means that Adam has to pick his target when he plays the ability. Adam targets Silver Knight. Note that we don't know what card Adam is going to name and Adam hasn't revealed a card yet. All we know is that Adam is targeting the Silver Knight with Cursed Scroll's ability.
Barry plays Brainstorm, thinks a little bit, then says that Cursed Scroll's ability resolves. Now Adam names "Mountain" and randomly reveals Mountain from his hand. Silver Knight takes 2 colorless damage and is destroyed.
Example #5: Adam wants to play Uktabi Orangutan, but there are no artifacts in play. Can Adam play Uktabi Orangutan, even though there are no artifacts in play for Uktabi Orangutan's triggered ability to target?
Yes, he can. Creature spells never target. But wait, it says "destroy target artifact" right there on the card. The trick is that Uktabi Orangutan's triggered ability doesn't even begin to do anything until Uktabi Orangutan is in play. (If you don't know how triggered abilities work, I would recommend reading Magic 101: Triggered Abilities). Therefore, a potential target is not named for Uktabi Orangutan's triggered ability until Uktabi Orangutan has resolved and come into play.
The only thing worse than trying to
play this card is pulling it from your
booster when the guy next to you just
pulled Shadowmage Infiltrator.
Been there, done that.
At that point, the triggered ability will go on the stack. The game sees that the triggered ability doesn't have any legal targets. Consequently, the trigger won't do anything, it just goes away. So, the rule is, if a triggered ability triggers and there isn't a legal target when the triggered ability triggers, the triggered ability will go on the stack, but then immediately be removed from the stack and do nothing. (The fact that it goes on the stack and then is immediately removed is unnecessarily technical; just know that if you don't have a target up front, the triggered ability isn't going to do anything.)
Example #6: Adam has Decimate in his hand and is very pleased to see that Barry has a creature, a land, and an artifact in play. However, there are no enchantments in play. Adam tries to play Decimate, targeting Barry's creature, land, and artifact. Barry shakes his head and tells Adam he can't do that because in order to play a spell all of the targets must be legal when the spell announced. In this case, there is not enchantment target chosen (nor is there a target to choose), so Decimate can't be played.
However, distinguish a card like Decimate from a card like Blades of Velis Vel. Blades of Velis Vel specifies that "up to two target creatures each get +2/+0." With a card like this, you can name two, one, or even zero targets if you want to. The difference is that Decimate has mandatory targets upon announcement, while Blades of Velis Vel has optional targets. A spell or ability that targets but has no legal targets upon resolution is completely countered, including those parts that don't involve the target.
Example #7: Let's go back to Example #4, where Adam was trying to destroy Barry's Silver Knight with Cursed Scroll. Suppose that instead of just letting Cursed Scroll's ability resolve after he played Brainstorm, Barry instead played Swords to Plowshares targeting his own Silver Knight. What would happen to Cursed Scroll's activated ability then?
Whenever a spell or ability with targets resolves, it checks to see if its targets are still legal. If they are, then it does its thing. If not, however, the spell "fizzles," meaning it is countered on resolution for having all illegal or missing targets. In this case, Cursed Scroll is targeting Silver Knight, but he isn't around anymore because he was removed from the game by Swords to Plowshares. That means the entire ability of Cursed Scroll is countered. Adam doesn't have to name a card and he doesn't have to randomly reveal a card.
Example #8: Similarly, let's go back to Example #1, where Adam had Afflict, but no creature to target it with. This time, Barry has Flying Men in play and Adam wants to kill Flying Men with Afflict. Adam plays Afflict, targeting Flying Men. Barry sees that his Flying Men is about to be Afflicted out of existence and that Adam will get to draw a card if Afflict resolves. Fortunately, Barry has Claws of Gix in play, so he activates Claws of Gix, sacrifices Flying Men, and gains 1 life. Next, Afflict tries to resolve, but its only target, Flying Men, is no longer in play. Consequently, the entire spell is countered and Adam doesn't get to draw a card, even though the "draw a card" part of the spell has nothing to do with the "targeting" part of the spell.
Example #9: Let's go back to Example #6, which involved Decimate. This time, Adam plays Decimate, targeting Barry's land, artifact, enchantment, and creature, the creature being Elvish Eulogist. Barry sees that his Elvish Eulogist is about to be destroyed by Decimate, so he sacrifices it in response to gain some life. Decimate tries to resolve. What happens? Here is where it gets tricky. While in Example #6, Adam wasn't able to play Decimate at all because there weren't enough legal targets initially, Decimate will resolve as best it can now that it has already been played. As long as a spell has at least one legal target upon resolution, that spell will resolve and do "as much as it can." In this case, that means that Barry's land, artifact, and enchantment will all be destroyed; the fact that the Elvish Eulogist isn't in play anymore doesn't matter.
Similarly, if Adam used Ashes to Ashes to try to remove two of Barry's creatures from the game and Barry managed to have one of those creatures removed from play before Ashes to Ashes resolves, the other creature would still be removed from the game and Adam would still take 5 damage. The question is just whether at least one of the targets is still legal. If there is still a legal target, the whole spell will resolve as best as it can. The Misdirection Trick
Example #10: This is a classic Vintage situation. Adam plays Ancestral Recall, targeting himself. Barry plays Mana Drain, targeting Ancestral Recall. Adam has Misdirection and another blue card in his hand. Can Adam somehow use Misdirection to get his Ancestral Recall to resolve? Yes, he can! As was discussed above, Misdirection only has one target, the spell which it wants to change the target of, which in this case is Mana Drain. Adam plays Misdirection, targeting Mana Drain. Misdirection starts resolving. First, Mana Drain is still a legal target, so Misdirection will resolve. Adam has to decide what to change the target of Mana Drain to.
Well, what are the choices? There are only three spells out there right now: Ancestral Recall, Mana Drain, and Misdirection. First, Mana Drain can't target Mana Drain. This is because there is a rule that specifically says a spell cannot target itself. You're also not allowed, when changing a target, to change the target to something illegal at the time the target is changed. So Mana Drain is out. Next there is Ancestral Recall. Mana Drain is already targeting Ancestral Recall and Misdirection requires the mandatory action of changing the target of the spell (if able). Therefore, the target can't be "changed" to Ancestral Recall either. That leaves Misdirection as a possible target for Mana Drain. Is this legal? Yes, it is! Removing a spell from the stack is actually the last part of spell resolution, so while the "change the target" part of Misdirection is being performed, Misdirection is still on the stack. Therefore, Adam changes Mana Drain's target to Misdirection and then Misdirection goes to the graveyard.
Mana Drain now tries to resolve. However, Mana Drain's target, Misdirection, isn't around anymore and therefore is illegal. Mana Drain therefore fizzles and does nothing. Not only does this mean Ancestral Recall will resolve, but also that Barry will not get any mana out of Mana Drain because the whole spell is countered.
Had enough of this targeting stuff? Well, see how much information you absorbed in this quiz. Speaking of Absorb...
Question #1: In a desperate attempt to gain some life, Adam plays Lightning Bolt targeting Barry, then Absorb targeting Lightning Bolt. Barry plays Counterspell, targeting Lightning Bolt. What happens?
Problem #1 solution:
Counterspell will counter Lightning Bolt, of course. Absorb will then try to counter Lightning Bolt, but its target will be missing since Lightning Bolt has been countered already. Therefore, Absorb is countered on resolution for having all illegal targets and Adam will gain no life. Tough break for Adam.
Diabolic Edict's possible targets are Adam and Barry. Diabolic Edict targets the player, not the creature that player sacrifices. The only condition on playing Diabolic Edict is that the target be a player; that player need not control a creature. Furthermore, because Diabolic Edict doesn't target a creature, Barry could sacrifice White Knight instead of Leviathan because protection from black only protects against targeting and damage from a spell, not all possible effects.
Question #3: Barry controls Craw Wurm and Bottle Gnomes. Adam controls no creatures, has Ashes to Ashes in hand, and wants to remove the Craw Wurm and Bottle Gnomes from the game. What can Adam do?
Question #3 solution:
Nothing, both Craw Wurm and the Bottle Gnomes are going to stick around. In order for Adam to play Ashes to Ashes, he needs two nonartifact creature targets. Unfortunately, Bottle Gnomes is an artifact creature, meaning it is an illegal target for Ashes to Ashes. Since all targets must be legal when a spell is announced and Adam doesn't have the required number of targets available, Adam can't play Ashes to Ashes.
Question #4: Barry controls Skulking Ghost and Adam has Pyroblast in his hand. Can Adam target the Skulking Ghost with Pyroblast in order to destroy it?
Question #4 solution:
Yes, he can! It has to do with the targeting limitation that is on Pyroblast. Pyroblast only requires that the target be a permanent or a spell (depending on the mode chosen); whether that permanent is destroyed or the spell countered depends upon whether it is blue or not. While Skulking Ghost is black, it will see that it was targeted with Pyroblast, its ability will trigger, and it will be destroyed. Compare Pyroblast with Red Elemental Blast, which requires that its target be blue.
Hmm...Pyroblast or Red Elemental
While this might seem to be a silly question, there has been extensive discussion in Vintage regarding whether you should play Pyroblast or Red Elemental Blast. If you play Pyroblast, Pyroblast can target just about anything (such as a land in play), which can be used to ramp up the storm count to make a Tendrils of Agony lethal. On the other hand, because of this, Pyroblast is also more susceptible to Misdirection in that it could be Misdirected away from Psychatog or some other creature to some other card in play, such as a land. This can't be done with Red Elemental Blast.
Additional rules note: if you do use Misdirection to change the target of Red Elemental Blast or Pyroblast, you can only change it to whatever type of thing (spell or permanent) was chosen initially by the player who played Red Elemental Blast or Pyroblast. This is because Misdirection doesn't change the mode of a spell, just the target.
Question #5: Adam controls Ivory Mask. Barry controls Valleymaker and a Forest. Can Barry force Adam to add to his mana pool by using Valleymaker's second ability?
Question #5 solution:
Yes, Barry can do that. Valleymaker's second ability doesn't target because it doesn't use the word "target;" it just says to "choose" a player. Therefore, Adam is a legal choice for Valleymaker's ability.
1) A spell or ability targets if it has the wording "target <noun>" or has one of the magic keywords: provoke, enchant, haunt, fortify, modular, soulshift, and reinforce.
2) When announcing a spell or ability, or if a triggered ability triggers, you have to name all of the targets the spell or ability requires at that time. If you can't, you can't play the spell or ability, or, in the case of a triggered ability, the triggered ability is removed from the stack and does nothing.
3) Targets are announced when the spell or ability is played, even if other choices are made when the spell or ability resolves.
4) When a spell or ability resolves, if at least one of its targets is still legal, it resolves as much as it can. If all of its targets are illegal, the entire spell or ability is countered ("fizzles"), including things that are unrelated to the targets, such as an instruction to "draw a card."
I hope this article was helpful. If you have questions or comments about this article or if you have an idea for another Magic 101 article, please post it in the forum or send me a private message. Thanks for reading.
By David Earley on October 2nd, 2008 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
About David Earley
David Earley has played Magic since 1996 and has played the Vintage format competitively since 2002.