Magic 101: Triggered Abilities



Triggered Abilities

Triggered abilities are fairly simple in principle. When something happens, something else happens as a result. Unfortunately, things are not that simple in Magic. In this article, I will walk you through the common hazards surrounding triggered abilities.


What is a triggered ability?

A triggered ability is an ability that waits for a particular event to occur. Whenever that event occurs, something else occurs as a result. A simple example is Soul Warden. Imagine your Soul Warden standing out on the battlefield, all by itself. While it can attack if it wants to, most of the time it will stand around waiting for another creature to come into play. Every time another creature comes into play, Soul Warden will go, “Hey! Another creature came into play! I’m putting my life-gain ability on the stack.” (If you aren’t familiar with the stack, I recommend that you read my previous article before continuing, or the rest of this article won’t make any sense). Soul Warden will put its ability on the stack for each and every creature that comes into play, even if they all come into play at the same time (by Scatter the Seeds perhaps). So, if three creatures come into play at the same time, Soul Warden’s trigger will trigger three times and go on the stack three times. Soul Warden also doesn’t care when the creature came into play; as long as it actually happened at any time, Soul Warden’s ability will trigger.

Soul Warden’s ability does not resolve immediately. Just like spells and activated abilities (such as Prodigal Sorceror’s damage ability), triggered abilities use the stack. This means both players get a chance to respond to them before they resolve.

But how do we know that Soul Warden has a triggered ability? Fortunately, the Comprehensive Rules make it really easy for us in Rule 404.1: a triggered ability begins with the word “when,” “whenever,” or “at.” That’s it, really. If the ability doesn’t have one of those three words, it’s not a triggered ability. Note, however, that some keyword abilities, such as Flanking, are triggered abilities, even though those particular words don’t appear on the face of the card. While this rule is a good starting point, probably the best way to understand what is a triggered ability is by identifying what is not a triggered ability.


One of the biggest problems encountered with triggered abilities is recognizing it when you see it. There are a number of things in Magic that have very similar wording to triggered abilities that are not triggered abilities. We’ll cover that problem along with some others in the examples to follow.


Flametongue Kavu’s ability starts with
“when”, so it has a triggered ability.
Example #1: Adam (formerly Player A) is sitting across from Barry (formerly Player B), who controls Durkwood Boars. Adam has a hankering for roast boar, so he plays Flametongue Kavu, a much beloved creature from ages long past. Barry says that Flametongue Kavu resolves. At this moment, the game goes “Wait a second! Flametongue Kavu came into play. Its ability begins with the word 'when,' so that must mean it is a triggered ability. I’m going to put Flametongue Kavu’s ability on the stack.” Adam chooses to target the Durkwood Boars.

Top of stack
Flametongue Kavu’s triggered ability
Bottom of stack

Barry couldn’t do anything to counter Flametongue Kavu, but he does have Stifle; so he plays Stifle, targeting the Flametongue Kavu’s ability.

Top of stack
Stifle (targeting Flametongue Kavu’s trigger)
Flametongue Kavu’s triggered ability
Bottom of stack

Unfortunately, Adam doesn’t have a response, so Flametongue Kavu’s triggered ability is countered and doesn’t do anything. The Durkwood Boars survive for the moment.

Example #2: Not to be deterred by Barry, Adam plays Meddling Mage. Barry lets Meddling Mage resolve. Adam names Force of Will for Meddling Mage (ignore the timing issue of when the proper time to name the card is; that’s beyond the scope of this article). Barry tries to play Stifle, targeting Meddling Mage’s ability.


Meddling Mage, however, lacks all three
of the magic words. Therefore, it doesn’t
have a triggered ability.
Barry is out of luck this time, however. That’s because Meddling Mage’s ability isn’t a triggered ability (it’s a static ability, but you don’t need to be concerned with that right now). Meddling Mage’s ability starts with “as”, which is not any of the three magic words. Instead, Meddling Mage’s ability is “on” immediately, it doesn’t use the stack, and Barry doesn’t get a chance to respond. Pretty brutal, huh? Precisely why this doesn’t use the stack is sort of complicated, so just take my word for it that anything that says “as ” happens immediately and there is no opportunity to respond.

Example #3: Adam decides to Terror the Durkwood Boars, and Barry buries (haha…er…ha) the Durkwood Boars in his graveyard, so there are no creatures in play. A turn later, Adam decides to play Flametongue Kavu. Barry laughs and lets it resolve. Adam passes the turn. Barry says, “Wait, Flametongue Kavu’s triggered ability went on the stack because Flametongue Kavu came into play. Since Flametongue Kavu is the only creature in play, it has to be the target and it will be destroyed.” Adam says that he doesn’t want the ability to trigger and therefore it doesn’t.

Adam is wrong here. Triggered abilities don’t care whether you want them to trigger or not. If the event happens, then the ability triggers, period. Flametongue Kavu will blow itself up when its trigger resolves. Not exactly the smartest creature out there.


A recurring question in the Rulings Forum here on MTGSalvation.com often involves the distinction between cards that say “at end of turn” and “until end of turn.” These two wordings are not the same thing. “At end of turn” is a triggered ability. Again, the word “at” appears, so it is a triggered ability. “Until end of turn” uses special rules. In short, until end of turn effects end after everybody is done doing everything they’re going to do the entire turn. There isn’t a chance to respond to these effects wearing off, they just wear off at end of turn and we’re done with them and done with the turn (95% of the time this is true, so just accept it as true for now).


If you confuse “at end of turn” and
“until end of turn”, you have to answer
to this guy.
Example #4: Adam plays Berserk targeting his Earth Elemental, and Berserk resolves. Adam attacks with Earth Elemental (whose power is now 8), dealing 8 damage to Barry and putting him at 7 life. The turn moves to the end of turn step. Now, remember what I just said above. Looking at Berserk, it has both “at end of turn” and “until end of turn” on it. The “at end of turn” part, as discussed above, is a triggered ability. The game realizes that the trigger event has occurred and puts the “destroy Earth Elemental if it attacked this turn” ability on the stack. The game looks at the “until end of turn” ability and doesn’t do anything. It isn’t a triggered ability, so there isn’t anything to trigger. The turn isn’t over yet (the end of turn step is still part of the same turn), so the effect doesn’t wear off and Earth Elemental is still 8/5. Adam realizes that he has Fling in his hand, and decides to Fling the Earth Elemental at Barry. Barry takes 8 damages instead of 4 because Berserk’s power bonus hasn’t worn off yet. Barry loses the game.


Replacement effects constitute the last major obstacle between understanding what is a triggered ability and what is not a triggered ability. The best example I can think of to show the difference is by looking at the wording of Planar Void and Leyline of the Void. Planar Void should be straightforward for you by now. The game sees a card go in a graveyard. The game says “Wait! A card went in a graveyard. I need to put a trigger on the stack.” The trigger then goes on the stack, players respond if they want to, and the trigger resolves. Leyline of the Void, however, has a different wording. First, the three magic words (at, when, or whenever) are not present. It also has the word “instead” at the end, which should be the first thing you look for when looking for a replacement effect. Basically, a replacement effect says, “Well, you were going to do X, but instead, you’re going to do Y. X never happens at all.” It would be like going to the store intending to buy vanilla ice cream. But, you get to the store and decide to buy chocolate ice cream instead. Even though you had intended to get vanilla, at no point did you actually buy vanilla ice cream. That’s how replacement effects work.

Example #5: Adam controls Leyline of the Void and Dingus Egg. Adam plays Strip Mine and uses its ability to destroy Barry’s Island. Barry’s Island would normally go to the graveyard. However, due to Leyline of the Void’s replacement effect, it is removed from the game instead. The Island never goes to the graveyard and therefore Dingus Egg does not trigger. Not exactly tech deck building on Adam’s part.

Hopefully that’s enough for you to understand what is and what is not a triggered ability. Let’s move on to some other things that are important to understand.


The next thing to understand is how and when triggered abilities actually get placed on the stack. Up until this point, I’ve been glossing over how they get there and have just been saying “it goes on the stack.” However, in reality, this is not sufficient. Let’s consider a few issues.

First, there are triggers that require decisions. The rule of thumb here is to treat the decision making rules for a triggered ability in the exact same way as if you had played a spell. That’s sort of vague, so let’s consider an example. When you play a spell, like Lightning Bolt, one of the decisions of playing that spell is naming a target. By the rules of the game, targets have to be named upon playing a spell, not on resolution. So, when you play Lightning Bolt, you name the target. The same thing applies with the trigger on Flametongue Kavu, which we saw earlier. When Flametongue Kavu comes into play, its trigger goes on the stack. When that trigger goes on the stack, Adam had to name the target; he could not wait until resolution.

Now, consider a card like Uktabi Orangutan. When it comes into play, it destroys a target artifact. Does that mean that there has to be an artifact in play to target in order to play Uktabi Orangutan? No. Instead, when Uktabi Orangutan comes into play, the ability triggers, as it should. However, because there is no legal target, the ability is simply (and immediately) removed from the stack and does nothing. This is different from playing a spell when you have no legal target (say, trying to play Terror with no creatures in play), because you can’t do that. With triggers, the game just says “I tried, sorry,” and moves on.

Another decision that often comes up with triggers is a “may” trigger, such as the one found on Akuta, Born of Ash. Suppose you have no intention of sacrificing a Swamp (for whatever reason) at the beginning of your upkeep. Does the trigger still go on the stack? Yes, it does. The decision for a “may” trigger is always done upon resolution, not upon triggering. When the trigger resolves, you simply go “I choose not to sacrifice a Swamp” and go on with your day. The trigger still triggers and resolves, even if you choose the “don’t do anything” option.


Now, it gets really fun. Sometimes, a ton of triggers will go off all at the same time. How does the game decide what order to put the triggers on the stack? Let’s look at an example that happens all the time in Vintage.

Example #6: Adam controls Smokestack with 1 soot counter on it, Tangle Wire with 4 fade counters on it, and 3 lands. Barry controls Mana Crypt and 4 lands. Barry ends his turn and it becomes Adam’s turn. Adam untaps and all of his “at the beginning of upkeep” triggers trigger. Those triggers are (in no particular order):

Smokestack – you may put a soot counter on Smokestack
Smokestack – sacrifice a permanent for each soot counter on Smokestack
Tangle Wire – remove a fade counter from Tangle Wire
Tangle Wire – tap an artifact, creature, or land you control for each fade counter on Tangle Wire


For old cards like Smokestack, make
sure you look at their errata; otherwise,
you may think they don’t have triggered
abilities when they really do.
Whew, that’s a lot of triggers. There are two things that need to be addressed. First, triggers go on the stack when a player would receive priority. So, the game puts the triggers on the stack, and then that player gets priority. There isn’t any way to “sneak” a spell underneath a trigger that has already triggered; anything that is played after a trigger triggers will ultimately end up above that trigger on the stack.

The second thing is that a player gets to choose the order in which triggers he controls go on the stack. This is very, very good for Adam. Since all four of these triggers are going on the stack at the same time, Adam takes full advantage of the situation and chooses to set up the stack like this:

Top of stack
Tangle Wire – remove a fade counter from Tangle Wire
Tangle Wire – tap an artifact, creature, or land you control for each fade counter on Tangle Wire
Smokestack – sacrifice a permanent for each soot counter on Smokestack
Smokestack – you may put a soot counter on Smokestack
Bottom of stack

Remember, things on top of the stack resolve first and things on the bottom of the stack resolve last. So, first, Adam removes a counter from Tangle Wire, reducing the number of counters on it to 3. Tangle Wire’s other trigger resolves and Adam taps Smokestack, Tangle Wire and one of his lands. Next, Smokestack’s sacrifice trigger resolves and Adam sacrifices the land that he tapped. Finally, Smokestack’s add a soot counter trigger resolves, and Adam chooses to put a soot counter on Smokestack, upping the total count to 2. Adam sure made out on that because he got all of the benefits without suffering the detriments.


Don’t give a rules lawyer the opportunity
to sweet talk the judge.
Very important communication note: Communication when setting up the stack in a situation like this is very, very important. A lot of times, players will say something like, “I’ll sacrifice first and then add a counter.” But what does that mean? Does that mean the player wants to put the sacrifice ability on the stack first or does he want it to resolve first? Obviously, the player wants to do the sacrificing first and the adding of the counter second, otherwise he’ll be sacrificing an extra permanent for no good reason. Therefore, when you say what you’re doing, you need to either say “I am putting the add a counter trigger on the stack first, and then the sacrifice trigger on the stack second.” While this is fine, I personally find it confusing to do things in reverse order. Instead, I choose to say “I will set up the stack such that the sacrifice trigger will resolve first and the add a counter trigger will resolve second.” This way, I can say what I want to do in chronological order instead of having to reverse everything and possibly get mixed up. I have heard of this happening on more than one occasion. Opponents will try to screw you over in this way; don’t let it happen to you.

Back to our example, let’s go to the beginning of Barry’s upkeep now. The following triggers trigger:

Mana Crypt (Barry) – flip a coin and possibly take damage
Smokestack (Adam) – sacrifice a permanent for each soot counter on Smokestack
Tangle Wire (Adam) – tap an artifact, creature, or land you control for each fade counter on Tangle Wire

This time, however, the triggers have different controllers. The game has a rule for handling this too, called the “APNAP rule”. APNAP stands for “active player, nonactive player," meaning that the active player puts all of his triggers on the stack first, and then the nonactive player puts all of his triggers on the stack second. It’s not especially important in this situation, but it could matter in others. In any case, the controller of a triggered ability is the controller of the thing that created the triggered ability. Barry (who is the active player because it is his turn) controls Mana Crypt, so that trigger goes on the stack first.

Top of stack
Mana Crypt (Barry) – flip a coin and possibly take damage
Bottom of stack

Next, we have Adam’s two triggers. But, because Adam is the controller of the triggered abilities, he gets to choose what order to put them on the stack, even though it is Barry’s turn. So, Adam chooses to have it such that Barry will have to sacrifice permanents first and tap things second, meaning the stack will look like this:

Top of stack
Smokestack (Adam) – sacrifice a permanent for each soot counter on Smokestack
Tangle Wire (Adam) – tap an artifact, creature, or land you control for each fade counter on Tangle Wire
Mana Crypt (Barry) – flip a coin and possibly take damage
Bottom of stack

Barry has to sacrifice two permanents first (remember that he has 4 lands in play in addition to Mana Crypt). He chooses to sacrifice 2 of the lands, leaving him with 2 lands and Mana Crypt. Next, he has to tap 3 things because of Tangle Wire. Because he only has 3 permanents, Barry taps all of them. Finally, Mana Crypt’s flip ability resolves and Barry loses the flip. Ouch, Barry takes 3 damage; talk about adding insult to injury.

Note what happened here: Barry had to sacrifice first and tap second while Adam got to tap first and sacrifice second. So, Barry had to sacrifice untapped permanents while Adam got to sacrifice a tapped permanent! Had Barry gotten to sacrifice tapped permanents, he would have had two untapped permanents left when all of the triggers were done resolving. Instead, he was left with no untapped permanents. This is part of what makes the Stax build in Vintage so brutal. It may not seem especially fair, but that’s the way the trigger stacking rules work.


As amazing as it might seem, triggers can at times be more complicated still. This is due to the “intervening if clause” that can be found on some triggers, the most common one in Vintage being on Oath of Druids. Triggers with an intervening if clause look for a certain condition to be true at two different times: upon triggering and upon resolution.

Example #7: Adam controls Oath of Druids, no creatures, and a few lands. Barry also controls no creatures, although he does control Lifespark Spellbomb. Adam passes the turn to Barry. At the beginning of Barry’s upkeep, Oath of Druids tries to trigger. However, it sees that Barry does not control fewer creatures than Adam (they have the same number: 0). Therefore, Oath of Druids does not trigger and does not go on the stack. The triggered ability having been dealt with, Barry gets priority. Barry activates his Lifespark Spellbomb, targeting one of Adam’s lands. Barry then tries to resolve Oath of Druids’s trigger. Unfortunately, it’s already too late for Barry. The game won’t back up and now see that Barry has fewer creatures than Adam. The Oath of Druids missed the first check, so that’s it. Note that there is no proper play where Barry gets to use Oath of Druids; using the Spellbomb was just an exceptional way of screwing up.

Barry passes the turn. Adam plays another Oath of Druids and passes the turn back to Barry. Barry plays Force of Nature, hoping that he can race whatever Adam Oaths up. Barry passes the turn. It’s the beginning of Adam’s upkeep and both Oath of Druids see that Adam has fewer creatures than Barry. So, they both go on the stack (the order doesn’t matter). The first Oath of Druids trigger goes to resolve. Again, we check if the condition is true upon resolution. It is still true because Adam still has fewer creatures than Barry. Adam begins turning cards off the top of his library until he comes across Darksteel Colossus, which goes into play. Next, the second Oath of Druids trigger tries to resolve. This time, however, things have changed. Now Adam has the same number of creatures as Barry. Therefore, the trigger resolves, but doesn’t do anything. Adam will only get one creature, a big one though it is.


One final note about handling triggered abilities. In the course of gameplay, triggers tend to be resolved as soon as they trigger. This is fine because it usually doesn’t matter. However, remember that triggers can be responded to like most anything else.

With that, it is time for some problems.

Problem #1: Adam has twelve permanents in play and plays Worldgorger Dragon, which resolves. Worldgorger Dragon’s comes into play trigger (which removes all of Adam’s permanents from the game) goes on the stack. In response to this trigger, Barry plays Swords to Plowshares, targeting Adam’s Worldgorger Dragon. Swords to Plowshares resolves and the Worldgorger Dragon is removed from the game. What will happen to Adam’s permanents?

All of Adam’s permanents will be permanently removed from the game. First, the comes into play trigger went on the stack:

Top of stack
Comes into play trigger – remove Adam’s permanents from the game
Bottom of stack

However, in response to this trigger, Worldgorger Dragon was removed from the game, causing its leaves play trigger to trigger, resulting in the following stack:

Top of stack
Leaves play trigger – return all permanents removed by Worldgorger Dragon to play
Comes into play trigger – remove Adam’s permanents from the game
Bottom of stack

Now the stack resolves, top to bottom. First, all permanents removed by Worldgorger Dragon are returned to play. Unfortunately for Adam, Worldgorger Dragon hasn’t removed anything yet, so this ability does nothing! Next, all of Adam’s permanents are removed from the game. That’s it. Since Worldgorger Dragon’s leaves play ability has already resolved, Adam won’t be getting any of those permanents back. Too bad for Adam.

Problem #2: Uba Mask and Phyrexian Tyranny are in play. Adam plays Whispers of the Muse. What happens?

Adam’s draw is replaced by Uba Mask (meaning, the card is removed from the game rather than Adam actually drawing a card). Because the draw was replaced and did not happen at all, Phyrexian Tyranny doesn’t trigger, so Adam is not faced with the pay 2 or pay 2 life decision.

Problem #3: Adam controls Sakura-Tribe Springcaller. Adam played Pact of Negation during the last turn. Is it possible for Adam to use the mana from the Sakura-Tribe Springcaller's ability to pay part of the Pact of Negation’s upkeep cost?

Yes, it is. Because Adam controls both of the triggered abilities and they trigger at the same time, Adam gets to choose how to stack the triggers. He can stack the Pact’s trigger beneath the Springcaller’s ability so that he will get the mana first and then have to pay the Pact’s cost second.

Top of stack
Sakura-Tribe Springcaller trigger
Pact of Negation trigger
Bottom of stack

He doesn’t have to do it this way, but presumably it would be the optimal play.

Problem #4: Adam controls Æther Flash. Barry plays Withered Wretch. Barry wants to play Withered Wretch’s ability to remove some cards in Adam’s graveyard before the Æther Flash’s triggered ability destroys Withered Wretch. Can he do this?

Yes, Barry can. Triggers use the stack just like most anything else. So, they can be responded to and Barry can use Withered Wretch’s ability (multiple times if he wants) before the Wretch will be killed by Æther Flash.


In summary, here are some things to keep in mind.

1) A triggered ability will always have “when, whenever, or at” at the beginning of it. If it doesn’t have one of those three words, it isn’t a triggered ability (unless it’s some special keyword ability).
2) Triggers only trigger when the trigger event actually happens; if the event is replaced, the trigger won’t trigger.
3) Triggers are not optional; every time a trigger event occurs, the trigger goes on the stack, even for triggers that say you “may” do something.
4) Triggers that are trying to go on the stack simultaneously are put on the stack in APNAP order, and each player gets to choose the order that his triggers go on the stack.
5) Triggers are put on the stack before they can be responded to. There normally isn’t any way to sneak a spell underneath a trigger that has triggered.
6) Triggers can be responded to just like spells and activated abilities.

I have to admit that this article turned out more complicated than I hoped it would. Truly, I trimmed everything that I thought was not essential, and there were in fact things that I left out (such as delayed triggered abilities and state triggers). If you have mastered the material in this article though, you should be able to handle 95% of the situations you will encounter. If something is unclear, please feel free to ask about it in the forums and I or someone else will be glad to clarify. Thanks for reading.

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