Cranial Insertion: Of Abilities and Effects

Cranial Insertion
Of Abilities and Effects

By Eli Shiffrin, Thijs van Ommen, and Tom Fowler

Triggered abilities, continuous effects.... Magic uses a lot of terminology for abilities and effects, and few people know exactly what all these terms mean. Many of them never appear on cards, but are only explained in the dark corners of the CompRules. In today's Cranial Insertion, we're going to have a look at the various types of abilities and effects. We'll see how to recognize which is which, and the basics of how each of them works. We won't go into all the details on any one of them, but there'll be references to the rules and to earlier Cranial Insertion articles that will help you find the details you're looking for.

Wow... the second card to mention
"triggered ability".

Abilities and Effects

The words "ability" and "effect" are sometimes used interchangeably, but that's incorrect. They describe two different, but related things:
  • An ability corresponds directly to a paragraph of rules text in a card's text box.
  • An effect is what happens when you follow the instructions given by an ability or by the rules.
We'll cover the following subspecies of the two in this article:
  • Abilities
    • Activated abilities
    • Triggered abilities
    • Static abilities
  • Effects
    • One-shot effects
    • Continuous effects
    • Replacement and prevention effects
    • State-based effects

Activated abilities

This is probably the most familiar term of the bunch, as it's the only one that appears on cards somewhat regularly. Activated abilities are easy to spot: they are always written in the form "[cost]: [result]". The cost may include mana, the tap symbol symbol, or any other instructions. You can play activated abilities any time you would be able to play an instant. When you do, a new object pops into existence and is put on top of the stack. Everyone will get the chance to respond to it by putting other stuff on the stack on top of the ability. After any responses are done, the ability will resolve and causes an effect. This may be a one-shot effect or a continuous effect.

For more details on the rules for playing spells and abilities, see Cranial Insertion: How to Play a Spell or rule 409.

Q: I tap my opponent's Elves of Deep Shadow using Azorius Guildmage's :2mana::symw: ability. Does he take 1 damage plus a point of mana burn if he doesn't spend the :symb:?

A: Hold on there! An activated ability only gets played if a player decides to play it. If your opponent decided to play the Elves' ability, he would then be required to tap the creature. But it doesn't work the other way around: tapping the creature doesn't cause the ability to get played. In this scenario, the status of the Elves changes to tapped, and nothing else happens.

Q: Me and my opponent both control a Rakdos Ickspitter. His Ickspitter started spitting ick at my Ickspitter, but I responded by having my Ickspitter spit right back at his. Now my ability will resolve first, so his Ickspitter will be dead before its ability resolves, right?

A: Right. But... his Ickspitter being dead doesn't mean yours is going to survive. The ability will resolve regardless of what happens to its source. One way to stop the ick is by countering the ability using a card capable of countering activated abilities, like Voidslime.

Activated abilities which produce mana are called mana abilities. They are different in two ways from ordinary activated abilities. First, they don't use the stack: they resolve immediately as they are played, so they can't be responded to. Second, they may be played at times that ordinary activated abilities couldn't be played. Any time a rule or effect asks you to pay mana, you may play mana abilities.

Q: Does Burning-Tree Shaman get angry when I play Plaxcaster Frogling's activated ability?

A: The Gruul get angry at anything, and this Frog Mutant is no exception. Its activated ability costs mana, so it's not a mana ability (which would require it to produce mana).

Triggered abilities

Triggered abilities don't wait for you to play them, but act of their accord. They're also easy to recognize: they always contain one of the words "when", "whenever" or "at", usually at the beginning of the ability. When the ability's trigger condition has occured, it waits until the next time a player would receive priority, then it goes on the stack just like an activated ability would. This means it will be put on the stack just before any player gets the chance to add further spells or abilities to the stack. Because they do use the stack, they can be responded to.

There's no Cranial Insertion article dedicated to triggered abilities (yet), but rules 404 and 410 will fill you in with the details.

Q: With Dovescape and Mana Echoes in play, I play Glare of Subdual. What happens?

A: You go through the process of playing the Glare, which triggers Dovescape. Now Glare is on the stack with Dovescape's triggered ability on top of it. This ability resolves, countering Glare but putting four Bird tokens into play for you, which in turn triggers Mana Echoes four times. After Dovescape's ability is done resolving, the Echoes' ability is put on the stack four times. Each of these will count the number of creatures sharing a creature type when it resolves, and so you can end up getting 16 mana.

There's a special kind of triggered abilities that don't occur as text printed on cards, but that are created by the effects of other abilities. These are known as delayed triggered abilities: they allow the effect to do something with a delay. They are covered in rule 404.4, which is part of rule 404 about triggered abilities in general.

Q: When is the last time I can use Simic Basilisk to give my Simic Initiate the petrifying gaze ability, in order to kill the creature blocking the Initiate?

A: When it resolves, Simic Basilisk's activated ability has an effect that causes the Initiate to gain another ability: a triggered one. This ability triggers when the Initiate deals combat damage, but only if the ability exists at that time. So you must play the Basilisk's activated ability before combat damage is dealt (but you're allowed to wait for combat damage to first be assigned). This will ensure that the second ability triggers. Now when it triggers, it doesn't do anything yet, but rather sets up a delayed triggered ability that waits for the end of combat, then goes on the stack on a mission to kill your opponent's creature. Whew, that's three abilities for the price of one.

Triggered mana abilities
that deal damage, too!
A triggered ability can also be a mana ability. To be one, it's not enough that it produces mana; it must also trigger on an activated mana ability being played. Like their activated cousins, they don't use the stack, but resolve right after the mana ability that triggered them.

Q: How does Piracy interact with Overabundance? When I start looting mana from my opponents, do they take damage from the enchantment, or am I held accountable for my thieving ways, Matey? And do I get the extra mana?

A: If you are playing the land's mana ability, then you are the one tapping the land for mana, so Overabundance will give you the extra mana, but also the damage.

Static abilities

A static ability is any paragraph of rules text that's not an activated or triggered ability, and that's not the text defining what happens when an instant or sorcery resolves. Rather than going on the stack and causing an effect when it resolves, a static ability has a continuous effect on the game. A static ability is normally active as long as the object it's on is in play. Exceptions are easy to recognize: take a look at Anger for an example.

Q: If my Circu, Dimir Lobotomist removed Shock and is then destroyed, will my opponent be able to play Shock again?

A: The third paragraph of Circu's rules text is a static ability, and it will function only as long as Circu is in play. Once Circu is gone, your opponent will be unlobotomized.

One-shot effects

We've made our way through the abilities, and have come to the effects. One-shot effects are first in line. A one-shot effect makes some change to the game state, like dealing damage, and can then be forgotten about. The change to the game state is often permanent, but the effect made the change instantaneously, and then disappeared: it doesn't have a duration.

Look, no hand!
Q: What kind of effect is generated by Rakdos Guildmage's :3mana::symr: activated ability?

A: Though it looks like it's creating a token that has a duration of "until end of turn", that's not exactly what's really going on. The first sentence causes a Goblin token to be created. This creation takes place instantaneously, and after that, the game only needs to keep track of the Goblin, not of the effect that created it. So this part is a one-shot effect. The second sentence sets up a delayed triggered ability that will shorten the lifespan of the unsuspecting Goblin. The game does need to remember about the existence of this delayed triggered ability, but the effect that created it can safely be forgotten about. So this activated ability causes two one-shot effects when it resolves. Or a two-shot effect, if you prefer.

Continuous effects

Besides the one-shot effects without a duration, there are the continuous effects that do have a duration: they modify the game state for the time the effect is active, but the modification is undone when the effect's duration ends.

continuous effects may be generated by different kinds of abilities, and work differently depending on where they come from: a continuous effect from a static ability is active as long as the static ability is active, and it doesn't "lock in" any kind of information; a continuous effect from another kind of ability will have some duration given (if no duration is given, the duration is indefinite), and locks in any information it needs to know when it is created.

Q: In a multiplayer game, I have a big Golgari Grave-Troll in play, but opponent A steals it by playing Govern the Guildless on it. Two turns later, opponent B steals it from him using Cytoplast Manipulator. If the Manipulator leaves play, who will get the Troll?

A: When the Manipulator leaves play, its continuous effect will end. However, the continuous effect of Govern the Guildless is still there, even though it was temporarily hidden by the Manipulator's effect. So without the Manipulator, opponent A will be the one to control the Troll again.

This one again? Or rather, still?
Q: I play Might of the Nephilim on Transguild Courier. Later that turn, my opponent Quickchanges the Courier to be White. Does the bonus from the Might disappear?

A: That wouldn't affect the Might's effect. The moment the Might resolves, it determines that the Courier has all five colors, so it creates a continuous effect that gives the creature +10/+10. Changing the colors afterwards doesn't alter the P/T bonus.

Compare this to Blessing of the Nephilim, where the continuous effect is created by a static ability rather than by a spell or another kind of ability. With static abilities, the size of the bonus would be recalculated all the time, and Quickchanging the creature could make it smaller or larger.

Things can sometimes get really messy when several continuous effects are all trying to modify the game state, and the end result depends on the order in which their respective modifications are applied. This topic is covered in Cranial Insertion: Relearning Humility, or in rule 418.5.

Replacement and prevention effects

These effects form a subset of the continuous effects. They don't do anything by themselves, but look around to see what other effects are doing and them occasionally change those effects around to do something else. You can tell them apart from ordinary continuous effects because replacement effects usually use the words "instead" or "skip", and prevention effects always use "prevent". Abilities that modify how something comes into play are also replacement effects.

Q: We have a disagreement about how the regeneration ability is supposed to work. Can you give us the answer?

A: To figure out what ability a keyword actually stands for, you need to look it up in the rulebook:
From the CompRules:
419.6b Regeneration is a destruction-replacement effect. The word "instead" doesn't appear on the card but is implicit in the definition of regeneration. "Regenerate [permanent]" means "The next time [permanent] would be destroyed this turn, instead remove all damage from it, tap it, and (if it's in combat) remove it from combat." Abilities that trigger from damage being dealt still trigger even if the permanent regenerates.
Let's say your opponent attacks with Grizzly Bears and you block with Votary of the Conclave. Before combat damage is dealt, you must use the Votary's activated ability, which will set up the replacement effect as it resolves. Now you can let the combat damage be dealt: the Votary will receive 2 from the Bears and die, but the "regeneration shield" catches this effect (a state-based effect: see below) and replaces it by removing damage from the Votary, tapping it, and removing it from combat.

State-based effects

Rather than a type of effect, this term refers to a set of rules. An example is the rule that causes creatures to be destroyed if they have lethal damage on them. These rules are checked every time a player would receive priority, to make sure a mortally wounded creature doesn't suffer too long. To read more about these rules, visit Cranial Insertion: Bring Out Your Dead, or rule 420.

Oh dear, I've been mostly ignoring Moko again while writing this article. I hope he'll forgive me if I put our email address here: [email][email protected][/email].

-Thijs van Ommen, The Netherlands


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