Cranial Insertion: How to Play a Spell

Cranial Insertion
How to Play a Spell
or, Help I'm Being Held Prisoner in a Subtitle Factory

By Eli Shiffrin, Thijs von Ommen, & Tom Fowler

Here we go, the last Cranial Insertion of our first year, magical number 52! This being the third Monday of the month, it's time for an in-depth look at something.

Want to see my wine collection?

Erm, right, something MAGICAL. Although my wine collection is magical, we need something Magical with a capital M. How about... the process of playing a spell?

That's your cue to act excited.

It's normal to just tap your lands and say "I play Spell." There are many steps to actually playing a spell, and announcing each part would make the game tedious and boring. Your opponent can't do anything during this process, so you don't need to wait for any kind of response. (Take THAT, interrupts!)

So why does it matter how a spell is played if the shortcut of tapping lands and plopping your spell on the table works? Because many rules questions of the "Can I do this?" nature can be clarified by knowing exactly how a spell is played. You may also find a trick that you didn't realize worked when you see the process.

You can follow along with the Comprehensive Rules at section 409, "Playing Spells and Activated Abilities." Activated abilities do follow the same procedure as playing a spell, so you're getting two topics instead of one here!

Because brains in jars are sexy.
We'll start off with the caveat of 409.1 - if you start playing a spell and then realize that you screwed up, rewind. In a tournament, this mistake can get you a caution or a formal warning, and if you habitually do it, it can be upgraded. For instance, if you start to play a Terror on a White Knight, that Knight being the only creature in play, you have to rewind. If you announce that Terror and then realize that you only have one Swamp in play and Terror costs two mana, you rewind.

Also important to note is that during this process, from the announcement to the completion of playing, no one receives priority. You can not play any other spells or abilities (except mana abilities at a certain time), and no other players can do anything at all (unless something tells them to - such as Gleemax, that evil rule-breaking alien brain in a jar.)

Q: I sacrifice my Skarrgan Skybreaker to kill my opponent, but he wants to Mortify it in response, before I can sacrifice it. Can he do that?

A: No, he can not. He's stuck sitting there, unable to do anything until you're done playing the ability and pass priority. Since you sacrifice the Skybreaker as a cost to play the ability in step 8 (read on, you'll see step 8 in a little bit), he's already dead and flying at your opponent's dome by the time he can do anything.

Step 1: Announcements, announcements, anoooouuuncements!

The first thing you do to play a spell is say that you're playing it. Real hard, huh? For playing a spell, the spell leaves its current zone and takes up residence on the stack until it's evicted by resolution. Activated abilities just create an object with the ability's text on the stack.

Q: Can I discard Waste Away to pay for itself?

A: That won't quite work. As soon as you announce/play Waste Away, it's out of your hand, and of course, you can only discard what's in your hand.

Okay, now on to the fun stuff.

Step 2: Choices, choices

Are you doing anything weird with your spell? Are you paying extra for buyback, kicker, or replicate? What about if you have to "choose one" for a modal spell? This is where you decide.

If you are adding on any optional costs or alternative costs, you choose to do so now. Alternative costs, such as morph, Fist of the Suns, and Blazing Shoal can't be combined - that is, you can't choose to pay WUBRG for a face-down creature, even if you really want to waste mana like that.

Q: When do I pick a victim for Cranial Extraction?

A: If you're asked to "name a card", "choose a player", or somesuch, you do not do so here - that's part of the spell that happens when it resolves, not a playing choice.

Q: If I turn up a Voidmage Apprentice with Mind's Desire, can I play it face-down?

A: Playing a card "without paying its mana cost" is an alternate cost to play it. So is playing a spell face-down. Since alternative costs can't be combined, you're out of luck - your apprentice will never counter a spell.

Target target targets target target.
Step 3: Target acquired, all systems go

This is the fun part where you choose targets. For each instance of the word "target" on the spell or ability a separate target must be chosen for each target required, and if you can target any number of targets, you choose how many you're going to target before you choose them.

For those of you following along at home with the CompRules, this step includes two rules, 409.1c and 409.1d. 409.1d just makes the important note that if a spell or ability would only require a target under special circumstances (like kicker) and that circumstance is not fulfilled, you don't have to choose a target. That seems pretty intuitive, but the comprehensive rules are supposed to be comprehensive and cover even silly little things like that.

Q: Can I play Runeboggle with no target just to draw a card?

A: Nope, you need a target. If you can't choose a target, you have to rewind back to before you started playing Runeboggle.

Q: Oh, what if I make Runeboggle target itself?

A: Then rule 415.6 gets mad at you. That's the rule that says "A spell or ability on the stack is an illegal target for itself."

Q: I went to play Terror on my opponent's creature that was about to kill me, but then realized that it was a White Knight. Do I rewind, or do I have to target a different creature?

A: You have to target something else if possible. The target you wanted to choose isn't a valid choice, but you only rewind if you can not make a choice, not if the choice you intended to make isn't a legal choice. At lower rules-enforcement levels, and especially in casual, unsanctioned play, it's not a bad idea to allow this rewind, though.

Step 4: Long Division

This step is where you divide things like Living Inferno's damage and which target is which victim of Cone of Flame. Most of the time, you'll ignore this step entirely.

Q: I tapped Living Inferno equipped with Sword of the Paruns, and wanted to divide 10 damage, but my opponent says that I can't. Who's right?

A: Yeah, a repeat. Moko answered this question a while back, but now you can really see the answer. We haven't gotten to the "pay-the-costs" part yet, so at this point, the Inferno is an untapped 8/7, and you only get to divide 8 damage.

Q: What happens if I tap my Living Inferno but don't want to target anything, like the only other creature is 9/9? Do I have to rewind since I can't divide damage?

A: Nope, your play is perfectly legal. Inferno asks you to choose any number of targets, and zero is indeed a number! When you get to this point, you choose how each target will receive the damage, and since there are no targets, there's nothing to decide.

Q: Can I target 20 creatures with Living Inferno so Horobi, Death's Wail will kill them all?

A: Your Inferno can't overextend itself like that. When you divide up the damage, each target must receive at least 1 damage. Unless, of course, you're playing with Unhinged. Then math gets ugly.

Step 5: Ultimate price

Okay, you're all set and ready to go! Now it's time to figure out what you're going to pay for this silly spell. This will usually either be the mana cost of a spell or everything before the colon of an activated ability, but all sorts of things can change that, such as Sphere of Resistance, Emerald Medallion, and replicate. To figure out the total cost, do the math in this order:

Cost + (Any additional costs) - (Any cost reductions) = (Final cost)

Then apply anything like Trinisphere that alters the cost you *would* pay (hey, Trinisphere is the only card that does this right now!)

Q: If I splice Glacial Ray onto Eye of Nowhere with a Sapphire Medallion, how much will I have to pay?

A: Time for the happy formula!

UU (the cost of Eye) + 1R (the additional splice cost) - 1 (from the Medallion) = UUR

This is why the order of the formula is important; you may be thinking that the Medallion reduces the cost before you add on the splice cost, in which case the cost would be more. It's also important to realize that splice is an additional cost to play the spell, not just a random cost you have to pay to splice.

Step 6: Mana abilities are sneaky

Now you get to play mana abilities. Wheeee!

Ever notice that some weird cards like Lion's Eye Diamond and Witch Engine say "Play this ability only any time you could play an instant."? This is why. You can't play an instant here, so you can't play their mana abilities.

Note that you are NOT receiving priority. No one gets to have their happy priority during the announcement of a spell. You just can play them. Weird, isn't it? This matters because of this screwball question that someone actually asked me:

Q: Okay, I have a Keldon Warlord enchanted with Clinging Darkness, a tapped Blood Pet, and five Forests in play. When I play Siege Wurm, I'll need to tap the Warlord and sacrifice the Pet. Now, after I sacrifice the Pet for rule 409.1g, does the Warlord survive long enough as a 0/0 for me to tap him for convoke in 409.1h?

A: He does, which is decidedly freaky. Since state-based effects are only checked when a player would receive priority, and you don't get priority to play those mana abilities you're playing, he'll happily sit there drooling into his helmet with no power or toughness while you tap him in step 7.

Q: Don't you have to have mana in your pool before you announce a spell? That's how it works on MTGO.

A: It only works that way because you clicked the option that forces you to only play spells if you have enough mana already in your pool to play them. If you click the "Settings" helmet on the left and move to the "Game Play" tab, you can uncheck the option "You can only announce a spell or activated ability if you have the mana in your mana pool to pay for it."

Up until 6th Edition rules, that was also how it always worked. There was one infamous incident where a player was disqualified because he kept announcing spells before tapping lands for mana...

Step 7: Pay the pauper

Oh, right, we have to actually pay for the thing now. Take the mana out of your pool, or lose life or tap things or whatever else you have to do to pay that cost.

Q: My opponent taps Gelectrode to ping me - can I Gigadrowse it in response to stop him?

A: No. By the time you get priority, this happy little step 7 is already long gone. You can't stop him from paying the cost of "Tap", and when you can play Gigadrowse, the cost is paid - and can not be unpaid.

Step 8: Congratulations, you've Played your spell!

Whoa, priority's back! Whoever just played the spell/ability - we'll call it "you" for convenience's sake - gets it first. But before anyone gets priority, state-based effects clean up things like Keldon-Warlord drool and anything that triggered during the announcement gets to go on the stack.

Hey, look at that, a pretty acronym. "ACT, DUMP, Played". Okay, it's not pretty. It's rather horrific. It makes Baby Cthulhu cry a little. If anyone has suggestions, drop a comment on this article.

Join us next week for our first anniversary celebration!

-Eli Shiffrin, L2 DCI Judge, Tucson, AZ


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