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Playing Spells and Abilities

Playing a spell or ability involves the steps outlined below. Steps 2 through 4 are followed simultaneously; for example, paying a cost doesn't affect what a spell or ability can target.

  1. Decide which spell or ability you want to play. If a spell or ability requires paying any costs you can't afford, choosing a target when no legal targets are available, or such, you can't play it.
  2. Pay any costs required to play the spell or ability. This is typically limited to the casting cost of a spell or the activation cost of an ability. Some spells and abilities, however, list additional costs in their card text (see Paying Costs). If a cost includes (X), you must choose the value of X at this time and pay the appropriate amount of generic mana.
  3. Choose any required targets. All targets must be legal; in other words, they must meet the requirements of the spell's or ability's text. Spells and abilities that are directed at targets describe what they target in a phrase beginning with the word "target," such as "target creature" or "target blue enchantment." If the spell or ability requires choosing more than one target, you can't choose the same target twice.
  4. Make any other choices called for by the spell or ability. A spell might require that you choose a basic land type, for example. All decisions regarding the effects of a spell or ability must be made at the time it's played. The exceptions to this are decisions that depend on the contents of someone's hand or on looking at someone's library.
  5. If you complete steps 2 through 4, the spell or ability is considered played (and if a spell, leaves your hand). When it takes effect, it goes either into play or into the graveyard, as appropriate. As soon as an ability is played, its effect is considered separate from the source--but that effect "remembers" everything that's true about its source. Removing or altering the source of an effect won't alter the effect.

Paying Costs

All spells have a casting cost, even if it's (0). Look in the upper right corner of the card to determine a spell's cost. (Remember, costs described in the spell's text don't count as part of the casting cost.) If this cost includes a (X), that portion of the cost is variable. When a spell is being cast, the (X) becomes whatever amount of mana that's desirable and affordable to the player casting the spell. When a spell isn't being cast, the (X) is treated as a (0). When something "looks up" a card's casting cost, it typically just checks on the total amount of mana in the cost, not which types of mana, if any, are specified.


Spell Blast has a casting cost of XU, where X is the castig cost of the spell's target. Thus, Spell Blast with an X as 2 could target Terror (1B), Disenchant (1W), or Lifeforce (GG). The Spell Blast doesn't care, what type of mana is required by the target spell, so targeting Lifeforce with it costs 2U, not GGU.

You must have all the necessary resources available to pay a cost; for example, you tap lands for mana before playing a spell, not while you're playing it. Some effects require additional mana to be paid as a one-time fee to play a spell. This fee is immediate and doesn't affect the spell's casting cost. In the same way, effects that say a spell costs less to cast don't change a spell's casting cost but instead pay for some of that cost.


Disenchant's casting cost is 1W, so it always costs 2U to counter with Spell Blast, even if an effect such as Gloom (which makes white spells cost an additional 3 to cast) makes it more expensive to play. Similarly, if an effect lets you pay less mana to play Disenchant, it's casting cost is still 2.

Many abilities also have costs to use. Typically these abilities are written in a "cost: effect" format, where "cost" is the activation cost of the ability. The activation cost usually includes some amount of mana and/or the TAP symbol. If you want to use the ability's effect more than once, you'll have to play the ability that many times, paying for the effect once each time.


Pestilence reads: "B: Pestilence deals 1 damage to each creature and player." If you pay B when you use the ability, the enchantment deals 1 damage to everything. If you want to deal 6 damage to everything, you'll have to play the ability 6 times, paying B each time.


Kukemssa Serpent reads: "U, sacrifice an island: target land an opponent controls is an island until end of turn." If you want to change 3 of your opponent's lands into islands for the turn, you'll have to play the ability 3 times, paying U and sacrificing an island of your own each time.

Nothing can stop a cost from being paid, and nothing can conserve those resources for you to use later. For example, a sacrificed creature is simply buried, without giving anyone the chance to regenerate it or otherwise prevent it from being put into the graveyard.

More on Targeting

A targeted spell or ability can't be played on an illegal target, which means that you can't play a spell or ability on an illegal target and later adjust the spell or target so that the match is valid. If a spell or ability targets more than one thing, you can't choose the same target for it twice.


Bob has Terror and Sleight of Mind in his hand. Terror buries a nonblack, nonartifact creature, and Sleight of Mind changes one color word on a card to another. Bob tries to play Terror on Sue's Sengir Vampire (a black creature) and then to Sleight the Terror to say "red" instead of "black", thus making the Vampire a legal target for the Terror. Sue points out, though, that because Terror specifies nonblack targets, Bob can't play it on the Vampire at all, regardless of the Sleight of Mind.

The target of a spell or effect might disappear or become illegal before the spell or effect resolves. This generally happens when the location of the target changes or the target is given protection before the spell or effect resolves. In this case, the spell or effect fizzles with respect to that target, doing nothing. If a spell or effect has multiple targets, it fizzles or succeeds against each of them separately. If a spell or effect fizzles with respect to all of its targets, any nontargeted portions of the effect are ignored as well.


Ashes to Ashes removes two target creatures from the game and deals 5 damage to its caster. Thus, it has two targeted effects (one for each creature removed) and one nontargeted effect (the damage). If someone responds to the spell by giving one of its targets protection from black, it fizzles with respect to that creature, but still removes the other target and deals 5 damage to its caster. If it fizzles against both targets, however, the nontargetes portion fails as well, and the caster takes no damage.

Once a spell or effect has been played, the only time it checks to see whether a target is still legal is when it resolves. If a spell or effect resolves successfully, it does its best to apply itself to the target for the stated duration, even if the target becomes illegal at some point. If a target becomes illegal, the effect becomes dormant and waits until the target's legal again. (See Enchantments for the exception to this rule.)


Bob plays Giant Growth (a green spell) on an artifact that's been turned into a creature, giving the creature +3/+3 until end of turn. If Bob gives the creature protection from green later in the turn, that doesn't end the Giant Growth's effect. If the artifact stops being a creature later in the turn, the +3/+3 effect will become dormant, but it will reapply, if the artifact becomes a creature again before the end of the turn.


Bob attacks Sue with the artifact creature from the above example. During the attack, Sue uses her Ice Floe on it ("As long as Ice Floe remains tapped, [target] creature does not untap during its controller's untap phase"). If the artifact stops being a creature after the Floe's effect has resolved, it'll still be "locked down" by the effect, which doesn't keep checking to see that its target remains a creature.

Certain permanents target something when the permanent itself is played, rather than when its ability is played or otherwise takes effect. Such targets must be chosen when the permanent is played, just like the target for any other spell. Once the target's selected, it can't be changed, even after the permanent is in play.


Bob plays Kismet, an enchantment that reads: "All of target player's artifacts, creatures, and lands come into play tapped." Kismet therefore targets a player (normally he would choose Sue) when played and affects permanent played by that person.


Games have timing systems for two reasons: to dictate when cards can be played, and to mediate when both players want to do something at the same time or both want to see what the other does first. In Magic, mediation between players is fairly straightforward, so we'll touch on it first.

Whenever both players have the opportunity to do something and/or are being instructed to do something, the player whose turn it is (the active player) does so first, even if he'd rather wait to see what his opponent's going to do.

Keep this in mind when reading the timing rules on how spells and abilities are played. Whenever the rules talk about both players being able to do something, it's assumed that the active player decides first whether to do anything. Furthermore, although the active player decides first, he still has to give his opponent the opportunity to do something whenever appropriate. For example, if the active player plays an instant, he can't dictate that the instant resolve immediately; he must let his opponent respond.

Remember, players can always use mana sources if they need mana to pay for something, even if effects aren't normally legal at that time. Mana sources are used prior to playing the spell or ability, not in the process of playing it.