Handling Triggered Abilities

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You Know What These Are

If you've played Magic for longer than a week, you've run into a triggered ability. Some of them provide an incredible benefit, like Dark Confidant's; others punish their controllers, like Cityscape Leveler's. Today we'll dive into the guts of triggered abilities, how they work, and how we judges fix them when things go wrong.

The Basics

Triggered abilities always include one of the words "when," "whenever," or "at," either directly on the card or in the rules text of an ability (as with cascade: "when you cast this spell"). Generally, that crucial word comes at the start of the trigger condition. A-Omnath, Locus of Creation, for example, has two triggered abilities: "When Omnath enters the battlefield[...]" and "Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control[...]."

Most triggered abilities follow a similar structure: "[When/Whenever/At] [trigger condition or event], [effect]" -- though we'll cover some exceptions in just a bit.

Triggered abilities go on the stack the next time a player would receive priority. If different players both have triggers that need to go on the stack simultaneously, they go on the stack in active player, nonactive player order, with each player choosing the relative order of their own triggers. For example, if active player Abby controls Sylvan Library and Midnight Oil, and nonactive player Nick controls Teferi's Puzzle Box, Abby can choose the order her two triggers go on the stack, while Nick's trigger will always go on the stack after hers.

To put a triggered ability on the stack, think of it a bit like a spell. Players must choose a trigger's modes and targets as part of this process. Note that if a mode has no legal targets, it can't be chosen. For instance, if a player casts Charming Prince and controls no other creatures, they can't choose the third mode of its enters the battlefield triggered ability. Similarly, if a trigger necessitates making a choice and there's no legal choice to make, the ability is removed from the stack without doing anything.

Delayed and Reflexive and Mana Triggered Abilities, Oh My!

Of course, for each rule, there must be exceptions. And, yes, they're called "triggered mana abilities," but that wouldn't work with the goofy section title I wanted.

As you may have guessed from the name, delayed triggers tell players to do something later. They still use "when," "whenever," or "at" to identify themselves, but not usually at the start of the ability. For those older Modern players, Geist of Saint Traft's "Exile that token at end of combat" is a delayed trigger set up by the original attack trigger. Delayed triggers are usually created by a resolving spell or ability, but can also be the result of a replacement effect (like Cosmic Intervention) or a static ability that lets a player take an action (like Chancellor of the Tangle).

Reflexive triggers are triggers inside other spells or abilities, and they come with one very important caveat: if the reflexive trigger has a target, players only choose that target when the reflexive trigger goes on the stack. For instance, Hypothesizzle doesn't require a target to cast it. If, however, a player chooses to discard a nonland card, the reflexive trigger to deal 4 damage to a creature does require a target. That trigger goes on the stack after Hypothesizzle has fully resolved.

Triggered mana abilities look like normal triggered abilities, but are different in that they resolve immediately and don't use the stack. To qualify as a triggered mana ability, one must:

  1. not require a target (sorry, Deathrite Shaman)
  2. trigger on the activation or resolution of an activated mana ability (think Utopia Sprawl)
  3. potentially add mana when it resolves

Double the Triggers, Double the Fun

Magic has given us a fair few cards in the past few years that let us double up on triggers. Panharmonicon has been a standout Commander card since its release, and the Mardu commander Isshin, Two Heavens as One coming out in Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty has already caused quite a lot of chatter.

Alongside that, Wizards has also introduced some new phrases: "Do this only once each turn" (e.g. Donal, Herald of Wings) and "this ability triggers only once each turn" (e.g. Jin-Gitaxias, Progress Tyrant). The latter ability simply can't be doubled, while the former can be. While we currently don't have any "do this only once each turn" abilities that can really benefit from being doubled, it may become relevant later on.

Triggers which trigger an additional time exist entirely separate from one another. For instance, if a player controls Panharmonicon and resolves Charming Prince, they can choose different modes for each trigger. If they copied that trigger instead (say with Strionic Resonator), they wouldn't be able to then change the chosen mode.

Missed Me (Regular REL)

Most games involve a lot of triggers. Modern is crawling with Mishra's Baubles, Eidolon of the Great Revels, and A-Dragon's Rage Channelers all over the place. With everything going on, sometimes things get missed. How do we resolve that?

The answer changes a bit between Regular Rules Enforcement Level (REL) like Friday Night Magic and Competitive REL like a Grand Prix. However, step one does not: call a judge!

The Judging at Regular REL document governs Regular REL and has this to say on the matter:

[Triggered] abilities are considered missed if the player did not acknowledge the ability in any way at the point that it requires choices or had a visible in-game effect. If the ability includes the word "may," assume the player chose not to perform it. Otherwise, put the ability on the stack unless you think it would be too disruptive - don't add it to the stack if significant decisions have been made based on the effect not happening! Unlike other illegal actions (which must be pointed out), players may choose whether or not to point out their opponent's missed triggers.

Judging At Regular REL

Judge discretion plays a big role at Regular REL. I would consider a "significant decision" something like a player paying 2 life to have their Watery Grave enter untapped after their opponent missed an Eidolon of the Great Revel trigger.

Missed Me (Competitive REL)

The Magic Infraction Procedure Guide applies to Competitive and Professional REL. It defines Missed Trigger thusly:

A triggered ability triggers, but the player controlling the ability doesn't demonstrate awareness of the trigger's existence by the first time that it would affect the game in a visible fashion.

Magic Infraction Procedure Guide

Want more info on how exactly to determine whether a trigger has been missed? Smarter people than I have written the Annotated IPG. There's also Dave Elden's Judging FTW video on missed triggers:

Instead, we'll focus on how to resolve those missed triggers. First, we have a few special cases.

If the triggered ability is an enters-the-battlefield trigger of an Aura that affects only the enchanted permanent and causes a visible change to that permanent, resolve the ability immediately.

Magic Infraction Procedure Guide

Did you put Charmed Sleep on a creature and forget to tap it? Cool. We can tap it now.

If the triggered ability is a delayed triggered ability that undoes a zone change (including token creation) caused by the effect that created the delayed triggered ability, the opponent chooses whether to resolve the ability the next time a player would get priority or when a player would get priority at the start of the next phase. The new zone does not need to be the same as the one the card was originally moved from.

Magic Infraction Procedure Guide

This excerpt covers a couple of things. If a player forgot to return The Scarab God to their hand, that fits here. We return it to their hand either next time a player would get priority or the start of the next phase. The fix also handles situations in the vein of "oops, I forgot to exile my Angel token from Geist of Saint Traft."

For all other triggered abilities, if the ability was missed prior to the current phase in the previous turn, instruct the players to continue playing. If the triggered ability created an effect whose duration has already expired, instruct the players to continue playing.

Magic Infraction Procedure Guide

If the trigger doesn't fit into one of the two previously mentioned categories, it has a one-turn shelf life. After that, we don't fix it.

Otherwise, the opponent chooses if the trigger goes on the stack now. A player can't make any choices for the trigger that wouldn't have been a legal choice at the time. For instance, if they missed a Fleshbag Marauder trigger, played a Grizzly Bears, and then noticed, they couldn't sacrifice the Bears.

We don't assign Warnings for Missed Triggers by default. However, if a trigger is detrimental to the same player who owns the card that created the trigger, they will receive a Warning. That "card" clause is significant pretty much entirely because of The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale. Before the clause was added, players could get Warnings for forgetting their own creatures' Tabernacle triggers, even if Tabernacle wasn't their card.


Hopefully, this helped clear up the convoluted world of triggered abilities some. Did I write this mostly to talk about Geist of Saint Traft? Maybe. Do I lie awake most nights pining for him to be playable in Modern again? Don't judge me.

Join me next week for another entry in the Layers series! And as a reminder, If you have any topics you'd like to see covered, you can reach me on Twitter or our Insider Discord.

Question of the week: Do you have any tips or tricks to remember triggered abilities?

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