Hocus Pocus: How to Cast a Spell

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Magic would be pretty boring if nobody ever did anything but play lands. Luckily, lands often make mana, and mana lets us do one of the best things in Magic: cast spells! This is a pretty bulky subject, so this week I'll cover the basic steps of casting a spell. Next week I'll dive into some of the clever, weird, or downright bad things we can do with these rules.

For an extra look at the nitty-gritty of these rules, check out CR 601.

Step 1: Cut a Hole Put the Spell on the Stack

Players usually cast spells from their hands. However, several effects let us cast things from other zones. Haakon, Stromgald Scourge lets us cast Knight spells from the graveyard; Garruk's Horde lets us cast creature spells from the top of the library. Luckily, it doesn't matter where we want to cast the spell from. Step one is always moving it from wherever it is to the stack.

Step 2: Choices For the Spell - Modes, Alternate Costs, Etc.

This rule covers basically anything the game considers a "choice" (except targets; that's the next step). This is where we have to choose relevant modes for Cryptic Command. Want to cast Capsize with its additional buyback cost or evoke a Solitude? That also happens here!

We'll also choose any relevant values for {X} in this step. If we're casting a spell that has Phyrexian mana in its mana cost, this is where we determine if we want to pay with mana or life.

Step 3: Targetting Systems Engaged

Modes and alternative costs coming before targets makes a lot of sense. After all, if I cast a Cryptic Command, the chosen modes determine what can be targeted, or if anything must be targeted at all.

Critically, an object can only be the target of an object once for each instead of the word "target." For example, Dual Shot can't kill Grizzly Bears, since Shot can only target the Bears once. On the other hand, if I want to cast Decimate targeting my opponent's Myr Enforcer as the target creature and target artifact, I can do that. The ensuing double-destruction becomes relevant (and useful) if it's been, say, regenerated by a Welding Jar. Regeneration only saves permanents "the next time" they would be destroyed, not the next two times!

Step 4: Divide and Conquer

Short and to the point: this rule is the point of casting a spell where we divide things as we choose. Usually, this means distributing damage or counters amongst a spell's targets.

Of note, spells that let a player change targets don't let them change the distribution of the effect. Let's say I cast Magma Opus assigning 3 damage to Nessian Courser and 1 to Eager Cadet. My opponent Deflecting Swats the Opus. While they can change both targets of the Opus, they can't redistribute the damage - one target must take 3, and one target must take 1.

Step 5: Final Legality Check

After we've done everything above, the game checks one more time and asks, "Can you really cast this spell?" Sometimes, a proposed spell becomes illegal because of choices we've made during its announcement. For instance, everybody's favorite cat Lurrus of the Dream Den lets us cast a spell with mana value 2 or less from the graveyard. I can start to cast Stonecoil Serpent, but if I try to make {X} 3 or greater, this rule steps in and stops the cast. Since my Serpent's mana value is larger than 2, Lurrus no longer grants me permission to cast it.

If it turns out that a spell's proposal is illegal, the game rewinds to just before the announcement started. Any mana abilities are undone, and the spell goes back to the zone it was in before.

Step 6: It's Almost Time to Pay the Piper

If the spell survived the legality check, it's time to tally up our debts. This can include mana costs or alternate costs like pitching cards (March of Otherworldly Light) or sacrificing creatures (Village Rites). This step is also where cost increasing or decreasing effects come in. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, keep in mind that any of these increases or decreases don't actually affect the spell's mana value. That is, Colossus Hammer cast into an opponent's Thalia, Guardian of Thraben still has a mana value of 1.

When totaling up the spell's mana cost, apply any cost increases first, then any cost reductions. After that's done, Trinisphere steps in if it needs to. Even with Thalia in play, you still won't be paying more than 3 for that Hammer; Thalia bumps it up to 2, then Sphere to 3.

Importantly, once we're done figuring out the spell's cost in this step, it's "locked in." Nothing we do in the next two steps can affect what was determined here.

Step 7: Activating Mana Abilities

This is the last chance to activate mana abilities before we start making payments. Notably, the total cost must actually include a mana payment in order to activate mana abilities here. For instance, casting a Mishra's Bauble doesn't let you activate any mana abilities, because it doesn't require a mana payment.

Step 8: Actually Paying!

Finally, we get to wrap things up! We pay the total cost of the spell, which we determined in step 6. We can pay the total cost in any order - sacrifice the creature first, or pay the mana first. Unpayable costs can't be paid, which, yeah. Obviously. That's the first and second rule of tautology club.

Step 9: The Grand Finale

Once we've made it through all the other steps, effects that modify the spell as it is being cast (such as that of Yidris, Maelstrom Wielder) are applied, then the spell is at last cast. At this point, any abilities that trigger when a player casts a spell trigger and are put onto the stack.


Understanding the steps of casting a spell can be pretty important. While we didn't get to dive into too much "why" this time, join me next week for a look at some of the weird and wild predicaments we can encounter during the many steps of casting a spell.

If you have any specific situations you want to be explained (that don't involve Panglacial Wurm), feel free to find me on Twitter or our Insider Discord.

Until next time.

Question of the week: What's the cleverest thing you've ever done casting a spell?

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