Published on 06/20/2005

An Introduction to Magicese

Cranial Translation
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Note: This article is over two years old. Information in this article may be out of date due to subsequent Oracle and/or rules changes. Proceed with caution.

Today in Cranial Insertion, you will learn to read the language of Magicese.

It's an easy mistake to make to think that Magic cards are written in English. This may lead to confusion, because some words have a different meaning in Magicese than they do in English. I'm not just talking about words like "creature," "graveyard" and "flying." This article will discuss words that look like normal English, but have some additional significance when they appear in the rules text of a Magic card. If you can recognize these words, they will be a great help in knowing which rules to apply in which situation.

\n (Paragraph break)

What, you thought paragraph breaks were only there to make cards look prettier? They actually fulfill an important function: they separate multiple abilities that may appear on a card.

Q: According to the Champions of Kamigawa FAQ, there is a difference between Frostwielder and Nine-Ringed Bo. If Frostwielder damages a creature and it would be put into a graveyard then it's only removed if Frostwielder is still in play at that moment. On the other hand, if the Bo hits a creature but is itself destroyed before the creature dies, then that creature is removed. The cards have almost identical wordings, so I can't see why they behave different in this way. Please explain?

A: The difference is in the paragraph break. There is no break in the Bo's text, so its entire text forms a single ability. Once an ability has gone on the stack, it exists independently of its source: the ability knows that the creature will be removed from the game even if the Bo isn't in play anymore. Now look at Frostwielder. This card does have a paragraph break, so it has two distinct abilities. The first deals damage, and the second looks for creatures to remove from the game. If Frostwielder isn't in play when the damaged creature is going to the graveyard, then the second ability will no longer be around, and the creature won't be removed from the game.

: (Colon)

You already knew this card, didn't you?

Activated abilities are always written "[cost]: [effect]". Colons never appear in the rules text of a card except to mark an activated ability. Activated abilities use the stack, so they can be responded to.

Q: When exactly does Nezumi Shortfang flip?

A: Because there's no paragraph break in the Rat's text, the entire text is a single activated ability. When the activated ability is played and resolves, it makes the targeted opponent discard a card, then immediatelly checks the number of cards in that player's hand. If it's zero, Shortfang flips to Stabwhisker right away, as part of the effect of the activated ability.


Like each, this word doesn't actually have any rules relevance. Most people who think it does are confusing it with the word target.


When this word appears in a sentence like "As [this permanent] comes into play", then you know that the sentence represents a static ability. Static abilities don't use the stack, which means that they can't be responded to. This is a big difference with triggered abilities.

Because static abilities can be written in many ways, it's easier to simply remember how to recognize triggered abilities and activated abilities. Any other ability must be a static ability.

Q: I'm playing a deck with a lot of artifacts, but my opponent has a Hearth Kami out. If I play Pithing Needle, can I shut its ability down, or does he get the chance to destroy my Needle?

A: Your opponent is going to need to find another way to blow up your artifacts. The card for the Needle is named as the artifact is coming into play. Your opponent can't respond to it: as soon as the Needle is in play where it would be valid target for the Kami to destroy, the Needle's ability is active and he isn't allowed to activate the Kami's ability anymore.

As though

If an ability allows you take some action "as though" some condition were true, then you can perform that action even in situations where the condition is actually false. However, any other conditions still need to be true, and this text doesn't help you with any other actions than the one described.

Q: I have a Pitchstone Wall enchanted by Animate Wall. Can my Pitchstone Wall attack, even though it has defender?
A: Yes, it can. Animate Wall basically says "Hey, rules, for the purposes of attacking, the wall I'm enchanting doesn't have Defender. Really, I promise." The rules trust the card, so they shrug and say "Well, there's nothing else that would keep it from attacking. Go for it." Note that for *any* purpose other than attacking, Pitchstone Wall is still a defender, and is treated as such.


A good reason to know how to recognize
activated and triggered abilities.

Together with when and whenever, this word marks a triggered ability. Anything that uses one of these words is a triggered ability; anything that doesn't, isn't. Note that there's no difference between the three words from a rules perspective. The templating team simply chooses the one that sounds most natural on the card.

Q: My opponent is playing a deck featuring Sosuke, Son of Seshiro, which poisoned one of my creatures. Can I use Stifle to save it? If yes, when should I play Stifle?

A: Sosuke has a triggered ability within a triggered ability: "Whenever a Warrior you control deals combat damage to a creature, destroy that creature at end of combat." You can use Stifle to counter the "outer" triggered ability, which goes on the stack right after combat damage has been dealt. If you choose not to counter that ability, it will resolve and set up the other triggered ability to destroy your creature at end of combat. When you get to the end of combat step (the last step of the combat phase), this ability triggers and goes on the stack. Countering this one will also save your creature.


Some triggered abilities have a trigger condition using the word "becomes". Such abilities only trigger if the game goes from a situation where the condition doesn't apply to a situation where it does apply.

Q: I attack with Kitsune Blademaster, which is blocked by two creatures. Does it get +1/+1 or +2/+2 from its "Bushido 1" ability?

A: It only gets +1/+1; Bushido cares about your creature becoming blocked. No matter how many creatures were assigned to block your Samurai, it only went from "not blocked" to "blocked" once, so it only gets the bonus once.

Note that cards with a trigger like "becomes blocked by a creature" (for instance Deathgazer), it will trigger for each blocking creature: for each such creature, the attacker's state goes from "not blocked by this creature" to "blocked by this creature".


Magicese uses several shorthands to succinctly refer to different things. The word "permanent" is used to refer to cards in play, and the word "spell" describes cards on the stack. A card in any other zone is referred to as a "card". And if a type, supertype or subtype is used without one of these words (or "source," for completeness), then it's always referring to a permanent again.

Q: Can Stampeding Serow return green creatures from my graveyard to my hand?

A: No, it can't. The word "creature" isn't followed by one of the words mentioned above, so it must be referring to something in play. A creature in your graveyard would be referred to as a "creature card".

Choose one -

Modal spells work like a charm.

If the text "Choose one -" appears on a card, followed by a number of options to choose from, you're dealing with a modal spell or ability. Which "mode" to use is one of the few decisions that have to be made when the spell or ability is announced. The variant "[Player] chooses one -" also appears occasionally and follows the same rules.

Q: My opponent is playing a Spirit deck and he casts Æther Shockwave, choosing to tap all non-Spirit creatures. Can I respond with Twincast and tap all his Spirits as well?

A: No, that won't work. Twincast makes an exact copy of the spell, including the mode that was chosen when the original spell was played. While Twincast has special text to allow you to change the targets of the original spell if you want to, you're not allowed to change the spell's mode.


When an effect tells you to copy something, a whole set of special rules apply. An interesting part of these rules says that copy effects only care about other copy effects, and not about any other modifications from continuous effects.

Q: My opponent plays an Arcane spell and Splices a bunch of other cards on it. If I Twincast his spell, do I get just the original Arcane spell?

A: You're in luck! You get all effects from the Spliced cards as well. It works this way because the CompRules' entry for splice says that the text from the Spliced card is copied to the original Arcane spell. Because the text was placed there by a copy effect, it isn't beneath Twincast's notice, and your Twincast copy will get all the spliced text, too.


Who put this picture next to
the "cost" entry anyway?

The term cost has a special meaning in Magic, because costs to play spell or activated abilities are paid on announcement, where they can't be responded to. But not everything that feels like paying a cost (like sacrificing a creature or discarding a card) is necessarily a cost in this sense. Costs for activated abilities appear to the left of the colon; costs for spells (other than the obvious mana cost) are clearly marked with "As an additional cost to play ...."

Q: I control Dreamcatcher and play an Arcane spell. I want to draw a card from Dreamcatcher, but my opponent stops me and destroys my Dreamcatcher in response. He says I don't get to draw a card now. But isn't sacrificing Dreamcatcher a cost? Can he respond to it at all?

A: Your opponent is right. In this case, the sacrifice isn't a cost. It's part of the effect of the Dreamcatcher's triggered ability, which happens when the ability resolves. If you can't sacrifice the Dreamcatcher when its ability asks you to, you don't get the card.


This word means exactly the same as all as far as the rules are concerned. Specifically, it does not mean that anything is being targeted. See target for more information.

Q: If I control Ivory Mask, do I still draw cards from Mikokoro, Center of the Sea?

A: Sure you do. Mikokoro's ability doesn't use the word "target", so Ivory Mask doesn't affect it.


An effect that tells you to exchange two things will only do anything if both parts of the exchange can be made.

Q: I play Shifting Borders to take control of one of my opponent's lands, giving him my Oboro, Palace in the Clouds. In response, I play Oboro's ability to return it to my hand. Does this combo work?

A: No, Shifting Borders doesn't allow you to trade that unfairly. You only get your opponent's land if you can also give him control of yours.


In most cases, the Magicese meaning of the word "if" is the same as the English one. However, it has a special meaning where it appears in the following template: "When/Whenever/At [trigger condition], if [additional condition], [effect]." For such triggered abilities, the additional condition is checked when the ability triggers and again when it resolves. It must be true both times for the effect to occur.

Q: I go into my turn with six cards in hand. I want to gain 4 life from Ivory Crane Netsuke. Can I use Jushi Apprentice on my upkeep to get to seven cards and gain four life?

A: No, you can't. The Netsuke's [trigger condition] occurs at the very beginning of your upkeep step, before you can do anything. If you don't have seven or more cards in your hand at that moment, then the [additional condition] isn't satisfied, and the ability won't go on the stack.


This Alpha card is written in Ancient
Magicese. Check out the Oracle wording to
see the text translated to proper Magicese.

The word "instead" indicates a replacement effect. Replacement effects wait until some event happens. Then when that event would normally happen, it (or part of it) is replaced by something else.

Q: What happens if I control Library of Leng and Necropotence and an effect tells me to discard a card?

A: Both cards create replacement effects for that situation. When that happens, the affected player (which would be you) gets to decide which to apply first. Then the other effect tries to apply, but it might not succeed depending on what the first effect did. In this example, you have two options. If you apply the Necropotence first, it replaces the "discard a card" event with a "remove a card from the game" event. Now Library of Leng looks at the event, but can't do anything with it because it doesn't involve a discard anymore. The other option is to apply the Library's effect first: it replaces "discard a card" with "discard a card to the top of your library". Then Necropotence comes along and sees that the new event is just a special case of a discard, which it replaces by "remove a card from the game". So in this situation, no matter what you choose, the card is going to end up removed.


The appearance of this word indicates that some action is optional; you can choose whether you want to do it or not. For things that use the stack, you don't have to decide which way to go until the thing resolves.

Q: My Promised Kannushi got killed, but the only legal target for its Soulshift ability is a Kokusho, the Evening Star in my graveyard. I want that card to remain in my graveyard so I can reanimate it later. Do I have to target it?

A: You do have to target it, but that doesn't mean you have to bring it back. As the Soulshift trigger goes on the stack, you have to pick a legal target for it if you can. But when it resolves, you can choose to have the ability do nothing and leave the target where it is.


The word "play" may be used either as a noun or as a verb. As a noun, it refers to the in-play zone. As a verb, it refers to the action of playing something. For example, playing a spell refers to the process that usually involves putting the spell on the stack, selecting targets for it and paying its costs. Be careful not to confuse the two!

Q: My opponent plays Iwamori of the Open Fist. When its ability resolves, I drop my Myojin of Cleansing Fire from my hand into play. Does it get a divinity counter?

A: Unfortunately, the Myojins don't become divine this easily. While it's true that the Myojin came from your hand, that isn't enough for it to get a counter. It needs to have been played (the verb) from your hand. Iwamori allows you to put it into play (the noun, but a different verb was used), which isn't the same thing.


An ounce of Test of Faith is worth
a pound of Healing Salve.

Like replacement effects, prevention effects form a subset of continuous effects. Replacement effects (see instead and skip) and prevention effects have a lot of rules in common.

Q: In response to combat damage, my opponent plays Test of Faith on one of his creatures which was assigned 3 damage. Can I respond by playing Healing Salve on that creature, to prevent the damage before Test of Faith gets to do anything, so that his creature doesn't get any counters?

A: Prevention effects work like "shields" that hang around until they have absorbed some amount of damage, and then disappear. When your Salve resolves, all it does is create a shield around your opponent's creature. Test of Faith works the same way. Neither shield actually does anything until combat damage is resolved. Now there's a conflict between the two prevention effects. In such a case, the controller of the affected object gets to decide which effect to apply first. Your opponent will probably choose to apply the Test first and get some counters on his creature. Next, Healing Salve's shield sees that there's no more damage to be prevented, so it doesn't do anything yet, hoping for some more damage to be dealt this turn.


If you're told to "search" a hidden zone (usually someone's library) for a card that meets certain conditions, then you have the option of "failing to find" such a card even though it may exist. This doesn't apply if there are no conditions and you're allowed to find any card (like Neverending Torment): in those cases you have to select the required number of cards. Your only way out is if there aren't enough cards in the zone you're searching.

Q: You mentioned in the first article that the library is hidden information. My opponent is playing Future Sight, and I used my Mindslaver on him, and wanted to play his Kodama's Reach finding nothing just to make him waste it, but the top card is a land. Can I not find that land?

A: Yes, you can pretend you don't know about the land and not find it. Even though that land card is revealed, the library is still considered a hidden zone, and you're allowed to "fail to find" the land.


Like instead, this word signals that you're looking at a replacement effect.

Q: I control Yosei, the Morning Star, then play a second Yosei. The Legend rule puts them both in the graveyard. Does that mean that I get to tap up to ten of my opponent's permanents and make him skip his next two untap steps?

A: Yes, your opponent will get hit by the effect twice. Both effects independently allow you to tap some of his permanents and set up a replacement shield. The next time your opponent would take his untap step, one of the shields is used up and he skips ahead to his upkeep. The other shield waits around to make him skip the untap after as well.


It can't be targeted, but it can still
get thrown at an opponent's head.

If a creature has protection or another ability that makes it untargetable, and you have a spell or ability that wants to do something to that creature, then you need to figure out if your spell or ability is actually trying to target the creature. Fortunately, this question is extremely easy to answer: if a spell or ability uses the phrase "target [something]", then it targets that something; if it doesn't use that phrase, then it isn't targeting it.

There is only one exception to this simple rule, namely auras. While you are playing an aura, it targets the thing it is going to enchant. Once the enchantment is in play, it follows the normal rules and only targets if the word "target" appears.

Knowing whether or not a spell is targeted is also important for other reasons. Targets are chosen when the spell is being announced, not when it resolves, so other players can respond to your spell knowing what you're targeting. If you can't make legal choices for all the targets a spell requires, then you can't play that spell. Also, if all of a spell's targets are illegal when it tries to resolve, the spell will be countered by the game rules.

Q: I play the Fling part of Grab the Reins. Can I sacrifice my Kodama of the North Tree, or am I unable to target it?

A: The second mode of Grab the Reins has only one target: the "target creature or player" that will be on the receiving end of the damage. The word "target" isn't used to refer to the creature to be sacrificed. Grab the Reins isn't trying to target your Kodama, so sacrificing it is a legal move.


Some cards use the wording "[Action A] unless you [Action B]." This is just a shorthand for "You may [Action B]. If you don't, [Action A]." If for some reason you can't do Action B, you're forced to do Action A.

Q: I have taken control of the game, and my Blood Clock has returned most of my opponent's permanents to his hand. All he has left is a Platinum Angel. How does this play out?

A: Not well for your opponent, probably. Even though your opponent won't lose the game if he ends up at zero life, he can't pay life he doesn't have. Once he is below two life, he won't be able to pay life to the Blood Clock, and he will be forced to return his Angel to his hand.


One of the three words used by triggered abilities. See at.


One of the three words used by triggered abilities. See at.


If the word "you" (or "your") appears in a card's text, then it's referring to its controller. The "you" is often implicit in the wording: "sacrifice a creature" means the same as "you sacrifice a creature".

Q: I enchant my opponent's creature with Laccolith Rig. He attacks, and I block. Do I get to use the Rig to stop his creature from dealing its normal combat damage, and have it deal damage to one of his other creatures?

A: That's correct. The ability is on the enchantment. You are the enchantment's controller, so you control the ability and get to make all choices for it.

Remember, Saviors of Kamigawa is tournament legal now. This week's signing-off line is brought to you by Moko: "Until next week, may you run into many mind-boggling situations that you need our help with!"

-Thijs van Ommen, The Netherlands

About the Author:
Even though I'm not a judge, my interest in the rules of the game is the main reason for me to play. You'll usually find me answering questions in the rulings forum. I'm mostly a casual player: the only tournaments I visit are prereleases.


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