Published on 10/31/2005

Relearning Humility (Again)

or, Who's Still Afraid of Continuous Effects?

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 Information in this article may be out of date due to subsequent Oracle and/or rules changes.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.

This article originally appeared back in April. Because the rules explained in that article were changed significantly with the October 1 rules update and this is a topic that many people have questions about, the article has been updated. Wherever something relevant was changed, a (change) note appears before the part that was changed.

Hello everyone, and welcome to the fourth thirty-second installment of Cranial Insertion, your weekly rules column! This week we'll be taking a somewhat different approach from other weeks. Instead of answering a number of questions on several different topics, we'll discuss a single topic more in-depth. The topic for today is the interaction of continuous effects.

Q: I have Humility and two copies of Opalescence in my graveyard, and I play Replenish. What happens?

A: *silence*

It's clear Moko doesn't like me. :( He obviously knows that continuous effects are one of the most despised parts of the Magic rules. The mere mention of Humility and Opalescence in the same question is often enough to fill the heart of any rules guru with terror. I'll bake Moko a cake to let him know I mean well. Maybe then he'll let me answer some easy questions in the future. :)

Before we begin, let's have a look at what we're going to talk about in the first place. Most of what will be covered here can be read in the Comprehensive Rulebook under rule 418.

An effect is the general term for what happens when a spell or (activated or triggered) ability resolves. There are two main types of effects: one-shot effects and continuous effects. A one-shot effect causes something to happen immediately. After it has been applied, it no longer affects the game. Shock and Terror are examples of spells that create one-shot effects.

Here's a continuous effect that
likes to mess with the rules
Continuous effects are different: they stick around and affect the game for a certain period of time. This period may be something like the duration of a single turn, but it may also be for the rest of the game. Examples include Giant Growth and Blessed Breath. Continuous effects can also be generated by static abilities: this is what cards like Night of Souls' Betrayal and Mirror Gallery do.

(Other types of effects are replacement effects and prevention effects. Such effects are special cases of continuous effects. You may have heard about state-based effects, too. Those are not created by spells or abilities, but by the rules of the game.)

Having a bunch of continuous effects all active at the same time can be quite a headache. It may sometimes be very unclear what the result will be when several continuous effects are combined. To figure out what happens in any given situation, the rules describe a procedure that will lead us to the answer.

If at any point during the game you want to know what the game state looks like, you can find the answer as follows. First, forget about continuous effects and look at all the cards as they are printed. In the case of tokens or face-down cards, instead use the information given by the effect or the rule that created the token or face-down card. Next, apply all the continuous effects one after the other. After all effects have been applied, you'll have found the current game state. The difficulty is, of course: what order are the effects applied in? This is the main subject of the Comprehensive Rulebook on this topic (see rule 418.5. Interaction of Continuous Effects).

(change) There are four factors that determine the order in which continuous effects are applied. They are layers, dependency, characteristic-setting effects, and timestamp. I'll go through them one by one. The order they are listed in is relevant. Layers are listed first because they're the most important in the sense that if the layer rules tell you that one effect should be applied before another, then the dependency, characteristic-setting effects and timestamp rules can't change that. Timestamp is the least important in the same sense: the timestamp rules only matter if the other rules couldn't tell you which effect to apply first.


The rules for layers are quite straightforward, but they are one of the few things in the Magic rules that require memorization. The layers are as follows (see rule 418.5a):

  1. copy effects;
  2. control-changing effects;
  3. text-changing effects;
  4. type-, subtype-, and supertype-changing effects;
  5. all other continuous effects, except those that change power or toughness;
  6. power- or toughness-changing effects.

If two effects fall in different layers, then they are always applied in the order of those layers.

Q: I control a White Knight and a Crusade. My opponent used Mind Bend to make my Crusade affect black creatures instead of white ones. I changed my White Knight's color to black using Blind Seer. How big is my Knight?

A: Start with the Knight's printed value of 2/2. Now we need to figure out which layer each of the effects belongs to. Crusade wants to change power or toughness (both, in fact), so it has to wait until layer 6. Mind Bend changes text, so it goes in layer 3. The continuous effect created by Blind Seer's ability falls in the "miscellaneous" layer 5. Now we apply them one by one. Mind Bend goes first, so Crusade is changed to read "Black creatures get +1/+1." Next up is Blind Seer, which colors the Knight black. Finally, Crusade is applied: it looks for all black creatures and sees that the White Knight is one of those, so it gives it a +1/+1 bonus. End result: the Knight is 3/3.

As you can see, the layers cause things to work just the way you'd expect them to work. At least in this case...

(change) The power- or toughness-changing effects in layer six are further divided into the following sublayers:

  1. effects from characteristic-setting abilities;
  2. all power- or toughness-changing effects that don't fall in 6a, 6c, 6d or 6e;
  3. effects from P/T-changing counters;
  4. effects that (i) are from static abilities, but (ii) don't set power or toughness to be equal to a given value;
  5. effects that switch a creature's power and toughness.

Characteristic-setting abilities are defined in rule 405.2. A characteristic-setting ability is a static ability that assigns a value to one or more of the characteristics of the object the ability is on. Examples of cards with characteristic-setting abilities are Crimson Kobolds, Kodama of the Center Tree (both its abilities), and Mistform Ultimus. Note that an ability which determines the value of a characteristic for another object is not a characteristic-setting ability! (change) Also, abilities that aren't an intrinsic part of the object but were given to the object by some effect other than a copy effect aren't characteristic-setting abilities. Effects from characteristic abilities are themselves called characteristic-setting effects. Even though we're looking at such effects here, these aren't the "characteristic-setting effect rules" I mentioned at the beginning; those will appear later in the article.

Now that you know what characteristic-setting abilities are, it's easy to see what goes in layers 6a, 6c and 6e. For the rest, you have to figure out whether they go in either 6b or 6d. If something meets both requirements (i) and (ii), it goes in 6d, and if it fails to meet one of those requirements, it goes in 6b. So 6b ends up with all effects that aren't from static abilities, as well as anything that sets power or toughness to some value (unless it's from characteristic-setting ability).

Q: I control Kodama of the Center Tree but no other Spirits. Then my opponent activates Imagecrafter to change my Kodama into a Pyknite, which would make it 0/0. I respond to the Imagecrafter's ability by playing Kodama's Might. Will my Kodama survive?

A: After the Imagecrafter's ability resolves, there'll be three continuous effects to deal with: one from Imagecrafter, one from the Kodama itself, and one from its Might. Imagecrafter's effect is the only one from layer 4, so it goes first. The other two belong in layer 6, but the Kodama's effect is characteristic-setting, so it gets to go in layer 6a, before the Might. It makes the Kodama 0/0, then in layer 6b the Might makes it 2/2. Note that the Kodama was never actually 0/0 as far as the game is concerned. The 0/0 appeared as an intermediate result during the calculation of the continuous effects. Other parts of the game don't care about intermediate results, only about the final result. So the Kodama will survive.

When the turn is over, both the Imagecrafter's and the Might's effect will end at the same moment, leaving the Kodama at 1/1 again.

When Mark Gottlieb found an
Aquamoeba infestation in his
secret volcano lair, he decided
to do something about it.
Q: I control Slagwurm Armor and Aquamoeba. I play Aquamoeba's ability and let it resolve. Then I use the Armor's equip ability to attach it to the Aquamoeba.

A: (change) The order in which the ability was played and the Armor was attached used to matter, but they don't anymore. Effects that switch power and toughness are now always applied last, in layer 6e. Apply the +0/+6 first for a 1/9 Aquamoeba, then switch the power and toughness to end up with a 9/1 creature.

Q: I have a Halcyon Glaze and a Glorious Anthem in play. There's a +1/+1 counter on the Glaze, which I put there when it was animated earlier this game. How big will the Glaze be when I animate it again?

A: Glorious Anthem has a static ability that modifies power and toughness but doesn't set them directly, so it falls in layer 6d. The +1/+1 counter gets applied in layer 6c, while the power/toughness-altering part of the Glaze's animation effect goes in layer 6b, before either of the others. The Glaze will end up as a 6/6.

Sometimes, it isn't clear what layer an effect belongs to, because it may do several different things that would make it go in different layers. In such a case, the effect is split up, and each part is applied in its own layer. (change) If an effect is split up in this way: the various parts will still work as a team; the first part to be applied locks in what objects the effect as a whole will apply to. The other parts of the effect will apply to these same things. They will even continue to apply if the ability that generates the effect is no longer there when the other parts get to be applied.

Q: How does this change affect March of the Machines?

A: (change) In practically all scenarios, it still does what you're used to: in layer 4, all noncreature artifacts become artifact creatures, and in layer 6b, the power and toughness of all those artifacts are determined (even though March of the Machines affects noncreature artifacts, and the affected permanents are already creatures at this point). The entire effect used to be applied in layer 4. This means that under the new rules, the P/T-setting part of the March may end up being applied after effects while it used to be applied before them.


It will often happen that the layer rules can't tell you which effect goes first, because the effects you're looking at would all fall in the same layer and none of them are characteristic-setting effects. In such a case, the dependency rules are next in line to provide an answer.

So, what can the dependency rules tell us?
From the CompRules:
418.5c An effect is said to “depend on” another if (a) it’s applied in the same layer (and, if applicable, sublayer) as the other effect (see rule 418.5a) and (b) applying the other would change the text or the existence of the first effect, what it applies to, or what it does to any of the things it applies to. Otherwise, the effect is considered to be independent of the other effect.
The first condition (a) is obvious: if the two effects don't fall in the same layer, then we already know which should be applied first, and we don't need the dependency rules. Condition (b) says, in short: effect A depends on effect B if applying effect B first would change what effect A does.

(change) The new rules give much more detail on how dependencies affect the order of continuous effects. Generally speaking, if you have two effects A and B, and effect A depends on effect B, then effect B will be applied first. To see what happens when multiple dependencies occur in a single layer or sublayer, follow the following steps:
  1. Find all effects that are independent: they don't depend on any other effect that still has to apply in that layer or sublayer.
    • If there is only one such effect, apply it.
    • If there are several such effects, use the characteristic-setting effect rules to find which of them goes first. Apply this first one, but don't apply the others yet.
    • If there are no such effects, you're dealing with a loop of effects that all depend on each other. Apply all of the effects that are part of such a loop.
  2. Repeat from step 1 until all effects within the layer or sublayer have been applied.

What layer are you in?
Q: I have a Forest enchanted with Genju of the Cedars. I also control a Conspiracy which changes all my creatures, creature spells and creature cards to have subtype Ape. When I activate my Genju, what creature type will my animated Forest be?

A: Both effects we are dealing with fall in layer 4, so we have to resort to the dependency rules. Let's see what the dependencies between the two effects are. Applying Conspiracy before the Genju doesn't change what the Genju does: the Genju's effect will just animate the land and make it a Spirit. So Genju doesn't depend on Conspiracy. However, applying Genju before Conspiracy would change what Conspiracy applies to: it will only affect the Forest in question if it has been changed into a creature. The Genju's effect is the only independent one, so it is applied first, creating a Spirit creature. Then Conspiracy will come along and change the Spirit into an Ape. (The parts of the Genju's effect that make it green and 4/4 are applied in subsequent layers.)

Q: I control a White Knight. My opponent Mind Bends it to change its protection from Black to White. I play my own Mind Bend to change all instances of White to Black again. Does this cause an infinite loop?

A: No. Continuous effects never end up in infinite loops. The rules described here place each effect somewhere in a sequence, and each effect will only occur once in that sequence. In this case, both effects fall in the same layer, but your effect depends on your opponent's (because yours wouldn't do anything unless your opponent's effect changed the Knight's protection to white first) while his doesn't depend on yours. That means that his effect is applied first (now pro-White), followed by yours (pro-Black again).

Dralnu once created a Sponge out
of a Human and a Frog. He never
that mistake again.
Q: Three Dralnu's Crusades were played, and after generous applications of Artificial Evolution, the first (let's call it A) now affects Frogs, giving them the additional creature type Sponge and making them Black and +1/+1; the second changes (B) Humans into Frogs, and the third (C) changes Sponges into Humans. I control a Human and a Sponge, both 1/1. What do they look like after continuous effects are applied?

A: First, all the text-changing shenanigans happen in layer 3, before the Crusades start to wreak havoc. In layer 4, we find two dependencies. A depends on B (B would change the Human into a Frog, changing what A would apply to), and B depends on C (C would change the Sponge into a Human, changing what B would apply to). Note that C doesn't depend on A, because there is no Frog in play. This makes C the only independent effect, so it is applied: the Sponge becomes a Sponge Human, and the effect remembers that this creature should be made black in layer 5 and get +1/+1 in layer 6d.

With C out of the way, A and B are left A still depends on B, so B goes first now: both creatures are Humans at this point, so both will get the additional subtype Frog, and be locked in to receive a blackness and +1/+1.

Finally, A is applied to both creatures. The end result: the Human is now a 3/3 Black Human Frog Sponge, and the Sponge is a 4/4 Black Sponge Human Frog Sponge (the extra instance of Sponge doesn't matter).

Characteristic-setting effects

(change) The rule here is: characteristic-setting effects must be applied before other effects. This already happens correctly in layer 6, where characteristic-setting effects go first, in sublayer a. For the other layers, the check is made here. Because it comes after dependency rules, a characteristic-setting effect in one of the first five layers may end up being applied after a normal effect due to dependencies.

Q: With Celestial Dawn in play, I splice Evermind on an Arcane spell. What color is this spell?

A: Evermind's ability "Evermind is Blue" is characteristic-setting, while Celestial Dawn's ability isn't. Because they apply in the same layer and are independent of each other, it comes down to the characteristic-setting effect rule, which makes "Evermind is Blue" go first. Celestial Dawn will go second and override it, making Evermind White.


If all else fails, we look to the timestamp rules to tell us in what order to apply the effects. These rules will always be able to provide an answer, so we won't have to look for a fifth set of rules. Yes, we're approaching the end of this article. :)

First, what is timestamp? Each object is given a "timestamp" when it goes to a new zone. For example, when you play a creature, the creature spell first goes from your hand to the stack, where the creature spell receives a timestamp. Then, when the spell resolves, the creature comes into play, and gets a new timestamp again. These timestamps are used to determine in what order different things entered their zones.

When two objects change zones at the same time, for example a number of creatures coming into play simultaneously through Patriarch's Bidding, then the active player gets to choose the order in which they are timestamped. Note that this doesn't mean that they change zones at different times: they still move together, but they all need a different timestamp despite that fact.

When you use the timestamp rules to see which of two effects is applied first, the effects are applied in timestamp order. A continuous effect from a spell or (activated or triggered) ability gets a timestamp when the effect is created. For a continuous effect from a static ability, use the timestamp from the object the ability is on, (change) unless the ability was granted by some effect, in which case the timestamp of that effect is used if it is later than the object's own timestamp.

Setting P/T to 0/2 since 1993
Q: I play Giant Growth on my Grizzly Bears, then my opponent uses Sorceress Queen on my Bears. How big are they?

A: Both effects are P/T-modifiers from layer 6b, neither depends on the other, and neither is characteristic-setting. (Remember that Sorceress Queen's effect isn't a characteristic-setting effect, because it modifies the characteristics of another object.) So it comes down to the timestamp rules. The Giant Growth has the earliest timestamp, so it's applied first, making the Bears 5/5. Then, Sorceress Queen's effect makes it 0/2, overwriting the effect of the Giant Growth.

There are two exceptions to the above rules for assigning timestamps. First, a permanent that phases out and back in keeps its old timestamp. That's because phasing is weird. :rolleyes: The other exception is more relevant: a local enchantment or Equipment that becomes attached to a different permanent also receives a new timestamp at that moment. This ensures that the enchantment or Equipment will always have a later timestamp than the thing it's attached to.

Q: What happens if I have a Riptide Mangler equipped with Bonesplitter, and then use the Mangler's ability on itself?

A: (change) As the Mangler's ability resolves, he checks its current power, which is determined by applying all continuous effects. Then a continuous effect is created to set the power to that number. This effect will be applied in layer 6b, before Bonesplitter in layer 6d. The Mangler's new power will become its old power plus two from Bonesplitter. Each time you do this, the Mangler's power will be permanently increased, because the effects from earlier activations have an older timestamp and are overwritten by the new effect.

You get the same interaction if you replace Bonesplitter by a bunch of +1/+1 counters.

Q: In the scenario with the three Dralnu's Crusades, the Human gets killed. Is the Sponge still 4/4?

A: Strangely, the answer is no. For reference, the three Crusades did the following:
  1. Frog -> Sponge
  2. Human -> Frog
  3. Sponge -> Human
With only the Sponge still around, effect A no longer depends on B. The only dependency is that B depends on C. A and C are independent, so the timestamp rules are called upon, and they let A go first. A doesn't do anything, because there are no frogs in play. Next, the dependency rules take control again and cause C to be applied, because it's now the only independent effect. This makes the Sponge into a Human. Lastly, B applied and makes it a Frog as well. Because only two of the three Crusades affected the creature in layer 4, only those two will give it +1/+1 in layer 6b, giving you a black 3/3 Sponge Human Frog.

Q: Instead of the Human getting killed, a 1/1 Frog comes into play. How does this affect everything?

A: Now there are three dependencies: A depends on B which depends on C which again depends on A. None of them are independent, as they form a loop. The dependency rules leave ordering the effects in a loop to the characteristic-setting effect and timestamp rules. They will end up being applied in timestamp order, which would be A-B-C. We start with a Human, a Sponge and a Frog. Apply A to get a Human, a Sponge and a Frog Sponge. Next, B makes them a Human Frog, a Sponge, and a Frog Sponge. Finally C: a Human Frog, a Sponge Human, and a Frog Sponge Human. The original Human and Sponge now only get +1/+1, making them 2/2 each, while the Frog gets +2/+2, making it 3/3.

Ach! Hans, run! It's Humility and Opalescence!
Q: I have Humility and two copies of Opalescence in my graveyard, and I play Replenish. What happens?

A: (change) We can now answer this question safely. When Replenish puts the three enchantments into play simultaneously, the active player assigns timestamps to them. Basically, he can choose to one of these three orders to timestamp them in: Opa-Opa-Hum, Opa-Hum-Opa, or Hum-Opa-Opa. This order will turn out to be relevant.

Humility's effect has two parts: it removes abilities from creatures, which is a layer 5 thing, and it changes the power and toughness of creatures, which goes in layer 6b (because the power and toughness are being set to given numbers). Opalescence's effect also does several things: it changes types (layer 4) as well as power and toughness (layer 6b again).

Now it's time to apply them one by one. The Opalescences go first in layer 4, changing all enchantments (including each other) into creatures with their original abilities. The order in which they are applied depends on timestamp, but it doesn't affect the result, so we'll ignore it here. Next, in layer 5, all abilities are removed. This doesn't matter, as both effects have already started to apply and will continue to be applied in layer 6b. Finally, in that layer, there are three effects, all independent and none of them characteristic-setting, so it comes down to timestamp.

If the enchantments were ordered Opa-Hum-Opa or Hum-Opa-Opa, then the effect from the final Opalescence will determine what each animated enchantment's power and toughness is. If the order Opa-Opa-Hum was chosen, Humility will override the two Opalescences and the creatures will be 1/1.

Under the previous rules (when Humility's Oracle text was different), the timestamps didn't matter and the creatures would always end up 1/1.

For continuity's sake, I'll be sending Moko back over the Atlantic. On a first class catapult volley, obviously. He seems to like the cake I baked, so he'll bring it along. Being a Zombie, he hasn't shown any interest in actually eating it yet. :rolleyes: If all goes well, next week Moko will be back to helping Eli select from the questions you send him, so keep them coming.

Until next time, may you be able to divide all your complicated problems into simple, transparent layers!

-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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