Overview -- Spells and Abilities

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Originally by John Carter:

Spells are always represented by cards. Artifact, creature, and enchantment spells become permanents when they resolve and therefore move directly from the stack into play. Sorcery and Instant spells produce their effect and move directly from the stack into the graveyard when they resolve. Every spell (and non-static ability) follows a life cycle for announcement and resolution.

Birth of a spell:
1. Announce the spell and put it on the Stack
2. Choose the mode, values such as X, alternate play costs, kicker, and buyback
3. Choose targets for the spell
4. Specify how the targets are affected
5. Divide damage or counters
6. Pay costs in any order

There are several things to remember about announcing spells. Most importantly, spells that specify targets must have a target to be played. Secondly, all costs must be paid-- no more, no less. Anything sacrificed “as an additional cost” is sacrificed when the spell is played (in step #6 of the above).

The order of the steps to playing a spell matter. The choices in step #2 (mode, etc.) can directly affect what targets are legal for step #3. A permanent that is sacrificed to pay costs can also be a target for the spell because #3 comes before #6. If a spell does not require each step, that step is ignored. Every spell or ability should have steps #1 and #6. If a choice is not listed in the six steps to playing a spell or ability, it is not made while announcing the spell or ability and instead waits for the resolution.

Resolving a spell:
1. Targets are rechecked for validity
2. Spell instructions are followed as written taking into account replacement effects and grammar-- choices not made on announcement are made as needed following the standard APNAP rule
3. Mana abilities may be played if a player has the option of paying mana. No other spells or abilities may be played while resolving a spell or ability
4. The game state is checked to determine variables not set on announcement (such as total lands or number of blue creatures)
5. The card enters play as a permanent if it is an Artifact, Creature, or Enchantment spell. If it’s a Sorcery or Instant, the spell is put into the graveyard

Spells and abilities that do not have any legal targets on resolution are countered and produce no effects at all. If a spell has multiple targets, and some targets become illegal before the spell resolves, the other target(s) are affected as originally announced. When resolving an ability, the legality of the target is checked against the characteristics of the source or the last known information for that source-- changing a blue ability’s source to black will cause it to be countered if it’s target has protection from black when the ability tries to resolve. Note that the last step of resolving a Sorcery or Instant is putting the card into the graveyard.

If a spell or ability is not targeted, the set of things it affects is determined when the spell or ability resolves, and that group will not change. This is most obvious when a one shot effect removes a group of permanents. (Wrath of God-- destroy all creatures. They cannot regenerate-- will not destroy anything that isn’t a creature when the Wrath resolves.) However, this also applies to a continuous effect created by a spell or ability. If Massacre-- all creatures get -2/-2 until end of turn-- is played and then a creature comes into play after Massacre resolves, that creature would not get -2/-2 because it was not in the creature group when Massacre resolved.