Last updated on September 28, 2023
Teferi, Master of Time | Illustration by Yongjae Choi
Abilities are essential to keeping MTG interesting. If all creatures were vanilla (i.e., if they had no abilities at all), the gameplay would be much less dynamic (despite what the control players tell you). There are more and more creatures with abilities in modern sets, and WotC is continually pushing design space on cards. Abilities are becoming bigger themselves, and they’re becoming bigger parts of the game.
Wanna know more? Let's dive right in!
What Are Abilities?
Deathrite Shaman | Illustration by Steve Argyle
Abilities are any rules text on cards, even on instants and sorceries. Most people often limit the discussion to abilities specifically on permanents (and sometimes specifically creatures). Abilities are often positive and provide some benefit to their controller, but sometimes they can be negative (such as losing life when a creature enters the battlefield). Of course, you can often spin negative abilities into positive ones in a game as large and complex as Magic: The Gathering!
How Do Abilities Work in MTG?
There are many different types of abilities in MTG, and they all work in slightly different ways. The four main categories are activated abilities, triggered abilities, static abilities, and spell abilities.
What Are Activated Abilities?
Activated abilities are ones that produce their effect when you choose to activate them. You can tell when an ability is an activated ability because it has an activation cost placed before a colon in the ability text.
This cost may be mana, tapping the permanent, paying life, something else, or a combination of any of the above. Some cards, like Wandering Fumarole can even have a cost to pay 0!
The costs associated with these abilities can’t be interacted with. If you pay for an ability and it’s countered, you still forfeit the cost.
What Are Triggered Abilities?
Triggered abilities are abilities that occur automatically when another action happens. They can be identified by words like “when,” “whenever,” or “at.” Common examples of triggered abilities are those that trigger when a creature enters the battlefield, when a creature dies (with a benefit granted by either the dying creature or by another permanent) or when a spell is cast. There are many more events that can trigger these abilities.
When the ability triggers, it’s placed onto the stack and players have the opportunity to respond to them.
What Are Static Abilities?
Static abilities are abilities which are always in effect.
These can include keyword abilities, like flying or deathtouch. They can also include things that aren’t covered by keywords, like the ability for Torbran, Thane of Red Fell’s ability to increase the damage dealt by red sources.
Nothing triggers these static abilities, so they don’t use the stack when they produce effects. This includes the life gain produced by lifelink, allowing you to survive a lethal attack when you wouldn’t if your life gain went on the stack.
What Are Spell Abilities?
Spell abilities are a bit unusual and aren’t usually brought up in day-to-day Magic discussions. They’re made up of any text on an instant or sorcery spell which isn’t an activated, triggered, or static ability. They’re the instructions you follow as you resolve an instant or sorcery spell.
What Are Mana Abilities?
Mana abilities are a special type of activated ability. They’re essentially any activated ability that creates mana (like most lands or Llanowar Elves), as long as it isn’t a loyalty ability (like on Chandra, Torch of Defiance) or doesn’t have a target (like the first ability on Deathrite Shaman.
Mana abilities don’t use the stack, so they can’t be responded to in any way, including countering.
What Are Creature Abilities?
Creature abilities are, quite simply, abilities of creatures. There isn’t anything inherently special about creature abilities compared to them on other permanents. They’ll either be static abilities, triggered abilities, or activated abilities. These abilities are generally only relevant on the battlefield, but there are occasionally abilities that are relevant in other zones.
For example, a creature with channel like Colossal Skyturtle uses the channel ability while in your hand.
Can You Counter Abilities?
Yes, but only with specific spells or abilities.
For example, Counterspell only counters spells, not abilities. Cards that specifically counter abilities include Stifle and Disallow. Stifle was the first of these effects, so if an ability can counter abilities, it’s generally known as a “Stifle effect.”
Can You Counter Static Abilities?
No. Static abilities don’t use the stack, so you can’t counter their effects.
When Can You Use Creature Abilities?
You can generally use creature abilities any time you could cast an instant spell (as long as you’re able to pay any associated costs). There are some exceptions, however.
Cards like Bloodtithe Harvester have a limiting phrase that reads something like “activate only as a sorcery.”
When Can You Use Card Abilities?
Card abilities can usually be activated at instant speed unless they state otherwise in their text.
Do Abilities Count as Spells?
No. Abilities aren’t spells, which is why you can’t counter them. They also won't trigger effects that say “whenever you cast a spell” or similar.
What Does “Lose All Abilities” Mean?
Some cards and spells have the wording that some permanents “lose all abilities.”
Often nicknamed a Humility effect based on the first card to have this wording, creatures or permanents lose all abilities that are printed on the card, effectively turning them all “vanilla.”
Whilst most of these effects only affect creatures, there are other examples affecting cards in different ways. Blood Sun makes lands lose abilities that aren’t mana abilities and Yixlid Jailer makes all cards in graveyards lose their abilities.
Triggered vs. Activated Abilities
Triggered abilities are triggered by something happening within the game, and you can’t control them directly. With activated abilities, you can choose when to activate them, giving you a little more control over their use.
Do Lands Have Abilities?
Yes! Lands can have abilities. These are often just the mana abilities associated with the land (which makes them tap for mana), but they also can have other types of abilities.
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth has the static ability that all lands are Swamps in addition to their other land types, Radiant Fountain has the triggered ability that it gains you two life when it enters the battlefield.
Speaking of lands, there’s a special type of ability I haven’t mentioned. Intrinsic abilities are abilities that exist because of something else on the card. The most common of these are associated with basic land types. It’s what makes forests able to tap for green mana etc., and why all lands tap for black mana when Urborg makes them all swamps!
Can You Activate Abilities Multiple Times?
Yes and no. Unless the ability says otherwise with an “only activate once per turn” clause, you can activate an ability more than once. This is often mitigated by requiring you to tap the permanent has the activated ability.
What Speed Are Activated Abilities?
Activated abilities can usually be activated at any time you could cast an instant spell, although some state that they can only be activated at sorcery speed.
Are Tap Abilities Instant?
Unless they say otherwise, tap abilities can be used at instant speed.
A creature can’t use a tap ability (or an untap ability, like Gilder Bairn!) if it has summoning sickness.
Do Creature Abilities Count as Instants?
No. They aren’t instant spells, so can’t be interacted with by things that care about instants like Dispel.
How Do You Activate Abilities in MTG Arena?
If you’re playing on MTG Arena, you activate the abilities of cards on the battlefield by clicking on them. You can often tell if the card on the battlefield has an activated ability that can be used because the program will highlight the card.
Cards in graveyards with activated abilities will show up next to your hand and can be played in a similar way to how you play spells.
If you have a card in your hand with an activated ability, you drag it onto the battlefield as though you were going to cast it. You’re then given the choice to cast it normally or to use the activated ability. Click the option you want to use.
What Are Creatures with No Abilities?
Yes, and they’re known as “vanilla creatures.” They only have a casting cost, power/toughness, and a type line. They often have flavor text and have been used to add context to the world of MTG since the very first set. Vanilla creatures have become rarer in recent years, and Dominaria United was the first set ever with no vanilla creatures at all!
What Are Loyalty Abilities?
Loyalty abilities are the activated abilities that planeswalkers have.
These abilities have a “loyalty cost” which can have a positive, negative, or neutral effect on the planeswalker’s loyalty total (Wrenn and Seven has examples of all three). You can’t pay more loyalty than the planeswalker currently has. When a planeswalker’s loyalty becomes zero, you sacrifice it.
Loyalty abilities can usually only be used at sorcery speed (looking at you Teferi, Master of Time). You can only use one loyalty ability on each planeswalker you control per turn.
Can Creature Abilities Be Used on the First Turn?
It depends on the ability and if the creature has summoning sickness. A creature with summoning sickness can’t tap to attack or for abilities. You can use creature abilities that don’t require them to tap on their first turn out.
Can You Activate Abilities on an Opponent’s Turn?
Yes! Unless the ability states that you can only use it on your turn, you can use abilities on your opponent’s turn.
Does Summoning Sickness Affect Abilities?
Summoning sickness only affects abilities that require you to tap or untap as part of the activation cost. If the ability doesn’t require tapping or untapping (like if there’s just a mana cost), summoning sickness won’t affect it.
Non-creature permanents aren’t affected by summoning sickness, which is why you can tap Sol Ring for mana the turn it comes into play.
Can You Activate an Ability Before Upkeep?
Yes! It’s particularly useful if you have an ability that allows you to scry, like with Sigiled Starfish.
Can You Activate an Ability During Untap?
No players gain priority in the untap step, so you aren’t able to activate abilities (or cast spells) at that point.
Can You Use a Creature’s Ability if It’s Tapped?
Yes! You can use a creature’s ability when it’s tapped as long as it isn’t a tap ability.
Is Flying an Ability?
Yes, it’s a static ability usually found on creatures. Non-creature permanents can have flying, but it probably won’t affect anything because non-creatures can’t block.
It leads to some interesting effects with vehicles like Sky Skiff though!
Is Deathtouch an Ability?
Like flying, deathtouch is a static ability. It states that any amount of damage dealt by the source to a creature is classed as lethal damage.
Is Trample an Ability?
Trample is also an ability. It reads “an attacker with trample deals excess damage to the defending player or planeswalker even if it is blocked.”
Is Transmute an Activated Ability?
Yes! Transmute is an activated ability found on all sorts of cards. This activated ability is used when the card is in your hand, a bit like cycling or channel. You pay the cost, discard that card, then can search your library for a card with the same mana value as the card you discard.
Is Attacking an Ability?
No. Attacking isn’t an ability. It’s just another game mechanic.
Are Keywords Considered Abilities?
Keywords like flying and trample are considered abilities. Cards that remove abilities, like Humility, remove these keyword abilities from your cards.
Are Effects Considered Abilities?
Effects aren’t the same as abilities but are rather the outcomes of abilities (and spells). This may seem like a bit of a technical judge-talk, and that’s because it pretty much is. Think of it like the ability to be the chef, but the effect is the meal the chef makes.
Are Enchantments Considered Abilities?
No. Enchantments, like other permanents, can have abilities. Auras, which are enchantments that enchant permanents, sometimes grant abilities to those permanents.
Is Sacrificing an Activated Ability?
No. Some abilities, like on Woe Strider, have a cost of sacrificing a creature, sacrificing creatures as an action isn’t considered an ability.
Is Equipping an Activated Ability?
Yes, equipping is an activated ability unique to equipment (as is Reconfigure from Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty). If your equipment has its abilities removed by something like Stony Silence, you won’t be able to equip it. It can also be stifled!
Colossal Skyturtle | Illustration by Nicholas Gregory
Abilities are a big part of what keeps Magic interesting. After nearly 30 years of sets, things have occasionally gotten a little complicated. We all occasionally need to look up exactly how something works!
What are your favorite abilities currently in the game? Do you have any ideas for a cool new keyword ability for creatures? Let me down below or over on the Draftsim Twitter. I guarantee (I don’t guarantee) that it won’t be stolen by the bigwigs over at WotC
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