Last updated on October 12, 2022
Merrow Grimeblotter | Illustration by Cyril Van Der Haegen
As all MTG players know, you “tap” your lands to cast your spells and “tap” your creatures to attack your opponent. Lands and creatures that haven’t yet been tapped are “untapped.” Though such lingo is likely second nature to everyone with me today, it’s good to ask: where did these terms come from? And is there any interesting history or trivia to explore around the history of “untapped” game objects?
Well, in real life terms, the terms “tapped” and “untapped” tie closely to the rhetorical usage of the phrase “tapped out.” Our tapped lands represent game objects that have already been used, though we thankfully get to untap them next turn. There are probably other phrases that Richard Garfield could’ve gone with for describing resource usage/renewal, but “tapping” also accurately describes the physical gesture of using lands to add mana.
Wit that said, let’s get into the details of this fundamental rule of Magic.
Basic Game Rules for Untapping
Silkbind Faerie | Illustration by Matt Cavotta
Untapping is a game action that happens at the beginning of each player’s turn, specifically during your “untap” step. Here are the full rules below:
To rotate a permanent back to the upright position from a sideways position. See rule 701.21, “Tap and Untap.”
A default status a permanent may have. See rule 110.5 and rule 701.21, “Tap and Untap.” See also Tapped.
110.5. A permanent’s status is its physical state. There are four status categories, each of which has two possible values: tapped/untapped, flipped/unflipped, face up/face down, and phased in/phased out. Each permanent always has one of these values for each of these categories.
701.21. Tap and Untap
701.21a To tap a permanent, turn it sideways from an upright position. Only untapped permanents can be tapped.
701.21b To untap a permanent, rotate it back to the upright position from a sideways position. Only tapped permanents can be untapped.WotC
These rules cover how permanents naturally untap themselves in a game of Magic. However, there are many cards in this game that untap permanents outside of the upkeep step. Here are some examples:
Cards that untap your own lands usually work towards mana acceleration, particularly when combined with cards like Utopia Sprawl, Wolfwillow Haven, and other land-based auras. Cards that untap creatures most often function as combat tricks, surprising an attacking opponent with an unexpected blocker. There are more complicated cards that deal with untapping as well, but most times when you see the term “untap” you should think in terms of additional mana or additional blockers.
Can You Untap an Already Untapped Permanent?
No. You can target an untapped permanent for untapping, but no cards you have that say “when a permanent you control becomes untapped” would trigger. This is because the rules above recognize “tapped” and “untapped” as separate game states for objects, and formally recognize the transition between them as well.
Untapping as a Cost
Gilder Bairn | Illustration by Nils Hamm
The tap symbol is an iconic MTG symbol. It indicates that a permanent you control can temporarily exhaust itself for some kind of benefit. The implied relationship is that tapping itself is a cost paid for the card’s benefit. Conversely, if you’re new to Magic you might assume that “untapping” a permanent isn’t considered a cost.
This was the case in Magic until 2010 when Shadowmoor was released. A key mechanic in this set was the untap symbol, which subverted normal play patterns by having creatures untap for benefits, with the act of untapping itself being part of the cost paid. A full list of cards with this mechanic can be seen here.
Here are some official rulings for this unusual mechanic:
107.6. The untap symbol is . The untap symbol in an activation cost means “Untap this permanent.” A permanent that’s already untapped can’t be untapped again to pay the cost. A creature’s activated ability with the untap symbol in its activation cost can’t be activated unless the creature has been under its controller’s control continuously since their most recent turn began. See rule 302.6.
302.6. A creature’s activated ability with the tap symbol or the untap symbol in its activation cost can’t be activated unless the creature has been under its controller’s control continuously since their most recent turn began. A creature can’t attack unless it has been under its controller’s control continuously since their most recent turn began. This rule is informally called the “summoning sickness” rule.WotC
There are only 17 cards with this mechanic in all of Magic. Five are from Eventide and 11 from Shadowmoor. The mechanic appears in all colors if you count hybrid mana costs, and only in white, blue, and red if you don’t. It’s primarily featured on white, blue, and artifact cards. Most of the rewards for untapping creatures are minor combat bonuses like having the creature gain flying or more powerful rewards like bouncing creatures. Only one of the cards (Umbral Mantle) isn’t a creature.
With the exception of one draft filler uncommon from Modern Horizons (Farmstead Gleaner), we haven’t seen any cards that untap like this since Shadowmoor. WotC considers the mechanic a failure, as evidenced by this quote from head designer Mark Rosewater:
The idea of the mechanic was great. We were shadowing Lorwyn, so why not do the opposite of a Magic staple? The problem was twofold. First, the tap symbol is so ingrained in player’s heads that the brain just can’t wrap itself around what the untap symbol is trying to do. Second, players just read the untap symbol as a tap symbol. Only when you look at them side by side do people even get that it’s an untap symbol.Mark Rosewater
Untap Basic Gameplay
Order of Whiteclay | Illustration by Steven Belledin
Creatures that have untap cost abilities generally play kind of like “saboteur” creatures. Attacking with them is the clearest way to get them tapped, which means your opponent is heavily incentivized to put lethal blockers in front of them to prevent you from using the abilities each turn. But you aren’t necessarily forced to use the abilities immediately either, which means that attacking with an untap cost creature with a combat trick in hand can goad your opponent into unfortunate blocks.
Another aspect of untapping as a cost is that it can provide a reward for tapping your creatures outside of combat. Springleaf Drum is a great card for accomplishing this sort of thing. It lets you use your untap creature for mana while also having access to its untap ability.
The Holy Grail of Untapping
Untapping permanents is a key feature of many combo decks and cards. One of the most iconic combos in Magic takes advantage of untapping in a spectacular way.
This combo needs no introduction for experienced Magic players, but just in case you’re a bit newer, it works like this:
- Flash either Pestermite or Deceiver Exarch into play at the end of your opponent’s turn.
- Equip Splinter Twin to the creature, or play Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker.
- Tap the equipped creature or Kiki-Jiki, targeting the Exarch/Pestermite.
- A copy is created, which can untap the equipped original/Kiki-Jiki when it enters.
- Repeat step 3 and 4 until you have 1,000,000 1/4s or 2/1 fliers, all of which have haste.
- Attack your opponent with them.
- You win the game!
This combo saw play in Modern for years. It’s compact enough that you can play it alongside good Magic cards in a tempo/combo deck that plays normal Magic while constantly threatening to go off. This forces your opponent to play off-pace and hold up mana for removal spells since the threat of you randomly killing them on your turn is always present. Unfortunately for Splinter Twin fans, the card itself was banned 5 years ago and will almost definitely remain so.
Untap Combo Decks
Pili-Pala | Illustration by Ron Spencer
None of the 17 cards with the untap symbol have been a real hit in Constructed formats, but there have been at least a few attempts because of their unusual combo potential. Umbral Mantle in particular is a card that goes infinite very easily, as equipping it to a mana dork capable of generating three mana equals infinite sizing, and four or more equals infinite mana plus infinite sizing.
Rogue deckbuilder Saffron Olive put on a deck show with the Mantle. He summarizes the goal of his unusual Modern deck as:
The basic idea of the deck is simple: if we can get a Training Grounds on the battlefield and then equip an Umbral Mantle to a creature land like Inkmoth Nexus or Blinkmoth Nexus, we can make the creature land infinitely big by tapping it for one mana and then untapping it with Umbral Mantle for one mana to give it +2+/+2. Then, we simply fly over our opponent’s defenses for the win. When the Umbral Mantle plan doesn’t work, we can always sacrifice one of our creature lands to Polymorph to find the only real creature in our deck: Emrakul, the Aeons Torn!Saffron Olive
Another untap combo that’s seen fringe play in Modern is Puresight Merrow with Paradise Mantle. This is a simple but very effective combo lets you conveniently remove your entire deck from play to win on the spot with a Thassa’s Oracle (which is also a merfolk!). It works like this:
- Get Merrow into play and untap with it (may I suggest Aether Vial?).
- Equip the Mantle to it. Play it and equip or have it in play already. Either is fine.
- Activate Paradise Mantle for white or blue.
- Spend that mana to untap Puresight Merrow and say “yes” to removing the top of your library from the game.
- Merrow is untapped as a cost from that ability, so repeat step 3 and 4 until you have no deck.
- Play Thassa’s Oracle and relish in your win.
Note that if you don’t have the Oracle in hand, you can repeat the steps until you find it, leave it on the top of your library, and then go off again on your next turn to win. You’re never forced to deck yourself when it’ll actually end up losing you the game instead of winning.
While this combo has yet to have any major tournament finishes that I know of, it slides decently into an existing Modern shell like merfolk tribal. If you’re interested to watch this combo in action, fish lover Nikachu ran through a League with this build last July.
Puresight Merrow | Illustration by Carl Critchlow
Without going into excessive detail, this should give you a solid intro to untapping your permanents. I wouldn’t expect to see any more “untap as a cost” cards in the future, as WotC seems to consider the mechanic a failure. The ones we have now can be adorable inclusions to your latest EDH brew, particularly if you have some kind of infinite combo in mind.
Until next time, and may you never forget to untap your lands before you draw!Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates: