Magic is a game based upon abilities. Abilities define most of what a card can (and sometimes can't) do: every "portion" of the rules text on a card is an ability of that card. Such a "portion" can be either

  • a single paragraph of text, isolated from other ones by a blank line; or
  • a keyword (more properly, a keyword ability), separated from other keywords by blank lines or commas.

When you see a single word in the rules text, such as "flying", that's for sure a keyword ability. The purpose of keywords is to save space in the text box and in your mind. Every keyword ability has got its definition in .

Example. We can find three abilities on Falkenrath Aristocrat: "flying" and "haste" are keyword abilities, and are separated just by a comma; then, we have a blank line and a single paragraph of text, which is a whole single ability.

Notice that the full stop between "this turn" and "If" does not define a new ability, because it's in the middle of the same paragraph.

Abilities only work while the card is on the battlefield, unless specified or impossible otherwise.

Example. Lumberknot has hexproof, which matters on the battlefield only. Hexproof doesn't prevent Lumberknot from being countered while it's on the stack, neither to be removed from the graveyard by Cremate. Also, it can't get counters while it's not on the battlefield. That would be really weird!

Example. Loxodon Smiter's first ability states that it can't be countered. Since only spells on the stack can be countered, this ability only makes sense if it works while Loxodon Smiter is on the stack, so it does.

Champion of Stray Souls's second ability instructs us to regrow it "from your graveyard", so it can be activated only while it is in the graveyard - note that this is not true for the first ability, that only works from the battlefield, as normal.

However, abilities are not always "just there", like flying or Lumberknot's ones above. You often need to go through an extra effort to put them into use. For instance, you'll certainly know by now that, to exploit Falkenrath Aristocrat's third ability, you need to sacrifice a creature and your opponent will be able to respond, because you are using the stack. This leads to a second meaning of "ability", which is "an object on the stack generated by an ability on a card".

Note: Be careful! Even though they can be objects on the stack, abilities are not spells. A spell is associated with a whole card, while an ability is always a virtual object, generated by a portion of the rules text on a card. Things that specifically affect spells cannot affect abilities, and vice-versa.

Abilities can be split into four main categories:

  1. Activated abilities are those that allow you to pay a cost to put them into effect. They are written in the form [Cost]: [Effect]. The presence of the colon is your guarantee that you're dealing with an activated ability.

    Example. Fauna Shaman's ability needs its cost to be paid in order to benefit from its ability. Notice the presence of the colon. Falkenrath Aristocrat's third ability we were discussing above is an activated ability, too.

    It's worth mentioning that planeswalkers loyalty abilities are activated abilities, even though no colon is visible on the card.

  2. Triggered abilities are those that have a trigger condition and an effect. They are written in the form [Trigger condition], [Effect], and the trigger condition always begins with the words "when", "whenever", "at the beginning of (some phase or step)", or "at end of (some phase or step)". These also use the stack, but they do so automatically when the trigger condition is met. You can have partial control of them, as long as you are able to cause their trigger condition to occur.

    Example. Bloodgift Demon is not going to ask for your permission to use its ability: it will inevitably go on the stack just after you untap. You can choose who it's going to affect, at least...

    Blood Artist needs a creature to die for its ability to work. You'll have to wait for combat or removal to trigger it, unless you have Falkenrath Aristocrat around!

    The way triggered abilities work is intimately linked with the concept of priority, so they'll be discussed in the section The game in slow motion.

  3. Static abilities are those written as statements. They are simply true. These abilities affect the game as long as the permanent they're printed on remains on the battlefield and has the ability.

    Example. Tempered Steel's ability grants +2/+2 to its controller's artifact creatures. The effect lasts until the enchantment remains on the battlefield.

  4. Spell abilities is just a name for all the instructions on instant and sorcery cards which don't fit any of the categories above, so they are never independent objects on the stack. They simply represent the resolving spell's effect.

    Example. When you start resolving Ponder you have to follow the instructions given by the spell's ability.

    Resounding Thunder has an activated ability (cycling) and a triggered ability that triggers when the card is cycled. The rest of the text ("Resounding Thunder deals 3 damage to target creature or player.") is a spell ability.

We'll also talk about mana abilities, that we can loosely define as all abilities add mana to a player's mana pool as part of their effect, have special rules: they do not use the stack and in some cases can be activated even when it wouldn't be possible for "regular" abilities.

Example. All basic lands have the intrinsic mana ability "Tap.gif: Add [colored mana]." Avacyn's Pilgrim's activated ability is also a mana ability.

As a final remark, let's notice that abilities can come from an object's text or be granted to an object by an effect. The game does not distinguish between these two.

Example. Serra Angel has flying because this ability is printed on it, whereas Zephyr Charge and Trained Condor can grant this ability to creatures. Regardless of the way a creature has learned to fly, Grounded will strip it of the ability.