Activated abilities

Activated abilities have a cost and an effect. They are always written as "[Cost]:[Effect.][Activation restriction (if any)]".

Any time a player has priority, he may activate such an ability.

Example. The activated ability of Tectonic Edge is written as: "Mana1.gif, Tap.gif, Sacrifice Tectonic Edge: Destroy target nonbasic land. Activate this ability only if an opponent controls four or more lands." Following the template above, we have:

  • A cost: pay Mana1.gif, tap Tectonic Edge and sacrifice it.
  • An effect: destroy target nonbasic land.
  • An activation restriction: the opponent must control four lands at the time the ability is activated.

Activating an ability

To activate an ability means to put it onto the stack and to pay its costs. Activating an ability basically follows the same steps for casting a spell, that are summarized below for your convenience:

  1. Announce that you are activating the ability.
  2. If the ability is modal, announce the mode you choose; if the ability has a variable cost (such as an {X} in its mana cost or some number of creatures to sacrifice), announce the value of that variable.
  3. Announces the targets required by the ability. The same target can't be chosen multiple times for any one instance of the word "target" on the ability.
  4. If the ability requires you to divide or distribute an effect (for example damage or counters) among one or more targets, announce the division. Each of these targets must receive at least one of whatever is being divided.
  5. Determine the total cost of the ability, taking into account effects that increase or reduce the cost, such as Brutal Suppression or Training Grounds.
  6. If the total cost includes a mana payment, you now have a chance to activate mana abilities.
  7. Pay the total cost in any order.

A permanent may have several activated abilities, independent from one another. The number of activations you can get is usually limited by the required resources only.

Example. The first activated ability of Shipwreck Singer requires a target, it means that you must have a legal target to activate it and when the ability will resolve that target must still be legal. If it isn't the ability doesn't resolve and it's removed from the stack. If you have available mana you can activate it more than once.

The second ability does not require a target, but it requires the Tap.gif for being activated, and obviously you can't tap a permanent that is already tapped.

Example. Shiv's Embrace is an aura that has an activated ability requiring Manar.gif for being activated. You can activate the ability multiple times by paying its cost that many times, in this way you can give to the enchanted creature multiple instances of the same effect. Each of them creates a single effect that is independent from the others.

Keyword activated abilities

Most abilities describe exactly what they do in the card rules text. Some however are very common or would require too much space to be explained on the card. In these cases, we find on the card only the name of the ability as a "keyword". Sometimes reminder text summarizes the game rule, and this is where you will find the colon that shows that you're dealing with an activated ability.

Some example of keyword activated abilities are: equip, cycling, unearth, scavenge, monstrosity. You can find the whole list in paragrph 702 of the Comprehensive Rules.

Example. Equip is an activated ability of Equipment cards. "Equip [cost]" means "[Cost]: Attach this permanent to target creature you control. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery."

Example. Monstrosity is a keyword activated ability. Since it only requires a mana expenditure, you can activate it more than once, but when it resolves, it checks if the creature is already monstrous. If it isn't, the ability puts that number of +1/+1 counter on the creature and marks it as monstrous. This means that further activations will have no effect. If a monstrosity ability is somehow countered, the creature does not get counters neither becomes monstrous and monstrosity can be used again. Many creatures with a monstrosity ability also have a triggered ability that triggers when the creature becomes monstrous (in other words, when its monstrosity ability resolves for the first time). If the monster is killed in response to the monstrosity activation, it will never become monstrous, so the triggered ability will never trigger.

Activated abilities may usually be activated only from the battlefield, unless it doesn't make sense otherwise.

Example. Scavenge is an activated ability that works only while the card with scavenge is in a graveyard. "Scavenge [cost]" means "[Cost], Exile this card from your graveyard: Put a number of +1/+1 counters equal to the power of the card you exiled on target creature. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery." Since part of the cost is exiling the card from the graveyard, it must be there in order to activate the ability.

Loyalty abilities

Loyalty abilities are peculiar activated abilities only found on planeswalker cards. Their cost is represented by a number that indicates how many loyalty counters to add or to remove in order to activate the ability. Since adding or removing counters is a cost, it cannot be responded to.

Loyalty abilities follow special rules: a player may activate a loyalty ability of a permanent he controls only during a main phase of his turn while the stack is empty, and only once for each planeswalker.

Example. Jace, the Mind Sculptor has four loyalty abilities. The first one requires to add two loyalty counters. The third and the fourth one require to remove them. The second ability dos not change the number of counters and just requires you to acknowledge its activation.

Once Jace has entered the battlefield you may activate immediately one of his loyalty abilities, because you receive priority after a spell resolves on your turn. Changing the number of counters on it is the activation cost. A player cannot respond before the number of counter is changed, but can do so afterwards, before the ability resolves.

Non-activated abilities with a mana cost

Not every ability that requires a payment is activated. In order to be sure that the ability you are looking at is activated, there must be a colon (':') somewhere. Typical abilities that can be confused for activated abilities are triggered abilities that ask for a payment on resolution. Things can get complicated if any of these abilities is keyworded. When in doubt, refer to the definitions in the Comprehensive Rules.

Example. Teleportal has the ability "overload", which is a keyworded alternative cost. Alternative costs are usually phrased, "You may [pay some cost] rather than pay [this object's] mana cost", or "You may cast [this object] without paying its mana cost". Activated abilities are written as "[Cost]: [Effect.] [Activation instructions (if any).]" instead. An alternative cost is a static ability, never an activated ability.

Example. Extort is a triggered ability that could be mistaken for an activated ability, because it requires a payment to get its effect. It reads: "Whenever you cast a spell, you may pay Manawb.gif. If you do, each opponent loses 1 life and you gain that much life."

It means that this ability will trigger every time you cast a spell while Blind Obedience is on the battlefield and, when the ability will resolve, you may choose either to pay Manawb.gif to get its effect, or simply to do nothing. Since each instance of such an ability asks for a single payment, you can't pay Manawb.gif more than once for a single trigger.

A triggered ability that asks you to pay a cost to get (part of) its effect is not an activated ability. It's still a triggered ability and the choice to pay is made on resolution.

Example. Frenzied Goblin has a triggered ability that targets a creature. You will not pay Manar.gif until the ability is resolving. If the creature becomes an illegal target before that time, the ability won't resolve, it'll be removed from the stack and you won't have to pay - actually, you won't even have the chance to pay.