Special actions

Special actions are actions that players can take that don't use the stack, so they can't be responded to. Special actions are neither spells nor abilities. They may look like activated abilities, but they don't use the [cost]: [effect] template. Most of them are very rare, involving only very weird cards or old keyword abilities. But there's one special action that is everywhere in a Magic game, and one that's very relevant on the world of Tarkir.

Playing a land

Playing a land is the one special action everybody is familiar with. To play a land, just take it from your hand and put it onto the battlefield. You can play a land during a main phase of your turn if the stack is empty. Though this action can't be responded to, you still need priority to take it, and you regain priority once the land hits the battlefield. Land cards can never be cast as spells.

Usually, you can't play more than one land during each of your turns, but some continuous effects may allow you to play additional lands. To determine if you have permission to play a land, count the number of lands you have played so far this turn, then count the total number of lands you are allowed to play this turn by rules and active effects. If the second number is greater, you can still play another land this turn.

This may be easier to grasp if we use an imaginary variable called "land drop count". Normally, your land drop count is reset to one at the beginning of each of your turns, but some effects may increase it. Each time you play a land, your land drop count is reduced by one. If an effect that increases your land drop count stops applying, your land drop count decreases accordingly. You may never play a land unless your land drop count is greater than zero.

Example. It's the precombat main phase of your turn, and you control Azusa, Lost but Seeking, so your land drop count is three. You play a Forest, then cast Explore. After it resolves, your land drop count becomes three again. Then you play two mountains, bringing your count down to one. Then, during combat, Azusa leaves the battlefield and its effect vanishes. Now your land drop count is negative! Resolving a second Explore will increase it to zero, so you'll need a third Explore if you want to be able to play another land.

Some effects may allow you to play lands anytime you have priority. However, no matter what other effects may say, you can never play a land during another player's turn, and you can never play a land if your land drop count is lower than one.

Example. You control Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir and you have Dryad Arbor in your hand. Thanks to Teferi, Dryad Arbor has flash, so you can play it during your upkeep or in response to your opponent's spells, but you still can't play Dryad Arbor if it isn't your turn, and you can't play Dryad Arbor if you have already played a land this turn.

Some effects, like Rampant Growth and Show and Tell, let you put a land directly onto the battlefield from another zone without using the word "play". This is not playing a land. It doesn't decrease your land drop count, and the rules and restrictions about playing lands don't apply to these effects.

Turning a permanent face up

Two mechanics (morph and manifest)[1] allow players to cast spells face down or put card onto the battlefield face down, respectively, and then give them a way to turn them face up: a card played with morph can be turned face up by paying its morph cost, and a manifested creature card can be turned up by paying its mana cost.[2]

Casting a spell face down and manifesting a card are not special actions: you can counter a face down spell just fine, and respond to an ability that tries to manifest a card.

Face down cards and spells are creature with base power and toughness 2/2, and no other characteristics. Notably, this means that they have no name (so a Bile Blight or Maelstrom Pulse targeting a face-down creature will never affect anything else but its target) and no mana cost, even though you payed Mana3.gif to cast it face down (which means a Spell Blast with X = 0 will counter a face-down spell, and a Engineered Explosives with no charge counters will destroy all face-down creatures).[3]

Regardless of the way cards end up on the battlefield face down, turning them face up is a special actions. It's not an activated ability, and it's definitely not a spell.

Example. I control a Meddling Mage and a Pithing Needle, and I named Akroma, Angel of Fury for both of them. However, my opponent can cast red Akroma face down, as it's turned face down before starting the casting process, and by the time we check if it's a legal play it's already a creature spell with no name. He's also allowed to turn it face up by paying Mana3.gifManar.gifManar.gifManar.gif, as it's not an activated ability. He can't, of course, cast it face up or activate its "Manar.gif: Akroma, Angel of Fury gets +1/+0 until end of turn." ability.

To turn a creature face up, I simply need to show it's front face to other players, determine the cost I have to pay to turn it face up, and pay it. The card immediately becomes face up, without using the stack. I can do this at any time I have priority.

Example. My opponent announces that he's turning his face-down creature face up. He shows me a scary Thousand Winds, then pays Mana5.gifManau.gifManau.gif. The card immediately becomes a 5/6 Elemental, so I can't respond with my Shock. The triggered ability from Thousand Winds uses the stack as normal, so I can respond to it by casting Shock at my opponent in order to trigger my Jeskai Ascendancy and untap my creatures, so they won't be bounced back to my hand.

Example. My opponent casts Krosan Grip targeting my pesky Sensei's Divining Top, so I can neither activate it to put it on my library nor cast the Counterspell I have in my hand. I can, however, turn my Willbender face up, since split seconds prevents me from casting spells and activating non-mana abilities, but has no say on special actions. Willbender triggers and allows me to redirect Krosan Grip to my opponent's Sylvan Library.

Hic sunt dracones!
What follows deals with a topic that is very complicated and definitely not required for a judge candidate. If you are studying for your test, we suggest you to skip to the next page. If you are already certified and want to enlarge your knowledge, proceed at your own risk.


Other special actions

Special actions are not a uniform category. They don't all share the same timing rules (however, unless they state otherwise, you can take them if you have priority). They don't use a standard wording. Some have a cost and some don't. All they have in common is they don't use the stack and thus can't be responded to.

Some cards have a static ability that allows you to take a special action related to the effect generated by the ability. For example, Leonin Arbiter has an ability that stops players from searching libraries, but a player can ignore the effect for a turn by paying Mana2.gif. Paying this cost to ignore the effect is a special action that doesn't use the stack. You may take this special action if you have priority. Be very careful: you can't take this action in the middle of the resolution of a spell or ability, so make sure to pay the mana before starting to resolve your Rampant Growth!

Some cards have the suspend keyword, that lets you pay a (usually cheap) cost to take a card with suspend from your hand and exile it with some number of time counters. You may only take this special action if you are allowed to begin casting the spell from your hand. Then, after a fixed number of turns, you'll get to cast the spell ignoring its mana cost!

Just for fun and curiosity, here is a list of other cards that involve special actions:[4]

  1. And a bunch of stray cards such as Illusionary Mask and Ixidron, that we'll gladly pretend not to exist.
  2. Also, a manifested card can be turned face up by paying its morph cost, if it has one. Note that if you happen to manifest a non-creature card with morph, such as Lumithread Field , you can only turn it face up by paying its morph cost, as only manifested creature cards can be turned face up by paying their mana cost.
  3. Note that the Mana3.gif you pay to cast spells face down is not a mana cost, it's an alternative cost.
  4. They're usually old cards with quirky wording.