Abilities and Effects

Magic is filled with different types of abilities and effects, all of which are used in subtly different ways. Here, we hope to lay out the differences between them all, and when you should use each. The source for all this information is the Comprehensive Rules sections 112. “Abilities” and 609. “Effects”.

Triggered Abilities

Triggered abilities cause an effect when a certain condition is met. They always begin with “when”, “whenever”, or “at”.

Use “when” if the ability will only trigger once. For example “When this creature enters the battlefield…” like Skyscanner

Use “whenever” if the ability could trigger multiple times. For example “Whenever this creature attacks…” like Infectious Horror

Use “at” if the ability will trigger in a phase or step. For example “At the beginning of your upkeep…” like Ajani’s Mantra

The trigger for a triggered ability never includes a target, but the effect can.

Activated Abilities

Activated abilities cause an effect when a cost is paid. They always include a colon separating the cost and effect.

Each part to a cost is separated by a comma. For example Vampire Neonate’s activated ability includes the cost and the cost , separated by a comma.

The order of costs is consistent. Mana costs, then tap, then pay life, then anything unusual, then sacrifice.

Strictly anything can be a cost (see weird things like Psychic Vortex and Braid of Fire), but the cost of an activated ability never includes a target. The effect can do so.

Static Abilities

Static abilities don’t happen at a specific time. They are simply true.

Static abilities on permanents are only active when that permanent is on the battlefield. There are exceptions to this if the ability specifically refers another zone (such as Anger’s “As long as Anger is in your graveyard…”) but you can only reference public zones (battlefield, graveyard, exile) this way.

Spell Abilities

Spell abilities are the instructions that you follow when you resolve a spell. If it isn’t any other kind of ability and it’s on an instant or sorcery, then it’s a spell ability. Lightning Bolt has a spell ability. This one should be easy.

Characteristic-Defining Abilities

Characteristic-defining abilities are static abilities. They are special because they override information about a card like its color or power. They function in all zones, not just on the battlefield! CDAs can define: colors, subtypes, power, or toughness, and that’s all.

The textbook examples are cards like Ghostfire, which is colorless despite having a colored mana in its cost, and Tarmogoyf.

Mana Abilities

Mana abilities can be activated or triggered abilities. They are special because they don’t go on the stack, and can’t be countered or responded to. An ability is a mana ability if it doesn’t have a target, could add mana, and isn’t a loyalty ability.

Forest has a mana ability. So does Fertile Ground. But Deathrite Shaman and Domri, Chaos Bringer don’t, for the reasons above.

Loyalty Abilities

Loyalty abilities are on planeswalkers. They’re subject to some special rules, but you probably know them. They’re activated abilities.


Effects are not abilities, but they’re the things that happen as a result of abilities. They will be either one-shot or continuous.

One-Shot Effects

One-shot effects do something once, immediately, and are then done. Murder will create a one-shot effect. Some of them can create delayed triggered abilities to do something later, like Touch of Moonglove.

Continuous Effects

Continuous effects take place for a longer period, whether that’s fixed or indefinite. “Until end of turn” effects are continuous effects, as are most static abilities (since they take place until the permanent is no longer around). This is where layers come in, so let’s duck out of this as soon as possible.

Replacement Effects

Replacement effects are a type of continuous effect. The most common ones use the word “instead”, or “As this permanent enters the battlefield…”

Fiery Impulse’s spell mastery effect replaces the first effect. Undergrowth Scavenger is also a replacement effect. These are important to know because they can’t be responded to after the spell itself has resolved.