Grafdigger's Cage and Grist: A Detective Story

There's been a bit of consternation lately about how Grafdigger's Cage functions with Grist. Specifically, what happens if Grist, the Hunger Tide attempts to enter the battlefield from the library or graveyard via something like Chord of Calling or Reanimate while Grafdigger's Cage is on the battlefield.

If you just came here for the answer, the correct answer is that Grafdigger's Cage will prevent Grist from entering. Now let's learn why.


First let's talk about Grist's ability. Grist's ability may remind you of what's known as a characteristic-defining ability. The CR tells us that:

604.3. Some static abilities are characteristic-defining abilities. A characteristic-defining ability conveys information about an object’s characteristics that would normally be found elsewhere on that object (such as in its mana cost, type line, or power/toughness box). Characteristic-defining abilities can add to or override information found elsewhere on that object. Characteristic-defining abilities function in all zones. They also function outside the game and before the game begins.

604.3a A static ability is a characteristic-defining ability if it meets the following criteria: (1) It defines an object’s colors, subtypes, power, or toughness; (2) it is printed on the card it affects, it was granted to the token it affects by the effect that created the token, or it was acquired by the object it affects as the result of a copy effect or text-changing effect; (3) it does not directly affect the characteristics of any other objects; (4) it is not an ability that an object grants to itself; and (5) it does not set the values of such characteristics only if certain conditions are met.

As we can see, Grist's ability is not a CDA, because it is conditional on the zone in which Grist currently is. The reason it's still able to function while not on the battlefield is due to a rule in the "abilities" section that was added specifically for Grist:

113.6c An ability that states which zones it doesn’t function in functions everywhere except for the specified zones, even outside the game and before the game begins.

So, the ability does exactly what it says. In any zone other than the battlefield, Grist has the type "creature". Since it's also a card, that means it's a creature card, and anything that refers to a creature card can find it.

Grafdigger's Cage

Grafdigger's Cage has what the rules refer to as a "'Can't' effect".

614.17. Some effects state that something can’t happen. These effects aren’t replacement effects, but follow similar rules.


614.17d Some “can’t” effects modify how a permanent enters the battlefield or whether it can enter the battlefield. Such effects may come from the permanent itself if they affect only that permanent (as opposed to a general subset of permanents that includes it). They may also come from other sources. To determine which “can’t” effects apply, check the characteristics of the permanent as it would exist on the battlefield, taking into account replacement effects that have already modified how it enters the battlefield (see rule 616.1), continuous effects from the permanent’s own static abilities that would apply to it once it’s on the battlefield, and continuous effects that already exist and would apply to the permanent.

So when determining what Grafdigger's Cage would apply to, we look ahead to see what the permanent would look like on the battlefield, right?

Well, no. 614.17d (and its sister rule 614.12) are very dense rules that don't state everything explicitly. To understand what really happens, we need to know about some other very important rules that tell us how to know what zone an effect is referring to:

110.1. A permanent is a card or token on the battlefield. A permanent remains on the battlefield indefinitely. A card or token becomes a permanent as it enters the battlefield and it stops being a permanent as it’s moved to another zone by an effect or rule.

109.2. If a spell or ability uses a description of an object that includes a card type or subtype, but doesn’t include the word “card,” “spell,” “source,” or “scheme,” it means a permanent of that card type or subtype on the battlefield.

109.2a If a spell or ability uses a description of an object that includes the word “card” and the name of a zone, it means a card matching that description in the stated zone.

Note that 614.17d says "Some “can’t” effects modify how a permanent enters the battlefield or whether it can enter the battlefield." Yet Grafdigger's Cage doesn't care about permanents, it cares about creature cards in graveyards and libraries. Since it says "creature card" and not "creature", it cares about the qualities of the card in your graveyard/library rather than the card on the battlefield, and is not subject to the lookahead in 614.17d.

Compare this to cards like Worms of the Earth and Containment Priest. Those refer to "lands" and "creatures" respectively, meaning that they care about the qualities of the permanent as it exists on the battlefield. If you control Worms of the Earth and Ashaya, Soul of the Wild, Reanimating your Bear Cub will not work, because it would be a land once it's on the battlefield.


Everything I've said above is correct according to the CR, but we know that sometimes the CR can be wrong. So just to reassure people that this is in fact correct, here are some confirmations of this fact.

A Gatherer ruling on Grafdigger's Cage:

Look at the card as it exists in your graveyard to determine whether it can enter the battlefield. For example, Sculpting Steel can be put onto the battlefield as a copy of a creature, but Phyrexian Metamorph can’t be put onto the battlefield, even if it would copy a noncreature artifact.

The Rivals of Ixalan rules update bulletin also confirms this, saying:

Grafdigger's Cage has had some confusion throughout the past as to exactly how it interacts with manifest or the sundry other effects that make things creatures but only after they've changed zones. We've cleaned up the wording a little bit to make it less ambiguous: if the card in the old zone is a creature card, it can't move. It doesn't matter what it would look like on the battlefield—this effect applies to creature cards in the old zone. This allows Sculpting Steel to enter the battlefield as an artifact creature, but Phyrexian Metamorph can't enter as a noncreature artifact.

This has also consistently been the ruling any time people ask online.

Of course those last few rulings aren't Official, and Official WOTC rulings like the two above can also be wrong whenever WOTC decides they want to change their mind. But the fact that there's been such a strong and consistent consensus on this indicates that there's no particular reason to believe that Wizards has a different intention; if they did it likely would have come to light a long time ago.

The distinction between "cards" and "permanents" is a fundamental principle of the rules that underlies many other interactions. It shows up in all sorts of places all over the game, and has been well-known among rules nerds and knowledgeable judges for many years. Up until February 2023, this was not a controversial or ambiguous part of the rules.

The Confusion

In the past few weeks, I started seeing tons of questions about this, with claims that Wizards had made a conflicting Official ruling at the Pro Tour that Grist could enter the battlefield, or Judge Academy had made such a ruling, or something else strange had happened. I did some sleuthing, and here's what actually happened.

On February 1st, popular Youtube channel JudgingFTW posted a video about this interaction between Grist and Grafdigger's Cage and Containment Priest. His answer was incorrect; he said that both Grafdigger's Cage and Containment Priest would apply to Grist and prevent it from entering the battlefield.

This led to some disagreement, and he took down that video. On February 13th, he posted a new video about this interaction. The answer this time was that neither Grafdigger's Cage nor Containment Priest stops Grist. This is also incorrect, just in the inverse way. (He failed to realize that Grafdigger's Cage saying "creature card" makes it function differently from Containment Priest saying "creature".)

Being a popular rules resource, and having given a very strange-sounding answer twice in a row, this led to the question generating a lot of discussion on the internet.

Coincidentally, at F2F Montreal near the end of January, an appeals judge had taken this question from a player and made the same incorrect ruling that Grafdigger's Cage does not prevent Grist from entering.

can't tell if I'm being trolled because I fucked this up at F2F Mtl or if this is a real question but yeah the other comment is correct

— Elaine @ F2F Toronto (@Oritart) February 16, 2023

These situations merged into an unholy abomination of confusion on the internet.

A rumor then started that rules manager Jess Dunks had ruled at Pro Tour Philadelphia that Grist could in fact enter despite Graffdigger's Cage. This was a believable story, since Wizards employees have in the past made some very strange rulings that conflict with their published rules.

In this case however, that rumor was incorrect. Jess Dunks was not at Pro Tour Philadelphia, and never made such a ruling.

I wasn’t at MagicCon, and I think there may have been some miscommunication somewhere. I haven’t given any rulings about this interaction.

— Jess Dunks (@Dunkatog) February 21, 2023

What actually happened was that the question was brought up to Judge Academy employee Daniel Lee, who writes their rules blog. Daniel was discussing this with other judges in Philadelphia, messaged Jess privately for confirmation, misunderstood Jess's response, and incorrectly answered that Grist could enter. (I confirmed this privately with Daniel.)

cc also @ThisIsWonderful @Dunkatog

— Elaine @ F2F Toronto (@Oritart) February 17, 2023

This misunderstanding led to people thinking that Jess had made an Official ruling that contradicted the CR, when in fact no such thing ever occurred. As Judging FTW posted on Youtube in the comments of that video:

Most of the time, when a rules question - even a tricky one - arises, it's resolved relatively quickly by the judge community. This one is a bit more difficult, since it deals with an interpretation of the existing rules, rather than simply a matter of finding the appropriate rules covering the scenario in the CR. Accordingly, reaching a consensus as to the proper answer involves a rather time-consuming process of discussion, research, and debate among several high-ranking judges, often spanning multiple time zones.

To avoid contributing to misinformation, I will avoid commenting on the current state of the deliberations, however, I will say that over the past weekend at Magic Con 30 Philadelphia, I was able to speak with and hear from many of my colleagues, including some of the ones I would expect to be parties involved in making an [O]fficial decision. After these discussions, as well as reading the (principally dissenting) opinions presented to me in the comments and through other private channels, my view is that the information presented in this video is correct and the Gatherer ruling many people have cited is either out-of-date or otherwise inapplicable. If this stance changes, I will proceed with my normal protocol for a case where information in one of my videos is found to be in error, that being to take down the offending video and begin work on a new one explaining the correct ruling and highlighting the ultimate source of the confusion.

I'd like to offer my thanks to everyone who is contributing to these discussions. In particular, I'd like to extend my sincere appreciation to those who presented dissenting opinions through various channels. To my great relief, these have for the most part been characterized by a much higher degree of civility than the usual reputation of internet commenters would suggest. Thank you so much to the JudgingFtW community for bringing up these concerns and for your patience in waiting for a response. As noted in the video, this is not a corner case. This is a relevant interaction involving relevant cards in a relevant format, so it's important to get this right. Rest assured, I take my role as an educational resource very seriously, and am closely monitoring this situation so as to respond appropriately.

Given that Wizards has not actually issued any recent rulings on this interaction, there is no reason to believe that anything has changed from how it's worked for the past 10 years. Grafdigger's Cage cares about how the card looks in the graveyard/library. Grist cannot enter. If you see anybody saying otherwise, unless their name is Jess Dunks and you're hearing it directly from them, that person is incorrect. Please point them to this article.

Lessons to be Learned

This situation serves as a good reminder to always check the original source of information before spreading it further. Online games of telephone across Twitter, Reddit, Discord, and private messages can easily result in information getting warped beyond recognition. Also, reading the CR carefully and reaching out to experts is never a bad plan.

I want to emphasize that no one here did anything horrible. Magic's rules are quite complicated, and the section on the enters-the-battlefield lookahead for replacement effects and "can't" effects is especially convoluted. Judges make mistakes, and what matters is learning from them and moving on. Everybody I mentioned here is a wonderful judge who has above-average rules knowledge and has made many positive contributions to the judge community. They should not be shamed for making a single error in one of the most challenging areas of the rules.

In particular, I want to commend Elaine for trying to get a definitive answer from Wizards once the confusion became apparent, rather than going off of hearsay and speculation and making the issue worse.

If you think I've missed any relevant parts of the story or gotten any details wrong, please contact me so that I can look into it further and edit this article appropriately.