Deep Analysis: Text, Abilities, and Effects

Text, abilities, and effects are three of the most fundamental concepts of Magic, yet they're not often talked about. I can't recall ever seeing a single conference presentation geared towards themExcept my own., and a lot of judges seem very confused about them. Despite ostensibly being a requirement for L1, I frequently see long-time L2s struggle with the basics.Even Judge Academy's modules on these contain significant errors. Let's try and clear things up a bit.


Before we get into those three things, we first need to understand the concept of a characteristic. A characteristic is just a quality of a game object. Each characteristic has some value.

As an analogy, consider animals. We might say a lion has the following characteristics:

While a mini poodle has different values for the same characteristics:

Other animals may be lacking some characteristics entirely, such as a lizard, which has no value for its fur:

Some characteristics can be influenced by other characteristics. For example, by default, anything that has "forelimb type: wings" also has "locomotion: flight". But if the animal has its wings clipped, or just evolves to be really weird, it still has "forelimb type: wings", but will now have a different "locomotion" value.

Characteristics of Magic cards work the same way. By default, a card's color is determined by its mana cost. Tarmogoyf is green because its mana cost contains green mana symbols. If you change a card's mana cost somehow, then its color changes too.

But you can also independently change a card's color, such as with Painter's Servant or Ghostfire. This doesn't change its mana cost, it just overwrites its default "color" value that was derived from that mana cost with some new value.

So "color" and "mana cost" are both characteristics of cards, but color is downstream from mana cost. Changing a card's mana cost will change its color (unless something else is overwriting that color anyway), but changing its color will not change its mana cost.

Ok, now we can get into the real stuff.


The text of a card is what's written on it. Technically this includes all symbols on a card, including its name, mana cost, type line, etc. But since we're not talking about Volrath's Shapeshifter today, I'm going to ignore all that and just focus on the text in the card's text box, which is the part that matters 99% of the time.

First off, any italicized text in the text box is ignored. This includes flavor text, reminder text, ability words like "heroic" and "tempting offer", and flavor words like the "Teleport" on Blink Dog. As far as the rules of the game are concerned, none of this text exists, and if you try and use it to figure out what the card does, you may be misled.

After removing italicized text, we're left with the rules text of the card. This is the text that matters.

For tokens and copies of cards, that object's rules text is not what's printed on it, but what was defined as its rules text by the thing that created it. This works exactly the same way as if it were printed on; there's no functional difference.


An ability is a characteristic a card has that has some impact on gameplay. "Flying", "overload", and "This creature can't be blocked" are all abilities.Well technically there are some abilities that only impact deckbuilding, like on Relentless Rats.

Abilities are generated by text in the exact same way that color is generated by mana cost. By default, a card's abilities are just what's in its text. But other things can give it new abilities, like Charge Through giving a creature trample.

Let's say that you control Goblin Outlander. This has the text "protection from white", and as a consequence also has the ability "protection from white". If you target it with Glamerdye to change "white" to red", now its text is "protection from red", this changes its ability to also be "protection from red".

Let's say instead you have a Bear Cub and you target it with Eight-and-a-Half-Tails. This gives it the ability "protection from white". But unlike Goblin Outlander, that ability isn't being generated by any text on the card. If you now cast Glamerdye and change "white" to "red", it does nothing; there is no text on the card to affect. It will continue to have protection from white, not red.

(If you were ever looking at a list of the layers and were confused at why "text" and "abilities" were separate layers, this is why that makes sense.)

As unother example, if you control Dress Down and your opponent controls Dragon's Rage Channeler, it'll still get -5/-5 from your capital offense. Humility has removed its abilities, but has not affected its text in any way.With the release of Unfinity, Wizards has started allowing some un-cards to be legal in tournament Magic as long as what they do is well-defined under the rules. I say: Cowards! Legalize all non-serious cards that meet the same criteria. capital offense, Topsy Turvy, Queue of Beetles, and hundreds of others all work just fine under the existing CR, and would make my corner case questions much more fun.

Kinds of abilities

There any many different categories that abilities get divided into. The four general categories are: "activated abilities", "triggered abilities", "static abilities", and "spell abilities".Everyone always forgets about spell abilities. Want a way to tell the true rules experts apart from the posers? Ask them how many general categories of abilities there are. There are also some secondary categories like "mana abilities", "linked abilities", "keyword abilities", "loyalty abilities", "chapter abilities", etc. (These other categories are not mutually exclusive; every ability fits into exactly one general category, and can also fit into any number of secondary categories.)

When an activated ability is activated or a triggered ability triggers, a corresponding object is created on the stack. This object on the stack is a completely different thing from the characteristic of an object that resulted in it being put onto the stack. It is extremely unfortunate that Wizards chosen to give these two concepts the same term, and this naming conflict has led to a lot of confusion.

Imagine you're reading the hot new Lord of the Rings book, and Gimli, son of Glóin suddenly jumps out of the pages and stands before you in all his dwarven glory. You look at the piece of paper in front of you and the ink molecules arranged in the shape of certain glyphs. You look at the 1.37 meter tall creature currently brandishing an axe is your general direction. You could perhaps say that these two things are both "Gimli" in their own sense, but they're not the same.

Activated and triggered abilities on the stack are basically just ripoffs of spells, and we shan't discuss them further.


An effect is an ephemeral "thing" in the game that is not a characteristic of any particular object. Effects are usuallyTrivia question for you: What's an example of an effect that is not created by an ability? created by abilities.

More specifically, an effect is anything that's the direct result of a spell or ability. (Either kind of ability.) This means that things like state-based actions, special actions, the cost you pay to cast a spell, etc. are not effects.I know that no matter how many times I say this I won't get people to stop saying "state-based effects", but I can try. Also of note, a delayed trigger that's waiting to trigger, such as that created by Prized Amalgam, is not a continuous effect.

Effects are separate from abilities. If Death's-Head Buzzard dies, there is no more ability on the battlefield nor stack, yet that effect still exists until the end of the turn.

There are two main types of effects: One-shot effects and continuous effects. (Just like with abilities, there are also secondary categories like replacement effects, text-changing effects, prevention effects, "can't" effects, etc. We won't worry about those categories here.)

One-shot effects are instantaneous, like "destroy a creature" or "draw a card". They don't last for any nonzero length of time, and you can forget about them as soon as you've carried out their instruction. One-shot effects are boring, so we're not going to spend any more time on them.

Continuous effects are, like the name implies, continuous. They have a duration. That duration might be "until end of turn", "for as long as that creature remains on the battlefield", "forever", or any other length of time.

No matter how many times the uneducated rabble will tell you otherwise, static abilities and continuous effects are not the same thing.

The most straightforward example of this is as follows:

For a less straightforward demonstration of this, take a look at Titania's Song. If it gets destroyed, that ability is gone. There is no card on the battlefield with any ability. Yet the effect still exists!

This also explains how Magus of the Moon can turn your lands into Mountains despite having its ability removed by Dress Down. The ability may be gone, but the effect is still there.

When is something an "ability"?

It can sometimes be a little confusing whether an ability is being granted to some object or not. If your opponent plays Autumn's Veil and then you play Dress Down, you still can't target their creatures. But if it's Veil of Summer instead, you can. Why the difference?

Hearken back to our definition of a characteristic. A characteristic is something an object has or is. So if the effect in question is phrasing what it's doing as granting a quality to the object, then (if that quality isn't some other characteristic like color or power or whatever), it's giving it an ability. Usually this will use wording like "[object] gains [ability]", "[object] has [ability]", or "[object] becomes a [list of other characteristics] with [ability]".

(You do have to be a little careful with that last one. Inkmoth Nexus is granting itself the abilities of flying and infect. But Exotic Pets is defining the text of the token, not granting it any abilities. So don't just rely on specific words; consider what the whole ability is doing.)

Another way to tell the difference is to consider whether what's being "given" to the object would actually make sense if it were a built-in ability of the creature, verbatim. With Raging Ravine, you can imagine a creature that has "Whenever this creature attacks, put a +1/+1 counter on it." printed on it. That makes perfect sense, and would be a perfectly valid card to print. But if you do this for Creeping Tar Pit, the resulting creature would just say "can’t be blocked this turn" on it. That's not even a grammatical English sentence! So clearly it can't be giving it an ability, since abilities are self-contained and must make sense on their own. So Raging Ravine is granting itself an ability, but Creeping Tar Pit is just stating something that's true about itself. Creeping Tar Pit is creating a continuous effect, but not granting itself any ability.

What do effects apply to?

Continuous effects usually apply to some set of objects. Sometimes that's just a single object, such as with Giant Growth. Sometimes it's a larger set of objects, such as with Aggressive Mammoth.

If the continuous effect is generated by a static ability, like on Aggressive Mammoth, then it's always reevaluating what it applies to. If you play a new creature, it will have trample.

Where it gets more interesting is a continuous effect generated by the resolution of a spell or ability on the stack. Here's what the CR tells us:

If a continuous effect generated by the resolution of a spell or ability modifies the characteristics or changes the controller of any objects, the set of objects it affects is determined when that continuous effect begins. After that point, the set won’t change. A continuous effect generated by the resolution of a spell or ability that doesn’t modify the characteristics or change the controller of any objects modifies the rules of the game, so it can affect objects that weren’t affected when that continuous effect began.

So that's pretty straightforward. Check whether the continuous effect modifies the characteristics (or changes the controller) of any objects. If it doesn't, like Autumn's Veil's "creatures you control can’t be the targets of blue or black spells this turn", then that works just like a continuous effect from a static ability; if you play any new creatures, that "game rule" applies to them just like it did to the old creatures.

If the continuous effect does modify the characteristics or controller of anything, then that set is "locked in" when the effect is first created. If you cast Overrun, any creatures you play after it resolves won't get the bonus.

(And as the CR tells us, if a single continuous effect has parts that modify the characteristics or changes the controller of any objects and other parts that don’t, the set of objects each part applies to is determined independently.)

If you're familiar with the layers system, you may notice that the types of effects we care about here match up exactly with the kinds of effects that apply in a certain layer. Anything that applies in the 7 layers gets "locked in" if it's not from a static ability. Anything that just modifies the general game rules and isn't a part of the standard 7 layers can affect new objects.

A nice example of this is Plaxmanta. Its original text from Dissension changes the rules of the game, so it could apply to creatures that enter after the ability has resolved. But its current oracle text gives your creatures shroud, which locks in the set. New creatures played afterwards won't also gain shroud.

Are two different abilities actually different?

Sometimes cards say they gain another card's abilities, like Experiment Kraj. And this is where the CR starts to break down. If you control Experiment Kraj and put a +1/+1 counter on Rootwalla, can you give each creature +2/+2? According to the CR, no. Rootwalla's ability can only be activated once each turn, and Experiment Kraj gains that ability, which can only be activated once.

This is not the intention, Wizards just wasn't thinking very hard when they wrote this section of the rules. What they probably mean is something like "any effect that grants an object another object's ability actually grants it a duplicate of that ability's text".602.5c is probably trying to say something like this, but it abysmally fails, and actually makes things worse if you take it literally.

This interpretation doesn't work either though. If you control Volrath's ShapeshifterYeah I lied earlier, we are going to talk about Volrath's Shapeshifter. Did you seriously think I'd write an article about text-changing effects and not talk about Volrath's Shapeshifter‽ and the top card of your graveyard is another Volrath's Shapeshifter, what happens? Well, the Volrath's Shapeshifter on the battlefield gains the text of the Volrath's Shapeshifter in the graveyard. That gives it a new ability to gain the text of the top card of your graveyard, which is, oh yeah, Volrath's Shapeshifter. So we apply that effect, which grants it an ability...

We end up with an infinite loop of effect application. Obviously this isn't the intention, but I don't know exactly how Wizards wants this to work under the hood, so I can't explain the details.

So let's just ignore Volrath's Shapeshifter for now. For every other card, the rule above works fine. When a card gains text or an ability, it's actually gaining a duplicate of the text/ability of the source object. A static ability that's granting an object text or an ability only "reduplicates" that characteristic if the source object changes to a new object.

Prove your skills!

Theoretically, you just learned stuff. Now it's time to test that theory. For each question, first take a moment to think about what the answer is. If it turns out you were mistaken, don't just move on! Figure out where you went wrong, go back and re-read a section if necessary, and only continue once once you've fixed the gap in knowledge.

If the problem was that I explained something badly, yell at me about it so I can fix it.

Question #1

You control Surge Engine. You activate its first ability. After that resolves, your opponent casts Dress Down. Can it be blocked?

Yes. Surge Engine grants itself the ability “This creature can’t be blocked.”, which Dress Down removes.

Question #2

Your opponent plays Kardur, Doomscourge and passes the turn. On your turn, you play Barging Sergeant. Does it have to attack?

Yes. Kardur doesn't affect the characteristics of anything, it just makes a true statement that "creatures your opponents control attack each combat if able", so it'll apply to new creatures as well.

Question #3

Your opponent controls Bear Cub. You cast Falter and attack. They cast Aerial Maneuver to give their Bear Cub flying. Can it block?

Yes. Falter isn't affecting the characteristics or controller of anything, it's just creating a new game rule that applies to everything.

Question #4

You cast Dread Charge. After it resolves, you cast Banehound. Can it be blocked by nonblack creatures?

No. Dread Charge is not granting an ability to anything, it's just stating something that's true about the game. "Black creatures you control can’t be blocked this turn except by black creatures." That statement is equally true for any creatures that entered after that statement began existing.

Question #5

You cast Twinflame, making a token that's a copy of Glory Seeker. You then cast Clone, copying the token. Does the Clone have haste? Will it be exiled?

It has haste, but it will not be exiled. When Twinflame says "except it has haste", that is defining the token's text. Since haste is part of the token's text, it gets copied by Clone. "Exile those tokens at the beginning of the next end step" is not granting it any text or abilities, that's just setting up a delayed trigger that refers to those tokens.

Question #6

You animate Den of the Bugbear. Then you target it with Artificial Evolution, changing "Goblin" to "Hamster". When it attacks, what's the creature type of the token'?

Goblin. When Den of the Bugbear's activated ability resolves, it grants it the ability “Whenever this creature attacks, create a 1/1 red Goblin creature token that’s tapped and attacking.” That ability does not become a part of its text, so Artificial Evolution doesn't affect it.

Question #7

You cast Clone, copying Black Knight. You then cast Glamerdye targeting Clone to change "white" to "red". What color does it have protection from?

Red. Clone copies the text of the original object, which Glamerdye then changes.

Question #8

You activate Figure of Destiny's first ability. In response, your opponent phases it out with Brokers Confluence. When it phases back in, what does it look like?

It's a 1/1 Kithkin. Figure of Destiny's continuous effect modifies its characteristics (power, toughness, and subtypes), so the set of objects it can affect gets locked in when it's first created. When it's created, Figure of Destiny is phased out and the effect treats it as though it doesn't exist, so the set of objects it affects is just the empty set {}. That won't change later once Figure of Destiny phases back in.

Question #9

You control two Skill Borrowers, and the top card of your library is Rootwalla. How many times can you give a creature +2/+2?

You can give each Skill Borrower +2/+2 one time. They each gain a duplicate of Rootwalla's ability. Each of those abilities can be activated once per turn.

Question #10

You play Dack's Duplicate, copying Bear Cub. You then cast Exchange of Words, targeting Dack's Duplicate and Garruk's Companion. What does each creature look like?

Dack's Duplicate has trample, haste, and dethrone. Garruk's Companion has no abilities.

Question #11

You control Volrath's Shapeshifter, with an empty graveyard. You cast Dack's Duplicate and copy Volrath's Shapeshifter. Then your Bear Cub dies. Does Dack's Duplicate's have haste?

Yes. After becoming a copy of Volrath's Shapeshifter, Dack's Duplicate has the text of Volrath's Shapeshifter, plus the abilities "haste" and "dethrone". These abilities aren't defined by its text, they're defined by the continuous effect that's making it a copy. Volrath's Shapeshifter's ability later changes its text to be something else, but this has no effect on the abilities it's being granted by Dack's Duplicate's continuous effect.

Question #12

You control Sawtusk Demolisher mutated beneath your Chatterfang, Squirrel General. You use Glamerdye to change "green" to "red" on it, then mutate Trumpeting Gnarr on top of the pile. Assuming your opponent has an artifact to destroy, what color tokens are created?

Your opponent gets a green Beast. You get a red beast and a green squirrel.

A merged permanent has all characteristics of the topmost component. It also has the abilities of all its other components. So immediately after Trumpeting Gnarr enters the battlefield, when we're checking to see what triggers to put onto the stack, the only text that this permanent has is mutate and "Whenever this creature mutates, create a 3/3 green Beast creature token." That text is changed to make a red token instead, and that modifies the ability appropriately. The other abilities are derived from text that isn't on the object,

Put more simply, mutate grants the abilities of the mutated cards to the top component, but doesn't grant it their text. So there's nothing for text-changing effects to affect.

Question #13

You control Goblin King and Crazed Goblin. Your opponent controls a Volcanic Island, so they cast Mind Bend targeting Goblin King to change "Mountain" to "Forest". Can your Crazed Goblin be blocked?

Yes. Goblin King's text was changed from "Other Goblins get +1/+1 and have mountainwalk." to "Other Goblins get +1/+1 and have forestwalk." That text generates an ability that gives Crazed Goblin forestwalk.

Question #14

You control Aegis Angel, which has given your Bear Cub indestructible. Your opponent targets the Angel with Turn to Frog. Does your Bear still have indestructible?

Yes. When Aegis Angel's triggered ability resolves, it creates a continuous effect that says "the selected permanent has indestructible. This effect ends lasts for as long as you control Aegis Angel." After that effect has been created, removing Aegis Angel's abilities won't affect the effect in any way.

Question #15

You control Skill Borrower, and the top card of your library is Rootwalla. You activate Skill Borrower to get +2/+2. You then cast Temporal Spring to put another Rootwalla you had on the battlefield on top of your library. Can you activate Skill Borrower again?

Yes. The new Rootwalla on top of your library is a new object, so Skill Borrower gains a completely new ability from it. The fact that it has identical text to the old ability is irrelevant.

Question #16

After putting a second Rootwalla on top of your library in the last question, you cast Liliana's Indignation to mill 1 card, revealing the second Rootwalla once again. Can you activate your Skill Borrower a third time?

Yes. 401.6 tells us that a card in the library that stoped being revealed becomes a new object while it was hidden.

Question #17

You use Heat Shimmer to make a copy of Volrath's Shapeshifter. Then your Bear Cub dies. Does the token have haste? Must it be exiled at the end step?

No and no. Heat Shimmer is defining the token's text, so that text is overwritten by Volrath's Shapeshifter's ability.

Question #18

You target Den of the Bugbear with Trait Doctoring, changing "red" to "green". Then you animate it. When it attacks, what's the color of the token'?

Green. When Trait Doctoring resolved, it changed the color words in Den of the Bugbear's activated ability. When that ability is activated, the ability on the stack has that wording, and it turns the Den into a green creature that makes green tokens.

Question #19

You cast Maestros Confluence to goad each creature your opponent controls. On their turn, they play a creature with haste. Does it have to attack?

No. Maestros Confluence creates a one-shot effect that goads each of the opponent's creatures at the time it resolves. It's not creating a continuous effect, so it won't apply to new creatures.

Question #20

You control Experiment Kraj, and a Rootwalla with a +1/+1 counter. You activate Experiment Kraj to get +2/+2. Then you turn Rootwalla face down, and then face up again. Can you activate Experiment Kraj again?

No. Rootwalla is still the same object it was before, so Experiment Kraj still has the same ability it did earlier, even though it briefly lost it while Rootwalla was face down.

Question #21

You control Bear Cub and cast Klothys's Design. After that resolves, you cast another Bear Cub. What's the total power of your creatures?

5. Klothys's Design affects the characteristics of creatures (their power and toughness), so it won't affect the new Bear Cub. It also won't update X based on the change in devotion because the value of variables is similarly locked in at the time the effect is first created, as per 611.2d.

Question #22

You control Rootwalla, which you've activated. You cast Cytoshape to turn your Rootwalla into a copy of another Rootwalla. (You really like Rootwalla, ok?) Can you activate it a second time?

Yes. When it becomes a copy of another Rootwalla, it gains an entirely new set of characteristics, that just happen to be identical to its old ones. It's not the same ability, so it can be activated again.

Question #23

You activate Rootwalla. Then you mutate Boneyard Lurker on top of it. Can you activate Boneyard Lurker to get another +2/+2?

The rules basically throw their hands in the air and say "no clue" for this question. It's completely undefined what a component of a merged permanent actually "is" in a game sense; it's not an object, but it's supposed to act like one somehow? The question here is whether, by turning from an object into a component, Rootwall has "become a new object" and refreshed its ability. The intention is probably no, but who knows.

Question #24

You control Veyran, Voice of Duality and attack with Mercurial Spelldancer, which hits your opponent and you remove two oil counters. You then cast a sorcery. Does it get copied once or twice?

Once. When Veyran says "A triggered ability of a permanent", it means "a triggered ability that a permanent has as a characteristic", not "a triggered ability on the stack whose source is a permanent".

This isn't stated in the CR, but it's sort of implied by the fact that you could imagine a card talking about "a static ability of a permanent", and that wouldn't make sense if it referred to the stack. WOTC has confirmed this interpretation on Twitter.

For more questions about this area of the rules, see here. If you enjoy this sort of in-depth technical discussions of Magic's rules, consider joining the RulesGuru Discord server.

With thanks to Tobias Vyseri and several members of the RulesGuru Discord server for their feedback and suggestions.