Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Brief Encyclopedia of Common Activated Abilities

I started this last year while I was working on my casual GDS2 set. I really wanted to build a wedge colored block, and the ways I wanted to show off the different color combinations involved terrain and color-costed activated abilities. Since these are relevant for anyone working on the M13 project, I thought I'd update my list and post it where other writers can use it.

The first category of common activated abilities are all creature-pumping. They show up in every color except blue (which got a +1/+0 "frost-breathing" pump in Time Spiral block, but that's an area to stay away from).

Shading — B: ~ gets +1/+1 until end of turn. (Drifting Shade)

Firebreathing — R: ~ gets +1/+0 until end of turn. (Fiery Hellhound)
Rootwalla — 2G: ~ gets +2/+2 until end of turn. Activate only once each turn. (Darkthicket Wolf)
Flowstone — (varies, usually R): ~ gets +1/-1 until end of turn. (Undead Leotau) 
  • This effect is a little looser and hasn't show up as much in recent sets. I think it's also appeared as +2/-1, which makes more sense instead of a strictly worse firebreathing.
Toughness — W: CARDNAME gets +0/+1 until end of turn. (Wall of Faith)
  • This shows up less frequently in recent times, mostly because it's boring. It was more of a staple prior to Magic 2010.

These are the basic effects, but sometimes they get bumped up in cost and effect, like 1R: +2/+0. A few examples include Feral Ridgewolf, Knight of the Skyward Eye, Kraniocerous. The most frequently occuring pumps are firebreathing and shading, and they generally push players towards mono-colored decks. If the goal is to encourage players to play multiple colors, the doubled-up effect seems preferrable.

The second category of activated abilities is regularly appearing tap-activated abilities:

Looting — Tap: Draw a card, then discard a card. (Merfolk Looter)
  • Sometimes this appears with a cost (like on Frontline Sage), which could make it a candidate for an off-color activation.
Tapping — W, Tap: Tap target creature. (Blinding Mage
Tap: Add (color) to your mana pool. (Llanowar Elf)

Tap: Target creature gets +1/+1 until end of turn. (Infantry Veteran)
Tap: Target land you control becomes the basic land type of your choice until end of turn. (Grixis Illusionist
  • This has appeared in the past without the "you control" rider on cards like Dream Thrush.
Tap: Target player puts the top card of his or her library into his or her graveyard. (Cathartic Adept)
  • This ability can vary in activation cost and the number of cards milled.
Tap: Target player loses 1 life. (Acolyte of Xathrid)
  • This has appeared with a mana cost, but I don't see any reason why it needs one. A black Goblin Fireslinger seems like a fine card to me.
Tap: Target creature gains haste until end of turn. (Battle Rampart)
Tap: Target small creature is unblockable/can't block. (Goblin Tunneler)

The third group is miscellaneous/infrequent abilities:

C: CARDNAME gains (ability primary to the color in the cost) until end of turn.

This is a broad category of varied effects, like 1W: CARDNAME gains vigilance until end of turn (Cloudheath Drake), or U: CARDNAME gains islandwalk until end of turn (Shore Snapper). The only problem with these is they start to create significant demand for players' attention, since the players have to continually compare what mana is available to the creatures on board.

C, tap: Target creature gains (ability primary to the color in the cost) until end of turn. (Caller of Gales)

Similar to above, but the ability can be granted to other creatures. There aren't very many examples in this group, but it could be an untapped area worth mining. Since the tap in the cost limits the activations, there are fewer demands for player monitoring, which makes this is a safer area to mine for M13 colored activation abilities. That said, the ability to grant repeated abilities to other creatures is usually an uncommon ability (see the Mage cycle in M12 for an example). Sometimes haste is an exception and can see a tap or a mana cost at common, but it's probably inappropriate to grant that exception in core sets.

Sacrifice CARDNAME: (color relevant common effect) (Brindle Boar, Brain Weevil, Bloodpyre Elemental)

Sometimes these appear with a cost, like the Replica cycle, or timing restriction (for example, "any time you could cast a sorcery," or "during your upkeep"). These are a little more complicated, and I'm not sure abilities in this category are well-understood by new players. The only one of these I recall from recent core sets is Brindle Boar, and I regularly see it in missed plays like forgetting that you can block with it, then sacrifice it before damage is dealt.

1C: Regenerate

Even though it's similar to the color relevant abilities, I think Regeneration gets its own category, because it's a weirdo with confusing rules implication. Its template is simple (even if the rules text is not), and the cost is either green or black, usually +1 colorless.

Sacrifice a creature: CARDNAME gets +2/+2 until end of turn. Ex: Vampire Aristocrat

Sacrifice a creature: (effect not primary in black) Ex: Viscera Seer

Black also has two templates for sacrifice activated abilities. The first is the old Phyrexian Ghoul / Dross Hopper), but sometimes there's a relevant flavor tie-in, or you're Scars block and you need more sac outlets for setting up draft plans.

Also, a reminder on activated abilities that have stopped appearing on common activated abilities:

  1. Anything that provides repeatable card advantage (repeated creature kill, card draw, or opponent-discards effects)
  2. Repeatable damage (Prodigal Pyromancer, or Spikeshot Elder).
  3. Repeatable damage prevention (Abuna Acolyte)


  1. Aaron Forsythe explained why he likes Acolyte of Xathrid's activation cost here.

  2. Acolyte is a fine "bad" card. I'm just sayin' it could exist as an actual good card as well. I really like early drop guys that remain relevant late game (although I admit that I'm biased in favor of goblins, and Fireslinger is one of my favorites from M12).

  3. Blightspeaker is almost a Acolyte of Xathrid, costing 1B, and having a rebel tutor ability.

    he does have power, which means that you can throw him in front of a X/1 and get a tap ability off to go witht he trade.

    So I think that they could print it, but they might not.

  4. Quick question:

    Prodigal Pyromancer vs. Goblin Fireslinger. Is Pyromancer uncommon simply because of the "target creature" addition, or is Goblin Fireslinger common because of the playstyle of M12, which it supports a lot more?

    Further, if PP is only uncommon because it can hit creatures and players, what rarity would an opposite (vs. creatures) of Goblin Fireslinger be?

    Just curious.

    (My answers are: It's a mix of both, but primarily because it hits only players; and that vs. creatures is fine at common. I'm probably wrong though!)

  5. The reason Prodigal Pyromancer, and every pinger post-Vithian Stinger, has been moved to Uncommon is because it's repeatable removal on a stick. (Though that stick is generally negligible.)

    Consider that Stensia Bloodhall would essentially be broken if it could target creatures, as opposed to being merely alright in its current incarnation. The Fireslinger effect is rather marginal, playable due to context rather than general application. Onyx Goblet was commonly picked below lands, and you almost never used Jund Battlemage to do something other than make Saprolings.

  6. Yeah, I figured it was the removal that was the key-point. I just wasn't sure how much of an impact 1 life vs. 1-toughness was. Thank you for the great response!

    (Also, I've never drafted, so sometimes rarity is not my strong-suit. I usually go by my gut, which does okay apparently.)

  7. I don't know that it's something that is absolute, but in the current era of Magic I would say that creature-pingers are strictly uncommon.

    And tangentially, if you enjoy Magic design (which I'm guessing is why you're visiting us), I would strongly recommend experiencing limited Magic on occasion, as it can not only provide a rational basis for seemingly abstract ideas such as "rarity", but also helps a great deal in internalizing some of the fundamental elements of Magic design.

  8. Also, thank you to shoemaker's elves who tidied up this post.