Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #317 – Missing the Trigger

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Thursday, March 18th – A few weeks ago, some judges on a podcast – JudgeCast – answered an interesting question about triggers. They were not exactly wrong, but they did not look at the question carefully enough. They missed something – something besides the triggers. Other judges have had a variety of responses, and there may be no official right answer, but some answers are better than others. Intrigued?

A few weeks ago, some judges on a podcast — JudgeCast – answered an interesting question about triggers. They were not exactly wrong, but they did not look at the question carefully enough. They missed something — something besides the triggers. Other judges have had a variety of responses, and there may be no official right answer, but some answers are better than others. Intrigued?

First of all, I want to say that I am not bashing the judges or the podcast. Answering rules questions is hard — especially the ones that are complex enough to get sent to judges or podcasters. (The easy questions — the ones judges tend to get right every time — rarely get sent to media judges, and almost never make it onto podcasts. Answering questions like “How does trample work?” does not make for a very exciting podcast.)

My point is that judges mainly answer — in print or in podcasts — the harder questions, and those are what can cause problems. The question I want to talk about is deceptively hard. It is also a lot easier to spot the difficulty after the fact. They answered the question in the podcast. Ingrid and I listened to the podcast on a long drive. When this question came up, we had the luxury of pausing the podcast a couple times and talking everything through. I had also looked at this corner case issue in some depth beforehand, which made it easier for me to spot the problem.

I should define “corner case.” Corner case questions are questions that judges get all the time, but they really only exist as rules questions. Here’s an example.

If you have a Planeswalker in play, along with Mycosynth Lattice and Titania’s Song, and then you move all the loyalty counters to another permanent with Giant Fan, does the Planeswalker die?

That will never happen in a serious event. The question on JudgeCast wasn’t a corner case, but it was close to a true corner case question I had handled. The JudgeCast situation is not common, but it could really happen in a serious game. It’s a missed trigger question.

Let me start by explaining the basics. Triggered abilities have a triggering event, which is described on the card. When that triggering event happens the trigger goes on the stack. When the trigger resolves, you do something. Here are some common cards with triggered abilities.

Cosi’s Trickster: Whenever an opponent shuffles his or her library, you may put a +1/+1 counter on Cosi’s Trickster.

Adventuring Gear: Landfall — Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control, equipped creature gets +2/+2 until end of turn. Equip 1

Howling Mine: At the beginning of each player’s draw step, if Howling Mine is untapped, that player draws an additional card.

Living Tsunami: Flying. At the beginning of your upkeep, sacrifice Living Tsunami unless you return a land you control to its owner’s hand.

Triggered abilities always contain the words “when,” “whenever,” or “at.” These words explain when the trigger triggers. When Cosi’s Trickster is in play, and an opponent shuffles their library, the trigger goes on the stack the next time state based actions would be checked — usually as soon as the opponent finishes shuffling.

I listed four different examples of triggered abilities because they are all handled slightly differently when players forget the triggers.

The first trigger is the easiest. The player may put a counter on Cosi’s Trickster. If the opponent shuffled their library, and Cosi’s controller did nothing, you simply assume that the player chose not to add a counter. The communications rules do not require the player to announce the trigger if they are choosing not to apply it, so doing nothing is a perfectly legal play. (Whether it is a good play is another question, but not one for judges.) Even if the player really did forget the trigger, there is no penalty for missing a may trigger.

Adventuring Gear is not a may ability. It has an effect, but that effect is not visible in any way: the player is not changing life totals, moving cards, adding counters, etc. If that trigger is not explicitly addressed, we assume that it resolved and that players shortcutted the announcement and priority passes involved. That is legal but it can cause confusion, so most high level players always indicate these triggers, if simply by tapping the card creating the trigger with a knuckle. They do this because the problems created by communications errors are far greater than the benefits from an opponent missing a trigger. The opponent always has a chance to respond to the trigger, so playing a land and tapping the Steppe Lynx and Adventuring Gear is the quickest way to make sure you can move on.

Actually, player communication is a topic for another article, not this one.

The next type of trigger is one with a visible action. In the case of Howling Mine, you can see the player drawing a card. In such cases, if a player misses the trigger, the opponent usually catches it later in the turn. For example, if a player untaps, draws a card and plays a land, the opponent can tell that they forgot Howling Mine, since the player did not draw two cards between untap and first main phase. The trigger was missed.

For these types of triggers, if the missed trigger was caught within a turn cycle, the trigger is put on the stack when caught. (A turn cycle is defined as the time from the beginning of a player’s step or phase to the end of that player’s next same step or phase.) If the trigger should have happened more than a turn cycle ago, it is too late to resolve the trigger, so ignore it. In either case, the judge should educate the players, as necessary, and issue a penalty for the missed trigger.

The final type of trigger is one with a “default action.” These are usually phrased as “you may do X; if you don’t, do Y,” or they may be phrased like Living Tsunami. As before, the assumption is that the player chose not to do the may ability. However, that means that they had to perform the Y. If they did not, then they missed the trigger. The fix is to resolve the default action immediately, without using the stack. For Living Tsunami, the default action is to sacrifice the Tsunami. As a judge, you don’t need to rewind the game or anything — just apply the default action immediately.

Now that we have laid the groundwork, here’s the question that the podcast addressed.

“A player has used Vapor Snare to take control of his opponent’s Living Tsunami. He untaps, draws for the turn, and the opponent calls a judge. What happens?”

Here are the cards:

Living Tsunami: 4/4 creature. Flying. At the beginning of your upkeep, sacrifice Living Tsunami unless you return a land you control to its owner’s hand.

Vapor Snare: Enchant creature. You control enchanted creature. At the beginning of your upkeep, sacrifice Vapor Snare unless you return a land you control to its owner’s hand.

The judges on the podcast correctly identified this as two missed triggers, both with default actions, which should be resolved immediately without using the stack. They agreed to sacrifice both cards, issue a penalty for missed trigger and move on. The opponent caught the missed triggers at the first opportunity, so he does not get a failure to maintain game state penalty.

There’s a problem in there. See it?

The problem is not the single penalty. The player did miss two triggers, but they were both the same sort of trigger missed at the same time. Judges don’t / shouldn’t issue separate penalties for both triggers.

Disagree? Imagine the following scenario: Player B has Blood Seeker in play. Player A casts Deranged Hermit, and puts the four Squirrel tokens into play, then begins his attack phase. He just missed five triggers. If you apply separate penalties, then the player gets five missed trigger penalties.

Penalties upgrade with repetition. The first and second missed trigger infractions are penalized with warnings. The penalties for missed trigger go Warning, Warning, Game Loss, Match Loss, DQ. So, if you applied penalties to all five triggers separately, then you would end up DQing the person, even if they had not had a prior missed trigger penalty. If that sounds stupid, it’s because it is. There was one source of a trigger, which triggered five times, and all were missed. That warrants a single missed trigger penalty.

The problem with the JudgeCast answer is that they resolved the two triggers together, without worrying about the sequence.

Does it matter? Yes, it does.

Let’s assume that you resolve the Tsunami trigger first, then the Vapor Snare. The Tsunami trigger resolves, not using the stack, and the player sacrifices the Tsunami. Now the Vapor Snare is technically not enchanting anything, but putting an aura that is not into the graveyard is a state based action. State based actions would be checked whenever a player would receive priority. However, since these triggers are being resolved without using the stack, state based actions are not yet being checked. The player can perform the default action, sacrificing the Vapor Snare.

That works.

Let’s try it the other way around. We resolve the Vapor Snare trigger first, and Vapor Snare is sacrificed. Now we resolve the Tsunami trigger. The player sacrifices the Tsunami, and we are right back to where we should be, right?


If Vapor Snare is not in play, the player cannot sacrifice the Tsunami. A player cannot sacrifice something that they do not control. (Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if you could sacrifice the opponent’s Tarmogoyf? “I’ll flashback my Cabal Therapy, sacrificing your creature to wreck your hand.” Obviously stupid broken, but it should be allowed when they have a ‘Goyf and you don’t.)

The point that the JudgeCast folks missed, I believe, is that the control of the Living Tsunami changes immediately, despite resolving the missed triggers without using the stack. Vapor Snare has a static ability that allows you to control the enchanted creature. Once Vapor Snare leaves play, that static ability ceases to exist and control reverts to the original owner. This is not a state based action, or a function or effect that uses the stack, so it does not need to wait for the triggers to finish resolving.

In short, if you resolve the Tsunami trigger first, both cards wind up in the graveyard. If you resolve the Vapor Snare trigger first, then the Tsunami stays in play under the control of its previous controller.

I did look at the question of resolving the triggers “simultaneously.” This solution does get around the ordering problems, but there is nothing in the MIPG or MTR that supports simultaneous resolution of separate infractions. The Comp Rules have a couple specific instances in which things happen simultaneously. They usually involve the resolution of spells or abilities (e.g. all creatures destroyed by Wrath of God go to the graveyard simultaneously.) I could not find anything to support fixing the missed triggers simultaneously, and clearly, if the missed triggers were of a type that were put on the stack, they would be put on the stack sequentially — one trigger would be on top of the other — and not both occupying the same spot on the stack.

If the triggers do not resolve simultaneously, then what order should they be resolved?

This is where things get tough. The MIPG does not address this situation. It’s in an area where judges are supposed to use their judgment.

At least one judge took the position that the Tsunami trigger should be resolved first, killing both cards, because “the Tsunami owner lost his Tsunami already. Why would you reward him by giving it back?”

Another took the position that you resolve the Vapor Snare trigger first, giving the Tsunami back, because “it wasn’t the Tsunami’s original owner that messed up.”

Both of these answers smack of reverse engineering the penalty. Reverse engineering is deciding what penalty should apply and only then deciding what infraction can fit the circumstances and create that specific penalty. For example, someone messes stuff up badly, and you really want to give the player a game loss, so you decide to issue a “drawing extra cards” infraction instead of a game rule violation. Five years ago, that might have been appropriate (back when we had procedural errors minor and major), but not now. Today, the very clear directive is to examine what went wrong, determine what infraction was committed, and to apply the penalty appropriate for that infraction. You don’t determine the penalty, or the order for resolving the missed triggers, based on which result seems “fairer.”

Once I got to that point, I wondered how you can decide which trigger to resolve first. Choosing either one seems to favor one player over the other — which is bad. Deciding randomly is also bad. It would be akin to saying “we’ll flip a coin to see if your creature dies.” That’s never how judges should make a ruling, and it isn’t appropriate even for something as simple as deciding which trigger to resolve first.

In the end, the only reasonable solution is to ask the controller of the triggers to decide which should be resolved first. That player would make the decision if he had not forgotten the triggers. That player should make the decision when resolving them as missed triggers.

I don’t think the JudgeCast folks deserve any blame here. This was a deceptively difficult subject, with a subtle quirk. If it hadn’t been, it wouldn’t have been worth an article. Imagine being asked this question: “If I run out of cards in my library, do I lose?” I don’t think I can get 2,000+ words out of that, no matter how much I blather.

JudgeCast is on iTunes, or you can find links through various web sites. Check it out.


“one million words” on MTGO

PS: Thanks to all the judges – Ingrid, Nick Sabin, Lems, Chris Richter and others – who helped with this article.