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Pondering Policy: Missed Triggers

Welcome to this edition of Pondering Policy! Today we will be diving into the oddities and quirks of a popular subject: the Missed Trigger policy!

What are triggers?

Kitesail Freebooter
Dreadhorde Arcanist
Pact of Negation

Trigger is a colloquial term for "triggered ability," which is one of the most common ability types in Magic: the Gathering. It is so common, in fact, that there are many effects in Magic that players will commonly call triggers even when they do not meet the criteria to be a triggered ability. Triggers are easy to spot because they will always begin with one of three words: "when," "whenever," or "at." If an ability starts with one of these words, then it must be a trigger. If it does not, then it cannot be a trigger. Kitesail Freebooter, Dreadhorde Arcanist, and Pact of Negation give an example of each of these key words that indicate the presence of a triggered ability.

There are a few common examples of abilities on cards that are often mistaken for triggers. The replacement effect on a card like Steam Vents is frequently called a trigger even though it begins with the word "As" instead of "At" (like Pact of Negation). It may seem like a pedantic difference, but it puts the ability into an entirely different class called "static abilities." This is also the case for card text that uses the word "instead," such as Blightsteel Colossus. Contrast this with the very similar text on Emrakul, the Aeon's Torn. Since Emrakul, the Aeon's Torn uses the word "when," that makes it a trigger, to which both players can respond. Blightsteel Colossus does not, and therefore is not a trigger.

Why are triggers important?

The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale
Bridge from Below

Triggers are handled completely differently from every other game effect when it comes to competitive tournament policy. Specifically, you are not required to remind your opponent of their triggered abilities. You are required to remind your opponent of any other game effects they may be missing, however, even if you do not control them. Intentionally missing non-trigger effects is cheating. Intentionally allowing your opponent to miss a trigger is not cheating. For example, let's say your opponent controls a Chalice of the Void with two counters, and you cast Burning Wish. Chalice of the Void's ability uses the word "whenever," so it is a trigger. If your opponent misses this trigger (that is, they do not recognize it in any meaningful way), you are under no obligation to remind them of it at Competitive REL (Rules Enforcement Level). Your Burning Wish would legally resolve at that point. By contrast, the ability on Thalia, Guardian of Thraben does not use any of the trigger words, so it is not a trigger, and therefore cannot be missed. If your opponent controls a Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, you may not intentionally "forget" to pay the extra one mana for a spell you cast. To do so is cheating and will get you disqualified.

So, let's say your opponent has missed their trigger and realizes it themselves. At this point, you should call a judge over to address the situation. For many triggers, it would make sense that missing its effect would be punishment enough and no additional remedy would be necessary. For an example, think of a simple trigger like the life gain from Soul Warden. There are situations, however, where missing this trigger could be very advantageous for that player, like if they control a Death's Shadow. The policy settles on giving the player's opponent the option of resolving the ability or not. This way, if the trigger is actually a downside, the opponent has a chance to make sure it still happens.

As I pointed out in a previous edition of Pondering Policy, this policy now also applies to triggers with "default actions," which are downside effects of triggers for failing to perform some sort of action. The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, Pact of Negation, and Lord of the Pit all have triggers with default actions. These abilities used to be handled differently from simpler triggers. Before Core Set 2020, if one of these triggers were missed, we would just resolve the default action immediately. In the case of Pact of Negation in particular, this is devastating. Now, the policy is to handle these like other triggers. If your opponent misses it and it is pointed out afterwards, they will get the chance to avoid the default action. Sometimes, this will mean that the Simian Spirit Guide they just drew will help them pay for their Pact of Negation. But more often, you will wait for your opponent to cast a spell before pointing out that they missed their Pact of Negation trigger, and they will be unable to pay for it. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, but in practice the sharper edge is hitting the player that missed the trigger in the first place.

There is a lot more to the missed trigger policy that we will cover another day. I hope this has been interesting and informative. Thank you for joining me on this edition of Pondering Policy! If you have questions for me or any ideas for future articles, please feel free to drop me a line through Twitter, Facebook, or email. Until next time, Storm fair and Storm fun!


Daniel Lee

Daniel has been playing Magic: The Gathering since Invasion, and fell in love with the Storm mechanic the moment it was printed. He plays/has played Desire Storm in Extended, Solidarity and The EPIC Storm in Legacy, Gifts Storm in Modern, Paradoxical Storm in Vintage, and Ophidian Storm in Pauper. A certified Magic Judge since 2004, Daniel is an active Level 3 at USA MagicFests, particularly on the West Coast.