Mana Abilities

Last time on Eye of the Stack, I broke down exactly what it means to “cast a spell,” from the moment you announce it until all the costs are paid. In paper Magic, most players I know create their mana before casting their spells, and while this certainly isn’t wrong I think it comes from not knowing that they can activate mana abilities during the casting process. This time, I want to talk a little more about mana abilities, what defines them, and the implications of being a mana ability.

Start with the Basics

Let’s start by defining what a mana ability is. Here’s what the comprehensive rules say:

605.1a An activated ability is a mana ability if it meets all of the following criteria: it doesn’t require a target (see rule 114.6), it could add mana to a player’s mana pool when it resolves, and it’s not a loyalty ability. (See rule 606, “Loyalty Abilities.”)

605.1b A triggered ability is a mana ability if it meets all of the following criteria: it doesn’t require a target (see rule 114.6), it triggers from the resolution of an activated mana ability (see rule 605.1a) or from mana being added to a player’s mana pool, and it could add mana to a player’s mana pool when it resolves.

The most commonly activated mana abilities are those of basic lands, which simply tap to produce mana. This does not require a target, it’s not a loyalty ability, and it definitely could add mana to a player’s mana pool, so it fits the criteria. Interestingly, basic lands get their mana abilities from their land types, intrinsically! A basic Forest can tap for green mana because it’s a forest, not because of an ability printed on it.

Damn that is some metal flavor text

For example, when Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth gives all lands the Swamp type, it means that we can tap any land for a black mana because that ability is intrinsically tied to Swamps. Similarly, have you ever noticed that Stomping Ground and other lands like it have their mana abilities in parenthesis? That’s just reminder text! They are printed that way because their land types (Mountain Forest, in the case of Stomping Ground) give them their mana abilities, which means their text boxes don’t need to grant them.

Mana abilities exist on all the other permanent types as well: Many artifacts and creatures tap for mana (like Chromatic Lantern), or can be sacrificed to produce it (like Blood Pet), or allow us to spend mana to produce other colors of mana (like Prophetic Prism). These are all activated mana abilities. What about enchantments and planeswalkers, you ask? Cards like Overgrowth and Nissa, Who Shakes the World trigger when a land is tapped for mana, and those triggered abilities are considered mana abilities as well.

It’s important to note that a triggered ability is only considered a mana ability if it’s triggered by an activated mana ability, or by mana being added to a player’s mana pool. For example, Lotus Cobra has an ability that adds mana and doesn’t have a target, but it is not a “mana ability” because it is triggered by an event that is not a mana ability.

Spells can never be mana abilities, because a spell and an ability are two entirely different objects in Magic. Spells always use the stack.

Weirdo Examples

Sometimes it can get slightly tricky determining what is and isn’t a mana ability, so I’m going to run down a few examples that I think will give you a better understanding of the criteria.

Drink up, me hearties, yo ho

High Tide is a spell, and a spell can never be a mana ability. However, once High Tide resolves, it creates an effect that is a mana ability that lasts until the end of the turn. Whenever a player taps an island for mana (which is definitely a mana ability), High Tide‘s effect triggers and creates an additional blue mana. That trigger is a triggered mana ability.

Doubling Cube has an activated ability with no targets, but it doesn’t specifically say that it “adds mana” to our mana pool. Is that a mana ability? Yes, absolutely! Mana abilities only need the potential to add mana in order to be a mana ability. Theoretically, we could spend the last 3 mana in our pool to activate Doubling Cube‘s ability, doubling our zero mana, and that would be treated as a mana ability! I don’t know why we would do that but, hey, sometimes doubling zero mana without using the stack is just the statement you need to make.

Spectral Searchlight is an odd one, because if we don’t read carefully it seems targeted. However, since the card simply says “choose a player,” the ability has no target and is therefore a mana ability.

One more example: Urza, Lord High Artificer gives us the ability to tap any artifact we control for a blue mana. This is definitely a mana ability. However, there is a bit of weirdness: if an ability triggers “whenever you tap a [permanent] for mana,” tapping it using Urza, Lord High Artificer will not trigger that ability. For example let’s say we control Urza, Lord High Artificer, Leyline of Abundance, and an Ornithopter. We tap Ornithopter using Urza’s ability and add a blue mana. Unfortunately, Leyline of Abundance does not trigger.

Although we are tapping a creature as a cost, and we are adding mana as a result, we are not “tapping a creature for mana” because there is a specific rule about what that means:

106.12. To “tap [a permanent] for mana” is to activate a mana ability of that permanent that includes the {T} symbol in its activation cost

A permanent must have an activated mana ability that includes the “tap” symbol in order to be “tapped for mana.” Urza doesn’t give our artifacts a mana ability; instead, we tap an artifact to pay the cost of Urza’s ability, then we add a blue mana. It’s a small difference, but understanding the distinction can be important.

Timing is Key

So we’ve covered what is and isn’t a mana ability, but what does it mean to be a mana ability? Let’s head on back to the comprehensive rules:

605.3. Activating an activated mana ability follows the rules for activating any other activated ability (see rule 602.2), with the following exceptions:

605.3a A player may activate an activated mana ability whenever they have priority, whenever they are casting a spell or activating an ability that requires a mana payment, or whenever a rule or effect asks for a mana payment, even if it’s in the middle of casting or resolving a spell or activating or resolving an ability.

605.3b An activated mana ability doesn’t go on the stack, so it can’t be targeted, countered, or otherwise responded to. Rather, it resolves immediately after it is activated. (See rule 405.6c.)

605.3c Once a player begins to activate a mana ability, that ability can’t be activated again until it has resolved.

605.4. Triggered mana abilities follow all the rules for other triggered abilities (see rule 603, “Handling Triggered Abilities”), with the following exception:

605.4a A triggered mana ability doesn’t go on the stack, so it can’t be targeted, countered, or otherwise responded to. Rather, it resolves immediately after the mana ability that triggered it, without waiting for priority.

That’s several rules, so let me break it down:

  • A player can activate mana abilities whenever they have priority, or whenever prompted to pay a cost that requires mana, even during another effect when they don’t have priority.
  • Mana abilities do not use the stack, which means they resolve immediately when activated.
  • Triggered mana abilities resolve immediately after the ability which triggered them resolves.

To sum up even further, players can activate mana abilities anytime they might need mana, and no one can react to them or their triggered mana abilities until after they have happened. But when is this information really relevant? Why do mana abilities need to be special?

…But Why?

“Sorry man, I do NOT think it’s going to fit back in”

The special timing of mana abilities is extremely relevant during the casting of a spell; technically, no player has priority while someone is casting a spell. However, a player is allowed to create mana during casting in order to pay the costs of the spell. Similarly, other players can create mana if they are being prompted to pay a cost, which is important because no one has priority while an effect is resolving. For example, while Minds Aglow is resolving each player gets an opportunity to pay mana. If the special mana ability rules didn’t exist, players would only be allowed to spend mana that was already in their mana pool before the spell began resolving.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that I think mana abilities don’t need special timing rules, and that players should just activate mana abilities when they have priority, before an effect resolves. Couldn’t a player see an effect that will ask them to pay mana go onto the stack, and create the mana ahead of time? That would theoretically work, but it presents other problems. For example, if players tapped mana in anticipation of Minds Aglow resolving, someone could then counter the spell after all the mana was created. That would mean players totally wasted their mana! Additionally, having to produce mana before you need it is not intuitive, and would cause a lot of confusion. In essence, I think the most important reason for the special timing of mana abilities is this: they make the game work the way players think it should work.

It Resolves

I hope this article has you feeling like an expert on mana abilities, and maybe it gave you some ideas to try out. Tune in next time, when I mill a land out of the way with Millikin while casting Panglacial Wurm during a library search so that Charmed Pendant will hit Khalni Hydra to pay for the Wurm!

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