Do You Really Know How to Cast Spells?

Casting spells is how the game of Magic is played and won. It’s relatively difficult to win a game, much less a match, without casting a spell. Players generally have a lot of shortcuts here when they are casting spells. Targets are handled by “Bolt your guy” or just pointing the spell at the intended target. Mana is tapped at some random point in the process of casting the spell, either before, during, or after. Judges are pretty lenient on this as long as the player is pretty clear about what he or she is trying to do.

This article is to give you a little insight into what the Comp Rules definition of casting a spell is. It’s a seven-step process, and the steps are there for a reason, which will be clear when we get to the rules examples section of the article at the bottom. If any of you are interested at all in becoming a certified Magic judge, the steps to casting a spell are one of the main focal points of the Level 1 certification exam. For those of you following along at home, the “Casting a Spell” section of the CR is Section 601 [as of August 9, 2011].

Some things to know before we get into the steps are the fact that old cards used the term “play,” as in, “when you play this spell.” This has been universally changed in the Oracle rules text to say “cast.” There is still rules text for “playing a card,” but that no longer means casting a spell. It’s more for when you are playing lands (since lands are not spells) or putting things directly onto the battlefield without casting them. Also, no player gets priority during any of this process, state-based actions are not checked, and triggers will not go onto the stack until after Step 7 is completed.

Step 1 – Announce and Place the Spell onto the Stack

To cast a spell, we want to take that spell from whatever zone it is in, usually the hand, and place it onto the stack and announce the spell. This is usually done by just saying the name of the spell when you cast it. Some under-the-hood things happen here. The object becomes the topmost object on the stack, the player announcing the spell becomes the controller of the spell, and the spell has all the characteristics of the card or copy of the spell being placed onto the stack. Spells will stay on the stack until they resolve, are removed from the stack by an ability or effect, or are countered.

Step 2 – Choose Modes

(and a whole lot of other stuff)

This step is usually called choose modes because this is the step where you make a choice for a modal spell. A modal spell will say “choose” on it; examples are Esper Charm and Cryptic Command. We also make lots of other choices here. This is where we reveal cards for the Splice ability, announce our intentions to pay any alternative costs like Morph or any additional costs like Buyback or Kicker. One important thing to note here is that you cannot choose two alternative costs for the same spell. I’ll illustrate that in an example at the end.

This step is also where we announce what {X} is going to be if the spell has an {X} in its cost. We also choose which half of a hybrid mana symbol we are using and also choose whether we are paying 2 life or the appropriate colored mana for Phyrexian mana. See, a lot more than just choosing modes!

Step 3 – Targets

This step is where we choose appropriate targets for the spell. Obviously, we can only choose legal targets as of the time we are casting the spell. If a spell or ability requires a variable number of targets, like the trigger on Inferno Titan, we announce how many targets we are going to use and what they are here. Unless there are multiple instances of the word “target” on the spell or ability, you cannot choose the same object as a target twice. An example would be the card Hex; you cannot choose the same creature six times to fulfill the targeting requirement of Hex. If Hex was worded:

Destroy target creature.
Destroy target creature.
Destroy target creature.
Destroy target creature.
Destroy target creature.
Destroy target creature.

then you would be able to choose the same object six times, once for each instance of the word target.

Any triggers that trigger when an object becomes the target of something will trigger during this step, but will wait to be placed onto the stack until after the spell has been completely cast.

Step 4 – How to Divide Effects

This is where you choose which target gets which effect when you have multiple types of effects from a spell. Arc Trail is a good example. This is the step where you choose which target gets 2 damage and which target gets 1 damage. An important note here is that when you are dividing a spell’s effect, each target must receive at least 1 of whatever is being divided.

Step 5 – Total Costs

Here is where you total up how much this spell is going to cost. Whether the cost is sacrificing creatures, paying mana, tapping creatures, bouncing permanents, or what have you, we figure out the total of that here. Mana costs are calculated in this order: First we have the base cost or alternative cost chosen in Step 2, then we add any additional costs like Kicker, then we subtract any cost-reductions like Affinity, and finally we set costs with things like Trinisphere. An important note here is that you cannot reduce a cost to a negative number; if a cost would be reduced to less than 0, it is treated as though it was reduced to 0.

After this has been completed, the cost is “locked in.” Effects that would change the cost of the spell will no longer affect the cost of the spell after this point. I’ll illustrate that further below.

Step 6 – Activate Mana Abilities

Here is a part where if the spell requires any mana to be paid, we now activate mana abilities. If players went through the seven steps in order every time they cast a spell, they would wait until this point to tap their lands. Obviously, that would also take forever. Keep using those shortcuts. The judges thank you!

Step 7 – Pay all Costs

Here you pay the costs of your spell. The important thing here is that you can pay in any order; however, partial payments are not allowed, and unpayable costs can’t be paid.

Once this step is completed, things that trigger upon a spell being cast will trigger. If the spell’s controller had priority before casting the spell, that same player will receive priority again.

Many judges learn the following mnemonic to aid in remembering the order of these steps:


The first letter of each of those words—A, C, T, H, T, M, P—stands for one of the steps:

Announce (and place on stack)
Choose (modes)
How (to divide)
Total (costs)
Mana (abilities, activate)
Pay (costs)

Well, that was a fun trip through the wonderland of casting a spell! Now for the fun stuff: some rules examples that illustrate the steps and why they are important.

Example 1

Player A is casting a Frogmite and currently controls three artifacts. Player A correctly surmises that he needs to pay 1 colorless mana to cast his Frogmite. Once the spell is cast, Player B casts Naturalize on one of Player A’s artifacts and remarks that the Frogmite is now countered because it costs 2 instead of 1. This is incorrect. Once you set the cost for a spell, it is locked in regardless of what happens afterward.

Example 2

Player A controls a Phantasmal Bear and a Glory Seeker. Player B wants to cast Forked Bolt, targeting both the Phantasmal Bear and the Glory Seeker, but dealing 0 damage to the Bear and 2 to the Glory Seeker so that both are destroyed. This is “living the dream,” but unfortunately the dream is not a reality. When you announce to target the Bear, it does trigger, but when dividing an effect, you must assign each target to get at least 1 of what you are dividing. In this case, it is damage, so Player B must assign 1 damage to the Bear and 1 to the Glory Seeker. When the spell becomes cast, the Phantasmal Bear’s trigger will resolve first and the Glory Seeker will still only receive 1 damage because it was divided way before the Bear died.

Example 3

Player A controls Omnath, Locus of Mana and has 5 mana in her mana pool, which makes Omnath currently a 6/6. Player A then casts Momentous Fall, choosing to use 4 of the 5 mana in her pool and sacrifice the Omnath. Because you can pay costs in any order, Player A actually gets to choose whether she is sacrificing a 6/6 Omnath or a 2/2 Omnath. If she pays the mana portion of the cost first, it’s a 2/2 when it is sacrificed so Player A will gain 2 life and draw two cards. However, if Player A sacrificed Omnath first and then pays the mana, she will gain 6 life and draw six cards!

I hope you can see how knowing the rules of the steps to casting a spell can help you make some better plays in the future and give you a deeper understanding of why the Comp Rules has to be such a huge document! I look forward to your comments below. As always, I will do my best to answer them pretty much immediately. Talk to you next week!