The Trouble With Triggers

Elliot Raff • December 10, 2022

Triggered abilities are fundamental to Magic, and easily one of the most widely misunderstood parts of the game when it comes to Competitive REL events. Recently, an interaction at an NRG event involving Sheoldred, the Apocalypse and multiple instant-speed card draw spells went viral for its complexity, and while it was handled correctly, it generated a great deal of discussion on Twitter around trigger policy. Hi, I'm Elliot Raff, and I'm a level 3 Judge. I'm here to help you understand how the current policy works, the philosophy behind it, and how to act accordingly.

The word "trigger" is one I hear commonly used to describe just about everything in Magic, and a lot of it is misapplied. On a Magic card, triggers are indicated by the words "when", "whenever", or "at". If you don't see one of those words, whatever you are referring to is NOT a triggered ability! "Trigger Kalitas", "trigger Revolt, Fatal Push", or what have you... those are not triggers. Lifelink is not a trigger (though it used to be!). It's important to define this, because what happens if something goes wrong in a game of Competitive Magic can vary greatly based on if something is a trigger or not.

Trigger Policy in Magic Today

Before we get into current tournament policy surrounding triggered abilities, I want to put these rules into context. In general, today's tournaments are far less punishing to players than in years past. There's no better example of this than policy surrounding triggers. The current policy has been in place since January 2013, but for many years prior to that, both players were responsible for pointing out ALL triggers (that didn't say "may"). That means that, if you and I were playing a match at a local 5K, and you controlled a Soul Warden, I had to remind you to gain a life every time any creature entered the battlefield. What's more, if you missed even a single point of life, you would actually get a Warning, that could later upgrade to Game Losses, all for missing life gain triggers!

This policy was awful for many reasons, but first among those was that players didn't want to feel obligated to play the game for their opponent. After all, it's a competitive tournament: you should know what your cards do, and I, as the opponent, shouldn't be at a disadvantage if I have a better handle on the game. That leads us to the policy that we have today.

Essentially, when you go to play a tournament these days, you aren't required to point out your own non-detrimental triggers until they would have a visible effect on the game state, or require you to make a choice, such as targeting something or choosing a mode. The default assumption the policy makes is that players have remembered their triggers until they demonstrate that they've forgotten.

Whose Trigger Is It Anyway?

A common example of this is Exalted. Say I control a Noble Hierarch and a Grizzly Bears. I declare the Grizzly Bears as an attacker without verbally acknowledging the Exalted trigger, and my opponent blocks with their Goblin Piker. Under old policy, those creatures would be trading, but now, the first time it would visibly affect the game state is when the Grizzly Bears deals combat damage. Now, the Bears beats the Piker if I remember the trigger and tell my opponent that what they thought was a trade is actually a bad deal for them.

Additionally, you are never required to point out triggers for your opponent, though you always have the option to. You are always allowed to ask for clarification on the game state, such as how big that Grizzly Bears is. If you ask me if my Bears is a 2/2 and I say yes, I've forgotten my Exalted trigger. 

There's a crucial thing to address: the trigger policy does not entitle you to your opponents missing their triggers if they say nothing. It simply allows you to say nothing. If you need information on the current game state, you may have to ask, and therefore "remind" your opponents of triggers. Triggers are not considered missed until the game has definitively passed the point the trigger could have resolved, if it requires the controller to make a choice such as a target or mode, if a visible change has to be made, or if a player fails to remind their opponent of something that would be illegal if the trigger had resolved. A common example of this is everyone's favorite "why in the world does this card function the way that it does" - Chalice of the Void.

If my opponent controls Chalice of the Void with one charge counter on it, I'm perfectly free to cast my Lightning Bolt and say nothing about their trigger. That's because I am not required, at any time, ever, to point out my opponent's triggers; that's their responsibility. If I cast a Bolt and I control a Chalice on one... well, that's going to be much more problematic.

What Is A Detrimental Trigger?

The heuristic to use when determining if a trigger is detrimental is "Is this card being played because of its ability or in spite of its ability?" A good example of a detrimental trigger is Desecration Demon. You're playing this big ol' flier in spite of the fact that it has a drawback. The other example is symmetrical triggers. Say you want to play Howling Mine. If you miss your own card draw, you won't get a Warning for that, but if you forget to remind your opponent that they have to draw as well, then a judge would issue a Warning.

Note that determining whether or not a trigger is detrimental is never based on the game state. A general guiding philosophy behind policy is that, as often as possible, judges should be issuing consistent rulings. This matters because players should be getting the same rulings from someone like myself, who's been judging for 10 years, as they do from a local judge running an RCQ. There has been a lot of talk recently about players wanting judges to have more discretion over rulings, but ultimately, you don't want how good a judge is at Magic determining whether you got your trigger or not. Of course, there are situations where discretion is called  for, but codifying judge discretion leads players to get inconsistent rulings, which leads to bad experiences.

You're never allowed to intentionally miss your own triggers. That's cheating, and will get you disqualified from the event. While the trigger may not be detrimental (think Dark Confidant or Eidolon of the Great Revel), you can't just ignore the card's text. While your opponent always has the option to put those forgotten triggers onto the stack if they like, you can't just choose not to have something you control trigger in order for it to be advantageous.

Missed Triggers

One example of a Missed Trigger call that I see come up all the time is Mishra's Bauble. This innocuous little card causes major headaches in a lot of cases, especially with what I said earlier about triggers being missed if we've moved past the point where a trigger could have resolved. Say I activate Mishra's Bauble in my main phase, take the rest of the turn, and then pass. My opponent untaps and draws, and then plays a land before I remind them that I'm supposed to have drawn a card. Did I miss my trigger? There's a handy provision in the rules for Missed Trigger that gives us the answer!

Players may not cause triggered abilities controlled by an opponent to be missed by taking game actions or otherwise prematurely advancing the game. During an opponent's turn, if a trigger's controller demonstrates awareness of the trigger before they take an active role (such as taking an action or explicitly passing priority), the trigger is remembered. -IPG 2.1, Missed Trigger - Philosophy

What this section of policy tells us is that our opponents are never allowed to force the game forward in order for a trigger to be missed. Again, the trigger policy does not entitle you to your opponents missing their triggers if they say nothing. It simply allows you to say nothing. Ideally, with a Bauble, I would have said "Pass, draw in your upkeep," and this would be avoided, but nobody plays games of Magic perfectly, and that's why we have policy to tell us what to do when things are a little murky!

I'll cover a few other handy tidbits that might come up and are handy for you to know at your next event.

Unlike most other triggers that can be completely missed, if a delayed trigger causes a zone change (such as Flickerwisp), the opponent would then choose whether to put it on the stack immediately or at the beginning of the next phase. Additionally, say that a trigger is placed on the stack after it's forgotten because an opponent chose to let it happen: players can't use objects that weren't on the battlefield when the ability should have resolved. For example, let's say I missed a Grave Pact trigger and my opponent controlled a Bitterblossom. If they chose to let me have that trigger and they've already made another token, they can't sacrifice the newly created token to that trigger.

"But judge, it's not a 'may' trigger!"

That's a phrase every judge has heard - a lot. Competitive REL policy doesn't care whether or not a trigger says "may." Every trigger can be missed. Players are simply held to a higher standard at Competitive tournaments. Think of it more like every trigger says "may" and try not to forget them! Remember: the best way to play as authentic a game of Magic as possible is to communicate clearly and openly. Mistakes happen - that's what we've got policy for - and when they do, call for a judge! It's what we're there to help with.

Well, that's just about all I got! Hopefully this has been informative. If you ever have any questions about trigger policy or anything else relating to judging and tournaments, please feel free to contact me on Twitter @raff_sputin

Elliot Raff is a Level 3 Magic Judge from Roanoke, VA. His favorite formats are Modern, Commander and Cube. He designed the Khans Expanded Cube on Magic Online. He works as a support engineer and enjoys performing in community theatre, karaoke, and pictures of his cats.