Rules, Interrupted

Posted in Arcana on January 1, 2012

By Ben Bleiweiss

Did you start playing Magic after the introduction of Classic (Sixth Edition) in 1999? Was Urza's Destiny your first small expansion or Mercadian Masques your first large expansion? If so, you're in for a treat: a look back at a card type called "interrupt." Veteran players will recognize this card type, which used to be assigned to spells that produced mana (such as Dark Ritual), spells that targeted other spells (such as Counterspell and Fork), and even some that could target permanents (such as the two Elemental Blasts). These days, spells such as these are classified as instants, but then they were something else entirely.

The first Magic set contained many interrupts; these are just the blue ones.

So what's the difference between an instant and an interrupt? Think of interrupts as just that: spells that interrupt the entire game. While both card types could be played at just about any time, interrupts happened "faster-than-instantly" (in the words of the Fourth Edition rulebook). No one could play anything but an interrupt in response to an interrupt.

Why did interrupts go away? The answer lies in the history of the Magic timing rules.

In the beginning, there was the batch. You played a spell, a flurry of "fast effects" were played in response, and then everything (well, everything except interrupts) resolved using the "last in, first out rule," with no chance of playing more spells in the middle.

Rules changes circa Mirage and Fifth Edition clarified (complicated?) the timing rules by spelling out in meticulous detail how just about everything worked, including series, batches, damage-prevention steps, and mana sources.

The "Sixth Edition" rules, currently in use, introduced the concept of the stack and the idea that everything in the game happens at the same speed. Rather than special "interrupt windows," where the counterspells duked it out, the interrupts were slowed down to instant speed.

Here's an example using current Magic rules. Aaron and I are engaged in a mighty duel with the big draft box (more on this in a future column). I play Giant Growth targeting my unblocked Argothian Swine, and Aaron adds Forbid to the stack, pitching two cards to buy it back. In response, I add Might of Oaks to the stack. With no further effects, everything resolves, last in, first out. Might of Oaks makes my Swine 10/10. Aaron's Forbid counters my Giant Growth. Aaron takes 10 damage and I win the game.

Now, let's rewind that a bit. Under pre - Sixth Edition rules, this would have worked a little differently. Let's go back to when I attempted to play Giant Growth on porky. Aaron plays Forbid, an interrupt, pitching two cards to buy it back. At this point, the game stops while the Forbid does its thing! Only interrupts can be played, and I am not allowed to play an instant until Forbid has resolved. In this scenario, I must allow Forbid to counter my Giant Growth. By the time I get to play Might of Oaks, the Forbid has already returned to Aaron's hand, allowing him to play it on the Might. He doesn't get to do that under the current rules because I can play the Might while the Forbid is helplessly pinned on the stack.

Today's Magic Arcana looks at how the old rules worked from a schematic standpoint, interrupts included.

Got it? A lot of spells were weakened (and others strengthened) by changing all interrupts to instants. In the wake of this change, let's take a look at some of the big winners and losers.

Power Sink  

No spell lost more of its oomph than poor Power Sink. Back in the day, it combined the powers of Counterspell and Mana Short. Remember, you couldn't respond to an interrupt except with another interrupt. Because of this, when an opponent used Power Sink on one of your spells, all your lands got tapped and your mana pool was emptied. Then play resumed.

So let's say two guys--I'll name them Jay and Anthony--are playing a Type 1 game today. Both players have ten lands on the board: Jay is playing monoblue and Anthony is playing monored. Jay is at a precarious 3 life, although he has been attacking with a Mahamoti Djinn, which has reduced his opponent to a mere 5 life. Neither player has cards in hand, but Anthony draws his card for the turn--and it's a Wheel of Fortune! He merrily plays the sorcery, drawing four Lightning Bolts and three Sonic Seizures. Jay unfortunately has drawn six islands and a Power Sink. Anthony gleefully throws a Bolt at Jay, who attempts to counter it by Sinking it for nine. In response, Anthony adds three more Lightning Bolts and a Sonic Seizure to the stack, reducing Jay's life total so low that he's taking damage the next game as well.

Now, let's take the same scenario, except now Power Sink is an interrupt and the old rules apply. Anthony plays his first Bolt, and Jay responds by Sinking it for nine. The game stops while the Sink resolves, tapping Anthony's remaining lands, emptying his mana pool, and leaving him sitting there completely tapped out, with six burn spells in hand. Jay then sends the Moti over for the win.

Thank goodness things have changed! Strategically, having counterspells act as instants rather than interrupts makes for a much more interesting game, because people can always respond to their opponents' spells with more fast effects of their own. Have you ever gotten a player of a blue-white deck down to 2, and then played a Shock to the head for the win--except it's not the win, because he or she has an Absorb? No problem. Just respond with a second Shock and you win, because your opponent hits 0 life before the Absorb resolves.

Now imagine this same scenario under pre - Sixth Edition rules, with Absorb as an interrupt. You play the first Shock. Your opponent then plays Absorb, stopping the game entirely while the counter resolves. Your opponent gains 3 life and counters your first Shock before you're even allowed to play the second one--only now your opponent has 5 life, and that second Shock isn't nearly as glorious.


If Power Sink got it pretty badly, Interdict runs a close second in the hosed department. It's not so much that its first ability doesn't work (it still stops an activated ability), but its second ability (can't play the ability again that turn) is effectively negated because the target's ability can now be played in response. Yes, because Interdict was an interrupt in a former life, it used to be able to stop the game, hit the "off" switch on an activated ability, and then restart the game with the power down. But that was then. Now, the controller of that ability can respond by activating the source of that ability to his or her heart's content.

Let's say you're playing black-blue control and plan to keep creatures off the board with buyback spells like Capsize and Slaughter. Your opponent, Melissa, throws a wrench into the works by playing a Frenetic Efreet, a creature that can fizzle any spell played on it using its "coin-flip" ability, regardless of the ability's outcome. With Interdict in hand under the old rules, you could calmly play Slaughter with buyback on the Efreet, wait for Melissa to stop laughing and activate its ability, and then--BAM!--Interdict it. The Interdict would suppress the coin-flip, freeze the action, and prevent Melissa from activating the Efreet's ability again for the rest of the turn. You'd draw a card, Slaughter would resolve and return to your hand, and the Efreet would die.

With Interdict as an instant, that little trick doesn’t work. Frenetic Efreet can now be activated in response to Interdict, and will be either phased out or in its controller's graveyard by the time Slaughter tries to resolve.

Avoid Fate and Ring of Immortals    

On the other hand, two nearly useless cards received a major boost by the change from interrupts to instants. Previously able to stop your creatures from being targeted by enchantments and interrupts (and the interrupts that could target permanents were few and far between), Avoid Fate and Ring of Immortals became able to affect instants instead of interrupts, giving them much more versatility as to which effects they could prevent.

Red and Blue Elemental Blast    

The timing issues presented by Red Elemental Blast and Blue Elemental Blast (and later, Hydroblast and Pyroblast) were particularly troublesome. Interrupts made sense when they targeted spells, but what happened when they began targeting permanents? Remember, removing the source of a fast effect does not remove the fast effect itself, but what about stopping the fast effect in response to it being played?

Under the current rules, Mark taps his Prodigal Sorcerer in an attempt to deal 1 damage to Randy. In response, Randy plays Red Elemental Blast, targeting the Prodigal Sorcerer. This destroys the Sorcerer, but not before its "ping" effect goes onto the stack. That 1 damage is still dealt to Randy. Now, under the earliest Magic rules, Mark would announce the tapping of his Sorcerer, but Randy could say, "Hold on a minute! I want to interrupt your effect." This would stop the game, target the Sorcerer with Randy's Red Elemental Blast, and prevent the damage from ever being dealt. This created huge amounts of confusion over timing: The active player was supposed to have priority each turn, but interrupts being used this way seemed to contradict the rule. This problem, however, was corrected before interrupts were done away with entirely. The ruling said that if you targeted a permanent with an interrupt, the interrupt was played "as an instant."

Mana Sources  

Dark Ritual and other mana-producing effects, such as Birds of Paradise, fell under the category of interrupts. This allowed them to be played at a speed that made responding impossible. This again made for some interesting timing issues, in which an interrupt-speed mana source couldn't be stopped by any means other than another interrupt.

Let's say Skaff has a Looming Shade, and his opponent Jeff is at 3 life, with a Shock in hand. As an interrupt, Skaff plays Dark Ritual using his last untapped land. Because Dark Ritual is faster than Shock, which is an instant, Jeff can't respond to the spell by destroying the Shade. This adds three black mana to Skaff's mana pool, allowing him to pump the Shade and send it across for the win.

During the Mirage - Fifth Edition era, Dark Ritual and other mana-producing effects actually got their own card type: mana source. Mana sources were even faster than interrupts, and couldn't be stopped. This lead to mass confusion at the players meeting for Pro Tour - Atlanta (which also doubled as the Mirage Prerelease tournament), because players kept asking if a Nether Void could now counter a Dark Ritual if the extra three mana were not paid (it couldn't). Sixth Edition rules did away with the extraneous mana source card type, instead putting it under the banner of instant.

Some players have cried that Magic has been dumbed down over the years, and use the removal of the interrupt card type as one of their rallying cries. On the contrary, this is definitely an example of "less-is-more," because changing countermagic and mana-producing spells has added much more of a move-countermove element to games, and put all fast effects on a common ground for gaining priority. I'd much rather see a game in which I can deal 12 damage to my opponent in response to a Power Sink than have the entire game paused just because Power Sinkis given special priority for no good reason.

Old Interrupts That Are Now Played As Instants
Card Name First Printing Card Name First Printing
Blue Elemental Blast Alpha Burnt Offering Ice Age
Chaoslace Alpha Force Void Ice Age
Counterspell Alpha Songs of the Damned Ice Age
Dark Ritual Alpha Spoils of Evil Ice Age
Deathlace Alpha Memory Lapse Homelands
Fork Alpha Arcane Denial Alliances
Lifelace Alpha Burnout Alliances
Magical Hack Alpha Force of Will Alliances
Power Sink Alpha Dissipate Mirage
Purelace Alpha Illumination Mirage
Red Elemental Blast Alpha Meddle Mirage
Sacrifice Alpha Withering Boon Mirage
Sleight of Mind Alpha Desertion Visions
Spell Blast Alpha Abjure Weatherlight
Thoughtlace Alpha Disrupt Weatherlight
Artifact Blast Antiquities Dismiss Tempest
Force Spike Legends Ertai's Meddling Tempest
Remove Soul Legends Interdict Tempest
Avoid Fate Legends Mana Leak Stronghold
Flash Counter Legends Rebound Stronghold
Mana Drain Legends Forbid Exodus
Reset Legends Annul Urza’s Saga
Rust Legends Rewind Urza’s Saga
Deflection Ice Age Intervene Urza’s Legacy
Hydroblast Ice Age Miscalculation Urza’s Legacy
Pyroblast Ice Age Denied! (by default) Unglued
Old Mana Sources That Are Now Played As Instants
Card Name First Printing Card Name First Printing
Dark Ritual Mirage Culling the Weak Exodus

Ben may be reached at

Latest Arcana Articles


December 10, 2015

Best of 2015 and Holiday Treats by, Blake Rasmussen

With the holidays upon us, the crew at DailyMTG and the rest of Wizards of the Coast is going to be taking a bit of a break. But that doesn't mean there's nothing going on for you, gentle...

Learn More



Arcana Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All