Talking About the Weather

Posted in Latest Developments on June 6, 2003

By Paul Barclay, guest columnist

Randy's on vacation this week, so Paul Barclay, a fellow R&D member, has graciously agreed to pinch-hit...

A couple of times each week, one of the Magic designers will wander over to my desk and try to start a conversation about the weather. Then, about halfway through, they slip in their newest idea for a card. Usually it’s something totally crazy that wouldn’t work in a million years (remember Artificial Evolution?), and I have to be quick to point out where they’ve gone wrong. If I’m not fast enough, the card makes it into a set, and is inflicted on the unsuspecting public.

It always surprises them when I simply say, “Yes, no problem, that card’s fine.”


Stifling Your Creativity

Stifle’s one of those cards. Well, actually it was, “Yes, no problem... But, do you know what this card can do?” Originally designed to deal with cycling triggers such as the one generated by Decree of Annihilation, it turned out to be far more versatile than anyone (including the development team) expected.

Early on, the development team learned that your normal card draw in the draw step is a triggered ability. They really didn’t like being able to counter that for two reasons. One, it could become abusive if there was some way to regrow or reuse Stifle (and it might prevent the creation of cards in the future that can counter triggered abilities repeatedly), and two, very few players would understand that such a thing was even possible. The rules team took a quick look at the problem and decided that the best way to solve it was to add “this ability can’t be countered” to your normal card draw in the Comprehensive Rules. So, first problem averted. (We’re doing a more elegant fix for the issue in the Eighth Edition rules. Look for the new Eighth Edition rules on this site at the beginning of July. The changes are all minor, trust me. No huge overhauls like Sixth Edition rules did.)

So, what exactly can Stifle counter?

An activated ability is any ability that includes a colon “:”. A lot of cards have activated abilities, and all of them (except for those that add mana to your mana pool) can be countered.

A triggered ability is any ability that uses the word “when,” “whenever,” or “at,” followed by a phase which tells you when the ability triggers. There are a lot of these, too. Nearly half the cards in Scourge have a triggered ability of one sort or another.

Here are five of the near-infinite number of things you can do with Stifle:

  • It’s the only solid way around storm. You can counter the storm triggered ability, which means that none of the copies are created. The actual spell still resolves, though, so you’d need both Stifle and Counterspell to truly stop a storm spell.
  • It lets your Ball Lightning survive for another turn. Unfortunately, you’ll still have to sacrifice it at the end of your opponent’s turn.
  • It makes Final Fortune a little less final. If you don’t win during your extra turn, just counter the “at end of turn” ability, and live to fight another day.
  • It lets you live when someone destroys your Nefarious Lich. It’s not so useful with the original Lich. While you could counter the “lose the game” triggered ability, you’ll still die because you’re at 0 life.
  • It lets you reanimate Phage the Untouchable. Of course, it also lets your opponent take damage from Phage without losing the game.
Grip of Chaos

Throwing the Universe into Chaos

Another card that was casually dropped into conversation was Grip of Chaos. Brian Tinsman was the designer, and got a clear “You want to do what?” But he was serious. And he really liked the design of the card (his design name for it was “Blindness”).

Grip of Chaos might have gone through more wordings than any other card. It started off with the simple “Targets are chosen at random.” Of course, that doesn’t play well with spells such as Consume Strength, which do different things to each of their targets. And it got really messy when you added in the Coalition Honor Guard.

Next, we tried to make it a replacement ability. “Whenever a player plays a spell or ability that requires him or her to choose a target, that spell or ability targets a legal target at random instead.” This wording’s significantly longer (which usually means that it’s more likely to work). No luck there, either, for many of the same reasons. At this point, the card was removed from the set. But, we still had art for it, and we didn’t want the art to go to waste.

Art this cool cannot go to waste! Come on, there's a Dark Sphere and a Tetravus in there!

Rather than waste the art, we tried to make it into a completely different card. After a couple of weeks of testing, the new card turned out to be too good (we wanted a card that wasn’t going to appear in high-level play). We moved it off to the Mirrodin block, where it became the inspiration for one of the block’s major mechanics. Brian still liked Grip of Chaos, and put it back into Scourge.

Now, we just had to make it work. We’d tried to make it a continuous effect and a replacement effect. So all that left us with was a triggered ability. Our next try was close to the final wording: “Whenever a spell or ability is played, reselect its target at random if it has a single target.” Yet again there was a problem, this time with other triggered abilities because triggered abilities aren’t “played.” The fix for that was pretty simple. We just had to change “played” to “put on the stack.”

Almost everyone in R&D hates to use the word “stack.” But sometimes there’s just no other way to word a card. So, after months of discussion, we came up with the wording that’s currently on the card.

And as soon as it was released, we had to give it errata. Oops.

The wording we had chosen for it made it trigger off its own ability, which creates an infinite loop. The final Oracle wording for Grip of Chaos is: “Whenever a spell or ability is put onto the stack, if it has a single target, reselect its target at random. (Select from among all legal targets.)”

Paul Barclay is the Magic Rules Manager. Send questions and comments to

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