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An activated ability is an ability that can be activated by paying its activation cost, which often includes mana or tapping but can have many other components. Activated abilities are usually found on permanents, but can sometimes be used on cards in other zones, such as the graveyard or a player's hand.

Usage[ | ]

Only an object's controller (or owner, if it has no controller) can activate its activated abilities, and only when it's on the battlefield, unless the ability specifically implies otherwise. These abilities can usually be activated any time the player has priority and uses the stack, unless it says otherwise, or is a mana ability. Mana abilities can also be activated while paying a cost, and do not use the stack. Like triggered abilities, activated ones may have targets.

An activated ability of a creature that includes the tap or untap symbol ({T} or {Q}) in its cost cannot be activated unless its controller has controlled it continuously since the start of their most recent turn, or the creature has haste. The same criteria applies to attacking with a creature; this rule as a whole is informally known as "summoning sickness".

Activated abilities cannot be countered by spells or abilities that counter spells, because they aren't spells. However, there are cards, such as Stifle, Squelch, and Voidslime, that do counter these abilities.

Most of these abilities are written in the form "[Cost]: [Effect]", with a colon to distinguish the two parts and identify it as an activated ability. Colons aren't used in Magic rules text for anything other than activated abilities, and are the one punctuation mark that has a rules meaning in the game.[1] Many keyword abilities only have the colon in their reminder text and rules definition.

Activate only once[ | ]

Some cards can be only activated only once per game, usually at sorcery speed. An early example was Goblin Ski Patrol (Ice Age), but later examples mostly appeared in supplemental sets. Two cards appeared in a premier set: Surge Engine and In the Trenches (both in The Brothers' War).

This mechanic is much more common for designed-for-digital cards on Magic: The Gathering Arena because these don't have memory issues. You can hover over the card and the text will be grayed out if the ability is no longer available.

Activation cost[ | ]

The activation cost of an ability must be paid by the player at the time of activation, and is analogous to the mana cost of a spell. It is either printed on the card, or defined by rule for some keywords. The cost most commonly includes paying mana and/or tapping the permanent with the ability ({T}), but can can include almost anything, such as sacrificing a permanent, paying life, untapping ({Q}), or unusual actions like putting cards from a graveyard into a library. A few costs are {0}.

Unlike spell mana costs, activation costs are very flexible in phrasing and extent, so activated abilities don't generally have additional costs, and costs in addition to mana are simply part of the activation cost of the ability. Therefore, an ability's total cost is usually equal to its activation cost. Drought and Brutal Suppression do impose additional costs through effects however. More frequently, effects may impose mana increases or decreases on activation costs, or even increases to loyalty "costs" as with Carth the Lion.

Examples[ | ]

Below are examples of different activated abilities.


Lore Broker {1}{U}
Creature — Human Rogue
{T}: Each player draws a card, then discards a card.

Lore Broker's activated ability can be activated any time the controlling player could cast an instant, which means they must have priority to activate it. The cost includes the tap symbol {T}, which means that because Lore Broker is a creature, the ability cannot be played if the controller has not controlled it from the beginning of their turn. (This is informally known as "summoning sickness".)


Nezumi Bone-Reader {1}{B}
Creature — Rat Shaman
{B}, Sacrifice a creature: Target player discards a card. Activate only as a sorcery.

Nezumi Bone-Reader's activated ability's cost does not include the {T} symbol, which means it can be activated even if it has summoning sickness. However, because it can only be activated when the controller could cast a sorcery, it can only be activated during the controller's main phase when they have priority and the stack is empty.


Squallmonger {3}{G}
Creature — Monger
{2}: Squallmonger deals 1 damage to each creature with flying and each player. Any player may activate this ability.

Squallmonger's ability can be activated by other players than the controller, because the card explicitly says so. The player activating the ability must still have priority in order to do so, however.


Ghost-Lit Raider {2}{R}
Creature — Spirit
{2}{R}, {T}: Ghost-Lit Raider deals 2 damage to target creature.
Channel{3}{R}, Discard Ghost-Lit Raider: Ghost-Lit Raider deals 4 damage to target creature.

Ghost-Lit Raider has two activated abilities. The second (which has the ability word Channel) requires the controller to discard it from their hand. This implies that it can only be activated when it is in its controller's hand. The first doesn't imply anything about where the card would be, so it follows the default assumption - it must be on the battlefield for the ability to be used.


Black Lotus {0}
{T}, Sacrifice Black Lotus: Add three mana of any one color.

Black Lotus isn't a creature, so its ability can be activated immediately despite having {T} in its cost. It also requires sacrificing the card, a common restriction on artifacts to make them "one-time use". It's a mana ability as well, so it could be activated any time a cost is being paid, or when its controller has priority.

Rules[ | ]

From the glossary of the Comprehensive Rules (June 7, 2024—Modern Horizons 3)

Activated Ability
A kind of ability. Activated abilities are written as “[Cost]: [Effect.] [Activation instructions (if any).]” See rule 113, “Abilities,” and rule 602, “Activating Activated Abilities.”

From the Comprehensive Rules (June 7, 2024—Modern Horizons 3)

  • 602. Activating Activated Abilities
    • 602.1. Activated abilities have a cost and an effect. They are written as “[Cost]: [Effect.] [Activation instructions (if any).]”
      • 602.1a The activation cost is everything before the colon (:). An ability’s activation cost must be paid by the player who is activating it.

        Example: The activation cost of an ability that reads “{2}, {T}: You gain 1 life” is two mana of any type plus tapping the permanent that has the ability.

      • 602.1b Some text after the colon of an activated ability states instructions that must be followed while activating that ability. Such text may state which players can activate that ability, may restrict when a player can activate the ability, or may define some aspect of the activation cost. This text is not part of the ability’s effect. It functions at all times. If an activated ability has any activation instructions, they appear last, after the ability’s effect.
      • 602.1c An activated ability is the only kind of ability that can be activated. If an object or rule refers to activating an ability without specifying what kind, it must be referring to an activated ability.
      • 602.1d Previously, the action of using an activated ability was referred to on cards as “playing” that ability. Cards that were printed with that text have received errata in the Oracle card reference so they now refer to “activating” that ability.
    • 602.2. To activate an ability is to put it onto the stack and pay its costs, so that it will eventually resolve and have its effect. Only an object’s controller (or its owner, if it doesn’t have a controller) can activate its activated ability unless the object specifically says otherwise. Activating an ability follows the steps listed below, in order. If, at any point during the activation of an ability, a player is unable to comply with any of those steps, the activation is illegal; the game returns to the moment before that ability started to be activated (see rule 730, “Handling Illegal Actions”). Announcements and payments can’t be altered after they’ve been made.
      • 602.2a The player announces that they are activating the ability. If an activated ability is being activated from a hidden zone, the card that has that ability is revealed (see rule 701.16a). That ability is created on the stack as an object that’s not a card. It becomes the topmost object on the stack. It has the text of the ability that created it, and no other characteristics. Its controller is the player who activated the ability. The ability remains on the stack until it’s countered, it resolves, or an effect moves it elsewhere.
      • 602.2b The remainder of the process for activating an ability is identical to the process for casting a spell listed in rules 601.2b–i. Those rules apply to activating an ability just as they apply to casting a spell. An activated ability’s analog to a spell’s mana cost (as referenced in rule 601.2f) is its activation cost.
    • 602.3. Some abilities specify that one of their controller’s opponents does something the controller would normally do while it’s being activated, such as choose a mode or choose targets. In these cases, the opponent does so when the ability’s controller normally would do so.
      • 602.3a If there is more than one opponent who could make such a choice, the ability’s controller decides which of those opponents will make the choice.
      • 602.3b If the ability instructs its controller and another player to do something at the same time as the ability is being activated, the ability’s controller goes first, then the other player. This is an exception to rule 101.4.
    • 602.4. Activating an ability that alters costs won’t affect spells and abilities that are already on the stack.
    • 602.5. A player can’t begin to activate an ability that’s prohibited from being activated.
      • 602.5a A creature’s activated ability with the tap symbol ({T}) or the untap symbol ({Q}) in its activation cost can’t be activated unless the creature has been under its controller’s control since the start of their most recent turn. Ignore this rule for creatures with haste (see rule 702.10).
      • 602.5b If an activated ability has a restriction on its use (for example, “Activate only once each turn”), the restriction continues to apply to that object even if its controller changes.
      • 602.5c If an object acquires an activated ability with a restriction on its use from another object, that restriction applies only to that ability as acquired from that object. It doesn’t apply to other, identically worded abilities.
      • 602.5d Activated abilities that read “Activate only as a sorcery” mean the player must follow the timing rules for casting a sorcery spell, though the ability isn’t actually a sorcery. The player doesn’t actually need to have a sorcery card that they could cast.
      • 602.5e Activated abilities that read “Activate only as an instant” mean the player must follow the timing rules for casting an instant spell, though the ability isn’t actually an instant. The player doesn’t actually need to have an instant card that they could cast.

From the glossary of the Comprehensive Rules (June 7, 2024—Modern Horizons 3)

Activation Cost
Everything that appears before the colon in an activated ability’s text. It must be paid to activate the ability. See rule 118, “Costs,” and rule 602, “Activating Activated Abilities.”

References[ | ]

  1. Wizards of the Coast (October, 2003). "Ask Wizards - October, 2003". Wizards of the Coast.