A modal spell or ability begins with "Choose one —" (or "Choose two —", etc.) followed by multiple possible effect choices, or modes. When a modal spell or ability is announced its controller first chooses one of the modes to take effect before choosing its target or targets if it requires any. The earliest modal spell is Healing Salve, although initially, it didn't have the "Choose one —" wording. It was reworded when reprinted in Urza's Saga.
There are several variations of modal spells and abilities:
- "An opponent chooses one —" appears on three spells, Fatal Lore, Library of Lat-Nam and Misfortune, all from Alliances. Largely obsolete, as most punisher choices are binary and use "may have X, else Y", though if there ends up more than two choices it may return. The greatest functional difference is that if copied the choice is locked in, whereas modern punisher cards can result in the opponent splitting the difference.
- "If [event], instead choose one —". This is a modal replacement effect. This wording was used for Time Vault's Oracle text at one point but is no longer on any cards.
- "Choose two —" appears on a series of cards known as Commands; the caster is given a choice of four effects, and as expected allows the user to use two of them. The original monocolour cycle were from Lorwyn, with an allied cycle in Dragons of Tarkir and an enemy cycle in Strixhaven: School of Mages. There were also single cards in Kaya's Guile, Very Cryptic Command and the entry ability of Titan of Industry.
- "Choose one or both —" has appeared a few times starting in Alara block; two effects are given, and the caster is allowed to choose either for resolution. This is for spells priced to hit two targets but can be still used when only one target is the rational choice. The wording is also used for the two common Escalate cards, which typically use "one or more" as the others have three modes.
- "Choose up to one" is a similar concept, appearing on generally unavoidable triggered abilities, first seen on Ravager Wurm. Phrasing it this way avoids the problem of forcing a player into a bad decision as one cannot choose a mode with no legal targets: each of the five cards has two targeted modes.
- "Choose one or more —" was first seen on Rain of Thorns in Avacyn Restored, but has appeared most in Eldritch Moon's Escalate.
- "Choose any number" is close to identical, having first appeared on Rankle, Master of Pranks. It is used as unlike casting an instant or sorcery, it can be rational for the triggered ability to choose nothing. It appears again on the cycle of Inscriptions in Zendikar Rising, though the reasoning behind the templating is unknown.
- "Choose three" has appeared on the Confluence cycle in Commander 2015 and returning in Streets of New Capenna, which also has the text of "you may choose the same mode more than once".
- "Choose four" with the same rider text has appeared once on Planewide Celebration.
- "Choose one that hasn't been chosen —" appears on Henrika Domnathi, Demonic Pact and Captive Audience.
- "Choose X or Y —" was devised to allow for a singular choice for a permanent, currently on seven enchantments and an artifact. The Siege cycle from Fate Reforged used "Khans or Dragons"; inspired by this, Mirrodin Besieged asked "Mirran or Phyrexian". The other two are Unstable cards: "Bland or Flavourful" for a variant of Ineffable Blessing, and "Whack or Doodle" for Buzzing Whack-a-Doodle.
- Modal double-faced cards from the sets in 2021 are a new form of this X or Y choice, which avoids memory issues by having a different face being used. All of them from Zendikar Rising have lands on the back face, which makes it very clear as to which side is the default side. Kaldheim follows a similar rule in that the front face is always a God; and finally Strixhaven: School of Mages have enemy color sides, though which side is the front is not immediately obvious.
In August 2014, along with the rules update for Khans of Tarkir, the templating for modal abilities was changed from its previous semicolon-separated prose list format to a bulleted list, making them more readable. All existing modal cards received errata on Oracle to have bullet points, and all subsequent modal cards (e.g. Jeskai Charm) have been formatted this way.
A subset of modal spells have choices regarding choosing a color, creature type, name, or card type. These are distinct from other modal spells in that the spell more or less has the same effects on the chosen quality, whereas the modal spells that follow the bullet point have very distinct effects.
- Modal, Mode
- A spell or ability is “modal” if it has two or more options in a bulleted list preceded by instructions for a player to choose a number of those options, such as “Choose one —.” See rule 700.2.
- 700.2. A spell or ability is modal if it has two or more options in a bulleted list preceded by instructions for a player to choose a number of those options, such as “Choose one —.” Each of those options is a mode. Modal cards printed prior to the Khans of Tarkir® set didn’t use bulleted lists for the modes; these cards have received errata in the Oracle card reference so the modes do appear in a bulleted list.
- 700.2a The controller of a modal spell or activated ability chooses the mode(s) as part of casting that spell or activating that ability. If one of the modes would be illegal (due to an inability to choose legal targets, for example), that mode can’t be chosen. (See rule 601.2b.)
- 700.2b The controller of a modal triggered ability chooses the mode(s) as part of putting that ability on the stack. If one of the modes would be illegal (due to an inability to choose legal targets, for example), that mode can’t be chosen. If no mode is chosen, the ability is removed from the stack. (See rule 603.3c.)
- 700.2c If a spell or ability targets one or more targets only if a particular mode is chosen for it, its controller will need to choose those targets only if they chose that mode. Otherwise, the spell or ability is treated as though it did not have those targets. (See rule 601.2c.)
- 700.2d If a player is allowed to choose more than one mode for a modal spell or ability, that player normally can’t choose the same mode more than once. However, a few modal spells include the instruction “You may choose the same mode more than once.” If a particular mode is chosen multiple times, the spell is treated as if that mode appeared that many times in sequence. If that mode requires a target, the same player or object may be chosen as the target for each of those modes, or different targets may be chosen.
- 700.2e Some spells and abilities specify that a player other than their controller chooses a mode for it. In that case, the other player does so when the spell or ability’s controller normally would do so. If there is more than one other player who could make such a choice, the spell or ability’s controller decides which of those players will make the choice.
- 700.2f Modal spells and abilities may have different targeting requirements for each mode. Changing a spell or ability’s target can’t change its mode.
- 700.2g A copy of a modal spell or ability copies the mode(s) chosen for it. The controller of the copy can’t choose a different mode. (See rule 707.10.)
As design element
Modality is one of the fundamental building blocks of Magic design, alongside kicker, covering mechanics such as Channel, Evoke, Adventure, Cycling, and Bestow; this article covers otherwise uncategorized modal spells.
Venture into the dungeon is a unique modal mechanic; while every spell or ability that ventures use the same text, the ability functions as a long-form modal decision tree, starting with a choice between three dungeons and several potential binary options after that.
- Mark Rosewater (February 24, 2014). "À La Mode". magicthegathering.com. Wizards of the Coast.
- Ken Nagle (December 29, 2014). "Designing Your Fate". magicthegathering.com. Wizards of the Coast.
- Matt Tabak (June 24, 2021). "Adventures in the Forgotten Realms Mechanics". magicthegathering.com. Wizards of the Coast.