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A target is a recipient of the effects of a spell or ability chosen by its controller. A spell can require a player to target a creature, for instance. The text mentioning the target will usually say what sort of thing may be targeted. Objects and players can be targets.

Specific rules apply when a spell has one or more targets. Learning these rules is one of the earliest tasks for players who have learned the card types and basic flow of the game, and seek to improve their expertise with more complex mechanics.

Key ideas[]

All concepts below apply to targeted abilities exactly the same as with spells, but are phrased for spells for the sake of brevity.

Targeting is always signified by the word "target". This may appear in the card text, or in the definition of a keyword ability on the card. A card does not target a creature just because it damages or destroys one or more of them, does not target a thing just because it allows a player to choose a thing, and does not target a player just by referring to "you" or "your opponent" - unless it uses the word "target"!

Spells requiring targets may only be played if valid targets can be chosen. For instance, a spell that says "target black creature" can only be played if there is a black creature to play it on. But, a spell that says it affects a creature "if it is black" can be played even if there is no black creature — that part of the effect would simply do nothing.

Targets must be chosen as the spell is being cast, unlike many other choices which are made when a spell resolves. Opponents may therefore respond to the spell with knowledge of the intended targets before it actually has any effect. Targets may not be changed after seeing these responses.

A targeted spell will not resolve if its targets are invalid. If all targets are invalid, no part of the spell has any effect, even if some parts of the spell would've affected something other than the targets. Such spells are simply removed from the stack without resolving. This is informally known as fizzling, and was formerly called being "countered by game rules". A spell with one or more valid targets remaining will still resolve, but any of its effects that relate to the invalid targets will not happen.

Targeting for activated abilities is done at the time of activation, just like spell targeting is done at the time of casting. Triggered ability targeting is done when the ability goes on the stack, except that if there are no valid targets, the ability is removed from the stack immediately.

Related mechanics[]

Hexproof, Protection, and the discontinued Shroud are static abilities that directly prohibit certain kinds of targeting.

Causing spells or abilities to fizzle by making their targets invalid is a preventative response tactic similar to countering. Ways to cause this include:

  • Removing a target from the zone it was in when it was first targeted. This causes the spell or ability to "lose track" of the target, even if it returns to the original zone. Bouncing, flickering, sacrificing, or returning a card from a graveyard all cause this.
  • Phasing does not change zones, but similarly "hides" the target from a spell.
  • Granting one of the aforementioned prohibited-target abilities, like Hexproof, to objects that have already been targeted makes them invalid targets.
  • An effect that changes an object's type, color, power/toughness, or other qualities may cause it to violate the restrictions of the spell or ability, making it an invalid target.

Certain triggered abilities have conditions based on something being targeted in a specific way, leading to a wide variety of effects. For example, Zada, Hedron Grinder has a positive interaction with certain spells targeting it, the Ward ability attempts to counter such spells, Wild Defiance can operate both aggressively or defensively when other objects are targeted, and creatures with the Illusion ability react poorly to being targeted.

Most effects that copy a spell allow the controller to choose new targets for the copy, or change the targets automatically.

Perhaps the rarest targeting-related abilities are those that change another spell's target, such as Shunt. Spell redirection is primary in both blue and red.[1][2] Less than forty cards have text in this effect space.[3]

Common misconceptions[]

Due to the specific timings and requirements involved with targeting, there are few points beginners may misunderstand, but are important in understanding cards or tactics.

A target must still be declared for effects that say they "may" do something to a target. Targets are chosen when a spell or ability is played, but the choice of whether to perform an optional action is made upon resolution. Therefore, the controller must still choose a target even if they plan to choose not to take the optional action. The spell or ability cannot be used at all if there is no available target. In contrast, spells and abilities with "up to X targets" can be played with no targets. The phrasing "up to one target" has become increasingly common instead of the "may" phrasing.

Some spells or abilities that mention targets can be played untargeted. The two ways this usually happens are:

  • When its text specifies "up to" a certain number of targets. Its controller can choose 0 targets at the time it is played, making it an untargeted spell or ability. Any of its effects not relating to targets will still happen normally. This is common on planeswalker abilities which add loyalty since it allows the ability to be used for the gain in loyalty even if there are no suitable targets for the rest of its effects.
  • When it is a modal spell or ability. Its controller chooses the mode at the time of casting, and if the chosen mode has no targets, it is treated as a completely untargeted spell or ability.

The same target can be chosen for multiple instances of the word "target", but not for a single instance of the word phrased with a quantity. For example, Bounty of Might allows one creature to be chosen for all three abilities; or different creatures for all three; or two the same and one different, because there are three instances of the word "target" and each is chosen separately. However, Swelter says "two target creatures" and therefore must have two separate valid targets; it cannot deal all 4 damage to one creature.

Damage is not targeted, and damaging is not targeting. Spells and abilities that deal damage may or may not be targeted, but the damage itself is never targeted, simply applied. Non-targeted spells may still deal damage, un-targetable objects may still receive damage, and objects immune to damage or destruction may still be targeted. Damage has many of its own rules about valid recipients of damage, effects that interact with damage, and so on, which are different from targeting rules.

History[]

Targeting has been a fundamental game concept since Alpha edition. The concept was actually created during development of the protection ability due to its complexity - the designers needed a way to define what it meant for a spell or creature to "affect" another beyond damage and combat.[4]

Rules[]

From the glossary of the Comprehensive Rules (April 29, 2022—Streets of New Capenna)

Target
A preselected object or player a spell or ability will affect. See rule 115, “Targets.”

From the Comprehensive Rules (April 29, 2022—Streets of New Capenna)

  • 115. Targets
    • 115.1. Some spells and abilities require their controller to choose one or more targets for them. The targets are object(s) and/or player(s) the spell or ability will affect. These targets are declared as part of the process of putting the spell or ability on the stack. The targets can’t be changed except by another spell or ability that explicitly says it can do so.
      • 115.1a An instant or sorcery spell is targeted if its spell ability identifies something it will affect by using the phrase “target [something],” where the “something” is a phrase that describes an object and/or player. The target(s) are chosen as the spell is cast; see rule 601.2c. (If an activated or triggered ability of an instant or sorcery uses the word target, that ability is targeted, but the spell is not.)

        Example: A sorcery card has the ability “When you cycle this card, target creature gets -1/-1 until end of turn.” This triggered ability is targeted, but that doesn’t make the card it’s on targeted.

      • 115.1b Aura spells are always targeted. An Aura’s target is specified by its enchant keyword ability (see rule 702.5, “Enchant”). The target is chosen as the spell is cast; see rule 601.2c. An Aura permanent doesn’t target anything; only the spell is targeted. (An activated or triggered ability of an Aura permanent can also be targeted.)
      • 115.1c An activated ability is targeted if it identifies something it will affect by using the phrase “target [something],” where the “something” is a phrase that describes an object and/or player. The target(s) are chosen as the ability is activated; see rule 602.2b.
      • 115.1d A triggered ability is targeted if it identifies something it will affect by using the phrase “target [something],” where the “something” is a phrase that describes an object and/or player. The target(s) are chosen as the ability is put on the stack; see rule 603.3d.
      • 115.1e Some keyword abilities, such as equip and modular, represent targeted activated or triggered abilities, and some keyword abilities, such as mutate, cause spells to have targets. In those cases, the phrase “target [something]” appears in the rule for that keyword ability rather than in the ability itself. (The keyword’s reminder text will often contain the word “target.”) See rule 702, “Keyword Abilities.”
    • 115.2. Only permanents are legal targets for spells and abilities, unless a spell or ability (a) specifies that it can target an object in another zone or a player, or (b) targets an object that can’t exist on the battlefield, such as a spell or ability. See also rule 115.4.
    • 115.3. The same target can’t be chosen multiple times for any one instance of the word “target” on a spell or ability. If the spell or ability uses the word “target” in multiple places, the same object or player can be chosen once for each instance of the word “target” (as long as it fits the targeting criteria). This rule applies both when choosing targets for a spell or ability and when changing targets or choosing new targets for a spell or ability (see rule 115.7).
    • 115.4. Some spells and abilities that refer to damage require “any target,” “another target,” “two targets,” or similar rather than “target [something].” These targets may be creatures, players, or planeswalkers. Other game objects, such as noncreature artifacts or spells, can’t be chosen.
    • 115.5. A spell or ability on the stack is an illegal target for itself.
    • 115.6. A spell or ability that requires targets may allow zero targets to be chosen. Such a spell or ability is still said to require targets, but that spell or ability is targeted only if one or more targets have been chosen for it.
    • 115.7. Some effects allow a player to change the target(s) of a spell or ability, and other effects allow a player to choose new targets for a spell or ability.
      • 115.7a If an effect allows a player to “change the target(s)” of a spell or ability, each target can be changed only to another legal target. If a target can’t be changed to another legal target, the original target is unchanged, even if the original target is itself illegal by then. If all the targets aren’t changed to other legal targets, none of them are changed.
      • 115.7b If an effect allows a player to “change a target” of a spell or ability, the process described in rule 115.7a is followed, except that only one of those targets may be changed (rather than all of them or none of them).
      • 115.7c If an effect allows a player to “change any targets” of a spell or ability, the process described in rule 115.7a is followed, except that any number of those targets may be changed (rather than all of them or none of them).
      • 115.7d If an effect allows a player to “choose new targets” for a spell or ability, the player may leave any number of the targets unchanged, even if those targets would be illegal. If the player chooses to change some or all of the targets, the new targets must be legal and must not cause any unchanged targets to become illegal.
      • 115.7e When changing targets or choosing new targets for a spell or ability, only the final set of targets is evaluated to determine whether the change is legal.

        Example: Arc Trail is a sorcery that reads “Arc Trail deals 2 damage to any target and 1 damage to another target.” The current targets of Arc Trail are Runeclaw Bear and Llanowar Elves, in that order. You cast Redirect, an instant that reads “You may choose new targets for target spell,” targeting Arc Trail. You can change the first target to Llanowar Elves and change the second target to Runeclaw Bear.

      • 115.7f A spell or ability may “divide” or “distribute” an effect (such as damage or counters) among one or more targets. When changing targets or choosing new targets for that spell or ability, the original division can’t be changed.
    • 115.8. Modal spells and abilities may have different targeting requirements for each mode. An effect that allows a player to change the target(s) of a modal spell or ability, or to choose new targets for a modal spell or ability, doesn’t allow that player to change its mode. (See rule 700.2.)
    • 115.9. Some objects check what another spell or ability is targeting. Depending on the wording, these may check the current state of the targets, the state of the targets at the time they were selected, or both.
      • 115.9a An object that looks for a “[spell or ability] with a single target” checks the number of times any object or player was chosen as the target of that spell or ability when it was put on the stack, not the number of its targets that are currently legal. If the same object or player became a target more than once, each of those instances is counted separately.
      • 115.9b An object that looks for a “[spell or ability] that targets [something]” checks the current state of that spell or ability’s targets. If an object it targets is still in the zone it’s expected to be in or a player it targets is still in the game, that target’s current information is used, even if it’s not currently legal for that spell or ability. If an object it targets is no longer in the zone it’s expected to be in or a player it targets is no longer in the game, that target is ignored; its last known information is not used.
      • 115.9c An object that looks for a “[spell or ability] that targets only [something]” checks the number of different objects or players that were chosen as targets of that spell or ability when it was put on the stack (as modified by effects that changed those targets), not the number of those objects or players that are currently legal targets. If that number is one (even if the spell or ability targets that object or player multiple times), the current state of that spell or ability’s target is checked as described in rule 115.9b.
    • 115.10. Spells and abilities can affect objects and players they don’t target. In general, those objects and players aren’t chosen until the spell or ability resolves. See rule 608, “Resolving Spells and Abilities.”
      • 115.10a Just because an object or player is being affected by a spell or ability doesn’t make that object or player a target of that spell or ability. Unless that object or player is identified by the word “target” in the text of that spell or ability, or the rule for that keyword ability, it’s not a target.
      • 115.10b In particular, the word “you” in an object’s text doesn’t indicate a target.

Any target[]

From the glossary of the Comprehensive Rules (April 29, 2022—Streets of New Capenna)

Any Target
A spell or ability may require “any target.” “Any target” is the same as “target creature, player, or planeswalker.” See rule 115.4.

Spell redirection[]

From the glossary of the Comprehensive Rules (April 29, 2022—Streets of New Capenna)

Change a Target
To choose a new, legal target for a spell or ability. See rule 115.7.

References[]

  1. Mark Rosewater (June 5, 2017). "Mechanical Color Pie 2017". magicthegathering.com. Wizards of the Coast.
  2. Mark Rosewater (October 18, 2021). "Mechanical Color Pie 2021 Changes". magicthegathering.com. Wizards of the Coast.
  3. Try this Scryfall regex search: o:/( |^)(change(?! the text| ~'s base| the base)|choose.*new).*target(?!s? for (the|that|their)(additional)? cop)/ As of December 30, 2021, there were 37 results with only 1 false positive, Twinning Staff (the two separate copy effects are hard to filter out).
  4. Brady Dommermuth (June 01, 2009). "Mechanically Inclined". magicthegathering.com. Wizards of the Coast.
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