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State Based Actions: A Primer

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Please welcome Justin Turner, an L2 judge out of Tampa, to our cast of regular contributors. For his first article I tasked him with exploring the State Based Actions of Magic, and from here we'll see where it leads him! As always please leave your thoughts and feedback in the comments below! -- Trick

Hey, everyone! This article goes over the things that the game does to keep the game state legal, or as judges refer to them, state-based actions. These used to be called state-based effects, but for reasons unknown to me, they have been changed to state-based actions. There is a whole laundry list of them these days, and it seems with every new set or new casual format, they add another!

First, what’s important is knowing what a state-based action is and when they are processed. A state-based action is an action that the game takes when there are certain conditions met in a game state. However, unlike things that trigger from a certain game state, state-based actions do not use the stack. Think of them as the game’s janitor; they clean up everything after any changes in the game state.

The second important part of state-based actions is knowing when the game processes them. The easy way I remember it is like a replacement effect worded like this: “If a player would receive priority, state based effects are processed instead, this process continues until no there are no state based effects to process.” If you play with cards with replacement effects like Leyline of the Void or Blightsteel Colossus, then you can probably divine when state-based actions are processed from that sentence. Basically before priority can be passed between players, the game always looks at the game state and processes these actions, if there is anything the game needs to do, it does it right now and simultaneously. Once it has simultaneously processed all the actions on the list (which we’ll get to in a minute), then it checks the list again. The game keeps doing this until the list doesn’t find anything to do, then priority is given to the player.

This sounds like a whole lot, but these are the meat and potatoes of the game and most players go through these motions in half seconds. When your creature has lethal damage on it, state-based actions are what eventually puts him in the graveyard. When you have 10 poison counters, state-based actions are what actually tell you that you have lost. Well, now is as good a time as any to hit the list!

For those of you following along with your rulebooks at home, this is section 704.5 of the Comprehensive Rules (as of 6/20/11).

A) If a player has 0 or less life, he or she loses the game.

This one is pretty self explanatory, most games end this way.

B) If a player has attempted to draw a card from a library with no cards in it since the last time state-based actions were checked, he or she loses the game.

This is how you lose when you are “milled”

C) If a player has ten or more poison counters, he or she loses the game. Ignore this rule in two headed giant games.

The infect plan, important to note that this does not apply in 2HG, it’s 15 poison in two headed giant.

D) If a token is phased out or in a zone other than the battlefield, it ceases to exist.

Tokens are only meant to exist on the battlefield, so when they go into another zone, this SBA eliminates them. It is important to note though that the token still goes to the zone before ceasing to exist, so things that trigger on creatures going to the graveyard will still trigger when a token goes to the graveyard.

E) If a copy of a spell is in a zone other than the stack, it ceases to exist. If a copy of a card is anywhere other than the stack or the battlefield, it ceases to exist.

This is basically the same rule for tokens, just applied to copies. Once again, important to note that the copies still move to the other zone before ceasing to exist.

F) If a creature has toughness 0 or less, it’s put into its owner’s graveyard. Regeneration can’t replace this event.

The classic way to get around regenerating creatures is to reduce their toughness to 0 or less, they can’t regenerate then! This rule didn’t used to say that part about regeneration even though it was still true back then, I like the added clarity here because that’s harder to understand without it being explicitly stated.

G) If a creature has toughness greater than 0, and the total damage marked on it is greater than or equal to its toughness, that creature has been dealt lethal damage and is destroyed. Regeneration can replace this event.

This is the “normal” way creatures are destroyed, from taking lethal damage. Once again, it’s made more clear here that regeneration DOES save the creature from being destroyed due to damage. It’s important to note here that if there are effects modifying the creature’s power and toughness, those still apply but the damage is removed from the creature if it is regenerated.

H) If a creature has toughness greater than 0, and it’s been dealt damage by a source with Deathtouch since the last time state-based actions were checked, that creature is destroyed. Regeneration can replace this event.

This is the way Deathtouch destroys creatures. Regeneration saves a creature from being destroyed by Deathtouch because regeneration removes all damage from the creature, so there is no more Deathtouch damage marked on the creature.

I) If a planeswalker has loyalty 0, it’s put into its owner’s graveyard.

This is the way planeswalkers are removed in magic, either from damage reducing their loyalty to 0 or using their “minus” abilities enough to reduce their loyalty to 0 (e.g. Jace Beleren’s -1 to draw a card).

J) If two or more planeswalkers that share a planeswalker type are on the battlefield, all are put into their owner’s graveyards. This is called the “Planeswalker Uniqueness Rule”.

Planeswalkers can’t be in two places at once, so if you try to make that happen, the game says NO WAY JOSE and places them into the graveyard.

K) If two or more legendary permanents with the same name are on the battlefield, all are put into their owner’s graveyards. This is called the “legend rule”. If only one of those permanents are legendary, this rule doesn’t apply.

Legends are treated the same as planeswalkers, they can’t be in two places at once either so the game says NOT TODAY BOSS!

M) If two or more permanents have the supertype world, all except the one that has been a permanent with the world supertype on the battlefield for the shortest amount of time are put into their owner’s graveyards. In the event of a tie for the shortest amount of time, all are put into their owner’s graveyards. This is called the “world rule”.

The world supertype hasn’t been used in some time, but they work kind of like “field” cards in Yu-Gi-Oh if you are at all familiar with that card game. Basically when you play a world permanent, it supersedes any current world permanents and your world permanent sticks while any others are placed into the graveyard.

N) If an Aura is attached to an illegal object or player, or it not attached to an object or player, that Aura is put into its owner’s graveyard.

This is one of those ‘janitorial’ functions of the game. Say you have a grizzly bears enchanted with holy strength. Your opponent casts doom blade on the grizzly bears and it resolves. Now we just have an Aura sitting out on the battlefield with no creature for it to be attached to, so we place it in the graveyard. This rule also takes care of what happens to Auras if you give the creature they are enchanting protection from a quality of the Aura. That creature can’t be enchanted by the Aura anymore, so instead of just have it hang out on the battlefield, we place it in the graveyard.

P) If an Equipment of Fortification is attached to an illegal permanent, it becomes unattached from that permanent, it remains on the battlefield.

This is another ‘janitorial’ function, but equipment and fortifications have ways to become attached to a new creature, so they unattach but stay on the battlefield.

Q) If a creature is attached to an object or player, it becomes unattached and remains on the battlefield. Similarly, if a permanent that’s neither an Aura, an Equipment, nor a Fortification is attached to an object or player, it becomes unattached and remains on the battlefield.

This rule primarily deals with the “Licid” creatures, but there are silly game states where you have creatures turn into equipments and attach to other creatures. This rule is stating that when the permanent stops being a type that can attach to something, it becomes unattached. Another “janitorial” function.

R) If a permanent has both a +1/+1 counter and a -1/-1 counter on it, N +1/+1 and N -1/-1 counters are removed from it, where N is the smaller of the number of +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters on it.

This is just to make the game state a little more clear. Usually players only have dice or beads to denote counters and it becomes really hard to keep track of multiple types of counters on the same permanent, so we have the most common two cancel each other out. It’s important to note that since this is a state based effect, the counter’s won’t actually cancel each other out until the next time a player would receive priority.

S) If a permanent with an ability that says it can’t have more than N counters of a certain kind of it has more than N counters of that kind on it, all but N of those counters are removed from it.

This one rarely comes up, there aren’t a lot of permanents with this caveat on them, Tatterkite is one of the only ones I can even think of.

T) In a two headed giant game, if a team has 0 or less life, that team loses the game.

How to win, two headed giant edition!

U) In a two headed giant game, if a team has fifteen or more poison counter, that team loses the game.

Here’s why the poison rule didn’t apply to two headed giant way up at the top. Poison was a little too good in two headed giant back when you only had to deal 10 poison with two heads.

V) In a Commander game, a player that’s been dealt 21 or more combat damage by the same commander over the course of the game loses the game.

If you are familiar at all with EDH/Commander, this is the way a player loses via “General Damage”. Of course all the other ways to lose the game still apply.

W) In an Archenemy game, if a non-ongoing scheme card is face up in the command zone, and it isn’t the source of a triggered ability that has triggered but not yet left the stack, that scheme card is turned face down and put on the bottom of its owner’s scheme deck.

This is for any of you that are familiar with the Archenemy format, basically you have scheme cards that are “ongoing” which means they stay out and you have scheme cards which are not “ongoing” so we need an SBA to tell us what to do with the not “ongoing” scheme cards.




Whew! That’s the whole list! It sure has grown a lot over the years, but I think the list is about as smooth as it is ever going to get. Now what fun would an article on state-based actions be without some examples?! Let’s go through some scenarios where it is important to know when SBA’s are checked.

1) Adelle controls Platinum Angel and is at 4 life, Nick is also at 4 life. Adelle casts Hurricane with X=4. The game state is now Adelle at 0 life, Nick at 0 life and Platinum Angel with lethal damage marked on it. Since all of these are processed at the same time, Adelle would lose, but she still has Platinum angel (remember they are all checked at the same time!). Nick is at 0 life and has no way to survive this check of state-based actions, so Adelle wins the game!

2) Ashley controls a Salvage Scout with a +1/+1 counter on it. Nester casts Grim Affliction targeting the Salvage Scout. First a -1/-1 counter is placed on the Salvage Scout, but because we are in the middle of resolving a spell, neither player is going to get priority so we aren’t going to check state-based actions! This means Nester can choose to proliferate the -1/-1 counter on the Salvage Scout and reduce its toughness to 0.

So you can see from these two examples that there are plays that normally would not be obvious to make, but from knowing the ins and outs of state-based actions, it helps to sharpen your game! Also, if any of you readers have aspirations to be judges, the L1 judge test has a fair amount of questions that deal with the timing and nature of state-based actions. Thanks for reading!

Justin Turner

L2 - Tampa Bay, FL