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What happens if I play a card that has a tribute ability with the word target in it, my opponent chooses not to pay the tribute, and ability that applies has no valid targets.

Will the ability simply do nothing, can I not play the card because it will resolve illegally, or will my opponent be forced to pay the tribute?

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3 Answers 3

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Your tribute creature will enter the battlefield. Your opponent may refuse tribute, and the ability responding to no tribute can be auto-countered if it has no targets, but that will not make the creature itself get countered.

Will the ability simply do nothing, can I not play the card because it will resolve illegally, or will my opponent be forced to pay the tribute?

You appear to have a misunderstanding of the mechanism of spells being auto-countered when they have no targets, and how that extends to creatures.

Instants and sorceries get auto-countered if they have no valid targets for one reason: they (normally, or always AFAIK) place just one ability on the stack - a spell ability, which is the text on the card. If that spell ability gets auto-countered, the entire card might have no effect, because it's all the card did.

However, creatures aren't a card that just have one single effect. When you're summoning a creature with tribute, you will do all of these things separately and independently:

  1. Summon the creature. This uses the stack, and the creature spell can be countered by e.g. Essence Scatter.
  2. Your opponent is offered the choice to tribute the creature. This doesn't go on the stack and can't be countered, since it's a static ability.
  3. If tribute wasn't paid, then when the creature enters the battlefield, place the ability triggered by not paying the tribute on the stack to resolve.

#1 or #3 can be countered independently. If someone plays Essence Scatter on your Nessian Wilds Ravager, the entire creature card will go to your graveyard and #2 and #3 won't happen.

However, if #3 gets countered (including by #3 having no legal targets), the creature is still going to enter the battlefield - it's already done so - and countering the individual ability has nothing to do with countering the card as a whole.

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Actually, the tribute ability doesn't go on the stack anymore than unleash or any other "Enters with a counter on it" go on the stack. As I noted, the difference that gives vaguely that impression is that your opponent, not you decide. The only thing actually going on the is the ACTUAL "enter the battlefield" that will happen if tribute isn't paid. –  Circeus Mar 17 at 23:09
@Circeus Thanks; I didn't realise Tribute was actually a static ability. Corrected. –  doppelgreener Mar 17 at 23:19
So the ability is placed on the stack and then it gets countered rather than never entering the stack? Since targets are chosen when an item enters the stack would that mean it sits on the stack with no targets for a moment before it resolves? I'm not sure how this could be useful but I am curious. –  Fr33dan Mar 18 at 2:06

The Tribute ability and abilities that trigger if the tribute wasn't paid are separate. It is perfectly legitimate for an opponent to not pay a tribute when there is no target for the ability that will trigger afterward. As with any such cases, that ability will then be countered automatically.

Why this is the case is not quite as straightforward, since the rules are a little roundabout about it, but tribute, being a static ability (like unleash) is just something that goes on as the creature enters the battlefield (what makes it feel very different is the delay introduced by the opponent choosing instead of you). The tribute-bound ability will trigger after that, when the creature is on the battlefield, and depending on the opponent's choice. At that point, if it has no target, it will fizzle normally (the same as when you control no other creature and cast Breaching Hippocamp).

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I again think I might have found an answer with the help of information from a related question but I will post for confirmation/growth of the knowledge base here.

There is nothing that could prevent my opponent from choosing not to pay the tribute. Since the targets for the tribute are not picked until after the creature enters the battlefield there is nothing invalid at the time of casting so I may play the card. Only then is the tribute triggered ability placed on the stack, where it is immediately removed by rule 603.3c:

603.3c If a triggered ability is modal, its controller announces the mode choice when he or she puts the 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 can be chosen, the ability is removed from the stack. (See rule 700.2.)

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Note: None of the existing Tribute cards have modal triggered abilities at this time. "Modal" means an ability in the form of "Choose one -- do X; or do Y". (There are also Modal effects with more than two options, and Modal effects which allow choosing more than just one option.) For example, Azorius Charm –  Brian S Mar 17 at 18:24
@Fr33dan You're heading down the wrong path here, and it's because of a misunderstanding you have of how things get auto-countered. Instant and sorcery cards are considered countered if they have no targets, but that's because they only place the one ability on the stack and do nothing else, so if that one and only ability is auto-countered, the entire card has no effect (its only effect disappeared). Your tribute creature can come along freely, get tributed (or not), then separately place an ability on the stack which gets auto-countered - but that doesn't counter the entire card. –  doppelgreener Mar 17 at 22:22
@JonathanHobbs Yes I was trying to convey that they are separate events that would become illegal/be countered separately. I didn't know they were separate until the linked related question came up as a suggestion. I posted it to make sure this interpretation of that process was correct, although as Azorius Charm points out I still have picked the wrong rule that explains why the ability does not happen if there are no targets. –  Fr33dan Mar 18 at 2:01
Furthermore actually: if you are a new player, you should not be trying to understand the comprehensive rules just yet. There is an inane amount of content in them and it's hard to make sense of a lot of it when you're new. See this answer to one of my own questions, which points out the basic rules, which you should work from in the early stages. –  doppelgreener Mar 18 at 2:10
@JonathanHobbs Thank you but I'm not a new player, I've got an understanding of the rules that is correct 98% (and rising) of the time, but those I play with disagree with my interpretation a lot so I end up having to find a rule to quote that makes it clear or someone will be upset in the long run. Also the programmer in me enjoys breaking down everything that happens to the most basic steps with an explanation of why so it's just fun to figure out from that respect. But as you said it's an inane amount of information so even relating what I know to be true is tricky. –  Fr33dan Mar 18 at 13:16

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