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This is an important interaction between two Journey into Nyx cards. Really it's a question about how "unless" interacts with targeting.

Say I have an Athreos, God of Passage (spoiler link) in play:

Whenever another creature you own dies, return it to your hand unless target opponent pays 3 life.

My opponent has an Aegis of the Gods (spoiler link):

You have hexproof.

What happens when one of my creatures dies, but there are no valid targets for the trigger?

  • Do I get to return it to my hand from the graveyard because there is no other valid option?
  • Or does it stay dead because the whole trigger is a no-go?
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(+1 because it's an excellent question, but I have to ask: is this a rhetorical/informational question? Given the Magic rules knowledge you've displayed in the past, I would think you'd know the answer to this one...) –  Steven Stadnicki Apr 18 at 17:03
    
@StevenStadnicki To be honest, it's more of a "sometimes the rules slip my mind because of how individual cards are templated" kind of thing. I know a bunch of the rules by heart but there are some bits that I don't pay that much attention to because they never come up for me in play. Mostly I'm asking because I remember the tricky hair-splitting associated with Sigarda's "can't make you sac" ability. –  Alex P Apr 18 at 17:14
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The only time you don't have to pick a target when it appears in a spell or ability's text is when it's a modal spell (e.g. "Choose one -- ...") and the word target is only present in modes you didn't choose. Keep in mind that some effects (such as the one from Overload) replace the word "target" such that it no longer appears, so no target are picked then either. –  ikegami Apr 19 at 6:11

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The ability is removed from the stack, and you do not get your creature back. See:

603.3

603.3 Once an ability has triggered, its controller puts it on the stack as an object that's not a card the next time a player would receive priority. See rule 116, "Timing and Priority." The ability becomes the topmost object on the stack. It has the text of the ability that created it, and no other characteristics. It remains on the stack until it's countered, it resolves, a rule causes it to be removed from the stack, or an effect moves it elsewhere.

and 603.3d

603.3d The remainder of the process for putting a triggered ability on the stack is identical to the process for casting a spell listed in rules 601.2c–d. If a choice is required when the triggered ability goes on the stack but no legal choices can be made for it, or if a rule or a continuous effect otherwise makes the ability illegal, the ability is simply removed from the stack.

You are required to choose a target, and since you cannot the ability is removed from the stack and does not resolve.

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When you put Athreos's triggered ability on the stack, you choose the target opponent. If there are no valid targets (possibly because your only opponent controls Aegis of the Gods), then the ability is not put on the stack and nothing happens.

In regards to how the "unless" is handled:

  • 117.12. Some spells, activated abilities, and triggered abilities read, "[Do something]. If [a player] [does or doesn't], [effect]." or "[A player] may [do something]. If [that player] [does or doesn't], [effect]." The action [do something] is a cost, paid when the spell or ability resolves. The "If [a player] [does or doesn't]" clause checks whether the player chose to pay an optional cost or started to pay a mandatory cost, regardless of what events actually occurred.

  • 117.12a Some spells, activated abilities, and triggered abilities read, "[Do something] unless you [do something else]." This means the same thing as "You may [do something else]. If you don't, [do something]."

So if the ability never resolves, the "unless" effect simply doesn't happen.

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It is curious that your answer says "the object is not put on the stack" and JakeP's answer says "the object is removed from the stack" (meaning it was there at one point). They both seem equally correct though, so I +1'd both. –  Rainbolt May 2 at 16:22
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Technically, JakeP is right. The way it actually works is that the ability is removed before any player gains priority (rule 603.3d), which is functionally equivalent to what I said. –  murgatroid99 May 2 at 16:30

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