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If I cast a spell which then turns out to be un-playable, what happens to my spell? E.G.: Casting a spell on something that has Hexproof and can't be targeted in the first place. Do I simply place my spell back in my hand? Do I untap the lands used to pay for that spell?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

If The Spell Never Had Any Legal Targets

You cannot cast a spell that requires a target unless there is a legal target for the spell.

If you try to cast a spell that requires a target, and discover that there is no legal target for that spell, it is considered an illegal action.

The comprehensive rules on handling illegal actions:

717.1 If a player realizes that he or she can’t legally take an action after starting to do so, the entire action is reversed and any payments already made are canceled. No abilities trigger and no effects apply as a result of an undone action. If the action was casting a spell, the spell returns to the zone it came from. The player may also reverse any legal mana abilities activated while making the illegal play, unless mana from them or from any triggered mana abilities they triggered was spent on another mana ability that wasn’t reversed.

So, you would essentially "rewind" the game state, untapping your lands and returning the card to your hand. Unfortunately, this misplay does mean that your opponent has earned some free information (i.e. they now know one of the cards you have in your hand).

If The Spell's Target Becomes Illegal After Casting It

In this case, your spell has already been cast, because you chose its target while casting it and at that time the spell had a legal target, but during the resolution of the spell, that target is discovered to no longer be legal. This can happen, for instance, if the card Ranger's Guile is cast in response to your spell, giving the target of your spell Hexproof.

When your spell is resolving, it checks again to see if the target is still legal. In this case, since the creature now has Hexproof, it will be determined that the target is not legal, and the spell will go to the graveyard and have no effect. You will not untap your lands. You simply lose that mana and that spell's effect; your spell was countered.

The relevant section of the comprehensive rules states (under the heading "Resolving Spells and Abilities"):

608.2b If the spell or ability specifies targets, it checks whether the targets are still legal. A target thats no longer in the zone it was in when it was targeted is illegal. Other changes to the game state may cause a target to no longer be legal; for example, its characteristics may have changed or an effect may have changed the text of the spell. If the source of an ability has left the zone it was in, its last known information is used during this process. The spell or ability is countered if all its targets, for every instance of the word "target," are now illegal. If the spell or ability is not countered, it will resolve normally.

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4  
If you tried to cast Hero's Downfall (a black spell) targeting a Blood Baron of Vizkopa (a creature with protection from black), it would be considered an illegal action due to the target not being legal, and you would reverse the game state to just before trying to cast the spell. The same applies to trying to cast a spell targeting Sylvan Caryatid (which has Hexproof): the spell would have no legal target, and would thus not be cast at all. The card would not go to the graveyard, but rather back to your hand. –  callahan09 Apr 29 at 13:50
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You should add that, if a legal target exists, but the target you wanted to cast on is not legal, you MUST pick a target. That means that if you try to Thoughtseize a player with Leyline of Sanctity on the field, and you're the only other player then you must thoughtseize yourself. –  Cruncher Apr 29 at 16:36
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@Cruncher do you have a citation for e.g. a judge's ruling on that? I can see how one would arrive at that conclusion from the comprehensive rules but it's not explicit, and I think it would be useful to have an explicit assertion since that clashes with the way most people play (casually at least). –  David Z Apr 29 at 18:25
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That judge was wrong, the answer is wrong. If you declare an illegal target the play is reversed. You aren't forced to change to a legal target. –  Affe Apr 29 at 22:50
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@callahan09 Yes, of course you're not allowed to declare an illegal target. The question is, what happens if you accidentally do? 717.1 is very clear: If any part was illegal, you roll back the entire thing, you don't just correct the illegal sub-part. Judges are human, mistakes happen. –  Affe Apr 30 at 1:35

As others have quoted, rule 717.1 applies:

717.1. If a player realizes that he or she can’t legally take an action after starting to do so, the entire action is reversed and any payments already made are canceled. No abilities trigger and no effects apply as a result of an undone action. If the action was casting a spell, the spell returns to the zone it came from. The player may also reverse any legal mana abilities activated while making the illegal play, unless mana from them or from any triggered mana abilities they triggered was spent on another mana ability that wasn’t reversed. Players may not reverse actions that moved cards to a library, moved cards from a library to any zone other than the stack, or caused a library to be shuffled.

But unlike what callahan09 says, if there are other legal targets you are not forced to name one of them. This post from a Level 2 judge agrees. (Note that the O-ring case is different because Oblivion Ring itself doens't target, only the ability, and the ability is mandatory.)

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pretty clear quote for your situation taken from the comprehensive rules.

717.1. If a player realizes that he or she can’t legally take an action after starting to do so, the entire action is reversed and any payments already made are canceled. No abilities trigger and no effects apply as a result of an undone action. If the action was casting a spell, the spell returns to the zone it came from. The player may also reverse any legal mana abilities activated while making the illegal play, unless mana from them or from any triggered mana abilities they triggered was spent on another mana ability that wasn’t reversed. Players may not reverse actions that moved cards to a library, moved cards from a library to any zone other than the stack, or caused a library to be shuffled.

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protected by ire_and_curses May 30 at 1:39

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