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I'm becoming more and more confused as I learn about how things have changed during a break in play I had some time ago. Seems the stack has changed now, and oft times abilities use a source's last known status rather than its current stats when resolving.

That being mentioned, if I have a card that taps a permanent, and I want to tap a creature in response to it activating an inherent tap ability, does that work? Can I tap it to prevent it from using such an ability? Is this different for mana abilities?

Some examples:

  • Player B says he is tapping his Steel Overseer to put a +1+1 counter on all of his artifact creatures. Can I tap it first to prevent him from doing so?

  • Player B says he is tapping his forest to add a green mana to his mana pool, can I tap it first to prevent him from doing so?

If I cannot, then what use is my ability to tap his permanents other than to prevent him from attacking or to take advantage of his tapped status (either by counter-attacking or perhaps an 'assassination' effect)?

Also, if I cannot, is there a point in a turn when I COULD tap his lands and accomplish starving him of mana? If in theory, he could always tap his lands for mana in response to my attempt to tap them, how long would such mana remain unused in his pool until it expires and he cannot use it?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 15 down vote accepted

There are certain actions that you undertake in Magic which do not use the stack, and therefore cannot be responded to. (AFAIK this has never been different for as long as the stack has existed, so this is not really a recent change.) The most important of these are:

  1. Paying costs
  2. Activating mana abilities

Your first example above is an instance of #1. The cost of the Steel Overseer's ability is to tap the Overseer. After the Overseer is tapped, the +1/+1 ability goes on the stack, and each player gets priority. At this time it's too late to tap the Overseer, since it's already tapped and the ability is already on the stack.

Your second example is an instance of #2. Tapping a land for mana does not use the stack, so you cannot attempt to tap a land in response to your opponent starting to play a spell. By the time you receive priority, the land is already tapped and the mana is in your opponent's pool (or has already been spent to put the spell on the stack).

Generally, then, you need to play your tap abilities before your opponent has the chance to do anything. This means:

  • If you're trying to deprive your opponent of mana, you should tap his lands in his upkeep step. Your opponent will be able to tap them in response to pay for instant-speed spells and abilities if he has any, but he won't be able to use that mana for any main-phase spells.
  • If you're trying to keep a creature from attacking, the last time when you can do so is the Begin Combat step. By the time you get priority in the Declare Attackers step, your opponent's creatures are already tapped and attacking, so tapping them has no effect.
  • If you're trying to prevent your opponent from using some sort of other tap ability on a creature or artifact, your best bet is to tap it at a time when the ability is not relevant or has no targets. For example, tap your opponent's Avacynian Priest in his end step. He could activate the ability in response, but it doesn't matter since your creatures will untap at the beginning of your turn anyway.
  • If you're trying to tap something like the Steel Overseer, which has an ability that's always relevant, you're basically SOL.
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If you have allowed your opponent to tap something, without skipping phases by short cuts or something like that, then no, tapping is not an ability you can interrupt since tapping doesn't go on the stack.

If you aren't declaring steps and you move directly into the combat phase without offering a change of priority in a pre-combat phase (main phase end step) then you can tap something that's being declared as an attacker (but this is because you're going back and playing the skipped phase, not because of some timing issue with tapping). After the first time you do this, expect to hear the words "pre-combat ... combat" every turn forever and ever.

Chapter 5 of the comprehensive rules describes the turn structure in great detail.

Review chapter 6 (CR 601 deals with spells 602 with activated abilities) of the comprehensive rules for the nitty gritty but essentially the process is Declare the Spell/Ability, Move the card from your hand if necessary, put it on the stack, make any choices necessary (if the card is modal for example), pick targets, announce any divisions the card might require (divide damage, etc), determine and pay the full cost of the spell ... the spell is now cast. There is no change in priority for you to legally activate any ability or cast any spell in order to affect the caster's cards.

Your "tap something" cards are not meant to give you the ability to roll back time and undo things that are happening. You use them to make your best judgements on how to deprive your opponent of resources. For example BEFORE you declare attackers you may tap some of his creatures so they can't use them as blockers.

If you want to deprive your opponent of mana, it is more difficult because your activated ability (tap that land) will go on the stack. In response to your activation they can tap the land to cast a spell. You can't prevent this but it can still throw them off their tempo or force them to cast things out of order. They can't just tap them to add to their mana pool for "later". It's handy to do this sort of thing in your turn to prevent counterspells for example.

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The traditional method of depriving an opponent of mana by tapping down his lands is to tap them during his upkeep. Yes, this isn't 100% effective: he can cast an instant in response. On the other hand, it does impede him from casting creatures or sorceries, and also happens before his draw step, so may stop him from using the card he draws that turn.

(Your opponent can fill his pool with mana if he likes, but that mana will all leave the pool at the end of his upkeep: he can't "save" that mana to cast a sorcery or creature later.)

Similarly, suppose you want to nullify a creature with an activated tap effect: let's say a Prodigal Pyromancer. You could tap it down at the end of your opponent's turn, then untap in your turn, cast that 4/1 Haste creature that's been sitting uselessly in your hand for a while, and then attack with it while the Pyromancer is temporarily indisposed...

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I'll address your specific examples.

Player B says he is tapping his Steel Overseer to put a +1+1 counter on all of his artifact creatures. Can I tap it first to prevent him from doing so?

If the tap is part of the cost of activating the ability (ie. tap symbol is before the colon) then the answer is no. You can't stop a cost from being paid. If you put an ability on the stack to tap it, they could tap in response. If they tap it to activate the ability, the cost is already paid, and tapping it in response does nothing.

In your preamble you seemed to indicate that in the past you could prevent activated abilities with a tap cost by tapping them first. The truth is, the game has always worked this way, even before the addition of the stack. Back in the day, the last person to cast contradictory instants got to determine order of resolution. There was even a ruling, back in the mists of time, clarifying that if you tapped something that had already been tapped, it has no effect on the action.

You could never twiddle a Prodigal Sorcerer to prevent it from dealing 1 damage to your dome.

Player B says he is tapping his forest to add a green mana to his mana pool, can I tap it first to prevent him from doing so?

You cannot, nor could you ever.

If I cannot, then what use is my ability to tap his permanents other than to prevent him from attacking or to take advantage of his tapped status (either by counter-attacking or perhaps an 'assassination' effect)?

What use? Tapping stuff, even if it doesn't prevent activated or mana abilities is still very very useful. Preventing a creature from attacking is usually quite important. It is also extremely useful to tap a defender after you declare attackers to give them a significant advantage. Especially if said defender has, say, deathtouch, first strike or regeneration.

This isn't to say that you are necessarily incorrect in your assessment of the utility of the tap effects in your particular deck. If your deck already keeps the ground clear by a constant barrage of direct damage or other removal, or your big beaters have trample and don't particularly care what gets in the way, by all means, remove the tap effects from your deck.

Also, if I cannot, is there a point in a turn when I COULD tap his lands and accomplish starving him of mana? If in theory, he could always tap his lands for mana in response to my attempt to tap them, how long would such mana remain unused in his pool until it expires and he cannot use it?

Comprehensive rule 106.4:

106.4. When an effect produces mana, that mana goes into a player's mana pool. From there, it can be used to pay costs immediately, or it can stay in the player's mana pool. Each player's mana pool empties at the end of each step and phase.

So you could tap the mana during that player's upkeep, and that will deprive them of using that mana during their main phase for sorceries or summoning a creature. Or you could tap their mana during their end step and that might prevent them from using nasty combat tricks or counterspells during your turn.

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