Original versions of the white Sorcery Breath of Life read "Put target creature card from your graveyard into play." In later editions, they changed the text to read "Return target creature card from your graveyard to play."

Was this a functional change that retroactively modified how Breath of Life works? Can I use new versions of Breath of Life to put a discarded creature card into play, or does it have to have been on the battlefield?


It was not a functional change, you can return a creature card from your graveyard into play even if it was never in play to begin with. Though I couldn't find an exact rule describing the word "return," there is this:

400.7. An object that moves from one zone to another becomes a new object with no memory of, or relation to, its previous existence.

So a card in your graveyard has no possible way of knowing if it used to be on the battlefield or not, so it must be treated the same whether it was or not.

Note also that cards may say "return target permanent to its owner's hand", and these can be used on permanents that were never in the owner's hand, such as a land that was fetched with a fetchland.

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Breath of Life will work on any creature in your graveyard, regardless of whether it was previously in play. "Return" is functionally synonymous with "put."

When you're wondering what a card actually does, it's best to start with its Oracle text. This is the most authoritative take on "what the card says." You can look this up easily on Gatherer, which also has helpful rulings.

For example, Breath of Life reads:

Return target creature card from your graveyard to the battlefield.

In Magic, "returning" a card to the battlefield doesn't require that the card have been on the battlefield previously. As far as I can tell, this isn't explicitly spelled out in the comprehensive rules ("return" and "put" aren't treated as specially defined terms, unlike "tap" or "discard"), it's sorta just assumed. This isn't a minor technicality, either. It's the bedrock of an entire archetype known as Reanimator.

If you or your friends are truly skeptical, here's an account of a player using Unburial Rites (a card with identical wording to Breath of Life) in exactly this way during the deciding game of a major official tournament — in game 3, Mcclain puts a couple of cards into his graveyard on turn 3, then uses Unburial Rites to put a Thragtusk directly onto the battlefield on turn 4, before he has the 5 mana to cast it normally.

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  • This is implied in your answer, but it's worth explicitly spelling out for those who may be unaware that Gatherer is not just "the most authoritative" version of a card, but is in fact the only authoritative version of the card. That is, if a (physical) card's text differs from the Gatherer text (whether through reprinting or through errata), the Gatherer text is official. – scubbo Apr 25 '14 at 14:07

This was not a functional change. It works on any creature in your graveyard, no matter how it got there. I believe the use of the word "return" is more about flavor than anything else; the idea is that things in the graveyard died, so putting them onto the battlefield is bringing them back, returning them.

And tons and tons of cards say "return", not just Breath of Life. For example, Mnemonic Wall and Whip of Erebos from Theros. None of these cards are placing any restriction on how the card got in the graveyard. (They can't - the card doesn't even remember where it came from after it moves zones!)

Finally, a side note: 7th Edition was the only printing of Breath of Life outside Starter and Portal sets. In addition to being a bit old (which can mean iffy rules text on cards sometimes), those cards were written for beginners. That means the rules text was often more explicit, and also often just kind of weird. "Take any one creature card from your graveyard and put that creature into play. Treat it as though you just played it from your hand." was merely simplified to "Return target creature card from your graveyard to the battlefield." More experienced players just don't need as much rules text to understand it.

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  • Thanks, Jefromi. GendoIkari beat you to the punch and included a snippet from the rules, but your answer is no less informative. Since I can't mark you both as answers, all I can do is upvote. – Murkaeus Nov 20 '13 at 6:39
  • @Murkaeus Yup, vote and accept how you like. (The traditional standard is "which answer was most helpful" - so if you prefer the explicit rules snippet instead of my paraphrasing, by all means, accept his.) – Cascabel Nov 20 '13 at 6:57

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