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I'm teaching some of my friends magic, and morph seems to be a bit of an outlier mechanic. It's one of the few things that a player has a choice to do but 'doesn't use the stack'. It can make it a bit hard to describe to my new players that are just learning how the stack/abilities resolving work.

Is it fair to describe morph as a cost (paid in addition to the actual morph cost), which does nothing? Effectively, rewording it as

[Cost], turn this creature face up: Do nothing.

Of course, once a creature is turned face up there are effects, such as a change in the creature's power and toughness, and (usually) triggered abilities, but those are only a consequence of an action happening, not a new action paid for by the morph cost.

In my understanding, treating morph as a cost in this way is entirely keeping with the rules. As normal costs, it can only be done when you have priority. Similarly, it can't be responded to. (A creature sacrificed as a cost, as an analogy, cannot be responded to either.)

My question is: is this a fair way of explaining the special case of Morph as a mechanic to newer players, or is there some rule or corner case that I'm missing?

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Turning a creature face up by paying its Morph cost is a Special Action, like playing a land.

Taking a special action is similar to paying a cost to cast a spell or activate an ability, in that both take effect immediately without waiting for anything on the stack to resolve, but there are also differences. Players can explicitly take special actions whenever they have priority, but costs can only be paid as part of taking some other action. So, any attempt to represent it as a cost would make it part of another action that does nothing except provide an opportunity to pay that cost, which is essentially backwards.

If Morph was represented as a cost to activate a nothing ability as described in the question, that action could not be taken while you cannot activate non-mana abilites because of cards like Overwhelming Splendor or abilities like Split second.

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    Other answers had good information, but I chose this one because it described specific cases where treating morph as a cost would break the way morph actually works. – Aetherfox Sep 26 at 18:22
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Morph has a cost, but it is not a cost. It is simply an action you can take, like playing a land. You can think of turning a creature face-up in the same way as playing a land... playing a land has a cost of losing the land card from your hand; turning a creature face-up has whatever cost is listed next to the keyword "morph".

Normally the comprehensive rules are not a good way to go about learning or teaching the game, but the rules for turning a morph creature face-up are pretty simple here:

702.36e Any time you have priority, you may turn a face-down permanent you control with a morph ability face up. This is a special action; it doesn’t use the stack (see rule 116). To do this, show all players what the permanent’s morph cost would be if it were face up, pay that cost, then turn the permanent face up. (If the permanent wouldn’t have a morph cost if it were face up, it can’t be turned face up this way.) [...]

The fact that it can't be responded to and the fact that paying a cost can't be responded to are really the only 2 things that these have in common. Paying a cost when activating an ability is something you do in order to do something, in this case to activate the ability. The problem with looking at turning a morph card face-up as a cost is that there is no thing that you are paying the cost for. Turning it face-up is generally the end goal; not a cost you are paying to get to some goal.

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As you (and the other answers) point out, being turned face up is not part of the cost. However, I do believe that is a reasonable approximation for teaching new players for the reasons you point out and one other that I can think of:

It is a pre-requisite to performing the action. By this I mean you cannot morph an already face up creature, or pay to morph a creature multiple times in succession, just as you cannot sacrifice the same creature to multiple sacrifice a creature costs.

Caveat

The one caveat I would give is be careful how you state that, you describe it as:

[Cost], turn this creature face up: Do nothing.

When I'm helping new players learn magic, I usually re-inforce that anything with a colon is an activated ability with the cost on the left and the effect on the right. Morphing not only does not use the stack, but also is not an activated ability. So, for example, a static effect on the creature that says activated abilities cannot be activated (such as being detained or under the effect of Arrest) would not prevent the creature from morphing.

Alternative

Instead of describing being turned face up as part of the cost of morphing, you could compare it to playing a land at instant speed. Both are special actions so exactly the same rules would apply, and it may be one less thing to keep track of.

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Morph does not use the stack, which is why it seems to be part of the cost, but it is still in fact the effect of paying the morph cost. It's similar to how you can't respond to mana abilities, as they too don't use the stack. I would say explaining the cases that are independent of the stack would be the best way to show new players how these things work.

In reality paying a morph cost is ending a continuing effect, namely the card being face down as a result of being played morphed.

  • Paying a morph cost is not directly ending a continuous effect. It is its own special action that has multiple results, including ending a continuous effect. – murgatroid99 Sep 26 at 18:08

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