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I'm pretty new to MTG, I was playing with a friend and a question came up as to when I can activate a creature's ability. He used an instant spell that would do 3 damage to my 1/1 Red Elemental which was equipped with Mask of Immolation. This has the text:

Equipped creature has "Sacrifice this creature: It deals 1 damage to any target."

Three related questions:

  • When and in what cases can you use a creature's ability?
  • Could I use a creature ability to anticipate a spell or an instant?
  • Do ability copy cards work to copy creatures' abilities?
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Activated abilities (any ability with a : in the text, separating its cost from its effect) can be activated any time you could cast an instant, which includes in response to another spell or ability.

Some activated abilities have the text "activate only as a sorcery", usually at the very end. This means that particular ability can only be cast when you could cast a sorcery: when it's your turn, in your main phase, and there aren't any other spells or abilities on the stack (i.e., you can't activate it in response to something).

In this case, Mask of Immolation doesn't have any such wording, so you're free to activate the ability in response to any spell or ability that you like. Sacrificing a creature to an ability like this when it's going to die anyway is a very common play.


For completeness's sake, creatures have two other kinds of abilities: triggered abilities (which have a triggering clause like "when..." or "whenever...") and static abilities, which don't have an activation or a trigger. Triggered abilities happen in response to their trigger, whenever that happens, and static abilities are active all the time. In either of these cases, whether you could cast a sorcery is irrelevant.


Some cards, like Battlemage's Bracers or Lithoform Engine, let you copy abilities. To explain what these do, we need to draw a distinction between the ability on the creature and the ability on the stack. When you activate an ability, it creates a new "object" on the stack that draws its characteristics from whatever the ability was on. From that point on, they're independent of each other. The ability on the stack is what gets copied, and the copy resolves the same way as the original. The ability on the creature isn't changed.

For instance, say you have a creature with "R: ~this~ gets +1/+0 until end of turn". When you activate it, you pay R and the ability "this gets +1/+0 until end of turn" is put on the stack. If you used Lithoform Engine to copy that ability, there would be two instances of "this gets +1/+0 until end of turn" on the stack. The creature itself would still have its regular ability, not a copy of it. The next time you activate it, it will just get +1/+0.

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  • Do copying abilites works with creature abilities which work as instants?
    – Aritzbn
    Nov 26, 2021 at 18:13
  • @Aritzbn If an ability is copyable (if it's part of the creature itself and not from outside), sure, the copy will have that ability and it will have the same timing restrictions, if any. Is there a specific combo you're thinking of?
    – Cadence
    Nov 26, 2021 at 18:19
  • Was thinking about those abilities who add +1/+1 for each land you pay, could you copy them to add +2/+2 for each land paid or it will be applied just to the first time? For example Dragon Hatchling or Shivan Dragon.
    – Aritzbn
    Nov 26, 2021 at 18:22
  • @Aritzbn In that case, no. The ability is copied, but the effect of already having activated it a bunch isn't; it's considered its own "thing" adding to the creature's stats, the same as an aura or equipment. You would have to activate the copy's ability if you want to boost its power. (As a side note, those abilities grant +1/+0, not +1/+1.)
    – Cadence
    Nov 26, 2021 at 18:29
  • So... I just could copy the first time I use the effect giving a first +2/+0, and the other times increasing it in +1/+0, am I right?
    – Aritzbn
    Nov 26, 2021 at 18:38

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