If you are like me you started playing Magic back around 1994/95. I got into the game right after 3rd Edition came out (Unlimited packs were still available, but we were stupid and had no idea the value of what was in them. Regardless of what cards we were buying, and more important, is how we played the game. Back then the rules weren’t as extensive as they are now. There were no “Comprehensive Rules” and even if there were, there was very little internet presence for the game. All we had was a little white booklet that came in every “starter” pack, and if we misinterpreted anything, well, that was how we played it. The reason I bring this up is because of an interaction that I had with my friend Eric during a game a few days ago in which he attempted to shut down an activated ability of a creature by tapping said creature with an Icy Manipulator. The resulting interaction left me with the possibility of many topics that we could discuss; priority, the stack, and card evaluation to name a few.
My first thought is that this is a product of the “old days”. Icy was one of those cards that was amazing back in the day because it could stop anything, and it seems like something we would have done back then; “I’ll tap this Birds of Paradise for a blue mana”, and then “As an Interrupt, I will tap the Birds with this Icy Manipulator”. Back then the stack didn’t exist, and we certainly didn’t have judges or the internet to turn to and it was only later that we learned about priority and the stack. What we also didn’t have back then was errata. Notice the two images below. The original Icy Manipulator stated “No Effects are generated by the target card.” That text has since been removed and replaced with the text on the Ice Ages version of the card, which simply states “Tap target artifcat, creature, or land.” If you are using an older card, particularly one that could be confusing, you should make sure to check Gatherer to find the latest errata’d rules text. For the topic today, a quick overview of priority and the stack is a good place to start, as these items are among the most confusing in the game.
First up is priority which is the ability to act in any given turn. At any given time the active player (that is, the player who’s turn it is) has priority. It is only when that player gives up priority that the non-active players have the chance to act. A player only passes priority when they cast a spell AND pass priority, or when they decide that they are done with a particular phase of the turn and attempt to move to the next phase. When a player casts a spell, that spell goes on the stack, but the player retains priority until such time as they decide to pass priority. This means that the active player may respond to his own spells before any other player gets a chance to, and it is important to note that once the active player passes priority, if the opponent then passes priority with no action, then the game moves on and the active player doesn’t get the ability to respond to that action. Once a player passes priority then you have a chance to respond by casting an instant or activating an ability. Each action that is taken is put on the stack. Once each player passes priority with no new actions being taken, then the stack is resolved. As each item on the stack is resolved, each player gets priority again so that they may respond. Once the entire stack has been resolved, then the active player gets priority and may cast any spells or move into the next phase of the turn. The stack is the other major piece of this puzzle. As each spell is cast or each ability is activated, it goes on top of the stack. As each action is taken, both players get priority. If both players pass priority, then the top item on the stack resolves. Then each player gets priority again, after which the current top item on the stack resolves, rinse and repeat until the whole stack has resolved and priority returns to the active player. In the example above, a player stops a Birds of Paradise because they tapped it with an Icy Manipulator, but in the real game, this will rarely happen how the player wants it to. First, the active player has priority, so he taps his Birds of Paradise (as the cost of activating the ability), and the now activated ability goes onto the stack. It has not yet resolved. Now you get priority so you activate the Icy Manipulator targeting the Birds of Paradise, and that ability goes onto the top of the stack. Now each ability on the stack is resolved from top of the stack to bottom. The Icy ability to tap the bird resolves, but it is already tapped, so nothing happens. Then the bird’s ability resolves and that player gets a mana in their mana pool.
This is also a good time to talk about activated abilities. On a permanent (only permanents have activated abilities) you can tell when it has an activated ability because it has a colon in the text box. Before the colon is the cost of activation, and after the colon is the effect of the activation. As the non-active player, you cannot interact with the “cost” of activating the ability, but you can interact with the effect because before it resolves, it has to go onto the stack, and you therefore get priority at least once before it resolves. Look at Icy Manipulator. The cost is “1, T” and the effect is “Tap target artifact, creature, or land.” Also be aware that if the activated ability does not have a tap in the cost of the ability, then even if the card is tapped, it can still be activated.
The lesson here is that activated abilities are very hard to stop. There are only a handful of cards that can do it; Linvala, Keeper of Silence, Pithing Needle, and Squelch are a few that come to mind. Linvala is super-powerful because she stops all opponent’s activated abilities. Pithing Needle is also very powerful because it shuts down one card permanently. While Squelch is only usable once, it can be very powerful because your opponent doesn’t see it coming.
That brings us to card evaluation. Once we have the basics of the stack, priority, and activated abilities down, we can evaluate cards like Icy Manipulator properly. The key is to realize that these types of cards can NOT stop an activated ability. They can make it so that the ability does not have any effect, but only under certain conditions. This could be called a conditional ability. For example, you wait for the opponent to attempt to move into the attack phase, and when you get priority you use the Icy to tap the opponent’s Birds of Paradise. In response to that, they may use the bird’s ability, but unless they have an instant to cast at that moment, the mana will be wasted, as the mana pool gets emptied once all actions have been resolved and the turn moves into the attack phase. So we see that with an Icy Manipulator and cards like it, you can conditionally make an activated ability ineffective, but it is important to realize that this isn’t really what Icy Manipulator and its ilk are intended for. Probably their biggest effect is that they can tap down an attacker before it gets the chance to attack. While there are other cards like Icy that are reusable methods of tapping down permanents, most of them are white, and not colorless. So while it may be a little expensive in terms of mana cost, it is one of the best options for a colorless, reusable tap effect. It should be noted that when it was created, tapping down an artifact like Howling Mine meant that it wouldn’t work. These days that has changed, so yes, the Icy is less effective than it once was.
I’m not stating that you should run Icy Manipulator in every deck. I rarely use it myself. But if you are looking for that effect, and you aren’t running white, then it is one of the better options. The bigger lesson here is to make sure you are evaluating cards based on the proper rules and situations. If you want a card that will shut down activated abilities, Icy Manipulator is NOT it.