Priority, the Stack, and Card Evaluation, Oh My!

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.

  1. Eric Lowell said:

    Yeah, Icy sucks. I hate that card now.

    • Did you read the article or are you just commenting based on your reaction to the fact that the card doesn’t work the way YOU want it to work… Never mind the fact that it hasn’t worked that way since Ice Age.

  2. Eric Lowell said:

    It sucks, I hate it. It doesn’t do what I want it to do. It’s under powered and weak. Very limited in use and I’m still pissed that I failed with it again.

  3. Why don’t you ever explain your position rather than just stating your position over and over? How is it limited and how is it under powered and weak? What are you comparing it to in order to come to that conclusion?

    I understand that the current Icy isn’t the same as the Icy of the past, but that was a long time ago my friend, and it hasn’t worked that way for 19 years.

    You can’t compare a hammer and a screwdriver and state that the screwdriver sucks because it can’t hammer in a nail effectively. Well, you can, but you won’t get much credibility if you do. I want my dog to clean the floors, but she doesn’t. In fact she gets them dirty, so by your logic then she is a bad dog.

    The Icy does what it does, but what it doesn’t do is stop activated abilities. That doesn’t make it a bad card overall. It just makes it ineffective for that purpose.

    If you want to declare it a bad card, compare it to things that are in the same category and prove that it is a bad card.

  4. Eric Lowell said:

    No, she’s a good dog. She’s a bad mop.

    Icy Manipulator is soooooo limited in effect that it becomes practically useless. You can tap or untap a single permanent at the cost of 1 plus tapping itself, so to start it’s a 2 for 1. If you try to tap something that has an activated ability it fails, every single time. It is only, truly, effective to tap down a single non hexproof or shroud creature before attack or block. As you pointed out it can be used in a very limited way to tap a card like Royal Assassin before tapping a creature of your own. Point out all you want that it’s a repeatable tap down card but with cards like Frost Titan or any card with detain, why would you use it? It’s a 4 mana artifact, big whoop. It’s colorless so it can go into any deck, but why? Pithing needle is cheaper and does more. There are much better cards ranging from twiddle to Frost Titan to Linvala to Pithing Needle to Lavinia that do much more for much less. I know I tried to use the Icy the way I wanted to and it was wrong, but that’s because it is antiquated and way under powered compared to newer, more competitive cards. So if I can list numerous cards that affect the game more than Icy, coupled with the fact that Icy is never, ever, going to see play in another one of my decks again, then I will say it sucks and will always suck from this day forward. There is never a good reason to play it when you can pick cheaper, better and more playable cards in every color and colorless too.

    I know you’re argument will be if you use it in it’s limited fashion properly or a deck is designed to use it then it will be fine. I disagree. The Icy Manipulator is a feel bad card. It feels bad when you try to use it and you fail to do anything. It feels bad when you tap it and a land to tap one thing of a single opponent. It feels like it would do so much more and then it lets you down, every single time. No thank you.

    To prove my point here are a few of the cards that tap down other permanents that are much better than the Icy in both effect and usefulness: Frost Titan, Lavinia of the Tenth, Tamiyo, Ral Zarek, Deathbringer Liege, Derevi, Telekinesis, Tidebinder Mage, Twiddle, Overtaker, and any card with detain. All of which I would take over Icy Manipulator.

  5. First, it is true that Linvala and Pithing Needle are better at stopping activated abilities. I believe I stated as much in the article. It was never my argument that Icy was better than these cards. It was never my argument that Icy was better than other things that do the same thing. However, Pithing Needle doesn’t do more, it does something different. It can’t tap anything. The fact that you aren’t going to play Icy any more because you don’t like it is irrelevant to the discussion of whether it is a good or bad card. You have had bad experiences with it, so you have a worst-cast scenario mentality about it, therefore it is a “feel-bad” card for you, in the few experiences where you used it to try and stop an activated ability.

    Your argument about tapping a single target down for one turn at the cost of one mana and tapping the Icy is going to be something that most repeatable tapping permanents are going to have. The other argument about non-hexproof or shroud is also something that most of these cards share. So let’s do a little experiment here:

    Frost Titan – Triggers on ETB. Has to attack (thereby making it vulnerable) to trigger again. Can’t be used at instant speed.
    Lavinia (and all detain) – Doesn’t tap anything down, though the effect is similar. Only does it once, and is limited in what it effects. Most detains only hit one target. Most are not repeatable.
    Tamiyo and Ral Zarek – Can’t be used at instant speed.
    Deathbringer Liege – Have to cast a white spell to trigger the ability. Rarely usable as an instant speed tapper
    Derevi – Only triggers on ETB. Not reusable
    Telekinesis – Not bad. Single use though.
    Tidebinder Mage – Only targets one red or green creature, and only once on ETB (keeps it tapped though, so that’s nice).
    Twiddle – It is odd that you would include this card. It is identical to the Icy, except the Icy is colorless and can be re-used turn after turn.
    Overtaker – Doesn’t belong here. It isn’t a tapper, it’s a stealer.

    Those cards are ALL either blue or white. They are all conditional in some way except the Telekinesis and Twiddle. With the exception of the Planeswalkers, none of them are reusable without some help (either casting a spell, or some other bounce effect, etc…). So in a deck that doesn’t have white and/or blue in it how do you get this effect? The answer is there are a few cards. Most of them just tap creatures, a few tap just a land or just an artifact. All of them cost at least one mana to activate AND require tapping the card (or the creature the card is attached to), in fact, most of them are 2 mana or more. I didn’t see a single permanent that can be reused that can tap down a creature, land, or artifact.

    In the end, once again we have a card that appears to be relatively unique in what it does. There are a lot of tap effects in this game, but most of them are focused on creatures, and most of them are in blue and white. EVERY repeatable tapper that I’ve ever seen requires some form of mana payment (at least one mana, usually colored, and if colorless usually 2 or more) and usually requires the tapping of that card. The ones that don’t are ETBs and triggered abilities which means that they rely on something else other than mana. That said, and as I’ve said before, I rarely run the thing… but I don’t run other tappers either. I’m seriously considering putting it into Experiment Kraj to tap down Gilder Bairn so I can use his activated ability. Regardless, if you are creating a control deck, and that deck is going to be tapping things down on the regular, then I see no reason not to include it along with all of those other cards. You just have to be aware of the limitations of EVERY card that taps something down. NONE of the cards that you mentioned do what you wanted the Icy to do.

  6. Eric Lowell said:

    On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being Zephyr Spirit and 10 being Time Walk, where do you rate Icy Manipulator. To me it’s a solid 3, on the same level as Wall of Water. It’s ok for what it is but why the hell would you want to play it when there are better cards out there?

    • That doesn’t make any sense. You can’t rate a card against all other cards in the game. Icy is nothing like either Zephyr Sprite or Time Walk. I can tell you that Icy falls between those two in terms of what I prefer. My argument is why not play it an addition to those other cards. I would certainly choose it over Twiddle, as it is a repeatable Twiddle that is colorless. It is also, in my opinion, the best choice outside of white and blue.

  7. Eric Lowell said:

    First, I wasn’t comparing it to either Zephyr Spirit or Time Walk. I was saying it rates a 3 on the power and playability scale. Sorry that you didn’t understand that but I thought it was obvious what was meant. Second, the Icy Manipulator is not good in my opinion. Tapping a single creature for the sake of tapping a single creature is darn near pointless. Since it would affect nothing else in an efficient way the card is practically useless. I would prefer Twiddle as a combat trick, something my opponent doesn’t see coming, where as the Icy is on the board and my opponent knows what I’m going to do and plans appropriately. All I was asking you for was a rating of the card and why you rated it as such. As for not rating a card against all other cards in the game, ridiculous. We do it all the time and you do it on your blog. It’s called Pack 1 pick 1. Basically rating cards on how you would pick them if this was your pack from the cube.

    • Ok. I rate it about the same as you if Zephyr Sprite is a 1 and Time Walk is a 10. But it makes no difference what it’s overall power level is. In Commander Time Walk rates a 0 because it is banned and therefore unplayable. Even a Zephyr Sprite is more playable than a Time Walk in Commander. I love Time Walk, it is my favorite card in the game and I’m guessing that’s why you chose it as your 10. That doesn’t change the fact that it can’t be played in Commander. I’m not trying to prove to you that the Icy is a good card overall. I’m trying to illustrate the fact that cards need to be evaluated based on the proper criteria. Demonic Tutor is a great card right? Would you play it in a Kiki Jiki deck? No, because it doesn’t match the criteria for that deck and therefore it is unplayable in that deck. It doesn’t matter how good a card is overall, it’s value will change based on what you need it for. Fog is not good. I would probably rate it around a 1. However, it has it’s uses. In a “Turbo Fog” deck for example, you want every Fog effect that you can find. In that deck it probably jumps up to a 3 or 4 rating.

      I don’t quite understand your point about “tapping a creature for the sake of tapping a creature”. First, Icy can also tap land and artifacts. Second, you aren’t tapping a creature for the sake of tapping a creature, you tap down a creature for a purpose. One benefit of tapping a creature is that it can’t attack you. The way I see it, at a minimum you lock down the best creature on the board for the rest of the game. It can also tap down a blocker to make sure one of your attackers gets through. This is the reason that I have the card in my Medomai the Ageless deck.

      Finally, the comparison to Twiddle. The problem with Twiddle is much the same as the problem with Fog. Most of the time it is useless. If you have it in your opening hand it will sit there forever. It can be good, but it requires a very special circumstance for that to be the case. If it is turn 7 of a game and I tap down my opponent’s Grave Titan for a turn, well, what do I do the next turn? In that instance the Twiddle essentially did nothing. With an Icy on the board that Grave Titan is never attacking again until something more powerful hits the board. If Icy is a 3 overall, then Twiddle is probably a 1.

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