The Trouble With Fizzles – Using Clear Terminology In Magic: The Gathering
By Thomas Ralph, level 3 Magic Judge
Some readers will be aware that I have been outspoken in discouraging the use of various out of date Magic terminology. Using clear and correct terminology is important in part because doing so will tend to help you play better, as well as help avoid unnecessary messy situations. Today I want to look behind this and explain the issues that exist with the use of the word “fizzle” in Magic: the Gathering.
As always, everything expressed in this article is my own view and does not reflect that of the Judge Programme or indeed anyone else at all.
So what does “fizzle” actually mean?
According to section 608.2b of the Magic: The Gathering Comprehensive Rules, whilst resolving a spell or ability, the game checks whether all of the targets (if any) of that spell or ability are legal. If the spell had targets and none of them are now legal, the spell is countered by the rules of the game.
Back around the time of Urza block, the rules of Magic (as found in those itty-bitty little books that you got inside 75-card tournament packs… anyone remember those?) stated that a spell would “fizzle” if it had illegal targets when it was going to resolve.
On the 1st of June 1999, the biggest rules change since 1996’s introduction of the play-draw rule came into effect with the switch to “Sixth Edition rules”. The term “fizzle” was marked as “obsolete” in the glossary of the Comprehensive Rules at that point in time, accompanied by such wonderful terms as “continuous artifact”, “bury”, “set aside”, “counts as”, “interrupt”, “phase ability”, “batch”, and “series”. The last three, along with “fizzle”, were dropped entirely a few years later.
For those of you following along at home, that means “fizzle” was removed from the game (or should we say exiled?) over 17½ years ago. It confuses me a lot how it has stuck with us for so long, but nobody says “mono artifact”, “local enchantment”, or “bury” any more.
As if the obsoleteness was not enough, there are also several uses of the word that are just plain wrong. Let’s have a look…
Other uses of the term
One of the issues attached to using unofficial/imprecise game terms is that because you won’t find them in any rulebooks, players will often use flavour or inferences from other situations to “guess” what would happen when something new comes up. Here are three uses of the word “fizzle” that misrepresent actual rules of the game.
Preventing the payment of costs
Scenario: David activates [mtg_card]Bomat Courier[/mtg_card]’s last ability. In response, Mickey activates his [mtg_card]Fireforger’s Puzzleknot[/mtg_card] to deal 1 damage to Bomat Courier and cause its ability to “fizzle”.
This isn’t how it works. Anything you pay as a cost, whether that’s mana, sacrificed permanents, discarded cards, or anything else, is paid as soon as you announce the spell or ability you’re playing. David’s Bomat Courier (and his hand) are already in the graveyard before Mickey has priority to activate his Fireforger’s Puzzleknot, and it’s too late to try to destroy it. The Bomat Courier’s ability resolves.
An illegal target when the spell is announced
Scenario: Gary controls [mtg_card]Padeem, Consul of Innovation[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Prakhata Pillar-Bug[/mtg_card]. Brianna casts Creeping Mood targeting Prakhata Pillar-Bug, forgetting that it has hexproof. Gary realises this, and points out that Brianna has “miscast” her spell and it “fizzles”.
Actually, per the rules of Magic, if a spell is cast and its target was illegal all along (rather than being a legal target at the time of casting and later becoming illegal somehow) then the caster of the spell has made an illegal play. The normal resolution to this, if caught straightaway, is for the casting of the spell to be reversed and the lands used for it to be untapped. If it’s caught at a later stage, it can be a bit more difficult – at a tournament a judge will determine whether to reverse back to before casting the spell or to just leave everything as is, despite the illegal action.
Scenario: Tricia casts [mtg_card]Failed Inspection[/mtg_card] targeting Alex’s T[mtg_card]ezzeret’s Ambition[/mtg_card], not noticing that Alex controls [mtg_card]Sphinx of the Final Word[/mtg_card]. Alex declares that Failed Inspection has “fizzled”, and therefore Tricia has lost the right to loot.
In the rules of the game, it’s different. Trying to counter an uncounterable is not the same as having an illegal target – so Failed Inspection isn’t countered, and will still do as much as it can. Tricia still gets to loot.
Note that if Tricia had instead cast [mtg_card]Remand[/mtg_card], the Tezzeret’s Ambition would not go back to Alex’s hand (as the spell was not “countered this way”). But she’d still draw a card.
Ever wondered why some spells say “this can’t be countered by spells or abilities” rather than just “this can’t be countered”? This is because the spell can still be countered by the rules of the game, which aren’t a spell or ability. Spells without a target will just say “this can’t be countered”.
As an extreme corner case, [mtg_card]Gilded Drake[/mtg_card]’s triggered ability (as per its Oracle text, at least) can’t be countered except by spells or abilities. This means that even if the target of the ability is illegal when the ability resolves, you will still resolve the ability. You will fail to make the exchange because the spell can’t affect the illegal target, and you will need to sacrifice Gilded Drake.
If you control [mtg_card]Multani’s Presence[/mtg_card] and a spell you’ve cast is countered because its targets are illegal, you draw a card.
Yes, yes, it’s hilarious to try and weave the word into conversation with me. Even more so than those jokes about Irishmen who don’t drink. Har har har, aren’t you hilarious old chap. Never heard them before.
Don’t be surprised if trying to get a reaction out of me (a) fails and (b) gets treated as trolling.
“Countered on resolution” isn’t a lot longer, but it’s a lot clearer. Using clear terminology will tend to help you play better and may even get you a strategic advantage. Well, that last bit might be a stretch. Oh well.
Thanks for reading,