Welcome back to the Rules Tips Blog! Continuing from where we left off on Monday, we’re going to talk about one tricky little fish in particular: Merfolk Trickster. For two blue mana, you get a 2/2 Merfolk Wizard with Flash- but that’s not the fun part. The fun part is the triggered ability: “When Merfolk Trickster enters the battlefield, tap target creature an opponent controls. It loses all abilities until end of turn.” So let’s break that down!
First, the target requirement is ‘target creature an opponent controls’. That means if you’re just needing to use Trickster as a beater against an empty board, you can flash it in and not have to target any of your creatures, because you are not your own opponent (not even if you play as badly as I do). Second, you’ll note the lack of the word ‘untapped’ in there! You can absolutely use Merfolk Trickster on a tapped creature. You’ll basically ignore the instruction to tap the creature (since it’s already tapped), but you WILL still rob it of all abilities- that can be very useful as a combat trick on something your opponent is attacking you with.
There are times when that ability is really straightforward- you can use it to remove Trample from a big attacker so you can chump block it; you can use it on a flier so it can’t soar over your creatures (or use it offensively to take Flying away so they can’t block you!); you can use it to remove Haste right before an attack to buy a little time. It also works on ALL abilities the target has as the trigger resolves; Trickster doesn’t care if you have Flying naturally or gained it from a Maximize Altitude, it’ll get taken away all the same. Keywords are easy, but when you start deleting more complicated abilities, things get more fun. Let’s look at Crackling Drake.
Removing the Flying is straightforward, and removing the ETB trigger doesn’t matter (even if you flash in Trickster in response to your opponent’s Drake entering, their trigger is still on the stack! Deleting the ability from Drake does nothing), but what about the second ability? That’s what we call a Characteristic-Defining Ability. In this case, the Characteristic being defined is Drake’s power. Without that ability, there’s nothing defining the power- so it’s just 0. You can use Trickster to utterly blow out CDAs this way- heck, if you use it on an Awakened Amalgam it’ll go down to being a 0/0 and just flat out die- Blue creature removal! The same trick also works on Multani, Yavimaya’s Avatar, though that isn’t a CDA. Multani’s ability doesn’t DEFINE his power and toughness, it just adds to it; but without that boost, he defaults to a 0/0 and dies anyway. This trick does not work on things like Hydras- their P/T is coming from the counters on them, and Trickster doesn’t do anything about those. Likewise, Trickster won’t affect P/T changes from one-shot effects that have already happened. It won’t remove the +3/+3 from a Giant Growth, but it will immediately turn off your opponent’s Benalish Marshal and remove that +1/+1 continuous buff.
There’s also a few abilities that Trickster can remove, but it won’t do anything. For example, using Merfolk Trickster on a Sphinx of the Guildpact removes the “I am all colors” ability, but that ability is already ‘active’! How can this be? Well, that’s because of a neat thing called Layers. Layers are the system we use to determine how continuous effects interact with each other, and we go through them in order, from Layer 1 to Layer 7. Ability adding/removing is Layer 6- this is where Trickster works. Color-setting, however, is Layer 5, right BEFORE Layer 6. “I am all colors” has already been locked in during Layer 5 by the time Trickster takes it away during Layer 6- so the ability is gone, but it’s still working, funny enough. The same is true of abilities that work in layers 1 through 4; Layer 1 is Copy effects, and Merfolk Trickster won’t “turn off” a Clone being a copy of something. Layer 2 is Control-changing effects, and Trickster won’t end those. Layer 3 is text-changing, which are relatively less common than the others. Layer 4 is the type-changing layer, and Trickster doesn’t undo those type changes either. If you were to use Trickster on an animated Treetop Village it would lose its ability to tap for green mana, the animation ability itself (so you couldn’t activate it again to regain Trample!), and Trample. It would still be a 3/3; it would still be green, it would still be a Land Creature – Ape. It’d just be one with no abilities for the turn, is all. The only abilities Trickster can actually delete meaningfully are the ones that work in layer 6 and layer 7! Fortunately for you, that’s exactly where the vast majority of them you’ll encounter DO work, so Trickster is still pretty slick. Just don’t blow yourself out trying something that doesn’t work!
Today’s Rules Tip was written by Trevor Nunez