Today I’d like to discuss Exert, and the potential it has for Magic as a whole. Exert is one of my favourite mechanics, and one that I think could be used is virtually every set if it underwent one small adjustment.

Before we get into how the mechanic could be used in the future, let’s look at where it started.

The Origins of Exert

Amonkhet introduced us to Exert:

“An exerted creature won’t untap during your next untap step.”

For simplicity, creatures in Amonkhet could only ever exert when they attacked, and when they did it gave its controller bonus of some sort. This usually made the attacking creature bigger, like with Gust Walker:

“…When you do, Gust Walker gets +1/+1 and flying until end of turn.”

Sometimes exerting an attacking creature would provide other benefits instead, like in the case of Glorybringer:

“…It deals 4 damage to target non-Dragon creature….”

The aggressive application if this mechanic made Limited games during Amonkhet very fast; players could rarely block effectively, and half the time their creatures didn’t even untap because they exerted them the turn before! All of this combined to create a format where players would race to deal as much damage as possible; games often felt like two ships passing in the night. Some players liked how fast these games were, but most players lamented the linear nature of the format and general lack of interaction. Deciding when to exert your attackers did provide interesting decision points, though most of the time the correct answer was to deal as much damage at your opponent as possible each turn, which is to say: players were better off exerting their creatures whenever they had a chance.

It could be argued that the fast nature of the format was the result of the exert mechanic itself, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. While exerting creatures does mean players will have fewer blockers available, without the strong buffs these creatures got when attacking, players wouldn’t have felt the need to be quite as aggressive. Exert itself wasn’t the cause of the fast format, but rather it was how the mechanic was implemented that made it fast.

In contrast to Amonkhet, slower control decks were actually viable when the next set, Hour of Devastation, was introduced. The two sets were drafted together, and shared several mechanics. Hour of Devastation included new creatures with Exert, and while some of them followed the same attack trigger formula, the bonuses they received were smaller, like Khenra Scrapper:

“…+2/+0 until end of turn.”

Additionally, a small number of creatures could exert as an additional cost of an activated ability, like Hope Tender:

“…Untap two target lands.”

Hope Tender could provide extra mana, but only every other turn. This was a far cry from the constant attacking seen Amonkhet. Other slow, more defensive creatures like Oasis Ritualist helped to balance out the Hour of Devastation Limited environment. This opened up other strategies, while still allowing the fast Exert-driven decks to compete.

This mix of fast and slow decks made the Hour of Devastation Limited environment one of the most popular in recent history, and a part of that is thanks to the shift in how Exert was implemented. Moreover, it demonstrated the flexibility of the mechanic.

Simplicity and Elegance

Exert is a very tidy shorthand for “This creature doesn’t untap during your next untap step;” just imagine the space that could be saved on cards if Wizards adopted it a regular term! Cards like Sleep of the Dead from Theros Beyond Death would have much more concise wording:

Tap and exert target creature.
Escape – 2U, exile three other cards from your graveyard.

If Sleep of the Dead had been templated this way, it would not only save space on the card, but it would also have an interesting interaction with some of the cards from Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation that cared about exerting other creatures, like Resolute Survivors:

“Whenever you exert a creature….”

With this new templating, instant and sorcery cards like Sleep of the Dead that “freeze” creatures would also trigger creatures like Resolute Survivors and Trueheart Twins. Remember that these cards say “whenever your exert a creature,” not “a creature you control,” so exerting an opponent’s creature would still count!

One Small Tweak

The way Exert is currently written in the rules, it prevents the creature from untapping during the untap step of the player who exerts it, rather than the creature’s controller. Insofar as this was always the same player in Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation, there was no reason to word it differently.

It does get tricky when a creature changes controllers, mind you. If I exert a creature, but you gain control of it before your untap step, it will still untap for you. What’s more, if I steal the creature back before my next untap step, it will still remember that I exerted it, so it won’t untap for me.

This design for Exert was presumably done so that the Act of Treason in the block, Limits of Solidarity, wouldn’t be quite as oppressive as it might otherwise be. Stealing a creature for a turn, attacking with it, and then also preventing it from untapping on its owner’s next untap step would be brutal.

How Exert works in relation to a change of controllers differs slightly from “freezing” cards like Frost Breath and Sleep of the Dead.  Exert specifically cares about the player who does the exerting, specifically stating that they don’t untap “during your next untap step.” As it currently works in the rules, if you exerted a creature an opponent controls, then it wouldn’t untap during your untap step, something your opponent’s creatures typically don’t do anyway. What’s worse is that the creature would still untap as normal during your opponent’s untap step, making exerting their creature effectively useless.

We’d have to find a way to reword Exert to generalize it; it would no longer refer to “your untap step,” but would instead have to refer to its controller in some way.

“It’s Controller”

“Freezing” spells say that a creature doesn’t untap during “its controller’s next untap step,” which is a bit ambiguous when the controller of the permanent changes. Does it mean “the next untap step of the player controlling it as this ability resolves,” or is it a more nebulous “the next untap step where this creature would normally untap, regardless of which player controls it at that time?”

To avoid this confusion, we would want to be careful when rephrasing the rules for Exert. Changing “your next untap step” to “…its controller’s next untap step” would be too vague. Instead, I would try something like:

“This permanent won’t untap during its current controller’s next untap step.”

That one extra word, “current,” while seemingly redundant, would actually save a lot of hassle, and would make sure that Exert wouldn’t functionally change. A sorcery like Sleep of the Dead could be phrased as “tap and exert target creature…” and the spell would work as intended.

Alternatively, if you didn’t want to change the wording of Exert you could word these spells as “Tap target creature. Its controller exerts it.” While it would work, doing it that way has several downsides. First, this phrasing doesn’t have nearly the same elegance as “exert target creature.” Second, this phrasing would interact counter-intuitively with the creatures like Resolute Survivors that trigger “whenever you exert a creature.” It would feel weird to cast a spell to tap down an opposing creature, only for the opponent to gain a benefit from an Exert trigger.

Since being a shorter way of wording this effect and creating interesting interactions with creatures like the Survivors were the principle reasons for making this change, this alternate phrasing just wouldn’t do the trick.

The Devil is in the Corner Cases

As it so happens, “frozen” creatures don’t untap during their controller’s untap step, regardless of who controlled it when the ability hit it, so if you steal a “frozen” creature, it won’t untap for you right away. This is different to how Exert works, so adopting a new template would mean changing how “freezing” cards work moving forward.

As much as I would love to see old cards like Frost Breath reworded to use the Exert mechanic, the sad reality is that it just couldn’t happen. Because “frozen” effects and Exert function differently in corner cases where the creature changes controllers, you can’t change the wording of these old cards to fit the new template. Doing so would be functional errata, which is something Wizards R&D wants to avoid.

If “tap and exert target creature” became the new way that “freezing” effects were worded, older cards would never get reprinted in Standard legal sets. Frost Lynx, Sleep, and many other cards would end up as relics of the past.

Old and New Templating

This wouldn’t be the first time a new way of wording an ability pushed out old cards. Lifelink is perhaps a prime example of how this can happen.

For example, Armadillo Cloak and Unflinching Courage are effectively the same card, but they are functionally distinct. Armadillo Cloak has what is often referred to by players as “triggered lifelink,” which means the life gain from when the enchanted creature deals damage is actually resolved in the form of a separate triggered ability. In most cases these cards are basically identical, but because you can respond to the life gain from Armadillo Cloak, there are a number of little tricks players can do to manipulate things, such as casting a burn spell in response to the trigger, or copying the ability while it’s on the stack.

Even non-keyworded abilities have had similar treatments. Oblivion Ring and Banishing Light illustrate this very well: like Armadillo Cloak and Unflinching Courage, most of the time O-Ring and the Light are basically the same, but with some clever manipulation of triggers on the stack, Oblivion Ring can be used to permanently remove something from the game. The new templating on Banishing Light is more elegant and is easier to understand. It also prevents these counter-intuitive stack-related tricks, for better or for worse.

If “freezing” effects became “targeted Exert” effects, their subtle differences would mean we couldn’t go back and change old cards. Instead, we would see new cards printed that would replace them, Unflinching Courage and Banishing Light did for Armadillo Cloak and Oblivion Ring. The new cards would effectively do the same thing as the old ones, but the new templating would make them subtly different.

I’d love to see Exert used more often in the future, and by using it in place of classic “frost” effects it would slot into pretty much every set with ease. Exert is relatively simple for new players to understand, and with only a small adjustment it could be used streamline the wording on a lot of cards moving forward. Not only that, but it would introduce new and interesting card interactions with existing cards. It could even inspire new cards and new archetypes if developed with care.


When you finish reading this article you may exert it. If you do, you may leave a comment. (An exerted article doesn’t untap during its current reader’s next untap step.)

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