Last updated on February 13, 2023
Knight of the Ebon Legion | Illustration by Alex Konstad
Deathtouch is bound to appear in your games as one of MTG’s evergreen mechanic. It shows the flavor of venom or poison or just a deathly gaze.
Today I’m looking at how deathtouch works in Magic with examples and corner cases, how it interacts with other abilities, and more. I’m also going to touch on some of the best deathtouch cards ever printed.
Ready? Let’s get started!
How Does Deathtouch Work?
Atraxa, Praetors’ Voice | Illustration by Victor Adame Minguez
Deathtouch is a mechanic that translates to ”whenever a source with deathtouch deals any amount of damage bigger than zero to another creature, that creature is destroyed.” It usually applies to creatures but in some cases can be applied to spells as well. There’s recently been some effects that give deathtouch to instants and sorceries. But there’s still some design space left to grant deathtouch to other sources of damage, like planeswalkers, enchantments, artifacts etc.
Let’s use an example. If a 4/4 creature is blocked by a 1/1 with deathtouch, then both creatures will be dead at the end of combat. This allows little deathtouch creatures to trade up and kill bigger creatures and discourages attacks from opponents with bigger creatures.
The History of Deathtouch in MTG
There were two creatures with the proto-deathtouch effect in Alpha, Thicket Basilisk and Cockatrice. Whenever these creatures were involved in combat, the opposing creatures died regardless of damage dealt to show that they were inspired by mythological creatures with a deadly gaze. Walls were immune for flavor since most walls in Magic aren’t alive.
One of the first casual combos was to enchant Cockatrice or Thicket Basilisk with Lure. This way every creature was forced to block it. Add in the Regenerate aura for maximum profit.
The first creature with deathtouch printed as an official mechanic was Thornweald Archer in Future Sight back in 2007. Shortly after that, the mechanic became evergreen in Tenth Edition. Deathtouch as a mechanic requires the creature to deal damage, while the text on Thicket Basilisk and Cockatrice doesn’t. So it’s not a 100% equivalence like “attacking won’t cause the creature to tap” and vigilance, or “not affected by summoning sickness” and haste.
290 cards have since been printed with deathtouch. The color with the most deathtouch creatures is black, followed by green. When it comes to multicolor deathtouch creatures, they’re usually black combined with other colors.
Is Deathtouch a Triggered Ability?
Triggered abilities use the stack while deathtouch is actually a state-based ability. It uses game actions that happen whenever a certain condition is met. Basically whenever a creature is dealt damage from a source that has deathtouch, that creature is immediately destroyed.
Does Deathtouch Work When Blocking?
Deathtouch works on attacking, blocking, and fighting effects. Basically anytime a deathtouch creature deals damage, deathtouch works.
Does Deathtouch Kill a Player?
Lethal deathtouch damage only applies to creature. A creature with deathtouch can only kill a player if they deal enough damage to bring their life to 0 (or infect them with enough poison counters, or deal enough commander damage, or…).
Does Deathtouch Apply to Planeswalkers?
Like I already mentioned, deathtouch only applies to creatures. A creature with deathtouch can only kill a planeswalker if it deals enough damage to reduce its loyalty counters to 0 or less. Unless you consider the effect of Hooded Blightfang.
How Does Deathtouch Work with Multiple Blockers?
As long as the deathtouch creature deals damage to a creature, it dies. Multiple blockers fight one at a time either until the attacker has taken lethal damage or it’s fought all of the blockers.
Let’s translate this situation into a couple scenarios.
A 4/4 deathtouch creature is blocked by two vanilla 3/3s. The deathtouch creature splits four damage between the two blockers as its controller so chooses. It assigns three damage to the first blocker (equal to its toughness) and one to the second while the two blockers assign six damage to the deathtouch creature. It dies since it suffered six damage. Both blockers also die since they took at least one damage from a deathtouch source.
A 1/4 deathtouch creature is blocked by two vanilla 3/3s. Since the deathtouch creature assigns only one damage, its controller has to essentially choose which creature it kills. The first creature it deals damage to is the only creature it deals damage to, so only one of the blockers will die.
How Does it Work if a Creature Has Deathtouch and Trample?
The attacking trample creature has to assign enough damage for the blocker to kill it while any excess damage is dealt to the defending player.
So if a 5/5 attacking trample creature also has deathtouch and is blocked by a 3/3, the 5/5 assigns only one damage to the 3/3 since it’s the least amount of damage needed to kill it, and the other four excess damage is dealt to the defending player. If the 5/5 didn’t have deathtouch, then only two excess damage would be dealt to the defending player.
Keep in mind that this specific interaction only works with attacking creatures because trample only applies on attack, never on defense.
What if You Fight with a Deathtouch Creature?
In the fight interaction, as seen in cards like Prey Upon, both creatures deal damage to each other equal to their power. The deathtouch creature will kill the creature it’s fighting since any amount of damage from a deathtouch source is enough to kill it, while the deathtouch creature will only die if the other creature’s power is equal to or more than its toughness.
In the case of Rabid Bite, it’s all upside because your deathtouch creature won’t die since it isn’t dealt any damage.
Does a Deathtouch Creature Kill an Indestructible One?
Indestructible creatures can’t be destroyed while deathtouch damage specifically destroys its target. The indestructible ability basically overrides any effect that would destroy the creature or apply lethal damage, such as damage from a deathtouch creature.
What Happens to a First Strike Creature vs. Deathtouch?
The first strike creature hits first, potentially killing the deathtouch creature before it can deal any damage to the first strike creature. So the first strike creature survives.
Let’s see some examples:
White Knight vs. Toxic Scorpion: Knight wins because it kills Scorpion before deathtouch damage can be done.
White Knight vs. Fynn, the Fangbearer: Fynn wins because it survives the two damage and assigns lethal damage to Knight.
What if a Deathtouch Creature Has First Strike?
The first strike deathtouch creature is very hard to block profitably because it assigns deathtouch damage first. So a 1/1 first strike deathtouch can block and attack into a 6/6 creature without any problems. The 6/6 creature receives one deathtouch damage and dies before it can assign any damage of its own.
To interact profitably with a first strike deathtouch creature, you need first strike or double strike creatures of your own.
What Happens to a Hexproof Creature vs. Deathtouch? Shroud?
Shroud and hexproof are mechanics that prevent a creature from being targeted by a spell or ability. Since the interaction with deathtouch happens through combat damage, those mechanics don’t apply.
Does Deathtouch Stop Trample Damage?
Trample damage is assigned based on the difference between the power of the attacker and the toughness of the blocker. So even if a creature dies fighting a deathtouch creature, it would still deal damage to the deathtouch creature’s controller assuming it has any more power than the deathtouch creature has toughness.
What if a Deathtouch Creature Has 0 Power?
The deathtouch creature must assign at least one point of damage. This means that power shrink effects like Hydrosurge can be very effective at nullifying deathtouch.
What Is a Deathtouch Counter?
A deathtouch counter is a concept introduced in Lair of the Behemoths where as long as a creature has a deathtouch counter, it has deathtouch. The card Boot Nipper can enter the battlefield with a deathtouch counter or a lifelink counter.
Does Deathtouch Work with Pinging?
Yes, if the pinger receives deathtouch from another source it kills any creature that it damages. This interaction can be seen in Constructed with cards like Walking Ballista and Vault of the Archangel or Basilisk Collar that grant deathtouch.
In Limited, the interaction between Porcuparrot and a deathtouch creature like Boot Nipper was strong in Rakdos () and Mardu () decks. This combination kills any creature (except indestructible ones) without the need to engage in combat, albeit one at a time.
Can an Instant or Sorcery Spell Have Deathtouch?
As seen on Pestilent Spirit, there are effects that give deathtouch to instants and sorceries.
What Card Gives All Creatures Deathtouch?
There are a few cards grant deathtouch to all your creatures.
While in Play
What Stops or Beats Deathtouch?
Deathtouch is restricted to combat, which means that removing creatures using spot or mass removal gets the job done. First or double strike is also a powerful way to deal with deathtouch attackers or blockers. Indestructible is another fantastic counter because they won’t die anyway.
Next you have evasion like “can’t be blocked,” flying, or menace. And creatures with deathtouch usually have low power, so a big trample creature can pass damage through if your opponent has some tiny 1/1 deathtouchers on defense, and effects like “can’t be blocked by creatures with power 2 or less” like Charging Troll are very effective in this case. Archetype of Finality can also be a blowout for your opponent’s deathtouch creatures.
Is Deathtouch Good?
Deathtouch is one of the best mechanics that a creature can have because it’s advantageous in so many ways. The only problem is that, like flying, a creature with deathtouch usually won’t have their stats pushed because the ability is very strong.
Here I’ve divided the best deathtouch cards into sections. Tier 4 are cards that have potential but never succeded in Standard decks. Tier 3 are cards that have seen some Constructed play while Tier 2 were Staples in some Constructed formats. Tier 1 are the best creatures with deathtouch period.
Tier 4: Buildaround Deathtouch Cards
Alela, Artful Provocateur
When Alela, Artful Provocateur was released I built some Brawl decks with it. It asks for enchantments and artifacts and the triggered ability is very powerful. The only problem is that you want Alela to stay around while you cast your spells, and it dies very easily.
Damia, Sage of Stone
Seven mana is a lot, but Damia, Sage of Stone immediately fills your hand if you can untap with it. The more spells you cast the more cards you draw.
Nethroi, Apex of Death
Nethroi, Apex of Death’s 5/5 body is fine and mutate is even better. But the mutate cost being high and the existence of better late-game stuff to do with seven mana hinders its playability. Still, it’s a fine card to include in Abzan () decks exploiting graveyard synergies and sacrifice, and a fun commander to build around.
Queen Marchesa is good at two things: being the monarch, and reclaiming monarch. Any player that wants to hold monarch against Marchesa has to deal with deathotuch assassins.
Saryth, the Viper’s Fang
Saryth, the Viper’s Fang offers pseudo-evasion and protection for your creatures. Since it grants deathtouch to attackers, it can be very nice to attack with lots of green tramplers thanks to the interaction between the two mechanics. You sure can kill an opponent out of nowhere with Saryth.
Triumphant Adventurer is on this list because it’s one of the only creatures to have deathtouch and first strike together, which is a hell of an ability combination. It was even buffed to a 2/1 in Alchemy. A staple in the venture deck, but then there’s so little good creatures with venture to start with.
Vraska, Swarm’s Eminence
Vraska, Swarm’s Eminence is one big buff to your deathtouch team and one reason to build a deck with the mechanic. But it suffers from having better Vraskas and better Golgari () planeswalkers.
Zagras, Thief of Heartbeats
Zagras, Thief of Heartbeats was one of the cards that was all the hype in the spoiler season but never found a home. A good deck based around the party mechanic is still to be seen. But its stats alone are very good and Zagras is a hell of a beater.
Fynn, the Fangbearer
Fynn, the Fangbearer is one of the more original alternate win conditions released recently. It’s a reason to put bad deathtouch creatures in your deck, because the game is over thanks to poison counters if they deal 10 damage to a player.
This deck is far from top tier, but it’s a horrible feeling to lose to it. I like cards that promote mini games like these. “Should I take one more poison damage? Should I spend removal on Fynn? What if there’s another one?”
Master of Cruelties
The ability on Master of Cruelties is powerful despite its high mana cost and lack of immediate effect.
Tier 3: Best Deathtouch Cards for Constructed
Chevill, Bane of Monsters
Chevill, Bane of Monsters finds its way into playability here and there. A 1/3 body with deathtouch is okay, but it draws a lot of cards from your opponent’s creatures dying in a deck with lots of creature removal.
Bow of Nylea
Bow of Nylea was played in the green devotion decks in its Standard. It offers a lot of flexibility but none of the effects are very interesting.
Death Baron is a buff for skeletons and zombies! One of the better zombie lords, because there isn’t quite a lot of skeleton tribal, right?
Glissa, the Traitor
Glissa, the Traitor has its place here because it has first strike and deathtouch, and is probably one of the first creatures to have it naturallly. But how do you explore its abilities?
One way is to build a stax deck, sacrificing your own artifacts and recovering them, along with artifacts that can be sacced for value or death triggers. And if you attack an opponent with Glissa it’s almost always going to net you an artifact if they block.
Henrika Domnathi / Henrika, Infernal Seer
Almost all my Standard black decks play a Henrika Domnathi or two. It comes down and the flexibility is huge, either drawing cards, saccing creatures and tokens, or beating down as its transformed side. Plus, she’s a deathtouch buffer!
The only creature to grant deathtouch to spells, Pestilent Spirit was played in some decks where you have effects (usually sorceries) that deal damage to each creature, resulting in a board wipe. Plus its deck had menace tribal, which spirits can take part too.
Kura, the Boundless Sky
The newest addition to this list, Kura, the Boundless Sky hasn’t had the chance to shine yet, but the stats and abilities are there. If it dies, it grants card advantage or a big spirit.
One of the few deathtouch lords, Hooded Blightfang saw some play around creatures with deathtouch. Plus a 1/4 body holds the fort well against 2/2s and 3/3s, gaining some life in the process.
A 1/1 with deathtouch is fine, but the adventure side really makes Foulmire Knight playable. In a deck where you can reliably have two or three knights each Foulmire packs a punch
The Gitrog Monster
One of the cooler cards to be released, The Gitrog Monster’s only problem is that it doesn’t affect the board when it enters. It’s played as a popular commander in EDH and Brawl where you can exploit its abilities easier. If left uncheck, it really dominates.
All hail the Gitrog!
Tier 2: Staple Deathtouch Cards in Constructed
Nighthawk Scavenger & Vampire Nighthawk
Nighthawk Scavenger and Vampire Nighthawk are usually good sideboard cards against aggro decks, or if your deck is light on creatures and your opponents take out removal and wraths. The combination of the three abilities is the ultimate defensive weapon.
Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons
Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons is here because it’s one of the few -1/-1 counter commanders available. It asks that you have a lot of -1/-1 counter effects on your creatures, along with some proliferate.
Sidisi, Undead Vizier
Sidisi, Undead Vizier’s exploit is a tutor effect, and at the time there was some decks that “exploited” this effect to combo or outvalue your opponents. The body is also very powerful, and as a commander you sure have some creatures around to sacrifice and good cards to tutor for, right?
A key piece in reanimator decks and midrange battles, Hornet Queen’s five deathtouch bodies for one card makes it a very good flying wall. It’s also good at pressuring enemy planeswalkers. If the Queen dies just bring it back to life again and repeat.
Thorn of the Black Rose
One of the few commons with the monarch mechanic, Thorn of the Black Rose is a key card in the Pauper format. Granting monarch and then helping to hold your ground is very powerful, especially in Pauper where repeatable card advantage is scarce.
Acidic Slime is unexciting by today’s creature standards, but a 5-drop with deathtouch that can answer some pesky permanents was very powerful at the time. Ramp decks with Primal Command tried to put it at the battlefield quickly and it was a key threat to bring back with cards like Eternal Witness.
A 3/5 flying deathtouch for six is kind of a good card, but one that steals creatures and planeswalkers is even better. At the time of Dragonlord Silumgar’s Standard format, tick-up loyalty abilities weren’t always a good idea. Many players died at the hand of their own planeswalker ultimates.
A staple in Standard black decks, Tainted Adversary is a very powerful zombie both early and late. A 2/3 deathtouch that menaces to flood the board with zombies is a good threat in many a black decks.
Mire Triton saw play in grinding decks aiming to self-mill and then escape a good threat like Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger or Woe Strider. It dies quickly and trades too, filling the graveyard even more.
Basilisk Collar & Vault of the Archangel
Basilisk Collar and Vault of the Archangel grant deathtouch and lifelink, and they’re very powerful in formats like Modern and Pioneer alongside Walking Ballista and Heliod, Sun-Crowned.
Fell Stinger is a good card, basically a Read the Bones attached to a 3/2 deathtouch body. One of the best ways to sacrifice fodder like Eyetwitch and Shambling Ghast.
Deathmist Raptor saw a lot of play in its Standard format alongside morphs like Den Protector. A 3/3 body with deathtouch for is already good, and one that can return to the battlefield is even better.
Gonti, Lord of Luxury
Who doesn’t hate to lose against their own cards? Gonti, Lord of Luxury’s body holds the fort well and lets you cast a spell from your opponent. Plus you look at the top four, so it’s card selection as well!
Manlands are usually very powerful Constructed staples. Hissing Quagmire’s colors help too since Golgari is almost always a good color combo in a lot of formats. When you’re a good land it’s hard not to be a staple
Tier 1: The Deathtouch Game-Changers
Yarok, the Desecrated
If you like Panharmonicon and building around creatures entering the battlefield, Yarok, the Desecrated is your guy. It even fits an elemental deck given its subtype. Yarok sees play in formats like Historic and Pioneer, and singleton formats like Commander and Brawl.
A 1/1 flier deathtouch that replaces itself is a good deal, plus Baleful Strix is an artifact if it matters. It’s very close to ‘’you can’t attack me while I draw cards’’ and has been a staple of formats where you can play it.
If not for the existence of Path to Exile, Wurmcoil Engine would be one of the most played creatures in older formats. The body is huge, lifelink stabilizes well against aggro, and it offers two bodies when destroyed.
Knight of the Ebon Legion
Knight of the Ebon Legion is one of the most powerful 1-drops ever printed. It’s also a vampire, which is a relevant creature type. It’s good early as a 1/2, grows quickly if you’re beating down, and is relevant late thanks to its activated ability. Plus if it self-fuels its triggered ability if it’s a 4/5.
A Standard, Historic, and Pioneer staple, Questing Beast is a series of good abilities sewn together. 4/4 with haste is good, deathtouch is good, it plays offense and defense, and it damage planeswalkers. A good choice if you’re in the market for 4-drops.
A mainstain in Constructed and Cube formats, Grave Titan is a very efficient card. A 6/6 deathtouch that makes 2/2 zombies when it enters the battlefield and when attacking quickly snowballs the game. It’s also one of the few creatures to compete in Jace, the Mind Sculptor’s Standard.
Plague Engineer warped Modern as a fundamental piece of hate against tribal and tokens. Seeing as humans are very popular in the format, this wreaks havoc against humans. What else does it get? Elves, goblins, merfolk, Lingering Souls, and Bitterblossom tokens. Oh, and your tokens survive.
Atraxa, Praetors’ Voice
Atraxa, Praetors’ Voice is one of the most popular commanders out there. Its 4/4 body with four relevant abilities is good by itself, but the proliferate ability makes it awesome with a lot of planeswalkers under its helm. Atraxa works with +1/+1 counters too.
Ever since it was printed, Baleful Strix‘s snow cousin became a staple of formats like Modern and Legacy. It’s not hard to have two other snow permanents for Ice-Fang Coatl, and flash makes it a little better than Strix.
Decklist: Golgari Death in Historic
Fynn, the Fangbearer | Illustration by Lie Setiawan
Foulmire Knight x4
Vampire of the Dire Moon x4
Gifted Aetherborn x2
Fynn, the Fangbearer x4
Chevill, Bane of Monsters x3
Hooded Blightfang x2
Nighthawk Scavenger x4
Ochran Assassin x3
Heartless Act x2
Collected Company x4
Blooming Marsh x2
Darkbore Pathway x2
Overgrown Tomb x4
Woodland Cemetery x4
Last but not least, I have this Golgari death list focused around winning with deathtouch creatures. This deck has discard to prevent your opponents from gaining a leg on you early, and it plays defense with deathtouch creatures to build your board.
Maelstrom Pulse and Heartless Act help to disrupt whatever your oponnent is doing. Fynn, the Fangbearer can pull victories out of nowhere and you can have a very strong turn whenever you flash Collected Company on your opponent’s end step. You should hold up well and gain some life against aggro decks.
Plague Engineer | Illustration by Nicholas Gregory
Well that’s it for today! Deathtouch creatures are a mainstay of Magic and there will be more of them in years to come. The fact that rares and mythics usually get deathtouch to have a better shot at Constructed play makes even more top tier deathtouch creatures. It’s a simple mechanic but very flavorful, and it does so much for the game.
What’s your favorite memory involving deathtouch creatures in MTG? Have you built a deathtouch-themed deck before? Let me know in the comments below or over in the Draftsim Discord.
Stay safe, eat your vegetables, and I’ll see you in the next one!Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates:
Excellent article! There is a section worth editing at the beginning that says, “Deathtouch as a mechanic requires the creature to deal combat damage…”
This is incorrect. The mechanic only cares if it’s any kind of damage dealt, even outside of combat. This is why a Prodigal Pyromancer equipped or enchanted with some additional deathtouch allows the Pyromancer to sort of mimic Royal Assassin to some degree (essentially destroying creatures with zero combat interaction). Regardless great work!
Fixed, thanks! Changed this to say “deal damage.” Also works with fight cards too.