Last updated on September 29, 2023

Decimator Web - Illustration by Daniel Ljunggren

Decimator Web | Illustration by Daniel Ljunggren

Updated for ONE by Pedro

From milling to commander damage, alternate win conditions have existed in Magic for a long time now. They give players a way to win without bringing your opponents’ life total down to zero.

One of the most famous alternate win condition is poisoning your opponent. Many decks have leveraged poison to win games quicker than they could with normal damage. Decks like Legacy Infect, Modern Infect, and countless EDH decks all use this powerful mechanic to dispatch their opponents.

So what is poison, and how does it work? Let’s talk about that.

How Does Poison Work?

Prologue to Phyresis - Illustration by Simon Dominic

Prologue to Phyresis | Illustration by Simon Dominic

Poison counters are counters that are placed on players instead of game objects. Mechanics like energy have expanded the idea of players having unique counters since poison counters were added to the game.

When a player has ten or more poison counters, that player loses the game. A player is considered poisoned if they have any poison counters, and they're considered corrupted if they have three or more poison counters.

Why Would You Use Poison as Your Weapon of Choice?

Ten points of poison is less than the traditional 20 damage needed to end the game so you can quickly steal wins even from a losing position. Especially with cards like Might of Old Krosa or Scale Up that let you sneak in 10 poison much faster than you might expect.

The History of Poison in MTG

Pit Scorpion

Poison counters debuted in 1994’s Legends on Pit Scorpion. It saw sporadic printings up until Scars of Mirrodin in 2010. But the number of unique card that dealt with poison went from seven to over sixty with the printing of the infect mechanic!

Pistus Strike Fynn, the Fangbearer

Cards were printed in the vein of older poison cards even in Scars of Mirrodin, like Pistus Strike that give poison counters without infect. We haven’t seen any unique cards printed with infect since then, but Fynn, the Fangbearer from Kaldheim gives players poison counters when it deals damage.

Phyrexia: All Will Be One changed a bunch of things. As the spiritual successor to New Phyrexia, poison was bound to show up in the set. The introduction of the toxic mechanic added a bunch of cards that can not only poison players but also deal damage, like the old poison cards would. New cards that can poison players were printed in ONE, like Infection Inquiry and Prologue to Phyresis.

How Many Poison Counters Can You Get Before You Lose?

You lose the game when you get your 10th poison counter in all formats, with one exception. In Two-Headed Giant you lose the game after receiving 15 poison counters.

What About Poison Counters in EDH?

Commander follows the Constructed rules of losing the game when you get your 10th poison counter.

Is Poison the Same as Infect?

The counters given to players with poison and infest are the same, but the abilities that give them are different.

Pit Scorpion

Poison is a triggered ability. Let’s look at Pit Scorpion as an example. If it goes unblocked and deals damage to a player when it attacks a trigger goes on the stack to give the player damaged by it a poison counter. But when it comes to infect, a replacement effect changes the damage dealt into poison counters instead of traditional damage without using the stack.

Creatures that give poison counters that don’t have infect also deal damage to other creatures as normal while infect creatures give -1/-1 counters to creatures in combat as a replacement for normal damage.

Poison vs. Toxic

As in the comparison with infect, both poison and toxic give poison damage to a certain opponent, but in different ways.

Toxic is a new creature mechanic that deals combat damage to a player in two ways: in life based on the creature's power, and N poison counters based on the creature's toxic N attribute. This allows players to mix and match cards that deal damage, poison counters, and effects like proliferate, all in the same deck.

Toxic is the same as poisonous from Future Sight just developed with a new name, more cards, and the right context.

Do Poison Counters Stack?

If a creature has the triggered ability to give poison counters when it deals damage twice then it triggers twice and that player gets two poison counters.

Is There a Way to Double Poison Counters?

Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider

Any doubling effect can double poison counters when they’re being given to a player, like Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider.

Strionic Resonator

If a card like Strionic Resonator doubles the poison trigger it also leads to two instances of the trigger and doubles the number of counters added.

Can You Proliferate Poison Counters?

You can absolutely proliferate poison counters. In fact, one of proliferate’s main uses in the latest Mirrodin block was to proliferate poison counters and kill opponents. Cards like Throne of Geth have seen play in Hardened Scales in Modern to spread +1/+1, -1/-1, and poison counters with proliferate.

What Are Some Ways to Prevent Poison?

Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider

If you fog the damage that would be dealt by creatures that poison or infect, they won’t deal damage which means no poison counters. Cards that prevent opponents from putting counters on other players like Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider can prevent poison counters.

Melira, Sylvok Outcast

Melira, Sylvok Outcast can also prevent poison counters, but it forces infect creatures to deal regular damage instead. Normal combat damage happens with poison creatures but the player just doesn’t gain a new poison counter when the trigger resolves.


Solemnity also prevents poison counters.

Does Poison Count as Combat Damage?

Yes, poison creatures have to deal combat damage, which is then turned into poison counters. When it comes to older poison creatures, the damage is dealt and then a trigger adds the poison counters.

For the newer infect creatures, the damage is replaced by poison or -1/-1 counters (depending on what the creature is attacking). It still deals damage, it’s in a different form. It still counts as combat damage.

What Kills You First, Damage or Poison Counters?

The unique wordings associated with older poison cards versus newer infect cards determines the answer to this question: poisonous creatures kill you with normal damage before the poison trigger has a chance to resolve while infect creatures don’t.

Glistener Elf

If you were at one life and nine poison counters and Glistener Elf attacked you, you’d die to poison counters. Infect only deals the damage as poison counters, never as traditional damage (unless poison counters can’t be added).

Pit Scorpion

If you were in the same scenario but Pit Scorpion was attacking rather than the Elf, you’d die to combat damage before the trigger to add a poison counter went on the stack.

Blightbelly Rat

With Blightbelly Rat thrown in the mix you’d kill your opponent in 10 turns with poison damage (because of toxic 1) and combat damage (because the creature has two power).

Does Melira Remove Poison Counters?

Melira, Sylvok Outcast

Melira, Sylvok Outcast doesn’t remove poison counters, it just prevents you from gaining any more poison counters while it’s in play and under your control. It also protects your creatures by stopping -1/-1 counters from being placed on them, though it strips infect from your opponents’ creatures to start with.

Melira, the Living Cure

On the other hand the new Melira, the Living Cure states that no matter how many poison counters you would get in a given turn, you’ll actually only get one. So it still doesn't remove the poison counters, just limits how many you can get each turn.

How Do You Get Rid of Poison Counters?


Only one card in Magic’s history can get rid of poison counters: Leeches from Homelands removes all poison counters from a target player and then deals that much damage to them.

Cards that restart the game like Karn Liberated can technically remove poison counters since the game restarts completely, but that’s just a fringe side effect of restarting the game and not specifically trying to remove poison counters.

Best Poison Cards

Even though infect deals poison counters I’m not counting any infect cards for best poison cards. It’s in the name.

That said, most of the cards that deal poison outside of infect creatures don’t stand up to the test of time. It’s been over a decade since the last card that gave poison was printed, and most cards with poison and not infect come from 15 years ago.

Poison Counter Cards

The best cards that poison are newer but still avoid using infect:

These cards all add poison counters and interact with your opponent or their creatures. Adding cards like this to decks that can already deal in poison help end the game quicker or stop your opponent from killing you. While there aren’t any poison creatures that have really stood the test of time, these spells are useful in formats like EDH and potentially Pauper, even now.

Corrupted Resolve

Corrupted Resolve

A 2-mana hard counterspell if the player casting it has even one poison counter on them, Corrupted Resolve is an incredibly powerful interactive spell to protect your threats or stop an opponent’s best threats from resolving in decks that deal in poison.

Vraska’s Fall

Vraska's Fall

Like Prologue to Phyresis, you get some marginal benefit from Vraska's Fall in EDH because your opponents will sacrifice their worst creature to it, but it'll also give them a poison counter to start proliferating.

Prologue to Phyresis

Prologue to Phyresis

Prologue to Phyresis is a nice cantrip in proliferate and infect decks since it starts the infection. Decks that proliferate have another good target besides your +1/+1 counter creatures and planeswalkers.

Just beware of the other players’ rage since they all know that you need to die before the inevitable death by poison arrives.

Venerated Rotpriest

Venerated Rotpriest

It’s not pumpable by combat tricks like Glistener Elf, but Venerated Rotpriest is another good 1-drop in poison decks. It has the “protect my other creatures” clause and is devastating in multiples since killing one of them gives you two poison counters.

Vraska, Betrayal’s Sting

Vraska, Betrayal's Sting

It was bound to happen; a planeswalker with poison-related abilities. Vraska, Betrayal's Sting is a very nice top-end planeswalker if you’re interested in the poison route. Its 0 ability is drawing a card and proliferating (which also adds a loyalty counter), which slowly wins you the game.

Vraska's ultimate gets an opponent to 9 poison counters, and a single attack or proliferate will finish things off from there.

Wrap Up

Pistus Strike - Illustration by Jaime Jones

Pistus Strike | Illustration by Jaime Jones

Poison counters are an older mechanic that have since been updated with Mirrodin‘s infect creatures and “poisonous” on cards like Virulent Sliver and Snake Cult Initiation as well as the new toxic creatures. While the original poison cards were my focus here, there’s a reason that most players recognize cards like Blighted Agent and Inkmoth Nexus but not Pit Scorpion. These cards don’t stand the test of time and they don’t create interesting or interactive gameplay. While alternate win conditions can be fun, I prefer cards like Door to Nothingness over poison-based cards.

I think we’ll continue to see cards that bolster infect and poison strategies through proliferate, doubling counters, etc., but I doubt we’ll see too many more unique infect cards. Poison counters aren’t an effect players clammer for and I’m certainly not looking to give the infect or poison decks that already exist a massive power level upgrade.

Do you use cards with poison outside of infect for any of your decks? Would you like to see poison counters return like in Kaldheim? Let me know in the comments down below or over on our Twitter.

Thanks for reading, and stay safe out there!

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  • Avatar
    Aaron December 25, 2022 5:56 pm

    Pit Scorpion and poison counters debuted in Legends, which was released in June 1994. Not in 2003’s Legions, sorry man

    • Nikki
      Nikki January 22, 2023 11:35 pm

      You’re totally right dude, not sure how we missed that! Thanks 👍

  • Avatar
    The Modern Bard February 24, 2023 12:26 am

    Doubling Season poison counters are going on a player not a permanent you control. “If an effect would put one or more counters on a permanent you control, it puts twice that many of those counters on that permanent instead.” But Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider would work “If you would put one or more counters on a permanent or player, put twice that many of each of those kinds of counters on that permanent or player instead.”

    • Nikki
      Nikki February 28, 2023 5:11 pm

      This is true, thanks for pointing it out! Fixed it 🙂

  • Avatar
    Russell- L1 Judge March 15, 2023 6:28 am

    Doubling Season nor Winding Constrictor double the number of poison counters given to a player, as one is permanents and the other is creatures or artifacts, respectively. Vorinclex is the way to double posion counters given to an opponent.

    • Nikki
      Nikki March 15, 2023 7:27 am

      Meant to remove Winding Constructor in our last update but must have missed it, thanks for pointing that out!

      We removed Doubling Season back in February though as someone else pointed out the issue- are you still seeing it mentioned in the article?

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