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Decimator Web - Illustration by Daniel Ljunggren

Decimator Web | Illustration by Daniel Ljunggren

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?

Virulent Wound - Illustration by Whit Brachna

Virulent Wound | Illustration by Whit Brachna

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.

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 2003’s Legions 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!

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.

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.

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?

Any doubling effect, like Doubling Season or Winding Constrictor, can double poison counters when they’re being given to a player.

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?

Corrupted Resolve - Illustration by Greg Staples

Corrupted Resolve | Illustration by Greg Staples

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 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.

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.

How Do You Get Rid of Poison Counters?

Leeches

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.

Virulent Wound & Decimator Web & Relic Putrescence & Pistus Strike

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.

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. 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. And be sure to check out the other content over on the Draftsim blog.

Thanks for reading, and stay safe out there!

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