Last updated on December 27, 2023
Atraxa, Praetors' Voice | Illustration by Victor Adame Minguez
If you’re a Commander player, you’ve either encountered an extremely annoying Atraxa, Praetors' Voice or you’re the one playing it. But Atraxa is hardly the only type of deck that takes advantage of proliferate in Magic. This is a mechanic I particularly enjoy because I’ve been a fan of Phyrexians ever since I first saw the Invasion cards, and their re-appearance through Scars of Mirrodin up to New Phyrexia only increased how much I liked them.
This is going to be one of my most controversial opinions, but I love infect. It was extremely flavorful when it came out and it created game options that didn’t exist in Magic before. I also think it’s fundamentally broken beyond any chance of repair. But with infect came proliferate, and I think the latter is a mechanic that expanded way beyond what the developers first intended.
It’s clear that proliferate’s main purpose was to complement infect. One places counters and the other adds them up. It was simple. But the rules don't state that proliferate only works on poison or -1/-1 counters. It works on any and all types of counters.
So let’s see a little bit of what proliferate is, how it works, its history, and how it’s used today!
How Does Proliferate Work?
Bloom Hulk | Illustration by Even Amundsen
To put it simply, proliferate lets you give anything or anyone with a counter an additional counter. It's a keyword action that states “choose any number of permanents and/or players that have a counter, then give each one additional counter of each kind that permanent or player already has.” For each permanent or player you choose, they get an extra counter of every counter they have.
This action has actually gone through some change recently. The original text stated: “You choose any number of permanents and/or players with counters on them, then give each another counter of a kind they already have.” This means that the chosen players and permanents only got one type of counter, even if they had various different counters on them. I think the new rules are considerably more fair.
Since you don’t get to choose which counter type to add another to, it doesn’t matter if the player or permanent has counters that both benefit and disadvantage them. Proliferate adds another one to all of those counters.
Long story short, you choose as many players and permanents as you want and then add one to each of the counters they already have when you proliferate. If you have a spell that proliferates and you don’t want to choose any permanents or players for whatever reason you may have, you can always just not choose any.
As I mentioned before, the Phyrexians’ brutal invasion of the plane of Mirrodin was the first time this mechanic was ever printed. It accompanied the widely hated infect mechanic and was central to the theme of the Phyrexian oil corroding the plane and permanently changing it.
The mechanic still had the old ruling of only proliferating one counter on the chosen permanents and players during this first appearance. This particular change makes more sense when the use of it is seen in this context.
Poison and -1/-1 counters were the counters you were meant to proliferate in the Scars of Mirrodin set. The mechanic was specifically introduced to work with infect. Any other uses were secondary but, considering the vast number of decks that used +1/+1 counters and the rising popularity of planeswalker cards at the time, increasing counters on your permanents had a lot of value.
The mechanic only showed up in blue and artifact cards in the first set of this block, Scars of Mirrodin. Mirrodin Besieged introduced it into black and green, and eventually New Phyrexia brought it into red.
Skyship Plunderer actually has a triggered ability that’s extremely similar to proliferate without actually using the keyword. It was also considered for Simic’s +1/+1 theme in Ravnica Allegiance. It didn’t make it into these sets, but the planeswalker-ridden War of the Spark was the perfect time to bring this ability back.
Given that proliferate can target as many permanents/players as you want, it takes on a whole new meaning with this set. It could even be argued that proliferate had an important role considering that a lot of the planeswalkers in the set didn’t have any way to put add their own loyalty counters, like Arlinn, Voice of the Pack or Jaya, Venerated Firemage. Since their abilities could prove to be pretty useful, having enough proliferate effects to keep them working was a huge advantage. This set also had amass to further push the applications of proliferate.
It was in War of the Spark that proliferate’s rules text was changed to state that you had to add another of each counter the chosen permanent or player already had, instead of only one. It additionally brought the mechanic to white and doubled the number of cards with the ability.
Proliferate has seen various reprints and new cards throughout a lot of the Modern, Masters, and Commander products. Most of these cards are just reprints meant to work with other strategies present in the set.
The two most important cards to come out of these sets are probably Atraxa, Praetors' Voice and Yawgmoth, Thran Physician. The characters depicted in these cards are both big figures in the Phyrexian ranks. This clearly ties back to the mechanic’s origin during the Phyrexian invasion of Mirrodin. They’re also both absolutely amazing in Commander.
OK, so with the history out of the way, let's dig into the most frequently asked questions about proliferate.
Proliferate actually doesn’t target. It might be a little bit confusing at first since this is based on a technicality, but the reminder text for proliferate never uses the word “target.” Proliferate lets you choose a number of permanents and players. Since the text never says target, you’re not technically targeting anything or anyone.
The ability goes on the stack like any other ability. When it goes on the stack, you choose what proliferates. When it resolves, the counters are added to all the players and permanents you chose.
Yes, you can proliferate a planeswalker. I mentioned before that even though the ability’s origin is deeply connected to Phyrexia and infect, War of the Spark shined the spotlight on using it for planeswalkers. Not only can you proliferate planeswalkers’ loyalty counters, it’s encouraged by the game design.
Can You Proliferate Tokens?
No, you can’t proliferate tokens. Proliferate works exclusively on counters that are placed on players or permanents on the battlefield, but it doesn’t affect anything else. Creature tokens aren’t counters. If you're trying to do this, perhaps you're looking for the populate mechanic?
Neither hexproof nor shroud or ward do anything against proliferate. The rules text specifically uses the word choose instead of “target.” Since you’re not technically targeting anything, neither of these abilities work against it.
You can use proliferate to place lore counters on sagas. The moment the counter is placed, the effect takes place like it would normally. This is great to advance your sagas quickly if you need to get to a certain effect fast or to render some sagas like Showdown of the Skalds and The Bloodsky Massacre pretty much useless.
Not only does proliferate work on infect but it was strictly created to support it. Both -1/-1 and poison counters can be proliferated. It can absolutely ruin the match for your opponent if played right.
Can You Proliferate Time Counters?
Yes and no. While you can technically proliferate time counters just as you can any other counter, you can only do it if the permanent with the time counter is on the battlefield. You can proliferate the counters on cards with vanishing to ensure that they don’t leave your battlefield. Cards with suspend will inevitably lose all their counters and enter the stack because they’re not on the battlefield, so proliferate can’t affect them.
If you’re playing a deck that uses counters and proliferate, you’re probably gonna want to play Doubling Season, too. Doubling Season is every token and counter deck's favorite card. Basically any time you proliferate and add a counter to your permanents, you get to add two of those counters instead. Pretty simple and extremely effective.
Any and all counters that are placed on a permanent or player are fair game for proliferating. Cards that use these counters don’t really care about how you got the counters, only how many you have. This applies to experience, energy, and poison alike as well as any other counters that are put on permanents/players that might come out in the future.
As is the case with most abilities that are based around supporting other mechanics, there aren’t a lot of proliferate cards that are extremely powerful on their own. There are still two exceptions, and some cards that in the right deck can cause massive damage.
Atraxa, Praetors' Voice has been a commander staple since it came out back in 2016. Even though the entire card design is based around the order established in New Phyrexia and was probably meant to use infect as a commander strategy, most of the decks that play Atraxa use it in “super friends” strategies. That basically means playing a lot of planeswalkers and growing their loyalty really quickly.
Not to mention Atraxa is a 4/4 with flying, vigilance, deathtouch, and lifelink for just four mana, so it’s not like it’s a particularly helpless card on its own. If you want to play a Commander deck that uses proliferate or a lot of counters, this will always be one of the safest choices for your commander.
Yawgmoth, Thran Physician
This whole article could’ve just been about the glory of Phyrexia up to this point. Yawgmoth, Thran Physician is one of the single most fun commanders I’ve ever built a deck around. For me. Everyone else wanted to kick me out of the table.
You just need to have four cards on the field to win the game with this card:
When you have the four cards on the battlefield, assuming there are no other cards on the field, use Yawgmoth, Thran Physician to sacrifice Butcher Ghoul. Zulaport Cutthroat prevents you losing life and will hit every opponent for one life. When you place the -1/-1 counter on a creature, Nest of Scarabs creates a 1/1 Insect.
Butcher Ghoul’s undying triggers and it comes back with a +1/+1 counter. Sacrifice the Insect token, Zulaport Cutthroat triggers again, then place the -1/-1 counter on the Ghoul. This cancels out the +1/+1 counter and the Nest creates another Insect.
You can then sacrifice Butcher Ghoul again and place the -1/-1 counter on the new Insect, which will create a new Insect. And for every creature that dies while you do this, each opponent loses one life. You can essentially repeat this as much as you need as long as you don’t accidentally draw your entire deck before killing off your opponents.
This particular combo obviously doesn’t use Yawgmoth’s proliferate ability, but proliferate comes in handy considering how easily the Physician’s first ability can place -1/-1 counters when needed. Another card that sees play in a lot of Yawgmoth Commander decks is Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon. OK, I think I’ve said enough on how infect and proliferate go hand-in-hand.
Contagion Clasp + Contagion Engine
Contagion Clasp sees a fair bit more play thanks to its lower mana cost, but Contagion Engine has some amazing potential as a wrath that can take out indestructible cards. That being said, they’re both repeatable proliferate effects that make for amazing support in planeswalker and counter-reliant decks.
This card along with others like Throne of Geth are pretty straightforward. They work well in any kind of deck that uses counters in any way. Having flying and a low mana value makes Thrummingbird reliable when you need to add counters to your permanents.
Planewide Celebration | Illustration by Wisnu Tan
I’ve liked proliferate ever since it came out. It’s proven time and time again to be a really useful ability, and I swear I like it for reasons other than my love for any and all things Phyrexian. I really enjoy playing decks with lots of planeswalkers, and I know there’s a lot of people out there who play +1/+1 counter decks.
I’d personally like to see more support for energy and experience counters in Commander. I think it’d add a lot of variety to the format and would make great use of proliferate. Not to mention the possibility of new kinds of counters for players.
What do you guys think? Do you think proliferate is useful or do you prefer other strategies to further your counter-based decks? How badly are you considering building a deck around that Yawgmoth, Thran Physician combo? Feel free to answer down in the comments.
Unless you’re going to hate me for liking infect. You’d be completely in the right for doing so, but I don't wanna hear it! Don’t forget to follow our Twitter and keep an eye on the blog for more content like this.
Have a nice week, and I’ll be seeing you in the next one!Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates: