As a Magic player for several years (since 2004), I have made a name for myself among the local groups by playing a distinct “life-gain” style of play, also known as “stall.” I gain life and prevent damage in most of my decks, and do mainly combat damage as a win condition; this allows the other player to play their strategy, but most of the time they cannot actually do me any lasting damage. In my eyes, it’s a win-win, because I get to play my strategy without being overly worried about my life total, and they get to see how their deck plays in extreme long-game, with plenty of time for joking around and socializing in the process.
However, a not-so-new mechanic that was revived in Scars of Mirrodin threatens this easy and relatively carefree way of playing. It’s called poison counters.
Poison Counters Before Scars of Mirrodin
In the 1994 Magic set Legends, the first cards dealing with the “poison counter” effect were printed. Poison counters were a new way to win or lose the game–if a player accumulated 10 poison counters, they automatically lost the game, no matter what their life total was. It was, in a way, a second type of life total, even though the creators of the game still refuse to acknowledge it as such.
From 1994 to 1997, Wizards of the Coast worked with poison counters in several of its sets. Expansions such as The Dark, 4th Edition, Chronicles, Homelands, Alliances, Mirage, Visions, and 5th Edition each had just a few cards sprinkled in that concerned poison counters. Within these sets, poison counters were generally dealt directly by creatures, usually with wording such as “When [card name] deals damage to a player, that player gets X amount of poison counters”, not always matching how much damage the creature dealt.
Because of the fairly scant number of cards dealing with poison counters, it was somewhat difficult to incorporate into an entire deck strategy. Thus, the mechanic did not see a whole lot of play after these sets faded into memory.
Poison Counters Since Scars of Mirrodin
Fast-forward thirteen years, to 2010–the release of Scars of Mirrodin, and the introduction of a very new and quite deadly mechanic: infect. This new mechanic combined the effects of two other fairly good mechanics, “poisonous” and “wither,” into one super-powered game-changer for any creature.
With the advent of infect, previously small one-drop, 1/1 creatures with very little prowess to their name could become killing machines in their own right. They could wither away the opponent’s creatures, but they could also give undefended players a poison counter. And once given one poison counter, opponents were then susceptible to a mechanic called “proliferate,” which allowed the proliferate-wielding player to “choose any number of permanents and/or players with counters on them, then give each another counter of a kind already there,” according to the official rules reminder text.
This substantially increased the playability of poison counter strategies. With so many new infect creatures and so many new proliferating spells and permanents, it was suddenly viable–and suddenly very deadly, not just to tournament players, but to the global Magic-playing population.
My Beef with Poison Counters
Even though most of Magic’s developers don’t want to believe that poison counters represent a second type of life total, they are. They represent a 10-turn clock in the background of the game, which is completely at the mercy of the other player, especially thanks to infect and proliferate. What’s more, they are a life total that to date, players have only two ways to change:
- Leeches, a card from the much-maligned set Homelands, gets rid of all poison counters on a target player, and transfers it to damage to the regular life total instead;
- Melira, Sylvok Outcast, from New Phyrexia, prevents its controller from getting poison counters, and directly counters the infect keyword and its -1/-1 effect on creatures.
Damage, I can deal with easily–it’s called Holy Day and Fog. Loss of life, I can spring back from; Life Burst and Beacon of Immortality for the win. Poison counters? With only two cards in the ENTIRE GAME to counter this strategy and take back control of my own poison counter total, it’s a very small chance that I have those cards and can make them work in one of my existing decks, or build a new deck with them in it that makes any kind of cohesive strategy.
Furthermore, poison counters are a death stroke to my typical gameplay style of “casual, slow and steady, more joking than playing.” I can’t have fun and be casual when I have an uncontrollable clock of counters going in the background the entire game. I’m forced into running scared the whole game, trying to outrun my typically Standard-format opponent with Vintage-format decks that just were not made to counter this kind of strategy. It feels like I’m taking a timed final exam that I didn’t study for. I hate being timed, especially when I don’t control the clock and don’t have the right resources or knowledge to finish the test of skill.
I thought Magic was supposed to be a game, but poison counters have changed the whole face of it. If the game developers are truly trying to make Magic into a purely competitive, cutthroat game, then they’re succeeding–they have just taken a major step toward stamping out Casual Play once and for all. Yes, it’s a great mechanic; it’s effective, and it forces people to play quickly and powerfully. But it’s far too competitive for those of us who use Magic and other GAMES to relax and have a good time with friends.
Warning, This Gamer’s Climbing onto Her Soapbox!
To me, poison counters represent everything that’s wrong with Magic these days. Yes, I know, I sound like an old fuddy-duddy, waving my proverbial cane about and muttering “Well, in MY day, WE didn’t HAVE no stinkin’ poison counters and tournaments!” But it’s true–Magic has grown exponentially more competitive as the mass of Standard-playing customers has increased in size, and the game developers seem to be pandering more toward this aggressive, tournament-winning style of play.
Now, I’ll freely admit, I don’t think I’ve ever won a Magic tournament, because the deck styles that I most enjoy playing are meant more for multi-player games and extreme-long-game setups. (In multi-player games, I’m liable to win without anybody realizing how powerful I’ve become until it’s too late. In one-on-one games, I am wiped off the map before my first combo piece is on the board.) But I LIKED playing casually and playing multi-player. I LIKED just playing silly combos that only affect me and create a hilarious situation, like being able to gain 64 life off a single Life Burst because of Boon Reflection and having 3 Life Bursts in the graveyard. Gaining astronomical amounts of life doesn’t hurt anybody else, and it’s hysterical to watch.
But with most of the local gamers I know going over to the “dark side” of strictly tournament play, my favorite style of playing is nearly extinct. Everyone is either playing the more aggressive mechanics and more recent formats, playing me one-on-one and wiping the floor with me, or taking me down with poison counters that I can’t control. As my blog title says, poison counters (and mechanics like it) are maddeningly efficient. They’re maddeningly efficient at making me and other casual players like me quit the game entirely, because it’s no longer fun–it’s a gun fight, and I came equipped with a butter knife.
How Can We Defend Against Poison Counters?
Well, now that I’ve said my piece about how Magic seems to be going all uber-competitive, how can players work around these annoying little poison counters?
Besides using Leeches or Melira, Sylvok Outcast, there ARE ways to defend against getting poison counters, as listed below:
- Blocking any and all Infect creatures. Make sure the creature you block with has a larger toughness so that it can survive the -1/-1 hit!
- Removing or destroying Infect creatures and Proliferating permanents. Disenchant, Naturalize, Doom Blade, Swords to Plowshares, Path to Exile, Shock, Lightning Bolt, and Shriekmaw are just a few cards off the top of my head that can help this cause.
- Countering Infect creature spells and Proliferating permanent spells. Blue always has an answer for everything.
Even a primarily Vintage player like me can find ways to use the above strategies to protect myself from poison counters. After all, I play big-toughness creatures as a rule of thumb, and I also enjoy pumping my little creatures to stronger power and toughness to overcome my opponent, so I do have at least the ability to block the infect creatures. I also run a good deal of creature removal and enchantment/artifact destruction in most of my decks, so I can get rid of permanents that could proliferate what poison counters I have. And while I don’t run a lot of Red, Blue, or Black, I can occasionally Shock and Bolt some of the smaller infect creatures if I have to.
It is important to note, however, that not every deck can encompass these strategies. For those of us who build decks and rarely change them because they work so well, it’s annoying to have to change out some parts to a well-oiled machine just because of one mechanic. But if you want to survive in today’s Magic: the Gathering, you sometimes have to sacrifice the beauty of a well-designed Vintage- or Legacy-format strategy in order to build “what works” against the mechanic flavor of the month. “What works” may not be exactly your cup of tea, but it will give you a better chance to win, and perhaps a chance to have that fleeting, mythical experience called “fun” again.
More About Poison Counters and Player Discussions of Strategy