Revising the Rules - Can Poison Be Fixed For Commander?

Jake FitzSimons • October 4, 2021

Triumph of the Hordes by Izzy

My name's Jake FitzSimons, and I'm here to consider one of Magic's most controversial mechanics: Infect. Poison counters have been a polarizing bogeyman in Magic since they were first introduced in Legends with Pit Scorpion and Serpent Generator. Keyworded years later as "Infect" in Scars of Mirrodin, the alternate win condition has as many detractors as it does fans. Infect has been powerful in almost every constructed format, with one exception: Commander. 

While not unpopular by any means, Infect simply does not translate well to Commander. It feels like a mechanic that totally circumvents inflated life-totals should thrive, but the reasons it doesn't are myriad. For one thing, calling it polarizing is underselling it. I've seen more players leave the table in anger over Infect than any other mechanic. Scores of players houserule the threshold up to 15 or 20 out of frustration. Indeed, the two most-played cards with Infect in Commander also happen to sit on the saltiest cards list. No points for guessing which two. 

Why Infect Is So Frustrating

Commander is supposed to be about longer games and less competitive-minded play. The RC's primary way of achieving this has been the 40-life starting total, giving players enough time to get their deck up and running before having to worry about aggression. It stands to reason that if our life is doubled, our poison threshold should be as well. The simple logic here is why many new players naturally assume the poison threshold is set at 20. After all, if typical aggro creatures like Monastery Swiftspear are neutered in Commander, shouldn't Glistener Elf suffer the same fate? 

Nobody likes to be on the receiving end of poison counters, as there is truly nothing you can do to remove them - yes yes, there's one exception, but are you really going to put Leeches in your deck? Dying first and sitting around waiting for the game to finish is not a fun experience. This is similar to the problem that Voltron decks (and commander damage as a mechanic) must grapple with.

Ostensibly, raising the Infect threshold to 20 would lead to far more internal consistency when it comes to Commander's philosophy. Infect would still be a faster way to kill your opponents than traditional aggro, and would still circumvent any sort of lifegain strategy. It would avoid feelbads from the dreaded Blightsteel Colossus in a format where cheating creatures (not to mention artifacts) into play is trivial. It would also make Triumph of the Hordes less likely to result in a sudden kill. It would even nerf the irritating and infamous interaction between Atraxa, Praetors' Voice and Ichor Rats. However, it would also make just about every other Infect card completely unplayable. 

Why Infect Is So Weak

I talked earlier about the problems that Infect has when it comes to making the leap to Commander, but largely in relation to how it makes those on the receiving end of poison counters feel. The larger issue, if not the more pressing one, is how terribly weak Infect is in any multiplayer format. While the idea of doubling the threshold for Infect makes sense in the context of doubled life totals, it overlooks the nature of having multiple opponents.

While the intent of Infect is clearly to halve the amount of damage needed for a kill, it only holds true in a 1v1 environment. In Commander, killing a single player with Infect does not a winning strategy make. You have two other opponents to deal with, and while drowning one player in poison counters does bring you technically closer to a win, it doesn't help you anymore than it does the remaining players. If anything, it actively helps them. You've spent cards and resources to wipe someone out, while the survivors have developed their board and sandbagged their interaction.

Win conditions that rely on taking out each opponent one by one are never going to be as effective as those that can win in one fell swoop. The fact that EDHREC shows Triumph of the Hordes is nearly twice as popular as Blightsteel Colossus - despite the latter being available to any deck - illustrates this point perfectly. 

In Modern or Legacy, an Infect player needs to reach 10 poison counters to win the game. In Commander, an Infect player needs to reach thirty poison counters to win the game. I'd argue that Infect is already significantly weaker than it should be, not stronger. It not only suffers from the Voltron Problem, it has an abysmally shallow card pool that makes singleton deckbuilding very difficult.

Because of this, I would actually lean toward lowering the Infect threshold before I advocated for raising it. This might sound like madness - it is - but I think a change that increases the viability of a strategy is preferable to one that makes it useless.

The major problem with lowering it is that I don't think it would lead to more diversity. We wouldn't see more aggressive strategies centered around poison counters. We would just see more Blightsteel and Triumph, which is the last thing anyone wants.

I briefly spoke with Sheldon Menery about this and while he doesn't think the poison threshold should be lowered, he says there has never been any serious discussion on the RC about raising it either. It's just that weak.

The Biggest Problem

Tweaking poison in Commander requires the introduction of rules that override card text. Errata for the sake of better gameplay is a useful tool, but it must be applied selectively. As recently as Kaldheim, we've seen Fynn, the Fangbearer, which clearly states "A player with 10 or more poison counters loses the game." This is not true of all cards that give poison counters, not even a majority of them. But it is frequent enough that it would mean reading the card no longer explains the card, a principal that WotC rightly holds dear. Any change to how Infect works in Commander would be a deviation from the traditional rules of Magic. This makes it a far greater hurdle than anything we've discussed so far on Revising the Rules

One of the things I'm passionate about in Commander is making sure every strategy is represented. Ideally, that every strategy is viable. The goal of this series has been to advocate for rules that allow that to happen, and Infect has been the most frequently requested topic so far, but I remain at a loss. I don't believe the mechanic is in a good spot right now, but it seems neither raising or lowering it will actually change things in a healthy way.

Some manner of revision to how poison works in Commander would be wonderful, but finding a way to increase diversity without making ubiquitous cards even more obnoxious seems an impossible task.

Ultimately, Infect demands the topical application of Rule Zero ointment, and I encourage you to try tweaking with different thresholds. If this piece has given you any ideas and you end up testing different rules for Infect, I'd love to hear about it! Reach me on Twitter at @Jake_FitzSimons

Jake FitzSimons is a writer from Sydney and a Magic fiend. He's either the johnniest spike or the spikiest johnny, nobody is sure which. When he isn’t brewing or playing cEDH, he can be found writing, playing piano, and doting on his little cat.