Just Say No! (A.K.A. Why R&D Should Not Bring Back Poison)

A.K.A. Why R&D Should Not Bring Back Poison

Back when Future Sight was released, I wrote an article that made some predictions on the direction of Magic design, based on the choices found within Future Sight. One of those predictions was that poison would not be coming back as a regular mechanic. It was then pointed out to me that Mark Rosewater directly said poison would, in fact, be coming back. Consider this my plea for him to change his mind. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure R&D would do a fantastic job with it compared to its previous incarnation, just like they did with Snow; but – even more so than Snow – I think poison has inherent problems that doom it to failure if it returned on a large scale. These problems are:

  • It goes against the fundamental feel of Magic.
  • Poison strategy ignores life and avoids combat interaction.
  • The mechanic is incredibly insular, linear, and narrow.
  • It is inherently worse than a damage-based strategy.
  • This means poison is impossible to ever be truly balanced.
  • It is essentially an alternate win condition.
  • Fixing one problem creates another.
You may notice that some of these points apply to other mechanics in the game. The difference between those other mechanics and poison is that all of these points apply to poison instead of one or two; and those other mechanics have enough positive points that outweigh the negatives, whereas poison has very few positive points in its favor.

It goes against the fundamental feel of Magic.
No matter which way you slice it, Magic is about creature combat and, by extension, getting your opponent’s life total to zero. That is the game’s heart and soul, which is (and always should be) the locus of Magic’s design. Of course, there are other strategies and interactions that do not exclusively revolve around creatures and combat, and there are alternative win conditions in the game; but these are mostly ways to spice things up to give the game depth. Most cards that do not directly involve creatures still interact with them on some level. If you could not counter or bounce or burn or enchant creatures, those mechanics would lose most of what makes them interesting. Because of this, Magic R&D makes sure the vast majority of cards printed can interact with creatures.

Poison strategy ignores life and avoids combat interaction.
The poison mechanic ignores this essential focus of Magic design. Though poison is currently found exclusively on creatures (or cards that create or enchant creatures), it inherently does not care about them. Poison doesn’t affect creatures in any way and has no relevance in combat--it just wants to be on an unblocked creature.

Much worse, though, is how poison simultaneously uses combat damage while ignoring the very point of dealing combat damage (reducing your opponent’s life total to zero). It’s like having a t ability that can be used while the card is tapped. If you’re going to create an alternate, specialized life total for your opponent (which is precisely what poison does), why connect it so closely with the actual life total? Poison forces you to attack your opponent’s life total in order to win in a way other than reducing his or her life total to zero. That's dumb.

In order to do something different with
poison, there would need to be lots
more of me. Even
I don't want that!
The mechanic is incredibly insular, linear, and narrow.
These problems are all very similar and closely related. Each poison card in the game interacts with a single class of cards in the game: other poison cards. Even affinity, one of the most insular and linear mechanics of all time, has a vastly larger pool of cards to interact with than poison. The poison mechanic has no interaction at all with 99.99% of the entire card pool of Magic (that’s not made-up, we’re talking 10 poison cards out of over 10,000). Granted, Swamp Mosquito can be Swatted, Snake-Cult Initiation can be Disenchanted, but those are interactions with other attributes of the card, not the poison mechanic. There is nothing to do with poison other than put 10 counters on your opponent. The one redeeming factor here is that poison has always required attacking, so at least there’s some interactivity with your opponent by virtue of that; but the combat aspect of poison has its own problems.

It is inherently worse than a damage-based strategy.
Due to the fact that it is so linear and ignores regular combat and life totals, playing a poison creature is almost universally worse than playing a creature with comparable stats. Take, for example, Virulent Sliver versus Savannah Lions. If neither you nor your opponent play any other cards during the game, both will win you the game in the exact same amount of time. However, if you attack with your Lions and tokens over nine turns and then your opponent Pyroclasms, your opponent is at 2 life; with the Sliver, you opponent is at 11 life and has 9 poison counters. What’s the likelihood of having another card than can win the game for you after the fungi are dead, compared with the Sliver? The Sliver’s strategy is inherently worse than the Lions' because not only must you successfully execute the strategy of attacking, but you must also be attacking with a creature that has a specific mechanic. Granted, Savannah Lions is one of, if not the best, 1-drop in terms of pure combat damage the game has to offer, but Virulent Sliver is also by far the most potent poison card ever printed.

You might counter this argument by saying you’ll only play Virulent Sliver in a deck dedicated to winning with poison, so getting the final poison counter is much more likely. Very true, very true. A deck full of poison creatures would not suffer the problem of inaccessability to its game-winning strategy. But now let’s compare Virulent Sliver with Muscle Sliver. The current deck using the former wins by controlling the game until it can deal 10 poison counters all in one strike. Seeing as how all Slivers are at minimum 1/1s, putting Muscle Sliver on the table instead of Virulent Sliver can win via the exact same strategy (attacking with 10 unblocked creatures); but is, at the same time, infinitely more flexible – it gives you better blockers, more attacking options, and threats that are harder to kill. Virulent does none of those.

In short, poison is a strategy that requires a highly-specialized deck to execute and does nothing that regular damage can't do as well or better.

Another reason poison is inherently worse than regular damage was eloquently stated by Binary: “Poison doesn't deny the opponent a resource. An opponent you've knocked down to 2 life can't play Night's Whisper (not without dying, at least), but an opponent you've stuck 9 poison counters on can. Dropping your opponent's life total limits their options with some cards they might otherwise be able to play; poison doesn't do that.”

The one and only strategic/mechanical benefit poison has over regular combat damage is that it can’t be hosed by life-gain. That’s it.

This is the best it's ever gonna get.
This means poison is impossible to ever be truly balanced.
Since poison is inherently weak, it needs to be more efficient to make up for it. Yet if poison can add poison counters faster than a comparable creature could proportionately reduce a normal life total, then it becomes inherently superior to regular damage. In other words, poison is in something of a no-win situation. Say that Virulent Sliver added two poison counters instead of one to make it a more effective strategy. Now, instead of acting like a 2/1 for one mana, it’s like a 4/1 for one mana. The inherent inferiority of poison is now completely overcompensated by being capable of killing ridiculously quickly. As is, Virulent Sliver is closer to the mark than any other poison card, but it’s still not quite enough to be comparably playable to a normal damage-based card. Yet making it any better would be far too good.

It is essentially an alternate win condition.
Another strike against poison is that is essentially a member of the “alternate win condition” category. Players love alternate win conditions – as a special one-of or a nifty cycle. But taking an alternate win condition and making it into a full-blown mechanic would not only skew gameplay severely, it would ruin the cool factor and make the alternate win condition less fun. Imagine if every set had a variation of Test of Endurance on a few cards; imagine if Invasion had three or four cards that did nothing at all unless Coalition Victory was in play. See the problem?

Fixing one problem creates another.
One approach I took when thinking about the problems with poison is how to fix them. I quickly discovered that trying to solve one problem made another worse or created a new problem. I've already demonstrated how trying to make it not inherently worse than regular damage inevitably makes it overly powerful. If you try to solve the problem of poison being so insular (i.e., having so few cards to interact with) by creating more poison cards, all you end up doing is make a larger card pool that has no interaction with non-poison cards, making the problem worse. If you create cards that interact with both poison and other game mechanics - say by using poison counters as a resource - you've made that problem better but created a new one. Poison as a resource makes little conceptual/flavorful sense. Additionally, cards that use poison counters as a resource would suffer the balancing difficulty just like the creatures do. Take for example:
City of Poison
t, You gain a poison counter: Add one mana of any color to your mana pool.

This card would kill you twice as quickly as City of Brass, but all you would have to do is not activate it a tenth time. It would be the best mana fixing land ever printed. You could try and solve this problem by making it give two counters. Now you could only ever use it four times, which puts it about on par with Gemstone Mine but lacks any of the interesting things the Mine can do (like being bounced and replayed) and is just as non-interactive as any other poison card. Or you could try printing lots of cards that make it much more dangerous to gain poison counters, but then you'd have to make those cards powerful enough to be viable in the eternal formats without making poison terrible in Standard. And so on...

Milling: What poison wishes it could be.
The mechanic in the game that most closely parallels poison as far as the problems I've listed is milling. I would like to take a moment to talk about why they're similar and, more importantly, what key differences make milling a much better mechanic.

Like poison, milling goes against Magic's fundamental feel by ignoring life totals and combat, doesn't care about creatures even when a milling ability is tacked onto one, and is an alternate win condition. Milling is somewhat linear and generally worse than damage as a strategy, but not to the degree poison is. Milling - purely as an alternate win strategy - is definitely very narrow. One thing milling does, however, that poison doesn't do is interact with a great deal of other mechanics rather than just itself. You don't have to win by milling in order to get something useful out of the milling mechanic. It can disrupt an opponent's draws, increase your resources by filling your graveyard, and deny an opponent resources in addition to winning the game. Milling naturally has far more interaction with existing elements of the game because it interacts seamlessly with two existing and important resources: the library and the graveyard. Poison would have to force this level of interaction by making a ton of cards which bridge that gap.

Also, while milling is usually worse than a damage-based strategy and tricky to balance as a win condition, it is not inherently worse than damage because it employs different strategies to win. You do not need to attack with creatures to win by milling - you can play defense and slowly chip away at your opponent's deck. Milling wins by doing something different than combat, not by doing something different with combat. Because of this and because of its other uses, it is much easier to balance and is much more than just an alternate win condition. It is also much easier to tweak areas of weakness without making other problems worse.

Here Lies Poison, Who Occasionally Embarassed Spike

The one thing poison has going for it is that it's extremely gratifying for Johnny to embarrass Spike with a poison victory. Of course, this is simply testament to the extraordinary badness of poison - that its claim to fame is as the ultimate shame to lose to. Ironically, making poison into a respectable strategy would ruin the greatest attraction to playing poison in the first place. Maybe that's what MaRo was hinting at all along - that poison would be splashed here and there as nothing more than a tantalizing lure for Johnnies. I don't have a problem with that, and I doubt the game would be any worse off with a couple of the janky cards in a block devoted to the black sheep of mechanics. But if any more than that makes its way into the file R&D hands off to development...well, I'm not above begging Devin Low to kill it.


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