Phyrexia: All Will Be One has brought back poison counters, an iconic mechanic from the game’s past. Many players are delighted to see them return, and are excited to craft some toxic brews in Standard. There are, however, some players who are concerned about the impact the increased number of poison cards will have on Commander, the game’s most popular format.
What Are Poison Counters?
Poison counters debuted in the set Legends in 1994. The card Pit Scorpion gives opponents poison counters when it damages them. The tokens produced by the card Serpent Generator also give damaged opponents poison counter. If at any time, a player has 10 poison counters they lose the game.
Since Legends, Poison Counters have appeared again sporadically throughout the years. They are majorly associated with the Phyrexians, as many Phyrexian creatures printed in 2010–2011s Scars of Mirrodin block distribute Poison counters via the infect mechanic.
Poison counters have a strong presence in Commander. Triumph of the Hordes sits alongside Craterhoof Behemoth as one of Green’s most iconic finishers. There are also notable poison counter focussed commanders like Fynn, the Fangbearer. At the time of writing, Fynn, the Fangbearer is the 90th most popular commander in the game, according to EDHREC’s data.
On the 17th of January 2023, Tumblr user Flydanimal approached Magic’s head designer Mark Rosewater with a question on his blog:
“The proliferation of Poison into the Commander format is going to profoundly warp the meta. As you know, Commander is based around 40 life and players have been basing all their efforts (deck building) at protecting that life total. Now, 10 poison counters and game over. All the reasons I can think of as to why WoTC would do this are quite sinister. I would like to hear your thoughts, as the lead game designer, as to why this once niche ability will now be able to take over the format?”
Rosewater diplomatically responded:
“If poison becomes a problem in Commander, those overseeing the format will make fixes to solve the problem. We don’t avoid making cards fun in some formats because they might cause problems in other formats.”
By, “those overseeing the format” Rosewater is referring to the Commander Rules Committee. The Commander Rules Committee is not employed by Wizards of the Coast but determines Commander’s banlist. Sheldon Menery, one of the leading members of the committee, gave his view on the situation. Menery released a statement on Twitter where he announced the rules committee would monitor the situation but would not take any action prior to the release of Phyrexia: All Will Be One.
This is not the first comment that Menery has made regarding the upcoming set. He previously expressed his concerns about the card Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines in an article on Star City Games. Like with poison counters, Menery decided not to take pre-emptive action and to observe the situation “over the next quarter or two” before making any bans.
Saffron Olive, a notable MTG content creator, ran a poll to gauge the views of his 80’000+ Twitter followers. He asked his fans whether they felt the number of poison counters needed to defeat a player in Commander should be doubled from 10 to 20, or whether they were fine with the current rules. 37.2% of respondents stated that they want to keep the rules as they are, whilst 32.6% voted in favor of increasing the threshold to 20. A further 30.2% stated that they were indifferent or just opted to see the results without voting.
All in all, this seems to be a situation with no easy resolution. The outcome of Saffron Olive’s poll indicates that, at least the segments of the community who follow him, are divided on the issue. Although more voted in favor of preserving the rules than changing them, this was not a majority verdict. Only a 5% margin separated one outcome from the other. Perhaps, once these cards have been printed, public opinion will shift.
Rosewater’s comments on Blogatog indicate that Wizards of the Coast are content with the situation as it currently stands. Hopefully, these new poison counter cards will work in Standard, Modern and Pioneer and will also be fun in Commander.
Will poison counters move from being a popular deck archetype to a format-warping menace? It’s too early to say. Hopefully, though, if any trouble does arrive it can be resolved with a few choice bannings. Failing that, increasing the number of poison counters needed to finish off an opponent could also be a potential solution.