We've come a long way since Thicket Basilisk.
Thicket Basilisk, appearing back in Limited Edition (Alpha), had a sort of proto-deathtouch, creating several fond memories. (Hands up if you ever demolished your opponent with your completely busted Thicket Basilisk-Lure combo!) For many years after, it and effects like it would appear here and there un-keyworded.
In any case, showing up first in Future Sight (thanks, Thornweald Archer) and then more prominently in Lorwyn, deathtouch hit the scene. It's factored in prominently in most Limited—and Constructed—environments since, as everything from Typhoid Rats to Rhonas the Indomitable has caused opponents to grimace while trying to deal with deathtouch.
Why all the chatter about deathtouch? Well, next up in my series covering mechanics, we're going to be taking a look at deathtouch! (The previous two, for reference can be found in "The Invention of Flying" and "Striking First."
Why deathtouch next? Well, it is the Hour of Devastation after all—plenty of stuff is definitely feeling the touch of death right now.
Ready? Let's take a look!
Diving into Deathtouch
Above all else, deathtouch does one thing: it makes sure your creature takes down your opponent's creature in combat.
As such, and like both flying and first strike, deathtouch squarely fits into the "creature combat keyword" category. If your opponent isn't playing with a lot of creatures, deathtouch is going to be at its weakest. In a Standard metagame full of control decks, for example, deathtouch is pretty weak. If your opponent is going to beat you to death with some control flying creature, then chances are your non-flying deathtouch creature isn't going to do a lot.
Okay, sure. So then, where is deathtouch strong?
Deathtouch has a bit of an interesting paradigm: if your creature was going to win in combat, it doesn't do anything. Where deathtouch shines is when your creature is going to lose in combat, ensuring you take the opponent down with you. Deathtouch is certainly not, for example, the strongly relevant part of Grave Titan.
As a result, where you most want deathtouch is when your opponent is going to have larger creatures than you.
This makes deathtouch particularly effective against green, since green has a surplus of beefy creatures, but it really can be good against any specific color. What's important is that it's a tool to defend or punch through when size alone won't help you.
Let's talk about those two particular situations.
Deathtouch's primary strength on offense is giving you the ability to attack into your opponent.
You've managed to beat your opponent down to 10 life with your aggressive black-red Amonkhet Draft deck, and neither of you have any cards in hand or active cards in graveyard. Suddenly she manages to stabilize against your horde of small creatures by top-decking a Colossapede.
But fortunately, you also have Wasteland Scorpion on the battlefield.
The Scorpion can safely attack in here. Either your opponent trades with your Scorpion—a favorable trade for you that leaves the path clear for next turn unless they have a follow-up play—or they take 2 damage and you just helped push yourself that much closer to winning. Your opponent doesn't have a great attack back—they could offer to trade the Colossapede with your two other creatures, but you'd likely take the hit and attack right back.
Another place deathtouch can help you break through is with double blocking.
The defender is naturally advantaged in many situations because they can double block your attackers. And while that's still true, deathtouch really helps mitigate that by letting your deathtouch creature trade with all their blockers. (Or at least as many as you have power to fend off.)
With all that said, where deathtouch really tends to shine is on defense.
A popular debate inside the Magic R&D Pit—what we call the open area in which we design the game—is "How strong is Typhoid Rats?"
If you're aggressive, it's not great. Your opponent can just opt to take the 1 damage whenever it attacks, and one-mana 1/1s are generally not where you want to be at.
However, when defending, Typhoid Rats can serve the role as something similar to Murder. The major difference, of course, being that you can kill off a Typhoid Rats before it gets to block—but if it eats up your opponent's removal spell, maybe that's still good enough for a one-mana play.
If I have drafted a control deck, I love having access to deathtouch creatures. Against aggressive opponents they can trade with a 2/2 or a 3/3 and save me a bunch of life early, and against opponents playing slower decks with a lot of big creatures, they provide me with extra pseudo-removal spells to curtail my opponent's plans.
There's one key when playing defensively with these creatures: you really don't want to attack with them if your opponent has a board presence.
It can be tempting because they're guaranteed to cause something to happen, but it's usually not something as good for you as it may look. Either your opponent will make the trade—which means they were happy to get your deathtouch creature off the table—or they will take the damage, meaning now you're open to take whatever blowback they have for you.
If your deck is slower or you have taken a defensive stance this game, be very careful about throwing your deathtouch creatures into combat. If you wouldn't want to spend a removal spell on what you're killing off, it may not be the right time to have gotten into combat.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention one other important aspect of deathtouch: the combos you can set up with it!
Deathtouch checks any damage—not just combat damage.
Put them together, and you've built your own Visara the Dreadful.
This can work multiple ways, either giving a creature that "pings" creatures deathtouch, or giving a deathtouch creature a way to deal damage. It can be as simple as ensuring Cartouche of Strength takes down your opponent's creature, or as clever as giving your Walking Ballista deathtouch and watching your opponents writhe in agony.
But no matter how your deck slices it: these combinations can be quite strong, and you should keep your eye out for them. (I'll never forget the time I assembled Death Baron and Deathbringer Thoctar together in a draft . . . good times!)
A less brutal but much easier to construct combo is that of deathtouch and trample.
The two together is quite nice: you only have to assign 1 damage to each creature blocking it before the rest goes to the opponent. Something like Brute Strength is an excellent way to have your Wasteland Scorpion deal lethal to your opponent, even if they blocked it with a gigantic creature.
Of course, these aren't the only two. First strike also plays nice with deathtouch, letting your creature bring down whatever it's tangling with before it ever takes damage.
Deathtouch can be a bit more synergistic than something like flying or first strike. Keep your eyes out for opportunities to take advantage of it!
Touching the End
That wraps up our look at deathtouch! Hopefully you found it helpful as you go out to compete in this swirling Hour of Devastation. Whether building new decks or trying to fill out your Draft pool, having a mastery over deathtouch can make a difference.
Have any questions or thoughts? I'd love to hear from you! You can always reach me on Twitter and Tumblr, or by sending me an e-mail (in English, please) at BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com. Let me know if you're enjoying this mechanics series, what else you'd like for me to cover, and anything else you are curious about. My inbox is always open.
I'll be back next week with another Beyond the Basics. Talk with you again then!