Infection Spreads

Posted in Latest Developments on November 5, 2010

By Tom LaPille

Tom LaPille makes things. Some of the things he makes are card sets, like Dark Ascension and Born of the Gods. Sometimes he makes stories, too. Sometimes he makes unexpected things, like 16th-century Japanese clothing. He's probably making something right now.

Mechanically, infect represents the spread of the Phyrexian oil throughout Mirrodin. Just like the Phyrexian influence never leaves a being that has been corrupted, the poison counters and -1/-1 counters infect leaves behind never go away. In a similar way, the influence of infect slowly but inexorably spread across Scars of Mirrodin as the set was developed. Although many Mirran cards do not appear on the face to have been affected by Phyrexia's touch, few cards were unaffected by infect's presence. Today, we'll look through the set and see what the oily tendrils of infect's influence have done.


The most obvious place to look for infect's influence is proliferate, since the mechanic explicitly interacts with both poison counters and -1/-1 counters. From a design perspective, the story is very simple. Proliferate interacts with infect, as well as with charge counters, so it makes lots of sense in the set. It's a little more complicated from the development perspective, as we need to make the right kind of proliferate cards for both Constructed and Limited and put them at the right rarities for Limited to be fun.

It only takes ten poison counters to win a game, so infect creatures lean a little smaller than non-infect creatures. In play, we found that this could cause infect decks to stall out a little bit in the late game when larger creatures came out to play. Strong Magic players often speak of "reach," and what they mean by this is a deck's ability to do the last few points of damage when their main plan doesn't quite get them all the way there. Direct damage cards like Lightning Bolt and Fireball are one way to give a deck some reach, as are cards like Overrun and Phantom Warrior.

Unfortunately, the traditional means of giving a deck reach don't work for a deck built around infect. Necrogen Censer is a fine way to get rid of someone's last 4 points of life, but won't help you much when they have six poison counters. Happily, proliferate does exactly that. Unhappily, the majority of the proliferate cards in the design file only let you proliferate once. Although Steady Progress remains in the set, there were several other spells that had proliferate as a rider, and Contagion Clasp used to sacrifice as part of its second ability. Those one-shot proliferate cards were helpful for an infect deck, but not helpful enough, as you couldn't depend on any of them to get you from six poison counters to ten.

When we figured this out, Scars of Mirrodin lead developer Mike Turian had already stated his preference for cards that could Proliferate several times, because he wanted people to be able to build Constructed decks around proliferating. The same changes gave us the ability to build Limited decks that depended on proliferate to get us all the way to ten poison counters.

    Untamed Might

In several places, I've read rumblings of confusion about Untamed Might. Why, people ask, would we include a card that facilitates random one-shot kills in the same set as infect creatures?

Consider the card Giant Growth. Those of you who have played infect decks in Constructed have likely discovered that Giant Growth is very, very powerful on an infect creature. It is also likely that many of you who played those infect decks also did not play Untamed Might in them, instead choosing to play cards like Primal Bellow and Vines of Vastwood. This suggests that in an infect deck, these fixed-number Giant Growth effects are actually more powerful than Untamed Might.

It didn't take us long in the Future Future League to make that discovery. However, we also discovered that this wasn't necessarily a bad thing. In decks that weren't built around infect, Untamed Might was much less efficient than most sets' Giant Growth effects. This meant that the infect players who could best use Untamed Might were more likely to get what copies of that card were opened. We also found that Untamed Might was an important part of the power of infect decks in Limited, and chose to keep the card the way it was because it was doing the right things. We understand that Untamed Might can produce an unsatisfying game or two when an infect creature goes big, but we expected that players would adjust their play once they got used to the card's existence.


I've also read several comments that express bewilderment at the inclusion of indestructibility in a set wtih infect. An indestructible creature with zero toughness is put into the graveyard as a state-based action, so the -1/-1 counters that an infect creature produces can defeat indestructibility. Why, then, would we include indestructible creatures when they can, in fact, be easily destroyed?

One good reason for keeping indestructible creatures was that they were part of the original Mirrodin block, and Scars of Mirrodin is partly a sequel to the original Mirrodin block. Another reason is that the presence of infect allows us to make them better.

Let me explain. Magic is a fun game because different Magic cards interact in different ways to produce results that are often surprising. There are many ways that most cards can be interacted with that indestructible cards can't. None of Shatter, Lightning Bolt, or a combat damage step can help to get a Darksteel Sentinel out of play, and that's a huge swath of things that can make most creatures die. That causes problems for development, as we don't like situations when someone can't interact with their opponent's cards.

Having infect around, though, made it possible for us to trust that indestructible creatures had an obvious answer that players could find if they wanted to find it. We consider this to be a feature, not a bug.

    Life Gain

In the same way that infect allowed us to make stronger indestructible creatures, it also allowed us to make better life gaining cards. Normally, we don't like to have a huge amount of life gaining cards at common because it can make games take too long. We expect that players who want to gain life will play whatever life gain cards are available, but if we don't make them top tier Limited cards, Spike won't be led into unpleasantly long games while he chases the most powerful strategies. In Scars of Mirrodin, infect introduces the risk that your opponent doesn't care about your life total at all, so we took the opportunity to make life gaining cards a little stronger than we normally do. Sylvok Lifestaff, Razor Hippogriff, Kemba's Skyguard, and Lifesmith are all expressions of this.

    Damage Prevention

Part of the design vision for Scars of Mirrodin was that there should be no way to remove poison counters. We were willing to agree to that, but as always, we like having ways to respond to problems. In the case of poison, we were able to dodge Mark's restriction to a degree we were happy with by including some damage prevention at common. In Scars of Mirrodin, that is expressed with Soul Parry and Auriok Replica. These won't help you once the poison is already in your bloodstream, but you can use them at the right moment to keep yourself from getting more poisoned.


The last large swath of cards that are different because of infect are the Equipment. I have talked several places about how we like cards to change in value from deck to deck. Earlier in this article I talked about Untamed Might, and in my article for Proliferate Week I talked about how Throne of Geth was intended to be weak enough in decks that didn't value proliferate to make it into the decks that did. We often engineer this kind of variance in card value, because it adds extra layers of discovery to the game.

There is a mass of Equipment in Scars of Mirrodin, and it would have been possible to make a bunch of Equipment that are equally strong no matter what deck they are in. However, that's not how we like to make Magic cards. We knew that many of our infect creatures would have only 1 toughness, and it's no accident that Barbed Battlegear doesn't work on them. It's not unheard of for a Cystbearer to pick a Barbed Battlegear up, but your Plague Stingers and Ichorclaw Myrs can only look at a Battlegear and sigh. On the other hand, a metalcraft-based deck with plenty of 2-toughness creatures has no problem with it.

There are also Equipment cards that shine brighter in infect decks. Bladed Pinions on an infect creature can get it past blockers on the ground, and it can also produce a flying wall that is hard for most creatures to punch through. Infiltration Lens is a more extreme example, as I prefer not to play it at all in decks that aren't dedicated to infect. However, in infect decks where the punishment for not blocking is much greater, I am happy to play it.

    Bellowing Tanglewurm

I'll end today with one more random card. Bellowing Tanglewurm may not have infect, but you might have noticed that several infect creatures are green. Bellowing Tanglewurm isn't picky, and is happy to work with any Blight Mambas and Cystbearers you might have to help you get the last few points of poison through if you can't find any proliferate cards.

Making Magic is a complicated effort. If you've played Scars of Mirrodin Limited, I'm sure that you have noticed several of the things I talked about today, but there may have been others that you didn't notice. There are several things still that I haven't talked about, and many things that I'll never have the chance to talk about. If you want a glimpse into how much goes into a Magic set's evolution, I invite you to follow the Great Designer Search 2 as it happens. Our eight finalists will be going through a small slice of what we do every time we make a set, and there will be plenty to learn from what the judges have to say about the contestants' work.

    Last Week's Poll
Of the formats for this year's World Championships, which are you most excited to read coverage about?
Scars of Mirrodin Booster Draft80514.1%
None of These4317.5%

    This Week's Poll
What do you think of infect?I love it!I like it.I'm indifferent.I don't like it.I hate it!

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