Hey there Ladies and Gents, and welcome to another installment of Under the Hood. This week, I’m going to be looking at a classic mechanic – one that has no doubt become as ingrained in any player’s steep learning curve into magic – the Phyrexian mechanic of infect.
Infect is a combat mechanic introduced in Scars of Mirrodin as a representation of the Phyrexian corruption of Mirrodin; a creature with infect deals damage in terms of counters; it applies -1/-1 counters to creatures and Poison counters to players – 10 poison counters, dead player. Mechanically it is a hybrid of Wither from Lorwyn block – in particular the nighttime realm of Shadowmoor – and the Poisonous mechanic that was first seen around the dark times of Homelands through to 5th Edition, later keyworded in Time Spiral block. But whereas Poisonous only affected players and wither only affected creatures, Phyrexia went the whole hog and corrupted indiscriminately. Personally I find it to be very flavourful; the idea that just being TOUCHED by a minion of Phyrexia leaves a lasting impression on you and your creatures, and forces you into a defensive mindset of creature and damage control. It’s a very controversial mechanic – many players I started my Magic experience with detested the mechanic for its uninteractivity and the lowered life total (Blighted Agent may have caused many quits out of sheer anger) – but ultimately that was back before we discovered the importance of removal; and the infect decks in our meta quickly quietened down then.
But how does it fare in the competitive scene? Personally I didn’t have the pleasure of playing in Scars standard so my knowledge of its impact on the draft format is limited, but it seems like a mechanic to shape your draft around – though a lot of the infect creatures left much to be desired in terms of bodies, the evasive ones present much larger threats in limited than an evasive threat of the same size without infect. I was also surprised of the lack of lasting infect decks in standard – while Zendikar/Scars was the wasteland of Cawblade we all remember, this article makes no mention of infect at all. Though looking through the lists its plain to see – aggro was quicker then, with Puresteel Paladin, Swords of X and Y, and Hellrider and friends, infect couldn’t get people to 10 before other decks could hit 20. The control options like Phyrexian Swarmlord weren’t popular either – in a format where you can Birthing Pod into Elesh norn, why wouldn’t you? This left only 1 single card with infect making any of the lists – the low opportunity cost Inkmoth Nexus. So, where does that leave our friend infect?
Now, if you hadn’t heard of the modern meta, you may say, ‘Unmistakable! Surely this is where the story ends!’, and that would (unfortunately) be incorrect. In modern (as of writing), hyper aggression is the place to be. This may be a sweeping statement, though ModernNexus measures the overall meta share of aggressive decks at top tier to be around 40%; a mix of aggressive builds like Affinity, Burn, Jund, Dredge, Bant Eldrazi, and… infect. Infect’s metashare is not even close to the rest of them, standing 3% higher than #2 Jund at 10% – making Infect currently THE most popular deck in Modern. Not only is a deck named after the the mechanic the most played thing in the format, but infect damage is also primary win condition of Affinity, using fan favourite Inkmoth nexus as an evasive threat to stack counters onto with Arcbound Ravager. Infect returns to its true form in legacy however, as there is just so much more broken stuff to do (and plenty of Wastelands for those sneaky Inkmoth Nexuses) that infect is unfortunately not very successful. It exists, but not to the extent that it does in modern.
Implications on EDH
Infect has very interesting implications in EDH; mostly because, barring house rules, the Poison rule is STILL 10. This means that while everybody’s geared to have to deal 40 damage, and infect creature still only needs 10. While decks could outrace in 60 card formats, in the slower games of EDH 10 damage gets thrown around a lot easier. Attach a Tainted Strike and it’s a surprise kill. Depending on your group you may need a serious talk about your future friendship, but it’s a warrior’s death. Infect rarely has a deck based around it (more on that later), but there are lots and lots of incidental infect cards, for example it’s not unusual for Grafted Exoskeleton to appear in noncombat damage dealing commanders as a way to win through a stalled board, such as Nekusar, the Mindrazer. In the Nekusar case, it’s a lot easier to have opponents draw 10 instead of 40.
Being a primarily combat mechanic, there aren’t too many interesting synergies with it; being in a format with such a large card pool though allows interaction with a lot of the old poison cards from Magic’s history, such as Serpent Generator or Snake Cult Initiation. Proliferate also plays well with Infect, but that’s largely due to their side-by-side development within Scars of Mirrodin block.
As far as Mechanical Allstars go, here is what I see as offering the most to the format:
Grafted Exoskeleton – I touched upon this earlier, but this card probably has the widest applications. Nekusar, Ruric Thar, Brion Stoutarm, Borborygmos Enraged all deal noncombat damage and would love this to hurl unavoidable poison counters at players. It’s also beloved by commanders that care about equipment, such as Nahiri, the Lithomancer, Kemba, Kha Regent and voltron commanders such as Zurgo Helmsmasher or Rafiq of the Many. It’s an incredibly low opportunity cost to decks that follow the game plan of commander damage; the downside of destroying the equipped creature on removal hurts a lot less than it does in 60 card, though that exploitable weakness seems necessary (and has saved my ass multiple times in the deciding turns of a game).
Corrupted Conscience – This sort of swingy effect gets even better when the stolen monster gains a quicker clock afterwards. A strictly better Mind Control, this card will almost always cause a massive boardshift in your favour with proper timing. There are lots of huge, trampling monstrosities in EDH, and not a lot of them have haste. While this means you most likely won’t be swinging with it the turn you take it, it heavily disrupts the plans of those around you as they scrabble to deal with the Terra Stomper or Baneslayer Angel that only has to sneeze to get into one-shot territory.
Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon – For my final highlight, i’d like to present the only legendary to have infect. While he doesn’t fit all (or most) of the infect synergy cards, he is a popular commander, often hovering in the top 200 on EDHrec (for reference, the total in that ranking is close to 800), being more popular than niche favourites such as Phage, Maralen of the Mornsong or even Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath in popularity. Monoblack suits him as a voltron commander though, being able to take full advantage of Nightmare Lash and Lashwrithe. He’s unfortunately quite a high priority removal target however, for both his haste ability and cheeky instant-speed kills using Hatred or Howl from Beyond.
Having access to more options (three sets as opposed to one) has really helped the selection when it comes to brewing around the mechanic:
I chose the new up-and-comer Atraxa as the Commander for a couple of reasons: 1) Infect is in all colours, but the lightest splash is in Red, so this would give me optimal choice of cards, 2) Her ability to come out fast coupled with that End Step trigger synergises REALLY well when aiming to win with poison in a group pod, ticking the clock on turns when you haven’t made contact, providing you have before, 3) The flavour. I love the Magic Lore, and Atraxa serving as an avatar of the four praetors following the defection of Urabrask is just too good to not helm a deck based around the Phyrexians.
The deck was an aim to work out a slower, less explosive infect deck than we’re used to. What this builds off of is the feeling of inevitability in poison; it’s irremovable (until your group techs in Leeches or Melira, Sylvok Outcast) and kills quicker than your average run-of-the-mill damage. The primary win condition would be infect damage, so I included all of the reasonably costed evasive infect creatures; Tine Shrike, Blighted Agent, Flesh-Eater Imp to name a few. Once you make contact on each opponent, they’re on your clock. I included a lot of the good proliferate pieces; Contagion Engine, Inexorable Tide, and Atraxa all put your opponents on a short clock once they’ve been infected.
In a combined attempt at secondary wincons/flavour wins, i’ve included the four nonred Praetors. These four oppressive forces both threaten to overwhelm and all heavily support the infect strategy. To support these, I’ve also added a small reanimation suite of Beacon of Unrest, Animate Dead, Dance of the Dead and Necromancy, to allow reuse of the praetors or to steal threats from yards as they become relevant.
There are two cards that I’d like to bring attention to; Firstly the afforementioned Hatred – with all these evasive threats letting anything through unblocked while you have mana open is going to be a very daunting proposition for opponents, as 9 life in commander really isn’t much. Secondly, my favourite card in the deck is probably Phyrexian Swarmlord. In games with multiple opponents, his effect can often be accelerated by playing aggressively, and infecting multiple people at once can eventually easily overwhelm single people. Just make sure you hit a critical mass first – killing people off costs you counters in the long run!
That just about covers it for this edition guys; let me know what you think and if you’ve got any suggestions for what I should cover next, I’m always up for that! As always, if you like what you see and want more make sure to like the Facebook Page for updates on new posts. For now though, Unmistakable out!