Exploring Infect in Scars Limited

Monday, October 11th – When we found out that poison was coming back, if you’re anything like me, you probably rolled your eyes. But I’d go as far as to say that the best possible deck you can get in Scars of Mirrodin Limited is an infect deck.

I’d had a plan to do a big comprehensive article detailing a number of different archetypes in Scars of Mirrodin Sealed, but I had an unfortunate run-in with a flight of stairs (I swear it was out to get me), and missed an entire weekend of drafts. So, instead, I’m going to talk about a single deck that I’ve managed to both draft a few times, and see in different configurations — infect.

Without even know the mechanics, the mere idea of returning to Mirrodin sent thousands of players back into group counseling. When we found out that poison was coming back, if you’re anything like me, you probably rolled your eyes. Poison has always been an underpowered mechanic, and I knew that Wizards couldn’t push it too hard, lest Mirrodin henceforth be called “The Plane That Ruins Magic.”

Sure enough, poison isn’t a Constructed worthy archetype — at least not yet. I’ll say, however, that I underestimated how powerful infect would be in Limited. While I think Wizards failed on the “not making poison just another life total” mission, the deck is more than just playable in Limited — it’s damn good. I’d go as far as to say that the best possible deck you can get in Scars of Mirrodin Limited is an infect deck, though R/W Metalcraft is still a much more reliably good deck in general.

Synergy isn’t just an annoying corporate buzzword; it’s the name of the game on Mirrodin, and infect has plenty of ways to bring it out. The thing about poison is that when you get the right cards, the deck is just plain unfair. Turn 2 Plague Stinger, turn 3 Ichor Rats, turn 4 Hand of the Praetors? That’s a possible seven poison counters right there.

Drafting an infect deck requires a little bit of forethought, and a whole lot of willpower. It means taking cards that are much worse in a vacuum, and having them add up to a good deck. Before you decide to take that first infect card, think about some of the problems with having an infect deck.

Downsides of Infect Decks:

Your creatures suck:

1B for a 1/1 flier wouldn’t see play in most Limited formats, and the fact that you’re excited to see Gray Ogres should concern you. Fortunately, most of the creatures on Mirrodin are wimps, so you’re actually not as far behind the curve as you’d have been in a format like Lorwyn, Shards, or Zendikar.

You need to be dedicated to the cause:

At the Prerelease, I saw a lot of decks that just couldn’t decide what they wanted to do. Am I a real deck or am I a poison deck? You can’t splash infect like you would a color. You need to dive in headfirst and not look back. While I’m not going to say you should pass a Wurmcoil Engine or a Steel Hellkite in favor of a Gray Ogre, you’re going to have to pass a lot of really good creatures and spells to get a good infect deck. With most Limited decks, you can rely on the quality of your removal, a few bombs, and equipment to get by. Mirrodin is full of tenth-pick Gray Ogres that you can throw in any deck — except for infect.

Your creatures suck, part two:

With a few exceptions, infect creatures have very small butts. Every removal spell kills them. Myr can even block and trade with your four-drops. Good luck getting past a first striker. You also just don’t have much of a high curve for infect — any plans of keeping up with a deck casting six and seven-drops is going to result in a losing battle.

Competition is

good for business:

The pool of creatures you’re working with is much smaller than for other colors, so you’ll often be fighting to get 23 playables. Having the person on your right switch into infect in the middle of the draft is going to have a huge impact on your deck, as will people randomly hate-drafting your creatures. And sometimes there just won’t be that many infect creatures opened in pack 3. If you don’t either cut infect hard, or wait to move in until you know it’s open, you can end up with a lukewarm deck that doesn’t stand a chance.

So with all of those downsides, why would you play an infect deck?

Advantages of Infect:

Your opponent starts at ten:

By far the most publicized and obvious part of the deck, you only have to deal ten damage instead of twenty or more. Any way of increasing damage is going to be twice as effective. Combat tricks that may not do much in a normal deck become enticing when you’re doubling them up. As a secondary advantage, with no way to remove poison, there isn’t any coming back from the edge. No lifelink, no Drain Life effects — if you get your opponent to nine poison counters, any of your unblocked creatures are going to be lethal for the rest of the game.

You have an advantage in combat:

There aren’t a lot of combat tricks in Scars, but when you’re running infect, you know that most won’t blow you out too bad. Because your creatures have wither when fighting other creatures, you can’t go too wrong with an attack. Even if you lose your entire squad to an ill-timed attack, your opponent will probably not be left with much more than a few 1/1s. Cards like Plated Strider and Wall of Tanglecord that would halt another aggressive deck just slow you down. In a few turns, those creatures will be -1/-1ed out, and your guys will still be ready to fight.

Your pick orders are different from most decks:

You’re playing a slightly different game than most of your opponents, so the cards you’re looking for often don’t overlap with the people next to you — so you can get a lot of very solid cards much later than you would normally. A card like Untamed Might isn’t very good in most green decks — but it’s absurd in infect. The common equipment in Scars doesn’t tend to pump power well (probably because a common Bonesplitter would make infect too powerful), but the ones that do are doubly effective. Heck, Sylvok Lifestaff

Bonesplitter in your deck, but one that you can easily get past fifth pick. Strider Harness is an awkward card in most decks, but perfect for you.

Also, since you aren’t playing the metalcraft game, you never have to worry about a mid-combat Shatter turning your creatures into wimps. In fact, your reduced reliance on artifacts in general means that a number of first-pick cards, namely Shatter and Revoke Existence, are downgraded considerably in power against your deck.

The Key Cards for Infect

If you want to play infect, you want to focus on black first and foremost. It’s the color with the heaviest infect tie-in, and the one with the best bombs (Hand of the Praetors and Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon). There isn’t a lot of removal in black (certainly less than most sets), but Grasp of Darkness is one of the best at the common level. Fume Spitter is a good card to pick up simply for the -1/-1 ability. The cards that are going to give your deck the biggest headache are Myrsmith and Embersmith, and Fume Spitter deals with both.

The top common for black’s infect deck is Plague Stinger. There isn’t much flying in this set, and most of the cards that are best with infect get a huge bonus with any form of evasion. Don’t worry about having to take him pack 1 pick 1 if you want to force infect — he’s going to be the backbone of your deck. While Grasp of Darkness is a much better card in a vacuum, getting a healthy number of Plague Stingers will make your job as an infect deck much easier, and mitigate a lot of your weaknesses.

If you’re going to run any non-infect creatures, then the top picks are Skinrender (I know… Flametongue Kavu a top pick? Really?) and Painsmith. Try to limit yourself to running as few of these as possible. Mentally block them off as spells instead of creatures, since they won’t often be adding to your threat count. If you want to win with infect, you need to have around ten to fourteen infect creatures. If it looks like you’ll end up with less than that, pick up some Tainted Strikes. I’m going to talk about this card a lot because it and Grafted Exoskeleton are the only two cards that grant infect and are the best ways to turn a mediocre infect deck into a great one.

If you’re playing infect, there’s something like a 70% chance you’re pairing green with black.

Green has a similar number of infect cards as black, but a lot of them have one power. They’re fine if you’re trying to fill out a deck, but nobody should be getting excited about his third Blight Mamba. Cystbearer, on the other hand, is something to be excited about. It’s by far the strongest of the three-drop infectors. Mirrodin is full of fairly small creatures, and since there isn’t a lot of equipment that increases their power, they’ll have a hard time profitably blocking the Cystbearer in the early game.

Tel-Jilad Fallen isn’t nearly as good as Cystbearer but deserves some recognition. Since so many people are going to have decks full of mana Myr, Myr tokens, and other small artifact creatures meant to hit metalcraft, he’s going to be harder to chump block, or if he does get blocked, it’s going to be by a higher quality creature. The downside of not being able to hold any kind of equipment is significant, but not a deal breaker. If you haven’t played against him, you may not realize how quickly three poison counters a turn adds up.

Blue gets you proliferate, but outside of Inexorable Tide, the mechanic is just plain better on the artifacts that have it — namely Contagion Clasp, Contagion Engine, and Throne of Geth. Thrummingbird looks good on paper, but every time he swings, and your opponent doesn’t have any poison counters, a kitten dies. What blue does get you is Neurok Invisimancer. He does a great job of getting in two points of poison in the midgame, and if you managed to snatch either a Grafted Exoskeleton or a Tainted Strike, he can finish the job.

Red pairs surprisingly well with infect, though it’s very much an option of last resort. You do get a few good removal spells — which black and green don’t excel at in this set, as well as Vulshok Heartstoker who is very much BFFs with Plague Stinger. Assault Strobe is another interesting option and will almost always get to you last pick. Infect creatures already have virtual double strike, so Assault Strobe gives them quadruple strike. That’s 4x strike!

If you end up in B/R, make sure to load up on the Tainted Strikes, or slam a Grafted Exoskeleton if you can get so lucky. You aren’t going to be able to fill your deck with only infect creatures, so finding a way to give the ones you have infect is key.

The only way I could ever see pairing white with infect is if you picked up four Arrests. Even then, I’d try to see if I could splash something else, too.

In terms of artifacts, equipment is the name of the game. Of course, any power pumping equipment (minus Barbed Battlegear) is a high pick, but there are a few other interesting cards to fit into your deck.

Trigon of Rage and Trigon of Infestation are of course standouts. The artifact infect creatures are also surprisingly good. Nobody wants to block a Necropede early on, and Corpse Cur gives your deck some good midgame power. Tumble Magnet is another card that will either help you force through a few points of poison, or threaten an alpha strike enough that you can keep your opponent’s deck on the defense until you’ve had time to find a way to break through.

Playing the Infect Deck

While it’s possible to build a midrange U/B infect deck, most infect decks are going to be aggro by their nature. You just don’t have much of a top end in terms of infect creatures. If you get to turn 7, and your opponent’s top end starts showing up, you’re probably going to be in trouble.

Make your mulligan decisions very carefully — your deck doesn’t mulligan well because of your mediocre late game. Keeping a hand with no action will require you to runner-runner a few draw steps to keep competitive. If you miss land drops, you’re going to get very far behind.

Most of all, if you want to play an infect deck, you’re going to end up taking a lot of risks. You risk the draft going poorly and ending up with six infect creatures and eight normal creatures. You have to take risks with your attack steps and casting spells like Untamed Might for lethal. Infect is not a conservative deck. It’s a high risk/reward Draft strategy.

Playing Against Infect  

The biggest mistake you can make against an infect deck is to underestimate it. I’ve seen a lot of people take a few hits early on to try to get up to metalcraft, only to find themselves at seven counters and unable to plan an attack that doesn’t leave them dead on board to any removal spell, or to die to proliferate.

To get you to ten counters, infect is going to have to either poison you quickly, or set up a situation where a pump spell on an unblocked creature will do the job. Keeping yourself at a low poison count takes all of these strategies away from them.

The natural instinct against poison is to let yourself get a few counters early on, and then win on the back of your bigger and better creatures. This isn’t usually the right line of play. The infect decks are setup to win from this exact position. If you can, you should try to trade as much as you can one for one early on, and plan on taking control in the mid to late game. The only exception to this strategy would be if your opponent has multiple Corpse Curs. If they get that recurring, it can be very hard to ever outrace poison with early trades.

There are also a lot of cards that you can bring in from the board that are frustrating for poison decks to deal with. Abuna Acolyte, for instance, is normally not very good. But because poison creatures have virtually double power, you’re really preventing two damage to yourself with each activation. Fume Spitter will kill a healthy number of infect creatures, or at least reduce their effectiveness considerably. Ezuri Archers will trade with about half of the common infect creatures and can even stop two Plague Stingers by itself.

I hope that this article will encourage you to give infect a shot — just not in a draft that I’m in.

One of the most fun parts of any Limited season is exploring the format and finding out what hidden synergies exist. Which strategies work, and which don’t. A good Limited format can go for weeks or months and keep providing interesting angles of attack. Cards and strategies popular on day one fall by the wayside as more nuanced strategies come to light.

I hope to spend more time in the near future exploring infect some more and seeing what else works for the deck. There might a non-black infect deck that can thrive, probably a slower U/G build focusing on cards like Blight Mamba, and the infect token generators with proliferate to increase the value of the -1/-1 counters. There might even be a good, normal creature/infect creature hybrid build that doesn’t suck. It’s hard to tell just yet.