Paper Covers Rock

The best games are ones in which every threat can be answered in some way. Rock, Paper, Scissors, while not a shining example of game design, hinges entirely on this principle; it would not work if Rock was an unbeatable option, for instance. Unless the point of a game is to be the first to acquire the unstoppable such-and-such, the underdog needs some way to come out ahead. Games of Magic are no different, and of all of the Evergreen Keywords, few exemplify this Rock, Paper, Scissors design better than Deathtouch.

Deathtouch (Any amount of damage this deals to a creature is enough to destroy it.)

By including Deathtouch in most every Magic set it allows bigger, more powerful creatures to get printed. If a common 1-mana creature can destroy these threats in combat, it acts as a sort of safety valve. There is a Paper that can beat the Rock, so to speak, and regardless of how good Rock becomes, it can always be defeated by a well-placed Paper.

Bigger Blockers

In most creature-based matches, especially in Limited formats, a player usually wants to get a large threat onto the battlefield to help stabilize against an aggressive deck. If you are being hammered by 2/2 creatures, having a single 3/3 is often enough to stop the onslaught. This scales up, too: if your opponent has 3/3 creatures you will want a 4/4 to stop them, and so on.

The trouble is that these larger creatures are often very mana-intensive. If your opponent has a way to remove your creature you will have lost an entire turn casting it. To make matters worse, if you stumble on mana you run the risk of never being able to cast that life-saving 4/4 in time.

A single Deathtouch blocker can usually protect you about as well as these larger creatures, and is usually much cheaper to cast: Typhoid Rats, Ruthless Ripper, and even Skittering Heartstopper can put up an impressive defense against most anything, and all for only 1 mana. Deathtouch creatures with a higher toughness, like Giant Scorpion or Gifted Aetherborn, may cost a bit more mana, but they are especially good blockers; they are more likely to survive multiple combats while still being able to destroy any attacker, regardless of the attacker’s size.

An Unexpected Death

When you factor in Instants that give Deathtouch, like Coat with Venom, or Flash creatures with this keyword, like the infamous Ambush Viper, it makes players second-guess their actions in combat. Surprise-Deathtouch cards like these make all combats riskier: attacking with a 5/5 creature when your opponent only has a 1/1 is usually safe, but if there is a risk that 1/1 will get Deathtouch…? Now the attacker may think twice before swinging in.

Of course, any combat trick will tip things in favour of whoever has one, but giving a creature Deathtouch out of nowhere is particularly punishing. There are not many ways to get around losing your creature when the opposing threat gains this keyword.

That said, just like how Deathtouch was the Paper that defeats the Rock of big creatures, there are still a lot of options to act as Scissors, answering the Deathtouch threat. First Strike, Indestructible, and even tokens, are all reasonable ways to deal with these dangerous creatures, especially given their typically small size. Burn spells and other removal will also do the trick.


Deathtouch is, in its own strange way, also a form of evasion. Unlike Flying, which prevents blocks outright, Deathtouch gets past defenders by heavily discouraging those blocks instead. It is generally unfavourable to lose a large creature to a much smaller one, especially when the smaller creature only costs 1 or 2 mana, so it feels incredibly wasteful to block Typhoid Rats or a Skittering Heartstopper with anything other than a token. This usually results in an aggressive Rat getting past a wall of blockers several turns in a row.

Deathtouch creatures like Hand of Silumgar and Dire Fleet Poisoner present a more difficult decision for the defender. Taking 1 damage each turn is generally fine, but taking 2 or more is a much bigger concern; after only a handful of attacks from a Dire Fleet Poisoner it could leave you in a very vulnerable position. And so, do you block it and lose one of your creatures, or do you wait and try to find another way of neutralizing the threat?

Bigger, Better Monsters

Things get especially bad for the defender when even larger Deathtouch creatures go on the offensive. A Greater Basilisk can usually eat a few blockers before it dies, while a Dire Fleet Ravager will always destroy at least 2 when blocked because it has Menace (a nasty keyword combination that is perhaps second only to First Strike-Deathtouch)!


When a huge creature has Deathtouch, like Tetzimoc, Primal Death, it almost seems redundant. Their high power is usually enough to destroy anything already, so it seems to only be there for flavour purposes; it makes it seem more threatening this way. That said, this added danger is reflected in gameplay: blocking a Deathtouch monster with multiple creatures will undoubtedly spell doom for every blocker, while against similar creatures of that size there may be survivors. 2 Grazing Whiptails could block a Colossal Dreadmaw and have one live to tell the tale, but against Tetzimoc there would only be death in its wake.


A Harmony of Style and Mechanics

I find this parallel between the flavour of Deathtouch and its in-game effect especially compelling. Cards with it always invoke a sense of extreme danger: coming into contact with a deadly poison or gazing into the eyes of a gorgon is enough to kill even the mightiest of creatures, and mechanically, this is precisely how Deathtouch plays out. The small Skittering Heartstopper is to be avoided at all costs, since it can trade with the biggest Dinosaurs, and gargantuan monsters are made more threatening when they have Deathtouch.


I think the flavour text for Sedge Scorpion sums it up best:


Thakolides the Mighty
Slayer of minotaurs
Vanquisher of giants
Killed by a scorpion

—Inscription on an Akroan grave


I hope you enjoyed this week’s examination of one of the many Evergreen Keywords in Magic. If you are interested in reading a similar analysis of Hexproof, you can find my article on the subject here. In it I touch on the importance of counterplay and why cards should have weaknesses to make a game fun.

Until next time, I wish you all well. And be careful what you touch!

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