Archetype Inspection Proliferate

What Makes Proliferate So Strong in Commander?

Tom AndersonCommander

We all know winning isn’t everything in Commander, and any kind of deck can be a success story if it brings its pilot joy. But not all archetypes and mechanics were made equal, and some have a tendency to feel downright unfair in all but the most competitive environments. So today we’re going to look at proliferate and arm you with the knowledge of how it works in Commander. That way, whether you run into it or play with it yourself, you can properly appreciate its power.

Proliferate has shown dominance in all sorts of decks ever since it was first printed. It’s also among the most ubiquitous: its poster-child commander choice is literally the No. 1 most popular on EDHREC (and it’s not remotely close).

The top Commanders of the past two years, according to

But what is it about proliferate that makes it so consistent and powerful in so many different deck lists? Which specific cards and combos are responsible for its infamy among Commander players? And what are some less obvious ways you can harness its power to improve YOUR Commander deck, even if you aren’t going all-in on Atraxa and friends?


The powerful thing that leaps out at you when first reading the rules for proliferate is how flexible and broad the effect is. A single trigger is usually somewhat costly, and only increments each pile of counters by one. However, proliferate can affect “any number of permanents or players” and it adds a counter “of each kind already there!” 

It naturally follows that a great proliferate deck would use as many different counters as possible. This is what the original Atraxa precon does, in fact. 

However, most experienced Commander players do not fear a deck that can proliferate 10 different counters at once. They fear the deck that can proliferate a single type of counter up to 10 times.

Poison is a highly contentious mechanic in its own right, loathed by many for how suddenly it can kill and how hard it is to counteract. But it’s in proliferate-heavy decks that the unpleasantness of poison counters is really amplified. Now, even a single, early instance of poison represents a fast, unpredictable and almost uncounterable clock on your life.

It’s quite demanding to block every possible attack from Infect or Toxic creatures, but even that is not enough when cards like Infectious Bite and Prologue to Phyresis are available. 

Since the few anti-Poison tech cards are too narrow for most Commander metagames, opponents receiving their first Poison counters face an unappealing choice: either unapologetically gang up to immediately remove the proliferate deck from the game, or don’t — and then try to act surprised when that player inevitably wins the game a few triggers later.

That’s not an experience most Commander players enjoy either side of, so the community taboo against poison-proliferate decks is second only to the one against land destruction. That still doesn’t mean you’re a bad person for wanting to play such a deck, but you should at least prepare to suddenly become the archenemy at your table if the other players so much as suspect that you’re on that game plan.

Some players will even extend this paranoia to anything that looks like a proliferate deck, even before seeing any evidence of Poison counters. But they shouldn’t be so quick to worry; a good proliferate deck has a thousand other, less predictable ways to take over the game.


One way to recognize an inherently strong mechanic is by how many things synergize with it. How often does it make random cards better? 

It’s this metric that demonstrates proliferate’s true, insane potential. And we’re talking perhaps the most open-ended, value-adding mechanic of all time. Plus it’s an angle of attack that grows substantially in power with every new set Wizards of the Coast puts out.

That’s because proliferate doesn’t synergize with any specific card type, mechanic or game action: it has synergy with the way card designs get translated into Magic rules text. Not just that: it’s most synergistic with effects that are complicated, unique and scalable. These also happen to be the exact type of cards players look for in Commander. 

Proliferate interacts with counters. Not just the common +1/+1 counters, but all the myriad other “utility” counters created by abilities of specific cards. Magic’s “game engine” relies on these counters to track any card that needs to count, evolve or accumulate its effects over time.

Counters are even used in some situations where cards aren’t intended to scale like this, which makes the ability to proliferate them even more significant. The actual value of your proliferate triggers in game scenarios varies wildly, depending on whether they’re generating a +1/+1 counter on Forgotten Ancient, a study counter on Pursuit of Knowledge, a lore counter on Kiora Bests the Sea God or a filibuster counter on Azor’s Elocutors

There is no single mechanic that “unlocks” the peak potential of more otherwise disparate cards than proliferate. And fortunately for those building with this mechanic, being able to benefit from proliferate is really all the synergy you need. 

No wonder there’s such a deep archive of unique Atraxa deck lists. It’s hard to find 99 cards that don’t get more powerful and exciting under her influence!


If proliferate has any real weakness, it’s that the mechanic can only add one counter per kind, per target, per trigger. 

Since this rate holds 99% of the time, the two variable components are how valuable each counter is and how efficiently you can generate more triggers. And since Wizards can’t really afford to balance every counter-using card around proliferate, they have been very diligent in trying to restrict just how good we can be at generating more triggers!

A lot of the playable cards that trigger proliferate are single use, and it’s particularly rare to find a repeatable source of proliferate for less than four or five mana per activation. It’s another good reason why +1/+1 counter and proliferate are considered separate deck archetypes. There’s usually easier or faster ways to increment +1/+1 counters without proliferate. 

But by contrast, many “utility counter” cards seem like the designers never expected them to be incremented in this way at all. These cards are usually where you can maximize your “value per counter” variable, so they’ve become recognized staples of these proliferate decks along with the best ways to trigger proliferate more efficiently.

Proliferate-boosted mana rocks will see a growing return over time in combination with simple mana sink proliferators, but they aren’t really enough on their own. You’ll need to look into the precious handful of cards that either add additional counters per trigger using replacement effects or allow you to trigger proliferate more often.

The list is not that long, but at least that makes it easy to take in the standout choices at a glance. Flux Channeler and Evolution Sage are probably the strongest since they can come down early and enjoy both high power floors and high ceilings.

But there are other competitive options: Ichormoon Gauntlet, Staff of Compleation, Brokers Confluence and Inexorable Tide among them. Few in number they may be compared to support cards for some other archetypes, but even one of these engines in play can trigger a winning surge for the proliferate player. That’s just how much momentum consecutive triggers can generate.


There’s no one standout interaction with a particular card that represents the power of proliferate, or even a particular kind of ultra-valuable counter. Rather, it’s the incredibly broad and varied options it’s capable of knitting together into totally unforeseen strategies that creates an imbalance, and the ease with which even a modest burst of early triggers can snowball into a massive resource lead… or outright victory.

It can feel demoralizing to play against such inevitability, and both the community and Wizard’s designers have done what they can to curb some of its most degenerate potential. But proliferate is not going to go away. 

This mechanic is only ever getting stronger. And if you can’t beat the decks that draw on its power, then you might as well join them. Hope you brought your extra-big dice bag!