Games of Limited Magic are all about creature combat. The player with the biggest creature on the board – or the player who can beef up their creatures with combat tricks – will often gain advantages as their creatures survive combat with much smaller ones.
But what if there were a way for small creatures to overpower even the biggest monsters? It’s possible thanks to a keyword ability called deathtouch.
What is Deathtouch?
If a creature has deathtouch, any amount of damage it deals to another creature will be enough to destroy it. Even if the creature with deathtouch has just one power, the one damage it deals to another creature will be lethal, no matter how big the other creature is. Thematically, deathtouch in Magic often represents venomous bites and stings from vermin or insects – small, but incredibly deadly.
Creatures with deathtouch therefore have an inordinate amount of power in combat. Your opponent will be reluctant to trade their 6/6 dinosaur for your 1/1 rat with deathtouch, so they may choose not to attack if your 1/1 is available to block. This makes deathtouch a great defensive ability, but it can be just as effective on offense. For example, if you put an enchantment that says, “Whenever this creature deals combat damage to an opponent, draw a card” on a creature with deathtouch, your opponent may be disinclined to block it, as much as they’d like to prevent you from drawing extra cards.
Dealing with Deathtouch
It’s always nice to have a deathtouch creature on your side, but what if you’re on the other end of the battlefield? What are the most effective ways to deal with deathtouch creatures? Here are a few suggestions.
Creatures with deathtouch can be so annoying that many players prioritize them when using removal spells. Situational removal spells, including those that give creatures -1/-1 or -2/-2, go up in value when there are plenty of small deathtouch creatures to target.
Reduce Their Power
If a creature with deathtouch has zero power, it can’t deal damage and thus cannot destroy an attacking or blocking creature. Spells that reduce a creature’s power to zero or turn it into a creature with zero power can be effective answers to deathtouch. Just be wary of any attempts your opponent might make to increase their power again!
First Strike & Double Strike
Creatures with deathtouch deal damage during the regular combat damage step. Fortunately, if you block a creature with deathtouch with a creature with first strike or double strike, your creature will deal damage during the first strike damage step, before the deathtouch creature can return fire. We’ll cover first strike and double strike in a later article.
Similarly, creatures with indestructible can’t be destroyed by creatures with deathtouch. Some combat tricks will grant indestructible to creatures.
Go Around Them
Deathtouch creatures can’t block everything. If you have too many attackers – or your attackers have evasive abilities like flying or trample – a single creature with deathtouch won’t save your opponent from taking damage.
Just Make the Trade
In some scenarios, engaging with deathtouch creatures in combat is inevitable. Sometimes, it’s best to just trade a better creature for theirs and move on with the game, especially if you have more powerful creatures you can cast later. If you play your cards right, you can pressure your opponent into blocking a creature that means relatively little to you, only to deploy a game-winning threat when they have fewer defenses.
So far, we’ve talked about deathtouch creatures in the context of Draft or Sealed. Deathtouch creatures don’t always measure up in Constructed formats, where removal spells are more prevalent and creature combat isn’t always as relevant, but they do have some important applications.
Deathtouch creatures go up in value in Constructed if they can deal non-combat damage to other creatures. In 2012 and 2013, many Standard players used Nightshade Peddler’s soulbond ability to target Izzet Staticaster, which gave Staticaster the ability to wipe out tons of creatures. More recently, players have cast Status in response to Goblin Chainwhirler’s enter the battlefield trigger, allowing the Goblin the deal one point of lethal damage to all their opponents’ creatures.
If you’re looking for more information on Magic keywords, check out our articles on the following: