The prevailing paradigm in ecological studies of viruses and their microbial hosts is that the reproductive success of viruses depends on the proliferation of the ‘predator’, that is, the virus particle. Yet, viruses are obligate intracellular parasites, and the virus genome—the actual unit of selection—can persist and proliferate from one cell generation to the next without lysis or the production of new virus particles. Here, we propose a theoretical framework to quantify the invasion fitness of viruses using an epidemiological cell-centric metric that focuses on the proliferation of viral genomes inside cells instead of virus particles outside cells. This cell-centric metric enables direct comparison of viral strategies characterized by obligate killing of hosts (e.g. via lysis), persistence of viral genomes inside hosts (e.g. via lysogeny), and strategies along a continuum between these extremes (e.g. via chronic infections). As a result, we can identify environmental drivers, life history traits, and key feedbacks that govern variation in viral propagation in nonlinear population models. For example, we identify threshold conditions given relatively low densities of susceptible cells and relatively high growth rates of infected cells in which lysogenic and other chronic strategies have higher potential viral reproduction than lytic strategies. Altogether, the theoretical framework helps unify the ongoing study of eco-evolutionary drivers of viral strategies in natural environments.