The Making of a -1/-1 Counter Culture

Posted in Feature on May 15, 2008

By Chris Millar

Welcome to -1/-1 Counter Week! Once the near-exclusive domain of a cavalcade of silly-sounding creatures (Aboroths, Biskelions, Giant Oyster, Lichenthropes, and Unstable Mutation Flying Men), -1/-1 counters have reentered the Magic scene with something approximating a vengeance. Two of the three new keywords (persist and wither) use the once-eschewed counters. Many of the other cards in Shadowmoor allow you to use these counters for all kinds of nefarious purposes, as you will see in t-minus one second.

Cauldron of the Herd

Judging by the popularity of cards like Momentary Blink, Grim Harvest, and Vedalken Mastermind, and the creatures most commonly found next to them in deck lists (Mulldrifter, Riftwing Cloudskate, and Shriekmaw, among others), players love using and reusing comes-into-play abilities.

Enter persist.

Dubbed the Bogardan Phoenix Sons by someone with too much time on his hands (um, me), creatures with the persist mechanic return to play when they hit the graveyard, but only if they didn't have a -1/-1 counter on them at the time. Unfortunately, they come back into play with a -1/-1 counter, so these would-be phoenixes will only rise from the ashes once. There won't be a next time.

Oh, but wait! If you had some way to remove the -1/-1 counter, your creature would, um, persist. If you could do this consistently, you would have what amounted to an immortal creature. Who hasn't, at some point in their life, wanted an immortal Ouphe? Luckily, there are tons and tons of ways to move a -1/-1 counter off of your Kitchen Finks, Gravelgill Axeshark, or Puppeteer Clique. Off the top of my head, and from Shadowmoor alone, you've got Chainbreaker, Woeleecher, Medicine Runner, and Heartmender to simply remove the counter. Reader Matthew F. suggested moving the counters with Leech Bonder (or Fate Transfer). There are also plenty of options if you look outside of Shadowmoor.

You can get rid of the -1/-1 counter on your persist creature by putting a +1/+1 counter on it, since those counters will cancel each other out due to some crazy rule. Obviously, there are lots of ways to generate +1/+1 counters. We just had a set, Morningtide, with a heavy +1/+1 counter theme, for example. That set's class "lords" will do the trick, provided that your persist creature has the appropriate creature type. Even if it doesn't, there are tools you can use to make it so that it does (Conspiracy, as reader Maki suggested, or Artificial Evolution). You've also got the cards with reinforce to spread +1/+1 counters around as you see fit.

Moving further afield gives you the popular Juniper Order Ranger, Ajani Goldmane (as suggested by Ryan H.), Thrive, Power Conduit, any of the Dissension graft creatures, Spike Feeder and company, Dragon Blood, Evolution Vat, and many, many others.

Another way to go would be to simply use one of the same techniques you'd use with other creatures with comes-into-play abilities. Remove your persister from the game with Mistmeadow Witch or Turn to Mist, as Chris D. suggests, and it will come back into play as a new object, free of its -1/-1 counter.

Now, having immortal creatures is nice and all, but what do you do with them besides watch them live forever? Well, you could put them in a combo deck for starters. Here's a few combos you might have already seen and hopefully a few you haven't.

Kitchen Finks + Juniper Order Ranger + Blasting Station

Kitchen Finks
Juniper Order Ranger
Blasting Station

As mentioned, when a creature with persist like Kitchen Finks dies, it comes back into play with a -1/-1 counter. Juniper Order Ranger will put a +1/+1 counter on it, eliminating both counters and ensuring that Kitchen Finks will return to play the next time it dies. Throw a mana-free sacrifice outlet into the mix, like Blasting Station (or Altar of Dementia or Nantuko Husk) and you've got a loop. In this case, you will be able to gain infinite life with the Finks, make an infinitely large Juniper Order Ranger, and, to make both of those facts moot, you will be also be able to deal infinite damage.

Scuzzback Marauders + Bramblewood Paragon + Goblin Bombardment

Scuzzback Marauders
Bramblewood Paragon
Goblin Bombardment

This is basically the same combo, but with different pieces. Bramblewood Paragon provides the requisite +1/+1 counters. Scuzzback Marauders (and Furystoke Giant) are the only Warriors with persist. Sacrifice one of them to Goblin Bombardment as much as you like to once again deal an arbitrarily large amount of damage. Add Greater Good to either of these combos and you can draw your entire deck.

Cauldron of Souls + Tatterkite + Dross Scorpion + Blasting Station

Dross Scorpion

This one comes from Sean H, and is a slightly more convoluted version of the first two combos, but has the advantage of consisting entirely of artifacts. Sean writes:

"The way this combo works is that you tap the cauldron to give Tatterkite persist. Next, you fling it at your opponent with Blasting Station. This triggers Dross Scorpion, which you use to untap Cauldron of Souls. When the Tatterkite returns to play, it is -1/-1 counter free due to its ability. The revival of the Tatterkite untaps the Blasting Station and you are now at where you started with your opponent having taken 1 damage."

Cauldron of Souls + Horobi, Death's Wail (or Cowardice)

Cauldron of Souls
Horobi, Death's Wail

In a recent column, Mark Rosewater explained that Cauldron of Souls originally read "All creatures you control gain persist," i.e. you didn't have to tap it to use it. While this was done to eliminate easy infinite combos (see: Spike Feeder), the change had the side effect of enabling some other nifty combos like this one. In this combo suggested by Fox M., Cauldron of Souls' ability to target any number of creatures combines with Horobi, Death's Wail to give you a repeatable, one-sided Wrath of God. The key thing to note is that Horobi, Death's Wail triggers when a creature becomes the target of a spell or ability, so the creatures you target will be long dead by the time the Cauldron tries to give them persist. In a similar vein, you can use Cowardice to return any number of targetable creatures to their owners' hands, thus clearing away blockers, saving your team from mass removal, or bouncing your own creatures with comes-into-play effects.

You don't even have to get wacky. You can do something as simple as combining Cauldron of Souls with evoke creatures, as Ryan H. and Efrén R. suggest. Or imagine, as reader James F. did, a simple Warrior deck using Bramblewood Paragon (or, for that matter, a Rogue deck using Oona's Blackguard) with Cauldron of Souls. As he says:

"By having a Bramblewood Paragon and Cauldron of Souls in play and other Warriors ready to attack, you can attack all-out (except with the Paragon of course) without fear of losing any creatures to blockers. Cauldron of Souls also pairs well with Fatal Frenzy, giving you all the bonuses of the Frenzy without the fear of losing your creature."

Neat. There are many other Cauldron combos, to be sure (Impromptu Raid comes to mind), but I'm going to stop right there because there is so much more to talk about.

Scarred for Life, or, I Guess, for Death

Dubbed the Super Quagmire Lampreys by someone willing to use any excuse to bring up Quagmire Lamprey (um, me), the creatures with wither are great sources of negativity (perhaps because of their withering sarcasm). They dish out heaps of negative integers every time they deal damage to other creatures (and not just in combat). The next deck uses some of these creatures in conjunction with other cards that care about -1/-1 counters. As I mentioned last week, reader Efrén R. sent me a ton of Shadowmoor combos, including Kulrath Knight + Midnight Banshee (to prevent all opposing nonblack creatures from attacking or blocking), Kulrath Knight + Grim Poppet (to keep any other creatures off your back), and Scarscale Ritual + Grim Poppet (to draw cards and mow down opposing weenies). Another reader, Rob, suggested pairing Midnight Banshee with Grim Poppet to ensure that the Poppet doesn't run out of counters.

Meanwhile, Dusk Urchins combines with Scarscale Ritual to draw you tons of cards. Fate Transfer can be used to move the counters off of Grief Tyrant or Murderous Redcap to kill opposing creatures (or your own Dusk Urchins) or to move some of the counters generated by Midnight Banshee on to opposing nonblack creatures. The deck does a little bit of everything. Heck, you can even Torture your own Poppet for profit!

Good Grief

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Finish with a Flourish

Flourishing Defenses
Perhaps the most exciting of all the "-1/-1 counters matter" cards is Flourishing Defenses. Besides causing insanity (or at least headaches) with Blowfly Infestation, it serves a number of other purposes. Check out these neat little tidbits from the Shadowmoor FAQ (available on the Set FAQs page):

* This ability triggers both when a -1/-1 counter is put on a creature in play and when a creature comes into play with a -1/-1 counter on it. This includes when a creature returns to play as a result of persist.

* This ability triggers once for each -1/-1 counter. For example, if Leech Bonder (a creature that comes into play with two -1/-1 counters on it) came into play, Flourishing Defenses's ability would trigger twice.

This means that not only will you get Elf tokens whenever a wither creature deals damage, whenever you use Devoted Druid's untap ability, and whenever Witherscale Wurm is dealt damage in combat, but you will also get Elves whenever you play Grim Poppet, Chainbreaker, or Grief Tyrant. Heck, you will get Elves even if your opponent plays these creatures!

Here's a pretty straightforward deck using some of these cards. Devoted Druid can allow for some explosive starts, giving you five mana on turn three if you play a land each turn or six if you also have a turn one Llanowar Reborn and you graft a counter on to your Druid. For five mana, you can do as Efrén R. suggests and play Dramatic Entrance, dropping some expensive fatty into play (like Witherscale Wurm or Woodfall Primus). With six mana, you can simply hardcast Witherscale Wurm.

The Wurm, love child of Aboroth and Lichenthrope, is pretty absurd when it's wielding a Blight Sickle and you have Flourishing Defenses in play. It will either give you, at minimum, ten Elf tokens if your opponent blocks, or deal 10 damage if your opponent doesn't. Blight Sickle is also nice with Jagged-Scar Archers (and Flourishing Defenses), since it allows you to double your Elves whenever you nail a creature with flying. Llanowar Reborn serves a couple of important purposes. It powers up Devoted Druid, as mentioned, but it also allows a persisting Woodfall Primus to come around a second time.

Wither or Not

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As I've said several times already, Shadowmoor is a Johnny's delight, and the cards that care about -1/-1 counters are a huge part of that. I'll round things out today with a few more reader combos and one last combo-filled deck.

Grim Poppet + Grim Poppet + Flourishing Defenses

Grim Poppet
Grim Poppet
Flourishing Defenses

Bert P. sent me this one and the end result is "a zillion elves." Just make sure both Poppets have at least two toughness by, I don't know, killing something with them, and you can move -1/-1 counters back and forth, generating an Elf token each time.

Devoted Druid + Slagwurm Armor

Devoted Druid
Slagwurm Armor

A number of people wrote in to point out the synergy between Devoted Druid and toughness-enhancers like Slagwurm Armor (Might of Old Krosa was also popular). Reader Bill E. illustrated the synergy by outlining this opening sequence:

Turn 1: Forest, Llanowar Elves
Turn 2: Land, Devoted Druid and Slagwurm Armor
Turn 3: Land, Equip Slagwurm Armor to the Druid and play with the remaining nine mana you have available in a variety of fun ways (e.g. Tooth and Nail).

Devoted Druid + Slagwurm Armor + Giant Oyster + Umbral Mantle

Giant Oyster
Umbral Mantle

Noel d.C. went one step wackier. He writes:

"How about infinite mana now? It involves the interesting Devoted Druid and the untap-happy equipment Umbral Mantle. Also, some toughness-raisers, and the kicker... Giant Oyster?

"Lost? Here's how it works: Have a Devoted Druid equipped with Slagwurm Armor (Devoted Druid is now 0/8). Have Giant Oyster equipped with Umbral Mantle. Use the Devoted Druid's crazy mana-making ability seven times, making it a 0/1 and [giving you] seven green mana. Tap the Giant Oyster targeting the Druid. Since the Oyster's ability doesn't happen immediately, nothing happens. Use three of that mana to untap the Oyster. But wait! When the Oyster becomes untapped, remove all -1/-1 counters from Devoted Druid! And repeat, generating four mana each time. Kill with, um Hurricane? Selesnya Guildmage? Wurmcalling?"

Giant Oyster as master healer? Only in Magic.

Morselhoarder + Sinking Feeling + Power of Fire

Sinking Feeling
Power of Fire

This combo was discussed in the coverage of Grand Prix–Brussels, but was first brought to my attention by Robby B. (a.k.a. Redland Jack).

With both Auras attached to Morselhoarder, you can deal infinite damage: Tap the Elemental to deal one damage, pay one mana to untap it with Sinking Feeling, remove the -1/-1 counter you just created to add one mana to your mana pool, and start back at the start. Replace Power of Fire with Presence of Gond (or Flourishing Defenses) to create infinite Elves. Psionic Gift, Fire Whip, Viridian Longbow, or even Kyren Negotiations are suitable replacements for Power of Fire.

Morselhoarder + Devoted Druid + Experiment Kraj

Experiment Kraj

Here's another way to generate infinite mana. This one also comes from Sean H.

There are plenty of other combos in the deck as well. Grim Poppet + Sinking Feeling allows you to turn each mana you spend into a -1/-1 counter. Arcanis the Omnipotent + Sinking Feeling (or Umbral Mantle) + Giant Oyster will let you draw tons of cards each turn. Essence Warden makes any infinite creature combo give you infinite life. Oracle of Nectars and Selesnya Guildmage give you something to do with infinite mana. Obviously, you can tighten this up to focus on fewer combos.

Oysters FTW!

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Next Week on House of Cards

I'll be away next week, on vacation or something. Unlike some of the columnists here, I can't look over into the next cubicle and ask whoever's sitting there if they want to fill in for a week. There are no hapless interns in my office, just hapless me. Don't worry, though. Even though I won't be here, this old House of Cards won't be empty. Instead, your usual dose of combo craziness will be delivered by a special guest author. If you've been reading closely, you might be able to guess who it is, but even if you can't, I'm confident that he or she will bring the goods next week. See you in a fortnight!

Until next time, join the -1/-1 counter culture!

Chris Millar

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