A Tasty Buffet of -1/-1 Counters

Posted in Feature on May 14, 2008

By Doug Beyer

Senior creative designer on Magic's creative team and lover of writing and worldbuilding. Doug blogs about Magic flavor and story at http://dougbeyermtg.tumblr.com/

First off, I want to thank Great Designer Ken Nagle for filling in for me last week. I was off enjoying sunny Italy with my girlfriend (and actually, due to some web-warped time dilation effects, as you read this, I will still be in Europe). Thanks for covering for me Vorthos style, Ken!


When you sit down at the laptop, there's always that first paragraph of the theme week when you're like:

"Okay, how can my article be about -1/-1 counters?"

And then you're like:

"Oho, I could be very clever, and interpret the theme in a punny way, thereby deftly dodging the agreed-upon site theme! I could, for example, write about some wilderness outpost known as Minos One, and the stuttering barkeep who shines mugs behind the counters! Genius!"

Sleeping_PotionAnd then you're like:

"Wow, who's amused by that? No, really. I think the cleverness of that plan is appreciated by only those readers who enjoy plays on words, tolerate weird columns, have medium-length brown hair, and are me."

And then you're like:

"Okay, so I should just actually write about the theme. Place those puns carefully back in their holsters, there, cowboy. Get with the informative, read-worthy content about the inner workings of the creative team of Magic: The Gathering. Go."

So that's where I am. This article is about wither, persist, and other -1/-1 counter mechanics, and the flavor of all of them. It contains only passing references to the first of the outposts Minos. Welcome to -1/-1 Counter Week. Please to enjoy.


Wither's Earlier Incarnation: CurseWither began as a mechanic called "curse." Curse was like wither, except that the number of -1/-1 counters inflicted didn't have to match the power of the curse creature. When a curse creature was blocked by another creature, the curse creature gave out a number of -1/-1 counters equal to its curse value, a number, instead of dealing damage. Curse values were all over the place in relation to creatures' power, which gave rise to some weird, hard-to-remember cards. That wording thankfully went away, and the mechanic eventually became wither.The older mechanic ("curse n") did have some interesting interactions, though. Specifically, creatures of high power but low curse values generated interesting game play. If you block such a creature it gives out only a small number of -1/-1 counters—only a little touch of corruption—but if you don't block it, it'll really sock you in the gut. That game play was "reimplemented," using the cleaner wither rules, as Slinking Giant.If you didn't read Shadowmoor's Mechanic Web by my friend Devin Low, you should. It's a fun and fascinating (and in my opinion, entertainingly spider-shaped) look at how all of Shadowmoor's mechanical themes spread out and took shape from a few core ideas, and also a visual model of creativity in action. You can almost watch the designers' and developers' thoughts branch out and diversify to fill up the space of the set, and imagine the mad whiteboard-scribbling of excited meetings when two or more design ideas began to interconnect in logical yet subtle ways.

Just like the mechanics of the set, the flavor of wither, persist, and the rest of the sad-countery goodness branched out idea by idea to accommodate the cards on which they appeared. In the early going of Shadowmoor's design, wither was called "curse." It had a similar -1/-1 counter-granting effect to the wither we know today (see sidebar for a slightly divergent discussion of how the wither mechanic began), but had some big flavor issues to get ironed out.

Like a lot of keywords, wither appeared on a lot of cards (over twenty in Shadowmoor) and across multiple colors (black, red, and green, and some artifacts). So the keyword had to be flexible enough to jive with the values of those colors while sounding generally at home in lighting-challenged Shadowmoor.

The word "wither" was a contender right off the bat. It was a cool, creepy word; it accurately described the way that armies of creature tended to shrivel and fade away to nothing in Shadowmoor Sealed and Draft play; and it had a unique flair that help contribute solidity to Shadowmoor's teetering, Jenga-like stack of keywords. Some in the creative team favored a more generic word that could travel more readily to other sets and settings. For example, "wound" would have made a lot of sense for a mechanic that made creatures create permanent, scarring wounds. I didn't like the way "wound" had two pronunciations in English, though—someone might see a 2/2 creature with "wound" and think somebody cranked its key too tightly. "Wounding" was less ambiguous, but I didn't think it looked as cool on the page. Some thought "wither" wasn't right because of connotations of wilting house plants, but as far as I was concerned, it had all the right properties of a great keyword.

Wither as Green

Juvenile Gloomwidow
Black and red both have easy claim to a withering mechanic, but what about green? Why, flavor-wise, would green be in the business of causing permanent injuries to other creatures? Mechanically it works well just as a way to give green a sideways way to deal with opposing creatures, something that green traditionally lacks. But on the flavor side of things, we had to figure it out on a card-by-card basis. The red-green boggarts already had nasty, twisted, and rust-tainted weaponry to explain their withery nature. If you got the barb of a Scuzzback Scrapper's armor, or an aggravated wound from the tree-ram of a Boggart Ram-Gang, you'd definitely feel the flavor of "that's gonna leave a mark."

But even Elves have wither, concepted on Wildslayer Elves as hunters who have spent far too long getting the corrosive blood of awful monsters on their blades. Juvenile Gloomwidow has wither in the form of venom, until it grows up to become the actual adult Gloomwidow, as explained in the Juvenile's flavor text. Blazethorn Scarecrow and Thornwatch Scarecrow sprout wither-inducing thorns as long as you have green creatures around to make them feisty. Green doesn't traditionally do a lot of lasting damage to creatures, but in a setting like Shadowmoor, it can use its natural, predatory ferocity to go above and beyond temporary damage in creature-on-creature combat.


Persistent Oona?For a while during development, Oona, Queen of the Fae had the persist ability. It's generally not that fun to hear how cards lose abilities due to being really, really strong, but she was really, really strong, so she lost that little keyword. I fought for her keeping the keyword for a Vorthosian reason: Oona is one of few creatures who maintained her identity and memories across the Aurora. She persisted just as she was, see? But believe you me, it's good news for Standard and other formats that this already nightmarishly powerful legend didn't also have a get-out-of-death-free clause in her rules text, however storyline-appropriate it would have been.The keyword for "persist" has a shorter story than wither. "Persist" was the playtest keyword for the mechanic, and we kept it all the way through with only a few detours along the way. I was especially fond of "prevail" as a way to show how powerful the mechanic was—you get in a fight with another creature of your own power and toughness, and you "prevail" as your blocker dies. Unfortunately, there are too many circumstances where that doesn't happen—you can still certainly chump block with a persist creature and it doesn't feel very victorious. Plus, "prevail" has a heroic ring to it that felt slightly at odds with the sinister setting, so it goes back into the vault to await the perfect mechanic to name. "Persist," happily, already named the feel of the mechanic quite well. You don't come through unscathed—you earn yourself a -1/-1 counter thanks to your near-death experience, after all—but you do manage to cling to the edge of life with your fingertips. You don't thrive, you don't have a party—but you do persist. And isn't that all a creature can ask for in the dark fairytale world of Shadowmoor?

Other -1/-1 Counter Cards


The pool of potential Magic card names is unlimited, but the pool of punchy, cool-sounding, one-word names is definitely a shallow swim. Despite its hybrid mana cost, I thought it was appropriate to use "Scar," one of Magic's precious one-worders, on this very basic effect. Rei Nakazawa's flavor text expounds on the nature of the scar, giving flavor to Illulia, the Lorwyn flamekin revolutionary whose personality changed into a leader of a cinder cult in Shadowmoor. The idea of a -1/-1 counter as a scar left behind from a wound was initially put forth in the card that became Puncture Bolt.

Cultbrand Cinder

Speaking of cinder cults, here's a cultist. The -1/-1 counter here represents the stinging welt left behind by the cinder's hot staff-brand. Note that his forehead has the same brand on it—initiation into this cult isn't kid stuff. (Perhaps he was once 4/4, or perhaps he got his portrait taken on a day when he got confused and targeted himself with his ability.)

Grim Poppet

-1/-1 counters as sloshing vessels of acid? Sure. But it comes into play with three of them—how would a scarecrow hold three big vats of acid? With three arms, of course.

Flourishing Defenses

This better-than-it-looks "build around" enchantment was flavored as the state of an elvish safehold going on alert as creatures of beauty are being harmed. What befalls an evil creature looking to destroy a source of beauty? It's ambushed by a bunch of safewrights, noble elves who devote their lives to protecting the remaining light of Shadowmoor.


Note that we knew that Torture was destined to be reprinted in Shadowmoor before Daily Regimen was created as its "dark mirror" opposite and put into Morningtide. On the other hand, Incremental Blight was created the regular way—its +1/+1 counter version (Incremental Growth) was created in Lorwyn, and the "dark mirror" was designed afterwards for Shadowmoor.

Blowfly Infestation

I particularly like the icky flavor of a nest of flies (represented by a -1/-1 counter) eating their fill of a corpse, then flying their way over to a new victim. Note that this card can create a cascade of destroyed creatures if there are a bunch of 1-toughness or near-death creatures laying around, creating a truly deadly infestation.

Scarscale Ritual

Scars aren't just negative reminders of pain. Some merrows mark their scaly skin with magical inscriptions, storing Wanderbrine river knowledge and spell lore directly on their bodies.


This weird guy got way better with its flavor text. If you've played Morselhoarder against a wither creature, you know how much it indeed savors even the tang of poisonous fungi. This odd Elemental hoards little -1/-1 counter morsels in its jellyfishlike dome-garden, digesting them to create mana.

Devoted Druid

There are several of these guys who can get -1/-1 counters to untap and use their abilities again. Devoted Druid is one of the most explosive in play, and one of the more interesting from a flavor perspective. Abilities that cause a creature to hurt itself can be problematic for flavor, or an opportunity to show off how some beings, like this Elf Druid, are willing to do whatever it takes to defend their chosen cause, including the ultimate example, actual self-harm. If mana lurks in the depths of one's heart, how exactly does one go about digging it out? Yep, that's devotion for you.

Letter of the Week

Graven Cairns

Dear Doug Beyer,

Regarding your article about the flavor of Shadowmoor.

One of the previewed cards was a land working exactly like the timeshifted card Graven Cairns. The flavor text of Graven Cairns mentions "Kar-Sengir."

Does Graven Cairns share the flavor of Shadowmoor? Does this mean that we finally will witness the return of Baron Sengir (he has a portal to some nice plane he wants to invade, doesn't he)?

I would be very glad if you could address this, please--I'm a huge Sengir fan.
–Jonas L.

Hey Jonas,

So am I, and so is Matt Cavotta, which is why, when we were working on Future Sight names and flavor text together, we were so jazzed about including a reference to the future of the Sengir family. We knew Future Sight would have a "tour of possible future settings" cycle of nonbasic lands (Nimbus Maze, River of Tears, Graven Cairns, Grove of the Burnwillows, Horizon Canopy), and we took each as an opportunity to give "back-references" from those yet-to-be-visited futures. Graven Cairns, with its evocative Future Sight art of huge, vampire-esque carven faces that oozed ichor, was especially inspiring in this regard. At first, we even had its name as Cairns of Kar-Sengir, but design teams were already thinking ahead to some hybrid set they were thinking about, so they wanted a more generic, reprintable name that wouldn't cause flavor problems if they were to reprint it as part of a powerful hybrid-land cycle sooner rather than later.

Graven Cairns
We went ahead with the flavor text as it was, even though we knew it was pretty specific about the flavor it was generating. In fact, that was the point: timeshifted Future Sight cards were meant to give glimpses of far-flung futures, complete with flavor text written as if the cards were well-known parts of the current setting.

Then came Shadowmoor, and Graven Cairns got "cycled out." That hybrid set that those designers were thinking about came up sooner than we expected, and by the time the settings of Lorwyn and Shadowmoor were developed, it was clear that the Sengir family would not be right for the plane. Even though Shadowmoor is a dark and dreary place, it's still a fairytale world, a plane of old farmer's wives' tales and ghost stories come true. A ruling barony of vampires was too Gothic to fit the tone of the world, so we decided to save the Kar-Sengir reference for later. Sometimes, like Mistmeadow Skulk, we were able to predict perfectly the kind of flavor and illustration we would need for a Future Sight futureshifted card. But other times, design and development's needs force a card to appear when the setting flavor isn't ready to line up with the Future Sight version of the card, meaning we have to reconcept the card. Just like you, I still have high hopes for the future reappearance of the Sengir family, Jonas, but Shadowmoor wasn't the right time.

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