The Making of a +1/ +1 Counter Culture

Posted in From the Lab on February 14, 2008

By Chris Millar

Welcome to +1/+1 Counter Week! Call it Bead Week, Penny Week, or Marble Week (Note: Do not use marbles as +1/+1 counters. Unless you're a Hippo.) if you like. It doesn't really matter what you call it as long as you don't call it Late for Dinner Week. The more important thing is what you do with this time and the +1/+1 counters.

As Mark Rosewater mentioned on Monday, +1/+1 counters have been a part of the game since Alpha. You can trace their lineage from Fungusaur through to Fungal Behemoth and on to Fungus Sliver, while making numerous (and, happily, fungus-free) detours along the way. Mark also noted that the +1/+1 counter can have many different flavours, from the representation of out-of-control fungal growth to the representation of controlled fungal growth and everything in between. At once highly adaptable and intrinsically flavourless, +1/+1 counters easily assume the flavour of their surrounding elements. They're kind of like tofu that way. Or chameleons. Or, I guess, chameleons made of tofu. Either way, fry some up for me!

Our friend the +1/+1 counter is a very plain, very workmanlike counter. It doesn't have the cachet or sophistication of the loyalty counter, the indie cred of the polyp counter, or the unprecedented pitiability of the tide counter. It doesn't have the infectious charm of either the -0/-1 counter or the -2/-1 counter. It doesn't have the clockwork precision of the +1/+0 counter, the dash and pizzazz of the +2/+0 counter, or the solemn dignity of the +0/+2 counter. What it does have is its own theme week, so I'd better get cracking.

In his article last Friday, Devin Low talked about how bounce (the ability to return permanents to their owner's hands) was a sort of "universal interface" of Magic, providing some continuity between sets and allowing cards from distant sets to interact profitably. While not quite as ever-present as bounce, +1/+1 counters have made appearances or had key roles in as many sets as not. You could open packs of ExodusJudgmentMirrodinRavnica, and Lorwyn, and discover that many of your cards form neat little combos. Your Spikes can give your Phantoms a little boost, your Golgari Elves can team up with certain pretty-boy Elves of Lorwyn, and your white Planeswalkers can make your army of Arcbound creatures so modular you'd think the module store was having a Blowout Spectacular!!!

On top of that, sprinkled throughout these sets are such open-ended synergy-fests as Power Conduitand Doubling Season. In fact, the +1/+1 counter has been so versatile and near-ubiquitous that I've already written about decks focused on them many times and so have the other tenants of House of Cards. Luckily, piling beads, pennies, or marbles on to creatures is such an entertaining enterprise that it didn't take much arm-twisting or editorial whip-cracking to get me to travel down this familiar path one more time. Plus, it's pretty much guaranteed that we're going to be playing with Elves and various green fatties, my two great loves (followed closely by chameleon tofu).

The Vigor, The Better


When Lorwyn came out, the cycle of Elemental Incarnations (Dream, Death, Despair, Destruction...Oops, wrong cycle.) was the talk of the town or, at least, a town. I'm just guessing. Most of the talk, as far as I could tell, was focused on Guile,PurityDread, and Hostility. Our pal in green, Mr. Vigor, was stuck playing second fiddle. Or fifth fiddle, I guess. Besides fiddling lessons, it seemed like there was no way for the green member of this group to bump its status. Well, it's +1/+1 Counter Week. There's no better time than the present to attempt a rehabilitation of the poor guy's reputation.

I've played with Vigor. It basically makes your guys unblockable until your opponent can no longer afford to lose any more life. It's been tons of fun with Spike Feeder and it makes chump-blocking other tramplers even less appealing than normal. It even saved my skin in one game that I was sure I was going to lose. I was playing the mono-green deck I included at the end of my Treefolk Week column, and my opponent was playing, I believe, mono-green Elves. It didn't take long for my offense to be blunted by Wren's Run Vanquisher,Wren's Run Packmaster, and an endless string of deathtouching Wolf tokens. Vigor to the rescue! In this case, the damage prevention part of its ability was more important than the bonus counters since it essentially meant that all the deathtouchers were just vanilla creatures. In a perfect world, I wouldn't be holding a 6/6 trampler back on defense, but my other critters were excited to be able to enter the fray once again.

There are other offensive-minded, team-oriented creatures that induce disappointment when they aren't able to travel through the red zone. The first one that comes to mind is the new Knight "lord,"Kinsbaile Cavalier. It gives all of your other Knights double strike, perhaps the most powerful quality a creature can have, but without help it simply trades with Hill Giants and Giant Spiders. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement, so why don't we give the guy some help, starting with Vigor? Not only does the damage prevention make attacking each turn ever more likely, but the +1/+1 counters are twice as effective because of the double strike. Of course, it would be nice to have some other Knights in the deck. Mirror Entity and Chameleon Colossus are two of the most powerful "Knights" on the market and they are absolutely bonkers with double strike. With Mirror Entity in the deck, it becomes less important to include other proper Knights, since it can give every creature you control every creature type.

I decided to include a number of mana-fetchers (Sakura-Tribe Elder and Fertilid) because the deck can make use of any amount of mana, and then I added Hunting Triad which has two useful modes for this deck. The Elf Warriors can become Knights with Mirror Entity (or, frankly, simply enormous), and the +1/+1 counters are a welcome addition to a lonely Kinsbaile Cavalier. You know who else likes token production, can become very large, very quickly, and just happens to be a Knight? That's right: "super-graft guy" Juniper Order Ranger. Not only will he be a monster on offense with Kinsbaile Cavalier, but he helps out Fertilid and makes Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree twice as good.

Knights of Vigor
Extended Legal
8 Forest
5 Plains
3 Selesnya Sanctuary
2 Rustic Clachan
2 Llanowar Reborn
2 Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree
2 Mutavault
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
4 Fertilid
3 Mirror Entity
4 Kinsbaile Cavalier
3 Chameleon Colossus
4 Juniper Order Ranger
3 Vigor
4 Rampant Growth
2 Sylvan Scrying
4 Hunting Triad
1 Doubling Season

There were some other cards that I tried to work in, but cut due to lack of space. Consider these paths not taken. Mirari's Wake and Supply/Demand could form the backbone of a nice Juniper Order Ranger,Kinsbaile CavalierMirror Entity deck. Chorus of the Conclave and Swell of Courage can boost an army gradually or all of a sudden, and both could fit into the big mana concept. Ajani Goldmane is best at pumping up a large army of small guys (See: Weenie, White), while the two Knight token-makers, Errand of Duty and Waylay, work well with both Juniper Order Ranger and Doubling Season.

A Fable Chap

Cytoplast Manipulator and Immaculate MagistrateThe next deck is an updated version of a deck I built a while ago. I meant to write about it, but it got lost in the shuffle. It's a Wizard deck that combines the power of the Simic's graft (most notably, Vigean Graftmage and Cytoplast Manipulator) with the powerful tap abilities of Coldsnap's Rimewind Wizards (well, at least two of them: Rimewind Taskmageand Heidar, Rimewind Master). Toss inExperiment Kraj (another nicely open-ended card that cares about +1/+1 counters) and some other useful Wizards like Bloodline Shaman and Simic Guildmage, and you have the basis for a deck.

The latest additions are Immaculate Magistrate, who combines with Cytoplast Manipulator to steal a creature each turn or with Fertilid to allow you to Rampant Growth every turn (or more often than that if you control some of the other Elves in the deck). The other key addition isMorningtide Wizard "lord," Sage of Fables, who both provides more counters and gives you something to do with them. Pemmin's Aura is great with all of your tapping guys and combines with Simic Guildmage to thwart opposing spot removal (as I've discussed in the past).

In the interest of More Ideas and to hint at other ways to build such a deck, I included a Balduvian Frostwaker and a Spike Tiller. With a full complement of Fertilids fishing lands out of your deck, and some way to make your animated lands more robust combatants (like, say, Vigor), you could soon find yourself with an overwhelming horde of 9/9 Breeding Pools.

The Grafters
Extended Legal
12 Snow-Covered Island
8 Snow-Covered Forest
3 Llanowar Reborn
1 Scrying Sheets
4 Bloodline Shaman
4 Rimewind Taskmage
3 Simic Guildmage
4 Sage of Fables
4 Vigean Graftmage
2 Fertilid
1 Balduvian Frostwaker
3 Immaculate Magistrate
1 Cytoplast Manipulator
3 Heidar, Rimewind Master
1 Spike Tiller
1 Experiment Kraj
3 Pemmin's Aura
2 Evolution Vat

You Build...Constructs

Bramblewood Paragon, Rage Forger, Cenn's Tactician, Oona's Blackguard, and Sage of FablesWhile they are obviously at their best in decks of the appropriate creature types, the Morningtide +1/+1 counter "lords" (Bramblewood ParagonRage Forger,Cenn's TacticianOona's Blackguard, and the aforementioned Sage of Fables) can easily be used in other decks. They only add counters to creatures of a certain type, but the bonus they give to creatures with +1/+1 counters applies to any creature of any type. A Bramblewood Paragon will give trample to Triskelion or an unsuspended Epochrasite, for instance. In a deck full of creatures like these (in, say, a Construct tribal deck), the Paragon acts as aPrimal Rage on the body of Grizzly Bear. Similarly, Oona's Blackguard imitates Larceny and Cenn's Tactician mimics High GroundRage Forger and Sage of Fables don't have direct enchantment translations, but they are still very useful with counter-laden creatures.

The deck is heavy on Constructs. Besides the two I mentioned, I also included Phyrexian Ironfoot,Mindless Automaton, the mana-ramping Millikin, and a single Pentavus. They don't all have +1/+1 counters, but that can be remedied with Power Conduit (or, if you prefer, Energy Chamber). I went with the Conduit because it can put counters on the non-artifact creatures. Of course, Power Conduitdoesn't generate any counters, it can only transfer them from one permanent to another. To keep the counters flowing, the deck has a full set of both Mirrodin's Core and Coalition Relic. Each of those cards can produce one counter a turn, which can then be used to put +1/+1 counters on your creatures or, better yet, charge counters on either Riptide Replicator or Door of Destinies. It's a shame I couldn't squeeze some Vigors in here:

The Humans Are Dead
Extended Legal
12 Snow-Covered Island
4 Llanowar Reborn
4 Mirrodin's Core
3 Vivid Creek
1 Academy Ruins
4 Epochrasite
4 Millikin
4 Phyrexian Ironfoot
4 Mindless Automaton
1 Bramblewood Paragon
1 Rage Forger
1 Sage of Fables
1 Cenn's Tactician
1 Oona's Blackguard
3 Triskelion
1 Pentavus
4 Power Conduit
4 Coalition Relic
2 Door of Destinies
1 Riptide Replicator


Ah, well, I didn't have to wait long for another Vigor deck. One aspect of this card that is fairly easy to miss the first time you read it is that it prevents all damage dealt to creatures you control, not just combat damage. This allows Vigor to score some Johnny points and lets you maximize its effectiveness even if your opponent is completely creatureless. Damage-based creature sweepers are a nice place to start, since they will simultaneously clear your opponent's side of the board and pump your guys up to epic proportions. Repeatable sweepers are even better. I'm looking at you, Pyroclast Consul. As long as you have an Elemental or Shaman on top of your deck, you will be able to Pyroclasm every turn. WithVigor in play, this means you will give your team a permanent +2/+2 bonus every turn.

Pyroclast Consul

Don't forget, as I did recently, that kinship is optional. You "may" look at the top card and you "may" reveal it. In some recent games, I was revealing the top card of my library every turn until I noticed those "may"s on my Ink Dissolver. What this means is that you don't have to fire off the Consul's 'Clasm if you are missing Vigor and you have little guys you would like to keep around. Besides Pyroclast Consul, there are other fine sweepers we can use. Martyr of Ashes is a nice deterrent who also happens to be a Shaman. Molten Disaster is scalable and, if you can play the kicker, prevents your opponent from messing with your Vigor in response. Then there's Ashling the Pilgrim. Seriously, how sick is Ashling the Pilgrim with Vigor? The cards have been out for months now, but I didn't think about putting them together until just now. If you can set Ashling off without killing Vigor, the Legendary Elemental will get all of its counters back! The next time you fire off its ability three times in a turn, you will deal twice as much damage as the first time. Of course, this will likely kill Vigor in the process (unless you have two of them in play), but it's just as likely to kill everything else in sight as well.

The deck was already pretty Shaman-heavy before I added the no-brainers (Flamekin Harbinger (Vigors five-through-eight) and Smokebraider), so I decided to add a set of Rage Forgers as well. Here's the final deck.

Vigor Eight
Standard Legal
11 Mountain
7 Forest
4 Primal Beyond
2 Llanowar Reborn
4 Martyr of Ashes
4 Flamekin Harbinger
4 Smokebraider
3 Ashling the Pilgrim
4 Fertilid
4 Rage Forger
1 Stingmoggie
3 Pyroclast Consul
4 Vigor
1 Hostility
3 Molten Disaster
2 Primal Command
1 Wrap in Vigor

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

Chris Millar

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