Longtime readers with good memories might remember that there was a previous "Making Magic" column about counters and tokens. (+1/+1 For the Road; it was the column where I let a glass bead be the guest author.) Today's column is narrower than that as it is focusing on a specific type of counter. Luckily, the +1/+1 counter has a lot of history, and I thought I'd use today's column to explain why the +1/+1 counter is such a great tool of design and talk a little about how it came to obsolete all the counters similar to it.
Let's begin with the history. I don't have time to run through all fifteen years so I'm just going to cover the early years, what I've called the Golden Age of Design—Alpha through Alliances.
As with many things in Magic, the +1/+1 counter began in the mind of Richard Garfield. In fact, Alpha had three different cards that used +1/+1 counters:
Also, it had one card that used a +1/+0 counter. (Note that for purposes of understanding the history of the +1/+1 counter, I have to also examine other power/toughness altering counters):
What else did these four creatures have in common? They were four of the most popular creatures when the game first came out. I've talked about this before but Clockwork Beast was megapopular in Magic's early days. It was the card (along with The Hive) that you couldn't get people to trade to you. You just had to open one out of a pack. Sengir Vampire, along with Serra Angel and, to a lesser extent, Hurloon Minotaur, was one of the game's earliest iconics. Rock Hydra was just mind-blowingly awesome. And in the early days I traded a Fungusaur for a Mox Emerald and I believed I was the nice guy to be willing to make the trade (I didn't have a Mox Emerald, or any Mox, at the time, and I had two Fungusaurs).
Why was the +1/+1 counter (and the +1/+0 counter—from now on I'm just going to say +1/+1 but I mean all power/toughness altering counters) so popular? Because getting bigger is fun. (This is the same basic principle why Giant Growth rocks by the way.) Each of these four creatures says if you jump through the right hoop, you can make your creature grow.
This leads me into one of my pet theories about how I believe cards are perceived. I think most players maximize a card when they see it for the first time. By that I mean that players imagine the best-case scenario when they first encounter a card. If it can conditionally get better, the player imagines that they will do that. If the card has some additional uses, the player assumes they will find a way to use them. If the card appears situational, the player assumes that they will find the right situation. The point behind this theory is that cards that are open-ended in potential, such as cards that can grow through +1/+1 counters, make great first impressions.
In addition, I believe it is the outliers that most create memorable moments. The many games that my Fungusaur stays a 1/1 all become a blur. The one game it was a 15/15? That is the memory of the card that stays with you. For example, see this card?
As far as I'm concerned, it will forever be a 27,648/27,642. (Click here if you have no idea what I'm talking about.)
While these four Alpha cards might seem very similar, they actually show a few different uses of the +1/+1 counter. Fungsaur and Sengir Vampire are used solely as means to show the creature growing over time. Sure the flavor is different on the two cards but mechanically, the +1/+1 counter is used as a means of tracking growth.
Rock Hydra and Clockwork Beast go to the next step. They allow a way for the creature to both grow and shrink based on certain events happening. But that is not the most revolutionary thing about them design-wise. In order to allow growing and shrinking, Richard reduced the creature's power to 0 (and the toughness to 0 as well on the Hydra) and had the creature come into play with some number of counters already on it. This method allowed the creature to shrink below where it started with an easy means of tracking the change.
One final note before we move on. I think these four cards do an excellent job of demonstrating how much flavor +1/+1 counters can create. On the Hydra it represents extra heads. On the Vampire, it represents power through feeding. On the Beast, it represents the winding down of gears. Each one really adds to the overall flavor even though mechanically it is using the same basic tool.
As we continue, I'm just going to focus on what I consider design advancements of the +1/+1 counter, meaning I'm not going to be talking about every card that uses a +1/+1 counter. For this purpose, Arabian Nights had only one true innovation but it was a doozy:
Yes, the evil twin of the +1/+1 counter, the -1/-1 counter. In its first usage it is basically acting as a shrinking counter doing the opposite of what began in Alpha.
Next, we come to Antiquities. There were two innovations in this expansion, each on two cards. First was this:
These cards use the +1/+1 counter as a means to permanently grow something else (and to be fair only Weaponsmith did this out right, Transmogrant kind of hinted at it without directly naming the +1/+1 counter—this would later be fixed in Oracle). The flavor here is that these cards, either by turning something into an artifact creature or handing out a weapon, permanently strengthen the affected creature. Putting a +1/+1 counter on something might seem dirt obvious now but the idea of expanding the roles of a +1/+1 counter beyond being an expression of a creature's size was a significant leap forward back in the day.
The next innovation was on these two cards:
These cards used the tech from Rock Hydra and Clockwork Beast but added a very interesting component. These creatures could consciously shrink themselves as a cost for an effect. (Tetravus even had a means by which the counters could be reclaimed.) From a design innovation standpoint, this one's a big one and is a tool that certain designers (myself in particular) will use again and again.
Legends had a few new twists for +1/+1 counters. First was this card:
While technically this can be clumped in the "+1/+1 as growth effect" category, I felt it was worthy to point out that this is the first "ooze," that is the first creature that grew not because of an effect but because of the passage of time. Many oozes would follow.
And then there was this card:
I singled this card out because the "grow when I damage my opponent" has proven so useful that it is a semi-regular creature ability. It even proved worthy of an entire cycle in Mirrodin—the Slith.
But the most innovative use of +1/+1 counters showed up in the most unlikely of cards:
The innovation here is the idea of allowing a creature to come into play with a variable of +1/+1 counters. Wood Elemental allows you to grow not through achieving some action but through costing. By giving up some resource you can essentially "purchase" extra size when playing the card. True, this particular card was one of the all-time low points of creatures in the game's history, but it was a trailblazer, from a design perspective, that would lead to many other cards.
Finally, we have these cards:
If you can put +1/+1 counters on other creatures, why not -1/-1? (Or -0/-1 or -0/-2?) This is the first step towards -1/-1 counters being a form of creature kill as opposed as just a means to show a creature shrinking over time.
There's only one card from The Dark that I feel is relevant to this discussion:
This card is important because I believe this is the beginning of the end of the non- +1/+1 or -1/-1 counter. When I was fighting back in the early days to consolidate the counters, this was the key card I would always turn to to make my case. As I—or "G.B."—pointed out in +1/+1 For the Road, a Frankenstein's Monster with three counters on it can be anything from a 0/7 to a 6/1.
Fallen Empires was overrunning with counters so there are a couple of cards to point out from this set. First:
But wait, you say, this doesn't use +1/+1 counters. Exactly. But it should. To be fair to the designers (the East Coast Playtesters—Skaff Elias, Jim Lin, Chris Page, and Dave Petty), the card was made such that the number of counters on it usually matched the power and toughness of the creature. Under modern technology, assuming we'd even want to make a card like this, it would be a 0/0 that adds and subtracts +1/+1 counters.
Next is this card:
This card used the -1/-1 counter as a means to enforce an upkeep. This design allows the player to skip paying the upkeep but at a cost. Like Homarid, this is another card that modern design would do differently. Interestingly though is that the +1/+1 technology I'm about to explain already existed. Today the card would be made as a 0/0 that came into play with five +1/+1 counters. Failure to pay the upkeep would result in the loss of two counters while feeding the big bunny would end in gaining a +1/+1 counter. (We wouldn't use +1/+0; more on this below.)
Hopefully you're beginning to see why the counters eventually get folded into +1/+1 as about 90% of designs can be accomplished (or accomplished closely enough) with +1/+1 counters.
The next two cards, though, fall into that 10%:
These cards use -1/-1 counters as an alternate buyout for an effect. Instead of taking damage yourself, you can permanently shrink one of your creatures. While I'm not a huge fan of these particular cards, I do think that the Fallen Empires designers were messing around with a very unique area of design space—not one, by the way, that's ever been re-explored.
Next we have one of my favorites from Fallen Empires:
This card uses the +1/+1 counter as a reward for using a particular creature for the sacrifice. (Mega flavorful in my book by the way.) Fallen Empires' biggest contribution to +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters was the idea of using them as a means to regulate cards. The counters become rewards and punishments to try and influence you to use the card in a certain manner.
While Ice Age has a number of cards that use +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters, there are only a few cards that I would call innovative (join me next week, by the way, when I talk a little more about innovation and Magic design).
This card is quite interesting to me as it is the first in my mind that converts a quantity of something non-tangible into a quantity of +1/+1 counters. In this case, it turns damage prevention into permanent enhancements. Beside being very effective from a flavor perspective, it really opened the door to the idea of having +1/+1 counters evolve out of something less tangible.
This card is to +1/+1 counters what Pyrotechnics is to direct damage. Not a breathtaking leap but definitely one that has spawned a number of cards.
Almost all of Homelands' use of counters were tweaks on existing technology. The most valuable contribution, in my opinion, were these two cards:
Previous sets had dabbled in using -1/-1 counters a kill. Homelands stopped messing around and just took the idea to its simplest and cleanest conclusion.
Finally, while this card is not super innovative, I do believe it used -1/-1 counters in one of the most evocative ways ever:
I pick on Homelands a lot, but my hat is off to this card. R&D liked it so much we put it in the Time Spiral "timeshifted" subset even though we had to shrink the text smaller than we like to make it fit.
I've talked before about how I believe Alliances is one of the most innovative sets ever in the history of the game. It is just packed with tons of one-ofs that do something that hadn't ever been done before. Use of +1/+1 counters was no different.
We'll start with:
This creature is quite interesting as it uses the counters not only for growth but also as a limitation. The goal of the creature is to grow it as big as you can without crossing over the threshold that will destroy it. This is also one of the earliest cards (although not the first) that comes with its own built in minigame. This is something that we've realized over time can really make for memorable moments of Magic.
We'll follow this with:
Much evolution comes from combining the technology of different cards to create something new. This card takes the "shrink yourself as a cost" of Tetravus and Triskelion and the "put -1/-1 counters on your own creatures" of Thelon's Chant and Tourach's Chant. The result is a card that allows you to shrink your own creatures as a cost. The tweak here, and I find it quite compelling, is that you can use any creature as a resource for this shrinking. The card is not eating itself but rather allowing you to choose where in your team to make the needed sacrifice.
Next up is:
This card did something that we no longer do with +1/+1 counters. It gave out temporary ones. These counters only lasted until the end of turn. The reason the designers did it this was that they wanted to be able to spread out the +1/+1 bonuses how the player saw fit which included putting multiples on the same creature and at the time the rules didn't allow it. The rules change that allowed a spell with multiple targets to target the same thing multiple times allowed the rules to rewrite this without needing to use counters. The quality I enjoy of this design was the willingness to challenge the permanent quality of +1/+1 counters. While this challenge didn't pan out in the end, it's risks like this that can lead to very exciting design breakthroughs.
Which brings us to:
Often when I'm looking for inspiration, I'll look through old card sets. Alliances, in particular is one of the best sets for this purpose. The thing that inspires me about this card is the idea that the creature is able to be broken apart into its component parts. See, the army is made up of many individuals and every fight causes more to desert. For added flavor, the loss on the big ceature -0/-1 matches the size of the creature produced, a 0/1. This design excites me because it really challenges the idea that creatures and cards exist at a one to one ratio. This is the kind of card, for example, that led to Ambassador Oak where one card represents two creatures rather than one.
This card is interesting in that it uses the duality of +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters. While I general I'm a little wary of mixing +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters (as it can get very confusing what the size of things are—this, by the way, is where the rule about +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters canceling one another out came from), I do like how this card uses both in a contextual way that gives the card a strong flavor.
+1/+1 and Only
Now that you've had a chance to sample where +1/+1 counters have come from, let me get you up to date with where they are today (a.k.a. the design rules about +1/+1 counters).
We no longer do any power/toughness pumping counters other than +1/+1. Why? Two major reasons. First, we find it confusing to use multiple power/toughness changing counters in the same environment. We want to make it as easy as possible to be able to understand what a creature is when players look at it. Two, there just isn't much space given up by not doing the non- +1/+1 counters. +N/+N can easily be replaced by N +1/+1 counters and +1/+0 or +0/+1 counters can most often just turn into +1/+1.
We try to consolidate in any one block to only put one type of counter on creatures. What this means, for instance, is that if a block wants to put some other type of counter on creatures we try not to make +1/+1 counters a key element of that block. Recent +1/+1 counter blocks were Mirrodin, Ravnica and Lorwyn. (As I am a huge fans of +1/+1 counters, most large sets that I lead design tend to fall in this category.) A recent non-+1/+1 counter block was Champions of Kamigawa. Note that within any one block there are single exceptions here and there (mostly at higher rarities), and Time Spiral block was just one big exception.
With the exception of Time Spiral block and all its throwback nostalgia, we haven't printed a -1/-1 counter in many years. The reasoning behind this as I state above is that about ninety percent of all the design space that -1/-1 counters can do can be done by +1/+1 counters.
We limit how many +1/+1 counters we do at common. This is just a complication issue. Basically, we're okay with a few cards that put +1/+1 counters on creatures but we tend to avoid more complicated versions (such as 0/0 creatures that come into play with +1/+1 counters) at common, although we're more willing to do something like that if there are a number of cards dedicated to a certain theme (Darksteel's modular, I'm looking at you).
Creatures that come into play with +1/+1 counters tend to have the same power and toughness. The reason for this is that +1/+1 counters require counting and having a singular number for both power and toughness (much like the +1/+1 counter itself) makes the math easier. Of the rules I've listed this is the one we're most willing to break.
+1/+1 counters only go onto creatures. Yes, the rules can handle them going onto other card types but we tend not to make cards that do that. Usually the way to get a +1/+1 counter on a non-creature is to animate it and put one on then wait for the animating effect to go away. According to the rules the +1/+1 counter sticks around hoping one day for the thing to become a creature once again.
We tend to keep +1/+1 counter triggers (that is things that result in a creature getting a +1/+1 counter) away from creature combat. Yes, a creature can grow for hitting a player, but having a toughness boost while there is damage being calculated is just confusing. This is why you don't see a card such as "CARDNAME gets a +1/+1 counter whenever it deals damage to another creature." As with most of the above, there are exceptions to this. Fungusaur comes to mind.
Note that the Sengir Vampire ability triggers when a creature damaged by it goes to the graveyard. By that time you already know whether your creature has survived the combat. Okay, yes, the Sengir ability gets tricky with first strike, but that's why we don't naturally put the two abilities together.
+1/+1 Singular Sensation
Finally, before I call it a day, I promised that I would explain why as a designer I'm so enthralled with the +1/+1 counter. My answer is basically the same one a carpenter would give if you ask him why he likes the hammer so much. Because it's an awesome tool. +1/+1 counters are versatile, flexible, flavorful. They allow us to create dynamic change in a medium (printed cards) that pretty much is incapable of change. Most importantly, they have enough design space that they allow us the luxury of not having to support lots of different types of counters. When you glance across a table and see two counters on a 1/1 creature, you have a very good chance of knowing that it's a 3/3.
Finally, the designer in me cannot escape the player. I definitely love watching my stuff grow over time (I believe much of Dungeons & Dragons' appeal revolves around this fact), and as such, I have many favorite cards that make use of +1/+1 counters. Just as I was writing up my overview of +1/+1 counter cards from the Golden Age, I was surprised by how many have an emotional impact on me as a player.
That's all I've got on the +1/+1 counter for today. I hope there was some insight that you might not have heard before.
Join me next week when I tackle innovation and the needs of a card expansion. Oh yeah, and I start talking about Shadowmoor. Don't miss it.