Chimera Commander Comprehensives: +1/+1 Counters Part 1
Themes are a great anchor to use for deckbuilding, and combining multiple can lead to some really unique ways of expressing oneself. There are of course other aspects to consider, like hitting functional requirements such as ramp and draw, but for more on that check out this article. Rather, this article is going to be the first in a series focusing on a deep dive on a particular theme. The first theme we’re going to dig into is my personal favourite - +1/+1 counters. If you like this idea and would like to recommend the next theme we dig into, please let us know in the comments below or pop into the Chimera Discord. In terms of flow, the first article in each series will cover an overview of the theme followed by a breakdown of how that theme is represented in each color individually, multicolored cards, artifacts and lands. To assess the strength of a theme in each color we’ll review the namesake cards, the density of cards that care about the theme and how the functional effects are represented. I’ll give a rating to each color from very weak to very strong. The next article(s) will review the core strategies that exist in the theme and how to increase synergy followed by some ways to make the theme work in weaker color pairings. From there we may wrap the series with an example deck tech focusing on how to make it your own or a unique build that comes about by using the weaker color combinations. We’re actively looking to improve this series, so let us know what you think and if we should keep doing these.
Based on the entry found on the EDHwiki, the +1/+1 counters theme is all about improving your creatures, increasing their power and toughness through permanent buffs. These permanent buffs can come in the form of going tall (making one/a few creatures very big) or going wide (blanketing your creatures to make many moderate or scary threats). According to this wiki page +1/+1 counters are primary in Green and secondary in White, Blue and Black. With some advanced searching via Scryfall this looks to be pretty accurate. Green has the most cards referencing “+1 counter” followed by White, Black, Red and Blue. While Red wasn’t listed as a secondary color for +1/+1 counters, it looks like the theme is expressed quite a bit, even if it’s just in exploratory cards. So how does this theme really work? Well the theme can be split by functional effect: there are ways to place +1/+1 counters, there are ways to increase +1/+1 counters, there are a few ways to protect or retain +1/+1 counters, and there are +1/+1 counter payoffs. Throughout the series we’ll reference these functional effects to determine strength and explore some strategies.
*Keep your eye out for this fancy scale as you read for a visual representation of each colours' strengths and weaknesses!*
The +1/+1 counter strategy in White is mostly focused on placing +1/+1 counters, and the execution is more often geared towards going wide versus going tall. If you’re playing against a +1/+1 counter deck you’ll likely see Cathar’s Crusade, Mikaeus, the Lunarch, Luminarch Aspirant, Heliod, Sun Crowned, and Abzan Falconer. These namesake cards give a good overview of how the +1/+1 counter is expressed in White, with a lot of emphasis on placing +1/+1 counters. One of the neat aspects of the +1/+1 counter theme is how it can be paired with other themes, like Lifegain as we see with Heliod, the Sun Crowned. There are few ways to increase +1/+1 counters, as this functional effect is limited to Proliferate on just four cards. In terms of protection and retention of +1/+1 counters, effects are fairly limited as blinking creatures works against the strategy, so protection from certain colors, indestructibility and phasing are the most common ways to protect our creatures with counters on them. Feat of Resistance is a fantastic way to save a single creature from targeted removal or act as a way to slip in for fatal against a board of creatures that share a color. The +1/+1 counter payoffs in White focus on combat, either by adding keywords to creatures that have counters on them like Lifelink from Abzan Battle Priest or by tapping down your opponent’s defenses with another card like Elite Scaleguard. Overall, I’d say that the +1/+1 counter theme in White is fairly strong.
In Blue, the +1/+1 counter theme is expressed fairly equally across the different functional effects, but it lacks severely in terms of protecting or retaining +1/+1 counters. If you’re looking to build a Blue +1/+1 counter deck you’ll likely include Herald of Secret Streams, Chasm Skulker, Toothy, Imaginary Friend (even without Pir, Imaginative Rascal), Sage of Hours and Inexorable Tide. With this set of namesake cards, we can see that a lot of Blue’s strength in terms of +1/+1 counters relate to +1/+1 counter payoffs. Blue has some +1/+1 counter synergy via keywords from Ravnica block, with a few cards leveraging Graft, Evolve, and Proliferate; and there are a good chunk of creatures that place +1/+1 counters on themselves based on different conditions. Inexorable Tide is the best way to increase +1/+1 counters, but it requires you to have some placed already which could be quite challenging without another color to support. The +1/+1 counter payoffs are varied, supporting combat, more card draw and even some extra turns. Overall, I’d say Blue is fairly weak on its own for +1/+1 counters.
For Black, the +1/+1 counter strategy is well represented with placing +1/+1 counters and +1/+1 counter payoffs but lacks ways to increase +1/+1 counters and protect or retain +1/+1 counters. Some of the namesake cards you’ll likely run across would be Drana, Liberator of Malakir, Retribution of the Ancients, Skyclave Shadowcat, Unspeakable Symbol, Necropolis Regent, Hagra Constrictor, and Bloodtracker. Within this snapshot of namesake cards we can see some of the strength of the strategy in Black, but arguably some of these effects sit in the win-more category, so we’ll factor that into the analysis. When it comes to placing +1/+1 counters what better way than to add counters equal to the damage your creatures deal? Yes, Necropolis Regent has a huge draw here with the sheer volume of counters that could be produced, but it requires a lot of things to go right like having an unblocked board and some way to meet the three Black requirement (which proves challenging in multicolored decks). On the other hand, more consistent effects like Unspeakable Symbol and Feast on the Fallen add much needed consistency. The +1/+1 counter payoffs in Black have good functional coverage for removal and card draw, which can add considerable synergy. Overall, I’d say Black is fairly strong in the +1/+1 counter theme featuring some desirable consistent effects.
Looking at the +1/+1 counter strategy in Red, it’s a very unique one, with the functional effects existing, but seeing little play. While there aren’t namesake +1/+1 counter cards in Red, there are a lot of niche and exploratory cards. For placing +1/+1 counters the best bets are going to be Agitator Ant, Amok, and Dwarven Weaponsmith. If you are wanting to flex your creative muscles, there are some other options for placing counters that require some building around, namely Rage Forger, Kazuul Warlord, First Day of Class, and Goblin Assault Team. There aren’t really any ways to increase the amount of counters placed or retain what’s been placed, so Red misses on those effects. However, there are a variety of payoffs like Rumbling Ruin, Ion Storm and Molten Hydra (even though Molten Hydra would take some work to end the game with). Beyond theme functional effects, there are a lot of really neat exploratory designs with +1/+1 counters in Red. Whether it’s generating mana with a Runaway Steam-Kin, dealing with pesky artifacts or lands leveraging Stingmoggie or early color pie breaks in Taurean Mauler there’s some cool deck building space with this theme. So how does Red stack up for +1/+1 counters? I’d say that despite having some coverage of functional effects, the cards are a bit narrow and require more synergy to really provide value, so overall, Red is very weak in the +1/+1 counter theme.
With +1/+1 counters being primary in Green, there are a ton of namesake cards to highlight, and if you’ve played against +1/+1 counters you’ll likely have seen these before. Hardened Scales is probably the first card anyone thinks of when thinking of +1/+1 counters, and it even drove the namesake of some historically successful Modern decks aptly named Scales decks. Other namesake cards include Doubling Season, Branching Evolution, Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider, Inspiring Call, Forgotten Ancient, Kalonian Hydra, Champion of Lambholt, Rishkar, Peema Renegade, Fertilid, Pir, Imaginative Rascal, Loyal Guardian and Scavenging Ooze to name a few. Naturally, Green has a lot of strong options across all of the functional effects of +1/+1 counters. Along with these namesake cards, there are many other themes mixed with the theme to provide additional synergy, and it has the most cards that care about +1/+1 counters by far. Of course, Green is very strong in the +1/+1 counter theme.
To dig into the +1/+1 counter theme in multicolor the easiest way is to slice it by included colors. When we do this, we see that 73% of the +1/+1 counter multicolored cards include Green, and the next largest portion includes White at about 14% followed by Black and Blue rounding out the remaining 13%. Starting with the largest chunk, multicolored including Green gives us some of the other staple effects in the theme. Notable cards like Conclave Mentor, Shalai, Voice of Plenty, Corpsejack Menace, Winding Constrictor, Fathom Mage, Simic Ascendancy, and Rhythm of the Wild. The inclusion of Green makes for some very desirable effects, and that’s why most of these cards will be in almost every deck that can run them. If we look at the remaining multicolored cards, we see some interesting cards to use like Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch, or even build arounds like Marchesa, the Black Rose. In terms of performance, multicolor is very strong in the +1/+1 counter theme, offering many ways to place +1/+1 counters, increase +1/+1 counters, and benefit from +1/+1 counter payoffs.
Colorless + Lands
Rounding out the analysis, next we’ll dive into colorless and lands. Colorless opens up all five colors to all stars like Walking Ballista, The Ozolith, Arcbound Ravager, Metallic Mimic, Hangarback Walker, Crystalline Crawler, Stonecoil Serpent, Animation Module, and Triskelion. In terms of functional effects, there are some ways to place +1/+1 counters, retain or protect +1/+1 counters and some very lucrative +1/+1 counter payoffs. There are some handy utility lands that interact with the theme, Gavony Township, Karn’s Bastion, Forge of Heroes, Oran-Rief, the Vastwood, Ruins of Oran-Rief, Bretagard Stronghold, Tyrite Sanctum, and Hall of Oracles. Quite a few more options for placing +1/+1 counters and don’t overlook that lifelink on Bretagard Stronghold. Given that colorless and a handful of the lands can be in any deck, this category of cards is weighted up for added consistency in weaker performing colors, colorless and lands perform fairly strong in the +1/+1 counter theme.
Pulling it all together, what colors support this theme the most? Green and Multicolor performed very strongly, White, Black and Colorless & Lands performed fairly strong, while Blue was fairly weak on the theme and Red was very weak. From the analysis, Multicolor’s strength was driven by Green cards, and the Artifacts & Land category had a slightly higher weight for accessibility. If you wanted to build the strongest two color +1/+1 counter deck, Green-White would open up the most options, with Green-Black being a close contender. If you wanted to try to stretch the theme Blue-Red would be the hardest to build in. On the flip side, when we look at 3+ colors we start to get spoiled for choice. Then the challenge in deckbuilding comes in balancing the functional effects between strong or even theme aligned options. Trying to make this theme work in mono color will be very hard in both mono Blue and mono Red, but that’s a challenge for another article.
So what did you think? We’d love to hear your comments on social media, or if that’s not your style you can reach me on Twitter or find me at Chimera on Tuesday’s while we can play in store. We also have an active community on the Chimera Discord if you prefer to play online, players will self-organize throughout the week and play games over SpellTable. We’re always looking to grow the community, and we have a diverse player base in terms of both power level and experience (if you’re new to Commander we’d love to help you learn how to play). Keep an eye out for part two of our Chimera Commander Comprehensives: +1/+1 Counters, and hope to see you at Tuesday night Commander!