Chimera Commander Comprehensives: +1/+1 Counters Part 2

Understanding the +1/+1 counter theme in Commander goes beyond just selecting the staples and throwing them in a deck. Each color has strengths and weaknesses, and how you implement the strategy can impact your card selection. All the while needing to balance functional requirements of your Commander deck and on-theme cards to execute your strategy.  In this article we’ll review the specific strategies within the theme and how we can leverage synergies to squeeze the most value out of our individual card picks. For a review of which colors are strong and weak within the theme you can check out the opening article in this series, where I hinted at some of the strategies such as going wide or going tall. Along with these combat-centric strategies, there are a few alternate win-cons you can strive for with a specific build around, or added in as a backup plan if colors allow. Turning to the synergy part of this article, we’ll review how to increase the density of cards that care about +1/+1 counters by taking a look at the functional effects you should hit on in a Commander deck. In the next article, we’ll pull all of it together and try to make the +1/+1 counter theme work in some of the weaker colors. Without further ado, let’s dive in. 


With the primary focus of the +1/+1 counter theme being Creature-centric it’s no surprise that combat strategies work well. Unlike other strategies though, this theme can support both going wide (attacking with many creatures) and going tall (making a small handful of massive creatures). Some cards support the strategy by placing +1/+1 counters (for more on the functional effects within this theme check out this article) like Basri’s Solidarity, Cathars’ Crusade, and Gavony Township; but others provide  +1/+1 counter payoffs either through combat (Cazur, Ruthless Staker, Bramblewood Paragon) or card advantage (Armorcraft Judge, Bred for the Hunt). Conversely, when building +1/+1 counters to support going tall, it’s more about increasing +1/+1 counters and protecting or retaining +1/+1 counters. Of course, all of these functional effects should be used in most strategy executions, but the mix may be different depending on the strategy or additional theme. Cards like Branching Evolution, The Ozolith and Solidarity of Heroes really excel in a going tall strategy since so much focus is being put on a few creatures to make them as big as possible. This theme is strongly supported by splashy creatures (Ignition Team, Realm Seekers) as well as functional ones (Triskelion, Steelbane Hydra). What’s really cool is the cards that support both strategies rewarding you for balancing the two. Specifically, Avatar of the Resolute, Phalanx Leader (maybe paired with Gleam of Authority or Hydra’s Growth?), Enduring Scalelord and Thief of Blood all get better when there are more creatures becoming some major threats. 


When extending beyond strategies that focus on turning creatures sideways, tribes are a great starting point to find other types of synergy. While some tribal cards focus on strengthening your combat effectiveness, such as Cordial Vampire; others, like Sage of Fables, take a different approach to utilizing the plethora of +1/+1 counters at your disposal. Beyond tribes, you can try to bank a win with Simic Ascendancy, go for infinite turns with Sage of Hours or try to win by going tall without attacking using Mayael’s Aria. There are also strategies tied to creature power that work quite well: including dealing damage when they enter a la Terror of the Peaks or when they die powered by Stalking Vengeance; milling your opponents out with Altar of Dementia, or even the classic Fling. Beyond that there’s always the fallback of Walking Ballista and Triskelion if you can manage to move the counters over. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a niche card out there that could also be leveraged into a wincon with the right game plan, but we’ll leave that for a future article. 


Turning our attention to increasing synergy, where we’ll want to focus is on the functional requirements of our deck. Things like ramp, draw, single targeted removal, and board wipes are great candidates to use on-theme versions of. Yes, you may need to stray from staples, but the increased density of your desired effects makes every other card that cares about that theme better. New Horizons and Fertilid may look unassuming, but with a way to increase counters or benefit from a payoff these types of cards help to get the snowball rolling. And that’s what synergy is all about, resolving more cards that care about the cards you played before, or intend to play. Inspiring Call does double duty offering a tempo swing following a board wipe and drawing from the creatures you would have lost. The other angles to lean into for draw are either cards like Rishkar’s Expertise or Return of the Wildspeaker if you’re going tall or options such as Plumb the Forbidden or Minions’ Murmurs to benefit from the go wide approach, and maybe hit on an additional theme, at the same time. Or maybe you need some removal options where Closing Statement and Retribution of the Ancients shine. If you need to go a bit broader, Bane of Progress and Phyrexian Scriptures cover most problems. These options in particular lend themselves to color identities within Abzan, which makes synergy harder to achieve in weaker theme colors (not to say these options don’t exist, they just are more niche than these).


Some of the other ways we can increase synergy is by looking for overlap in our supporting/sub themes. Maybe you want to run some reanimation effects? Well both Back For More and Vigor Mortis hit that need while also aligning with the +1/+1 counter theme. Wizards of the Coast also explores new areas with the theme frequently, with some recent examples being both Treasure and Equipment themes in the Adventures in the Forgotten Realms set (Kalain, Reclusive Painter) and accompanying Commander decks (Sword of Hours). With this theme being applied in such broad strokes, you may even find some perfect cards that hit on all of your themes such as Fearsome Awakening for a Dragon +1/+1 counter deck. Another way to lean into increasing synergy is to look for the engine cards within your theme. Engine cards often provide repeatable effects or allow you to manipulate resources in order to achieve your payoff. While Hardened Scales and The Ozolith are typical examples, you can also look for engine cards that play double duty when you want to explore multiple themes like we talked about above; such as Felidar Retreat for a tribal sub-theme, or Animation Module if Affinity is more your thing. 


So now we’ve covered how strong the +1/+1 theme is in each color and reviewed some strategies for increasing synergy within a +1/+1 counter deck. Our next challenge will be to see how far we can push the theme using some of the weaker colors. Notably, as we’ve seen here, finding cards with high synergy will be tough if we’re excluding Green. In the last article of this series we’ll try to build a functioning +1/+1 counter deck in mono Red, mono Blue and Izzet. If you’re enjoying this series or have any feedback, we’d love to hear it. You can get ahold of me on Twitter or hop into the Chimera Discord where I’m pretty active in the #Commander channel. Since in store play has returned, Chimera hosts Commander night every Tuesday, but if you prefer to play online many players self-organize on the Discord to play games over SpellTable. Hope you enjoyed this one and maybe we’ll cross paths in a game at the store! 

Bryan Smith


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