Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Many Faces of +1/+1 Counters

There are a number of evergreen archetypes that Wizards goes back to when a color pair doesn't have anything in particular it wants to do in a set. These are especially visible in core set Limited environments, which are designed to both teach new players what color combinations usually do and to "reset" enfranchised players back to basics, so to speak. While there are a number of these with enough history to write about – U/R spells, W/B lifegain, and so on – what I wanted to focus on in this article is the +1/+1 counter archetype, which sets itself apart from its coworkers by its flexibility. What we think of as a "counter theme" is actually several themes that happen to use +1/+1 counters, each of which is worth exploring in some depth.

+1/+1 Counters as Army Supplies

The first major +1/+1 counter archetype isn't focused on the counters themselves as much as it's focused on a go-wide theme, using the counters as a reward for producing a number of small creatures that could benefit from it. Having a single 8/8 isn't as scary as having five 4/4s, and the counters that turn your creature tokens into 4/4s are usually rewards for going wide more than they are requirements for further bonuses.

There have been two mechanics that explicitly encouraged this kind of play: Bolster from Fate Reforged/Dragons of Tarkir, which tacked counters onto your weakest creature, and support from Oath of the Gatewatch, which demanded N creatures, where N was the number on the support ability, to be at maximum effectiveness. One could argue that Bolster was more of a benefit for having creatures with good abilities than having a go-wide strategy, but on the other hand it's better to have counters spread out among three medium creatures than to stack them all on a single big creature which could die to a single removal spell.

In a sense, this archetype uses +1/+1 counters as a way to make your opponent take your small tokens more seriously. It's a more reliable and consistent method than having specific payoff cards for small creatures, especially in Limited where spot removal is significantly more common and your opponent knows they'll be out of the woods if they snap off your payoff uncommon.

+1/+1 Counters as Carrot on a String

In the second archetype, +1/+1 counters are the award for achieving a certain condition, and most of the archetype is set up to help you gain those counters as opposed to doing anything with them.

Because a +1/+1 is relatively impactful in Limited without being as strong as a card, there's a lot of flexibility for how you can grant these counters to a creature and what cards are capable of doing it. This means that "carrot on a string" archetypes are the most diverse of the three, with a wide variety of costs resulting in similar payoffs. It's very easy to adapt a reward like this to fit the needs of your set.

Let's look at two of them that happened to be in a "block" together: Mentor from Guilds of Ravnica and adapt from Ravnica Allegiance. Mentor is an aggressive ability that both rewards you for attacking and makes your attacks a little safer by increasing the toughness of the small creature getting mentored. It was designed around a number of creatures with high power and low toughness like Hammer Dropper, or else beefy creatures like Wojek Bodyguard with restrictions on how they can attack and block. It not only wants you to attack, it also wants you to build your deck with a cascade effect of powers, causing you to overevaluate cards like Healer's Hawk and perhaps undervalue some of the beefier Selesnya creatures. Other cards that add +1/+1 counters are good too, as putting even one on a 3/3 unlocks their ability to mentor all your other 3/Xs, and you might even want to play combat tricks during your first main phase if you're desperate.

Adapt, on the other hand, wants you to either get late enough in the game that you can adapt your creatures or to ramp hard enough that you can boost your Aeromunculus in time for it to be relevant to the board. The counters essentially act as a mana sink that wants you to have a stable enough board that you can bury your opponent in inherent value. Interestingly, adapt actively discourages you from playing other cards that grant +1/+1 counters to creatures, as spending a card to get the same effect that you could get inherently from a creature is a fairly significant penalty to card advantage. This makes adapt somewhat trickier to build around than monstrous (which it replaced during the design process) but also added a mechanical twist to the archetype that set it apart from Simic's previous two offerings. 

+1/+1 Counters as Membership Card

The third major archetype largely ignores the fact that +1/+1 counters make your creatures stronger and instead treats the presence of a counter as a sort of "membership card" that either grants your creatures additional benefits or gives you a bonus if you have a creature with a counter on it. The B/G archetype in Kaladesh is probably the most typical of this strategy, with a sweeper that doesn't hit creatures with counters on them (Hazardous Conditions), a creature that becomes immensely powerful if you have a lot of other creatures with counters (Fairgrounds Trumpeter), and an immensely powerful payoff card that rewards you for getting counters on creatures (Armorcraft Judge).

Other sets have approached the "membership card" in a different way. My personal favorite is the Abzan clan from Khans of Tarkir, which had an almost Sliver-ish archetype with creatures like Abzan Falconer that granted all of your creatures with +1/+1 counters keyword abilities. Since almost all of these had outlast in addition to their keyword granting, it made the Abzan strategy of grindy creature-based midrange a little less glacial – you just had to outlast once with most creatures to make them legitimate threats to your opponent, instead of investing the time and mana to get 2 or 3 counters on each one.

While somewhat narrower than the "carrot on a string" archetypes, the "membership card" archetype has the benefit of being backwards-compatible with an enormous range of other cards from Magic's past. As I wrote in my article about designing for casual audiences, archetypes like these are great for the less enfranchised because you have no idea of which or how many cards they have, so having a card that rewards them for playing a +1/+1 counter granting card that was printed in 2007 makes it more likely that they'll be satisfied with the product.

Conclusion: +1/+1 Singular Sensation

+1/+1 counter themes are present in sets to the point where some people find them annoyingly omnipresent: While this can be a concern, the reason they appear so often is that they're immensely flexible, being relatively color-agnostic (except for red, I suppose, but even red was one of the main two colors for monstrous) with numerous ways to make them feel differently from each other. If you're designing a draftable set, a +1/+1 counter theme may be an excellent way to both fill in archetype gaps and funnel players towards doing the things you want them to do.

No comments:

Post a Comment