Yawgmoth, Thran Physician | Illustration by Mark Winters
While +1/+1 counters are very common in MTG and almost every set has them, there are a few sets that prefer to use the more obscure -1/-1 counterpart. These are truly opposites, like light and dark. One strengthens, while the other weakens.
MTG’s color pie also treats them differently, with green and white as the most common colors to have positive counters, while black and red are the most common colors that spread negative counters. Other colors deal with these indirectly, like blue does by transferring counters around, while white gets rid of its own -1/-1 counters and can put it on the aggressor as self-defense.
Let’s rank the best -1/-1 cards and discover how you can maximize their effectiveness!
Banewhip Punisher | Illustration by Scott Murphy
Since black is the king of removal and inflicting pain, -1/-1 counter cards are very black in nature, and most of these are mono-black or multicolor with black. Red sometimes gets a -1/-1 counter bend, like in the Shadowmoor block.
Although there are many ways to put -1/-1 counters on creatures, I’m considering only MTG cards that put -1/-1 counters on creatures (or on themself) via their own card text. For example, cards that have the wither or infect mechanic won’t be considered, but a card like Incremental Blight or Soul-Scar Mage will.
Wall of Roots is a creature that would be on the list if not for the fact that it puts a -0/-1 counter on itself. Oh, old Magic and its non-standard counters. It’s practically equal to a -1/-1 counter, the effect is the same, and I think designers didn’t want a creature to have negative power.
Merciless Javelineer finds its way into decks because it does a lot of small things, although it doesn’t exceed at any of the jobs. You can discard a madness card, kill small guys, or just push damage through by making it so that others can’t block.
There was a time before cards like Thrashing Brontodon (and before Best of One on MTG Arena) when it was very hard to find creatures with Naturalize effects. Wickerbough Elder was able to do this just fine while also being a nice body. It’s a common card, and it still sees some play in Pauper-related formats.
Speaking of Pauper, Serrated Arrows is one of the few ways to use a card to repeatedly kill creatures while also answering Guardian of the Guildpact. Pauper is a format filled with 1/1’s and Serrated Arrows finds its way there. It’s interesting that this card can spread the counters around, and it works very well with proliferate, not just the -1/-1 counters but also its own counters.
While I think this card is very cool, it only exists on MTG Arena and sees some play in formats like Historic and Historic Brawl. Tasha, Unholy Archmage is a planeswalker that can be your Brawl commander, and it has nice defense in its +1 ability. White Weenie and token players will need to think twice before attacking you after the shields are up.
The best you’ll get from Banewhip Punisher is to kill a small creature or sacrifice it to kill another larger creature that got a -1/-1 counter. It’s nice that its worst case is to trade for the creature that receives the counter from the punisher. You should be playing this card in decks that really care about the negative counter it provides because the card is weak otherwise.
Cartouche of Ambition is a lifelink aura that throws a -1/-1 counter on another creature. This is one of those cases where you’ll play a card because your deck either has synergies with enchantments, lifegain, or putting -1/-1 counters on creatures.
Here’s a mini sweeper. Incremental Blight can outright kill three creatures or severely weaken them. With cards like Nest of Scarabs, it can produce a small army of insects, or you can have a Blowfly Infestation and continue to spread -1/-1 counters around.
Here’s a beefy creature. Grief Tyrant is an 8/8 that’s a 4/4 most of the time because it comes with four -1/-1 counters. The thing is, it transfers the four negative counters when it dies, which is usually good enough to kill a creature. An interesting synergy is that for cards that care about -1/-1 counters being put onto a given creature, Grief Tyrant provides you with four triggers.
Here’s an anti -1/-1 counters card. Heartmender takes off negative counters from creatures you control, effectively healing them. If it dies, it returns to the battlefield with a -1/-1 counter thanks to the persist ability, which you can remove the next turn with its own ability to reset the persist. This is a card that’s good with other persist buddies and creatures that get -1/-1 counters as a downside.
Deity of Scars is a 5/5 trample for 5 mana that can regenerate twice, and it gets bigger each time it regenerates. The Deity also adds a huge amount of devotion to black/green, turning on gods like Nylea and Pharika by itself or adding a huge buff to Gray Merchant of Asphodel’s draining capabilities.
Here’s more of a 5-color incentive. Etched Monstrosity is a 5/5 that you can pay to draw three cards while also turning it into a 10/10. It’s a shame that most decks that deal with -1/-1 counter synergies won’t play this card because of color identity issues.
#20. Ammit Eternal
Like Etched Monstrosity, this is a strong card that won’t find a home so easily in formats like EDH, where it’s shrunk very fast. The chances of you casting Ammit Eternal and getting to use the next turn are slim. Still, it’s a 5/5 for 3 that deals 3 damage when blocked, and in EDH decks like The Scorpion God, you’ll at least draw a card when it dies.
Ifnir Deadlands is a black land that’s also a desert for the few cards that care about it. Its activated ability is interesting to get a little more from the land, and it’s an auto-include in EDH decks that care about negative counters like The Scorpion God or Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons.
Amonkhet block needed a glue between two black themes: -1/-1 counters and cycling/discarding matters. So here it is: Ruthless Sniper comes down early and puts some -1/-1 counters on your opponents’ creatures as the game goes on. In Rakdos () decks filled with wheels, madness cards, or cards like Faithless Looting, there’s plenty of discarding and the sniper can fit in nicely.
Don’t get me wrong, the most important part of Grim Affliction is the proliferate ability. The -1/-1 counter it puts on a creature is just an extra benefit. It’s a little expensive for what it does, but it’s flexible in the decks it slots into, be it planeswalkers, +1/+1 counters, -1/-1 counters, and so on.
Channeler Initiate is a mana dork that adds mana of any color, and it has three uses. When you can’t use it for mana production, it’s a fine body as a 3/4 for combat purposes. It’s a good mana dork for a Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons deck.
In decks that have a heavy creature blink or recursion, it’s nice to have Skinrender around. Getting a 3/3 plus a huge -3/-3 to any creature in the form of counters is very interesting. It has negative counter synergies and it’s an ETB effect, so you can play it in a deck like Yarok, the Desecrated.
Midnight Banshee is a creature that spreads -1/-1 counters around like there’s no tomorrow. It has both the wither ability and a passive ability, and if you can untap with it, your token opponents will have a very rough time. Cards that put negative counters effortlessly on other creatures can find a home in -1/-1 counter decks.
With Glistening Oil the -1/-1 counters come as a downside for you. The main reason to play this card is to turn your massive dragon or dinosaur into an infect creature and kill an opponent out of nowhere. I’m sure players can find a way to put this on opposing creatures and profit, especially with the goad mechanic.
I’m sure I overrate Phyrexian Hydra, but let’s face it: It’s a massive infect creature that can beat a player in two turns, even if it takes damage and shrink along the way. If an infect player is doing their homework and has already started the poison counters spread, there’s not even the need for a second attack.
Contagion Clasp is almost an auto-include in decks that care about any kind of counters and proliferate. It comes early, kills a mana dork, and you can proliferate every turn.
The bigger version of Contagion Clasp, Contagion Engine has a double proliferate effect that can also be a creature sweeper. This card shines in so many scenarios. Tekuthal, Inquiry Dominus decks get 4 proliferate effects and you’ll make a few in a Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons deck as well. The Scorpion God decks will draw a bunch of cards, and there’s always Atraxa with its planeswalker army.
In Black Sun's Zenith we have a sweeper that spreads -1/-1 counters. It gets around indestructible creatures, something that your typical Wrath of God or Blasphemous Act won’t deal with. Another positive aspect of this card is that even if that 8/8 survives the sweeper, it stays on the battlefield as a small creature. It’s a black staple and one of the better cards when it comes to throwing out -1/-1 counters.
Archfiend of Ifnir is an already strong demon creature as a 5/4 flyer. But if you’re constantly cycling or discarding cards, it becomes Plague Wind on a body. The Archfiend is a safe include in decks that want more demons, more removal, or decks that have negative counter synergies.
Here’s Carnifex Demon, a card that doesn’t need any help to be good. A massive flier attached to a sweeper effect is good, and this is one of the few creatures you’ll want to put -1/-1 counters on. It’s interesting to think that this card was in a set with the infect mechanic, and it’s the perfect infect creature blocker since it gets more -1/-1 counters and further unleashes them on your opponent’s creatures.
Soul-Scar Mage gets around a common weakness for red removal, and that’s being unable to affect large-sized creatures (like 4/4+). Also, it has prowess and it’s a 1-drop, so it sees play in many formats including Explorer, Pioneer, and even Cube.
Volrath, the Shapestealer is a Sultai commander that wants the abilities of other creatures at the table as long as they have a counter on them. The interesting part of this commander’s text is that it refers to any counters, so you can copy your creature that has a +1/+1 counter or a flying counter or an enemy creature with a -1/-1 counter. One notable use is for infect decks since you can have a Blighted Agent in play and have Volrath become a 7/5 infect unblockable creature. It also works wonders with proliferate, and it’s in the right colors for it.
Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons pumps out deathtouching Snake tokens anytime you place a -1/-1 counter on a creature. That’s a nice incentive to build a -1/-1 counter matters deck, and together with nice incentives like Nest of Scarabs, you’ll have an army of tokens at your disposal. Look for deathtouch matter additions like Fynn, the Fangbearer which can turn a game around if you have enough deathtouch snakes or cards like Mirkwood Bats that can punish players while you create (or lose) tokens.
Devoted Druid is a combo piece that can add infinite mana with its partner in crime Vizier of Remedies around. From there, a Walking Ballista can win the game, and this combo can be set realistically on turn 3 if you have a good hand or with the help of some creature tutors. Devoted Druid has been a green staple in the Modern format, and it can be played in green EDH decks or -1/-1 counters decks as well.
Alongside Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons, The Scorpion God is the other main “-1/-1 counter matters” commander. Each time a creature with a -1/-1 counter dies, you’ll draw a card, and that’s a nice incentive to build a deck around. Plus, you probably won’t put this commander in the command zone since it returns to your hand from the graveyard if it’s killed. It works within itself since you can use excess mana to put -1/-1 counters on creatures, kill them, and draw cards.
Speaking of staples, Yawgmoth, Thran Physician is a very strong card in Modern thanks to its synergies with cheap undying creatures like Young Wolf. You’ll require two undying creatures in play, sacrificing the first to put a -1/-1 counter on the other, effectively resetting the +1/+1 counter from the undying mechanic. With Zulaport Cutthroat or Blood Artist in play, you’ll draw a bunch of cards, not lose life, and win from there. Yawgmoth is also a very popular aristocrat and mono-black commander since it’s a free sacrifice outlet and a sure inclusion in -1/-1 counters decks.
In MTG there are a few payoffs for putting -1/-1 counters on your creatures and you’ll probably see these often in your opponents -1/-1 counter decks.
Proliferate is a huge payoff for spreading -1/-1 counters around. Each time you proliferate, you’ll be further reducing the size of your enemy creatures that have -1/-1 counters on them. A card like Carnifex Demon can be devastating with some proliferate triggers.
Vizier of Remedies and Melira, Sylvok Outcast are used as ways to combo with -1/-1 counter placement, whether with Devoted Druid or infinite sacrifice loops of persist creatures. Cards like Ivy Lane Denizen and Renata, Called to the Hunt work in a similar way, although they put a +1/+1 counter on a creature that just ETB, negating the -1/-1 effect from the persist ability.
Blowfly Infestation spreads more -1/-1 counters around once a creature dies of “-1/-1 counter poisoning.”
Necroskitter makes you steal an opponent’s creature that died with a -1/-1 counter.
They don’t. do is reduce the toughness of a given creature permanently unless the counters are removed somehow. One thing that can happen is a 4/4 creature receives two points of damage and two -1/-1 counters, and that’s enough to kill it because it’s now a 2/2 with 2 points of damage marked.
Yes, they cancel each other. Quoting Comprehensive Rules: “704.5q – If a permanent has +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters on it, then pairs of a +1/+1 and -1/-1 counter are removed from it as a state-based action.” Whenever you add a positive or negative counter to a creature, you first remove the opposite counter the creature may have.
Yes. It’s in fact one of the main ways to deal with indestructible creatures. Indestructible creatures are protected mainly from damage and “destroy target creature” effects. But an indestructible creature is put into a graveyard from play if its toughness is equal to zero as a state-based action, and for that, -1/-1 counters can be used.
Sure, you can! One of the best synergies available in -1/-1 counters decks is to spread some -1/-1 counters around and then proliferate them. If a creature has a single -1/-1 counter and you proliferate, it’s going to permanently have two -1/-1 counters, and so on.
Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons | Illustration by Tyler Jacobson
I’m a fan of -1/-1 counters because they appear so rarely as a main theme in a Standard set, and there’s always the novelty factor. WotC’s designers always find clever uses for them, either as a downside to a card or as ways to create new removal spells and effects. -1/-1 counters are very open to synergies in proliferate, counter spreading, and even as a way to negate indestructible or shield counters.
One thing we’ll note is that since MTG’s been through a power creep period, cards that add -1/-1 counter didn’t get this power buff, and most of them are old and on the weaker side. Here’s hoping that a future set will correct things (or not, since people don’t like to see their creatures weakened).
What do you think of my -1/-1 counters list? Do you run these in your Commander decks? Let me know in the comments section below or leave us a message on Draftsim’s Twitter.
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