Last updated on March 23, 2023
Zabaz, the Glimmerwasp | Illustration by Jason Felix
+1/+1 counters are an essential part of Magic. Creatures and spells have been creating and removing them since the game’s inception, and their uses stretch far beyond mere combat damage. Many abilities make use of +1/+1 counters as a resource, and modular is the perfect example.
One of my favorite things to do in Magic is to put some dice on some cards. The physical act of placing them and the visual sensation of a board full of cardboard squares with dozens of polyhedral dice spread around just gets me going, so much so that I’ve built no less than three decks whose endgames revolve around putting as many dice on as many cards as possible.
The modular mechanic is a great start for any of these decks. I’m so excited to jump into its history and design and dissect some of the best modular cards in Magic. Let’s gear up and dive in!
What Is Modular in MTG?
Arcbound Overseer | Illustration by Carl Critchlow
Modular appears on cards as “modular N,” where N is usually a number (but not always! See: Arcbound Wanderer). A permanent with modular N basically enters the battlefield with N +1/+1 counters on it. When it dies you can place a number of +1/+1 counters on a target artifact creature equal to the number of +1/+1 counters on the dying modular creature.
The first 12 modular cards were introduced in Darksteel and Fifth Dawn back in 2004, with another 10 to follow in Modern Horizons and Modern Horizons 2. They originally appeared only on colorless artifact creatures but have expanded into red and white with MH2.
Most of the Arcbound creatures appear as constructs and golems bound together by energies flaring around their joints. This allows their parts to be easily exchanged with other artifact creatures. They donate their power and parts to new creatures each time they die. Reduce, reuse, recycle!
The History of Modular in MTG
Mark Rosewater designed modular to be reminiscent of the spike creatures from Exodus and the chimeras of Visions. The spikes were 0/0 creatures that entered the battlefield with a number of +1/+1 counters that they could remove to activate abilities. Two of the most popular spikes still see some play in EDH decks to this day.
Spike Weaver’s repeatable Fog effect and Spike Feeder’s mana-free lifegain ability are both useful tools in any counters-themed deck.
The chimeras on the other hand are all 4-mana 2/2 artifact creatures with one of four evergreen abilities: first strike, trample, flying, and un-keyworded vigilance. They can sacrifice themselves to put a mythical +2/+2 counter on any other chimera creature and permanently give that creature their respective ability. In modern parlance we’d probably see this represented as the ability counters from Ikoria.
During the design for the Mirrodin block, Rosewater wanted to make use of +1/+1 counters in a similar way to the spikes while also making artifact creatures matter. He wanted to avoid making another cycle of chimeras and make use of the spikes’ +1/+1 counter synergies by moving counters onto other creatures. The conglomeration of these ideas led to the modular mechanic as we know it today.
The Best Modular Cards
I like to think of modular decks as akin to aristocrats decks since both want to constantly sacrifice and resurrect creatures for advantage. The best modular cards help you enable that strategy.
#12. Arcbound Javelineer
Arcbound Javelineer is the only modular creature with a toughness score. It enters the battlefield as a 1/2 that can remove +1/+1 counters to deal damage to attacking or blocking creatures.
The Javelineer’s utility is useful in a Limited environment and can become an effective rattlesnake to shake at your enemies with the right set up. Best of all, it won’t die if you remove all of its counters for its ability, meaning you won’t lose out on any counters you could otherwise redistribute among your other artifact creatures.
#11. Arcbound Slasher
Arcbound Slasher is a great common hailing from MH2. It’s more fairly priced than many of the other modular creatures, entering the battlefield as either a 5/5 or a 4/4 with haste. I love the interaction of riot and modular on the same creature and I hope to see more crossover between +1/+1 counter abilities in the future.
#10. Arcbound Worker
Ah, the classic worker peon. Arcbound Worker is the simplest Arcbound creature on Mirrodin. As a 1/1 for one mana that moves its counter to another artifact creature on death, it’s an appropriately priced common you’ll want four of in any modular-themed deck.
#9. Arcbound Fiend
Arcbound Fiend starts out as a 3/3 with some middle-of-the-road evasion and a built-in way to grow its +1/+1 counters. At six mana, it’s a little too expensive to be “great” and its ability shrinks your other creatures slowly. It can end games but needs the right setup to be perfectly executed.
#8. Arcbound Crusher
A resounding four mana for a 1/1 with trample feels like a rip-off, because it is. Arcbound Crusher’s real value lies in its triggered ability. It grows every time any artifact enters the battlefield, including your opponents’! In an artifact-heavy meta, this card can potentially become a threat in as quickly as one turn.
#7. Power Depot
Power Depot is the first noncreature card with modular. It’s a great color fixer in any artifact deck and I love its reliability as a sacrifice target.
But I don’t think its potential has been unlocked yet. There has to be a way to abuse the modular ability on a land. Crucible of Worlds seems too obvious and I can’t see myself splashing green to Crop Rotation over and over either.
#6. Scrapyard Recombiner
Another great recursion piece, Scrapyard Recombiner was the first new modular card since Fifth Dawn. It’s not exactly a Tinker on a body but there are still loads of great constructs to tutor up.
The Gearhulk cycle, Hangarback Walker, Walking Ballista, and Myr Battlesphere, are all great tutor targets, not to mention a lot of the other modular cards.
#5. Arcbound Shikari
A regular menace in MH2’s Limited environment, Arcbound Shikari was my regular 3-drop after Arcbound Mouser and Arcbound Prototype. The Limited environment for MH2 made a lot of use of +1/+1 counters on artifact creatures outside of solely modular creatures, too. Esper Sentinel, Knighted Myr, and Bottle Gnomes were all also excellent targets.
#4. Arcbound Overseer
Arcbound Overseer is a great “lord” for your modular robot army. It throws another +1/+1 counter on each of your modular creatures each upkeep. And with a 6/6 body for eight mana, it’s worth the price.
#3. Arcbound Reclaimer
Arcbound Reclaimer is the chocolate to Arcbound Ravager’s peanut butter. It allows you to recur your dead modular creatures to the top of your library. It’s not as efficient as it could be, but it’s still great considering the ability doesn’t need any mana to activate.
#2. Arcbound Ravager
Arcbound Ravager might be the best modular card. While it only comes with a single +1/+1 counter it’s a free sacrifice outlet for the rest of your modular cards and is an essential enabler when building around modular.
#1. Zabaz, the Glimmerwasp
WotC gave us a commander for all these modular creatures in Modern Horizons 2 in the form of Zabaz, the Glimmerwasp. And Zabaz is great. It adds an extra +1/+1 counter to any effect that puts them on your creatures. This affects both the enters-the-battlefield and leaves-the-battlefield counters!
Zabaz also offsets the steep price you pay on modular creatures for their relatively small bodies. To top it all off, it’s just one mana.
The Best Modular Payoffs
#5. Throne of Geth
Proliferating those +1/+1 counters is another excellent combo for your modular deck. Throne of Geth proliferates for the low, low price of tapping and sacrificing an artifact. It’s both enabler and payoff in a modular deck and is a cheap alternative to Arcbound Ravager.
#4. Artillerize + Shrapnel Blast
The best way to make sure your modular creatures die is to do it yourself. Cards like Artillerize and Shrapnel Blast turn those weak modular creatures into immediate damage and work great in response to blockers and board wipes.
#3. Ensoul Artifact + Tezzeret’s Touch
This one feels tricky. Since most modular creatures are 0/0 and only survive thanks to their +1/+1 counters, they can feel a little weak compared to their mana costs. But hit a modular creature with Ensoul Artifact or Tezzeret's Touch and suddenly you’ve got at least a 6/6 beater to start swinging around.
#2. Triskelion + Walking Ballista
Of course I have to mention this dastardly duo. Walking Ballista and the classic Triskelion turn those +1/+1 counters into direct damage, and they’re already staples in most +1/+1 counter-themed decks. With all the recursion available to modular creatures, you can easily return them to the field to unleash another barrage.
#1. Esper Sentinel
Esper Sentinel had a well-deserved reputation as one of the hottest cards in MH2. Many opponents weren’t planning on “paying the one” for their noncreature spells anyway (especially early game), but making Esper Sentinel a Mystic Remora on a body can net you a lot of advantage if it goes unanswered.
Does Modular Go on The Stack?
Modular’s first ability does not use the stack. The creature enters the battlefield with the +1/+1 counters, meaning the ability never triggers or activates. To counter a modular ability at this stage, you’d just need to Essence Scatter the creature spell as it’s played.
Modular’s second ability is a triggered ability, so that uses the stack. An opponent could potentially Stifle the modular ability as your creature dies, preventing the +1/+1 counters from being placed on a new creature. This also means you could use Strionic Resonator to double the number of +1/+1 counters any given modular ability on the stack creates.
Does Modular Work with Exile?
Modular doesn’t trigger if the permanent is exiled. It has to be put into the graveyard from the battlefield, shorthanded as “dies” in the ability’s reminder text. This means that Oblivion Rings shut down your modular creatures and you won’t be able to Cloudshift those modular creatures off the battlefield to move their counters while returning them at full strength.
It’s important to note that the first part of the modular ability happens when the creature enters from anywhere, not just when it’s cast. A modular creature can still survive combat with a Momentary Blink effect.
Is Modular an Activated Ability?
You don’t “choose” to activate it, so modular is not an activated ability. The first half of the ability is static. The permanent enters with the +1/+1 counters instead of having them “placed” on it afterwards. The second part is triggered. When the creature dies, you may put a number of +1/+1 counters on another target artifact creature equal to the number of +1/+1 counters on the dying modular permanent.
Neither of these use a colon to denote a cost and effect, so neither part of modular is activated.
How Does Modular Interact with -1/-1 Counters?
Modular’s interaction with -1/-1 counters is tricky. You’ve probably heard that -1/-1 and +1/+1 counters “cancel each other out,” but what does that mean, exactly?
The positive counters and negative counters do negate each other, but not until state-based actions are checked. So if enough -1/-1 counters are placed on a modular creature to kill it outright, say if your 1/1 Arcbound Ravager gets hit with a Black Sun's Zenith where X=2, then the creature will die.
But when the modular ability triggers it checks “last known information” for the number of +1/+1 counters it moves. Since state-based actions aren’t checked until all effects on the stack are resolved, the creature still has +1/+1 counters on it as it dies, despite the counters normally canceling each other out and removing each other. This means that Arcbound Ravager still moves that single +1/+1 counter to a new artifact creature.
Arcbound Ravager | Illustration by Chase Stone
The modular mechanic is great fun in Limited and Constructed decks. It synergizes well with a lot of different deck strategies, from +1/+1 counter decks to aristocrats to artifact tribal. It keeps your creatures threatening even after you’ve suffered through your opponent’s removal and allows for interesting combat scenarios as your opponents struggle to permanently neuter your army of constructs.
Did I forget any of the best modular cards? Do you think we’ll see modular again sometime soon? What sort of mechanics could we see combined with modular in the future? Let me know in the comments or over on the official Draftsim Twitter.
Thanks for reading, and happy modulating!
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You say that modular is not an activated ability, but what about in the case of a creature having the whispersilk cloak, or Drill Skimmer (can’t be the target or spells or abilities)? My deck is a black artifact deck based mostly around the modulars, but these have always been questionable in gameplay
Hi Mel! Shroud does prevent you from targeting the artifact creature and placing the +1/+1 counters on it. The second half of Modular’s ability require you place the counters on target artifact creature. Hope this helps!
And just to add to Jeff’s comment, it’s a triggered ability, not an activated ability. But it’s still an ability doing the targeting, so it’s prevented from working by those effects. We have an article about the shroud mechanic I suggest reading too.