Last updated on February 20, 2024
Marchesa, the Black Rose | Illustration by Matt Stewart
Aside from actual factual physical cards, +1/+1 counters are probably the most common game piece in Magic. A quick Scryfall search reveals a massive 1,600+ cards that use +1/+1 counters in some way. It’s one of the most popular and well-supported deck types, and you will play with and against counter decks during your Magic career.
+1/+1 counter decks flourish in Commander with all the support one could possibly desire. Not only do your counter commanders get to pull from a 30-year history of +1/+1 counter payoffs, but nearly every new set has something to add to the strategy. And that means there’s an absolute treasure trove of +1/+1 counter commanders at your disposal.
Let’s take a look at them!
What Are Plus One Counter Commanders in MTG?
Kurbis, Harvest Celebrant | Illustration by Irvin Rodriguez
For the purposes of this list, a +1/+1 counter commander is a legendary permanent that can be your commander and interacts with +1/+1 counters in a meaningful way. There’s an incredible roster of legendaries that pick up or move counters around in one way or another, but I narrowed the list down to cards that synergize with the theme, rather than ones that just store up counters to hit harder.
A commander like Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin is a great place to dump +1/+1 counters, but it doesn’t add much to the rest of a fully-themed +1/+1 counter deck. The commanders listed here put those counters to good use, either bolstering your other +1/+1 counter effects or distributing counters to your other creatures.
There are some sub-themes that benefit from +1/+1 counters, like fling decks, or high-power matters decks. But those aren’t explicit counter payoffs, just cards that complement a +1/+1 counter strategy, so I’ve left them off the list. I want deliberate counter payoffs here, and even with these restrictions the list needs to be narrowed down quite a bit.
#48. Shaile, Dean of Radiance / Embrose, Dean of Shadow
I’m including Embrose, Dean of Shadow out of due diligence alone, but I’m giving it the bottom slot due to how atrocious the double-faced Strixhaven dean designs are. It’s a real shame you can’t have Shaile, Dean of Radiance and Embrose in play at the same time because there’s obvious synergy here. Honestly, I’m all for Rule 0-ing these as two different cards.
#47. Daghatar the Adamant
Daghatar the Adamant is a hydra-like creature whose power and toughness are entirely comprised of +1/+1 counters, which inherently synergizes with other counter support. It’s costly, but I have to admit it’s fun to yoink +1/+1 counters from opposing creatures and put them on yours.
#46. Experiment Kraj
Travel back to 2014 and this list probably only has 10-15 entries and Experiment Kraj is probably fighting for a top slot. Kraj is actively weak by today’s standards, but we pay respects to the champions of a different era.
#45. Vorel of the Hull Clade
#44. Kurbis, Harvest Celebrant
Kurbis, Harvest Celebrant is made up of counters and protects your other countered-up creatures. I’ve never encountered it in the wild, but it feels like a support piece rather than a commander. Maybe fight spells are the way to go, but Kurbis can’t target itself, and only preventing damage is a shoddy form of protection at best.
#43. Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter
Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter is a very good +1/+1 counter payoff with a very bad mana value. It turns counters into removal, but it’s hard to justify running a card of this cost as your commander. Maybe a Geode Golem or Command Beacon can make it work.
#42. Blaster, Combat DJ / Blaster, Morale Booster
I love writing for y’all because sometimes I discover awesome new cards to share. Other times I have to read a Transformer card and I wonder if it’s time to retire. Look, Blaster, Combat DJ/Blaster, Morale Booster and the rest of the Transformers gang are just needlessly complicated, so trust me when I say there’s some decent +1/+1 counter stuff going on here, but the mental load isn’t really worth it.
#41. Zegana, Utopian Speaker
Zegana, Utopian Speaker exists as a woefully unexciting commander. Granting creatures trample is easier than wetting a dry sponge, so it’s not like Zegana’s doing anything special. Still, it’s a counter payoff and enabler with popular creature types, so it’s far from offensive.
#40. Nils, Discipline Enforcer
Group hug decks might be interested in Nils, Discipline Enforcer, though it’s better suited to the 99. It has a mini Ghostly Prison ability linked to counters on your opponents’ creatures, though the problem is that your opponents can just kill Nils and attack after picking up some counters. It’s a political card that incidentally fairs well against opposing counter-based decks.
#39. Alharu, Solemn Ritualist
If you want Abzan Ascendancy in your command zone, Alharu, Solemn Ritualist does the trick. It’s an imminently fair card that feels like an uncommon, but lower rarities need some love too. A good partner can definitely add appeal and make Alharu a complete Abzan commander.
#38. Rishkar, Peema Renegade
You’ll usually spot Rishkar, Peema Renegade in the 99 of counter decks, rarely appearing as the actual commander. It has a strong ramp/counter ability, it just lacks the oomph to actually lead an entire deck. It was recently downshifted to uncommon in Commander Masters, so maybe the Pauper Commander community can fill me in on how it’s doing there.
#37. Vogar, Necropolis Tyrant
If this is your first time ever seeing Vogar, Necropolis Tyrant, leave me a comment letting me know. Vogar picks up counters naturally as creatures die during your turn, but you’ll want other +1/+1 counter effects to power up this death trigger.
#36. Master Chef
This card’s one letter away from making me pick up Halo again. Master Chef is the +1/+1 counter background of choice, though that implies you’re pairing it with a “choose a background” commander. You can always slot it into the 99 (or 98), which can double its effectiveness with two other partner/background commanders at the helm.
#35. Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch
I built a budget Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch deck once, and it was among the worst decks I’ve ever played. That was many Blood Moons ago, and with all the additive +1/+1 counter mechanics like riot and backup, I’d bet there’s a hyper-aggressive shell for Exava that actually works.
#34. Kros, Defense Contractor
Kros, Defense Contractor is interesting in theory, until it’s just you and one other player and you’re forced to keep buffing up your opponent’s creatures. It’s fun against multiple opponents and rewards you for finding unique counters to place on opposing creatures.
#33. Arcee, Sharpshooter / Arcee, Acrobatic Coupe
Arcee, Acrobatic Coupe has a heroic-like ability that stores up counters, then converts back to Arcee, Sharpshooter who then filters those counters into damage. The trials and tribulations I have to go through just to understand how these cards work. It’s like there’s more than meets the eye or something.
#32. Denry Klin, Editor in Chief
Watch out Draftsim: there’s a new editor-in-chief. That’s Denry Klin, Editor in Chief. It works much like Renata, Called to the Hunt for non-tokens, but you can diversify the types of counters they get or stack up multiple counters at once, à la Master Biomancer.
#31. Goldberry, River-Daughter
Goldberry, River-Daughter bucks the trend of counterspells and permission for a blue counter-based theme. +1/+1 counters are the default way to use Goldberry, but the card can do some really neat tricks by moving around lore counters on sagas, -1/-1 counters on persist creatures, and so on.
#30. Bess, Soul Nourisher
Caring about a specific stat line doesn’t come up often, but 1/1s are some of the easiest creatures to make thanks to the power of tokens. Bess, Soul Nourisher gets bigger with each 1/1 you play then rebounds that power to all your underlings for a huge swing.
#29. Grakmaw, Skyclave Ravager
You can just look and see how many times “+1/+1 counter” shows up in the textbox of Grakmaw, Skyclave Ravager. I love when the cards do the work for me.
#28. Catti-brie of Mithral Hall
Catti-brie of Mithral Hall is a unique equipment payoff that I’ll never spell correctly without looking it up. It’s best friends with Basilisk Collar and Lure effects, and you can power up its activated ability with supplementary +1/+1 counter cards.
#27. Roalesk, Apex Hybrid
Roalesk, Apex Hybrid is little more than a big stat-beast. The goal is finding interesting things to proliferate on the way out, like planeswalkers or poison counters, but Roalesk sets you up with a few +1/+1 counters if nothing else.
#26. Arwen, Weaver of Hope
As a welcome recipient of +1/+1 counters and a means to spread them to other creatures, Arwen, Weaver of Hope earns a mention. I don’t know if it’s just me, but the art looks like a racecar at a glance, so bonus points for that, I guess.
#25. Volrath, the Shapestealer
Oh no, my squares and triangles! Volrath, the Shapestealer is better suited to -1/-1 counters, but any counter on a creature makes it an eligible target for Volrath’s copy ability. You could forgo identity theft altogether and just copy your own creatures with +1/+1 counters on them.
#24. Kyler, Sigardian Emissary
#23. Skullbriar, the Walking Grave
Ikoria’s ability counters gave Skullbriar, the Walking Grave a reason to resurface, but it’s fallen back into obscurity again. It gets credit for being unique, but it also gets absolutely obliterated by -1/-1 counters.
#22. Vadrik, Astral Archmage
Vadrik, Astral Archmage is a spellslinger commander that benefits from running a few extra +1/+1 counter or proliferate effects. You also get the splash damage of introducing the day/night cycle into your game, because players love tracking extra stuff!
#21. Marath, Will of the Wild
Marath, Will of the Wild is a classic commander, and the reason Ulasht, the Hate Seed doesn’t make the list. They both turn counters into damage or board presence, with Marath having the added utility of moving its counters to other creatures. It’s a 3-color commander whereas Ulasht is only two, but some might argue that’s actually a benefit.
#20. Ramos, Dragon Engine
Ramos, Dragon Engine is a conduit through which you can filter +1/+1 counters to produce double , but that doesn’t technically require any other counter support. I’m sure people have built Ramos as a deliberate +1/+1 counter deck, which is way cooler than the 5-color soup decks I’m used to seeing.
#19. Tayam, Luminous Enigma
I’ve been told Tayam, Luminous Enigma fairs well in cEDH, but I’m not qualified to speak about that. In casual matches, it can turn counters you have floating around your creatures into mini recursive spells, though any kind of counter will do.
#18. Felisa, Fang of Silverquill
Bye, Felisa. I don’t know what the title “fang” means, but Felisa, Fang of Silverquill wears it well. This commander has well-supported creature types, a cool use of mentor, explosive potential with mass counter-granting abilities, and exists` in colors that don’t often get played as a +1/+1 counter deck. Plenty to love here.
#17. Sarulf, Realm Eater
You can play Sarulf, Realm Eater in one of two ways: either you focus on blowing up your opponents’ permanents to make it huge, or you trade off Sarulf’s +1/+1 counters to keep eating the board. It’s a fun little Norse-inspired design, though it won’t make you any friends at the table.
#16. Jetfire, Ingenious Scientist / Jetfire, Air Guardian
Sigh. Here’s a laundry list of all the mechanics used on Jetfire, Ingenious Scientist: more than meets the eye, convert, flying, living metal, adapt, transform… it’s too much. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty good, so we have to talk about it. For all its convoluted text, it basically turns counters into mana you can use to cast artifacts, and the conversion rigamarole lets it keep building up counters as Jetfire, Air Guardian.
#15. Hamza, Guardian of Arashin
Hamza, Guardian of Arashin is like Rakdos, Lord of Riots with +1/+1 counters instead of damage. That means you’re incentivized to balance expensive monsters and cheap +1/+1 counter creatures. Or just play a bunch of hydras.
#14. Bright-Palm, Soul Awakener
Backup is one of many +1/+1 counter mechanics, on full display with Bright-Palm, Soul Awakener. It doubles counters on attacks and transfers that ability to a different creature on ETB, so it has an immediate impact on the game. It also side-steps annoying chump-blockers and deathtouch creatures, though I wish we’d keyword that ability sometime soon.
#13. Chishiro, the Shattered Blade
Modified encompasses a number of different card types and abilities, which includes counters of any kind. Chishiro, the Shattered Blade reads like an equipment/aura payoff, but you could double down on the +1/+1 side of modified here.
#12. Nikara, Lair Scavenger
Yannik, Scavenging Sentinel distributes the +1/+1 counters while Nikara, Lair Scavenger provides the card draw. It’s a great partner pair, with Yannik as the support piece and Nikara as the payoff. I’d be interested to see decks that run Nikara on their own, since the ability works with any kind of counter.
#11. Tekuthal, Inquiry Dominus
Tekuthal, Inquiry Dominus doesn’t actually mention +1/+1 counters, but doubling your proliferation certainly leads you in that direction. I suppose you could always do infect, if you’re in your villain arc.
#10. Ezuri, Claw of Progress
Ezuri, Claw of Progress builds up experience by playing small creatures, then pumps up those creatures into massive threats. It’s great alongside mass token generators and low-power utility creatures like Mystic Snake and Farhaven Elf. It’s probably best known for its cheesy infinite combo potential with Sage of Hours.
#9. Falco Spara, Pactweaver
Despite being designed to work with shield counters from Streets of New Capenna, Falco Spara, Pactweaver is fairly open-ended. +1/+1 counters are still the easiest to manage, and you’ll happily give one up to essentially draw an extra card.
#8. Ghave, Guru of Spores
You can still win games with Ghave, Guru of Spores, though it’s more indicative of a different age of Commander. If you see this across the table, you should expect some sort of Doubling Season or Ashnod's Altar loop in your future.
#7. Lae’zel, Vlaakith’s Champion
Lae'zel, Vlaakith's Champion provides a desirable Hardened Scales effect in your command zone, and “choose a background” lets you select the right support card to fully take advantage of your extra counters. Might I suggest sending Lae’zel to culinary school to become a Master Chef?
#6. Pir, Imaginative Rascal
Pir, Imaginative Rascal is slightly different than Lae'zel, Vlaakith's Champion, but it’s so much better if you have access to Toothy, Imaginary Friend. Pir’s still a good enough standalone card that you’ll run it solo in counter-based synergies as an additional Hardened Scales effect.
#5. Reyhan, Last of the Abzan
As long as you have at least one creature on board, Reyhan, Last of the Abzan ensures your +1/+1 counters stay intact by shifting them around as your creatures die. Partner is the real draw here, allowing you to add to the color identity of any other partner commander, even if you don’t care what Reyhan adds to the deck.
#4. Shalai and Hallar
Shalai and Hallar is a modified All Will Be One in the command zone and serves as one of the best ways to convert +1/+1 counter generation into damage. It easily lends itself to well-established infinite combos, though it’s clear Shalai’s doing the heavy lifting in this partnership.
#3. The Swarmlord
The Swarmlord absolutely screams +1/+1 counters. Or whatever sound tyranids make. It was designed in tandem with the ravenous cards from the Tyranid Swarm Commander precon, though its Xenos Cunning ability leaves the door open to interactions with different kinds of counters.
#2. Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider
Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider is an improved Doubling Season you can put in your command zone, at least as far as counters are concerned. It doubles your +1/+1 counters for huge swings while stifling your opponents on the same front. Of course, Vorinclex is mostly used for evil, since it doubles loyalty counters on planeswalkers for easy ultimates, too.
#1. Marchesa, the Black Rose
Marchesa, the Black Rose caps out the list as a Grixis card in a sea of commanders. It’s that good though, using +1/+1 counters to produce impenetrable boards. Dethrone is usually easy to trigger, and even without it, you can use other +1/+1 counter effects to make sure your creatures keep coming back. The fact that the reanimation ability applies to itself means you’re going to have a tough time breaking through the recursive power of Marchesa. Or, you know, just play more graveyard hate.
Best +1/+1 Counter Commander Payoffs
+1/+1 counters encompass so much Magic design space that there are countless payoffs for playing into the theme. The most elementary use of counters is to buff up your creatures and deal extra damage, which plays well with token deck, high-power matters decks, fling decks, and numerous other strategies. Most combat keywords benefit from +1/+1 counters, including trample, first and double strike, flying, and above all else lifelink.
+1/+1 counters fuel a number of other mechanics as well. Proliferate applies to any type of counter, but it’s common to see proliferate effects in +1/+1 counter decks as a way to stack up extra damage. The downside of persist is also mitigated by adding +1/+1 counters to negate the -1/-1 counters, creating easy opportunities for infinite loops.
These counters can fulfill the modified conditions on cards like Kodama of the West Tree, they can be used to combat opposing -1/-1 counter effects, and there are even effects life Damning Verdict or Hazardous Conditions that break symmetry if you can get counters on your own creatures.
Mayael's Aria and Simic Ascendancy are alternate wincons that key off of +1/+1 counters, or just large creatures in general. And of course, the most important payoff for +1/+1 counters that no one talks about is the opportunity to show off some swagged out dice at your local game store.
The Good Kind of Counters
The Swarmlord | Illustration by Antonio Jose Manzanedo
+1/+1 counters are synonymous with the game of Magic, and it’s virtually impossible to play the game without encountering a counter-themed deck in some form or another. The long list of commanders here is only scratching the surface of a much longer list of legends that interact with +1/+1 counters.
I narrowed this list down from a much wider pool of commanders and still ended up with almost 50 legends I thought worthy of mention. That of course means there are plenty that I left off. If your favorite’s not represented here and you have a strong case for why it should be, I’d love to hear from you. Let me know in the comments below or over in the Draftsim Discord.
Thank you for making Draftsim your #1 stop for all things Magic! And please, no more Transformers.Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates: