Last updated on September 22, 2023
Arcbound Ravager | Illustration by Daarken
I’m sure almost every Magic player has come across +1/+1 counters. These counters are in virtually every set that’s released, and they see a lot of play at every level of the game. They’re popular with kitchen tables all the way up to the Pro Tour.
There have been all kinds of cards that give you +1/+1 counters, enter the battlefield with them, move them around, give you rewards for having them in play, and a whole lot more over Magic’s nearly 30-year history.
What are the best ones ever made? How can you use them to built around or complement your strategy? For you regulars, you bet I’m gonna be counting down these counter cards!
Heliod, Sun-Crowned | Illustration by Lius Lasahido
In MTG, +1/+1 counters are one of the game’s ways of making a permanent stat change to a creature. A +1/+1 counter on a creature always gives it a bonus of +1/+1 to its power and toughness. Cards can have several counters at the same time, and the bonuses all stack up. These counters appear in nearly every Magic set ever made, but they typically don’t appear in the same sets as -1/-1 counters. In the rules, these two counters cancel each other out, so WotC doesn’t put them in the same set on purpose.
A stat bonus isn’t the only thing that +1/+1 counters can end up giving you or your creature. There are a bunch of cards that use them, move them, and remove them in different ways.
For this ranking, I’m going to focus on cards that specifically care about +1/+1 counters rather than cards that are just very powerful and happen to give a +1/+1 counter at some point, like The Wandering Emperor. If the card is only good because of how it uses +1/+1 counters, it gets to be on this list.
There are a lot of cards I considered for this list that just stick a bunch of counters onto your creatures, like Ridgescale Tusker, Verdurous Gearhulk, and even Murktide Regent. These cards are all very powerful in their own right, but I’ve purposefully leaned towards cards that trigger over and over again.
Starting off is a Limited favorite of mine. There are a lot of cards that get a +1/+1 counter whenever you do a thing. Sacrificing permanents is something you can easily build around. You don’t even need to have a dedicated sac deck for it to be good. It also triggers whenever you sacrifice a treasure or fetch land. This is a powerful Limited card, but it’s also a solid cheap creature for a Commander deck. It was high on my list when putting together a sac deck for that format.
Back in Khans of Tarkir, the Abzan had one of the heaviest +1/+1 counter themes ever seen in a Limited format. The idea was to have a bunch of creatures with outlast, an ability that lets you tap the creature and pay some mana to get a +1/+1 counter. On top of that, there were several creatures that gave all of your creatures a keyword ability if they had a counter on them. By far the best of these was Abzan Falconer, giving one of Magic’s most relevant keywords (flying) to most of your creatures.
Pridemalkin is just the handsomest of boys. Trample is still a very relevant keyword to give to your team, but what sets this card apart from Tuskguard Captain is the ability to give something a +1/+1 counter upfront. This lets you get some trample damage in immediately and helps you to influence combat on the turn you play it. It’s also a cat, so yeah.
This is a weird card that wasn’t that great in Limited, despite being a decent-looking common that supports +1/+1 counters. In Commander, when you can play dozens of creatures and get paid off for every single one, this can be a real house. This interaction has caused it to be reprinted a bunch of times.
There are a few triggered abilities in the game that trigger when a +1/+1 counter is placed onto a creature, and this is one of the stronger cards like that. Sharktocrab was such a pain to play against. It could be adapted to tap down your best thing, then have the counter removed to enable another adapt and do it all over again. You could easily put more counters on with other effects and tap down more creatures.
This is still in the realms of Limited, but this time with a mythic uncommon. Elite Scaleguard was Fate Reforged’s mythic uncommon. Master of Diversion variants can be hit or miss, but I really like them.
What sets this one apart from the rest is that it doesn’t even need to attack to trigger. If you cast this card, bolster onto a creature, and happen to have one more creature out with a counter on it, suddenly you’re tapping down two blockers and getting in a hefty chunk of damage. Scaleguard puts a 4/5’s worth of power and toughness onto the board, but it also then taps down multiple blockers on the same turn and sticks around to pressure your opponent turn after turn.
This is one of the better payoffs for a sacrifice deck. Like Blood Aspirant, it’s nice and cheap, and it can grow big pretty quickly. It’s certainly possible that the Aspirant is better, but beetle triggers whenever any player sacrifices a creature. That’s something worth considering: suddenly, a card like Barter in Blood on a Commander table can stick eight counters on it in one shot.
I also want to mention Sengir, the Dark Baron, which I haven’t included on this list. Its trigger is extremely strong, and it clearly looks miles better compared to this. Mortician Beetle is a 1-drop, though, and that means a lot. There are a bunch of creatures that do this sort of thing, but it’s the cheaper and more flexible ones that win out for me.
“Draw a card” is perhaps the best three-word phrase you can find on a Magic card. I adore Fathom Mage, though it sadly never amounted to much in competitive play. At least in a casual setting, imagining a big Bioshift on it is enough to pique my interest.
It turns out that a better card draw payoff for +1/+1 counters is Armorcraft Judge. It’s easy to get a few creatures in play and have this draw you a few cards when it enters. It can also be flickered for even more value, which is a much easier way of drawing cards than Fathom Mage.
This is a remarkably terrible card printed back in 2003’s Scourge. Back then, it was nowhere near playable and ended up in everyone’s bulk rare piles. Enter Commander, and the card now has some uses! More players at the table means more counters for Forgotten Ancient. Now this baby is a bulk rare again, but only because it’s been reprinted a dozen times, and everyone has copies to spare. It’s a super sweet card.
Drawing cards is already something you want to do, so triggering off it is always going to be powerful. Chasm Skulker was a broken Limited card that’s also a brutal card to have to play against in Commander. My brother has a cycling deck, and this is one of the better payoffs in it. You’re already drawing a card every turn without doing anything, and it gets out of hand very quickly if you support it. You can’t even kill it without having to face down an army of squids.
Speaking of triggering off drawing cards, Nadir Kraken ended up being one of the best rares in Theros Beyond Death’s Limited format. Even now, in Commander, it’s pretty scary to see across the table because it provides a seemingly endless stream of chump blockers while growing massive. It’s possible that Chasm Skulker is better, but as a Limited player who really enjoyed Theros Beyond Death, I give the edge to my boy the Kraken.
Doubling the power of any creature that connects with an opponent is a nutty effect. You can drop this down with a board of creatures ready to attack and end up with easily a dozen or more counters in a single combat phase. Recently, Westgate Regent became one of the most powerful Limited rares out of Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. This is just a bigger and more impactful version of the same effect.
Cards that double your +1/+1 counters are extremely powerful. This one is by far the weakest one, yet it’s still really good. It’s a “bad” counter doubler because it’s a 4-drop creature, and outside of Commander it has seen no play. The others have performed much better.
Back when this was in Standard, any 2-drop into a Rishkar on turn three was one of the best opening plays that green decks had access to. Especially if your 2-drop happened to be Winding Constrictor, which we’ll get to. It hasn’t shown up much in older formats, but Rishkar, Peema Renegade is still a sweet Commander card, one that was incredible in both Standard and Limited.
Additional counters has become a running theme. There are a lot of examples of this effect, and getting it on a 2-drop creature is particularly interesting. This creature saw quite a bit of play in some of the Collected Company combo decks that were putting up good Modern performances until Modern Horizons 2 shifted the metagame. Now, this is still a cool effect, a decent Commander card, and something that players can rely on if the meta shifts in its favor again.
What sets Winding Constrictor apart from its compatriots is that it gives you additional counters of any kind. It just so happened to be in Standard alongside energy counters, one of the most powerful mechanics in the history of Standard. While Temur was the most typical color combination, Sultai energy was still very good, and this was one of the main reasons for it. Outside of energy, this is still capable of propping up +1/+1 counter decks and making them tick.
In the early days of Commander’s existence, there weren’t very many legendary creatures for the enemy color pairs, including Simic. In those days, Experiment Kraj was by far one of the coolest commanders in the game. Stealing the activated abilities of basically every creature on the board is a sweet effect, and there are all sorts of combos you can assemble from that.
Given this was a Commander Legends card, Hamza really passed me by. I’ve never had an opportunity to play with or against it. On paper, this card looks busted. It shouldn’t be too hard to make this cheap and make all your creatures easy to cast. Not much else to go on, but it looks like when you build a deck entirely around +1/+1 counters, this does a lot of work.
When we saw this card originally, the cycle of three modules (along with Decoction Module and Fabrication Module) looked cool and interesting. The one that churns out tokens has to be the most useful one. As it happens, this card was great in Limited, and it has seen a good amount of play in competitive formats. It can even be annoying in Commander. What’s not to like?
This is a card that has never really done much, but it’s absolutely absurd in Commander decks. The way this scales up turn after turn is very real. It also works extremely well with any effect that puts multiple creatures into play at the same time. Army of the Damned triggers this 13 times, resulting in 12 +1/+1 counters on each of the zombie tokens. Whenever I go to build a white +1/+1 counter deck for Commander, this is one of the first cards I want to include.
One of the easiest triggers to satisfy, Managorger Hydra is one of the most annoying cards in the game to play against. It’s obviously good in Commander, but this saw quite a bit of play in Standard, was a ridiculous bomb in Limited, and even saw some play in Vintage at one point. Black Lotus into this on turn one was an opener that lots of decks in the format couldn’t actually deal with, especially when it would be a 10/10 by the time you untapped for turn two.
Another counter doubler, but this plays more to the board than the others. Rather than doubling all future counter plays, Kalonian Hydra lets you double up on the counters already in play, so it’s a much better draw in the late game. I also played a lot of Limited with M14, and this was an absurd bomb.
For two years straight, Standard was dominated by red decks sporting a playset of this powerhouse. Runaway Steam-Kin did everything that a red deck already wanted to be doing, but it also allowed for some really ridiculous turns when you get to cast a couple of red spells, get mana from the Steam-Kin, and cast another couple of spells with the mana. All that, while gaining +1/+1 counters and staying huge.
Fundamentally, The Ozolith is an artifact that does nothing upfront, which is something that has limited its potential. However, it’s seen a little bit of play in some competitive decks, and it demands a hefty price tag based on how fun it is in Commander.
What’s particularly powerful about this card is that when you combine it with one of your many counter doubler effects, the counters get doubled when they go onto The Ozolith and again once they go back onto a creature. This interaction alone is something that’s worth using this card for.
One of the original commanders from the 2011 prerelease decks, Animar has really stood the test of time. It’s so easy to trigger and build up its counters, at which point it starts to make your creatures trivially easy to cast. Animar has persisted through the years as a fan-favorite commander, and it’s easy to see why.
Good utility lands come up very rarely. Gavony Township is one that took Standard by storm and has even seen some play in Modern. If games ever result in a board stall, Township breaks it open by slowly growing your creatures every turn. Even mana dorks become potent threats after a few turns. I remember once killing an opponent with a 10/11 Birds of Paradise, entirely thanks to this sweet land.
Back to Limited with this one, but Citadel Siege is on an entirely different level. Two +1/+1 counters each turn becomes unbeatable quickly, and it even has a backup plan of being able to tap down a creature every turn instead. On top of that, it’s an enchantment, so it’s virtually unkillable. It may have been eight years since Fate Reforged, but this is still one of the most powerful Limited cards of all time.
Hangarback was one of Standard’s most powerful cards for its entire time in the format. It’s castable for two mana, so it was used in a wide variety of decks in the format. It helped that the format was centered around midrange decks, but the card is still extremely powerful It has also made waves in some older formats. If you can stick one early, it just keeps growing and growing until leaving it alive is preferable to killing it and unleashing an army of thopters. Support this with just a few of the cards on this list and it gets dumb very quickly.
Another one of 2011’s original commanders that has stood the test of time, Ghave is one of the best legendary creatures for a variety of archetypes. It’s great for tokens, Saproling/fungus tribal, sacrifices, and (of course) +1/+1 counters.
Sometimes newer truly is better, and the ancient dragons from 2022’s Commander Legends set have already taken the format by storm. Green’s offering promises to give you a ridiculous number of counters with each trigger, and this is likely to be a big piece of the format for quite some time. It combos incredibly well with lots of the cards on this list, like Walking Ballista and Fathom Mage, so you can’t really go wrong with it.
This two-card combo is one of many that can be built into various decks. Archangel of Thune is already a powerful card by itself, but it goes infinite with Spike Feeder’s life-gain ability to make all your creatures as big as you like. This has played out several times in Modern. The Archangel itself is more than good enough to be played in a variety of Commander decks, and even more so if you have room for this combo.
From the moment Steel Overseer was printed, it has been a staple of any aggressive deck based around artifact creatures. From Affinity to Hardened Scales decks, it has been around for a long time. If left unchecked for long enough, the advantage it gives turn after turn becomes insurmountable. It also works incredibly well with the various modular creatures that those decks usually play, like Arcbound Ravager and Arcbound Worker.
It looked innocent at first, but Luminarch Aspirant quickly took Magic by storm. It was one of the most powerful 2-drops for its entire run in Standard, one of the best Limited cards ever, and it’s still seeing a bunch of play in Pioneer. There have been cards like this before, but this is a real testament to how making a previously used effect cost a lot less can push it right into competitive play.
Doubling Season is one of the most infamous cards in the game, especially as far as Commander goes. Its effect is so far reaching that it has applications far beyond doubling +1/+1 counters. Primal Vigor is the exact same card for the purposes of this discussion (though it doesn’t work with counters other than +1/+1s). Both cards really help to dial up the power level of these decks. The trigger works whenever counters get moved around too, continually multiplying the number that you have out.
If you’re looking at counter doublers, the newest version of that would be Kaldheim’s Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider. You get to double your own counters whenever you like, but you also end up halving our opponents’. It was played a lot in Limited because it’s also just a massive haste threat. Although it’s easier to kill than something like Doubling Season, the fact that it can massively disrupt your opponent and buff your effects is more than enough to push it over the top.
It might seem strange to some people that this particular counter doubler is the highest one on the list, but making this effect cost just one mana lets you slam this really early in the game and maximize its value. Hardened Scales (the aptly named dice factory) has been a fringe playable deck in Modern and Pioneer for quite some time, and it has from time to time made it to the top tables. If you’re building a Commander deck for this theme then this is another counter doubler that you can’t possibly go without.
There’ve been a few cards like this before, Ajani's Pridemate. They’ve always been popular in both casual and competitive play, but Heliod takes things one step further. It’s usually just an enchantment, which makes it a lot harder to deal with. Of course, the biggest change is that it can put +1/+1 counter on any creature and enable a bunch of combos. It can give lifelink to Walking Ballista and create a two-card infinite damage combo with it. Oh, and it’s also an obscene Limited card. Because of course it is.
Arcbound Ravager is one of Magic’s most infamously broken cards. It was banned in Standard and Block Constructed. While it was never banned in Modern, it has come extremely close and has resulted in the bans of other cards adjacent to it. Ravager has long been the backbone of competitive Affinity decks. Its ability to be able to sacrifice any artifact, including itself, makes it extremely difficult to play against.
It makes the game a headache for opponents, and, to cap it all off, it can alpha strike out of nowhere by sacrificing your whole board to dump a pile of counters onto an unblocked creature for lethal. Especially when that creature happens to be Inkmoth Nexus. Thanks to multiple bans and a lot of very powerful cards printed in the last three years, this has fallen out of favor in many ways. However, the impact that Arcbound Ravager has made on the game is more than enough to push this toward the top of this list.
Back in 1994, Antiquities gave players a classic Magic card in Triskelion. Nearly 23 years later, Aether Revolt brought along one of the best versions of this card ever. Walking Ballista has a flexible casting cost and the ability to keep growing into the late game. These factors have let it see play in every format and in everything from aggro decks to combo decks. It’s a common one-of in wishboards for Karn, the Great Creator. Right now, this is easily the best way for you to use +1/+1 counters, letting you kill off creatures and opponents when it’s built up enough.
Walking Ballista | Illustration by Daniel Ljunggren
I hope you enjoyed these rankings. Do you think I missed anything off this list? Maybe you have a counter-proposal for the ranking order? Let me know in the Draftsim Discord or in the comments below.
Until next time, take care of yourselves!Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates: