Last updated on May 9, 2023

Necroskitter - Illustration by Jaime Jones

Necroskitter | Illustration by Jaime Jones

Everyone acknowledges the ubiquity of the +1/+1 counter. But what about its evil cousin, the -1/-1 counter? As the second most popular counter in the game, -1/-1s are like the Buzz Aldrins of the Magic world, always playing second fiddle to the +1/+1.

Throughout the years one mechanic or another has focused on creating -1/-1 counters, and wither may be the iconic -1/-1 ability. Let’s take a deeper look at this ability.

How Does Wither Work?

Midnight Banshee - Illustration by Daarken

Midnight Banshee | Illustration by Daarken

Wither is a static ability on permanent and nonpermanent spells. Damage dealt to creatures by a source with wither in the form of -1/-1 counters. So, if I block your Grizzly Bears with my Cinderbones, your bears defeat my skeleton (assuming I don’t regenerate it) but not without a lasting -1/-1 counter, bringing them down to measly a 1/1.

Since wither is not a replacement effect, the damage is still “damage.” It triggers other damage effects like lifelink and deathtouch. This means if I enchant my (regenerated) Cinderbones with Lifelink and attack you, I’ still gain one life when you block with your -1/-1d Grizzly Bears. The 1/1 bears also get another -1/-1 counter, bringing their toughness to zero, and dying as a state-based action (more on why this matters in a bit).

Damage dealt to players and planeswalkers from wither sources is dealt like normal. -1/-1 counters can’t be placed on players. But they wouldn’t do anything even if they were somehow placed on them since players don’t have power or toughness scores. I can see an instance where a planeswalker could get them, though.

Say you attack me with Gideon Blackblade and I block with Cinderbones again (who I’ve now sunk 9 mana into regenerating). Cinderbones puts a -1/-1 counter on Gideon who shrinks to become a 3/3 human soldier on your turn instead of its usual burly 4/4.

The History of Wither in MTG

Wildslayer Elves - Illustration by Dave Kendall

Wildslayer Elves | Illustration by Dave Kendall

The first 21 wither cards were printed in Shadowmoor with another 13 in Eventide, both released in 2008. The design team for the Lorwyn block wanted to contrast the bright, sunny Lorwyn plane with Shadowmoor, its dark reflection. They needed to thread the needle between making the set theme too evil or too mischievous and eventually settled on a mechanic to “maim” opponents’ creatures rather than killing them outright.

Wither originally started to take shape as “curse,” an ability on creatures where they’d curse creatures they did combat with by putting -1/-1 counters on them. The card would have a curse score separate from its power, so a 1/1 creature could potentially have a curse 3 ability, putting three -1/-1 counters on blockers.

This idea was scrapped since it felt like more punishment for creatures, not less. So the idea was shipped off to the Shadowmoor block and the design team doubled down on the inherent “meanness” of the mechanic. They decided it would be primary in black and red and secondary in green.

Eventide and Shadowmoor are the only sources of proper wither cards. Reprints of the “hits” appeared in Modern Masters 2015, but nothing since. MaRo has said that -1/-1 counters are a 2 on the Storm Scale, but wither itself is a 7. We probably won’t see any new wither cards for a while, sadly.

Is Wither the Same as Infect? How is it Different?

With is not the same as infect. Infect is much cooler since it also deals damage to players in the form of poison counters. Ten of those bad boys and you lose the game!

Both are static effects that change a source’s damage but infect holds the glorious position of being actually playable.

Does Wither Count as Damage?

Stigma Lasher - Illustration by Aleksi Briclot

Stigma Lasher | Illustration by Aleksi Briclot

Wither damage follows all the rules of regular damage, meaning it can be prevented or redirected as normal. You could theoretically prevent the damage from my Cinderbones via Carom and redirect that -1/-1 counter to an opponent’s creature instead.

What Happens When a Wither Creature Damages a Player?

Creatures with wither deal damage to players normally. They don’t put -1/-1 counters on them because, well, they aren’t creatures. -1/-1 counters would do nothing to you as a player since you have no power or toughness.

In-game that is. I’m sure you’re plenty strong in real life.

What About a Planeswalker?

Wither creatures deal damage to planeswalkers as normal, removing their loyalty counters for each point of damage dealt. The exception is when a planeswalker becomes a creature, like how Gideon Blackblade becomes a 4/4 indestructible creature on each of your turns, meaning it can get -1/-1 counters when damaged by wither sources.

These -1/-1 counters persist even after Gideon loses its creature type so it’s permanently weakened by the wither effect. Keep in mind that if Gideon gets four -1/-1 counters, it dies. Its indestructibility can’t save it from having a toughness score of zero.

What if a Creature has both Wither and Deathtouch?

Since wither isn’t a replacement effect, abilities that trigger when damage happens still trigger for wither effects. This means deathtouch, lifelink, and other effects still see wither damage as regular damage. Things like Boros Reckoner and Brash Taunter also count wither as damage despite the damage resolving in a different form.

Does Wither Stack?

Oona's Gatewarden - Illustration by Mike Dringenberg

Oona's Gatewarden | Illustration by Mike Dringenberg

Unfortunately, multiple instances of wither don’t stack since it’s not a triggered or replacement effect. The mechanic would have to be worded like “replace all damage dealt by creature with -1/-1 counters” instead, meaning you could stack those triggers to turn a 1-power creature into two -1/-1 counters. See Sublime Archangel for an example of a stacking mechanic.

How Does Wither Work Against Indestructible?

Here’s a fun one: wither is an effective way to get around those pesky indestructible creatures. Indestructible creatures can’t be removed by much, but even they can’t stand around with 0 toughness. Reducing a creature’s toughness to 0 means it’s put into the graveyard the next time state-based actions are checked, usually before a player gains priority.

What if a Wither Creature Deals Noncombat Damage?

“But, Jeff!” you cry. “What about Everlasting Torment? That says it affects all  damage, not just combat damage! Help!”

Don’t worry, dear reader, I would never forget a Richard Kane-Ferguson card. Lucky for us, wither does apply to noncombat damage. Go ahead and give your Goblin Sharpshooter a Blight Sickle or Fists of the Demigod and start ripping into your enemies. Puncture Blast and Hateflayer are also the only spells with wither that inherently deal noncombat damage.

Wither was printed on cards from Shadowmoor and Eventide. There are seven red cards, seven black cards, five green cards, 10 multicolor cards, and five colorless cards that have or grant wither.

Best Wither Cards



Am I crazy, or is Necroskitter basically a 3-mana It That Betrays? Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, but in a deck built around -1/-1 counters you can all but guarantee you’ll be taking those creatures from your opponents.

And Necroskitter is outside of Lightning Bolt’s range with a 1/4 body, too. At least until it gets hit by a wither creature.

Stigma Lasher

Stigma Lasher

Stigma Lasher is a 2/2 for two with wither and “whenever Lasher deals damage to a player, that player can’t gain life for the rest of the game.” Wow! I’ve been searching my entire Magic career for hard counters to lifegain decks and finally I’ve reached the end of my search.

I love the flavorful approach here. Lasher permanently weakens both creatures and players in a similar way, and its curse persists long after it leaves the battlefield.

Everlasting Torment

Everlasting Torment

Just tell me those four words every red player wants to hear: “players can’t gain life.”

Everlasting Torment is a punishing symmetrical enchantment that gives all damage wither and stops damage from being prevented. A staple in Rakdos () group slug decks and essential if you want to deal wither damage with anything outside of the couple dozen original wither cards.

Kulrath Knight

Kulrath Knight

Kulrath Knight is the bomb in your Lorwyn/Shadowmoor-block Constructed aggro deck. I’m not being presumptuous; you’re legally obligated to include him. This Knight finishes games for you by skipping your attackers right past all those moderately-weakened creatures you weren’t able to finish off.



Hateflayer is one of the only cards with a native source for noncombat wither damage. A 5/5 with wither for seven mana seems like a bad trade until you take that untap ability into account. You can swing for five damage with Hateflayer on any given turn and then pay three to put another five wither damage on any target.

I’m no mathematician but I count that as 10 mana for 10 damage on the board with the possibility it sticks around with wither.

Best Wither Synergies

We haven’t seen wither reprinted on new cards since Lorwyn and Shadowmoor, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some synergistic cards with -1/-1 counters printed in other sets.

Nest of Scarabs

Nest of Scarabs

Nest of Scarabs is a star card from Amonkhet. It turns all that wither damage into an Insect army! Getting one token for every one point of damage can be huge, especially when you often trade those weaker wither creatures for permanent damage.

Soul-Scar Mage

Soul-Scar Mage

Soul-Scar Mage is copies five through eight of Everlasting Torment with a few exceptions. It’s cheaper, comes with prowess, and its ability spells out a replacement effect that turns your noncombat damage into -1/-1s instead of the wither keyword.

An effective card against midrange creature decks, Soul-Scar trades places with Monastery Swiftspear as the 1-drop in many red Pioneer decks.

The Scorpion God

The Scorpion God

The Scorpion God is the go-to commander for -1/-1 counter-themed EDH decks. It’s a recurring god creature that rewards you for doing what a wither deck does best: killing creatures with -1/-1 counters. It’s only red and black so you won’t be able to run the handful of green withering creatures.

Wrap Up

Kulrath Knight - Illustration by Daarken

Kulrath Knight | Illustration by Daarken

Wither has all the makings of a forgotten mechanic. We’re going on 15 years without a new wither card and probably won’t see it again for another 15. Lorwyn and Shadowmoor are pretty low on the list of “return to” planes and the mechanic would be wonky to fit into another setting.

That said, I like wither’s flavor and intention. Permanently damaging creatures just makes sense. How many times have you sat down to teach a new player and they’ve intuitively assumed damage stays on creatures? The mechanic makes blocking dangerous and can lead to interesting combat scenarios. The only missing piece would be some sort of “healing” mechanic where the -1/-1 counters are removed via another creature’s activation or similar ability. Maybe wither will get some justice the next time it comes around, however far away that may be.

What do you think? Is wither a fun mechanic or wasted design space? Am I blinded by the insane power-metal-album-artwork of the cinder creatures, or is it really a unique ability from days gone by? How would you build a deck around wither? Let me know in the comments down below.

Thanks for reading, and keep playing those goofy mechanics of yore!

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