Do Your Worst - Mono-Red +1/+1 Counters

(Thundering Raiju | Art by Xavier Ribeiro)

Down for the Counters

Hello, everyone! Welcome to the sixth installment of Do Your Worst, where we take a popular archetype and find the most unusual home for it! I'm your host, Philomène, and in this column, we'll be looking at decks that should not be – or should they?

The subject of our study today is +1/+1 counters or, in other words, accounting in game form! Part of Magic since the very beginning, this mechanic has gained such overwhelming support over the years that it became its own archetype. Selesnya (white-green) is the most popular choice for this strategy, with ~4,500 decks, followed closely by Simic (blue-green), at ~3,800 decks. Mono-green is not far behind, at around 3,200 decks, and just ahead of Witch-Maw (white-blue-black-green), nearing 2,800 decks. That last color combination might give you a hint about the color we're going to choose here, if the title of the article didn't already give it away.

Atraxa, Praetors' Voice is the most popular commander for this archetype, and understandably so: good stats, good abilities, and Proliferate each turn; it's the dream. Hamza, Guardian of Arashin is the most common pick for the Selesnya version, and Skullbriar, the Walking Grave for the Golgari one. Mono-green has Gargos, Vicious Watcher and Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider fighting for dominance. There are always new toys for +1/+1 counter players, which we've seen recently with the release of a few Commander decks: Leinore, Autumn Sovereign (Midnight Hunt) and Chishiro, the Shattered Blade (Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty). Right on their heels, Streets of New Capenna reinforced Bant's place in this archetype as well, with cards like Brokers Ascendancy and Falco Spara, Pactweaver, the last of which is already helming 500 decks at time of writing. Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate also gave us some nice cards to play with, like Lae'zel, Vlaakith's Champion and Master Chef!

I would say, of all the colors, mono-red has had the least support for +1/+1 counters, even though Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty just introduced the Modified mechanic. It's not in my habit to cheer when deckbuilding gets easier, but I must say, some of the cards are really good additions to a mono-red +1/+1 counters deck, and are really fun!

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. How do we brew this mono-red strategy?


The Research

Seven mono-red legendary creatures have the text "+1/+1 counter" on them, so we have some options! Shimatsu the Bloodcloaked hints at a sacrifice subtheme but is fairly underwhelming. I'd love to build Captain Ripley Vance one day, but I think she wants a spellslinger deck more than a counters deck. Brallin, Skyshark Rider might be a two-card combo with a few spells, but without a Partner, he's not much to look at, and besides, there are no Sharks in mono-red. Boo. (No, Changelings don't count. Fight me.)

Things get interesting with Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin, although this might just turn into a Goblin deck without me knowing, and Wyll, Blade of Frontiers seems more about dice-rolling than profiting from counters.

This leaves me with the difficult decision of choosing between Ashling the Pilgrim and Laelia, the Blade Reforged. Ashling has wonderful art and lore, of course, and having a board wipe in the command zone can be powerful. Despite all that, the sheer amount of card advantage that Laelia provides and the threat that she represents is why we'll choose her to helm this deck. Big spirit lady with a sword, I choose you!

Let's get brewing!


Mono-Red? Count Me In.

All right, we won't be asking much, just stuff that puts +1/+1 counters on things, and stuff that cares about +1/+1 counters! Easy, right?

Thank goodness The Ozolith is colorless. It's going to be hard to generate a lot of counters, so being able to reuse them will be very useful. Hobblefiend is interesting. Having trample is nice when it grows big, and it can 'combo' with Animation Module provided we have a bunch of mana to spare. Agitator Ant will kind of help our opponents, but we'll benefit from the counters a lot more than them. Hopefully, at least. Plus, goading is annoying. Armory of Iroas, Ring of Valkas, and Sword of Hours are pretty slow, but we're running them anyway! Frillscare Mentor can give menace to Laelia, the Blade Reforged; scary! Taurean Mauler and Hamletback Goliath have the keyword Big. Big is good. We even have a Proliferate package: Sword of Truth and Justice, Contagion Clasp, and Contagion Engine! We're doing it!

Now that we have a bunch of counters everywhere (I've already lost count), what can we do with them?

Akki Ember-Keeper rebuilds our board when we get wiped. Goro-Goro, Disciple of Ryusei is a nice haste-giver and can generate some Dragons. Magma Pummeler, Goblin Razerunners and Molten Hydra can dish out some damage. We won't be using Rage Forger's first ability much, as Ashling the Pilgrim is our only other Shaman, but the second line of text is pretty aggressive. I like it! Thundering Raiju will be very punishing if we can get a large board of Modified creatures.

We also have some sweet finishing power. Preyseizer Dragon is, like, basically Drakuseth, Maw of Flames, but much weaker and more conditional. Awesome! Rumbling Ruin can be a deadly surprise for our opponents and win us the game outright. Alternatively, we can double down on combat steps with Akki Battle Squad, probably the strongest addition to this deck from Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty.


Don't Count Your Decks Before They're Brewed

We always advocate for strong deckbuilding basics here, even if our deck ideas are pretty terrible.

Ramp

We have 24 cards with activated abilities, so it's safe to say that Cryptic Trilobite will be useful in some way. Runaway Steam-Kin has been waiting for this deck its whole life. Crystalline Crawler might seem a little weak in a mono-colored deck, but we'll take all the counter-generators we can get. Trading counters for colored mana is sweet, and we can save the mana in counter form until our big explosive turn. Really neat.

Card Advantage

Our commander "draws" us a card each turn, so we're off to a good start on card advantage. What's more, she grows every time we exile a card from our library or graveyard, and red is very good at this. Reckless Impulse, Light Up the Stage, and Ignite the Future lets us play the cards until the end of our next turn, while Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Outpost Siege, and Jeska's Will (just reprinted!) only exile cards for the current turn. Kami of Celebration looks like it was designed specifically for this deck. Counters every time we cast a spell from exile? And it exiles cards itself? Am I dreaming!? Lastly, Towashi Guide-Bot will actually draw us a card each turn rotation for free if we're doing our job correctly.

Interaction

Creatures are going to get huge, and people will, understandably, want to kill them. While we can shrug off some removal (Bolt Bend, Deflecting Swat, Lightning Greaves - no, I am not running Tibalt's Trickery and I don't want to talk about it), we can't really prevent that from happening at some point. That's when Fling, Soul's Fire, and Kazuul's Fury come in handy! Interaction, you say? How about I interact with your face? I love You Find Some Prisoners and I don't see it played enough! Volt Charge is an over-costed Lightning Bolt, but we gladly pay the two extra to Proliferate.

We're going to be on the board a lot, so we don't run many wraths. It would be blasphemy to not include Blasphemous Act (...sorry), and we already talked about Ashling the Pilgrim. Our last one is Magmasaur, a huge, slow Earthquake that everyone can see coming. Look at it! It's a dino bathing in lava! Intense.

I think we are now ready to gaze upon the decklist.


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What Counts Is What Is on the Inside (of Our Decks)

Honestly, this deck slaps. Am I a mono-red player at heart? Yes, but that has nothing to do with it. We struggled a bit to find red cards that generate counters, but we managed to fill in the blanks with colorless cards. We did find a lot of payoffs, though. Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty helped a ton, of course, but we were getting there without the set as well. What I like about exiling stuff from the library is the non-question, "Should I play this now?" Of course! You always play it now! Red deck goes brrr. And don't be like me: remember to play your land after you attack with Laelia, the Blade Reforged.


Random Trivia Because I Want To!

Did you know that Hydras were first printed as red creatures? Rock Hydra appeared in Alpha, followed by Balduvian Hydra in Ice Age, and then Spitting Hydra and Ancient Hydra came in Stronghold and Nemesis. It took until Ravnica: City of Guilds to see green with Phytohydra. The first mono-green Hydra was Sprouting Phytohydra, but that doesn't count because it doesn't have anything to do with +1/+1 counters! Feral Hydra finally appears in Shards of Alara as a true +1/+1 counters creature. Hydras have, for the most part, been green ever since (#bringbackredhydras).


How would you build your mono-red +1/+1 counters deck? Did I miss any spicy card or interaction? Am I really bad for choosing Laelia, the Blade Reforged over Ashling the Pilgrim? Let me know in the comments! I'm Philomène, and this has been Do Your Worst. See you next time!

Philomène is a film composer from Montréal, Canada. Her love of card games started in the late 90's with Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Dragon Ball Z and of course, Magic : The Gathering. Preferring a more casual kind of game in commander (art and lore being very high on her list of reasons to play cards), she satiates her competitive urges through Limited formats.