Mechanical Memories - Knives Out, -1/-1 Counters In

Massacre Girl, Known Killer | Illustrated by Billy Christian

Welcome back to Mechanical Memories, the series where we delve into the history of Magic design. When I started this series, I wanted to highlight the esoteric aspects of design along with the lesser-known secrets of how these came to be. So many mechanics are hard to design because of how delicate of a game system Magic is. It’s that combination of complexity expressed through concise design that makes mechanics stick with us. Today, we’re looking back at a mechanic that we rarely see in a set, but one that’s iconic enough to have an entire archetype built around it: -1/-1 counters.

They look innocuous enough. I mean, they’re just +1/+1 counters, but the opposite. How many problems can they really create? However, -1/-1 counters interact with their positive counterpart in strange ways. This doesn’t just create rules headaches, but it also twists the ways things like combat play out. -1/-1 counters are a particularly difficult mechanic to put into a set, especially with the loss of the block structure. To understand why these mechanics are so confusing, we’ll need to look back at how these counters came to be and why they work the way they do.

Counting the Counters

-1/-1 counters first appeared in the Arabian Nights expansion on the card Unstable Mutation. This card is a strange break from the color pie, offering a short-term power boost in exchange for long-term shrinking. +1/+1 counters had appeared since the start of Magic on cards like Rock Hydra, but this inverted those. Counters in early Magic existed in this weird Wild West space: there were no rules! 

Clockwork Beast from Limited Edition Alpha has +1/+0 counters. Armor Thrull from Fallen Empires had +1/+2 counters. My personal favorite example of this is from The Dark’s Frankenstein's Monster. This card combines +2/+0, +0/+2, and +1/+1 counters. You may wonder what these weird counters have to do with the subject of today’s article. After all, they’re just overly confusing counters that gum up gameplay. But that’s the thing. Magic stopped using these counters to streamline gameplay.

Players tend to track counters with dice, beads, or other tiny objects. With multiple types of counters with different numerical values, it becomes difficult to understand what each one refers to. It's the same reason why you’re unlikely to see a card that puts +1/+1 counters and charge counters on itself. That added complexity is just more trouble than it is worth. If you thought resolving all the triggers on Cathars' Crusade was difficult, try doing that with multiple types of counters.

The usefulness of these counters is also questionable. Unbalanced power and toughness-altering effects just don’t have the same efficacy as +1/+1 effects. Boosting a creature’s toughness is often used to help it survive combat. If you want a creature to survive combat, it's simpler to just give it indestructible or regenerate it. Boosting a creature’s power is similar to firebreathing abilities on cards like Shivan Dragon. There just isn’t much use for these weird types of counters. As such, design quickly moved away from these effects. Today, we know these as “deprecated counters.” Scryfall users can find these by checking the tags, which I encourage you to do. It’s a fun trip down memory lane, even if the cards are a bit confusing.

Design avoided these complicated types of counters for a long time. By focusing on a single type of counter as the main one, cards were able to synergize with +1/+1 counters across sets. Spikes, a creature type from Tempest block, cared about removing +1/+1 counters for a particular effect. Using the same counter across sets let +1/+1 counter archetypes develop. Counter synergizes were further developed in the original Ravnica block. The Simic Combine’s mechanic of Graft relied on you fiddling with counters. It’s clear that design realized that counters weren’t just a tool to buff creatures, they could act as a deeper layer of gameplay.

The Evolution of Counters-Matter

But that’s all +1/+1 counters, we’re here to talk about their evil counterpart. And if we’re talking about evil counterparts, then we have to talk about the evil version of Lorwyn. Shadowmoor and Eventide were released in 2008 and featured -1/-1 counters as a core mechanic. These cards often used the counters to limit activations of an ability. Morselhoarder is a prime example. You play it on turn six and can use it as a mana dork, but only twice. Normally a six-drop that can only add two mana would feel bad. But wait! Every time you get mana from it, the creature gets bigger. Effects that limit the amount of times they can be used often provoke a negative response. Packing a reward into that limitation, makes the restriction feel a bit better. Man, Magic players truly are just rats in Skinner Boxes, aren’t we?

The flavor of -1/-1 counters as an infectious spread into Scars of Mirrodin as part of infect. Infect creatures deal damage to creatures as -1/-1 counters and opponents in the form of poison counters. Grim Affliction, Gore Vassal, and Pith Driller all look like they’re from an H.R. Gieger gallery, and for good reason. There’s clearly an association between the darker forms of magic and -1/-1 counters. The addition of Proliferate also helped convey the vicious nature of Phyrexia. A single counter could be proliferated into a lethal infection. Spooky!

It’s also important to note a design rule with -1/-1 counters. Mark Rosewater has stated they avoid putting +1/+1 counters and -1/-1 counters in the same set. This helps reduce the complexity of limited environments. First, two types of power/toughness-altering counters make tracking a difficult issue. Second, the two types of counters cancel each other out. Anyone who has pulled off the Mikaeus, the Unhallowed + a Persist creature combo knows how powerful and convoluted these interactions can be. Commander Spellbook has over 180 combos with Mikaeus in their database and most of them use this rules exploit to do broken things.

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Amonkhet block was the last time we saw these counters as a central theme to a set. Nicol Bolas’s control over the plane was conveyed through warped versions of concepts players had gotten used to. For example, Angels were depicted as masculine-presenting in contrast to their feminine-coded counterparts on Dominaria and Innistrad. This also came through in the mechanics. Invert +1/+1 counters and what do you get? A whole lot of tokens with Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons, that’s what!

Since Amonkhet block we haven’t seen these counters return as the core mechanic of a set. This is because design doesn’t want to have it overlap with +1/+1 counters, so they’ll only use -1/-1 counters if they have a good reason to. The problem is that those reasons often require the prolonged mechanical development that the block structure provides. Shadowmoor and Eventide were able to flesh out the mechanical complexity of these counters across two sets. Scars of Mirrodin took three sets to give players a whole new feel for what they could be. But now that most sets are one-offs, it’s harder to build out those reasons to add -1/-1 counters. When New Phyrexia returned in Phyrexia: All Will Be One, -1/-1 counters were discarded in favor of oil counters. If design isn’t expanding upon these counters for longer periods of time, it’s getting less likely that we’ll see them return.

However, the increase in ancillary products like Commander decks and Modern Horizons sets has given us seven new -1/-1 counter cards (and a sticker sheet). Yawgmoth, Thran Physician combines the counters and proliferation of Scars of Mirrodin block. Spitting Dilophosaurus turns your counters into tools to break through the line of opponents’ blockers. Experimental products like this thrive when they do things normal sets couldn’t. I’m sure we’ll see -1/-1 counters as a standard mechanic return one day, but for now, Commander sets are where they’ll live. Who knows, maybe we’ll even get that Jund -1/-1 counters commander that folks want.

Even if its hard to get -1/-1 counters to return as a central mechanic, nobody said anything about a one-off card in standard! Murders at Karlov Manor introduces us to Massacre Girl, Known Killer. As part of a series of one-off returning keywords, Massacre Girl gives all your creatures Wither. Wither, introduced in Shadowmoor, makes your creatures deal damage to other creatures in the form of -1/-1 counters. To celebrate the return of -1/-1 counters to standard, let’s go through a brew for a deck with this known killer at the helm.

Massacre Girl is Addicted to the Knife

Addicted to the knife? Yes, Massacre Girl, Known Killer loves to slash and stab at enemy creatures so that she can draw cards when they die. Normally the best way to do this would be through forcing blockers or fight spells. However, mono-black decks don’t have many ways to do this. Arena and Triangle of War are our only fight effects, and nobody wants to be caught playing those cards. Instead I’ve focused on targeted removal, turtling up, and proliferating counters to help win the game.

First: targeted removal. There’s plenty of cards like Dead Weight or Grasp of Darkness that technically trigger Massacre Girl’s ability, but they aren’t as efficient as I’d like. Cantriping off removal is nice, but repeatable draw is what really gets us going. Umezawa's Jitte will let us shrink creatures on the fly. Plus, its charge counters can be boosted via proliferation. Plague Engineer can become a wipe against tiny token decks. For example, name Goblins against a Krenko, Mob Boss player and draw a ton of cards for only three mana. Lothlórien Blade has a hefty equip cost for non-Elves, so I snuck as many as I could into the deck. Its damage ability will apply counters via wither, acting as slick removal. Finally, Sanguinary Priest’s ping ability will apply -1/-1 counters, letting us hit creatures like Chulane, Teller of Tales that aren’t going to be blocking.

Let’s say you have Massacre Girl, Known Killer out on the battlefield. Players will likely think twice about attacking you since you can draw by killing their creatures with your blockers. How do we profit off this? By introducing things like the initiative, the monarchy, and planeswalkers! Ravenloft Adventurer drains opponents fast. Liliana, the Last Hope can remove small targets while ticking up to a big ultimate. In addition to profiting off players not attacking us, we can profit off them not blocking our own attackers. Nashi, Moon Sage's Scion can ninjutsu in for massive card advantage while Bone Dancer reanimates creatures for us. This really puts your opponents on the ropes. Either they attack or block you, placing -1/-1 counters on their creatures (which we can manipulate), or they ignore you and let you slowly accrue value with passive bonuses.

Finally, proliferation cards can help speed up large creatures’ deaths and race towards our win conditions. Vraska, Betrayal's Sting plays into our planeswalker gameplan. If you somehow reach her ultimate in time, you can even put someone on the precipice of death. Proliferation can also speed up ramp effects like Everflowing Chalice or Tablet of Compleation. Contagion Engine works overdrive as it can spread counters while doubling them up.

This deck wants to win through two main cards. The first isStrixhaven Stadium. If our opponents don’t want to block our creatures or attack us, let’s take advantage of that by racing towards victory! Our creatures can add the initial counters while our proliferate effects finish the game. If that doesn’t work, this deck has plenty of board wipes and mass removal effects. Dead of Winter, Black Sun's Zenith, and O.G. Massacre Girl can take out huge swaths of creatures at once. Thrilling Encore will reanimate every creature that died this turn, letting us wipe and steal all of our enemies’ defenses!

I’ve included my decklist for Massacre Girl, Known Killer below. I absolutely adore her design and have been loving these one-off returning mechanics. What are some less-supported mechanics you’d like to see return in future releases? Let me know in the comments! Thanks for joining me for another episode of Mechanical Memories, see you next time!

Mechanical Memories - Knives Out, Counters In

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Jubilee Finnegan (they/them) is English literature student and writer based out of Southern California. They got hooked in Magic with Throne of Eldraine and haven't stopped since. When not deckbuilding, they're working on poetry, gardening, or trying some new artistic endeavor. They can be found on Twitter at @finneyflame or on Instagram @jwfinnegan.

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