Too-Specific Top 10 – Count Your Blessings

What Is Normal, Anyhow?

Welcome to Too-Specific Top 10, where if there isn’t a category to rank our pet card at the top of, we’ll just make one up! (Did you know that Wall of Roots is the only creature that allows you to exchange -0/-1 counters for mana?)

To answer my own question, normal is +1/+1 counters, to the point where if you’re talking about counters and have made it clear you aren’t talking about Counterspell, they are the next assumption down. There’s good reason for that, too, as the phrase “+1/+1 counter” is included in 1326 out of the 19737 cards that are legal in Commander. With some quick math, that’s almost 7% of the total cards available.

Which means that it’s about time that we ignored them entirely and got a bit more specific, don’t you think?


Top 10 Irregular Counters

If you want to get above the 10% threshold, there are 2749 cards in the game of Magic: The Gathering that include the word “counter” on them. Granted, some of that population is spells that are talking about countering spells, but what if you eliminate those, the too-popular +1/+1 counters, and all of our new planeswalker friends and their loyalty counters? What’s left? What is the best and most popular counter type outside of “Counter target spell”, planeswalkers, and the ever-present +1/+1 counters?

To find out, we’ll have to dig a little deeper. But first, what are the problems?

Well first off, how do we determine what the best or most popular counter types are? You might have a particular type in your head right now, and it would be easy enough to check how many of that type of counter is featured on various cards, but does that really tell us that it’s good or popular? So rather than looking at every card, let’s just cut off an arbitrary “Top” amount of cards featuring irregular counters and count how many of what kind of counter are there. As for how many, let’s do the math. 2749 cards referencing counters, minus the 1326 that are +1/+1 counters, equals 1423. Let’s call that 1500, and we’ll just look at the top third. In other words, the Top 500 cards featuring or referencing weird counters.

Criteria: Type of counter with the most cards in the top 500 cards that reference counters. +1/+1 and Loyalty counters do not count, although cards that reference +1/+1 counters or Loyalty counters and also have a reference to a different type of counter will be counted. Ties will be broken by the EDHREC score of the top ranked card featuring that counter type.

10. Age Counters

(12 Inclusions in Top 500, 88 Total Cards)

Probably the most-oft-forgotten counter type of them all, yet still one of the most common in the game of Magic, Age counters are exclusively found on cards featuring the Ice Age mechanic of Cumulative Upkeep. The reason I say it is the most-forgotten counter type is that many people aren’t actually aware that a counter is involved in the Cumulative Upkeep trigger, which adds on itself at the beginning of each upkeep. It’s not at all uncommon to see players attempting to keep track of a Wall of Shards life gain in their heads rather than using a dice, while it’s even more common for a Glacial Chasm‘s upkeep trigger to be forgotten completely as it sits in the same stack as a pile of Islands.

Top 10 Cards Featuring Age Counters

  1. Mystic Remora
  2. Glacial Chasm
  3. Braid of Fire
  4. Elephant Grass
  5. Wall of Shards
  6. Karplusan Minotaur
  7. Illusions of Grandeur
  8. Herald of Leshrac
  9. Phyrexian Soulgorger
  10. Tombstone Stairwell

Memory and execution issues aside, however, Cumulative Upkeep is an old mechanic that has seen fit to return time and again in the game, and as such has had plenty of time both to have diamonds in the rough found from ancient history and to have more well-known cards outpowered by the format at large. Lookin’ at you, Hibernation’s End! Regardless, there are currently 88 cards in Magic‘s history with the Cumulative Upkeep mechanic, making Age counters one of the most prevalent in the game as a whole. Unfortunately, many of the fine examples from back in the 90s are no longer up to snuff, as seen in some of these fine examples:

Whether it be a 5/4 for four that you have to pay for every upkeep, an Aura that buffs a single creature that’s already not worth paying for on the very first upkeep, or a narrow Snow-hate card that might actually be seeing play in the constructed formats being overtaken by Arcum’s Astrolabe if it weren’t for the fact that it costs three up front with an ever-increasing two each upkeep… There are lots of examples of cards that used to cut the mustard in the old days that just don’t anymore. Savannah Lions is far from the only victim of power creep, and looking through the lower contenders featuring Cumulative Upkeep makes that very clear. That said, all you folks building those new wheel decks around Shabraz, the Skyshark and the like… You might take a look at moving Psychic Vortex a little further up this list.

9. Spore Counters

(14 Inclusions in Top 500, 19 Total Cards)

I would have put the total amount of Thallid‘s in the world a bit higher than nineteen, but apparently some shout-outs in Time Spiral block combined with the initial run in Fallen Empires is really all that’s been done with the original Saproling Kings! Despite the rather low total numbers, however, it isn’t really that surprising to see the sheer amount of playable examples. That’s because Fungus decks are the thirty-eighth most popular tribe on EDHREC, which isn’t even necessarily the bulk of Thallid representation due to the sheer amount of Token decks that also feature these Fungi.

Top 10 Cards Featuring Spore Counters

  1. Utopia Mycon
  2. Deathspore Thallid
  3. Psychotrope Thallid
  4. Sporesower Thallid
  5. Sporoloth Ancient
  6. Thallid Shell-Dweller
  7. Thallid Germinator
  8. Savage Thallid
  9. Vitaspore Thallid
  10. Thallid

The original Spore commander just barely got cut out of this list, but we shouldn’t be discussing the popularity of Thallids and Saprolings without going over the reason they were first playable in Commander, Thelon of Havenwood.

He may have since been overshadowed by Slimefoot, the Stowaway, but up until Dominaria, there was only one way to build Saprolings, and he was it. Even today, however, many consider him the better option when it comes to Thallids specifically, as he specifically references both Fungi and Spore Counters, along with more or less having a Proliferate stapled onto him at the low low cost of two mana and exiling a Fungus from your graveyard. However you choose to build it, though, you might want to actually pick up the Saproling tokens… You’re gonna be taking up all your dice stacking them on Fungi!

8. Quest Counters

(14 Inclusions in Top 500, 19 Cards Total)

Whereas I expected there to have been more cards that care about Spore Counters, I was surprised in the other direction when it comes to Quests. I vaguely remembered there being more than one cycle of cards using Quest counters, but never would have guessed there’s actually been four of them. Maybe that cycle being incomplete has something to do with it, however. While each color did get a common, uncommon, and rare version of the Quest enchantment in Zendikar, for some reason white was left out when it came to doing a rare cycle in Worldwake. Regardless of the incomplete cycle, however, there are quite a few of these step-by-step enchantments that have been good enough to see play in an EDH deck or four.

Top 10 Cards Featuring Quest Counters

  1. Beastmaster Ascension
  2. Luminarch Ascension
  3. Khalni Heart Expedition
  4. Bloodchief Ascension
  5. Quest for Renewal
  6. Quest for the Goblin Lord
  7. Archmage Ascension
  8. Quest for Ula’s Temple
  9. Quest for the Nihil Stone
  10. Quest for Pure Flame

While green rules the day (as usual) with a full complement of go-wide, ramp, and a Seedborn Muse variant, there are some other solid choices in here, as well. Luminarch Ascension made sure that Mobilization was not even an option in most token decks, Bloodchief Ascension is often a cheaper, more resilient, and more powerful version of Blood Artist, and Archmage Ascension can turn every draw spell into a Demonic Tutor. Suffice it to say that if I had gone by average ranking of each card instead of number in the Top 500 using the counter, Quest Counters would have ended up much further up this list, if not at the top.

7. Storage Counters

(16 Inclusions in Top 500, 18 Total Cards)

Rather the opposite is the case when it comes to Storage counters.

Top 10 Cards Featuring Storage Counters

  1. Mage-Ring Network
  2. Crucible of the Spirit Dragon
  3. Dreadship Reef
  4. Saltcrusted Steppe
  5. Molten Slagheap
  6. Calciform Pools
  7. Fungal Reaches
  8. Saprazzan Cove
  9. Dwarven Hold
  10. City of Shadows

While the expansion of Proliferate cards and decks has put in a lot more work for the various storage lands out there in the world, even the versions that come into play untapped only see niche play. Colorless decks are the main reason that Mage-Ring Network is at the top of this list, but even in those it only sees around a 50% inclusion rate. As for actual synergy, Chisei, Heart of Oceans seems like a slam dunk, but it still only sees play in 40% of those decks. Crucible of the Spirit Dragon‘s percentages are about the same when it comes to Dragon Tribal decks, and then the allied-color dual versions take a severe drop-off to between 10-25% play in various decks that care about counters. Even much of that play appears to be a result of the printings in Commander 2011 and Commander 2016. Still, all in all, if you have a need for a bunch of late-game mana and a few extra utility land slots, you could definitely do worse than looking into the storage lands. Just… stick to the ones that come in untapped and actually make mana before you have to spend mana on them, if you can get away with it.

6. Lore Counters

(17 Inclusions in Top 500, 28 Total Cards)

Even before Richard Garfield’s brief return to R&D and the awesomeness that is Sagas that resulted, Lore counters already existed in the game. Specifically, a one-off sort-of reprint of the reserved list card Psychic Vortex I mentioned earlier in the Cumulative Upkeep section: Mind Unbound.

That said, there are two other non-Saga cards that also utilize Lore counters, both from Khans block. Still, those are more the exceptions than the rule these days, with Sagas proving to be the most popular new card type since planeswalkers, themselves.

Top 10 Cards Featuring Lore Counters

  1. The Eldest Reborn
  2. The Mending of Dominaria
  3. Song of Freyalise
  4. The Mirari Conjecture
  5. Phyrexian Scriptures
  6. The Antiquities War
  7. Mind Unbound
  8. History of Benalia
  9. Kiora Bests the Sea God
  10. Myth Realized

The next thing that surprises me after the “gee whiz” factor of there being non-Saga cards that have Lore counters, however, is which Sagas made the top ten. The top three are no surprise, but after that there are several cards which do perplex me a bit. I actually play a spellslinger deck that also has a Proliferate component, and still didn’t find room for The Mirari Conjecture. Five mana is just a lot in a deck that wants to constantly be building Storm count. The Antiquities War is a bit more reasonable in an artifact deck that will most likely have some mana floating around, but I think the biggest surprise for me was History of Benalia making the top ten. I think I had some idea that the printing of Syr Gwyn, Hero of Ashvale had made Knight Tribal decks a bit more popular, but almost 2,000 of them? That was a surprise.

5. Time Counters

(31 Inclusions in Top 500, 79 Total Cards)

If you were like me and thought that Suspend was the only mechanic that used Time Counters, surprise! Aside from the unrelated might of As Foretold, there is also Vanishing, a fixed version of the old Fading mechanic of Blastoderm fame.

Top 10 Cards Featuring Time Counters

  1. Delay
  2. Search for Tomorrow
  3. As Foretold
  4. Wheel of Fate
  5. Ancestral Vision
  6. Deep-Sea Kraken
  7. Reality Acid
  8. Lotus Bloom
  9. Mox Tantalite
  10. Jhoira of the Ghitu

If you dig a bit deeper, however, As Foretold is far from alone. Throughout the history of Magic, there were quite a few cards that through design or happenstance settled on Time Counters to tick themselves onward and upward. A personal favorite of mine is Time Bomb, although another in a similar vein is Infinite Hourglass.

If you’re looking to confuse yourself to no end for a small payoff that also requires you to keep track of Time Counters every upkeep and to play Thrulls, however… Tourach’s Gate has you covered!

4. Energy Counters

(32 Inclusions in Top 500, 70 Total Cards)

Apparently there is a small-yet-thriving thriving community of 301 Energy Counter decks out there. I myself have seen an Atraxa, Praetor’s Voice build in the wild, and that does appear to be the most popular version. That said, the most popular cards utilizing Energy don’t actually rely on a full Energy theme; rather they are good enough to be used on their own merits.

Top 10 Cards Featuring Energy Counters

  1. Demon of Dark Schemes
  2. Aether Hub
  3. Aetherworks Marvel
  4. Glimmer of Genius
  5. Gonti’s Aether Heart
  6. Aethersquall Ancient
  7. Aethersphere Harvester
  8. Decoction Module
  9. Attune with Aether
  10. Fabrication Module

All that said, the thing that surprises me even more than a parasitic mechanic that was only featured in one block making the cut here is the fact that there were seventy cards utilizing it. However you look at it, that is a lot of support for a single mechanic in a very short amount of time. I mean, Cumulative Upkeep has been around since 1995 and only has eighty-eight cards total. Energy did almost as much in less than a year, which really shows why it’s this high on the list quantitatively if not qualitatively. If you are looking for quality, however, you might take a closer look at the top of this list. Demon of Dark Schemes wipes half the board, feeds itself Energy by doing so, and then gives you three-mana recursion from any graveyard. Aetherworks Marvel triggers off any permanent you control entering the graveyard, then taps at no mana to cast any card from your top six. Aethersquall Ancient can’t quite feed itself at the same rate, but, with a little Proliferate help, it can bounce the board every turn while swinging in for six. It’s easy to dismiss these cards as a bit gimmicky on their face, but any look that goes a bit under the surface shows some real promise if you have any synergy with them whatsoever.

3. Poison Counters

(54 Inclusions in Top 500, 72 Total Cards)

Sure, your playgroup will razz you every time an Infect card hits the table, but all in all it’s an accepted strategy that can cut games short while not being overly powerful. There are many that would disagree with that statement, but it’s true. Poison will never compete with the fast combo decks of the world, and typically all it can do in slower metas is kill one player who probably would have lost to an aggro deck anyway before then folding to the table for being too dangerous. With that said, there are a few versions of the effect that can be a bit more potent, namely those that can take the table by surprise.

Top 10 Cards Featuring Poison Counters

  1. Triumph of the Hordes
  2. Grafted Exoskeleton
  3. Plague Myr
  4. Tainted Strike
  5. Corrupted Conscience
  6. Blighted Agent
  7. Phyresis
  8. Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon
  9. Inkmoth Nexus
  10. Ichor Rats

Triumph of the Hordes is the cheapest and probably the best of the various Overrun effects out there in the world for decks that can go wide. Outside of that effect that regularly ends games, anyway, however, most of these cards will maybe take out a single player, if they don’t have interaction and you had already built up a large creature or board presence. That said, however, being able to take a player out of the game isn’t exactly a laughing matter at the mid and lower power levels, and, as such, you still see quite a bit of these effects around. While that’s not always looked upon with glee by the other members of said mid-powered tables, it does give the aggro, Voltron, and Proliferate decks of the world a chance. And as the saying goes, games gotta end!

Although I will implore, for the health of the community at large… If you are that person taking out a mana-screwed or otherwise not-a-threat player while the Archenemy is right there winning the game: Please. Stop.

 

2. Charge Counters

(56 Inclusions in Top 500, 95 Total Cards)

The competition between Poison counters and Charge counters was tight, but in the end I’m glad that Charge counters won, and I think the mechanic is deserving. For many years it was the go-to when it came to counters being stacked up on non-creatures, with artifacts specifically really leaning into it. There have been departures from it to lean into more thematic counter choices throughout Magic‘s history, and it could certainly be argued that we are in one of those time periods right now. At the end of the day, however, Charge counters also make sense thematically a large amount of the time, and are a good unifying standby for any card that is building up power.

Top 10 Cards Featuring Charge Counters

  1. Everflowing Chalice
  2. Vivid Creek
  3. Door of Destinies
  4. Vivid Grove
  5. Vivid Marsh
  6. Primal Amulet
  7. Black Market
  8. Vivid Meadow
  9. Vivid Crag
  10. Coalition Relic

It should come as no surprise, then, to see Charge counters claim the number two spot. Indeed, for a while they were contending handily with the number one spot, until Infect got involved…

1. -1/-1 Counters

(146 Inclusions in Top 500, 240 Cards Total)

Because as is often forgotten, the Infect mechanic not only replaces regular combat damage to players with Poison counters, it also replaces damage dealt to creatures with -1/-1 counters. As such, our number one slot is being claimed in a bit of land-slide, with the aid of sixty-eight additional cards that care about -1/-1 counters from the Infect mechanic… And then another twenty-nine from the Persist mechanic.

Top 10 Cards Featuring -1/-1 Counters

  1. Triumph of the Hordes
  2. Black Sun’s Zenith
  3. Glen Elendra Archmage
  4. Contagion Engine
  5. Puppeteer Clique
  6. Contagion Clasp
  7. Grafted Exoskeleton
  8. Woodfall Primus
  9. Yawgmoth, Thran Physician
  10. Archfiend of Ifnir

Combine all that help with the fact that several of the best -1/-1 counter cards are also some of the best Proliferate cards, and it was really inevitable that -1/-1 counters claimed our top spot. On sheer quantity alone, 240 cards featuring the mechanic ensured that there would be some good ones. The extent to which that is true, however, really solidified the lead here and then kept on expanding it throughout the Top 500 cards featuring these counters. Indeed, if you are playing any kind of counter deck, the chances are high that you feature some of the -1/-1 counter cards, whether it be due to Proliferate, the interactions between +1/+1 counters and Persist, or just the general quality of the cards available. Expand that to all of EDH, and it seems like -1/-1 counters will be at the top of this roost for some time, if not forever.


Honorable Mentions

Obviously some leg work went into making these lists of counters out of the Top 500, so I would be remiss if I didn’t share some of that data with you. As is usually the case, however, I figure that if I’m going to share some of it, I might as well share all of it.

Counter Counts for the Entirety of the Top 500 Cards with Irregular Counters On Them

The Big Dogs:

Level: 11 Inclusions (Missed the Top Ten By One)
Divinity: 7
Depletion: 5
Fade: 4
Brick: 4

The Duos and Trios:

Experience: 3
Wish: 3
Flood: 3
-0/-1: 2
Ice: 2
Verse: 2
Luck: 2
Gold: 2
Bounty: 2
Blood: 2
Fate: 2
Blaze: II
Delay: II
Ki: II

The Lonely Ones:

Muster: I
Landmark: I
Slumber: I
Study: I
Knowledge: I
Bribery: I
Mining: I
Tower: I
Soot: I
Hour: I
Hit: I
Page: I
Filibuster: I
Isolation: I
Egg: I
Coin: I
Prey: I
Awakening: I
Manifestation: I
Spite: I
Arrowhead: I
Velocity: I
Cage: I
Corpse: I
Treasure: I
Plague: I
Eon: I
Strife: I
Fuse: I
Fury: I
Slime: I
Hoofprint: I
Hatchling: I
Eyeball: I
Phylactery: I
Mine: I
Theft: I
Feather: I
Petrification: I
Gem: I
Mannequin: I
Plot: I
Fungus: I
Omen: I
Vigilance: I
Doom: I
Foreshadow: I
Flying: I
Petal: I
Pressure: I

Here’s hoping that those flying and vigilance counters stay low on this list, huh? If you haven’t played against Crystalline Giant yet, just wait.


What Do You Think?

If you’ve played EDH for long, the top contenders on this list probably weren’t a surprise for you. You probably also have an opinion on what your favorite of those most popular weird counters is, so…

And finally, since your favorite weird counter type probably wasn’t actually involved in that survey with limited questions permitted… What is your favorite counter type? Have you ever played Weird Counter Tribal?

Let us know in the comments, and we’ll see you at the the table with the huge drawstring bag of spindowns plopped down in the middle.

Doug has been an avid Magic player since Fallen Empires, when his older brother traded him some epic blue Homarids for all of his Islands. As for Commander, he's been playing since 2010, when he started off by making a two-player oriented G/R Land Destruction deck. Nailed it. In his spare time when he's not playing Magic, writing about Magic or doing his day job, he runs a YouTube channel or two, keeps up a College Football Computer Poll, and is attempting to gif every scene of the Star Wars prequels.