Who else is excited for Amonkhet? One of the most interesting things about this set is its use of -1/-1 counters. -1/-1 counters are a rare treat. Wizards of the Coast doesn’t like putting them in the same set with +1/+1 counters to avoid confusion in Limited, and they use +1/+1 counters a lot more often since it’s a positive mechanic rather than a negative one.
Also, there’s much more design space around +1/+1 counters than -1/-1 counters, which usually end up behaving more like kill spells. As a result, -1/-1 counters don’t pop up too often. In fact, outside of supplemental sets, we have only gotten to play with -1/-1 counters three times in modern Magic history: first in Shadowmoor block, then in Scars of Mirrodin block, and now in Amonkhet block.
So, since -1/-1 counters last showed up six or seven years ago, many of you are probably asking, “what’s it like to play in a limited format with -1/-1 counters instead of +1/+1 counters?” Obviously, it varies from format to format, and we haven’t even seen the whole spoiler yet, but there are a few things that are going to be consistent between most formats with -1/-1 counters. We can apply our knowledge to what we know about Amonkhet to get a good early look at this aspect of the format.
The first thing to note is that when you have a set with -1/-1 counters, there are going to be a lot of ways to give things -1/-1. That may seem obvious, but its consequences are crucial. This means that Amonkhet will have an unusually high number of ways to kill X/1 creatures, so those will be worse in this format than normal. It also means that average-sized creatures will be a bit worse, as they line up poorly against incidental -1/-1 counters. When my opponent randomly turns my 2/3 into a 1/2 forever, I’m almost going to wish they had just killed it to put it out of its misery.
In contrast, two kinds of creatures get better here. The first kind is creatures that are so big that they barely even notice the -1/-1 counter. After all, who cares if you turned my Shefet Monitor into a 5/4 when you still need to double block it to avoid getting your face smashed in? The second kind is low-effort creatures, like tokens, that are so small that you don’t feel bad about losing them to a random counter here or there; for example, when it comes to Stir the Sands, two 2/2s and a 1/1 just doesn’t feel that different from three 2/2s. In short, if you remember my series of articles on modeling creatures mathematically (you can read one here), the graph for creatures in this set is going to be a bit more concave around the middle than normal.
These attributes are especially important to green (and also potentially black, depending on what we see from the rest of the set), which is incentivized in Amonkhet to put -1/-1 counters on its own creatures. Crocodile of the Crossing is a prime example of how this theme is implemented, where the counters serve as a downside to offset the upside of an extremely efficient creature. When drafting and building your limited decks, it is important to think about how you can mitigate downsides like this one, and including some extra large creatures or incidental tokens will make the downside less of a downside.
There are also cards that get better when they have -1/-1 counters on them or let you remove them for an effect. These are often good in their own right, but they get better with a synergistic -1/-1 counter plan. Once you’ve attacked with your Exemplar of Strength once or twice, for example, you can target it with your Crocodile of the Crossing to both avoid a permanent -1/-1 counter and also gain some extra life.
While -1/-1 counters are exciting and they promise to have a big impact on Amonkhet limited, I don’t think they’ll be as prevalent as they were in Shadowmoor or Scars of Mirrodin. The biggest reason for this is that there is no combat-based mechanic that puts -1/-1 counters on creatures in the set. Combat is the center of limited Magic, which is why it made lots of sense when we found out that Shadowmoor would have Wither, and then when Scars of Mirrodin would have Infect, which was basically Wither when it came to creature-on-creature combat. But Amonkhet doesn’t have a -1/-1 counter keyword mechanic at, let alone a combat-related one, so don’t get your hopes up for a battlefield sprawling with debilitated bodies.
That means that it’s now up to the instant and sorcery spells and triggered abilities of Amonkhet to determine how much of the limited environment revolves around -1/-1 counters. We’ve already seen a cool build around enchantment in Nest of Scarabs, but is the scarab deck a fool’s dream or a feasible reality? I guess we’ll find out Friday when the whole set is finally spoiled!
Did you read my article last week on how to correctly make a first pick? If not, you definitely should before Amonkhet comes around, as it’ll allow you to make the best Amonkhet first pick before a consensus pick order is formed.
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