In the Company of Counters
- Gianluca Aicardi
Historic, the curiouser and curiouser format born and bred on MTG Arena, keeps marching toward Pioneer and beyond with the release of Kaladesh Remastered, a mash-up of the original Kaladesh and Aether Revolt sets. Among the cards that entered the pool, there's a notorious little Snake that loves creative bookkeeping.
The proliferation of +1/+1 counters is a theme that appears to have endless design space in Magic. It has been centered in green since the very beginning, when Fungusaur was first printed in Limited Edition Alpha. (Rock Hydra used it too, but the entire Hydra mechanic got relocated to green soon after.) As a game plan, it shows up in a prominent fashion in several formats: Modern has Walking Ballista shenanigans, Pioneer has Hardened Scales, Commander has specialized builds like Skullbriar, the Walking Grave — but what about Historic? You know, the odd Arena-based format that peculiarly combines Yesterday's Standard with wild stuff like Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, Tempered Steel, and Treasure Hunt. It's often a very entertaining format, sometimes in ways that make Pioneer feel tame by comparison.
And sure enough, there is +1/+1 counters fun to be had in Historic too. Most notably, Kaladesh Remastered reunited Core Set 2021's Conclave Mentor with its older and better counterpart, Winding Constrictor.
The existence of this power couple of enablers is already a strong argument for going Abzan with our +1/+1 counters adventure. After all, white is a close second supporter of the mechanic, and black had Sengir Vampire in Alpha, so it's no stranger to this kind of tomfoolery either. We're talking of the color trio whose alliance generated Ghave, Guru of Spores! The mana base for a three-color deck in Historic is quite solid, so that's not a concern. The major decision point, then, becomes one that's currently shared by all creature decks with access to green: do we go for a Collected Company build? The answer is usually yes.
The semi-random surprise reprint of the powerful green spell as part of another Arena-specific remix, Amonkhet Remastered, created a veritable craze for all kinds of Collected Company applications. We can certainly make good use of it, considering the Constrictor & Mentor duo is already within the purview of the game-changing instant digger. Relying on "CoCo" means giving up on anything beyond the converted mana cost of three, at least if we want to maximize its impact and make sure it'll always find two eligible targets. Same reason why X-costed creatures like Stonecoil Serpent and Wildwood Scourge become too awkward to include, despite their undeniable mechanical appeal.
Last but not least, we might even reject Branching Evolution, Jumpstart's miniature Doubling Season that neither Modern nor Pioneer players are allowed to play with but Historic, true to its unpredictable nature, incorporates in its own arsenal. Can we still build a good "+1/+1 counters matter" deck without all these elements? I think we can manage.
The sample list we're putting under the microscope was concocted by content creator Luca Van Deun, also known as LVD. You can see his creation at work in this video.
|Historic Abzan Counters by Luca Van Deun|
The build is not so much divided into compartments as it is in just two distinct sections: cards that grow the +1/+1 counters and cards that help putting out the cards that grow the +1/+1 counters. The second category contains just two full playsets, albeit both crucial: Collected Company and Llanowar Elves, with the latter specifically helping the former to get online on turn three.
The rest of the deck is made of cards that either carry the counters or enhance them. For turn one we have six additional plays in the form of Pelt Collector and Swarm Shambler. The Fungus is less effective than the Elf hunter, which can easily attack as a 3/3 on turn two, if followed up by a Constrictor or a Mentor, and doesn't require any further mana investment. Shambler is still an early presence that builds up nicely in the deck, and it provides a unique ability to its fellow +1/+1 carriers, guaranteeing fresh bodies to redevelop.
However, the most valuable holder of counters comes at three, and it's called Champion of Lambholt — another Jumpstart gift, originally from Avacyn Restored. If left unchecked, the axe-wielding Champion represents a major threat that has the whole team suddenly turn evasive. The 31 creatures of the deck, already a good insurance against Company misses, strongly sustain a steady Champion growth as well.
Going back to converted mana cost 2, we find the unmissable Scavenging Ooze to defend against graveyard trickeries and to recycle the inevitable fallen comrades into, you know it, more +1/+1 counters. But mostly two is the cost of the ten major enablers, namely the Constrictor, the Mentor, and Luminarch Aspirant, a constant, free source of counters that the multipliers can happily double. A similar, if more massive role is played by Oran-Rief Ooze at three, which first kick-starts the counter dance with a single specimen, then boosts everybody, potentially leading to some truly insane board states when one or more of the centerpiece enablers are involved.
Rishkar, Peema Renegade, which came to Historic through both Jumpstart and Kaladesh Remastered, adds counters to two subjects and then in all probability leaves us with a permanent Song of Freyalise mana raise. (By the way, yes, the Dominaria Saga wouldn't be bad in the deck, but once again, it's not Collected Company compatible.) Rishkar is indeed a very important piece of this puzzle, albeit one that's also legendary, so three copies seem the correct number. A singleton Grakmaw, Skyclave Ravager takes the place of the fourth Rishkar — or of anything that doesn't appear as a full set, really. The Golgari Hydra is easily a flex slot and could be replaced by a third Aspirant or a fourth Oran-Rief Ooze. But it's perfectly at home in the deck and it's useful to have a little bit of staying power. Plus it's a cool card.
Speaking of coolness, the only other noncreature, nonland card aside from Company is none other than the effortlessly hip Vivien, Arkbow Ranger from Core Set 2020. She distributes counters like nobody's business, helps large hitters connect via trample, and offers a modicum of interaction in a deck that otherwise packs essentially none of it. The main goal of the list is to quickly build up an unstoppable lethal assault, and Vivien is one of the key factors of the plan; she's the finishing move that drops behind an assembled army — and pushes it through for victory.
She also unlocks a wishboard, which invades the sideboard entirely. Best-of-one is the ideal environment for the deck, but there wouldn't be too much room for replacements anyway, since most of the slots are locked in by the overall strategy. Vivien's ultimate is usually not super-relevant to her gameplay, but this deck is often able to protect her against aggro long enough to access her highly customizable array of situational answers, top-end plays, and silver bullets. One more reason to try this enjoyable, surprisingly competitive build and to find out the true meaning of the term "counter" in Magic. Well, except when a permission player counters our counters. That's not the counteraction we're wishing for.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.