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Counters (Markers) in MTG – Rules + Best Cards!

Counters are used as markers in Magic: The Gathering. One of the most common is the +1/+1 counter, but counter markers are also used for planeswalker loyalty, to charge abilities and for specific card qualities. This article looks at how counters work in MTG, the best cards that use counters, and finally an incredible counter deck that causes your opponent to lose after only taking 10 damage!

Hand of Cruelty MTG card illustration with counter marker. Image: Wizards of the Coast. Artist: Kev Walker.
Hand of Cruelty MTG card illustration with counter marker. Image: Wizards of the Coast. Artist: Kev Walker.

MTG Counters rules

In the Magic rules, there are two different uses of the word ‘counter’.

One refers to countering a spell or ability so that it doesn’t happen. For more about that ability see my counter article.

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The other use of counter refers to physical counters or markers that are placed on cards to modify their characteristics in some way. That’s what this article covers.

Here’s what the MTG rules say about counter markers.

A marker placed on an object or player that modifies its characteristics or interacts with a rule or ability.

See Magic: The Gathering Comprehensive Rules, 122. “Counter” for more information.

Counters are markers that modify a permanent or player’s characteristics when placed on them.

Markers have been in the game since Alpha and have always been an evergreen mechanic. Older cards that used words like “token” now have received errata to refer to the correct type of counter.

Counters and colours

All colours can place counters. There are so many types of counters that it can’t be a colour-exclusive ability. Similarly, card types like planeswalkers are necessarily found across all colours.

Regardless, there are some specializations. Black can remove counters, while white can prevent counters from being put on something. Blue can move counters around, while both blue and green can double them.

Counters Examples

+1/+1 Counters

MTG card Dauntless Survivor. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card Dauntless Survivor. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

+1/+1 counters increase a creature’s power and toughness each by 1.

So, if I cast Dauntless Survivor and it enters the battlefield, its ability will trigger, letting me put a +1/+1 counter on any target creature. I can choose Dauntless Survivor itself for this. Thus, the +1/+1 counter will boost its stats from 1/1 to 2/2.

-1/-1 Counters

-1/-1 counters reduce a creature’s power and toughness by that same amount. +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters stack with themselves.

MTG card Murderous Redcap. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card Murderous Redcap. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Let’s say my 2/2 Murderous Redcap dies. Because it has persist, it comes back to the battlefield with a -1/-1 counter. However, its stats are reduced to 1/1 because of that.

Keyword Counters

MTG card Avian Oddity. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card Avian Oddity. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

You can also find keyword counters, such as flying counters or menace counters. When one of these counters is on a creature, that creature has the appropriate ability.

 

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Imagine I cycle Avian Oddity. When I do, I put a flying counter on a target creature I control. I choose Dauntless Survivor. Because it has a flying counter, it gains flying.

Charge Counters

Charge counters measure another quality on a card, which is often variable. As such, you can find charge counters on noncreature permanents, such as artifacts. They don’t do anything inherently, so read the specific card they’re on to see what they do there.

MTG card Aether Vial. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card Aether Vial. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

For example, at the beginning of my upkeep, I can put a charge counter on Aether Vial. Then, I can tap this artifact at any time to put a creature on the battlefield if it has a mana value equal to the number of charge counters on Aether Vial.

Planeswalker Counters

MTG cards Teferi, Who Slows the Sunset and Lightning Bolt. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG cards Teferi, Who Slows the Sunset and Lightning Bolt. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Planeswalkers also use counters, specifically loyalty counters. The number on the lower right corner of the card indicates how many loyalty counters a planewalker enters with. So, for example, Teferi, Who Slows the Sunset will enter with four loyalty counters.

Whenever a planewalker activates an ability, they either lose or gain that many loyalty counters. So, if I activate Teferi’s +1 ability, he gets another loyalty counter, in addition to the ability’s other effects.

Loyalty counters also measure a planewalker’s health. If they run out of loyalty counters, they go to the graveyard. Say then my opponent casts Lightning Bolt, targeting my Teferi. The spell deals 3 damage, so 3 loyalty counters get taken from Teferi to show that.

Unique Counters

MTG cards Haldan, Avid Arcanist and Pako, Arcane Retriever. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG cards Haldan, Avid Arcanist and Pako, Arcane Retriever. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

You can also find some unique counters that are only used for a couple of cards. An example would be fetch counters, used to mark cards exiled by Haldan, Avid Arcanist, and Pako, Arcane Retriever.

Best MTG Counter cards

Chalice of the Void (Counterspells/Counters Artifact)

MTG card Chalice of the Void. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card Chalice of the Void. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Chalice of the Void uses both types of Magic counters – counterspells and counter markers.

You pay any amount of mana and it enters with half that many charge counters.

I can counter my opponent’s spell anytime they cast a spell with a mana value equal to the number of charge counters on Chalice of the Void.

Chalice of the Void is so good because it is an excellent silver bullet. As long as you’ve got information about your opponent’s cards, you can always turn off a huge portion of their deck. 

Dark Depths (Counters Legendary Land)

MTG card Dark Depths. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card Dark Depths. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

An infamously powerful land, Dark Depths aims to remove all ten of the ice counters it enters with. When you do, create Marit Lage, a legendary 20/20 black Avatar creature token with flying and indestructible. Then either Fling or attack with Marit Lage for the win.

Of course, you don’t have to pay 3 mana for Dark Depth’s ability every time you want to remove an ice counter. Cards like Vampire Hexmage and Thespian’s Stage allow you to get Marit Lage out instantly.

Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider (Green Counters Legendary Creature)

MTG card Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

A brutal card from Kaldheim, the newest iteration of Vorinclex is phenomenal. You double the number of counters you put on something, while your opponents have to halve the number of counters they place! That includes the loyalty tokens on their planeswalkers!

Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider is at its best with planeswalkers and infect. In a Superfriends deck, you can ultimate your planewalkers instantly, and you double the number of poison counters you place. Conversely, your opponents can barely use their planeswalkers or infect creatures at all!

Curse of the Cabal (Black Counters Sorcery)

MTG card Curse of the Cabal. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card Curse of the Cabal. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Don’t be fooled by the 10 mana cost on Curse of the Cabal, it uses time counters to reduce your mana cost! Instead of paying the full mana cost, you can pay 4 mana instead and exile it with two time counters on.

In just two turn’s time, you can cast it for free and wipe out half your opponent’s permanents!

During upkeep, your opponent may choose instead to sacrifice a permanent to add another two time counters to Curse of the Cabal to keep it exiled for a couple more turns. But even if they do, you’ve still made them sacrifice a permanent and have applied pressure on them to keep sacrificing them or face the curse!

Parallax Tide (Blue Counters Enchantment)

MTG card Parallax Tide. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card Parallax Tide. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

What an awesome way to mana starve your opponent! For the cost of 4 mana, you can play Parallax Tide with 5 fade counters on it. Each turn, you can remove a fade counter and exile an opponent’s land!

On turn 6, you won’t have any more counters to remove and will have to exile Parallax Tide and your opponent will get all their lands back. But by that point, their dwindling mana pool will hopefully have given you enough of an advantage to win!

War Elemental (Red Counters Creature)

MTG card War Elemental. Image: Wizards of the Coast.
MTG card War Elemental. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

This humble 1/1, 3 mana creature quickly becomes far tougher! Whenever damage is dealt to an opponent from any source, you add that many +1/+1 counters to War Elemental. It doesn’t need to be War Elemental itself that deals the damage.

You can keep War Elemental back and watch them get stronger and stronger as your opponent gets weaker and weaker!

MTG Counters Deck

Infect – Modern Counters

Infect is an aggro deck that uses its namesake mechanic to end the game quickly. It takes advantage of cheap infect creatures and combat tricks to get around an opponent’s defences and end the game in only a couple of attacks.

This strategy is so powerful because a player loses the game if they only have 10 poison counters. Thus, infect creatures only deal 10 damage to the opponent to win the game, effectively cutting their life total in half or doubling the power of all your creatures.

What to use as Counter Makers?

With so many cards using counters, it can help to have physical counters to actually mark the cards! You can get counters in some Magic sets, but most often players use other objects as markers.

Dice are a popular option as you can place one on each card and turn it to reflect the current number of counters. Then you can easily see at a glance how many counters are on each card.

Glass beads with a flat back (cabochons) are also a popular choice. Simply use one bead per counter. Unlike dice, you’ll need to count them to be sure how many are on each card. But as a counter pile grows it certainly has a more intense visual effect than a dice!

How to play against Counter Marker decks

Against counter markers, you need to adapt to the situation. It’s such a versatile mechanic that it is better to memorize how to deal with each significant type of counter individually rather than apply a standard rule to all of them.

Counter Marker FAQs

Do Counters Cancel Each Other Out?

Only +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters cancel each other out. They’ll cancel each other out until you have no counters at all or only counters of one type on a specific creature.

Do counters stay on creatures in the graveyard?

Counters are removed whenever a permanent leaves the battlefield. This applies whether they go the graveyard, are returned to hand, exiled or removed in any other way.

A note: Counter Markers in MTG

Counters are a fun mechanic in Magic, that modify the characteristics of an object or player. Often used on permanents, they can increase or decrease power and toughness, give an ability like flying, represent planeswalker loyalty and lots of other things besides.

Counters can be found in all colours so you can include counter abilities in any deck. Just remember to take plenty of markers along with you to your next game!

More Magic: The Gathering Explained Articles

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Emily
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