The Meaning of Life

Posted in Beyond the Basics on March 9, 2017

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

You start with 20 life in a game of Magic. Your opponent's slew of spells and cavalcade of creatures will attempt to reduce your life total to rubble, knocking you closer and closer to 0, ticking down slowly from 20.

But what if it didn't have to be that way?

Enter: life gain.

There's something inherently attractive about putting your life total higher. For one, humans love to watch numbers increment—and whether it's your bank account, your level in an RPG, or your life total in Magic, having more of something is always nice.

But more importantly, if being at 0 is what makes you lose, surely you want to stay as far away from that as possible. It's going to be a lot harder for your opponent to win if you're at 42 instead of 20.

How true is that? Well, kind of. As a player, you might have heard a lot of things about life gain. Maybe you've been told it's great. Maybe you've been told it's horrible. What's a Magic player to believe?

Well, neither, really.

As always, the key is being informed and then making the best decisions you can with that information. Let's get started!

It's Your Life

When a lot of players start playing Magic, they're immediately attracted to life gain. And, as such, life gain cards have picked up a bit of stigma. Years of new players putting life gain cards into their deck and more experienced players recommending those players take them out has created this information loop.

And there is plenty of truth to that. Because here's the problem: life gain doesn't actually help you win the game.

Life gain helps you not lose—but not losing and winning are two entirely different things.

Let's say you cast a Chaplain's Blessing to gain 5 life.

You've spent a card but done nothing to effect the board. You've had no effect on what your opponent is doing. And, unless that 5 life is the difference between your opponent being able to attack you for lethal damage or not—meaning that they can't just do it again next turn—it's not going to make an impact on the game.

Let's run a quick thought experiment. Imagine you have any creature. It could even be a one-mana 1/1.

If that creature can block as much damage as your life gain spell, it's already been equivocal in usefulness. If it can block more damage, it's been an even better life gain spell than Chaplain's Blessing!

And, importantly, the creature has plenty of other functions! It can attack, stave off opposing attackers, use any abilities it might have, and so on. A life gain spell, on the other hand, can only do one thing.

Every card you play in your deck comes at the cost of some other card. If Chaplain's Blessing magically appeared in your hand like a favor from a Planeswalker, that'd be one thing. But you're going to be drawing it instead of another card you could play—instead of a card that has a good chance of being more effectual.

Even if you do run into the game where that 5 life is the difference between surviving one attack step or not, how many times does that have to be the case to justify all the times where it isn't? You are far more likely to run into situations where any random on-color card generated from Gatherer's random card button is going to be better. The occasional times it does work are unlikely to justify all the times it doesn't.

So, as you may have been told, life gain is bad and you should never ever play it.

. . . Right?

It's a Wonderful Life

Wrong.

A lot of players are told early that life gain is bad, and that leads to them never consider using it and to undervalue life gain cards that are actually good. There are plenty of incredibly strong cards out there that gain life.

If the only creature you ever saw was Eager Cadet, it would be more than a bit unfair to say, "Creatures are bad and you shouldn't play them." It's only a 1/1 for one mana with no abilities! There are plenty of other great creatures out there.

The same is true for life gain.

There are a few things to look for when evaluating your life gain cards. Let's run through four of the main times you'll want to play life gain:

1. It Does More Than Gain Life

Life gain is often best when it's attached to something else that is helping to get you ahead. It's not just pure life gain; it's serving multiple purposes.

A classic example of a card in this category is a creature that gains you life.

These creatures are excellent for attacking and blocking with on their own, and the life gain is a nice bonus. While you wouldn't play a 3/2 for three mana most of the time, the extra life and the fact it comes back from the dead makes it well worthwhile.

You also see this with spells.

These are spells that gain you a chunk of life and also do something else. Both are powerful; you'll notice they both push you ahead on resources. This is where life gain is often coupled to good effect.

You know what's good? Extra cards. You know what sucks about spending all your mana and time for extra cards? When you die before you can use them. Life gain bridges that gap, helping to ensure you have the time to deploy your sweet spells.

There are also some life gain spells that draw you cards when you use them. These can be solid choices since they just cost you time to use, but don't put you down a card in the game. If they have another effect or are cheap enough to use, they can be good choices.

There are even lands that gain you life as well. These don't really cost you a card, since you need to play lands anyway, and then at some point the life gain—which was nearly free—may be relevant.

This is by far the largest category, and the best place to look for your life gain cards.

2. It's for a Specific Matchup

Against some decks, all you need to do is stay alive long enough and you'll win. In these specific matchups, life gain can be quite potent.

Let's say you're playing against a burn deck focused around one-note cards like Lava Spike that deal damage just to your face. Their entire game plan is to spend all their cards to burn you to death as quickly as possible.

Then, on turn two, you gain 8 life.

Not only have you negated two or three of your opponent's cards with one of yours, but you've bought a good deal of time to set up your game plan. And of course, with more time comes an increased chance of drawing other life gain spells, which causes even more of a headache for your opponent.

Life gain can make for great sideboard cards against burn-heavy decks. They can also be effective against creature-heavy aggressive decks as well, though there I'd rather have a removal spell or even a good creature of my own. If your opponent is using a lot of reusable sources of damage—like creatures—life gain is a lot less potent.

3. It Really Gains a Lot of Life

Surely, there is some mana-cost-to-life ratio where you would want to play a life gain card. If you had a card for a single white mana that said "You gain 100 life," that would be worthy of main deck consideration.

Now, clearly that card is crazy, but every now and then a strong enough life gain card comes around. Here are two examples from the far past:

Martyr of Sands gains a truly insane amount of life. For two mana, one to play and one to sacrifice, it was not uncommon to gain 12 or more life from this common. (And then, of course, if you had Proclamation of Rebirth to bring it back . . . Well, somewhere out there, there's probably an old Standard Martyr of Sands mirror match that's still going on.)

Pulse of the Fields doesn't really cost you a card to use provided you play it right and can gain you a ton of life over the course of the game. If you're playing a deck that doesn't plan on attacking very much, it can climb you back to near 20 life with ease.

4. Your Deck Is Built Around It

There are some notable cards that reward you for having a lot of life. These are often fun to build decks around, and I wouldn't want to leave them out!

If you have these, of course you're going to want some ways to gain life in your deck. Spending cards to gain life is a lot more acceptable when it's getting you some other output.

It's worth noting that you do need a payoff for gaining life; simply gaining life and calling your deck a "life gain deck" isn't going to be good enough most of the time. Your opponent likely has inevitability if you spend all your time and resources gaining life. Some kind of payoff cards like Felidar Sovereign or Angelic Accord are important.

That's Life

Like many aspects of Magic, life gain can be right or wrong for your strategy depending on what it is you're trying to do and accomplish. Managing a proper balance of life gain and life loss can be key to an important strategy.

Oh, life loss? Well, that's a topic for a future article.

And until then, that brings this discussion on gaining life to a close. If you have any thoughts or feedback, I'd love to hear from you! You can always reach me on Twitter, Tumblr, or by sending an e-mail in English to BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com.

Hopefully your Magic life—and your life total—feels a bit more enriched now. Apply this to your strategy, tweak your decks, and have fun!

Talk with you again next week,

Gavin
@GavinVerhey
GavInsight

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