Life Is Not For Everyone

Posted in Latest Developments on June 28, 2002

By Randy Buehler

First off, here’s the results from last week’s poll:

Eighth Edition: Hibernation or no?
Hibernation 6284 71%
No 2589 29%
Total 8873 100%

I’m a bit surprised, honestly. On the one hand I thought the pro-green and anti-blue camps would blindly vote no and on the other hand I expected the “Spikes” to agree with my opinion that Hibernation is too powerful and also vote no. However, that’s why I’m doing all these polls -- to learn more about what you guys actually want. This wasn’t a binding vote, of course, but it’s definitely quite useful feedback that I’ll be presenting to the Eighth Edition team as soon as I can. Thanks for the lesson!

Now let’s talk about life gaining. As Mark already pointed out, life gaining is actually a lot more popular among Magic players than many people realize. Tournament players tend to dismiss it as awful, something only the newest of newbies play. I have to admit, I shared that opinion when I first left the Pro Tour and started working at Wizards of the Coast.

However, the truth about life gaining is one of the most interesting things I learned. Invasion was the first set I worked on and I was quite eager to look at the godbook studies to see what the public thought about it. Getting anecdotal feedback from friends and online writers is nice, but what’s even better is having a professional market research firm do a study where they make sure all aspects of the audience are properly represented. I was shocked to see life gaining cards nab two of the top three spots. Sure, Armadillo Cloak was cool, but Heroes' Reunion? And Treva, the Renewer as the second best dragon?! It turns out that coldhearted tournament players (like the guy I used to be) just aren’t as big a piece of the Magic-playing population as they think they are. After getting over my initial surprise, I actually find the situation to be quite cool. I’ve always thought Magic was a great game and apparently there are millions of relatively quiet, relatively casual players out there who agree with me. We play the game for different reasons (and with different cards!), but the game is still fun for all of us.

We’ve thought about making life gaining cards that are actually good enough to make the cut in top-notch tournament decks, but it turns out to be a bad idea. It’s going to take me several paragraphs to explain my reasoning behind this, but bear with me … I’ll get there.

The root of the problem is that life gaining just isn’t flexible enough to be useful -- it’s bad against too many different kinds of decks. When you play against an Opposition deck they either lock you up or they don’t. Your life total is almost never relevant to the game because if the Opposition player is in a position to deal 20 damage to you, he could usually deal 120 just by attacking for a few more turns. All lock decks work that way (Stasis, Prison, etc) and so any life gaining decks you run are just dead cards against them. It’s not just lock decks either. Play against an “Old School” blue-white control player or a “Draw-Go” player and (whether he’s winning with Millstones or Morphlings or something else) it just doesn’t matter to them when they kill you. If they can “gain control” then you aren’t killing them and they’ll be able to win whenever they get around to it. Life gaining is similarly bad against combo players. Either they pull off their combo fast enough to outrace you or they lose. Even if their combo results in “deal exactly 20 damage,” life gaining is usually only annoying to them, not devastating.

So life gaining is bad against combo, bad against control, and bad against lock decks. It can be good against creature decks, but all it actually does is buy you time. You still have to deal with their creatures so often you would have been better off with a card that actually kills creatures instead of a card that means the creatures can’t kill you until next turn.

My real point isn’t to explain why life gaining is bad… the last two paragraphs were just designed to establish what it’s up against in tournament play. (I think most casual environments have a lot more creature decks and a lot fewer lock, combo, or control decks. That makes life gaining more effective in casual play and it was already a fun aspect of the game that many players like so -- voila! -- Heroes' Reunion becomes one of the best cards in Invasion.)


If we were to make life gaining cards that were powerful enough to overcome all the obstacles I just detailed, they would have to be an order of magnitude more powerful. The life swings would have to be ridiculous things like “gain 50 life.” If we printed a bunch of these super-powerful life gaining effects, the game would just get dumb. Games that last forever aren’t usually a lot of fun and almost killing your opponent only to have them gain some huge quantity of life would get very annoying very fast. Even worse, printing life gaining at a high enough power level to make an impact on major tournaments would probably screw up casual play. Suddenly the very players who currently enjoy gaining life would start to dislike it because it’s making their gaming sessions less fun. (Ask a regular multiplayer aficionado what he thinks of Congregate if you get a chance… then duck. It results in so much extra life in multiplayer that many playgroups just ban it.)

On balance, I think the current situation is reasonable. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a mechanic that some players like and others just ignore. Life gaining cards also do serve a role in constructed since they are great against direct damage and can be good against weenie swarm decks. All this means we will continue to print a healthy number of life gaining cards and we will put the emphasis on making them fun for casual players.

I’m curious to see how well my reader base lines up with the average player (as defined by our market research), so:

Randy may be reached at

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