I hate life gain.
I use life gain.
Life gain is inefficient.
Life gain is essential.
Decks with life gain make games last forever.
The guy with life gain draws too much attention.
None of these rough couplets contain mutually exclusive statements. That's the problem with a mechanic like life gain -- it generates a love/hate relationship that will outlast an entire week's worth of articles on life gain. (Look, I'll prove it…on Saturday, in the warm afterglow of Randy's latest courageous offering to the unhappy volcano that is the Magic Internet community, you can email me, and I'll still tell you I feel like a schmuck for using Bottle Gnomes in three of my own decks.)
Life is a defining resource in Magic -- you lose 20 of it, and you're dead, every time.
In tournament duels, there is almost never an "unless". With the exception of some particularly well-designed cards like Absorb or Gerrard's Verdict, or boutique tricks like Illusions of Grandeur, lifegain does not get played in tournaments. And even when it is played, it is incidental to the main reason the card is in the deck (e.g., to counter a spell, to force a discard, to pressure an opponent with Donate). Put a more positive way, life gain is acceptable when it serves double-duty with an existing card.
That's the bottom line for the serious players. What about for more casual folks, especially in group settings?
THE CASE FOR LIFE GAIN IN GROUP PLAY IS THE CASE AGAINST IT
The basic argument against life gain is: you are buying time at the cost of the card. The card you use for life gain does nothing to improve your board position. Therefore, the best you can do is get another chance at a top-deck solution. That is simply not as good as replacing the life gain card with a "business" spell, say a creature or removal.
This logic is perfectly fine in duels. In a two-player game, the chances of the board changing radically in your favor from the time you cast your Heroes' Reunion to the time you cast your next spell is, well, low. But in a three-, four-, or ten-player game, your chances get a lot better -- because other players may do something that benefits your position, by happy chance.
But stop and think a moment. The truth of this argument doesn't make life gain, on its own, any less pathetic. Life gain gets better in group play because you can depend on other players to succeed in the wake of your interminable impotence…? Gee, where do I sign up?
LIFE, LIBERTY, AND THE PURSUIT OF PERMANENTS
As I hinted earlier, life gain rates higher in players' minds when they can combine it with another resource -- preferably a permanent one. After all, when you have five opponents to slog through, giving your life total a boost halfway through can't hurt. Just try to get some lasting benefit at the same time.
For example, Teroh's Faithful gives the white mage a cheap, efficient defender. Gaining the life is gravy.
Similarly, Spike Feeder and Bottle Gnomes give you early defense against multiple opponents, none of whom see the point of attacking you and possibly losing a creature just so you can gain life. The creature defends, and the life gain? Gravy.
Phantom Nishoba is the latest in life gain tech -- a 7/7 body with trample, virtually invulnerable to creatures or red damage, that rewards you with life as it crushes the opposition. Really, the 7/7 hard-to-kill trampler ought to be enough, right? That life gain is… you guessed it… gravy.
Gravy, gravy, gravy. The potatoes can get drowned pretty quickly if you're using recursion like Corpse Dance, Reincarnation, or Miraculous Recovery. (In fact, Corpse Dance and the Bottle Gnomes combined during Tempest's heyday for a tournament-worthy "Dancing Gnomes" deck.) You can see where this is going -- life gain attached to a permanent begs for a combination of some sort.
Whoops -- no permanent in that last one. But I'm getting ahead of myself…
THE MORAL OF THE LIFE GAIN COMBO FABLE
Different groups react to life gain "combos" in different ways. Intent is a big factor. For example, I have a five-color "Stupid Draco Tricks" deck that happens to have a few Bottle Gnomes, and two copies of Corpse Dance. This is completely beside the point -- my real goal with the deck is to destroy my own Draco with Artifact Mutation at the end of my nearest opponent's turn, then dance Draco back on my turn for a swing with a 9/9 and 16 1/1s, then sack Draco to a Soldevi Adnate and tap a mountain to do 14 at instant speed through a Ghitu Fire. Now honestly, if you designed your deck to do that sort of unlikely thing, would you care if the stupid gnomes were dancing or not?
In any case, our play group sees this deck and does not get into a tizzy about the gnomes.But if I were to tweak that deck into only three colors, and throw in a base of
…then our play group would catch on fairly quickly, and one of two things would happen.
Option 1. The group concentrates fire on me every game, as soon as they see the deck. I tweak it to "perfection", probably needing to resort to something close to an infinite loop involving a Serra Avatar. My group gets disgusted with me to the point of hurt feelings.
Option 2. The group concentrates fire on me every game, as soon as they see the deck. (No way out of that first part!) I catch their drift and move on to another deck.
"Infinite" life gain -- remember that according to the rules, you do actually have to pick a number -- has all the problems that come with other infinite combos -- be it Capsize, Drain Life, Stroke of Genius, or Sabertooth Cobra (no, perhaps not yet with the poison counters… but hope springs eternal). The only difference is that with 1,489,206 life, you haven't actually won the game -- you've just put it out of everyone else's reach. Add a Test of Endurance, and you're the perfect dweeb.
Nobody likes a dweeb, perfect or not. You want life gain? Fine. But let's give it some pelvic fortitude.
FUEL FOR YOUR FIRE
About two years ago, I built (and wrote about) a white-black deck that used obscene lifegain cards, and then some fairly drastic threats that used the stores of life I built up for evil, not good. In other words, I was knocking my life total down faster than my opponents. I loved the deck because it turned the whole, tired, "don't do big, fun things because everyone will attack you" argument on its ear -- an opponent would see my 60-life total, consider burning me for 10, and then realize that if he did, I would do an additional 10 to myself just for the sport of showing him the error of his ways. Furthermore, if he just waited, my life total would just go down on its own -- and then maybe he'd get a better crack at me.
In other words, opponents preferred it when I cast my power spells. If I didn't cast my power spells, they would get angry with me and attack me to bring my life total down themselves. So our group settled upon a really funny equilibrium: I would do crazy things like set Minion of the Wastes at 45/45 so that people wouldn't gang up on me.
Yeah, sure, I lost many times. But I won plenty of times, too. And instead of groaning about Congregate because the game was going to last forever, our group found itself more interested in where that life was going to get spent -- on Morinfen's upkeep? To pump up a Souldrinker? Into a player-gouging Hatred? The deck gave us life gain and fun, and that alone leads me to recommend it to you.
I won't bother explaining each card choice; there's not much nuance to this deck. When I actually build it, I will probably try to make room for two Vindicates; but for this article I left them out to illustrate additional possibilities. Just click, enjoy, and feel free to come up with your own ideas -- black has enough options to last you a lifetime.