Welcome to Life Gain Week! This week we’ll be discussing, well, life gaining spells and creatures (Yeah, yeah, I understand that technically creatures are spells until they resolve, but you know what I mean.)

The dirty little secret of this week is all about life gain. What do the designers know that many of you don’t? That life gain is very, very popular. "What?" some of you are asking. "How can life gain be popular? It sucks." In many ways it does. But in others it doesn’t. "Huh?" Keep reading and all will be explained.

Life of the Party

For each expansion, we do something we refer to as a “godbook” study. Basically, we show players a book with all the cards from the set and ask them to pick out their favorites based on different criteria (mechanics, art, flavor text, etc.) One of the questions we asked for the Invasion “godbook” study was what are the best cards in the set based on mechanics (or game play). Remember, this isn’t a grading of how good the mechanic was but how much players liked the card based on the way the card played. (Power will affect a card’s popularity, but it’s not the only factor.) The cards are then arranged in order based on how many people selected it as one of their favorites.

Now, Invasion is the most popular set we’ve done in years. I’ve heard a number of Internet pundits call it the best expansion ever. So what were the “best” cards based on game play from Invasion? Number one was Molimo, Maro-Sorcerer. Number two? The second best card in one of the best sets of all time was Heroes' Reunion.

I believe my readers (as well as Magic players in general) fall into one of two camps. The first camp has played with Heroes' Reunion. Not only have the played with it, but most of them like it. The second camp had to click on the card’s hyperlink to see what the hell it did. Now, here’s the shocker. Due to our research we believe the first camp is larger in number than the second.

Heroes' Reunion

Quickly before I go on, here’s the top ten list from the “goodbook” study. Please note that three of the top ten (#2, #3, and #6) are life gain cards. Not Urza's Rage, not Undermine, not Fact or Fiction. Life gain.

  1. Molimo, Maro-Sorcerer
  2. Heroes' Reunion
  3. Armadillo Cloak
  4. Reya Dawnbringer
  5. Rith, the Awakener
  6. Treva, the Renewer
  7. Verdeloth the Ancient
  8. Darigaaz, the Igniter
  9. Kavu Titan
  10. Crosis, the Purger

Loving Life

Who are these “life gain” lovers and why do they love it so? (Sort of sounds like a Jerry Springer topic.) The answer to this question is a complex one. (But then, when do I tackle simple issues in my column?) Mostly, because different players like it for different reasons. Below are what I believe to be the most popular reasons:

  1. It’s Fun -- The goal of Magic is to reduce the opponent’s life from 20 to 0. Life gain directly opposes the game’s primary win condition. So, just as it’s fun to lower your opponent’s life, it’s fun to raise your own. In addition, it has what us game designers call a “gotcha moment”. That is, your opponent thinks he has the upper hand when you, all of a sudden, prove him wrong. For example, your opponent is one turn’s attack away from winning when -- poof -- he’s now four turns away. You smile. Your opponent frowns. You got him and it felt good.
  2. It’s Occasionally Useful -- Life gain has its place. From time to time it will peek its head into constructed. Occasionally it can be good in limited. But, you need to remember that high level tournaments (either constructed or limited) are not the only formats played. In many of these other formats, life gain is quite good. The best example would be multi-player play. So much so, several of the multi-player gurus have complained to me that some of our life gain is too good.
  3. It Seems Powerful -- One of the important things the designers need to keep in mind when designing a set is that players come in all skill levels. Every new expansion has to have cards that test the skills of players across the spectrum. We have learned that beginners overvalue life gain. R&D has numerous theories on this. Mine is that it appears to offset the game’s main win condition (“I’ll never get to 0 if I keep gaining life.”) and thus seems more powerful than it really is. In addition, I think beginners undervalue the power of permanents, particularly creatures that have the ability to do their thing turn after turn.

Life As We Know It

Because life gain is so popular, we tend to put a decent amount in every set. One of the most interesting things about it is that it occasionally appears in every color. Here’s how:

White -- White is king of life gain. White does life gain every which way from Sunday. It has instants and sorceries that gain life. It has enchantments that can gain you life. It has creatures that give you life when they come into play, when they leave play, when they deal damage. White does it all.

Green -- Green is number two in life gain. Green’s life gain is mostly either through sorceries (with the occasional instant) and creatures. Green doesn’t have the variety of life gain that white does but still allows us designers a lot of flexibility.

Black -- Black doesn’t gain life as much as it steals life. Life gain in black is restricted to Drain Life-types of spells.

Blue -- Blue gets life temporarily. It does this through the flavor of illusion. (“I seem big and strong and until you prove otherwise, I am.”) The most famous example of this would be Illusions of Grandeur (from Ice Age). This card is best known for being part of theExtendedTrix deck. (This deck wins by using the spell Donate to give Illusions of Grandeur to your opponent, so that you gain 20 life and they inevitably lose 20.)

Red -- Red is the antithesis of life gain. Red is about making others lose life. But even red gets a special exception. Red can have life gain if there's a random element involved. A good example of this would be Game of Chaos (also from Ice Age).

Life Term

I’m often asked why we don’t make life gain stronger. While a good question, it’s more of a development issue than a design one, so I’ll toss this question off to Randy. Check “Latest Developments” this Friday for the answer.

That’s about all I have to say about life gain for today. Make sure to join me next week when I reply to yet another letter, this time about a topic dear to my heart.

Until then, may you Gerrard's Wisdom for 14.

Mark Rosewater

Mark may be reached at makingmagic@wizards.com.