In my other posts on Magic the Gathering and casual gaming versus competitive gaming, I’ve often touched on the fact that there are many ways to play a game like Magic. Many competitive strategies involve lots of aggression or opponent control, and certainly these are faster ways to win than the style I’m about to describe. But just because a strategy doesn’t win quickly doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking at.
Life-gain in M:TG has often been characterized as nothing but a stall tactic, a way to keep yourself in the game while you build up slowly over turns. But choosing to keep your life total high can be much more important. The following are 3 ways you can use life-gain in your own decks: as a stabilizer, as opponent deterrent, and even–GASP!–a win condition!
Dipping Your Toe Into Life-Gain: Life-Gain as Stabilizer
Most times, life-gain is the net that opens below you as you fall from the tightrope. Many of the instant life-gain spells (see a fairly complete list here) give you the ability to partially or fully recover from a hit on your opponent’s turn, leaving you open to gain more life on your turn. (Remember, you have to live through the damage your opponent has dealt to you before you can gain the life off the instant spell.)
This kind of life-gain can be fitted into your existing strategy without making your deck too life-gain-based–it adds just a touch of resiliency. If you find that your super-aggressive deck isn’t staying around long enough when games go beyond 5 or 6 turns, you can put in a bit of life-gain (often combined with other control-based game effects like removing a creature or land, countering a spell, etc). Also, if your control or combo deck is having trouble staying stable in the first few turns before it can really build up, life-gain can give you a little cushion against high-damage decks while you’re searching up your combo pieces.
Partial Devotion to Life-Gain: Life-Gain as Opponent Deterrent
Sometimes, though, life-gain can be a way to discourage your opponent from attacking, especially in a group game. If all you’re doing is gaining life, and no damage your opponent deals really sticks, then they are likely to go for an easier target, or instead just build up their own strategy and leave you alone. Even in a one-on-one game, a good bit of life-gain can work as a mind game on your opponent, making them despair of ever taking your life total down permanently.
You don’t have to have tons of life-gain cards to make this work–just a playset each of Life Burst and Rest for the Weary can be enough for some decks, as well as some good lifelink creatures to block with. With a partial devotion to life-gain, there will be enough life-gain to shield you AND to keep your opponent guessing about how hard they’ll have to hit you for any damage to stick!
Total Devotion to Life-Gain: Life-Gain as Win Condition
Now, when I think of the concept of life-gain as a win condition, two cards come to mind: Test of Endurance and Felidar Sovereign. Both of these cards have a “You win if your life total is at or above this level at the beginning of your upkeep;” one is an enchantment, one is a creature. It is an unusual way to win, but it is actually quite effective; I have a deck based around Test of Endurance, visible here, which incorporates both damage prevention and steady life-gain off of everything one can possibly gain life off.
Building a deck like this means that you’re largely hunkering down and waiting to win–you’re not going to be doing a whole lot to the other player, unless you choose to use Lifelink creatures to do combat damage, or unless you build in a bit of opponent control into your own deck. Since I’m a more reactive, defensive player, I like this hunkered-down style of playing–the other person gets to play what they want, and they can TRY to attack me, but it’s not going to do much good, since I can bounce back pretty easily from any hit.
If you’ve never tried life-gain before, remember that you don’t have to devote 40 out of 60 cards to gaining life–you can add as few as 8 to give your deck a little more rebound from the depths of single-digit life totals. And it’s definitely not a weak strategy; indeed, if used correctly, it can blindside your opponent and bring you an unexpected win!