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One common mistake in MTG is to overvalue life-gain cards (at least in 2 player games) because they don't do anything to actually help you WIN the game, and only make you lose slower. This makes them seem like the kind of card that's good in any deck, but not great in any either.

But are there any decks where cards whose primary purpose is life gain really shine? In what type of decks are they significantly better or worse than other types of cards? What combos or strategies upgrade them from average cards to truly great ones? How can I tell if I should add some life gain cards to my deck?

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Have you ever seen any of the decks that were popular a few years ago circa Coldsnap, that centred around the Martyr of Sands/Proclamation of Rebirth engine? If you're going to gain a lot of life, then a combo that can realistically get you 10-20 life every turn is what you need to be looking at. A lot of decks - any deck that wants to win by beating down with creatures and burn spells - have no defence against such a strategy. (Of course, not all decks are like this. You'll need to have a different route to victory against other combo decks.)

Here's a sample budget Martyr list that I found on the official Wizards site, in an article from 2009:

4 Adarkar Wastes, 7 Island, 10 Plains

4 Martyr of Sands, 3 Ranger of Eos

4 Muddle the Mixture, 2 Proclamation of Rebirth, 4 Thopter Foundry, 4 Sword of the Meek, 4 Thirst for Knowledge, 4 Condemn, 1 Journey to Nowhere, 1 Ghostly Prison, 4 Path to Exile, 4 Fieldmist Borderpost

Lifegain is a good strategy to consider in any environment where fast red decks are dominant - and this is not actually that uncommon, given that fast red decks tend to be a cheaper option in Magic terms. If rival decks are happy to spend a card and one red mana to aim a Lightning Bolt at your dome, you will be very happy with anything that efficiently gains life against them, as this efficiently undercuts their strategy and makes it very difficult for them to win. Just be sure that your lifegain kicks in pretty quickly, as left to their own devices many red decks can easily deal you 20 points of damage by turn 4...

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+1 for that last paragraph. Cards like Wurmcoil Engine and Timely Reinforcements gain a lot of their strength from being able to both clog up the board and get you out of a deck's "reach" (ability to finish you with direct damage bypassing creatures). –  Alex P Oct 13 '11 at 2:54
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Life gain for life gain's sake is generally bad. People don't play Angel's Mercy because it doesn't solve the problem of redundant damage sources (i.e. creatures).

However, life gain with other affects as other answers have given, are much better because the other affect can stabilize the board for the control player by either dealing with a problem creature (Lightning Helix), provide a big blocker (Loxodon Hierarch or Thragtusk) or draws a lot of cards (Sphinx's Revelation). These cards allow you to affect the board state while putting you out of the range of an aggressive deck's damage potential for the next few turns while you stabilize your position and get back into the game (as the control player).

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For an example of a deck constructed with life gain cards as a strategy (but not the primary win condition,) check out the Ajani vs. Nicol Bolas Duel Decks.

Cards like Searing Meditation, Ageless Entity and Ajani's Pridemate turn those little life gain abilities into a big beatdown.

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But are there any decks where cards whose primary purpose is life gain really shine? In what type of decks are they significantly better or worse than other types of cards? What combos or strategies upgrade them from average cards to truly great ones? How can I tell if I should add some life gain cards to my deck?

Respectively: no; they're always worse; none, and anyway they were terrible cards to begin with; you shouldn't. ;-)

Seriously though, assuming you're talking about constructed, cards whose only purpose is to gain life contribute nothing useful to any deck that aims to be anything more than purely casual. Think about the possible win conditions you could be playing against:

  • Creature beatdown: if you gain some life, the creatures will take it right back, and then you're in exactly the same situation you were before - in other words, your life gain spell effectively makes you skip your turn
  • Poison counters: life doesn't matter
  • Mill: again, life doesn't matter
  • Combo: life doesn't matter because when a combo deck goes off, it can usually deal a huge amount of damage in one turn, so no matter how much life you have, you're still toast

Basically, life gain spells use up resources (mana, cards) that could be devoted to other spells which would help your game situation more.

The only place you could argue that life gain cards might fit in is when you can exchange that extra life for some more important resource. The original example was Necropotence: each life you gain becomes a card you can draw, so Stream of Life acts like Braingeyser (which is ridiculously powerful, FYI). More recently, you have Felidar Sovereign as Shane mentioned, which means that gaining life brings you closer to winning in the same way that dealing damage to your opponent does. In that case, Stream of Life acts like Red Sun's Zenith (although it only works on players, which kind of holds it back because being able to target a creature is the main appeal of direct damage).

Even in decks that make use of life in this way, though, pure life gain spells aren't usually the best choice, because there are other, better spells that gain you life as a side effect of doing something else. In the Necro deck, it was Drain Life, which dealt damage to any creature or player (great deal) and gained you life as a side effect. In combination with Necropotence, it acted like Red Sun's Zenith and Braingeyser in the same card, which explains why Necro was arguably the most dominant deck in Magic history. In a Felidar Sovereign deck, you would have lifelink creatures, which would again gain you life as a side effect of dealing damage.

There is one case that I know of in which a pure life-gain effect (of sorts) achieved some success, and that would be Soul Sisters, the deck centered around Soul Warden and, in a later incarnation, Suture Priest. Even so, the only reason the deck worked was that it included a bunch of other cards that got pretty decent bonuses off gains in life, like Serra Ascendant and Ajani's Pridemate. So the life gain was just a roundabout way to pump up the creatures. The later version of the deck did use the combination of Leonin Relic-Warder and Phyrexian Metamorph which could gain an arbitrarily large amount of life, but even that was only a stalling measure, and only worthwhile because the cards involved had other practical uses.

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If you can add a card which has a different primary purpose and adds life as a side effect, that's a good opportunity.

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I'd argue that if a card gains you life and has a decent side effect that ain't bad either. –  Allen Gould Jul 5 '13 at 18:20
    
I'd go with that too. –  Stephen Jul 8 '13 at 20:59
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Well, there are some white cards such as the Felidar Sovereign that let you win the game if you have a certain amount of life so life gain cards would be useful in a deck that uses that card.

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That's rather presupposing that Felidar Sovereign can be the centrepiece of a good deck. To the best of my knowledge it never saw Constructed play; my assumption would be that a competitive Felidar Sovereign deck wasn't really ever a viable possibility. Fun for casual and/or multiplayer, naturally... –  thesunneversets Oct 1 '11 at 11:07
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