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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?

14

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
  • I built a beat-down deck that had quadratic growth of damage output with no upper bound. – Joshua Dec 19 '18 at 18:20
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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.

6

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).

5

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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Apart from answers in which life gain is demanded by the metagame, or when cards synergize / trigger on life gain...

Life gain can tactically combine with control strategies. For instance, Ivory Tower and Wrath of God form a tactical combo. If you hold Wrath of God for a long time and allow your opponent to accumulate a lot of creatures, then the upside is that the Wrath of God will destroy many creatures and yield perhaps 6-for-1 card advantage; but in the process of waiting for the opponent to play out all of these creatures, you will have to withstand many attack steps and may take dozens of damage. Not to mention that the opponent has minimal incentive to overextend that many creatures. On the other hand, if you cast Wrath of God very early, when the opponent's board development is small, then the opponent won't get many opportunities to attack you and you won't take much damage. The downside to blowing your Wrath of God early on in the opponent's board development is that you won't kill many creatures, and the Wrath of God may only achieve 2-for-1 card advantage. How can you achieve the best of both worlds? If you had an Ivory Tower in play, then the opponent wouldn't be able to achieve a net reduction in your life total unless they put several creatures onto the battlefield, not merely 1 or 2. Ivory Tower's life gain also allows you to hold onto Wrath of God for longer and get more card advantage out of it without dying to damage in the meantime. So recursive life gain combos with board sweepers. There also exist successful Turbo-Fog strategies, and in some respects, life gain is similar to Fog-type cards. On turn 2, a card like Heroes' Reunion might even yield a better net result than Fog. Also, any sort of recursive life gain card (i.e. if it were powerful and it had buyback) can allow you to essentially ignore most threats on the board without having to truly control it. Gaining life faster than threats can deal damage is very similar to having Moat in play and having effectively blanked the threats. Doing so also gives you the luxury of saving your control spells for only the threats that are truly dangerous.

Another reason you may want to play life gain is if a specific card has raw efficiency. For instance, suppose one card dealt 3 damage for 2 mana; and suppose another card dealt 2 damage and gained 6 life for 2 mana. Which one would be a better choice to play? In more aggressive strategies, 3 damage might be better, since it better aligns with your game plan. Even in an aggressive deck, that life gain can buy you more turns, which equates to extra draw steps, which means drawing and casting more burn spells before you die, which ultimately advances your aggressive strategy -- hence Lightning Helix may be better than Flame Rift and/or Boros Charm if you are Boros Aggro. In more controlling strategies, 2 damage + 6 life might be better, in part because it is probably better value, and partly because staying alive is among control's strategic objectives. In combo, which often is only concerned with short-term survival, 2 damage + 6 life may be even more the best choice, since life gain only aids with temporary survival anyway. Basically, my point is that if a sorcery gains N life for 1 mana, there is a number N that is so high that the card would be too efficient to pass up on.

Magic decks tend to start the game with the same starting life total and the same number of cards. If there were factors that affected this, it could reward life gain. For instance, the scarcely-played Vanguard format modifies your starting life total and starting number of cards in hand. It is also possible that there could be a format where you frequently damage yourself with your own cards, like Underground River, Gitaxian Probe, Skeletal Scrying, and Dark Confidant. If your deck has obscenely efficient forms of card drawing and inflicts lots of self-damage, then life gain cards could be justified. Ideally, the life gain would be stapled to another substantial effect, like Pharika's Cure, Corrupt, or Lone Missionary (acknowledging that this question was primarily about naked life gain). However, when you play a self-damaging deck with life gain cards, then there would be some inconsistency between the games where you do draw life gain vs when you don't -- they would play out very differently, since some games you would be drowning in card advantage while near death, and other games you would have a healthy life total but fewer cards.

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    A better example for Boros Aggro: Boros Charm is just better Flame Rift with Modern's manabase. – Veskah Sep 19 '18 at 1:03
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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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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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