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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
    Commented Oct 13, 2011 at 2:54
  • I built a beat-down deck that had quadratic growth of damage output with no upper bound.
    – Joshua
    Commented Dec 19, 2018 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.

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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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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... Commented Oct 1, 2011 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
    Commented Sep 19, 2018 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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I feel like the current answers don't touch on the most important aspects of lifegain & its role in deck-building, so I'm adding this answer.

First: Most Magic decks win by reducing the opponent's life to 0. This means lifegain is always helpful at preventing them from winning. However, it does not mean lifegain is effective.

To illustrate, consider this deck. It's a modern Jund deck and the way it kills the opponent is via some combination of creature beatdown and possibly burn spells. Each of their creatures can attack for a lot of damage - Kroxa for example is 9 damage a turn if you can't discard a non-land card to it. This means that if you want to beat Jund using lifegain, you need to gain a lot more than 9 life a turn. This is not really plausible. It's why pure lifegain cards like Stream of Life are generally considered as bad.

However (and this is worth emphasizing), if you could gain ~40 life a turn,* then you will beat this Jund deck. They can't do enough damage to kill you.

The problem is, of course, how are you going to gain 40 life a turn? You need it to be repeatable as well, since you cannot count on drawing a lifegain card every turn. There are ways to do it (see example later), but they generally don't arise incidentally. You build your deck explicitly to gain so much life that most decks can't kill you.

*This is >9 because the Jund player will be attacking with more than just Kroxa every turn.

Second: Jund is a creature deck. There are decks that win by damage, but are not creature decks. Here is an example. This deck is a burn deck, which wins with haste creatures followed by direct damage spells aimed at the opponent.

The big difference between burn and Jund is that burn's damage is not repeatable. The burn spells are one-shot effects. Most of them deal 3 damage, which means that if you can gain 3 life a turn, they can't kill you. It also means that if you gain 6 life at some point in the game, you effectively gain two extra turns to kill your opponent with.** Lifegain is at its most effective against burn decks for this reason. Your one Feed the Clan is worth 2-3 of the burn player's cards. It is why people play pure lifegain in their sideboards when they expect to play against burn.

**This is because they draw ~3 damage worth of burn every turn, so if you gain six life, they need two turns to draw enough burn to negate your lifegain.

Third: In specific situations near the end of a game, lifegain can be the difference between winning and losing. For example, say you have a 10/10 creature and opponent has five 1/1 tokens. You have control of the board, but life totals matter more. If you're on 1-4 life, you're in critical danger of dying. Similar to this is when your opponent can no longer attack, but they might still have some specific cards that win the game. Examples of such cards are Sleep and Banefire. Lifegain goes a long way towards making the game go from winning to won.

Based on the above we can answer all your questions:

Are there any decks where cards whose primary purpose is life gain really shine?

Yes. Some examples are already given in other answers. Martyr proc is such a deck. So is Soul Sisters. The first deck is an extreme "gain so much life a turn opponent cannot kill you" kind of deck. The second uses lifegain as a way to buff its creatures like (Ajani's Pridemate). Lifegain is not its main strategy, beating down with big creatures is, but it is an incidental benefit.

What combos or strategies upgrade them from average cards to truly great ones?

If the primary purpose is lifegain, then you need to gain in the vicinity of 40 life a turn. Martyr proc is the only strategy I'm aware of that aims to gain that much life a turn. Most other pure lifegain strategies instead go for "infinite life". There are a variety of infinite life combos in Magic, which you can Google for. I'll only mention one example: if you have Heliod, Sun-Crowned and Spike Feeder in play, then you can activate Spike Feeder, gain life, and use Heliod to put the counter back on Spike Feeder. Loop this enough and you have infinite life.

How can I tell if I should add some life gain cards to my deck?

If your deck isn't built to take advantage of life gain - either by incidental synergies ala Soul Sisters, or by directly gaining enough life to never die ala Martyr proc - then you probably should not add life gain cards to your deck. The exceptions are:

  1. You are playing against a burn deck. In this case your lifegain cards trade directly against their damage cards, and if your lifegain cards are more efficient (they probably are), then you come out ahead.
  2. Another case is if your lifegain card does something else while possibly gaining life. Examples are Cling to Dust and Huntmaster of the Fells. The first card is usually used as graveyard hate (i.e., a card that counters specific graveyard-dependent cards from the opponent) that also acts as a late-game mana sink. It is incidentally able to gain you 3 life if you need it. The second card is just a generically good card - it's a 4/4 for 4 mana with upside - that is capable of incidentally gaining you life.
  3. The final case is if you are the defensive deck and are playing against a deck that still has a way to win even after losing control of the board (most well-built aggro decks will be able to threaten this). Ideally the cards that stabilize your board are also capable of gaining life. Examples of cards in this category are Lyra Dawnbringer and Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves.

(Note even in the last two cases, the cards do things other than "gain life".)

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