# What does "starting life total" mean, and why do cards say that instead of saying a number?

At the end of Happily Ever After, it refers to your “starting life total” (emphasis added):

At the beginning of your upkeep, if there are five colors among permanents you control, there are six or more card types among permanents you control and/or cards in your graveyard, and your life total is greater than or equal to your starting life total, you win the game.

When referring to the “starting life total”, why doesn't it say “20 life” instead? Are there ways to change the starting life total?

Or, more likely, does the card say this in order to adapt it to different game formats? Would the “starting life total” be 30 in Two-Headed Giant, and 40 in Commander, and so on?

The starting life total depends on the format. In the Vanguard format, each player can even have different starting life totals. Happily Ever After refers to the actual starting life total used in each game.

As you correctly noted, different formats can have different starting life totals. To keep Happily Ever After balanced for all possible formats, its template uses the generic "starting life total" instead of the 20 that the most common formats use.

Most formats have a defined starting life total. The Vanguard format has "20 plus the used Vanguard card starting life total modifier".

Except for the already mentioned, oversized Vanguard cards that are clearly recognizable as such and that are only legal in the Vanguard format, there are no cards in the game that can change a player's starting life total.

103.3. Each player begins the game with a starting life total of 20. Some variant games have different starting life totals.

103.3a In a Two-Headed Giant game, each team’s starting life total is 30.

103.3b In a Vanguard game, each player’s starting life total is 20 plus or minus the life modifier of their vanguard card.

103.3c In a Commander game, each player’s starting life total is 40.

103.3d In a two-player Brawl game, each player’s starting life total is 25. In a multiplayer Brawl game, each player’s starting life total is 30.

103.3e In an Archenemy game, the archenemy’s starting life total is 40.

• Does anyone even play Vanguard anymore? Commander might be a more relevant primary example. Commented Feb 22, 2020 at 16:37
• I think he just brought of Vanguard as an example of a format where starting life totals aren’t a fixed number defined by the format; but can change every game. Commented Feb 22, 2020 at 22:22
• Note that some cards used to just list an amount of life (e.g., Serra Ascendant) and then turned out to be hugely powerful in games where the starting life total is not 20. Switching to a template that refers to the "starting life total" makes these cards adaptive to the situation. Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 19:25
• However, the thing that interests me most about this question is to have clarified that there is no way to "increase or decrease the starting life total at the beginning of the game", perhaps with some strange and mysterious card that could allow it, and that I don't I know. The main purpose of this question was this. The rest was already intuitive, and in any case confirmed by the good answer received.Thank you very much. Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 16:47
• Felidar Sovereign is an example of a card that references a specific life total, and it's easy to see how it is an unbalanced win-con in a format like commander compared to modern. Commented Feb 28, 2020 at 14:21

They used to just list a number, but those cards were incredibly broken when played in other formats. There is no way to change a starting life total once the game has actually started, but different formats have different starting totals.

Take Serra Ascendant which is a 1/1 creature with lifelink for . It has an ability, " As long as you have 30 or more life, Serra Ascendant gets +5/+5 and has flying." This ability is incredibly powerful in Commander/EDH or two headed giant(2HG), since if Serra Ascendant is your first turn play, it's a 6/6 with flying and lifelink for a single mana! Now if they had written it as "As long as your life total is at least 10 higher than your starting life total [...]" Serra Ascendant wouldn't turn on until your life total was 50 in EDH or 40 in 2HG, taking away that immediate power it has in those formats.

Felidar Soverign has the same problem, it's a win condition if you have 40 life or more at the start of your turn. That's the starting life total in EDH, and only 10 points higher in 2HG. Getting a out in those formats quickly isn't impossible, though it will take a few turns, all you have to do is maintain your life total, a lot easier than gaining 20 life. Now if it had been written as "At the beginning of your upkeep, if you have double your starting life total, you win the game." it would take 80 in EDH and 60 in 2HG, bringing back the balance it had in the usual constructed formats.

Remember Commander wasn't designed by Wizards of the Coast, it was originally called EDH and made by players, only adopted as an official format when it became popular, these cards were designed with only 20 point starting life totals in mind. Vanguard was never played very heavily, though players in that format could have a starting life total from 12 (Ashnod, at -8) to 38 (Gix, at +18) and was pretty much a failed experiment as far as formats go, no one looked at it for card design. Once EDH became pretty much the most popular format for Magic, they had to start considering starting life totals that were higher than 20 for card design, that meant no more talking about life totals as static numbers, but relative to whatever that different starting point would be.