This entry is part 26 of 37 in the series Generally Speaking

By Imshan AKA Sinis

A highly amusing feature of multiplayer games is the concept of a low-hanging fruit.  Perhaps it’s not so amusing, depending on how your last game went.  If your life total is low enough, players will eliminate you just because they can.  They’ll offer all kinds of reasons for it; they’ll tell you they didn’t want you to come back to win the game after everyone expended their resources, that they didn’t want to make an enemy that could respond in kind, or that they were sure you had a way to save yourself.  Justifications and excuses aside, the result is the same: you got too low, and people left you twisting in the wind because you were an easy mark for their Sun Titan, and suddenly you’re a figurative pinata until you fall to pieces after you leak out so much candy (the candy is also figurative).

On the other balance is lifegain, one of the most derided and underrated tactics in Commander.  And by ‘lifegain’ I don’t mean decks dedicated to lifegain as a deck strategy, which trot out Sanguine Bond as a roundabout way of dealing damage to players, or win through Felidar Sovereign or Test of Endurance.  Rather, I mean, run of the mill cards that gain life, often at card disadvantage.

I have thought many times “gosh, if I just had a bit more time, I could have won”.  Partly, the fault lies in my truly typical reasoning that lifegain is not worthwhile in Commander, my tendency to suffer catastrophic turns at the hands of my own Graveborn Muse, and that I don’t tend to have lifegain in my decks unless it’s incidental, like Loxodon Warhammer.  At other times, I find that just after I begin to really develop my board after suffering some lumps, I get finished off, yet again wishing that I had just a bit more life so that people did not think of me as a party ornament to be subjected with so much violence.  Yet, I find that the decks that do have even a modicum of lifegain find themselves at a great advantage.

I first discovered the tendency of lifegain to be useful in my Ob Nixilis, the Fallen deck, where I used Essence Harvest, Rite of Consumption and Final Strike as ways of dishing out a large amount of damage.  It made a great deal of sense for the deck; Ob Nixilis could often be huge and dealt decent direct damage, but might get stymied by chump blockers.  Final Strike eventually got cut, because four mana and a sacrifice seemed like too much cost for not enough impact, but Essence Harvest and Rite of Consumption stayed, purely because they were quick and easy damage and also because I noticed how the secondary lifegain subtly changed perceptions of my vulnerability.  As time went on, I discovered that it was often worthwhile to cast these spells with creatures much smaller than a bloated Ob, just to change that perception.  I found that on balance, if I had a six power creature on the table, it often would be worth it to cast Essence Harvest to place myself well out of pinata range, and push someone else further into it.  This quickly translated to a few other cards I was playing, like Urborg Syphon-Mage (which interacts very well with a few cards with Madness in my deck), and Consuming Vapors which often is a two-for-one.

So far, I’ve mentioned cards that are fairly low impact.  It is an intense irony that in a format known for its big and splashy effects, I would recommend low profile cards first.  Most people do not consider cards like Essence Harvest to be backbreaking, except when there is a truly massive creature on the table.  Part of many players’ threat assessment is the perception of vulnerability because you have a low life total, and part of it is actually being a threat.  Cards like a non-lethal Exsanguinate are not low impact; they make you a perceived threat that players immediately want to deal with because you just made a big swing in life totals, even if they did not change how objectively strong your position is.  Similarly, Loxodon Warhammer does too much to be ignored and will be treated as threatening; it’ll give your creature trample, lifelink, and a not-insubstantial power bonus and while it’s good to play it, it’ll always draw hate.

So, what cards do you play to make some ground away from pinata-status?  I’ve already mentioned Essence Harvest, Urborg Syphon-Mage and Consuming Vapors, and I stand by them.  I’ve found lifegain effects can be found in three different categories: cards that gain life as a secondary feature, cards that gain life over a long period of time, and dedicated lifegain cards that generate a huge amount of life.  The last category is my least favourite, since it forgoes any sort of subtlety in favour of the largest gains.

Cards with lifegain as a secondary feature pretty much run the gamut.  These are cards that typically a one-shot boost usually glued to a more desirable spell effect or creature.  Cards like Momentous Fall, Fracturing Gust and Consuming Vapors fall into this category; you play them typically to draw the cards, destroy artifacts and enchantments, or creatures, respectively, but you gain a bunch of life on the side.  Cards like Essence Harvest also belong here, even though it often feels like it’s playable only because it gains life, unless you can maneuver an aberrant amount of power on the table (via Berserk or Fatal Frenzy).  The best cards from this category are ones where the primary effect will make players forget about the lifegain.  One of my favourites is Pelakka Wurm.  You gain seven life when Pelakka Wurm hits the table, but other players tend to be distracted by the 7/7 body.  Eventually, it gets killed in a board sweeper or by targeted removal when you attack the wrong person, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.  Threat over, right?  Well, you’re still up seven life (and probably a card when it died), and usually people forget.

Cards that gain life over a long period of time are ones that typically gain life off of trivial triggers, or common game occurrences.  The most notorious of these are the ‘soul sisters’; Soul Warden, Essence Warden and Soul’s Attendant.  I also tend to lump lifelink creatures on the weaker side here.  Cards like Grazing Gladehart, or Shattered Angel also fit into this category.  The benefit to these cards is that they are incremental, and usually considered inconsequential.  Many look at Blood Artist and Falkenrath Noble and think ‘well, it’s only one life’, only for it to add up to something significant in the end.

Finally, the cards that gain life in one big dose.  These cards are often derided as the worst of the lot; cards like Beacon of Immortality, Heroes Remembered, Sylvan Bounty, or the most egregious one, Boon Reflection, fall into this category.  I also include fatter lifelink creatures, like Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter, or incremental effects that tend to cause a large amount of lifegain (Exquisite Blood, Windbrisk Raptor and True Conviction) in this category, simply because they often trigger only a few times before they get answered.  These cards often offer very little reason to run them, except that they push you further away from defeat.  Despite their bad reputation, these can often buy you a turn against an opponent you’re racing with, allowing you to win the game (and becoming roughly equivalent to a Time Warp, given that you erase a turn of your opponent’s progress).  The chief failing of these is that they are often quite splashy and memorable for other players and offer no distraction to turn attention away from it (like dear old Pelakka Wurm).  As such, I recommend using these cards from this category sparingly, and using tutors to find them if you feel you will need them.

The truth of the matter is, the amount of lifegain you play need not be much.  A little bit of lifegain can go a long way toward player perceptions of vulnerability.  Part of this plays into the common belief that Sorin Markov’s second ability actually kills a player; once your life total is set to ten, you’re suddenly a candy-packed paper mache donkey, and everyone is running at you with a baseball bat.  But, it doesn’t have to be this way.  A Momentous Fall here, or a couple of Urborg Syphon-Mage activations there will often put you far enough away from being viewed as a pinata by the other players.  Like the old adage where two humans are running from a man-eating tiger, you must only be faster than your friend, rather than the tiger.

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