Strategy: Getting a Life

February 18, 2015

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series Strategy

By Aaron AKA Uncle Landdrops

Aarons avatar

Welcome back to Wednesday’s Strategy segment. Today we’re taking on the world Scott Pilgrim-style – getting a life – to talk about gaining life as successful Commander strategy.



Ever since Oloro showed up on his overflowing toilet castle in the 2013 pre-cons, the conversation about this strategy has seen a somewhat drastic change. By that, I mean, I haven’t heard nearly as many people trying to take a crap on Life Gain as I did before. My theory for this shift is a combination of two things: 1) We’ve all lost to Oloro, because he’s good, and 2) getting value for doing nothing is in some sense, “Living the Dream,” amirite?

 Aaron's Oloro on the throne


Although it may not be trendy or trending, the truth is that Life Gain as a strategy is not just about rocking the Soul Sisters, some Lifelinkers, a Test of Endurance, and a few on-the-nose “You Gain X Life” spells.

While I do want to talk about a specific Life Gain strategy, I also want to remove the directness from its name by offering up a better understanding of Life Gain to improve your decks in other ways.

I may not know all of life’s secrets, but I’m of the mind that when giving out secrets, it’s only cool if you use mysterious, Mr. Miyagi-esque wordplay. So here’s mine: You don’t have to gain life to play Life Gain.


The Karate Kid resolved a lot of racial stereotypes for me – like, why every sensei has the cleanest, nicest-looking car.



What I mean is that Life Gain is not only a strategy, but also a fundamental Magic skill: managing life totals. If we incorporate the principles associated with general life total management into our Life Gain strategy, we can not only make better decks designed around Life Gain, but also improve our deck designs for other strategies as well.



We all have dice, fancy Magic apps, or traditional pen and paper to keep track of life totals, but what we often don’t realize is just how much MORE damage is actually put on the stack and traded throughout the course of a given game.

Think about the number of times a Saproling is thrown in front of a Frost Titan, for example. The concept of trading smaller creatures for bigger, Trample-less creatures is actually six damage that you didn’t have to take. In a format where one Frost Titan can get the job done, this is actually buying an extra turn of damage in exchange for one small creature token.

We can translate my example across multiple card types: Deglamer versus Darksteel Colossus, Counterspell versus Comet Storm, Oblivion Stone versus Overrun (plus creatures), Seht’s Tiger versus Sorin Markov. Though some may be more direct, the results are all serious interactions that trade cards not only for permanents, but also to protect the bottom line.



This strategy becomes a lot easier to read and manage once we adopt this ethos, simply because we can set realistic expectations for what is going to happen in a given game. We know our opponents are going to have ways to deal damage, so the sooner we delete the foolish notions that our opponents won’t be unable to find ways around our Pillow-Forts, or that our life total won’t sink below 40 (Oloro again, being an exception), we can arrive at the best place to objectively design Life Gain decks.



Now that we’ve stripped Life Gain down to its core values, it’s time to build it back up with cards that say, “Gain life,” while also maintaining the discipline of our mindset in approaching this strategy.

Enter The “Chunk.”

The idea is simple; subtlety is our goal. What I found in studying lists on the web and playtesting Life Gain decks is that they ultimately fail when they lose that Conrad-ian “restraint” and begin to savagely gain life left and right.



Think Resolute Archangel, Eternity Vessel, Arbiter of Knollridge, Exsanguinate, and Debt to the Deathless.The truth is that if you are not able to finish off your opponents with these cards, there is a high chance that you will be a threat, and there will be very little you can do politically to fix it.

Conversely, we don’t want to be too conservative either. Then our strategy becomes not our primary focus, and we end up making it either a “win-more” condition or just a sub-theme.

Specifically, The “Chunk” Theory fixes this, giving us a fixed set of numerical bumpers so that we don’t gain too much life that we become a target, and don’t gain enough life that we lose the fight against our own intentions.

Ideally, The “Chunk” Theory wants to create a system in which you are gaining 4-to-10 life a turn. Being a theory, these numbers can fluctuate, but the logic is solid. Setting up a slow I.V.-drip like this tends to avoid the immediate ire of players with removal spells, helping to increase the longevity of your investment in a card like Angelic Chorus. Subtlety is relative, but it is an art. The better you are at doing so, the more likely your investments are going to stretch across multiple turns, making the Life Gain strategy successful.



One of the biggest reasons Life Gain decks have a place in the metagame is due to three big cards that people want to build around: Test of Endurance, Celestial Convergence, and Felidar Sovereign.

Obviously, they don’t work well with The “Chunk” Theory. Splashing out cards like these tend to put you on the radar quickly, but if you are looking to build around them my advice is to set your expectations low.

If you’re planning on building around these cards, begin by not building around them instead. If you’ve got them in your deck, and you’re having trouble, take them out. Test the deck in an environment where you can grind against your tough matchups, taking note of the amount of life you gain (both by blocking, tricks, and actual gaining life), and looking at your tangible life total throughout. If you can consistently meet the requirements of these cards – I’m talking more than 75% of the time – while also leaving up enough support to protect them, find a way to get these cards back in there. If you can’t, then you have 3 open slots for your starting 99.



Now that we’ve dwindled expectations and kept to our deckbuilding discipline, it’s time to take it out for a test drive.

In case you haven’t figured it out as I’ve been breadcrumbing the various qualities of this Life Gain deck, Control players are probably going to have the easiest time adjusting to and playing this strategy. The fundamental philosophies are the same: hit your land drops (they’re good for you, after all), hold up for removal, and play cards sparingly. Of course, the difference will be the lack of counter magic, and the reinforcement of recovery with Lifelink creatures, gain life triggers, etc.

What’s difficult about talking Life Gain, or any reactive-style deck in Magic, is that it is going to become a much more innate, metagame-dependent process from here on out. Without playtesting, or playing against it, I can’t tell anyone what is going to work and what isn’t.

Hopefully, my combination of psychological tools and rules helps get you to a place where you’ll find the right ratio of stuff. Still, I have three pieces of advice you can use once you arrive at this point:

1) If you like the deck, you will find the right way. Keep grinding out games until you find the card or cards that are working in your favor. If it’s one card, get tutors. If you have multiple copies, or different cards that function the same mechanically, play them.

2) Cater the deck to your sensibilities, or get in extra practice if you aren’t being intuitive with the stuff you’re playing. Don’t be the person that plays and forgets multiple triggers of Soul Warden or Taurean Mauler(I always forget this one).

3) Don’t be afraid to dismantle a deck and never play it again. My writing teacher in college told us something like this whenever a short story we wrote didn’t meet his standard. Though it doesn’t necessarily sound like the nicest way to do things, failing isn’t good either, and being afraid to make mistakes is even worse. Remember, it is through making mistakes that we build better decks.


As always, I’m here to help you, so if you must fail, we can fail better. If you’ve got questions, comments, feedback, etc., you can find me at The General Zone, unclelanddrops(at)gmail(dot)com, or here in the comments below!


Pass Turn.


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