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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9 Responses to “Strategy: Getting a Life”

  1. Kinghonkey said

    I don’t want to come across like a fanboy, but we seem to be on a similar page as far as thinking about deck building. The closest thing I have to a life gain deck is a Mardu blink deck. It doesn’t focus on the life gain so much as it is incredibly resilient to things like board wipe.

    Zurgo is the general, but he’s more of a constant threat that always gets chump blocked while things like the aforementioned Resolute Archangel and Knollspine Dragon get through. Sun Titan combined with Necromancy, Angelic Destiny or Feldon make sure I’m making copies or resurrecting threats as well.

    Aside from the archangel, coincidental effects like Angelic Chorus buffer my life total, especially when many of my creatures are coming into play, being copied or recurred, and have power 4-7.

    • Thanks KingHonkey! I don’t think you’re going full fanboy, but I’m glad to know that there are other people amongst the Interwebz who approach Commander in similar ways.

      What I’m more excited to hear about is how these theories are incorporated into something that is “their own,” so to speak.The ability to put “one’s self” into a deck is a cool level of artistry I think few people realize, and it’s my favorite part about Commander. Even though your Zurgo deck plays a lot of similar cards, even shares a strategy with my ObzeDIZZLE ( deck, we’ve got huge distinctions in the way we approach the table.

  2. GUDoug said

    Not really on the same level of strategy as you but One of the keystones to my Anfenza deck is making sure that I gain enough life to survive all the hate. Being able to stay in the 30-40 life range allows for much more aggressive play and once you get over that into having an arbitrarily large life total your opponents are in “Why bother” territory. My big 3 cards are Trostani, Whip, and Vault of the Archangel followed up by Warhammer (which is mostly in for the trample), Fracturing Gust, and Shamanic Revelation (had Selvala at 1 point but she just wasn’t as good as she was when the deck was Doran difference between dealing 4 damage on blocks or attacks is significant over 2). In games where I don’t gain life I have a pretty high percentage chance of losing just due to being hated off the table for hating on the table. Most people turn there nose up on my playing of Trostani because I make few tokens and they don’t think she can gain enough life to warrant a spot. On the regular in just a turn she can gain 20+ life pretty easy.

    • I don’t think we have decks that are so different, just seems Anafenza has to play these concepts with a little bit more regards to the extreme, and you’ve adapted it well. After all, subtlety might not be possible with Anafenza, and adjusting your life gain chunks to bigger sizes gives the deck a nice little “Suicide” flair to it. All strategies have relative values in certain playgroups, so adjusting the ideas I talk about in the articles is just semantics. Still, looking at Life Gain as more of a tempo-strategy versus the “Pillow-Fort High-Horse” deck is pretty much on my level, as far as I’m concerned. I like “Everybody Hates Anafenza (Wednesdays on the CW).”

  3. Aaron Kloppel said

    I don’t feel like you really ever explained your “chunk” theory. And really? Couldn’t you come up with a better name then that? As for becoming a threat if I gain too much… lol… who cares when I’m at like 160? I realise its also not normal but my group doesn’t play with commander damage.

    • 1. I’m not sure what else you’re looking for me elaborate on with the Chunk Theory, but I’ll be happy to if you need more clarity. There isn’t anything that got left out, and it’s a little open-ended intentionally because it’s a theory, which is relative to the metagame.
      2. The Chunk Theory is functional, memorable nomenclature. You got something better, I’m all ears.
      3. I think that everyone at your table should care if anyone at the table is at 160 life, especially the player with 160 life, regardless of what rules you do or don’t play with. Bottom line, it paints a target, and that person has to be prepared for the ramifications. Short of infinite life combos, a deck doing this will often have a lot of cards dedicated to the theme, making it hard to find slots to have enough answers for the hate at the table. That’s the reason we’re talking about shifting the idea of what Life Gain decks are from a sort of Win-more, “greater than 40” paradigm to something more realistic, where we’re gaining as much life, playing into the archetype where it matters most. Because gaining 10 when you’re at 2 is a bigger game than when you’re at 160.

  4. schweinefettmann said

    nice article! i think life gain strategies have generally been pretty frowned upon mostly ‘cuz they don’t “win the game”, but more “delay your death”.. but in a multiplayer game, isn’t that a pretty good way of winning?
    theres also a subtle art to not making it obvious that life-gain is part of your overall gameplan; if you have to point out each and every life-gain trigger, sooner or later, your opponents are either gonna get annoyed and terror your soul warden, or start to see you as a threat to the game.

    • Thanks schweinefettmann! I think the attrition concept is what Life Gain wants you to do, but as I mentioned- taking damage, and more importantly, being WILLING to take damage at certain points in the game, NEEDS to be part of any Life Gain player’s game plan, whether it’s for political reasons, or simply because dumping your hand and wasting removal on silly cards in a deck with a white color identity is not going to be a good plan.

      And I absolutely agree about the trigger subtlety. A lot of my thoughts on this deck come off of the heels of playing an Obzedat design that revolves around having more of a control game plan, where were not clumping our spells and synergies together until later on in the game, when we’ve got our opponents exhausted, and we can be timely and poignant with our cards. The timeliness of the Life Gain deck cannot be understated- It’s like I said in the comment above this- gaining life when lethal damage is threatening you is a lot more valuable than playing a Soul Warden Turn 1 and Increasing Devotion on Turn 5 to gain five.

  5. Jeremy Parsons said

    I feel like I’m more open to some Life gain effects now. Though for the most part I run the life gain effects for other reasons or casually. Such as in the form of lifelink. I admit a ton of this may be flavored off my first deck, a Pheldagryph Voltron deck. I’m tossing out little life gain to my opponents left and right to give him evasion, but at the same time I don’t care, because my goal is to kill you with general damage.

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