I received some feedback and a well-reasoned counterargument from Daniel Duncan of The Blind Eternities in response to one of my previous articles (Hard Control Strategies, the Slowest Way to Lose). Daniel visits the idea of dealing with his resident spike by implementing one of the “hard control” decks I talked about in my article. If you’re interested in how that might play out, Daniel’s article is worth a read.

Life as we know it

In this article I’d like to explore another method that explores a core concept of the game and how you can leverage it to communicate and cultivate a positive play experience in your playgroup.

Comprehensive Rules 104.3b

If a player’s life total is 0 or less, he or she loses the game the next time a player would receive priority.

If I were to ask 10 Magic players how to lose the game, I’m fairly confident that at least 9 of them would start by quoting this rule*. It’s a pretty important rule, after all – it’s one of the foundational rules that helps to define the objective of the game. I say it’s foundational because we can derive a couple different things by using this as a starting point:

  1. To win the game, your opponents must lose the game.
  2. To avoid losing the game, you have to keep your life total above zero**.

These two things are generally true, with a few exceptions. It’s pretty safe to say that your life total factors in pretty heavily – one way or another – to the outcome of the game.

I’m writing about life totals today because I think there’s a ton of people who don’t realize why life totals are important. This kind of knowledge is absolutely imperative to leveling up as a Magic player.

*The 10th, of course, being a judge who suspects I’m trying to stump them.

**Lich, Phyrexian Unlife, and all that fun stuff is, of course, the exception to this. Shut up.

Not dying

First and foremost, I want to clarify something – gaining life does not win you the game. Not even a billion life will win you the game. Life’s primary purpose in Magic is to serve as a buffer between where you’re at right now and losing the game. Gaining life moves you further away from losing as a result of finite sources of damage and life loss. On the surface, this sounds great! The further you are away from losing, the more opportunities you have to actually win! We know that that’s not universally true in Commander, though. This is generally due to the fact that:

Having your life total reduced to zero is not the only way to lose in Commander

Commander damage, drawing from an empty library, “win the game” effects, “lose the game” effects, poison counters – none of these things care about your life total, but they’re all ways that players can lose in Commander. Commander’s a really tough format to play a life gain strategy because it seems like every block introduces a new alternate win condition into the wild.

Not all sources of damage and life loss are finite

Doubling your life total a few times with Celestial Mantle certainly puts you out of range of modest creature combat. A few hundred, a few thousand, or a few million life does not hold up to a combo that allows someone to deal as much damage as they want.

Resources spent on gaining life are resources that could be spent on winning the game

This is perhaps the most important point I could possibly make in this section. When we’re looking at ways to improve our decks, sometimes we need to look past the effects printed on cards. One of the more important things to consider when we build a deck is what we’re missing out on by not doing something else. This concept is known as opportunity cost.


The most plentiful resource

You start with 40 life. That is so much life. Surely you don’t need all of it just to stop yourself from dying, right? Fortunately for us, we’re in Magic’s biggest sandbox! Having this many tools at our disposal means we can use life as a resource to accomplish just about anything we want. How can we use our life total as a resource, just as we do cards in hand or available mana? Simple, really! We look for cards that allow us to exchange life for some sort of marginal benefit.

Life for cards

This is one of my favourite trade-offs to make, and it’s the reason I never understood all the grumbling about playing against Nekusar decks. If someone is going to force me to draw 7 cards on my upkeep, and – as a result – lose 7 life, I’m going to thank them for the opportunity. Outside of Razaketh the Foulblooded, that’s the closest I’ll ever get to playing Griselbrand in EDH. Let’s take a look at a few cards that trade life for cards:

The first category of cards I’m going to talk about involves activating an ability of a permanent and paying some amount of life to end up with an extra card in your hand. These are great, midrangey cards that you can activate at your leisure to draw a couple extra cards here and there. These can be great additions to a deck if you’re trying to draw the game out a bit, because they can offset other plays you might be forced to make for card disadvantage. They’re not going to draw your entire deck, but one or two cards every other turn or so can make a significant impact on the game.

Next we’ve got cards that forcefeed you cards in exchange for life. These generally cost a little less, resource-wise, but are not optional. Having a Phyrexian Arena on board can straight up kill you if you can’t close out the game, but ideally the extra card drawn per turn is going to help you do exactly that.

Finally, we’re getting to the cream of the crop. If Sylvan Library were printed today it would represent a pretty huge colour pie break. It’s no coincidence that the cards I’ve mentioned so far are all black; paying life for cards is a pretty distinctively black effect. Nevertheless, Sylvan Library allows you to simultaneously rearrange the top of your library and draw up to 2 additional cards per turn for the low, low price of 8 life. The more you play with this card the more you realize that the optimal play is nearly always to draw the cards. If they’re good, you’re drawing extra good cards. If they’re bad, you’re paying life to get them out of the way so you can draw good cards next turn.

This is the second-best conversion rate of cards drawn to life spent that we have access to in Commander. I’m not going to lie to you – when I first read Necropotence years and years ago, I said “Why would I want to trade life for cards?” out loud. I admit it – in my younger days I simply didn’t understand how powerful this card could be because I wasn’t used to using it to draw other powerful cards. In Commander, if you can’t push to win the game after having drawn a third of your deck, it’s time to think about what’s in your deck.

Last, but definitely not least, we’ve got the most efficient draw spell that’s legal in the format. Ad Nauseam is a staple in black competitive EDH decks for a reason – it offers players the ability to draw a ton of cards at instant speed. Many players will happily go down to 4 or 5 life if it means being able to untap with a mitt full of 30 or 40 cards. If you don’t build your deck around Ad Nauseam (ACMC > 2), this can easily draw you 10-15 cards. If you do build your deck around it (ACMC <= 2), we’re talking upwards of 35 cards depending on how lucky you get. Either way, this is hands down the best way you can spend your life total.

Note: If you’re interested in the math behind this card, Reddit user /u/syjte has an awesome simulation here.

Life for mana production

Being able to pay life for mana is incredibly powerful. In fact, it’s the reason why Channel is one of the few cards banned in Commander. The fact that you start out at 40 life means that a life-for-mana trade off enables some game-breaking plays in the first few turns of the game.

Phyrexian Mana was just one experiment in a long line of cost reduction mechanics that WotC has experimented with in the history of Magic. While they’re not totally game-breaking in EDH, being able to cast spells without paying mana is pretty damn good. Gitaxian Probe is used most often in Commander to determine if the way is clear or to kick off a Doomsday pile (or both). Noxious Revival and Birthing Pod often show up in green lists due to their effects, and the optional mana cost reduction is more gravy than the actual reason why they’re played.

This next group of cards doesn’t directly trade life for mana, but being able to pay life as part of an alternate casting cost or even part of the resolution of a spell’s effect is functionally similar. Conceptually, I group things like Nature’s Claim and Seeds of Innocence into this group because increasing your opponent’s life total to obtain a discounted effect is very similar to paying life to the achieve the same thing.

Wow, is this card awesome. This is one of the only cards in the history of the game that straight up allows you to trade life for mana. The cost is pretty steep, but if it gets you closer to winning the game it’ll be worth it.

Finally, you can trade in a little life for fixing and top-tier mana production from lands and artifacts. With these types of cards you definitely have to be conscious of how long you expect the game to go, but it’s generally worth it every time. Just know that if you’re not used to playing with Mana Crypt, it’s not always correct to play it on the turn you draw it. It can lead to the most explosive starts in Commander, but it’s generally correct to sandbag it until you are able to use the mana effectively.

Life for damage

There are very few tools available that allow you to directly trade life for damage. Fire Covenant is one that’s been seeing more and more play lately, and I really love it as well. Reckless Assault does it, but the conversion rate isn’t particularly favourable.

I guess you could make the argument that Emberwilde Caliph fits the bill, but odds are this is the first time you’ve seen this card (and there’s a good reason for that).

I probably should have just called this section “Aetherflux Reservoir”, because it is by far the best tool that has ever been given to life gain strategies. It’s so good, in fact, that you don’t even need to be a life gain strategy to play it. The fishbowl has dethroned Tendrils of Agony as the premier storm win condition, because you don’t need to cast very many spells to activate it 3 times. There’s also a cute little combo that involves Sydri, Galvanic Genius.

Whatever you do with it, utilizing your life total as a resource moves you closer to winning the game. If you’re gaining life as a means to that end, it can certainly be a game-winning strategy. If you’re gaining life for life gain’s sake, the resources you’re spending are almost always better spent on something that advances your strategy.


The life total debate

If you frequent Commander forums like I do, you might have seen that some variants – especially in 1v1 formats like MTGO and Duel Commander – start the game with less than 40 life. At this point it should be fairly obvious why this is the case – life can be an incredibly powerful resource, and having access to 40 of it to start the game is kind of absurd when you start to think about how you can spend it.

Having this much life tends to push certain types of players towards fast combo when they realize what a boon it can be. As much as I can’t stand the idea of arbitrary house rules and bans, if your playgroup is one that doesn’t like combo and prefers to play aggro and midrange, starting with a lower life total is actually an incredible way to accomplish that kind of an environment. Starting at 30 life reduces the mana production and card draw power of some of the cards I mentioned above, which makes it more difficult for fast combo decks to go off consistently in the early game without taking some serious risks. In addition to reducing access to life as a resource in the early game, it also makes creature combat more effective and may even have the ability to prop up aggro and tempo as viable strategies in multiplayer.

This is really one of the few house rules I can get behind, because the effects of a lower starting life total are immediately apparent, and they generally align with the objectives of playgroups that might consider implementing it as a house rule. If your playgroup is overcome by fast combo and you want to level the playing field a bit without kicking off an arms race, talk to your buds about this one, and even try a few games. Deckbuilding is an entirely different ball game, but it’s an interesting challenge.


You may notice that I finish a lot of my articles with a note on communication, and this article is no exception. When you communicate with your playgroup, though, don’t just talk about what you like and what you don’t like – talk about the mechanics of the game as well! Sit down and outline the characteristics of what each player in the playgroup considers to be a positive game environment, consider the aspects of your playgroup that don’t align with those characteristics, and – if necessary – act on them. Just make sure that if you decide to take action that alters the internal workings of the game that you fully understand the downstream effects of doing so. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to hypothesize about what gets better and what gets worse as a result of the change. Is the new environment a breeding ground for something more degenerate? Are you taking tools away from archetypes that are currently fair and balanced? The answers to these questions will generally tell you whether a house rule or ban is appropriate for your playgroup.



That’s it for this week! Life totals are obviously a much bigger topic than what I’ve addressed here. There are entire deck archetypes surrounding life gain using decks like Sydri, Karlov, and Ayli. Have you had a ton of success with a life gain strategy despite its obvious challenges in Commander? If so, let me know what you’re running and what your meta looks like!


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