This article is part 1 of a two-part installment about straight-up life gain and its place in Magic: the Gathering. Let’s begin.
Every now and then, a card like this is spoiled.
And immediately the internet MtG community deems it as unplayable.
Which, to a new player, may seem foolish. I mean, the point of the game is to get your opponent to 0 life, yes? Doesn’t gaining four life - or even eight - help keep you alive? How is it useless?
Higher level players will almost always answer with “because life gain sucks”. But that answer doesn’t really explain why the above card is (at best) situationally useful. For that, we require a shift in perspectives.
Life gain and vanilla creatures
Question: how much life does Grizzly Bears gain you?
At first glance, the answer is 0. But that answer is not complete. To understand why, let’s say you are playing against a burn deck. (Use this if you need a reference).
So you play a Grizzly Bears on turn two. What might happen?
Well, they could kill it. In which case, the Lightning Bolt went to your Bears rather than your face. You saved yourself 3 damage.
They could attack into it and trade creatures (it blocks a Goblin Guide, both die). You save yourself two damage now, and 2 damage every turn that the Guide would have attacked if you had not dealt with it. To simplify, let’s say four damage.
They could attack into it and a creature eats it (say they Bolt your face, and attack with a Swiftspear). You saved yourself 2 damage.
So on the surface, Life Goes On is better than Grizzly Bears (and in this matchup, it could be) because the Bear costs 1 more mana and usually saves you about 3 life, not gaining you 4. But the Bear has additional utility - if played on an empty board, it also attacks your opponent to death. Your opponent might also have an Eidolon of the Great Revel out, and might not want to trade it with your Bear. Thus, its presence saves you from additional attackers. And of course, if none of that happens, the Bear can simply beat them down until you win.
But let’s see what happens when we replace the bear with a more formidable creature like Tarmogoyf?
Pretend Tarmogoyf comes down as a 3/4. Suddenly, it takes two spells to remove it, or a spell cast on it after a creature attacks your Goyf. You saved yourself about 5 life, and traded two cards for one. And again, if your creature is not answered, you have a very real win condition.
As you can see, there are better things than simple straight-up lifegain. Tune in next time for a further look into what makes straight-up life gain not as good as other things and what place it has in MtG. Even though there's usually better things you could be doing, there's always a place for it!
Written by Robert Trueblood