Last time, we compared the card Life Goes On to the likes of Grizzly Bears and Tarmogoyf. In part 2 of Life Gain Sucks!, we will examine how life gain can be good in MtG.
1 does not equal 0
Another common adage is that one does not equal zero, or that the only point of life that matters is the last.
The idea of this is simple: it doesn’t matter if you win at 40 life or 1 life, you still win. So trading a few points of life for a powerful effect is fine, so long as the effect keeps you from losing more life later. This is why players opt to pay life to play with better mana bases, because losing three life now is going to be better than always playing your creatures a turn behind schedule and losing. And so it goes with life gain cards: why would you play a bad creature that gains you a life or two when you could play a good creature that wins you the game?
As an example, take the card Soul Warden.
Is this card good? Well, in a vacuum, no.
Yes, it is going to gain you about ~7 life per game (perhaps 3 or 4 creatures trigger it per game, and it chump blocks a 3 or 4 power creature). That said, you spend a card on a 1/1 that gained you 3 life rather than a more impactful card. Perhaps something as simple as Thraben Inspector.
Warden can’t block Inspector, and while Warden gains a life, Inspector boasts both a larger body and provides a Clue token, allowing you to access other impactful cards.
The life gain, it does nothing!
Life gain cards gain you life, but what does that life really get you?
As an example, say you are at four life facing down two Goblin Guides. You draw Life Goes On. It puts you up to 8 life and gains you a turn.
But when that turn comes around you are in the same position you were before, except your opponent drew one more card. At least with Grizzly Bears, though you would go down to 2 instead of 4 life, you take one Guide off the board.
Life gain on its own can help keep you in a game, but unless you’re in a situation in which you can use the time it gains you to come back, you gain virtually nothing. So when you play cards that do nothing but gain you life, you delay - but do not prevent - defeat.
See also: fog effects.
To be fair: Machinations and Matchups
Life gain is useful in certain situations. In point of fact, Life Goes On may be playable in formats other than Standard as an anti-Burn card.
The first is from the sideboard. Decks like Modern Burn have a lot of reach (ways to get damage past creatures) but are built to do 20 damage and little more. The stalling effect of life gain cards can help keep you in the game to the point where your strategy can outpace theirs, and force them to expend multiple burn spells to counter one life gain card. Cards like Feed the Clan, Kitchen Finks and Thragtusk fill this role in Burn heavy metagames.
The second is when, instead of gaining a bit of life, you gain all the life. The Soul Warden above is part of a Modern deck that exists to gain as much life as humanly possible in an attempt to both enable creatures that get stronger with the lifegain, and to put themselves in a place where opposing decks are unable to do enough damage to win. This also works for combos that gain infinite life against any deck that is not specifically built to deal near infinite damage.
The point: life gain has it’s uses, but those uses are specific rather than general.
So why does life gain suck?
The long and short of it comes down to this: usually a card that can win you the game is going to be better than a card that keeps you from losing it.
Written by Robert Trueblood