Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Life Gain

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As those of you with a competitive bent are most likely aware, the format for Pro Tour Philadelphia has recently been changed to Modern, an 8th Edition-Mirrodin forward eternal format with an extensive banned list. With all of the bannings the format is starting to look more like Ravnica-Time Spiral Standard than old Extended, and so when I thought about the possibility of Dragonstorm once again being the premier Combo deck, Martyr of Sands/Proclamation of Rebirth immediately came to mind. In the old days, that deck could gain quite a bit of life, and served as a great example to point to when asking somebody to reconsider the 'common knowledge' that life gain is bad.

Then, as always, my thoughts turned to Commander. I've recently been reading over some of the articles from Mark Rosewater's Five Hundred and Counting, and I stumbled back over The Multiplay's the Thing, wherein Rosewater asserts that life gain gets a lot better when stalling for time lets your opponents beat each other to a pulp. The reasoning made sense, but at the same time I've often seen decisions about who to go after in multiplayer games made entirely based on who had the highest life total. This begs the question: how can life gain be used best in a multiplayer environment?

A Little Red White Dot
But before we get into that, we need to address life's odd perception. When new players come into the game, they're often excited by the "Lucky Charms" (Dragon's Claw and friends) because life is the game's most obvious measure of success. After all, if you go to zero you lose. In a new player's mind, you've obviously done better if you lose with your opponent at thirteen rather than twenty. When people delve deeper into the game, they find these life gaining spells underwhelming and then classify life gain as universally bad. Recently Wizards has printed some cards that show how powerful life gain can be as an addition to an already passable card, like Kitchen Finks, Baneslayer Angel, Batterskull, and Timely Reinforcements. Nonetheless, many FNM players still dismiss life gain on newly spoiled cards. Why is that? Because secretly, life still feels important to them, and the only way that they avoid getting laughed out of their shop is to constantly tell themselves that life gain is bad.

Why does any of this matter? Because a large portion of players assess threats not on who they think has the highest chance of knocking them out of the game, but on who feels most powerful to them. At a subconscious level, the guy with seventy-three life still feels way ahead, even if he has little board presence and few cards. Mark Rosewater is right in that life gain does vastly improve when you're opponents are hurting each other during the time it buys you, but you need to make sure they're hurting each other. If you gain too much life you'll often become public enemy #1, and at that point it's no stronger than in it would be in a duel.

But just because people feel threatened by high life totals doesn't mean that life gain needs to be thrown out entirely. It does help you win. Sure you don't want to cast Congregate only to have an Identity Crisis and then die to slow beats, but the same amount of life gain doled out while you take incremental damage will feel a lot less significant to an opponent who isn't counting. Even if Beacon of Immortality gains you eight more life than Shattered Angel would, the extra hate it draws can put you out of the game rather than losing you a creature. As with taking extra turns, we want the benefits of life gain without the associated hate, and keeping anyone from seeing just how much life you've gained is the best way of doing so.

That isn't to say that one-shot life gain has no use, it just takes a bit more predictive power to utilize. When you do eventually solidify yourself as The Threat by setting up an engine, building up a huge board presence, or drawing a ton of cards, all of the other players are going to gun for you. That means you're going to get attacked, and while Fogs are all well and good, most of the time Invincible Hymn is going to offset more than one attack step. You can't become more of a target once you're already the only threat, and as with card draw, once you're being focused on you want to assume complete dominance quickly; incremental life gain may prove too slow. For most decks dealing with your opponents' creatures will be a better solution than gaining life once you're The Threat, but sometimes [card Wrath of God]Wrath[/card]s need to be supplemented.

Into the Stratosphere
Alright, so we know how to gain life for maximum effect in reasonable increments, but what if we go completely overboard? What if we have twelve lands, a Mana Reflection, three Doubling Cubes via Sculpting Steel and Phyrexian Metamorph, Voltaic Key, and a Tezzeret the Seeker to cast Dawnglow Infusion with and thus gain 28,432 life? Will using Copy Artifact for another Cube, Copy Enchantment for another Mana Reflection, or Rings of Brighthearth for more Tezz and Key activations change anything? Not really. While there will be an occasional game in which somebody may loop enough Overwhelming Stampedes with their massive token swarm to kill you from thirty thousand life, the vast majority of the time it's as good as the 'infinite' life you would get from [card Melira, Sylvok Outcast]Melira[/card], Kitchen Finks, and a sac outlet. Life gain incurs diminishing returns; it's not worth your time gaining more life once you're at a nearly untouchable total because you're much more likely to die to commander damage or poison.

Understanding People
At its core, multiplayer politics comes down to understanding people: what we think we want, what we really want, and what we fear. As Magic players, we think we want to win, and in part we're right. But as I've noted before, we have sub-goals. We want to accomplish tasks that we correlate with winning. We want to cast creatures; we want to attack with creatures; we want to destroy opponents' creatures. We also want to feel like we're winning. The less powerful mages among us panic when we feel like we're losing. We throw away creatures in desperate, thoughtless attacks. We stop playing around tricks that don't cost us to play around. We remove the wrong creatures and leave ourselves with no outs. We don't want to feel like that, and all of these failures are attempts to mitigate the sense of failure.

Try not to make things hopeless. You're here to have fun with your friends, and while some of us (like yours truly) enjoy trying to claw our way back into games, most people don't want to feel hopeless. Here incremental life gain once again trumps huge swings. It's a lot easier to imagine shutting off a combination of Bottle Gnomes and Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker before it gets out of hand than it is to think about bringing some one down from the lofty heights of a hundred and twenty life. We just want to feel like we know how to go about winning, like we're in control of our fates.

Lemon Curry
And now for something completely different.

My editor, Adam Styborski, recently wrote an article over on Gathering Magic about what our priorities should really be when we play Commander: promoting fun. In this article and others like it, I've explored strategies that are powerful in the format, weak spots that one can exploit to win, and quirks of human psychology that one can work around to maximize chances of victory. A lot of these methods can be taken places I never intended them to go in the name of victory, and though I've certainly mentioned it often enough, Adam's article has driven the point home that I need to be loud and clear.

You aren't playing Commander to win.

If you're a bit Spike-y, you'll enjoy victory a lot. But it's not the only thing to enjoy in Magic, and your enjoyment can't counteract others' unhappiness. Winning is all well and good, but the second it gets in the way of anybody having fun, it needs to be chucked out. Many of the methods I've recommended over the past few months seem to look to circumvent the social contract, but at their heart Commander's norms aren't about a specific result so much as the experience that comes with playing. Participating in this format challenges each of us to put on the game designer's hat. We are no longer the player, looking for every opportunity to eek out an advantage. Rather, every Commander player ought to be part of a design team, seeking to make a game that is highly enjoyable, infinitely replayable, challenging, and frustrating as rarely as possible.

Take up the banner, because Commander's continued success rests on your shoulders.

Jules Robins
@JulesRobins on twitter

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