Thursday 31 January 2013

Top 10 Life Gain

Edit 7th June 2015.

This article is very outdated based on new cards and meta changes. A revised one may be found at;

Healing SalveExcluding cards in ones library life is the least relevant of resources in Magic. It is why cards like Necropotence and Dark Confidant are so potent, they convert life into a more useful resource - cards in hand. You start with 20 life and the first 19 of those have no impact on the game as such and so you have an abundant pile of resources at your disposal. As a result of this free stock pile of resources to tap into many of the most powerful cube cards in some way cost or use life up, and not just black card draw effects. Sac, pain and shock lands, Sulphuric Vortex, Mana Crypt, Mana Vault, Phyrexian mana, Carnophage and so on and so on. That life is less relevant than cards in hand or mana or that cards with life costs are abusable is a well known aspect of magic and as a result life gain has become a cheap thing to have on a card. With life being a resource people don't want to invest in getting it becomes much cheaper to have as an extra on a card and offers big returns for the small investment. There are only a couple of cards purely for life gain that are viable and they are all reuseable effects, most come bolted onto an already good card to make it even better value.

Stream of Life
But why would you want to get life gain for your deck after having discussed how it is a dead resource unless you can abuse it? Even if you are not abusing your life total with Necropotence there is a good chance you have some cards that can or do cost you some life although probably no where near enough to be killing you it will mean you are effectively on a lower starting life total. If you do yourself and average of 0.33 damage a turn and your average game takes 6 turns you can assume your life total is closer to 18 than 20 in reality. Again, this is no biggie, that still means you have 17 redundant life points to fritter away. It is not what you are doing to yourself so much but what other people will do to you. The cube is a vast format with a variety of decks than can bring lots of pain really fast. You need to be able to beat the common archetypes with any deck you are building and in order to beat the fast agro decks you typically need lots of cheap things to be playing so as to not get overrun too fast. In doing this you make your late game much weaker and start to lose to combos through lack of appropriate disruption or to high powered cards in control decks because your deck was full of Force Spikes. While life gain is only any use against the agro decks for the most part (as in you wouldn't feel compelled to play any life gain in your average deck if the field was all control and combo) it is often worth including as an alternative to lowering your curve and therefore average power level. Because life gain is so relatively potent you can pull back a lot of lost tempo against more agro decks and swing the tide with one card even when things look quite bleak. By substituting some cards in your deck for others with bonus life gain as well you can keep a very high overall power level and still have a good game against the agro decks. Baneslayer Angel and Wurmcoil Engine are popular control finishers because they are good threats but also because they can do the job of gaining a load of life back and swinging the tide. When the life gain is irrelevant it doesn't matter as you still have a good threat and when it does it often wins the game. It can even be worth playing a pure life gain card like Zuran Orb if you have enough card advantage or card quality effects to absorb a dead card. Unless you are running one of the agro archetypes your deck will probably be able to cope better with a wider array of decks if you have access to some life gain.  This is why I am not a huge fan of Lightning Helix over Incinerate in agro decks, you are the deck life gain is good against and mirror matchups in cube are very rare.

The life gain played by normal decks to sure up their matches against agro decks has to minimally impact the deck in their other match ups however in decks that are really abusing life as a resource such as Necropotence you typically need some life gain just to enable the continued use of your effects. In such decks it is common to find more dedicated and more hardcore life gain with less regard to them being potentially dead. As your deck can do enough self pain to potentially kill itself you significantly reduce the extent to which a pure life gain card is dead. These kinds of deck are less common in the cube than the broad label of "non-agro" and so the vast majority of the best life gain effects are on cards that would still be playable in cube with no life gain at all. Here is my top ten cards that gain life in the cube:

Vampire Nighthawk10. Vampire Nighthawk

A good all rounder that can go in most decks and feel at home. While a very solid card it it not the best life gainer as it is relatively easy to kill with both removal and in combat and typically cannot gain more than two a turn. If not dealt with it tends to be enough to beat agro decks but is obviously a kill on sight card for things like red deck wins. The 2/3 flying death touch parts of this card make it a great complimentary body for life gain as it will be able to hold off quite a lot of pressure on the board but it does still require it to live. This is a great supplement to a life gain compliment in a deck but is far from enough to fuel a Necropotence engine or hold off a red mage.

Scavenging Ooze9.   Scavenging Ooze

A cheap threat on an annoying disruption dork complete with some bonus life gain. The life gain aspect of this card is somewhat worse than Vampire Nighthawk, sometimes you will be able to drop it late game and gain a whole bunch of life before they can do anything about it however in the earlier to mid game where these kinds of cards tend to be more needed it is a lot of mana for not that much life with other requirements to fulfil. It is because this card is both a potent threat and disruption card that it rates so highly as it is one of the weakest cards in this whole article for raw life gaining power.

Baneslayer Angel8.   Baneslayer Angel

The classic control threat in the big flying life gaining angle. This is almost impossible to race or attack in to profitably. Unless the agro player can kill this on sight it ends games quickly, even if it dies before it kills them it has still usually had such an impact on the life totals that the game is out of reach. The slight downsides of Baneslayer as life gain is that it is five mana and has no immediate change on the life totals. While it is not easy to kill it is not out of the question at all to get it dead which is often as much of a scoop for them as it is for you when you can't kill it. Obviously a very powerful card with very swingy life gaining potential who's only real weakness is having no useful impact if immediately killed.

Primal Command7.   Primal Command

While still being in the five mana bracket with Baneslayer this versatile life gain spell is far more reliable than the Angel as you get seven happy life points as soon as you cast it. You also get the option of getting Eternal Witness and doing it again for another seven or just throwing something back on top of their library and slowing up their tempo. While it is not such a big swing on the board as the Angel the versatility and reliability of it make it a superior life gain card overall.

Deathrite Shaman6.   Deathrite Shaman

This is much like the Ooze except it is a better dork with more useful effects and roles and more efficient life returns. It is not as good a threat although it does offer some reach but given that it is also half the price, is playable in many more archetypes and is also a mana ramper and fixer   The drawbacks of this card as life gain are that it is slow to get life returns from it, it will situationally not work for life when no dead guys are there to be exiled, it is reasonably easy to kill and it cannot give you a big single injection of life. As the life gain is probably the least relevant of all the many many useful effects on the Shaman it is no surprise that this is one of the best life gain cards overall. One mana for two life per turn is nothing to write home about but is more than you can get from many of the life gain effects and a very happy bonus on an already great card.

Thragtusk5.   Thragtusk

This rather fudgy dork does tend to get it done, it is five life right away with a near guaranteed blocker to boot. Although it is no where near the level of finisher as a Baneslayer it is much more reliable value and immediate tempo, the latter of which is especially important against the decks you are playing life gain against. If you already have enough stuff to get you to five mana then Thragtusk is a good final nail in the coffin in the role of life gainer while also rarely being a dead spell in any match up.

Wurmcoil Engine4.   Wurmcoil Engine

Wurmcoil is very much like Baneslayer with one key advantage in that you typically get a 3/3 life link dork to gain you some life even when they deal with it. For the red mage to stop the Engine gaining life with just burn is a minimum of nine. In terms of cost and vulnerability Baneslayer and Wurmcoil are fairly comparable. The Angel only costs five mana but Engine is colourless only and can be made with things like Grand Architect more quickly. Angel only has five toughness compared to Engines six but many more removal spells can kill artifacts. Both are great threats with frightening life gaining potentials but the Wurmcoil tends to offer more value and can go in more decks so is the better card overall.

Umezawa's Jitte3.   Umezawa's Jitte

Jitte is soo good you only ever tend to use the life gain when they kill it with charge counters on but nothing else worth doing with them. Even though you are usually winning any way when you have an active Jitte the presence of the life gain ability is still highly relevant. It makes certain avenues of all-in  or race style strategies pointless where they are typically one of the best things to do against something you can't deal with and will ultimately beat you. The life gain option on the card gives you so much security, like insurance, it is good to have but better not to need. It is not the most reliable of pure life gain effects as all kinds of removal can really set you back in tempo and will therefore almost certainly finish you off given that you were trying to gain more life. While not a great sideboard card against red deck wins despite being a powerful life gain effects it is the perfect kind of card to up the power of your main deck by replacing a weaker card that was mostly there to cover potential life gain needs.

Kitchen Finks2.   Kitchen Finks

Finks is cheap, available to many decks, gives life immediately, acts as a good defensive chump and is hard to clear out the way. You can even abuse the persist in a selection of ways to prolong the irritation of his existence. It is one of the few monsters that excels both as an agro tempo dork and as a defensive early stalling dork. While you don't get the most life from the Finks it comes in the perfect package for when you want life gain. The most important of these aspects is that it is cheap allowing you to fight back a bit with useful things to do earlier in the game against the tempo wars of the cheap agro decks.

Zuran Orb1.   Zuran Orb

When you absolutely positively have to have life gain, except no substitute. Very much like the Jitte you never want to be using this to gain life (unless you are doing some silly infinite combo with Fastbond and Crucible of Worlds). Unlike Jitte this effectively charges throughout the game with no need of it in play and so you can flop it early and deny people strategy options or you can bait them in and flop it down once it is too late for them. This is the only pure life gain card that remains in my A cube and with good reason. The three things that make life gain good are low mana cost, high life returns and instant life returned. On all three accounts Zuran Orb is the best in the business. Sure you have to sac lands but it is better than being dead. When you have the safety of the Orb in play you will only ever be sacing off lands at the last minute which is hopefully at a point where it does not overly damage you. Really late game it at its best when lands would otherwise be almost dead draws. There are plenty of games where they come at you too strong and fast for the Orb to make any difference and would have been much better as anything else however in any game that is at all close the Orb will make a turn or twos difference and swing the game in its controller's favour.

While white is commonly the colour associated with life gain the cube has most of the best life gain in green with black being comparable to white. Enough of the quality life gain is artifact based and so mages off all colour can usually find an appropriate card or two so as to sure up their agro match ups.
Here are a list of the other life gain cards that see a decent amount of cube play that didn't quite make the top ten. I shall say a few words on them as they are so few in number.

Pulse of the Fields
Lightning Helix
Sorin Markov
Sphinx of the Steel Wind
Knight of Meadowgrain
Swords to Plowshares
Obstinate Baloth
Ivory Tower
Pelakka Wurm

Ivory Tower
Pulse of the Fields and Ivory Tower are the only other pure life gain cards other than Zuran Orb that have really seen any cube play. Lots of quite weak cards such as Child of Night have been played purely for their life gain but with the intent of not being completely dead in lots of situations however it turns out you only ever want to play either really good life gain or really good cards with some minor incidental life gain effects. The fact that a card is bad does not make up for the fact it is slightly better at gaining life than alternatives. Ivory Tower only sees play in Necro decks although it was also seen in combination with Library of Alexandria in some control decks. It has a few advantages over Zuran Orb in that you can get value from it early at no real expense and it just sits there doing its thing for you however it is a much weaker card overall. Not just for the cards in hand requirement but also because it is slow to offer its returns. Pulse of the Fields is more rapid life return but it is really costly which renders it useless as life gain in some roles and even against some match ups. As a result it is only good against cheap red burn decks which it is really brutal against and has therefore sunk to the despised rank of a hoser within my cube.

Pelakka Wurm was popular in Reanimate decks for a decent period as he would give a big immediate life return while also being an OK threat with a bit of extra value should they answer it. He even saw a bit of play in big rampy green decks although I suspect this won't happen again with Thragtusk in the picture. Sphinx of the Steel Wind and Griselbrand are also both popular Reanimate targets as they have life gain and other juicy effects on the game. Reanimate hurts its self a lot as decks go, especially with its eponymous spell and so almost always packs at least one threat with the capacity to return life. As life gainers there is little to chose between Sphinx and Griselbrand and it entirely comes down to which of their other effects and attributes are more suited to your build. Sorin Markov is running a little low on archetypes that support him with both high mana and high black cost requirements. Black is the colour that wants life the most and so he sees play in this capacity just enough to keep an A cube slot. If he was just as powerful but offered no life I doubt he would see nearly as much play.

Knight of Meadowgrain is one of those cards which continually goes from A to B cubes and back. It is just a high value solid dork, the decks that play him don't really want life gain though and so his value is a little misplaced. This is a bit like Lightning Helix when used in most agro decks however unlike the Knight, Helix is a very desirable control card where the life gain goes from irrelevant to highly significant. Swords to Plowshares is not what you might consider as a life gain card but a good number of games have been saved and then won with the Plowing of your own guy for life, not ideal situations but better than death and all from a card you were playing purely as a removal spell! Obstinate Baloth is a bit dull but has added value from the anti discard and good synergy with Birthing Pod with fewer utility creatures costing four. As life gain it is fine but a bit mid range and just typically worse than options either side of it in the curve.


  1. What about Heroes' Reunion?

    1. Life Goes on is probably better in every possible way since the extra requirement of a single creature to die during the turn it is played would usually be no issue. At 1 mana less I would go with that.

  2. how 'bout feed the clan? 2 mana 10 life

  3. Feed the Clan is certainly one of the most efficient and playable pure lifegain spells on offer. That makes it more of a specific tool rather than a generically cube playable life gain source. Even Zuran Orb is only really playable in combo decks these days. You are better off with Fountain of Renewal as a drafting cube card or maindeck lifegain hedge. Beyond that you really just want incidental lifegain effects on otherwise good and playable cards.

  4. I can't see anything surpassing Spirit Loop if it is a simple gaining life grant card. Basically Rancor switched with a gain life effect even if it isn't instant lifelink.