Sunday 7 June 2015

Updated Top 16 Lifegain

Renewed Faith
I was re-reading the original best life gain spells article that I wrote only two years ago and was amazed by how much was no longer applicable. New and better cards no exist that are not on that list, those that were on the list are in wildly different places and on top of all that the importance of life gain has changed massively in the cube. Everything offensive is significantly more powerful than it used to be. The whole meta has also ramped up a bit in average converted mana cost, where once you might play Lava Dart for the added utility you would now play Searing Spear for that extra gas. Boggart-Ram Gang used to be one of the quickest clocks you could put someone on with a solid stand alone three drop. Now we have things like Rabblemaster which kills in half the time if left unchecked. Before life gain was only really relevant if you were spending it yourself or facing down a burn deck. Now most decks want a bit to sure up any aggressive matchup and for decks trying to play the long game it is a must. Life gain now gives you that much more wiggle room. A lot of threats will now make you as good as dead in two hits meaning you have a lot less time to find answers. Having a bunch of incidental life gain in your list allows you to get back into the game should such a threat get a few turns going at your face. Simply being on low life totals drastically reduces your viable options in most games and so being able to top up lets you play with much greater efficiency.

Obstinate BalothThere are lots of cards that gain life however the cube requires rather specific things from cards that offer it. This list is specifically rating the quality of the cards that you play so as to check the life gain box in your deck construction. There are more powerful cards that also gain life out there not on this list however they are in some way worse at providing the life boost than these cards. Baneslayer Angel was once high up on this list and is still a very potent card. The problem with her is that her life gain is slow and unreliable. You have to wait a turn and connect with a card that a lot of removal will take down before you get life back. In some matchups this is not that much of a problem but there are still plenty where it is. Another card that has fallen far from grace is the mighty Zuran Orb. Once atop the life gain list the little artifact barely sees any play now and the places it does are typically as a way to sacrifice lands rather than to gain life. While Orb is one of the most potent pure life gain cards it is frequently also a complete blank. With the increase in power level and average converted mana cost each card counts that much more and so you just cannot afford to have cards that do not help you out in other ways.

The key aspect of life gain for the cube is primarily the usefulness of the card that the life gain is attached to. Beyond that there is how immediate the life gain is, how much you get or can potentially get, how cheap the card or effect is and how hard it is to disrupt. There is a critical cut off point in mana cost where the potency of the card becomes less relevant overall. Baneslayer is a great card, it gives lots of life per hit and can potentially do many hits. Sadly, because it is five mana and slow to get going, although it is still a great threat, it is not a great life gain card.

Deathrite Shaman
1.   Courser of Kruphix
2.   Deathrite Shaman
3.   Thragtusk
4.   Umezawa's Jitte
5.   Sphinx's Revelation
6.   Kitchen Finks
7.   Sorin, Solemn Visitor
8.   Scavenging Ooze
9.   Siege Rhino
10. Lightning Helix
11. Elixir of Immortality
12. Absorb
13. Bow of Nylea
14. Soulfire Grandmaster
15. Wurmcoil Engine
16. Batterskull

Courser of KruphixCourser only gives one life per land made, usually just one per turn (although it does mitigate sac lands well as well as having great synergy with the shuffle!) and not always even that. The thing with Courser is that it is just so good, you would play it in most decks even without any life gain. Ongoing card advantage and information on a robust 2/4 body for 3. It is the ongoing nature of the life gain combined with its cheapness that make it so dangerous for aggressive decks. It is a high priority kill target but is sturdy for its low cost and typically saves you a lot of hurt even if it just gets you 0 or 1 life.

Deathrite Shaman is a little slower and more vulnerable than Courser, he also loses his other utility and costs you some mana should you be using him for life. This isn't even always an option should there be no creatures to exile. For this you get a card a third the cost of Courser and that offers double the life in an ongoing capacity. All told I think Deathrite has earned the best creature in all of magic title. He does so very very much and is just one mana. Sure he gets burned a lot and dies most of the time he gets into combat but for one mana, so what. It likely means your Courser is going to live that much longer! Again, it is the cheapness of the card that makes the limper life offerings that much less important.

ThragtuskThragtusk is rather a different kind of thing. Bam, five life right away but no chance on more life to come without some kind of Flicker effect. The Tusk is not a very exciting body, it dies easily and usually doesn't do all that much itself. Thragtusk is good because it is immense value, the immediate life hit and then the 3/3 guy when Tusk goes away. It reliably puts a body on the board and gives such a direct hit of life that the whole tempo dynamic wildly shifts. Suddenly you can be comfortably winning a race. He is late but this is OK because short of a counterspell the life is happening and a lot of it.

Jitte has fallen a little off lately. Still a very dangerous a highly picked card but none the less getting noticeably less play than a few years back. Better and better creatures combined with more quality removal has made the Jittle that much riskier and less impactive. A reasonably good board position can now easily overpower a Jitte where that was near impossible when it first came out. Regardless of this Jitte is still a great card and in part this is due to the life gain for which it is reasonably reliable and rather potent. Four life per connection which can be as much as 8 life per turn with re-equips for blocks or double strikers is a fair old chunk. Combined with the other options on Jitte it gives you excellent racing potential and is a bargain to get on line at just four mana total. A little easier to disrupt than some of the other life gain but well worth that risk if you have sufficient creature support.

Umezawa's JitteSphinx's Revelation is a card that offers you two of the three resources in magic paid for by the other. If you have enough mana (and of the right colours) to run Revelation you typically do so. It is expensive and gets better the more mana you sink into it. Although it comes late it is ideally a decent chunk of life and is very hard to disrupt. The combination of cards and life are usually enough to be able to turn around a game pretty effectively.

Kitchen Finks is rather like a mini Thragtusk. It is lower life overall and significantly lower right away. It is also a little easier to disrupt some of the life gain and the second body on Finks but for the price you pay these are minor things. Overall Finks is a great tempo and value dork that is the bane of most aggressive decks. The fact that it is much more of an early play really slows the momentum of an aggressive deck and winds up doing a lot more for you in those match ups when you play it at the start than a turn five Thragtusk will manage..

Sorin, Solemn VisitorSorin, Solemn Visitor is a big hit thus far in cube. While his life gain aspect is situational and disruptable it is also greatly powerful. A +1 pump to all your dorks attack as well as life link scales well with lots of dorks as well as with fatter dorks. Out of nowhere you can flop a Sorin on to a fairly dull and even board and utterly smash any chance of racing right there and then. Making 2/2 fliers when you don't have a suitable army to pump is good too and just being a planeswalker still holds lots of value as well. Sorin is potent because he offers both ongoing life gain and in potentially huge chunks.

Scavenging Ooze is along similar lines to Deathrite Shaman as a life gain card but is narrower in application and of lower power hence the lower rating on this list. Ooze still needs creatures to eat, only gives one life per trigger and also needs green mana each time. Late game Ooze is a beating as there are lots of things to eat and more mana to do so with. Early on he is far less exciting than a Kitchen Finks, Courser of Kruphix or the Deathrite Shaman. Being able to activate right away does increase his reliability as life gain but does little to improve his early performance.

Siege RhinoSiege Rhino is known for its all round power and value. Three life once is not huge but it does take the edge of things which is usually more than enough when you have a Rhino in play as well. The Rhino is marked down mostly for being an awkward three colour card that you cannot play as often as you would like. If it were not for this awkwardness he would be well above Thragtusk in this list and generally as well. A 4/5 trampling body is much much better than a 5/3, it might well still be better than a 5/3 and a 3/3 token too!

Lightning Helix is a card I have not historically had much love for however I must now concede that it is about as free as you can get life gain on a card and about as playable a card as you could hope for. Any control or midrange deck is hungry for life gain, being able to pack Incinerate, Searing Spear etc with a free three life in your deck goes a long way. Yes, it is slightly more awkward to cast but you really should be able to fire it off before you have lost all 20 of your starting life.

Elixir of ImmortalityElixir of Immortality is the non-green card of choice for any deck wishing to secure the inevitability. Time Twister effects used to be more popular but their high cost and high risk due to giving away up to seven new cards has seen them significantly decline in all bar the combo decks. With increased raw card draw power from things like Treasure Cruise and Sphinx's Revelation it is pretty easy to go through a 40 card library. Again, with only 40 cards you are spread thin on answers and may need the same one repeatedly in a long gruelling match for which the Elixir comes in handy. It is hard to disrupt Elixir and it gives a juicy immediate five life at an affordable 3 mana split into two parts. It is card disadvantage and most alike to Zuran Orb in that it seemingly does little else for you other than give some life. You only play it when you want the reusable graveyard but the life gain is what makes it playable.

AbsorbIn the cube the difference between a three mana counter and a two mana one is pretty huge. Lightning Helix is comparable to Incinerate - another very strong cube card. Absorb is comparable to Cancel - a near unplayable cube card. The life you gain from Absorb in other words is not free, you pay for it to the tune of a white mana. Some three mana counterspells do see play in the cube, mostly this is down to the distinctly finite number of unrestricted hard counter magic you can find for two mana and not because the cards themselves are super good. All of them still do a bunch more for you than Cancel however! Voidslime has much greater utility and disruption potential. Dromar's Charm again has a lot of utility and nearly made this list itself. Forbid allows for lock down abuses and can just be a useful discard outlet too. Dissipate even has decent cube utility and Dissolve some bonus value. You have to quite want your three life to forgo any of these other perks. It is just a top up on life, a small hit of three once when you counter something. Broadly playable but distinctly fair. The reason it sees so much play is that it is doing two things that are well paired, both stalling the game and it is never a dead or even that weak of a card in any given matchup. Three mana is less onerous against slower decks and the three life is that much juicier against the aggressive ones. Absorb is not a powerful card, it is just a wonderfully appropriate one and still gets a lot of play as a result.

Bow of Nylea
Bow of Nylea is somewhat of the green Elixir. It does all of what Elixir does and a bunch more as well. It is more expensive, a bit more vulnerable and less immediate on its returns but for its ongoing value and utility these are forgiven. In green control decks Bow of Nylea has time and again proven its cube value. It gives you supreme inevitability with potential to gain three life a turn, make threats grow in size or recycle potent cards back into your library. In control mirrors it is reaching comparable fear levels as Ashiok and Aetherling. As with Elixir, you only play it when you are trying to always be the control player making it more niche than a number of cards on this list but it is one of the most underrated cube cards  none the less.

Soulfire Grand Master
Soulfire Grandmaster is a new addition that might seem somewhat low down until you realise he is the very first lifelink creature to have made the list. All the other monsters have abilities or enter the battlefield effects that provide life. All those monsters that rely purely on dealing damage with lifelink are typically too slow and vulnerable to be heavily relied on as a source of extra life. Soulfire is vulnerable and somewhat slow but he affords life in several ways and is so cheap that, as with Deathrite Shaman, his vulnerabilities and sloth are substantially mitigated. Just as a 1W 2/2 life linker the Soulfire Grandmaster is one of the best cheap lifelink creatures going. Knight of Meadowgrain just doesn't do enough to see cube play these days and is the only close thing. Against another agro deck they will have to kill it right away or pause attacks so that you cannot gain life each turn with it. This is all well and good, a 2 power life linker for two is situationally great and otherwise just about fine. It is the other aspects of Grandmaster that push him over the top. Rarely does life link on your spells do much outside of red but it is fairly obnoxious when you have the burn. It is very easy to save Grandmaster till you can drop him and a burn spell on the same turn should you need to reliably gain some life. Just turning all your burn into super Lightning Helix is quite nice, when it comes to things life Bonfire of the Damned and Blasphemous Act then you can start to be far more abusive than even Sorin can manage. I gained over 100 life with the latter, Grandmaster and just three mana. He is also great as a speed bump come late game lock down card in Azorius control builds. All in all very impressive.

Wurmcoil EngineWhen you cannot get cheap cards you want that give you life you might as well get something really robust and powerful with the potential to gain vast quantities of life. Wurmcoil Engine is so good that for most aggro decks it sets the pace for when you need to have won by. If they resolve a Wurmcoil it gets disgusting very quickly short of a few good exile, bounce and tap solutions. Racing six life gain a turn is unlikely, attacking productively through the Wurmcoil is near impossible without evasion. Wurmcoil is great at providing sufficient life to keep you alive through most circumstances and is hard enough to kill that you can rely on it far more than you can with Baneslayer to be gaining you that life. Costing six and not being able to immediately gain any life means you will have to do quite a lot of work just to get to stage you can make the Wurmcoil with any semblance of safety, if at all. Great card and a great threat but not something you want to exclusively rely on to be refilling your life total.

Zuran OrbBatterskull is much like the Wurmcoil, it is robust and meaty. It is still slow, especially so when  at all disrupted, but if offers double defense with the combination of lifelink and vigilance. Once you get going with the Batterskull you are very tough to race. It is pretty much as slow as the Wurmcoil as far as this list goes and both less robust and less life returns hence being lower on the list and otherwise being very comparable. Certainly having Stoneforge in your deck makes the Batterskull vastly higher power and likely the most wanted card on this list.

Kitchen FinksThere is plenty of life gain not on this list that still gets some niche cube play as lifegain cards and also plenty of regular cube cube cards that get play but not really as any sort of life gain thing. Seeker of the Way is one of the latter, as is Baneslayer Angel. Zuran Orb is the former, as is the antiquated Ivory Tower although that shouldn't be seeing play! Vampire Nighthawk has fallen from grace a little being all to easy to knock out of the way. Dromar's Charm is a big hit of life if needed but does nothing else if used in this capacity. Renewed Faith has been seeing an increase in play lately all though not quite up to A cube standards yet. Pulse of the Fields however has not seen play in a long long time. Once the cheesy hoser of burn decks it is now not even close to viable with 4 life being far too little for the huge three mana cost. Various Ajani incarnations offer life, they are all fine but need to be played in the appropriate place to be good and in such places you are typically not doing so for any life based reasons. Warden of the First Tree is another new card with life gain potential that has been performing fairly well but is a bit narrow and far too costly and vulnerable to be relied on as life gain. Primal Command used to get a lot of love and was a substantial life infusion when needed but has been completely overshadowed by Bow of Nylea and not seen place since. Sword of War and Peace offers some life, sometimes more than Jitte, however it is less reliable at it and far less versatile and powerful. Griselbrand gives big life swings, as does Sphinx of the Steel Wind however both are the preserve of combo style decks. If Wurmcoil is on the slow side these 8 drops certainly are! Pelakka Wurm even had some love in this kind of role one, replacing the super slow Phantom Nishoba! These days such fatties are far too low powered to get a look in. Jeskai Charm is rather narrow in application however it has been brutal in a similar way to Sorin, Solemn Visitor, in that it can create a massive swing in tempo out of nowhere.

Lightning HelixAll in all there are lots of cards that are cube worthy that gain life. Some is incidental and just slightly increases the power of a card, others it is far more the reason you are playing the card. What you have to be good at doing is knowing when your deck will benefit from life gain, care nothing for it, or absolutely needs it to be viable. Once you have established which one of these three groups your deck sits in you can more sensibly find the most suitable cards for your deck. If you don't care about life at all you are likely a super aggressive deck, likely red, or some kind of a combo deck and you should consider playing Searing Spear instead of Lightning Helix as it will increase your consistency. This is only good advice in cube play, you will note modern decks do not take this advice and this is because in cube you very rarely face mirrors due to the card pool being what it is. If your deck benefits from life gain but doesn't need it then any card in the cube with any life gain potential that you want in your deck has surprisingly higher value than you might think. Early on for such a deck I might well take a Kitchen Finks over a Tarmogoyf, a slightly less powerful card that fulfils several roles. Having the Finks will round out your deck and make your matchups smoother. That bonus life gain will make a real difference when facing the burn player. Not only will it give a good buffer but it gives you more options in how you play, throw it down early and just fight the tempo directly or bait them into over extending by holding back the Finks. Lastly when your deck needs life gain you are likely a control deck or a very grindy deck. It is no longer a case of pick up the cards that give life and that you want in your deck, obviously you do that, but it is not always enough or you do not see the few cards that fit this criteria. You may well have to pick some things you don't want to and likely over things you did want and then shoehorn these random life gain things into your deck that you otherwise don't need or have better options you would rather have in the slot. You don't want to cut that Aetherling, you don't want to have no life gain but you also don't want to play two six drop threats and play the Wurmcoil as well as the Aetherling. All somewhat rough choices however the only totally incorrect one is the one without the life gain. You simply have to be aware of the issues you are creating and how to solve them. If you play both the six drop threats then you probably need to pick up a bunch more card quality effects and that sort of thing. If you were looking to play endurance or grinder control and you fail to find any suitable life gain then you likely have to try and do something else. You obviously can't be going too far away from control at this point but you likely have to be doing something really broken to be winning games. This might be playing Entreat the Angles as a quick way to steal wins. It might be going some sort of Upheaval route with a bit more ramp so as to lock people out of games. That is the joy that is magic, there is always a solution to a problem, you just have to recognize when there is a problem and respond accordingly! Life gain is an appropriate solution to several different problems you can face in magic and has a much more relevant place in the game now than ever before.

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