Lifegain

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“Lifegain” refers to a Magic deck archetype in which a player increases their own life total, often with the goal of turning their own large life total into a resource that can be wielded to defeat their opponents. Lifegain is one of the most consistently popular archetypes in the Commander format.

Lifegain is almost always associated with white and/or black.

Popular Cards & Commanders

Common lifegain cards include:

Popular lifegain commanders include:

Strategy

Lifegain alone does not allow a player to win the game. Lifegain decks are comprised of three core components: cards that help them gain life, cards that help them use that life as a resource, and cards that turn extra life into victory.

Gaining Life

Lifegain decks generally make use of cards that will gain life over the course of many turns, rather than cards that provide large bursts of life all at once. Cards such as Authority of the Consuls provide small, incremental gains, which can provide their controllers with a consistent flow of life over the duration of a longer game like EDH.
Cards whose abilities only allow their controller to gain life, and have no other effects, are less common for lifegain strategies. With some rare exceptions (such as Beacon of Immortality), lifegain decks prefer to use cards that can serve multiple purposes, rather than just providing life. For example, cards such as Exsanguinate are commonly used by lifegain decks both to bolster their own life total while simultaneously lowering their opponents’.

Life as a Resource

Lifegain decks do not only seek to increase their own life total, but also to use the extra life as a valuable tool to acquire advantages over their opponents. Lifegain decks that include black very commonly use their excess life to help them draw many additional cards, often with enchantments like Greed or Necropotence.
Other lifegain decks may use life as a resource to provide extra mana or even extra power to their creatures. K’rrik, Son of Yawgmoth allows a player to pay life instead of black mana, so lifegain decks with excess life can use this to cast significantly more spells than their opponents. Other commanders, such as Licia, Sanguine Tribune, for example, can pay life to increase her power.

Weaponizing Lifegain

Lifegain decks are filled with many cards that help them turn their extra life points into a game-winning position. The card Crested Sunmare, for instance, creates large tokens on each turn that life is gained. Storm Herd can also turn a high life total into a large army. The commander Karlov of the Ghost Council becomes more powerful as life is gained, allowing him to defeat opponents with commander damage. A player who gains lots of life while they control the enchantment Sanguine Bond can cause their opponents to lose as much life as they gain. Aetherflux Reservoir lets a lifegain player pay 50 life to deal 50 damage to an enemy of their choice.
It is also not uncommon for lifegain decks to use cards that allow them to win the game outright if they have a high enough life total. The most common examples of this effect include Felidar Sovereign and Test of Endurance.
Lifegain decks are also famous for their ability to create infinite combos that will secure their victory. The cards Sanguine Bond and Exquisite Blood create a loop that allows their controller to endlessly drain life from their opponents. Combos such as these can be supplemented by other cards such as Vizkopa Guildmage or Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose. Infinite combos may also be used with cards like Heliod, Sun-Crowned and Walking Ballista, which can repeatedly deal damage to opponents while gaining life.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Strengths

  • Using life to accumulate resources, instead of paying mana for them, can allow lifegain decks significant advantages over their opponents.
  • Lifegain decks can accumulate tens if not hundreds of additional life points during a game, making them nearly immune to damage-based or other aggressive decks they may encounter.

Weaknesses

  • Lifegain decks are famously weak to commander damage from their opponents. Even if they have over 100,000 life, a lifegain deck will still be defeated by an opponent who deals them 21 points of combat damage with their commander.
  • Lifegain decks rely upon the synergy between the cards that gain them life and the cards that let them use their life to accumulate further advantages. If a player is not able to cast their lifegain cards, using their life as a resource can become much riskier and lower their life total dramatically. Conversely, if a lifegain player is not able to cast any resource cards, and only casts lifegain effects, they may find themselves with a large life total, but not able to do much else during the game, which may give their opponents enough time to assemble their own game-winning strategies.


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