M14: The lifegain deck

I tend to place fairly low value on cards that gain me life. Even if a card provides incidental lifegain, I won’t usually play it unless I would also play it if it didn’t have lifegain. However, M14 has a number of white, black, and green cards that benefit from lifegain. Are those cards powerful enough that they are worth playing? If so, what lifegain cards should you play to go with them?

M14 has 6 cards that benefit from lifegain: 4 in white, and 1 each in black and green:

  • Ajani Caller of the Pride (mythic): This is a bomb even if you don’t have any lifegain in your deck.
  • Angelic Accord (uncommon): Requires evaluation.
  • Archangel of Thune (mythic): This is a bomb even if you don’t have any lifegain in your deck.
  • Path of Bravery (rare): This seems very playable to me in aggressive decks. It forces your opponent to decide whether to attack you to reduce your life total so you don’t get the bonus, but that opens them up to a return strike that also gains you life. If they hold back, they have to block creatures with +1/+1, either immediately or when you have enough creatures and are ready to alpha strike. It seems less impressive in defensive decks, which are often willing to take hits early until they’re able to stabilize the board, and which win with fliers or large bombs and care less about Crusade effects.
  • Sanguine Bond (rare): Requires evaluation.
  • Voracious Wurm (uncommon): This is always at least a 2/2 for 2, so it’s definitely playable and probably exceptional since it can get very large if you have any lifegain to go with it.

Note that none of these cards are common, so if you’re building a deck that cares about lifegain, it’s because you already have one or more of these cards and not because you get passed Congregate. There are 2 cards each at uncommon, rare, and mythic, so the average draft will have 3.6 cards that care about lifegain.

Now let’s look at the cards that gain you life. This spreadsheet lists all the cards that allow you to gain life (including creatures with lifelink) and care about lifegain. The Cares About Lifegain column indicates whether the card cares about lifegain; if it contains a specific condition, then the card cares about how much life you gain or your life total, otherwise you get some effect regardless of your life total. The Lifegain column indicates how much life the cards allows you to gain; usually that’s a fixed number, but sometimes it depends on some other variable such as the number of creatures (#C) or the power of an enchanted creature (P+2). (The abbreviations used here are the same as the ones I used in my post on instant-speed tricks.) Highlighted cells indicate recurring lifegain: green highlight means there is no cost other than perhaps tapping the card, yellow highlight means a creature needs to attack (usually indicating lifelink), orange highlight means you need to put in a small effort (usually a mana cost, sometimes in addition to attacking), and red highlight means you need to sacrifice a creature or discard a card.

Pivoting by color, rarity, and quality, and looking at all common and uncommons that are not marked as sideboard/unplayable shows that black has the best lifegain cards, followed by white and then green:

  • Black: Child of Night and Mark of the Vampire at common are both playable. At uncommon, Corrupt is very playable in a heavy black deck but is a one-time effect and Gnawing Zombie is also quite good but not a reliable source of lifegain since you don’t usually want to sacrifice creatures just to trigger the cards above.
  • White: At common, Divine Favor is playable, but Soulmender and Dawnstrike Paladin are less exciting. At uncommon, we have Stonehorn Chanter and Congregate. White Stonehorn Chanter is occasionally playable just because it’s a 4/4 for 6 mana, I don’t really consider it a lifegain card because you have to pay an additional 6 mana to give it lifelink, which doesn’t usually make sense if you have any other options. Congregate doesn’t excite me either since it doesn’t affect the board, even though it has the potential to gain a lot of life. However, it will almost certainly trigger Angelic Accord, bring you above your starting life total for Path of Bravery, can result in huge Voracious Wurms, and is likely to kill your opponent if you have Sanguine Bond in play, so it might be playable if you have enough cards that care about lifegain.
  • Green: Verdant Haven is playable and Brindle Boar is filler.
  • Artifact: None. However, Bubbling Cauldron and Elixir of Immortality may be playable if you have enough cards that care about lifegain since both of them gain you enough life to trigger Angelic Accord.

Based on this, it looks like any lifegain deck would have to be W/B, since white has the cards that care about lifegain and black has the best lifegain cards. A W/G or B/G deck might be possible if you get the right mix of cards, but it seems unlikely. Also, Verdant Haven, Brindle Boar, and Scavenging Ooze (a rare) are not cards you usually want to splash, but you might be able to splash Voracious Wurm or Primeval Bounty (a mythic). If you’re not building a lifegain deck, you can still play the better green lifegain cards on their own merits in a G/X deck and just treat your occasional 4/4 Voracious Wurm as gravy. (Mmm, wurm gravy. :))

Now let’s consider whether Angelic Accord is playable. Here are the commons and uncommons that allow you to gain 4+ life on their own:

  • White: Solemn Offering (common), Congregate (uncommon), Stonehorn Chanter (uncommon, recurring)
  • Black: Mark of the Vampire (common, recurring), Corrupt (uncommon)
  • Green: Brindle Boar (common)
  • Artifact: Bubbling Cauldron (uncommon, recurring), Elixir of Immortality (uncommon)

Of these, Mark of the Vampire and Corrupt and the only ones I’d be happy to have in my maindeck. (I’ll do another analysis later to determine whether Solemn Offering is maindeckable, but I’m going to assume it’s not for now.) I’d only play the others if I had at least 4 cards that care about lifegain, and that seems unlikely since we’ve already determined that an average draft will contain 3.6 of these cards. So, having an Angelic Accord or two won’t cause me to value the other lifegain cards any more than I usually would, because I don’t want to draw them if I don’t draw any cards that care about lifegain.

Finally, let’s talk about Sanguine Bond. It can be pretty insane with either Corrupt or Congregate, which both become win-the-game spells in many cases if Sanguine Bond stays on the table. Also, there are only 2 enchantment removal spells in the set, Solemn Offering and Naturalize, and neither of them are incidental (like Kami of Ancient Law), so people are unlikely to maindeck them unless the enchantments in the format are particularly scary. If I draft a Sanguine Bond early, I would start looking to pick up Congregate, Bubbling Cauldron, and Elixir of Immortality in the second half of the pack, but never over cards that care about lifegain and only rarely above other good cards.

To summarize, focused lifegain decks will usually be W/B, possibly splashing Voracious Wurm or Primeval Bounty. You want to go in that direction only if you are being passed the cards that care about lifegain, not because you’re being passed good lifegain cards (although you can still draft and play ones that are playable on their own merits), since there are fewer cards that care about lifegain. If you manage to get 4+ cards that care about lifegain, you can start picking up cards like Congregate, Bubbling Cauldron, Elixir of Immortality, and Trading Post which you would not normally want to play. (And, of course, you can pick some of them up if it’s early in the draft and you already have 2-3 of these cards.)

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