BFZ: W/B lifegain vs. W/B Allies

Battle for Zendikar has a number of lifegain cards, as well as cards that get better if you have lifegain, primarily in white and in black. Are there enough such cards for a lifegain archetype in this format? To what extent does the archetype overlap with W/B Allies? And is W/B the only possible color combination for the archetype?

Let’s start by listing the lifegain cards in the set, as well as those that get better with lifegain. Cards in yellow highlight are Allies and cards in bold provide repeatable lifegain. Each card is preceded by its cost and followed by the cost/description of the effect (no cost means the effect occurs when the card is cast).


All the lifegain in the set is either incidental (i.e., it does something besides gain you life) or repeatable. All cards that care about lifegain are creatures, most of which get bigger or gain an ability when you gain life. Kalastria Nightwatch is perhaps the most powerful non-rare among these since it’s essentially a Dragon if you have enough lifegain effects, while Nirkana Assassin is the worst since its lifegain trigger is unimpressive. Felidar Sovereign is the only one that cares about the amount of life gained.

Most of the lifegain cards in the set are white, and most of the cards that care about lifegain are black, so the deck will almost always be W/B. (Green has 3 lifegain cards but none of them are common.) If you draft a powerful white card from the list above, you may want to take a black card over a similarly powered card in another color, and if you draft a powerful black card from the list, you may want to lean towards drafting white as your second color. In a typical draft, white and black will each provide access to about 12 cards across the 2 categories, so the deck is likely to be balanced between the 2 colors and can include cards with WW or BB in their mana cost.

A W/B drafter at an 8-person draft has access to an average of 19.5 lifegain cards and 8.3 cards that care about lifegain. If you exclude the unimpressive Nirkana Assassin, the latter category has only 5.9 cards, making it difficult to reliably draft this deck, so you should only enter this archetype if you already have a couple of cards that care about lifegain, and you should prioritize them when drafting the archetype.

In a typical draft, 28% of lifegain cards and 80% of cards that care about lifegain are Allies, so even if a lifegain deck does not have any rally effects, it will almost certainly have a number of Allies. Conversely, 23% of W/B Allies have lifegain effects and 28% of them get better with lifegain, so a W/B Allies deck will likely have some cards from the list above, even if there are no synergies around lifegain. This means that if you’re drafting either W/B lifegain or W/B Allies, you can take cards for the other deck since you’re likely to have enough support for them. Looking beyond the numbers, Kalastria Healer, Drana’s Emissary, and Zulaport Cutthroat are quite powerful in both decks, so it’s clear that there is a significant overlap between the 2 decks.

Given the small number of cards that get better with lifegain, these cards are more likely to be drafted as a subtheme in a W/B Allies deck rather than as a separate archetype. When a draft has enough cards to support a dedicated lifegain deck, it is likely to look like a Skies deck, with Drana’s Emissary, Malakir Familiar, and Courier Griffin attacking in the air while Stone Haven Medic stalls the ground, and Kalastria Nightwatch switching between these roles as necessary. In that deck, lifegain can also buy you time, while life drain effects provide reach if your opponent manages to neutralize your fliers.

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2 Responses to BFZ: W/B lifegain vs. W/B Allies

  1. unzinc says:

    Top 8’d a GPT this past weekend and drafted a W/B Lifegain Fliers deck; I went 3-0 and didn’t lose a game with it.

    Medic was great because everyone ignored it usually. Kilastria Nightwatch was amazing. At one point I had two Nightwatchs out with a medic which lead to a swift concede from my opponent. Courier Griffins did a fantastic job gaining me life and triggering effects whilst being a great threat as well as playing defense respectfully.

    Serene Steward was an great engine with the medic. End of their turn gain one, pump Steward. It quickly grew into a 5/5.

    I recommend a few Fortified Ramparts to block with so you don’t have to risk your medics/nightwatches to block.

    Great thing about this deck is the removal suite available to W/B. Gideon’s Reproach, Smite, Complete Disregard to name a few. I was able to draft 6-7 great removal options which allowed me to keep any threat my opponent cast under control.

    10/10 Would draft again

    • sameer says:

      I’m glad to hear the theory lines up with real-life experience with the archetype 🙂 Would you mind sharing your decklist?

      Agreed that most white cards that are good in W/U skies should also be good in W/B lifelink, whether it’s defenders like Fortified Ramparts, removal like Gideon’s Reproach, or generic fliers like Shadow Glider.

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