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.

BFZ: Allies

Battle for Zendikar has Allies in each color as well as several powerful multicolor Allies. Consequently, it seems like Allies decks should usually be 3-, 4-, or even 5-color green, especially since green also provides access to Tajuru Warcaller and Tajuru Beastmaster, which are powerful finishers. Let crunch some numbers to determine whether this is the case.

Let’s start by looking at all the Allies and Ally tribal cards in the set by color, rarity, and converted mana cost. (Cards in parentheses are not Allies but can create Allies or have an Ally tribal ability.) Especially strong cards are bolded, and those with tribal abilities are highlighted in yellow.

Some observations:

  • White has the most Allies, followed by black and red which have roughly equal numbers. Green has only 4 Allies, although Tajuru Warcaller and Tajuru Beastmaster are both quite strong. Finally, blue has only 2 Allies, neither of which have Ally tribal abilities. 8 of the 9 multicolor Allies are W/X: 3 are R/W, 2 are G/W, 2 are W/B, and 1 is W/U.
  • Next, let’s determine the average number of Allies available to the 2-color Allies decks that seem most probable.
    • W/B has access to an average of 25.9 Allies in an 8-person draft, 9.0 of which are especially strong (bolded).
    • R/W has access to an average of 25.6 Allies, 8.5 of which are especially strong.
    • B/R has access to an average of 19.5 Allies, 3.9 of which are especially strong. This color combination does not seem very promising.
  • A R/W/B (Mardu) Allies deck seems unlikely because:
    • several of the best Allies in these colors are early drops, which are more difficult to cast on curve in a 3-color deck,
    • a third of the black and the red Allies require 2 colored mana,
    • most of the black Allies have a lifegain subtheme, which interacts well with white but not with red, and
    • there are only 2 non-rare ways to fix your mana if you’re not playing green: Evolving Wilds, which is likely to be taken early, and Pilgrim’s Eye, which does not help you cast your 2- and 3-drops on curve and is not an ideal turn 3 play in an Allies deck.
  • 18 cards have Ally tribal abilities:
    • 8 are Allies with “When ~this~ or another Ally enters the battlefield under your control, creatures you control gain X.” These abilities are not cumulative, i.e., the second trigger each turn does not confer any additional benefit.
    • 2 are Allies with “When ~this~ or another Ally enters the battlefield under your control, creatures you control get +X/+X”.
    • 4 are Allies with “When ~this~ or another Ally enters the battlefield under your control, X”, where X is one of {tap a creature, drain 1 life from opponents, make a 1/1 token, or scry 4 for Allies}.
    • Angelic Captain and Veteran Warleader are Allies that get more powerful as you have more Allies.
    • March from the Tomb reanimates Allies in your graveyard with a total converted mana cost of up to 8.
    • Ally Encampment makes it easier to cast Allies of different colors and can be sacrificed to raise a dead Ally.
  • 13 of these 18 are especially strong (bolded): 2 commons (Kalastria Healer and Tajuru Beastmaster), 6 uncommons, and 5 rares. Let’s break these 13 cards down by color:
    • White: 2 uncommons + 2 rares = average of 2.6 in an 8-person draft
    • Black: 1 common = average of 2.4
    • Red: 1 uncommon = average of 0.9
    • R/W: 1 uncommon + 2 rares = average of 1.7
    • Green: 1 common + 1 uncommon = average of 3.3
    • G/W: 1 uncommon + 1 rare = average of 1.3

    Among 2-color combinations, G/W has access to an average of 7.2 strong Ally tribal abilities, followed by B/G with 5.7, R/W with 5.2, and W/B with 5.0.

White has the most Allies and the most Ally tribal abilities, so it is likely a necessary color for any Allies deck. I believe there are 3 primary Allies decks:

  • An aggressive R/W deck that relies on cheap Allies backed by removal and combat tricks to underrun its opponent. Key cards include Kor Bladewhirl, Firemantle Mage, and perhaps Chasm Guide. The deck has access to several finishers, including Retreat to Emeria, Kor Entanglers, Resolute Blademaster, and several 4- and 5-mana rares. It’s possible that Cliffside Lookout is playable in this deck since it is a 1-drop that can trigger Ally tribal abilities and act as a finisher if drawn late.
  • A W/B lifegain deck. The key cards are Kalastria Healer and Drana’s Emissary, followed by Stone Haven Medic, Retreat to Hagra, and possibly Vampiric Rites and Zulaport Cutthroat. This deck could potentially splash green for Tajuru Beastmaster, and perhaps even Retreat to Kazandu. I’ll explore this archetype in more detail in my next post.
  • A base G/W token deck that uses Unified Front, Grovetender Druids, and Retreat to Emeria to create tokens, green and white combat tricks to push through early damage, and Tajuru Warcaller, Tajuru Beastmaster, and Retreat to Emeria as finishers. It also uses green manafixing (Natural Connection, Blighted Woodland, Sylvan Scrying, Fertile Thicket, and Seek the Wilds, the last of which can be used to find key Allies or bomb creatures instead of land) to splash bombs and removal, and to maximize spells with converge (Unified Front, Tajuru Stalwart, Skyrider Elf, and Bring to Light).

A B/G control deck may also be possible since both colors have a strong Ally tribal effect at common. However, these colors don’t have specific synergies, so it probably makes more sense to instead draft a W/B Allies deck that splashes Tajuru Beastmaster, or a base G/W Allies deck that splashes black for bombs, removal, and maximizing converge.

BNG: Sunbond

Sunbond is a card that’s intrigued me since I first saw the Born of the Gods spoiler. The format has a fair bit of incidental lifegain (lifegain that comes with another effect), and has relatively little removal that deals with large creatures. Sunbond seems especially strong on creatures with lifelink since they double in size each time they deal damage.

Here’s a list of all the cards in the format that can gain you life. Cards in bold provide recurring lifegain (this includes creatures with lifelink). While they may gain you less life than some of the non-recurring cards like Ordeal of Heliod, they can help even if you played before you draw Sunbond. Cards in italics are either filler/situational or only gain you 1 life at a time.

  • White (average of 10.1 cards with lifegain in an 8-person draft, 4.5 of which are recurring):
    • common: Hopeful Eidolon, Lagonna-Band Elder, Mortal’s Ardor, Oreskos Sun Guide, Ray of Dissolution, Setessan Battle Priest (Ephara’s Radiance is almost never playable and Last Breath is almost never used on your own creatures)
    • uncommon: Ordeal of Heliod
    • rare: Soldier of the Pantheon
  • Black (average of 7.2 cards, 3.2 of which are recurring):
    • common: Gray Merchant of Asphodel, Pharika’s Cure, Servant of Tymaret
    • uncommon: Cutthroat Maneuver, Insatiable Harpy, Tormented Hero
    • rare: Whip of Erebos
  • Green (average of 5 cards, 0.5 of which are recurring):
    • common: Nylea’s Disciple, Snake of the Golden Grove, Time to Feed
    • rare: Bow of Nylea, Courser of Kruphix
  • Multicolor (average of 3.3 cards, all of which are recurring):
    • common: Scholar of Athreos (while it doesn’t require black mana to be playable, it does require black mana to be used for lifegain)
    • uncommon: Daxos of Meletis, Horizon Chimera
    • mythic: Chromanticore

Unsurprisingly, white has the most cards with lifegain and the most cards that provide recurring lifegain, followed by black and then green. This means that W/B has the most cards with lifegain, and therefore is most likely to be able to maximize Sunbond. W/B also provides access to Scholar to Athreos, both creatures with lifelink in the set, and if you’re really lucky, Whip of Erebos.

Including Scholar of Athreos, an 8-person BNG/THS/THS draft will have an average of 18.8 white or black cards with lifegain. Hopeful Eidolon, Ordeal of Heliod, Gray Merchant of Asphodel, Pharika’s Cure, Insatiable Harpy, and Whip of Erebos are high picks in most decks running their colors and constitute 5.7 of the 18.8 cards. If you draft a third of these cards and half of the remaining 13.1, you end up with 9.5 cards, which is enough to power Sunbond.

Keep in mind that Sunbond is an uncommon, so an 8-person BNG/THS/THS draft will only have 0.4 copies of the card on average. I don’t recommend taking Sunbond early and trying to draft around it. However, if you’re looking at a weak pack or if you’re already in W/B, you can pick it up and prioritize the cards with lifegain just a little higher.

M14: Reevaluating Sanguine Bond

In my post about the lifegain deck, I had evaluated Sanguine Bond as playable in the right deck. I had a great opportunity to test it out this weekend when I opened Sanguine Bond in pack 1 of 2 consecutive drafts and tried to build around it. I even drafted a late pick Congregate to go with it both times. Unfortunately, I lost in the first round of both drafts. Let’s try to figure out what went wrong, and whether we need to reevaluate Sanguine Bond.

The first draft was just terrible all around. The best cards in the second pack were Predatory Sliver, Manaweft Sliver, and Battle Sliver, with the best W/B card being a Divine Favor, so I took the Predatory Sliver, just in case Slivers ended up being open, and hoped that the Divine Favor would table (it didn’t). I got passed a Pacifism third pick, one of my favorite cards in W/B since it also triggers the cards that care about enchantments. Unfortunately, the person to my right was B/G and decided to switch to B/W after being passed a tenth-pick Celestial Flare. Blue was wide open, but I was trying to make the lifegain deck work, so I only picked up a late Time Ebb and a late Traumatize in the first 2 packs. While reviewing my picks at the end of pack 2, I realized that my deck was quite weak and had few win conditions, so I took the Jace Memory Adept I opened in pack 3, a Jace’s Mindseeker third pick (over Air Servant and Claustrophobia!), a Messenger Drake, a Millstone, and 2 Tome Scours, and passed the Angelic Accord I saw since I knew it was too late to make that deck work. The deck lacked early defense and sufficient playables, and rolled over to Predatory Slivers in 2 games.

The second draft went a little better. I drafted 2 Blightcasters to go with 6 enchantments. Unfortunately, at the end of the draft, my only lifegain was the aforementioned Congregate, a Divine Favor, and 2 Dawnstrike Paladins, and I really didn’t want to play the Dawnstrike Paladins. I did consider playing just the Sanguine Bond/Congregate combo since I had a Diabolic Tutor to fetch the missing half of the combo, but decided I would be very unhappy if I drew only 1 of those 3 cards. I was tempted by the fact the Sanguine Bond triggers the Blightcasters and that Congregate can swing some game, but decided that they weren’t good enough to merit inclusion, so I left them out and focused on building a W/B enchantments deck with a good mana curve. I lost round 1 again, but at least I got to win a game this time.

I still think Sanguine Bond is playable in the right deck, but I think you need to be very committed to making it work if you decide to go down that route. The only common lifegain cards in white and black that are good enough to play on their own merits are Divine Favor, Child of Night, and especially Mark of the Vampire, so you need to draft these cards highly, sometimes over better cards, even before you know whether you will be passed any of the other uncommons/rares/mythics that care about lifegain. Diabolic Tutor also goes up in value in this deck as it allows you to tutor for Sanguine Bond if you don’t draw it, or for Congregate or Corrupt if you do.

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.)