Cube Design – Subtheme: Lifegain (Part One)

Turn 5. You tap five lands and drop [ccProd]Archangel of Thune[/ccProd] onto the battlefield. A wry smile creeps across your face.

“Wanna race?”

[ccProd]Zuran Orb[/ccProd] hits the table. Five lands make their way to the graveyard. [ccProd]Flagstones of Trokair[/ccProd] triggers on the way out, and you sacrifice a sixth land. A half-dozen +1/+1 counters now adorn each of your creatures.

[ccProd]Ajani’s Pridemate[/ccProd] triggers doubly, from both the Orb and the Archangel. You turn the now Eldrazi-sized Cat Soldier sideways and send him into the red zone.

“Game 2?”

The Overview

Today we’re exploring archetypal support centered around one of Magic’s historically weaker mechanics: life gain!

[draft]Ancestral Recall
Dark Ritual
Lightning Bolt
Giant Growth
Healing Salve[/draft]

One of these things is not like the other.

Hang around an FNM, kitchen table or Duels of the Planeswalkers game long enough and you’ll inevitably witness a player learn that pure life gain doesn’t win games, it merely stalls them. Wizards has printed precious few ways to convert life gain into a victory condition, and even fewer that are viable at a Cube power level.

Mostly, we’re looking at the following:

[draft]Ajani’s Pridemate
Archangel of Thune[/draft]

Archetype design is a deep topic, so we’re breaking the topic into two articles: today we’ll consider the theory behind theme and subtheme design, and explore the core of the life gain archetype. Next article we’ll explore the various support colors, and some of the zanier interactions, combos and builds that life gain has to offer.

During my last major Cube overhaul, I introduced layered mechanics like Zombies, sacrifice effects, and [ccProd]Birthing Pod[/ccProd]. In total, nearly 100 cards swapped in and out of my Cube, and the players went rampant mixing and matching elements to great effect: decks that hoarded fetchlands and used [ccProd]Furnace Celebration[/ccProd] as board control, [ccProd]Birthing Pod[/ccProd] decks that stole opposing creatures and sacrificed them for value, Dimir Zombie decks that used [ccProd]Vedalken Shackles[/ccProd] as a repeated source of protein for the ever-hungry [ccProd]Carrion Feeder[/ccProd].

We adhered to the Poison Principle via sheer volume: effects like sacrificing permanents for value were rendered less narrow by virtue of the density of profitable interactions within our environment. The sacrifice update worked thanks to a web of overlapping and interlocking support.

For life gain, our options are considerably more constrained. Playable cards that reward drafters for gaining life only exist in white. Whereas the sacrifice update became a major theme of my Cube, the inherent limitations of life gain relegate it to subtheme scope.

Broadly speaking, when designing a subtheme, look to use the following guidelines:

1) Keep the narrow archetype support compact.

It’s perfectly fine to run archetype anchors that only support a given strategy, but you need to keep their numbers in check. Otherwise you run into the following twofold problem: other drafters will have their packs filled with cards that are useless to them, and archetypes across your Cube become more rigid.

A classic example is the Storm archetype from early MTGO Cube iterations. The cards that enabled Storm were mostly useless to other drafters. The more extremely narrow cards you run, the less room drafters have to maneuver, and the more similar decks look from draft to draft.

With respect to life gain, that means we’re not going to want to run too many cards like [ccProd]Soul Warden[/ccProd] that are useless outside of a dedicated life gain deck.

2) Maximize your density of incidental and overlapping support.

We look to fill our environment with cards that support the subtheme while still providing value on the basis of their raw card power or utility to other archetypes. Depending on the subtheme in question, doing so may require extensive singleton breaking.

For our purposes, we look to double-down on a card like [ccProd]Kitchen Finks[/ccProd], which supports the trifecta of life gain, [ccProd]Birthing Pod[/ccProd] and sacrifice decks, while still happily slotting into the 3-drop slot of other decks.

These cards are the glue of your environment, and it cannot be understated how important they are to drafting dynamics. Flexible and multi-purpose cards enable players to maneuver into and out of strategies as the draft progresses, adjusting to whatever signals come their way.

Last draft, when no players had committed to a dedicated life gain deck, a drafter picked up a Pack 1, pick 15 [ccProd]Ajani’s Pridemate[/ccProd] and didn’t think much of it. During deckbuilding, he noticed that his Junk midrange deck was filled with incidental life gain effects, and his Pridemate grew to monstrous proportions on the backs of assorted [ccProd]Deathrite Shaman[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Scavenging Ooze[/ccProd] activations, and [ccProd]Obstinate Baloth[/ccProd] triggers.

On the flipside, filling the environment with high-quality incidental support means that even your most dedicated life gain decks can function without their primary incentive cards. The deck still functions even if the pilot never sees one of their marquee Pridemates.

As you’ve surely noticed, incidental support for a life gain strategy means filling your environment with, well, incidental life gain. It’s cliché for Cube writers to implore readers to properly support aggro, but to be clear: these changes will affect the balance of power. If aggressive decks are already struggling in your environment, this subtheme may not be appropriate. My Cube is perhaps the most heavily aggro-skewed on the market, and even with these changes attacking decks are finding their way into draft finals.

3) Paint with all the colors of the wind.

One of the pitfalls many Cube designers fall into when generating archetypal support is thinking too rigidly in terms of color combinations, e.g. “green-black is my graveyard color pair.”

Whenever possible, I try to find ways to stretch the claws of any archetype into all five colors. Not all of them will be equally represented, of course, but it’s important to let your players feel they have multiple looks and aren’t simply tossing together a deck that has been pre-made by the designer. Not only does this add replayability and depth, but it makes drafting more rewarding for the players.

After two weeks of strong showings by Esper and Jund Zombie decks, I witnessed my drafters debate which color combinations offered the ideal Zombie support, and fail to reach a consensus.

Similarly, the number of viable [ccProd]Birthing Pod[/ccProd] color combinations I’ve seen is pushing double digits, and I’ve even heard reports of other Cube owners pulling off monstrosities like a nearly mono-black Pod deck that chains from [ccProd]Bloodghast[/ccProd] to [ccProd]Geralf’s Messenger[/ccProd] to [ccProd]Skinrender[/ccProd] to a lethal [ccProd]Gray Merchant of Asphodel[/ccProd].

The Core (White)

[draft]Ajani’s Pridemate
Ajani’s Pridemate
Ajani’s Pridemate[/draft]

[ccProd]Ajani’s Pridemate[/ccProd] is the archetype’s primary incentive card. Its base stats are underwhelming, but even a single trigger will get you your mana’s worth, considering 3/2s for 2 like [ccProd]Gore-House Chainwalker[/ccProd] are perfectly cubable. We’re forgoing cards like [ccProd]Serra Ascendant[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Ageless Entity[/ccProd], so the focus of our design is on maximizing triggers, not raw life gain.

Note that as the density of our incidental life gain increases, the less mechanically isolated Pridemate becomes. Although Pridemate appears to be a fairly simple beater, sequencing with Pridemate in your deck can become quite skill testing. I’ve seen players wrestle with lines that use their mana most efficiently or gaining life more quickly. Do you power out a 3-drop or put the squeeze on with a turn 3 [ccProd]Gerrard’s Verdict[/ccProd]. Do they dare to discard all spells instead of lands?

Toss in cards like [ccProd]Deathrite Shaman[/ccProd] and the decision trees quickly explode in complexity.

[draft]Zuran Orb[/draft]

Although the possibility exists for [ccProd]Zuran Orb[/ccProd] to be used in conjunction with spells like [ccProd]Fastbond[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Crucible of Worlds[/ccProd] (more on that next article), [ccProd]Zuran Orb[/ccProd]’s primarily serves as the most exciting card the life gain deck has to offer.

Playing this card alongside [ccProd]Ajani’s Pridemate[/ccProd] is an exercise in temptation and greed that is unprecedented in Cubing. Do you go all-in on an early Titan-sized kitty? If you play Pridemates on turns 2 and 3, do you sacrifice all your lands and hope for the best? How many lands are you willing to sacrifice to push past your opponent’s defender? To escape a burn spell? Do you hold out for the possibility of top-decking [ccProd]Archangel of Thune[/ccProd]?

No card has made me smile so much, even when it backfires. One game involved my opponent setting a trap for me to make a massive Pridemate, only for him to unveil a [ccProd]Control Magic[/ccProd] the following turn.

[draft]Archangel of Thune[/draft]

Perhaps the most regrettable part of this card’s design is that it is so strong that it doesn’t necessarily support the life gain theme, as other players will jam it as a finisher. I swapped out [ccProd]Baneslayer Angel[/ccProd] for Archangel, and while the new Angel might not be as powerful, it’s certainly more interesting. Whenever I can exchange a raw-power finisher for a synergistic one, I’m happy to make the switch.

[draft]Soul Warden[/draft]

There was some consideration given to running [ccProd]Essence Warden[/ccProd] instead, but this effect is already narrow enough that no deck other than a dedicated life gain deck is interested. No need to make it narrower by moving it out of life gain’s primary color.

[draft]Path of Bravery[/draft]

This anthem is admittedly on the weaker side, but when you’re pushing a theme you have to take what you can. Recently it featured in a spicy Esper token control build, and, when combined with the likes of [ccProd]Sorin, Lord of Innistrad[/ccProd], cards like [ccProd]Lingering Souls[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Bitterblossom[/ccProd] can quickly spiral out of control.

[ccProd]Path of Bravery[/ccProd] also rewards careful early-game sequencing with fetchlands and shocklands, as a point of damage can make all the difference.

[draft]Soldier of the Pantheon
Soldier of the Pantheon[/draft]

These don’t trigger often, but every bit helps. And unless my drafters read this article, they aren’t going to be missing [ccProd]Isamaru[/ccProd] any time soon.

[draft]Solemn Offering[/draft]

The must-answer artifacts and enchantments generally aren’t online in the opening turns anyways, so slotting this in for [ccProd]Disenchant[/ccProd] was relatively painless.

[draft]Swift Justice[/draft]

Combat tricks! Designers have long been looking for ways to spice-up the combat step, and this unassuming Return to Ravnica common has been surprisingly effective. Note that you can, on occasion, set up a total blowout. First strike and lifelink means that your Archangels, Pridemates and Paths of Bravery will trigger before regular combat damage, potentially netting you unexpected 2-for-1s.

[draft]Aven Riftwatcher[/draft]

The other alternative here was [ccProd]Fiendslayer Paladin[/ccProd]. Riftwatcher serves as a poor-man’s [ccProd]Kitchen Finks[/ccProd] in the life-starved [ccProd]Birthing Pod[/ccProd] decks, as well as providing some interaction with the environment’s assorted sacrifice effects.

[draft]Ajani Goldmane[/draft]

I had been running Babyjani, but it’s time for the original to return. Who are we kidding, you’ll still mostly just activate the -1, but sometimes it’ll be you, Ajani, his Pridemate, and no threat of (strong) retaliation, opening the door for a +1. One can hope, right?

White cards that didn’t make it:

My Cube is a tight 360 cards, but, space permitting, you can always dip deeper into the tank for effects like [ccProd]Recumbant Bliss[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Syndic of Tithes[/ccProd].

Next Time!

Join us next time as we go deep into the tank with potential infinite combos, explore lifegain support in the other colors (and lands!), and discuss lifegain as a resource and various counter-strategies!

Thanks for reading!

Jason’s Cube Discussion Site – http://riptidelab.com/forum/

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