We have a large groundwork of Magic theory. Writers use terms like tempo, card advantage, or velocity in an article with the expectation that readers will know what they’re talking about, and that’s awesome.
One resource that hasn’t been covered as much is the life total. People say “life is a resource” a lot, and yet it has far fewer articles devoted to it than say, mana base development, or even gimmicks like bluffs and mind games. This is largely because life is such a tricky idea to conceptualize. Beginners will often chump in Limited while they’re still at a high life total, not realizing that the creature they have in play is worth more than a few life points, and they will probably get the chance to chump next turn as well.
Players put themselves dead on board occasionally, but life total mismanagement starts much earlier, and I can’t imagine the number of games that slip through our fingers because we made the wrong block, killed the wrong threat, or even did the right things but at the wrong times.
Paying life for various effects is important because it teaches how valuable that effect is. Just as playing with [card]Cabal Therapy[/card] will make you better at reading your opponent’s hand, playing with life loss effects will give you a greater appreciation for life as a resource.
Part I: Life for Cards
When I think of life as a resource, [card]Dark Confidant[/card], [card]Necropotence[/card], [card]Griselbrand[/card], and [card]Phyrexian Arena[/card] come to mind.
I’ve always loved drawing extra cards. Heck, I sleeved up a set of [card]Promise of Power[/card] for the first Magic tournament I ever played in. Now, the most direct way I churn life into card advantage is with [card]Sylvan Library[/card]. While in some matchups I’ll pay life sparingly, protecting my total, against control or combo I’ll often sink as much life as possible, regardless of what’s on top of my deck. If I’m drawing blanks, so be it. I’ll have dug closer to gas, and have more cards in hand to put back with [card]Brainstorm[/card] later. The only time this doesn’t make sense is when the matchup is grindy, and my draw is reactive enough that I might run out of life but still want options with Sylvan before the game is over. As such, I’m more willing to pay life when I have pressure on the board.
[card]Dark Confidant[/card] embodies the perfect mix of danger, pressure, and card draw. Any deck that runs it will have an average converted mana cost of two or less, and the average flip is break-even or better when attacking for 2. Decks with no other creatures, like Storm, will frequently bring some in from the board. Every spell drawn adds to the storm count, and every attack reduces the size of a lethal [card]Tendrils of Agony[/card].
Of course, trading life for cards goes deeper than simply playing a spell that lets you pay x life to draw y cards, and often in-game decisions will trade life points for a material advantage. Taking a few hits before casting your sweeper to eat more of your opponent’s threats, for example.
Perhaps you don’t even gain raw card advantage, but rather card quality out of the deal. In Momir, it’s common for one player to random out a flyer and the other a ground-pounder. If I’m on the draw and my opponent makes a 4/3 while I get a 3/3 flyer, I’m not trading with his guy because I know that eventually I’ll be able to chump, trade, or wall off his guy while mine has a better chance of going the distance. I’m paying that 4 life, possibly more, in order to develop a superior position that I can hopefully convert into a win.
Underrated: Currently, I think the most underrated card that exchanges life for cards is [card]Skeletal Scrying[/card]. This bad boy used to be a Vintage mainstay and actually has a lot of potential in Legacy. One hindrance is that a lot of the black decks that have mana guys also have cascade spells, and many of the black and blue decks want to up the blue count for Force. Still, this card makes a backbreaking one-of in Junk midrange or BUG control. On paper it looks like [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] would be a concern, but graveyards fill up fast in Legacy and Deathrite starts eating spells and creatures at some point, leaving the ‘yards stuffed with fetches.
Part II: Life for Tempo
Every time you shock yourself for a land drop, you’re paying for tempo.
I remember a match of Modern in which I shocked myself to leave up four mana. I lost that game, but my opponent played around [card]Cryptic Command[/card] for the rest of the match. While I had no concrete physical resource conversion, like life for cards, I had nevertheless hindered my opponent’s development at the low cost of 2 life.
Another way we pay life for tempo is when we simply take damage from a small, low-cost creature in order to save our impermanent removal for a higher cost threat. This could be saving [card]Azorius Charm[/card] for [card]Thundermaw Hellkite[/card] in Standard or [card]Unsummon[/card] for [card]Craw Wurm[/card] in Limited. When you point these spells at the top of the curve, you Time Walk the opponent, now forced to repeat the same turn.
When you burn these spells on random creatures in the early game, they can often be replayed alongside another cheap threat. If anyone can think of a good example of this in Legacy, I would love to hear it! While [card]Submerge[/card] is one of the best pseudo-removal spells of all time, most of the time it targets [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] or [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card] because it’s the only spell that can deal with them. Sometimes, hitting a one-drop like [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] or especially [card]Arbor Elf[/card] has a larger impact on tempo.
Perhaps the most heavy-handed example of a card that exchanges life for tempo is [card]Snuff Out[/card]. For the fair cost of 4 life you can [card]Doom Blade[/card] a creature for free. The card has fallen off lately, what with [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] taking up much of the quality removal slots for BUG decks, but even when it was played, I rarely saw more than one in a list because you didn’t want to draw more than that.
[card]Force of Will[/card] also translates life into tempo, but the card disadvantage and tempo gained are so huge by comparison that the single life is something of a non-issue. There are certain cases where your life gets so low, say in the 2-3 range, and you have to actually budget out whether you’re going to save that life point for a Force or a fetch, but they’re rare.
Of course, your life total is a more dynamic resource than simply when cards say you pay X life for Y effect. The more life you have, the more time you can usually buy, unless the opponent is killing you all at once.
Underrated: When Cubing, [card]Mana Crypt[/card] is one of those cards that I’m always surprised to see still in the pack. I’m shocked when it’s not run in Vintage, too. I’ve never won a coin flip in my life and it’s still good enough. How can you not win the game fast enough with a free [card]Sol Ring[/card]? Also, [card]Repeal[/card]ing Crypt to generate storm and mana is one of the most satisfying plays out there.
Part III: Life for Options
This is a more nebulous idea than the other two, but an important one to understand if you want to advance as a player.
In Standard, we might eat an attack from our opponent’s 2/2 instead of ambushing it with [card]Restoration Angel[/card], so that we can leave up [card]Dissipate[/card] for a scarier threat in the second main phase.
In Modern, we pay a ton of life so that we can play more complex mana bases and have the most powerful tools at our disposal.
In Limited, we take hits from weaker creatures time and time again to make sure that we don’t burn our removal spell on the wrong thing.
In Legacy, we might avoid trading off [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card]s because we want the option of equipping with [card]Batterskull[/card] if our Germ dies.
The more options we have, the easier it is to convert resources, and the more likely we are to execute a winning strategy. The most beautiful games happen when one player realizes the importance of his options and holds onto them as long as possible, dancing a narrow, dangerous path with lots of precise moves to win.
I might be one of the few players out there that overvalues versatility in comparison to life. After all, I was the last person I know of to kill himself with [card]Spoils of the Vault[/card] on camera. Part of this might be my confidence that, given options, I’ll be able to steer the game into a winning position. If [card]Preordain[/card] had a cost of 2 life tacked on, I would gladly run four in Standard or Modern.
I love lands like [card]Cephalid Coliseum[c/ard] and [card]Tomb of Urami[/card]. In return for the life loss, they offer a special ability. With this versatility, they create more decisions to make in-game, and the life loss is a calculated risk we have to consider in deckbuilding.
Most of the calculating for these lands goes on before we ever sit down for a match. If you play four of such a card, you’re going to draw multiples early in some games. In a midrange-y green deck, that might be too much pain. In a combo deck that wants to win on turn two, that might not matter at all.
Underrated: [card]Horizon Canopy[/card] wins my vote for most underplayed card in Modern, and it should see play in decks that only need one of the two colors. This card increases velocity and reduces flood at the cost of a land slot! I’ve run it in everything from UWR to Affinity and have never been upset to draw it. The best time for Horizon is when you need a fraction of a land. Say 23 and a half is the correct number for your curve, but most lands are wholly lands, so you turn to Horizon Canopy.
I’m perplexed that [card]City of Brass[/card] doesn’t see play in a format with both [card]Lightning Helix[/card] and [card]Reflecting Pool[/card]. After all, plenty of decks are bolting themselves to 14 and don’t want to go past turn five or so anyway.
Problem A: Game three of the RUG Mirror. After a flurry of [card]Wasteland[/card]s, you both have two fetches in play, and your opponent has a [card]Nimble Mongoose[/card] with four cards in his graveyard. Your hand is [card]Lightning Bolt[/card], [card]Lightning Bolt[/card], [card]Daze[/card], [card]Spell Pierce[/card], [card]Tarmogoyf[/card], [card]Brainstorm[/card], while your opponent has five unknowns. Your life total is 18. What’s the play?
Answer: If Nimble Mongoose doesn’t have threshold yet, your opponent has a reactive hand. The only way that Goose is going to grow is if you crack fetches and cast spells into his disruption. For now, drawing cards gives a chance to make more land drops. It’ll reduce the effectiveness of your [card]Daze[/card], but he runs [card]Daze[/card] too, and taking the chance of losing a battle over [card]Stifle[/card] while growing his threat is unacceptable.
I would happily play draw-go until the Goose whittled me down to 13-ish life (accounting for losing a counter war, taking another hit, and eating some burn), or I hit at least one more land drop with this hand.
Problem B: You’re playing Esper Blade and your hand is [card]Force of Will[/card], [card]Spell Pierce[/card], and [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card] with Island, Swamp, and Tundra in play. Your opponent has triple Mountain and one card in hand. He rips [card]Goblin Guide[/card] and attacks for 2, revealing a fetch off of the trigger.
How low does your life total have to be to [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card] the [card]Goblin Guide[/card]?
Answer: I saw a version of this problem with an onboard [card]Leyline of Sanctity[/card] instead of the countermagic in hand, and the Stoneblade player went as low as 5 before using his removal spell (playing around [card]Price of Progress[/card], I think). Here, the [card]Force of Will[/card] makes me feel comfortable and the Guide triggers act as insurance against flooding out. The sooner I draw [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card] for [card]Batterskull[/card], the sooner I can put the game away. However, if his last card is a burn spell, it could combine with a few solid draws on his part to finish me through the Force if I’m not careful.
The easiest way to calculate your risk is to count up. I want to be able to use my [card]Force of Will[/card] on a [card]Sulfuric Vortex[/card] (1) crack my fetch if I draw Jace (1) and still survive through [card]Fireblast[/card] + [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] (7). That combines to 9, meaning I want to preserve at least 10 life. The rest can be allocated to Guide triggers, which can in turn prevent me from flooding. This is of course the low end, not accounting for topdecked fetches and Forces, and I’m likely to pull the trigger on my removal spell at around 14. If Guide eventually reveals my fourth land, I want to send it farming then, on my opponent’s turn, so I can cast Jace if I draw it.
Keep in mind that Burn has a much higher spell-to-land density than most decks. If you’re unsure of your calculations, err on the side of protecting your life total.
Problem C: You’re playing in a core set Sealed Grand Prix, and you cobble together a mediocre BW deck with some discard and removal. Your awesome boss (LSV) takes a look at your pool and laughs at the [card]Demon of Death’s Gate[/card], but agrees you don’t have many options.
After scraping together a few wins, you get paired against Yuuya Watanabe with UW flyers. In the middle of game three your hand is [card]Siege Mastodon[/card], [card]Serra Angel[/card], [card]Solemn Offering[/card], and [card]Assassinate[/card] with three Swamps and a Plains in play.
Yuuya is hellbent with a single [card]Assault Griffin[/card] beating you down. At what life do you have to be to [card]Assassinate[/card] the Griffin?
Answer: It doesn’t matter, as you immediately die to a topdecked [card]Frost Titan[/card]. You grind out the rest of the day, eventually losing to Brad Nelson and then Saito to miss Day Two. After reflecting on your decision to fly to Portland for a Limited GP, you book your next trip to tour a cyanide factory.
This problem resembles the [card]Goblin Guide[/card] one, but you’re taking damage for different reasons. You don’t want to Assassinate the Griffin from 17 life, as you could topdeck a Plains at any point and have [card]Serra Angel[/card] to brick his flyer. You also don’t want to wait until you’re at 3 life, as he could topdeck a second [card]Assault Griffin[/card] or a [card]Pacifism[/card] for your Angel to put you away.
Around 9 life or when he plays a second threat is when I want to pull the trigger, here. If I wait until after that, a stream of threats off the top of his deck might bury me, killing me with good spells stuck in hand. If I burn it before that, I’ll be missing an answer if he draws a bomb that’s large enough to attack through a [card]Serra Angel[/card].