It’s pretty obvious that cards are resources—you use them, spend them, and they give you a benefit. With life, it’s not so obvious. Of all the resources, life is the one that least looks like a resource because it doesn’t look expendable—after all, if you lose all your life, you lose the game, and then nothing else matters.
It’s for this reason that, if you teach someone how to play the game, their immediate reaction is to overvalue life. You tell them that “you lose the game if you hit 0” and they will automatically jump into a “so life is very valuable, I have to defend it” mode—they will chump block at 20 life, for example. Life is the one metric that you adjust as the game goes on, so it’s natural to think that whomever has more life is winning. I remember my mom used to watch coverage and she would always be terrified when I played control decks because I would fall to a very low life total, and then she’d be surprised when I won because from an outside perspective whomever has more life is closer to the goal of the game.
Once people learn how to play the game a little better, they understand that they do not have to chump block on turn 2, and that a creature in play is worth more than the 20th life point. As a general rule, the more advanced you are, the more you see life as a resource to be spent, and not as something to protect.
The key to understand using life as a resource is to know that, as a general rule, your first 19 points of life are completely expendable, and your 20th is the most important thing in the game. I like to equate your last life point to the king in chess—you must do everything in your power to protect it, or you’re going to lose. But the first 19 points are pawns that you do not mind sacrificing for a better position. In the end, it only matters if you win or lose—it doesn’t matter how much you win by. Ending the game at 25 life gives you the same number of match points as ending the game with 1 life, just like winning the game with your king left is the same as winning it with all your pieces.
Using Life to Buy Time
Most of the time, control decks thrive when they are able to develop their game plan, and they can do so at the expense of life. The theory behind this approach is that if the control deck reaches the late game with relative stability, it’s going to win whether it’s at 1 life or 15 life, so it should use those spare 14 points to make sure it actually gets to the late game.
As a general rule, turns in which no one does anything but play a land are good for control decks. If my turn is “land, go” and your turn is “land, go,” then I’m closer to winning the game than I was before because I have more powerful spells and more uses for my mana than you do. This part is pretty intuitive.
The part that is not intuitive is that, a lot of the time, a turn cycle in which I play a land and pass the turn and you play a land, attack me for 2 and pass the turn is still advantageous for the control deck. It might seem like a spot in which nothing is happening and dealing 2 damage is good for you, but in many matchups the turn passing is actually worth more than 2 life!
It’s for this reason that Standstill is so good against inexperienced players. I played with the card when it was in Standard, and a common play pattern would be:
Me: Land, go.
Them: Land, Elf
Me: Land, Standstill
Them: “Well, Paulo is taking 1 damage a turn from the Elf, so if nothing happens I’m going to win this game. He has to break his own Standstill if I do nothing. What a n00b.”
Also them: Attack for 1, pass the turn
The game would go on for several more turns, until eventually I broke the Standstill. My opponent would draw 3 cards, but it wouldn’t matter because at this point in the game the 7 cards I had in my hand were worth more than the 10 cards they had. It also didn’t matter that the Elf attacked me so much and that I was at 12 life instead of 20—I would happily pay 8 life, a Standstill, and 3 cards to progress the game by 8 turns. If you’re a control deck, you’re happy if the game goes to the later stages, and a couple of life points is definitely a price worth paying for that.
Using Life to Control the Board
When you’re playing a reactive deck, it’s common to take damage that you can prevent because you think it’ll put you in a better position in the future. Imagine the following scenario:
Your opponent has two 4/4s in play and a Gideon in hand. You have a Wrath of God and a Counterspell in hand, and 5 lands in play. If you play Wrath of God, your opponent will untap and play Gideon, and you won’t be able to counter it. If you wait one turn, you’ll take 8 damage, but you’ll be able to Wrath away your opponent’s board and play a 6th land to counter their Gideon. In this spot, it’s usually worth taking the damage to make sure that you don’t lose control of the board.
I remember I was playing against Yuuya Watanabe in a GP, with Boros Aggro against a U/B Control deck. On my turn 4, I untapped with a Steppe Lynx. I then played a fetchland, sacrificed that fetchland and another, and attacked for 6. Yuuya took the 6 damage, going to something like 10 life. I passed the turn and, at the end of the turn, he Doom Bladed my creature.
Now why did he do that? He was playing against a very aggressive deck, and if he was going to Doom Blade the creature, shouldn’t he have done it before combat to save 6 life?
The reason he waited was Koth of the Hammer. Koth was my best card against his deck, and if it resolved, he’d have no way to answer it. If he Doom Bladed my Steppe Lynx, then he wouldn’t have mana to Mana Leak the Koth. In this spot, Yuuya thought it was worth 6 life, against an aggro deck no less, just to make sure he didn’t lose control of the board.
Sometimes you don’t fear anything in particular, and you just want to keep the board clear so you can have the initiative. At GP Porto Alegre, I watched eventual winner Victor Silva play a lot of matches of his Temur Tower deck against more aggressive decks (usually Mardu Vehicles). Victor’s list was very standard, with the exception of Kozilek’s Return—whereas most people would opt for the 3 damage sweeper in the form of Radiant Flames, Victor played multiple Kozilek’s Returns with no Eldrazi to bring them back.
As I was watching Victor’s matches, one thing became clear—he was very liberally willing to part with his life total if it meant his opponent wouldn’t untap with a superior board. I believe there was a point in which Victor’s opponent attacked him with a Thraben Inspector, a Toolcraft Exemplar, and a Scrapheap Scrounger, and Victor took 7 with a Kozilek’s Return in hand. Then his opponent played Veteran Motorist post-combat and he finally used it.
Why was Victor willing to take so much damage? Because he valued clearing his opponent’s board. He didn’t think life was going to be the most important resource in that particular game, and he wanted to make sure he could regain the initiative. If he Kozilek’s Returns away his opponent’s board, he takes 7 less damage, but then he has to use his mana and a card to deal with his opponent’s Motorist.
Using Life to Get More Information Before You Make a Choice
As a general rule, you should try to make choices when you have the most amount of information. Sometimes, this includes using life points as a way to prolong the moment you have to choose so that you can make a more informed choice.
Imagine a spot in which your opponent has a Winged Shepherd in Limited, and you have a Final Reward. If they attack you, you have 2 choices: You can Final Reward the Shepherd or not. You don’t know what else you can Final Reward, because nothing else is in play. Now, imagine you don’t Final Reward it and you just take 3 damage. Then, post-combat, they play a Colossapede. Now, you have an extra choice—you can Final Reward the Shepherd, the Colossapede, or nothing.
By waiting, you take 3 damage, but you have a better idea of what the game looks like than you did a moment before—you now know that they aren’t playing some 7-mana mega bomb, for example. You know if racing is more likely, if your opponent can block, how much mana they have untapped, and so on. Basically, you have more information than you did before, so you can make a better choice. You even have an option that you didn’t have until a moment ago, which is to kill the Colossapede. The price for this information is 3 life in the situations where you do choose to kill the Shepherd regardless.
Using Life to Maximize Your Cards
Most of the time, answers aren’t universal—you have certain cards that match up well against some of their cards and vice-versa. If you’re too careful with your life total, you might end up using the wrong answer to deal with the wrong threat. By waiting and simply taking damage, you prolong the game to a point where you can find the correct answer for the card they have.
Imagine it’s the same spot as before, and you know or suspect your opponent has Seraph of the Suns. In a scenario where you have other cards that deal with Shepherd in your deck (such as Electrify or your own 3/3 flyers), then it’s reasonable to use life points to ensure that your answers aren’t mismatched. If you Final Reward the Shepherd immediately, then you don’t take damage, but if they play Seraph you lose the game. If you take 3, 6, or 9 damage and then draw Electrify, you can use that to kill the Shepherd and save your Final Reward for the future Seraph. Of course, you might get to a point where you don’t draw the Electrify or the flyer and you have to Final Reward the Shepherd anyway, which means you took 9 damage for no reason, but it’s often correct to do so on the possibility that you’ll draw the right answer.
One situation where this is very common is when you have a sweeper, and you take damage from a creature for multiple turns because you know it’s going to die to the sweeper at some point. If I have a Wrath of God in my hand that I’m likely to cast turn 4, then that diminishes the likelihood that I will Bolt your 2/2. I will take 4 or even 6 damage, but I’ll keep my Lightning Bolt. Whether the Lightning Bolt is worth the 4 or 6 life depends a lot on the matchup, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
Sometimes, especially if they know you have the sweeper and they are competent players, you can also stop them from playing more creatures by not killing the one they already have. Imagine you’re playing Amonkhet Limited and your opponent knows you have Heaven // Earth in your deck. They attack with their Winged Shepherd, and you have Electrify. If you Electrify it, they’re free to play their other flyers, for example, a Curator of Mysteries. The outcome in the end is that they have a 4/4 flyer. If you do not Electrify it, they might not play the Curator that turn because they’re afraid of Heaven // Earth. You can then either kill it at the end of the turn and untap with an empty board (so you’re trading 3 life for their turn), or you can untap and not kill the Shepherd, at which point the board is still better for you than it would have been in the other scenario.
Those are, of course, just general cases—there are certainly moments where you should prioritize your life total, such as when you’re playing against Burn. For the most part, though, I believe most players don’t use their life total as a resource nearly as much as they should, especially when playing control decks, and it’s something you should strive to do a little bit more.