Do you hear them? Do you hear the cries?
The hills are alive with the sound of Extended.
Countless articles have been done already about the Extended metagame. I think I’ve read most of them, some of them more than once. I don’t LIKE Extended, because it’s staid. It’s predictable. The same archetypes perpetuate; it’s like having the radio stuck on a 1980s station for four years – and having a playlist of 23 songs.
At first, the songs may be fun, inspirational, exciting; they may make you bust a move and push it in ways you never thought possible. But the novelty wears off, and soon you’re staring mindlessly out the window (in my case, that happens without music) with a thin stream of drool cascading down your chin.
Stream of Drool
Permanents you control may not be the target of spells of abilities.
Mirri shook the goo off of her fingers. "That’s it," she said. "We’re going home."
As a result, however, even though I’ve grown sick of Extended, it’s also comfortable in a strange sort of way. Extended has become that girl you date just because neither of you want to go to the prom single. Yep, we’re here – throw on your party dress and get ready to face the crowds.
Sligh (despite the degradation of the name to mean "mono-red," I’ll use it in the contemporary sense, not the traditional)
Oh yeah, and sprinkle some rogue decks in there, including mine, that people will sort of smile at and say, "That’s cute!" I think perhaps that the people who play rogue decks in Extended tournaments sort of share in an inside joke. I know my deck isn’t Tier One. I know it is a bit wacky, and isn’t the optimal way to build a deck around a certain card. But it’s something different, something a little unexpected, and it’s much better than playing Rock-Paper-Scissors until I want to gnaw off my freakin’ hand.
The decks listed above are, I would say, representative of the top decks in the environment. I’m not willing to throw Stompy in there yet until it shows me that it doesn’t die out around turn 7 or 8 if it doesn’t kill you first. "Sligh" has more consistency of spells (um, everything HURTS) and is more of a late-game factor with Scrolls, Hammers, kicked Urza’s Rages, Masticores, etc.
"So, Mike, what exactly is the point of this?"
I’m glad you asked. The point is that at this moment in time, the field is very narrowly defined as far as What Decks To Fear. However, at the same time, any deck can beat these decks. Now, I have built some wonderful decks in my time, and I have built some utter and complete bombs in my time ("Hmm… Maybe ten spells costing five or more mana isn’t the best way to go…") But as I’ve been tweaking my Qualifier deck this season, I’ve been testing frequently against the Extended Decks to Beat.
Know what beats them? Lifegain.
Now let that hang for a second. Lifegain?
Lifegain is being virtually ignored in the Magic environment. Before you rush to disagree, think how many tournament decks, particularly in Extended, that you’ve seen featuring maindeck lifegain. Ok, got them? Okay, now IMMEDIATELY DISQUALIFY any of them that have "Spike Feeder" or "Radiant’s Dragoons" in them.
Any left? If so, let me know.
I’m talking instants and sorceries, people, not recursive graveyard tricks utilizing special effects like Rec-Sur or Oath. I’m not talking the four-card infinite life combination that can get you to eight million life and still lose you the game. I’m talking about your everyday, garden-variety lifegain spells. The types of lifegain everyone throws into a deck, like a Shock, because it’s so darn good. They’re not there. They’re not in use; no one discusses them. Lifegain may as well not even exist in this environment unless it has three forms of trickiness associated with it.
Now, before I get carried away and washed beneath a sea of protests (for everyone so adamantly opposed to such hardcore, controversial truth as this article), let me say that I am well aware THERE IS A REASON that lifegain is not played. In fact, there is more than one reason. And, there may be rookies out there wondering why their Natural Springs don’t really seem to help them win.
Let me take a moment to thank Scott Forster for his invaluable assistance in the scenarios below; though he and I have examined this phenomenon repeatedly for quite awhile, he has a knack for explanation that I often lack, particularly when mathematical scenarios are involved. Plus, Scott must be mentioned in two out of every three articles that Will Rieffer and I write. It’s a rule. (Scott, please let my mother go. Now.)
REASONS WHY LIFEGAIN IS NOT PLAYED
DRAWBACK #1: Lifegain Is Less Advantageous Than Damage.
Giving yourself eight life pales in comparison to dealing three points of damage to your opponent, unless you’re running into some severe trickiness. Since we have a finite game-end scenario of Life=0=Loss, each point of damage represents a higher proportion of the sum necessary to win the game. Would you rather be a turn further away from dying or a turn closer to killing your opponent? In the long run, if you’re staring down a Morphling, life isn’t going to make a lot of difference, but if you can whittle your opponent to Rage range, you’re in business. There is a diminishing effect of lifegain upon the game state as time goes on; meanwhile, the effect of damage increases exponentially. This part is mathematical – I know I tend to tune out mathematical analysis in articles, but bear with me, as it’s very short.
Let’s say that you are currently at six life, and you can have a Bolt or a Salve in hand that for some reason you are targeting on yourself. Your life total is at a fork in the road. If you are Bolted, your life drops to three. If you Salve, your life goes to three.
The AMOUNT of life being added or subtracted is identical in both cases. Three is 50% of your original six life, so you either lose or gain 50%.
However, the actual percentage of change is going to vary with both initial and repeated effects. The static amount, three, is 100% of the new life total of 3 – but it is only 33% of a new life total of 9. Based on this new life total, we can see that the net effect has been much greater in going down than in going up, because it sets up a state of diminishing returns.
If you Salve once more, your life raises from nine to twelve. This time, you are gaining only 33% (the static three- point gain, life total nine), and the diminishing occurs, for three is only 25% of the new total of twelve life. By repeating the effect once, the net effect actually WEAKENS. Do it again – this time you’re gaining that 25% (the static three-point gain, life total twelve), but the net effect is now down to only 20% (three of fifteen life). Extrapolate the math, and watch the percentages dip.
If you are Bolted once more, you’re dead.
Essentially, the Life=0=Loss state of the game acts as a sort of gravity well; as you move further away, the effects of moving further away lessen. As you fall closer toward it, it becomes increasingly more difficult to escape and you have less margin for error.
Example #2 – The Grizzly Bears Example:
Let’s assume that your opponent has a sole 2/2 Grizzly Bear in play. Let’s also assume that you have no way to block or otherwise affect the Bear aside from instants, and that it is a threat to you.
If you Salve, in three turns you will have prevented three damage. In five turns, you’ll still have prevented three damage. In twelve turns? You’ll be dead.
If you Bolt, in one turn you have prevented two damage. In two turns, you’ve prevented four damage. In twelve turns, you’ve prevented twenty-four damage.
These are common scenarios – and ones that are easily understood, if not explained. I think that many of us know this subconsciously, even if we’re not overtly strategizing about the merits of damage vs. lifegain. I think I just have too much time on my hands.
DRAWBACK #2: The Playing Field Is Not Equal.
Despite the fact that damage is inherently more effective, it is cheaper to cast and more prevalent. I did a quick search of cards that offer a straightforward lifegain mechanism. This is an example of Extended-legal cards that one might have to choose from:
Blessed Wine; 1W; Instant; Gain 1 life. Draw a card at the beginning of next turn’s upkeep.
Wandering Stream; 2G; Sorcery; Gain 2 life for each basic land you control.
It’s not all of them, of course. Let’s look at the casting costs, compared to the gains. Only Healing Salve and Wandering Stream are cost-efficient, and you’d have to run a basic-land filled Extended deck to procure the maximum usage out of Wandering Stream. Would you? Doubtful. Do any of these really scream out, "best use of my mana"?
Do I need more examples? Really?
Do you want recursion? Hammer of Bogardan. Do you want alternate casting costs? Thunderclap, Fireblast, Pyrokinesis, Cave-In. Do you want color-hosers? Parch, Urza’s Rage, Kaervek’s Torch. Do you want damage to outdo the mana spent? Flame Jet, Flame Rift. Cheap utility? Arc Lightning.
Do I have a problem with this? Only in the sense that lifegain has traditionally garnered no such blessing from the Magic gods. I mean, Natural Spring will give you eight life, but for one mana more red is Wildfiring or Jokulhaupsing, destroying everything on the board except enchantments.
Yeah, they’re on the same level.
DRAWBACK #3: The Game Conditions Traditionally Dictate That Damage Tends To Accrue, Whereas Lifegain Does Not.
Damage is the primary victory condition, and thus as the game progresses it has the tendency to keep coming; the fear of it is maintained throughout. With the advent of Stroke decks and the odd I’ll-deck-you deck, this stays true in almost any match. Even Stasis puts in Morphling. The threats may be fewer in some decks than others, but you know if it’s coming, and you know you have to be able to stop it.
Conversely, lifegain is momentary and rarely reusable except in extreme combo decks. As long as your opponent isn’t hurting you, why do you need to worry about them gaining a few life here and there? Overall, there are more ways to deal twenty damage in a turn than there are to gain twenty life in a turn, much less doing so repeatedly. I had an infinite life deck once, but it devoted so much to the combo that it didn’t have a kill mechanism. The combo, for the record, was Fecundity–Mortuary–Bottle Gnomes–Aluren. (Yeah, a bit unwieldy, do you think?)
One of my favorite white cards is Spirit Link, because the swing it produces in life over the long-term is enough to affect a game. The same with Armadillo Cloak, though I’m still deciding if it’s tournament-worthy. A white 2/3 creature for 2W with a built in Spirit Link might be nice.
Typically, however, if you gain life, you’re undoubtedly spending mana to offset the inevitable. Meanwhile, your opponent has just won the game three turns quicker by burning you on top of his creature rush.
DRAWBACK #4: Lifegain Is Not A Victory Condition; Dealing Damage Is.
Celestial Convergence was a fascinating idea. I was reminded of other CCGs, such as Jyhad and Lo5R, where there are ways to win that do not involve killing your opponent. Let’s have more prestige! Let’s have more honor! Unfortunately, that’s not viable in Magic -and due to the mythos of the game, it’s hard to imagine Urza standing on a hill going, "I’m very strong! I feel vigorous!" and the Phyrexians nodding and saying, "Damn. Sorry, our bad! We’re going home."
Convergence can be Disenchanted – perhaps if it couldn’t be targeted it’d be more threatening. But think about taking the CONCEPT a bit further. Imagine if you could win a game by reaching forty life.
Now, it wouldn’t turn into the primary method of deckbuilding or winning, but you know that there would be many people who would seek to abuse that. Just as they do direct damage. Just as they do combo. It isn’t imbalanced, and it isn’t ludicrous to seriously consider it as a victory condition. It’s not as if there’s no way to combat it – remember, the spells that drop you to twenty are far more efficient than the ones that can get you to forty. And do NOT tell me that it’d be too dangerous to have the deck go off on turn 4.
By now, any arguments against abuse are ridiculous, because we as a Magic-playing society perpetuate them. So, hey, alternate win condition, how can that be bad?
People might have to metagame against Healing Salve.
Ok, that’s a bit extreme. But consider if there was another set of decks, geared around reaching forty life, to metagame for. And, realize that it would blow the environment wide open and provide a much greater Extended challenge. Diversity in deckbuilding; it would likely be fascinating.
Is it going to happen? No, of course not. But it’s a fun thought.
DRAWBACK #5: Lifegain Does Not Affect Board Positioning.
As we saw in Drawback #1, lifegain isn’t going to destroy a permanent – it isn’t going to eliminate the 2/1 guy that’s been walking over and spanking you each turn. Lifegain targets you, EXCEPT for black lifestealing, which I consider different and reasonably priced because of the swings it produces. Red damage is efficient. Black stealing is efficient. Green and White lifegain isn’t. (Blue? Well, we don’t know what they do, but considering they manipulate spells themselves, it’s perfectly acceptable for them to just Seal-of-Remove themselves from this discussion altogether. Buh-bye.)
When push comes to shove, even if you’re throwing decks together out of commons and playing Carefree Magic, you’d rather have a Zap than a Blessed Wine. Admit it. And that’s even WITH the cantrip thrown in.
Permanents that bestow life are usually ridiculous -and the ones that did exist for awhile, like Zuran Orb, were quickly abused due to their non-mono effects. Why don’t we have cards like this?
When Honey Pot is placed into your graveyard from play, lose 2 life.
Tap: You gain 2 life. Honey Pot may only be used once per turn.
"I can see why you eat so much of this, Pooh, but don’t the bees scare you away?"
Explain to me why Jackal Pups exist, but nothing such as the Honey Pot.
Lifegain has trouble affecting the game because it has no effective permanents. It has nothing that is worth dedicating a deck slot to.
Braidwood Cup; 3 casting cost, tap to gain 1 life.
Well of Life; 4; if at end of turn you have no untapped lands, gain 2 life.
Rejuvenation Chamber; 3; Fading 3, T, Gain 2 life.
Elixir of Vitality; 4; Elixir comes into play tapped. T, Sacrifice Elixir: gain 4 life 8, T, Sacrifice Elixir: Gain 8 life.
I mean, these are freakin’ ridiculous. These cards SUCK. They’re even more inefficient than lifegain non-permanents.
These cards are relegated to the non-played bin before being given a second look, because they’re not going to win you games, they’re not going to be used, and you can tell by looking at them that they’re as ridiculous as something like:
Pinch deals one damage to target creature or player.
"Ow, quit it! Mom!"
More spells like that would place us on an equal playing field. But it’s ridiculous to do so, of course, when you could merely print a Honey Pot and make things interesting. And you can’t tell me that people wouldn’t find the thought of having a couple of those out, netting four life a turn, as fascinating and as worth exploring.
Lifegain isn’t given a chance, and has virtually no effect on a game.
You heard me, dammit. I said, except now. Lifegain finally has the ability to be meaningful in an Extended environment.
My favorite card of Invasion is Urza’s Rage; there’s no secret about that. Through testing, it has come through in the clutch at the most opportune of times. There’s a great sense of glee in scorching someone’s Morphling during your upkeep because you caused them to tap that final blue at the end of their turn to save them from your Parch.
My second favorite card, however, is Heroes’ Reunion.
I’ll wait for you to stop chuckling.
Let’s review the card:
Target player gains 7 life.
Now *that* is lifegain worth utilizing. It’s balanced, because it supercedes the bias given towards damage-dealing spells; it recognizes the fact that gaining life is not as game-critical as causing damage, and is costed and rewarded appropriately. (Now, mind you, my "win at forty life" idea was dreamt up long before this spell arose. Reunion is balanced precisely because that condition does not exist.)
Green and White are not colors that decks have trouble producing. How many times do people throw in both as support colors in Extended? Even CounterSliver has the capability of throwing up a Reunion tour when all of the Slivers come back to the hive and give each other high fives and talk about the various mammals they’ve snacked on lately.
It’s cheap, its effect is enough to justify it being in a deck, and most of all, it gives Trix another thing to worry about. And Pandeburst. And Sligh.
Did you just pull off your combo? Did you just throw four spells at me and burn me out? Here, let me gain seven life at instant speed.
Trix does not like this. Trix does not like when they’re busy forcing through their combo, removing half of their deck from the game, and then realizing they’re going to have to go through their combo at least twice. Throwing four of these babies in your sideboard, or maindecking a couple of them, guarantees a headache for them. Sideboard them in, and you have a great chance of drawing a pair of them in your first twelve or thirteen cards. I’ve been testing it against all variety of decks, and in many games have garnered an extra fourteen life for the cost of four mana, which forces the Solitaire Decks to pay attention to my side of the board.
Because that’s NOT your deck; what it does is provide a reasonable way to buy time to do whatever your deck does best, and against certain dominant decks, it gives you a fighting chance. Reunion is no different than putting in any other sideboard card against specific strategies.
Say that you don’t use white; say that you’re running Stompy, and your only chance is to try and beat down your opponent before he combos or stabilizes.
Well, then, look no further, because there’s a power card to sideboard in against Trix that is just as worrisome.
Target player gains 6 life.
(Not so impressive, yet. Just another crappily costed lifegain spell. Read on.)
If target player controls a swamp, and you control a forest, you may play Refreshing Rain without paying its casting cost.
(There we go.)
Not so good against Pandeburst or Sligh. But against Trix, it’s an option that you normally DO NOT HAVE. Elvish Lyrist, you know, is good. But it’s not going to help you if you can’t destroy the enchantment that turn, or until it’s Donated to you.
No, this isn’t earth-shattering tech per se. But it’s help. Because you HAVE to metagame against those decks. Red burn was prevalent in recent tournaments. Trix is everywhere, because it’s broken and wrong. Though not as immoral as the PandeBurst, "Um, yeah, you can do that? Cute" effect, the antithesis of my existence.
Red decks don’t have the same lifegaining advantages, so they may think this article doesn’t apply to them. I’ve a soft spot for burn, don’t get me wrong – just because I think lifegain’s been short-changed in the past doesn’t mean I hate direct damage. Oh, no, I adore it. What’s the best thing you can do against Trix right now?
Ok, what else?
Get back to me on that, because "Scald" isn’t a viable answer, and you know it.
Why not Bottle Gnomes? They’re cheap, they’re cute, and they provide an equal return on investment. They are never useless – they’re good against white weenie decks because they’re artifacts that can punch through pro-red guys. They can block Ophidians, they can kill Wild Dogs and not suffer more than a scratch on their globes. (Um… let’s not go there.)
Throw four of those in your maindeck and red can survive a Donate in the first game, pre-sideboarding. You don’t have to worry about mainboarding Pyroblasts and having dead cards in your hand. They’re protection against Oath, just like Mogg Fanatics and Ball Lightnings. And, hell, if nothing else, a dumb Trix player will let it through and a smart one will counter it – which will enable you to get something else through that WON’T be countered, and kill them before their lifegain resolves off the stack.
Remember, blue counterspells are finite, and when they start pitching them to Force, that’s advantage.
In conclusion, the Extended environment has become a game of Rock-Scissors-Paper – I’m not the first to use that analogy, nor will I be the last. The environment is static, and what you faced last year you’re going to have to face again. But there IS an option.
I hope that there are more in the future. Gimme a lifegain spell with a reasonable effect that can’t be countered, and the environment changes. If you can print Urza’s Rage, then print:
Renewed Vigor can’t be countered by spells or effects. Target player gains 6 life.
The priests gathered in their havens and prayed, knowing that devastation could never touch their hearts.
No, we still don’t have a card like this:
Target player gains 6 life.
During your upkeep, you may pay 2GGG to return Gaea’s Conduit from your graveyard to your hand.
As the invasion commenced, life persisted in even the most barren fields.
But there is no reason NOT to have these cards.
I really don’t think anyone will complain about the imaginary spells I’ve created. I’m not an R&D expert by any means, and I don’t usually sit around and dream up flavor texts. However, these spells seem balanced to me. One day, Celestial Convergence might truly MEAN something.
The qualifiers are upon us. When examining the metagame, pay attention to the analyses, the experts, the matchups. Play to your strengths. Don’t just take the standard sideboards and run with them, and think that you need cards to deal with every deck scattered throughout instead of just a few cards that can apply to many. When looking at your sideboards and your deck creations, be original; use cards that force your opponent to make a choice, that cause them to react instead of controlling the game. Easier said than done, I realize.
Now, go to it. Chop, chop.
And if you are at a point in your match where you have a couple of mana free, or your opponent has a swamp, and you desperately wish for just six or seven more life, realize the options ARE there – and in the Extended environment, for once, lifegain just might start making a difference.
"Nothing is as ruinous to the character as sitting away one’s time at a show–for it is then, through the medium of entertainment, that vices creep into one with more than the usual ease." –Seneca