Mining The Crystal Quarry: How Big Is That Serra Avatar In The Window?

Okay, now, quick poll – how many of you shudder at the suggestion of lifegain as a deck theme? For good reason, lifegain has been ignored as a winning mechanic. Lifegain usually just keeps you from losing, and it has been said before:”Not losing” is very, very different from winning. But why is lifegain bad… And can you ever make effective use of it?


Okay, now, quick poll – how many of you shuddered or laughed at the suggestion of lifegain as a deck theme? Individual cards may be decent, or may be an added bonus (such as the one on Exalted Angel) – but on the whole, only degenerate, infinite amounts of lifegaining means anything. For good reason, lifegain has been ignored as a winning mechanic. Lifegain usually just keeps you from losing. It has been said before: “Not losing” is very, very different from winning.

Why is lifegain bad? Let’s look at several possibilities, looking at the typical responses the colors would have.

If you are playing Black, you can simply cast Terror or Dark Banishing to deal with creatures. You eliminate the threat simply and succinctly. Additionally, spells like Drain Life and Corrupt provide both damage and lifegain. That damage could make the difference in any game

If you are playing red, you simply cast Lightning Bolt or a similar spell. In a worst-case scenario, you spend a large amount of mana to Fireball or Disintegrate the offending creature. Quite simply, red races. And red does it very well.

Here’s where the line begins to get blurry; in the realm of blue spells, one has to bounce the offending permanent and/or counter the attempt to recast said spell. You’re down up to two spells, but then you’re at least rid of a threat permanently.

Green and white are the marquee weak removal colors. Green’s removal is pathetic, with the majority of its creature damage spells coming for flying creatures (Wing Snare, Hurricane) or dependent on creatures being present (Giant Growth and the like) or temporary (Fog and related spells), none of which are permanent.

White’s selection of creature removal has been anemic at best. Practically every white casual deck I see these days packs four Swords to Plowshares, and all of them are stretched to the limit with the number of targets and threats they need to be able to remove. I’ve seen many a game decided by a turn or two of indecision, where a few combat phases of insignificant damage add up leaving too few solutions to too many problems. Additionally, White has (more traditionally) not had solutions to utility creatures such as Wellwisher or Sparksmith, aside from Wrath of God. Admittedly, white has spells like Vengeance when you’re playing Type 1 or without any sort of restrictions.

And then there’s lifegain. Unlike Disintegrate and other X spells, the threat is not removed by the spell cast, and is free to repeat the damage causing. Spells that offer one-sided advantages in combat have only recently surfaced in the forms of Serene Sunset and Frontline Strategist (the Strategist being one of the best such spells).

Of the weak solutions, lifegain is the worst, because in most cases they don’t deal with cause of the problem to begin with. With the exception of burn spells (admittedly, something combat damage spells like Fog cannot deal with) Lifegain is a strictly worse way of dealing with anything in the game of Magic, compared to anything else.

Consider the classic”Jackal Pup vs. Healing Salve” scenario. Your opponent attacks you with his Jackal Pup. The worst thing to do is to cast the Salve to prevent three damage, since you waste that extra point of damage prevention. The better play would be to cast it for three life, since that way, you negate one and a half attack phases. However, you’re down a card, and your opponent is still applying pressure on your loser butt. That’s the problem with lifegain – it’s a delay. The recent release of Test of Endurance ever so slightly changes that, but it’s a miserable way to try to win.

Much has been said about how lifegain slows down games of Magic. Consider Congregate, a spell that brings moans and groans from any multiplayer group. At most, however, these spells are an annoyance unless a more dangerous threat is on the table. Put this way, there are also tons of games where someone gaining life was ignored until more immediate threats were dealt with. This deck should get nice and even nicely, though I suspect that people who hate combo will pass up this deck, despite the ensuing (personal) hilarity that comes with seeing someone put Transcendence into play.

So here’s the question – what happens when lifegaining is the threat? I give you….

“What The Hell Is That Card?”

The Combo:

4x Martyr’s Tomb

4x Transcendence

4x Seal of Cleansing

The Defenses:

4x Peacekeeper

4x Wrath of God

4x Vindicate

4x Swords to Plowshares

1x Balance

The Search:

4x Academy Rector

1x “Demonic Tutor

1x Enlightened Tutor

The Kill: Choose any two cards from:

2x Test of Endurance

2x Serra Avatar

The Mana:

1x Sol Ring

4x Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author]

4x Caves of Koilos

2x Secluded Steppe

1x Kor Haven

7x Plains

4x Swamp

Yep, this deck is built around the crap rare from Torment known as Transcendence and the crap rare from Judgment called Test of Endurance. The last part of the combo is the expensive-to-pay-for enchantment from Apocalypse – Martyr’s Tomb. This deck is extremely reliant on surprise, since none of the enchantments will cause alarm individually (with the exception of Test of Endurance, since any spell that says”You Win” will raise eyebrows). It’s also sixty-two cards, letting you cycle with the lands, draw some cards, and yet stay ahead of the deck run.

This deck is a small, relatively easy way to introduce the stack to opponents. It will make for a harsh wake up call for some opponents, but isn’t that what you’re looking for? The combo works like this, though you cannot start the combo if you’re at one or less life. You also need a creature to target – any creature – since you’re not going to win any games by creature elimination. This is how it works.

  • Pay two life to prevent one damage to any creature. Make sure that the life payment leaves you above zero if possible (since a Disenchant without being able to respond by activating the tomb again at this point would hurt), and make sure that you’re under sixteen life after making the payment.

  • When you get low enough, two or three life, that’s when you slow down on the life payments. Each time you pay two life, the”gain life” trigger from Transcendence triggers. Let each of these triggers go on the stack one at a time.

  • When you’re at two or less life, let one and only one of the”gain life” triggers resolve. You now have four more life to use to pay Martyr’s Tomb’s activation cost.

  • Repeat this process, each time only letting one of the gain four triggers resolve.

  • For each payment of the Tomb, you get four life, which lets you repeat the payment twice, each of which gives you a four lifegain, which means… Yup, the dreaded phrase”arbitrarily large.”

I want to make a special note about some smart-ass know it all kid who was watching a game I was playing with this deck.”Infinite life? That’s so stupid! An infinity times two Fireball will kill you, and so will Tolarian Academy decks that can make you draw 60,000 cards.” Guess what, kid, no one plays those decks, you weren’t playing those decks, and yes, I trounced your dad rather handily. Fifty damage a turn? Gee, it’s a good thing I’m at 20,000,000,000 life, and your dad only has thirty cards left in his deck. Apologies to the father, who was a great sport and lost graciously – but for pity’s sake, tell your kid to shut the hell up before he gets beaten up by someone less tolerant and who has no qualms about hitting children.

What does one do with an arbitrarily large amount of life, aside from channel it into a potentially-disastrous Hatred or other spell? Yep; Test of Endurance. The downside is if it gets disenchanted. As a result, the best time to go this is at your opponent’s end of turn. Even then, what’s the next alternative?

Enter Serra Avatar. I personally play only one, which leaves me space for a Test. Draw seven, discard it, reshuffle, etc. Few creatures would be a problem – the biggest ones being Withered Wretch, Coffin Purge, and Crypt Keeper. If you’re playing anyone maindecking these cards, then this probably isn’t the best deck for your use, since they’ll more than likely contest your use of the stack.

I’m sorry, that was very derogatory.

All I’m saying is, graveyard removal is hardly the ubiquitous threat that super-fast red burn is. With that, that shouldn’t be an issue. I don’t care how large the game, unless someone else is playing an infinite deck *ahemahemLife/Assault by yours trulyahemahem* then the game is yours, or your opponents will resign in disgust. Fortunately for me, my group is less upset with the combo aspect than the hilarity of someone desperately looking for a Test of Endurance to trade for, and actually playing with it.

The deck offers quite a few ways to find and get said enchantments into play. It offers protection from creature assault, though is slightly lacking in defense against red burn. With twelve creature elimination spells, four ways to keep the problem from occurring at all, and one fixed Maze of Ith (the added mana cost is almost worth it to keep the mana coming), it’s been very rare that a creature rush has spelled the end of me.

Let’s talk about the rares in the deck for a second. The most expensive bits of cardboard in here are easily the dual lands. In worst case, add in two Tainted Fields and two more Swamps, but also consider adding more black cards to take the place of some of the heavier white cards. Consider the possibility of Infest and Massacre to supplement your removal, and Diabolic Intent (for use with Academy Rector) and Diabolic Tutor for even more search. You’ll almost certainly have to give up some defensive spells for the black, in compensation for mana stability.

Oh well, back to the rest of the deck. You play this deck, and you cannot cannot cannot deny that this is a vile, vile, vile, evil combo deck. Play this deck at your own risk. I play it with the closest friends only, and warning everyone else. With one exception. I usually leave this deck in the deckbox, since, after all, I despise combo decks myself. However, being built around such comic cards usually earns some degree of forgiveness. Don’t play it too often.

What can one do with infinite life? For one, make an infinitely-large Soul Drinker, or perhaps play an arbitrarily large Hatred. Or, in this case, simply ensure that you will have enough life to trigger Test of Endurance for the win. Alternatively, deck your opponents by sitting back, holding seven, and waiting until you draw the Serra Avatar. If you chose to have two, congratulations. You can eventually wear away at most defenses with an infinitely large Serra Avatar. Two things can stop you: Removing it from the game permanently, and an unkillable chump blocker. Something like say, the newly-released Dawn Elemental. You can sit back. Literally. Take the swings.* Your opponents will deck themselves long before you run out of life, especially if you can manage to keep Test of Endurance out, or more painfully, keep the Serra Avatar recursion going. Disenchants and a select few cards will totally screw you, like Scour, Lobotomy, Jester’s Cap, and other”remove from game” cards. A squeezed-in Death Wish or Golden Wish would do you well in these situations, but give me some credit – I’m only willing to squeeze in so many crap rares.**

The bottom line is this – you will see more Disenchants, so while Test of Endurance is a more certain win condition, it is also a little more fragile than the Avatar plan. The Avatar plan is more difficult to set up, and if anyone is running any sort of discard, then you’re in trouble. One card away from winning, my opponent cast a Balance against me and forced me to lose a few cards out of my hand, and thus, lose. The key is to see what everyone’s running in your area. Plan carefully.

Other than those little problems, infinite life is suddenly a game winner, and no longer just a way to not lose. What makes that a solution, even over something like a Spirit Linked Serra Avatar, something that gains you disgusting amounts of life?

Infinite life means you can’t lose – at least to damage. It’s not just slowing the game down (okay, it is – in this case, you’re going to play until your opponents concede), it makes it practically impossible for you to lose. That’s a far cry from stalling an attack phase.

All that in mind, lifegain is a bad thing, but tweaked the right way, lifegain buys time. But the rule still stands – if you’re going to buy something, buy in bulk. You get a better value that way. If you must play with lifegaining cards, consider the following:

What’s the line between good and bad with lifegain? Good lifegain usually gets you an obese amount of life for as little mana as well. Consider the”worst” best lifegainer in my opinion: Heroes’ Reunion. For two colored mana, you get seven life. Now, seven life is a fairly decent amount – it’s 35% of your original total. It’s a fabulous way to deal with something along the lines of Searing Flesh. But, in the end, it’s still bad, because life does not affect the board position at all. Small”player only” burn spells share this problem. Fog-type spells can prevent much more than that in a single step.

Renewed Faith, another lifegainer, is worse in strict casting cost efficiency to Heroes’ Reunion, at 2W compared to GW. Like Heroes’ Reunion, six life is a significant chunk – but it truly shines in that it can be used alternately. Two life when cycled still effectively nullifies a Shock or half a Firebolt, and digs you deeper into your deck. Never mind its synergy with Astral Slide, Lightning Rift, and other cycling enchantments.

Spirit Link will spare you the early beatings early on by enchanting it on an opposing creature, or putting it on your own (preferably a large one) to recoup your losses. Obviously, it’s better if built in to the creature (such as Doubtless One or the new Princess of the White Skies, Exalted Angel) or preferably a large creature.

What makes the three spells above better than something like, say, Vitalizing Cascade or Stream of Life, which could potentially gain you huge amounts of life? Much like burn spells, creature mana-to-power ratios and other curve-type theory, the best lifegain spells all provide a good amount of life compared to the mana used. Another factor involves flexibility. Spirit Link can practically negate creatures in some cases, and creatures like Doubtless One and Exalted Angel certainly affect the board, either eliminating creatures or severely wounding opponents while keeping you out of the danger zone.

Stream of Life will never be anything because of the sheer amount of mana it takes to power. Wizards has been steadily releasing better and better lifegain cards, but lifegain is a weak mechanic. Infinite life, however, is a resource you can use. The goal in Magic is to win. If your opponent can’t kill you, then your opponent can’t win. That is a very different statement than”It’ll take a couple of more turns before my opponent can kill me.”

On a last note, Naturalize is in 8th Edition; this does not bode well for White. Granted, cards with identical functions have been printed before (see Hill Giant and Giant Octopus) White seems to be getting weaker. And weaker. Demystify? What the hell is this crap? An inferior version of Wax / Wane and an even weaker choice for Disenchant. What the heck is going on???

Here’s to hoping your opponents will shudder the next time you play a life-gaining spell.

John Liu

“Now I remember why I don’t play monogreen” — a fellow Magic Gamer, facing off against this deck with a Peacekeeper on the table.

* – Remember, don’t take the swing if it’s coming from Phage the Untouchable. This is Captain Obvious, signing off.

** Okay, fine. False Cure can also spell the end, and it works like this: With all the lifegain triggers on the stack, wait for the Disenchant trigger to resolve, and the Transcendence is put into the graveyard. This is when you tap for BB, and win with an even worse rare, and an even bigger reason to avoid playing lifegain. If someone does this without the use of Wishes or sideboarding, please call me so I can play with your group.