Life gain – a force so powerful that the foundations of Commander are built with it in mind. While life gain is often dismissed in 1v1 formats (at least when it fails to go infinite), it finds a fantastic home in Commander, where it exists at a tenuous tipping point – the ease of gaining countably large to arbitrarily large amounts of life necessitates the existence of the commander damage rule, which keeps combat relevant. Really, without life gain, where would we be? Today, I’ll go over how to build a life gain Commander deck, highlighting some key cards, showing off some synergies, suggesting the occasional subtheme and examining some commander choices.
It often seems like there are two discrete ways to build a life gain deck. But what are those? Well, like the labels on a voice changer toy your grandma might have regretted giving you in your childhood, the more ubiquitous life gain commanders are pretty clear about their general functions as long as you take a moment to read them. On a basic level, the two categories are Gain Life Often and Gain Lots Of Life, though the line between the two can be somewhat blurry, and effects aimed more toward one strategy can still end up quite powerful in the other. In truth, it’s totally fine to take a more blended approach as well! At the end of this article, I’ll present you with three decklists – one focused on frequency, one on quantity, and one oddball, though all have a blended approach generally.
Some commanders want you to gain life as often as possible. How much should you gain? Well, at least one, but don’t expend too much effort doing more than just crossing that life gain threshold as much as possible. With Dina, Soul Steeper (or someone similar) around, what matters most is piling up the triggers.
Most of the commanders incentivizing this behavior exist somewhere in Abzan. That said, Oloro, Ageless Ascetic does exist, and while blue doesn’t really come to mind as a life gain-focused color, it at least contributes some powerful preventative options to the Oloro decks as well as some surprising all-star cards. Oloro is the most popular life gain commander, probably due to the power of the life gain ability that triggers even from the command zone.
Let’s take a quick sideline and talk about Oloro – while I won’t be building around him specifically, I feel like I should mention the incentives blue provides other than Oloro himself. Other than blue’s powerful suite of card draw and countermagic, here are some of the reasons to get a little blue into your life gain deck:
“Whenever you gain life, draw a card.” On a 3/5 flying, double-striking lifelinker, that’s a serious threat. In a deck where you’re gaining life in your upkeep without even having to do anything, it’s an absolute powerhouse. Throw in a few easy ways to gain life on demand like Pristine Talisman, and you’re in business.
With so many sweet artifacts and enchantments involved in these builds, cards like Mirrormade, Clever Impersonator and similar copy effects that cover those types are valuable to help press the life gain advantage.
Double blue might be a tough ask in some lists, but the fun of tapping out for a huge Sphinx’s Revelation might be worth the strain on your mana.
Overall, while adding blue is a little bit of a quality of life improvement, most Oloro decks are less Esper and more Damp Orzhov.
Now that we’re done with that detour, let’s return to focusing mostly on the Abzan space, this time with commander choices that will incentivize you to gain lots of life overall.
These aren’t the only options, but they’re some of the most popular. Lathiel, the Bounteous Dawn is probably the strongest of the bunch, so if you’re looking to focus on quantity over frequency, I’d suggest picking up a copy of this most majestic Unicorn.
Some life gain commanders don’t focus entirely on gaining life – in particular, I find that some of the most interesting options give us ways to spend life!
Let’s take a look at some of the cards in the Abzan space that play into the life gain theme, starting, of course, with the cards that accomplish the gaining!
The “Soul Sisters” approach is alive and well in Commander! There are more cards like this, but these are at the top of the heap. They’re cheap and easy to trigger! Suture Priest and Daxos only provide life when things happen with your creatures, whereas the one-drops are more universal and, largely, preferable overall.
While creatures die less often than they enter the battlefield, it can certainly pay to get equity on both sides of the creature transaction.
Of course, there’s the traditional suite of “Aristocrats”-style cards that both enable life gain synergies and pay you off by hurting opponents. If people start targeting you in a serious way when these enter the battlefield, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
While we can’t (usually) control our opponents, sometimes it pays to have triggers that happen when they do things. After all, you start the game outnumbered, so theoretically these cards can give you even more value than something inwardly focused!
Pests are a big part of the Witherbloom life gain engine, so I thought it would be important to touch on them. They’re at their best when you’re sacrificing them reliably for value, but they’re serviceable chump-blockers if that helps you.
While most of these only deal with your lands entering the battlefield, Lifegift is the exception, and therefore, the most powerful of this group of cards. Want lots of sweet triggers on other players’ turns? Lifegift is the answer, folks.
Gaining life when you’re attacked is an interesting disincentive, but Righteous Cause pays you off when any creature attacks anyone, anywhere in the world! Okay, that’s not true, but it feels pretty good when you drop this on a creature-heavy table. You can even swing with some Pests or lifelinking Soldiers and reap rewards ahead of blocking and damage happening – and as you’ll see soon, those payoffs can be huge.
I’m not usually one for three-mana rocks in quantity, but this one is an exception if I’m looking to benefit from life gain.
Set it and forget it – these cards will just trigger in your upkeep! Sun Droplet triggers in every upkeep, actually, and it’s a classic from multiplayer games of yore that predate Commander.
Got a wide board? Turn it into tons of life gain with these cards. Shamanic Revelation needs your creatures to be large, but everything else here is stat-agnostic. Ajani, Strength of the Pride is also a payoff card for life gain decks – the Shohei Ohtani of lifegain strategies, if you will.
X-spells are always sweet if you’re looking to maximize value for mana. Heliod’s Intervention doubles as a powerful piece of interaction, while the other two drain life from opposing players.
Get some extra green-themed value while gaining life, either in the form of recursion or mana ramp.
Double your life total – sweeter words have rarely been spoken, especially if you’re operating above 40 already. Beacon of Immortality is the classic, but I think Revival // Revenge gets less play than it ought to. If you need to recur something like a Soul Warden, the left side is wonderful, and the right side is a solid way to spend mana late in the game.
Last but certainly not least, there are these crossover hits – cards that are just great but also happen to involve life gain. Cosmos Elixir is the most thematically focused of these, but it makes the list because it’s just sweet (and doesn’t “just” gain life).
Are there plenty more cards that gain life? Sure there are, but this is a “who’s who” of life gain cards to help you start your journey. But why bother gaining all this life? What’s the point? Well, here are the payoffs, folks!
Whenever I gain, you lose – life, that is. You can see why these are great with the little individually wrapped bits of life gain you can grab here or there from the cards above – these cards do not care how much life you gain, but how often you gain it.
These will occasionally do more damage than the above cards, but they’re tuned for quantity rather than frequency. They also combine well with Exquisite Blood, which has been a well-known Commander combo for some time!
Turn all that life gain into some board advantage, why don’t you? Most of these cards only trigger during your end step. Why? Well, let’s take a look at Trudge Garden and talk about why its differences lead to degeneracy. With a Soul Warden and Trudge Garden in play, gain some life. Pay two and make a 4/4 green Fungus Beast creature token with trample. Gain a life from Soul Warden, and then, in response to Trudge Garden’s trigger, sacrifice your first Fungus Beast to Ashnod’s Altar to get the two mana you need to pay for Trudge Garden. Do this as many times as you want, gaining as much life as you want. If you need more than infinite life to feel fulfilled, combine this with any of Dina or her friends to kill the table, use Doubling Season/Parallel Lives/Chatterfang, Squirrel General for infinite creatures (and therefore colorless mana), or basically anything else you can think of.
Turn life gain into card draw! You’ll need some extra mana to grease the wheels, but that’s worth it for this kind of resource advantage.
Time to go tall! These creatures get larger the more often you gain life, with some gaining two counters at a time! Ageless Entity grows along with your life total, which means it’s a natural fit in Lathiel decks that want to gain large quantities of life. That’s a lot of counters – I smell a sweet subtheme!
Why not augment that subtheme with some additional +1/+1 counter distribution methods? Lisette is one of my favorites – as long as you have the mana to pay for the trigger, you’ll be quite happy trampling over your opponents. Archangel of Thune is the most well-respected in this group, with Nykthos Paragon doing a reasonable impression especially if you’re gaining more than one life at a time reliably. Heliod can play fair, though some may want to pair it with Walking Ballista or another Triskelion-alike for combo madness.
This is one of my favorite cards of the year. Overrun on a stick that scales with your life gained? Yeah, sign me up! If you’re already going wide for your Soul Wardens, you might as well enjoy this thematically-inclined game-winner.
With many of your engine cards being creatures, you might want to have some recursion elements in your deck. Sure, you can pay life to Phyrexian Reclamation, since paying life is fairly well on-theme with gaining it, but why stop there? Sproutback Trudge can’t recur anything else, but it does a great job of bringing itself back over and over again, and that’s a little scary when you realize it’s a 9/7 trampler.
Cheating on mana is a time-honored tradition, and it’s nice to see that bit of technology make its way into the life gain theme. Accomplished Alchemist comes at things from the supply end of the equation, while the innovative Ezzaroot Channeler addresses your demand for mana. With these two cards helping you power through your hand, it’s good to ensure you have a card draw engine to keep things humming.
Sometimes, the best thing to get from life gain is more life than you initially bargained for. Angel of Vitality and Honor Troll give you that sweet plus one, while the others here double your life gained – as you can imagine, that gets out of hand pretty fast.
All of these cards get more powerful once you hit some particular threshold of life. Some, like Divinity of Pride, are self-fulfilling and self-contained, while others, like Felidar Sovereign and Test of Endurance, take over the whole game. When you start casting these – and I don’t recommend loading up on too many of them – be ready to become the target of everyone at the table.
While life gain decks aren’t usually known for storming out, being able to just pay life to deal damage to players can be nice, and this card does it all by itself rather than forcing you to play awkward combos like Wall of Blood and Rite of Consumption. Wall of Limbs could replace this as a one-shot effect if you’re willing to pay seven mana. For bonus points, give the Reservoir lifelink with something like Sydri, Galvanic Genius (hello, Oloro players!).
It’s a wrath that modulates based on your life gained! Cute.
As I mentioned earlier, paying life is a solid way to approach the “problem” of having too much life and nothing to do with it. There are plenty of options for how to spend that life, but if you’re looking for the best ones, consider black cards, especially ones that turn life into cards.
At this point, we’ve done a pretty solid rundown of the big players in the world of life gain. Here’s what you’ve been waiting for: three deck lists that show you different ways to focus on life gain, with different color combinations and subthemes. Onward!
Dina, Soul Steeper Commander by Eric Levine
This deck list has a heavy emphasis on sacrificing, with some of the traditional options as well as cards like Plumb the Forbidden and Vampiric Rites turning individual creatures into life gain opportunities, also known as Dina triggers. Dina’s not alone, of course, with Epicure and the Blight-Priest as backup along with Sanguine Bond, and yes, we’re comboing off with Exquisite Blood too. Combo lovers will also notice the Essence Warden/Trudge Garden/Ashnod’s Altar interaction made the list as well. We have plenty of Pest generation to make John Leguizamo proud, and we’re leveraging some green ramp spells to gain life with some of the expected cards from above plus Retreat to Hagra. Field of the Dead should provide us plenty of Zombies given our 28 differently-named lands, and we’ve got a Crop Rotation to help us find it. With plenty of black mana symbols around, Whip back Gray Merchant of Asphodel for a big swing!
Lathiel Life Gain Commander by Eric Levine
Here we have a Lathiel deck with a strong +1/+1 counter subtheme. Bolster Lathiel’s abilities with Hardened Scales, Branching Evolution and Conclave Mentor, and rescue your prized creatures with Together Forever. Maintain board presence with Inspiring Call (okay, and Heroic Intervention and Teferi’s Protection) and break through using Blossoming Bogbeast or eliminate opponents using Angel of Destiny. Want to go infinite? Herd Baloth is here along with Essence Warden and friends, and of course, Heliod, Sun-Crowned works well with Walking Ballista – but with the number of counters this deck can spit out, you may not even need Heliod! Spike Feeder is here too if you want to gain way too much life – after all, you can fire it all out of a cannon via Aetherflux Reservoir.
Liesa Life Gain Commander by Eric Levine
Is this a life gain deck? Well, of course it is! We’re gaining life via our many lifelinking Angels, including our commander, with Bishop of Wings, Lyra Dawnbringer and Righteous Valkyrie pitching in for some extra value. Take a big lifelinking swing with a Vault of the Archangel activated, then blast opponents with Vizkopa Guildmage or Sanguine Bond (no Exquisite Blood here – I thought I’d build one list without combos).
Why do we need this life? Well, to spend it, of course! Get more cards with Erebos, God of the Dead, Greed or an end step cast of Necrologia. Clear the board with Toxic Deluge! Bring back an army with Phyrexian Reclamation! Cast all the spells with Bolas’s Citadel! And, of course, pay a lot of life to Liesa. With the Angel subtheme (or parallel main theme with life gain, perhaps) we have Starnheim Aspirant and Urza’s Incubator along with Herald of War to keep costs down while our many mana rocks, along with Archaeomancer’s Map, Keeper of the Accord and even Land Tax help us keep pace with other players on the resource front.
I suppose I could have titled this article “How To Build Multiple Very Different Life Gain Decks” – it seems like there’s a lot you can do with this theme! Hopefully you find the niche you love within the world of gaining life. See you next time!