Trading Nacatls for Soul Wardens – Playing Lifegain at Nationals

White lifegain is not a joke. Within the context of the deck it plays the most efficient creatures ever printed. Ajani’s Pridemate gets arbitrarily large oftentimes (like 33/33 etc.) and a 6/6 lifelink flyer for 1 mana by far is the pound-for-pound champion. Seriously, it’s like a double Wild Nacatl with 2 abilities! Sure, 8 Soul Wardens make the deck look n00bish, but with the big push for a creature-heavy Standard environment they pull more than their weight.

This Nationals was the most fun I’ve ever had at a Magic trip. The Marquette Place Apartments where we stayed had an insane 35th floor on the roof that was the perfect spot for playtesting, partying, cubing, drafting, and beer ponging.

Our car featuring Brad Nelson, Corey Baumeister, and me all cashed at the main event finishing top 8, 10th, and 19th respectively. Brian Hellevang, a level 2 judge, provided great technical and rules advice in addition to topping off our vehicle. Brian informed me of a couple key rules interactions to remember:

Casting a Solemn Offering on Leyline of Punishment will still net you 4 life.
If you put a Serra Acendant into combat while you’re at 29 life it will have 6 toughness afterwards and will survive most situations.
Relic of Progenitus must be used before a Pyromancer Ascension player casts their spell or else they’ll gain a counter on their enchantment.

No one seemed to have confidence in their deck choices. The format was full of archetypes to suit everyone’s personal flavor. The designers and developers at Wizards had most definitely done their jobs because the format looked unbreakable in the eyes of every pro I knew. Everyone I talked to was on a different deck, ranging from Jund, to Pyromancer, Naya, Next-Next Level Bant with Squadron Hawk, Dredgevine, and mono-white lifegain. The only real hope was to pick a deck that one could pilot competendly and could do well against the expected metagame while being a bit off the radar. I felt like lifegain would give me enough power and surprise factor to give me a good shot at winning the whole thing. Brad Nelson and David Ochoa took a similar approach with Dredgevine and both did very well.

I saw Kyle Sanchez’s list on Facebook 3 days before Nationals, proxied it up with spare unplayable commons, and immediately got to work. I expected to be one of a handful, if not the only player in the room running Soul’s Attendants and friends in the 75. Lifegain has never been an archetype that has been successful in the past, barring infinite lifegain combos and Martyr of Sands decks.

Conley Woods came across the deck as well and did a video deck tech at Nationals. He does a good job explaining the fundamentals of the deck here.

I don’t know where the name Soul Sisters came from but I suppose it could have a worse name.

Testing went incredibly well. Naysayers would speak of how “fun police” cards like Pyroclasm and Cunning Sparkmage would give me nightmares, but the deck has pretty good resistance to those cards with Brave the Elements and sideboard Mark of Asylum. Sparkmage is actually tougher for a Naya, Bant, Dregevine, or Boros deck to beat than for this lifegain deck.

Why I didn’t play Naya

I tried more than my share of Vengevine/Fauna Shaman builds with a light toolbox of Inferno Titan and Stoneforge Mystic but always wanted more consistency. Draws tended to be awkward and the mana-base still had the same issues as before, even without the requirement of Mountain and Plains for Wild Nacatl. Playing Naya I always wanted more Lightning Bolts and other spells in general which conflicted with triggering Vengevines.

Naya used Noble Hierarch and Birds and Cobra to create the resources for big drops like Baneslayer Angel and equipping Behemoth Sledge. Lifegain creatures up your life resource which allows Survival Cache, Ajani’s Pridemate, and Serra Ascendant to be efficient. Its really surprisingly similar, just without the mana problems· So we have the Soul Wardens and Soul’s Attendents as the Birds of Paradise and Noble Hierarchs of the deck while the Lone Missionaries are the Lotus Cobras. Instead of ramping to 5 to cast a turn 3 Baneslayer Angel you’re casting an active Serra Ascendant for 1.

As much as I love Wild Nacatl, its value has significantly dropped since the introduction of Wall of Omens in Rise of the Eldrazi.

My Nationals decklist:


This is exactly what I wanted to play and would run it again in a heartbeat.

How good or bad a given matchup is for the deck can’t be understood without playing the matchups. For instance, it looks like mono-red is 100% unloseable while something like U/W control is unwinnable. Yes, mono-red is easier than U/W but the numbers aren’t as extreme as at first glance.

Versus Mono-red

Kargan Dragonlord will singlehandedly beat you if it’s not removed; Serra Ascedant never gets active, and often Survival Cache often won’t draw you cards. I’ve never played against a Leyline of Punishment but I imagine things could get ugly quick if its not Oblivion Ringed on turn 3. War Priest of Thune and Solemn Offering offer additional answers but it’s a gamble to side them in the dark.

Against U/W

On the flip side, U/W’s Day of Judgments don’t hurt as much versus Mono-white as they do against say Naya or Bant. Imagine losing something like a Noble Hierach, Lotus Cobra, and Knight of the Reliquary to Day of Judgment. You’re losing the ability to cast your gamebreaking spells whether they be Baneslayer Angel or Sovereigns of Lost Alara or Realm Razer. On other hand imagine losing Soul Warden, Ajani’s Pridemate, and Lone Missionary. You should be around 28-30 life by this time and your game-winners are still live draws.


This seems like another bad matchup. Conley metagamed against Jund with 4 Kor Firewalker main, which isn’t a bad call at all. I left my Firewalkers in the sideboard and feel like game 1 is around 50/50. The matchup revolves around staying at a high life total and I recommend typically grabbing 1 Soul Warden and 1 Soul’s Attendant when you cast Ranger of Eos. Sometimes a Ajani’s Pridemate can go unchecked and the game will end quickly while other times Survival Cache and Ranger of Eos provide tools to combat their attrition. After sideboarding, Mark of Asylum blanks their Lightning Bolts, Siege-gang Commanders, Bituminous Blasts, and Pyroclasms for the most part.

I’m staying another week in Minnesota with Brad Nelson in order to hit up the Starcitygames 10k in Minneapolis this weekend. I have my mindset entirely on Extended and M11 drafting in preparation for PT Amsterdam so I’m concrete in my choices of Soul Sisters and Zoo for the Standard and Legacy events there.

Here’s the version I’m working on currently:

Get in some practice if you plan to play the deck. It’s fairly straightforward to play but there are a lot of triggers to remember. Even solitairing by running out hands will help get you into the groove of Pridemate and Soul Sisters’ triggers so its not overwhelming once you get to a tournament environment. Round 2 I missed a Survival Cache rebound that likely cost me the tournament. Between Warden, Pridemate, rebound, and lifelink triggers you gotta stay on your toes.

For moment I’d like to talk about a sweet M11 draft archtype I happened across during the day 2 draft at National. Inspired by my constructed deck, I focused on finding synergies within the packs to build something a little outside of the box. Alexander West stated that its one of the most elegant draft decks he’d ever seen and I can’t explain how fun it was running it. I’ve never seen Elixir of Immortality have more value. Try to find all the subtle interactions.

Brian Kibler asked me after the tournament how much life I gained. After a few moments of thought I said 1000, and although I didn’t keep a precise count, it’s very close to the correct number.

Overall I was very satisfied with the deck, enough to continue running it in whatever upcoming Standard events I play in. I’d been wanting to play a deck that maximized the value of Tectonic Edge for a while, as a timely Edging will often throw a big enough wrench in their plans to seal the deal.

To close, I’d like to give props where they’re due:

Israel Rivera for being the coolest vendor in Magic. He’s a southern guy like myself and he makes sure to take care of his people.

Brad Nelson for both Top8’ing 4 events in a row and for his endless hospitality in letting me stay at his place for the last 3 weeks for the up until Nationals and the 10k.

Matt Stamnus for hooking up such a sweet place to stay in Minneapolis.

Tom Ross

CitrusD on Magic Online

36 thoughts on “Trading Nacatls for Soul Wardens – Playing Lifegain at Nationals”

  1. Love the draft deck. I feel like it’s more synergistic and less a gimmick deck though. You have the card advantage of sign, hawks, diggers, a sac outlet with roc eggs, and a lifegain package. The only subpar card that would easily wheel in the deck is the 1 mantra, all other cards there seem to be roughly 1-7th pick, maybe.

  2. I’d say I’m surprised… I thought The Boss used the same Wild Nacatls for every format, hehe.

  3. Tom Ross you are the man. You and conley are awesome for running Soul Sisters!! Long live the boss!!

  4. how about adding green deck? some knight of the reliquary, manlands and obsinate baloth would be good

  5. Slops to Israel River for being a jackass who caters differently to people based only on where they live……

  6. man you could have picked a dark tutelage with this deck. That’s probably the only deck that can use this rare !

  7. I have been working on soul sisters since Sunday. I cant help but feel It really wants Zealous Persecution in the Main deck. black gives you duress in the side that improves Both Jund and U/W. also you get Leiline of the Void to fight Pyro. I got Allot of testing in with the deck last night and I love the fact that the Big players in my country are going to ignore it and say it is not a real deck. Yay free wins due to lack of knowledge for me at nationals!!!

  8. The deck has been bumping around on modo for a while, but as a U/W player I guess I really underestimated its performance against the rest of the field. Congrats on getting in there with it!

  9. I don’t really like the lifegain deck and don’t think it’s particulary strong. It was just well suited for the metagame.
    There are too many decks for my liking now though that just don’t care much about your slow lifegain plan, like pyromancer ascension and the eldrazi ramp deck. But it’s still a good choice I guess.

  10. Glad to see everyone had a good time in MinneApple. If you guys have a chance to hit up the State Fair… DO IT.

    I loved watching this deck buzz around the Nationals floor. I emediately stopped at a local card shop on the way home and bought up all the Ascendants and Rangers I could for dirt cheap (as opposed to the $5 a piece each they eventually hit at the event… 🙂 Let’s hope Scars Of Mirrodin brings us some options to keep this fun deck going!

  11. Nice article, and nice deck choice. I definitely love the deck. If it weren’t so intent on getting to 30 with Serra Ascendant, I’d be inclined to say the black splash would be awesome, as you could not only add Persecution, but also Dark Tutelage. GIven the low color requirement of most everything in the deck, and the addition of more fetches, even a card like Emeria Angel could become a solid choice. With her comes Grim Discovery to keep the Bird Factory churning.

    In all seriousness though, I really do like the deck, and I’d love to put some time in on making it strong for my local metagame. Given that I’m surrounded by Jund, RDW, and maybe a Mythic player or two, it seems like a good fit, and one that I could play fairly well.

  12. @bud – Glad to hear it. That’s part of what makes this deck good, is that everybody just dismisses white lifegain as a joke. Until they die to it. Thank you for not reading. 🙂

  13. A friend of mine took soul sisters and splashed blue for the 2/1 first strike lifelink merfolk (good w/ ajani) and manlands. Eh?

    Nice draft deck. Sacking elixir to shuffle back in squadron hawks is definitely the coolest thing I’ve seen anyone do with the card. After I saw your list in the coverage I managed to draft a similar WB without as many neat interactions, but with 4 roc eggs and five sack outlets.

  14. The advantage you lose playing Soul Sisters with a splash that isn’t black is the inability to win manland fights. In mono-white, you can just load up on Tectonic Edge and bring in Sun Titan in Games 2 and 3. In UW, you can’t realistically play your manlands and the full set of Edge, which makes it intrinsically weaker.

  15. “Israel Rivera for being the coolest vendor in Magic. He’s a southern guy like myself and he makes sure to take care of his people.”

    Israel is a great guy. He comes to our FNM a lot and gives us a much needed “pro” presence.

  16. Hey Tom,

    I’ve been playing a similar version of this deck for quite some time now, and the UW matchup is by far the hardest. Could you comment a little more on that matchup?

  17. I’d like to counter the slops to Israel Rivera by extending some props. He really is a terrific guy.

    Tom: great article, congrats on your finish, and good luck this weekend!

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  19. Sweet, sweet deck design…
    I love how the individual pieces are so weak by themselves, but when combined, create a focused and synergistic deck type that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
    Who would have thought a deck with soul warden and junk could be made competitiive?
    Even if the meta game were to shift soul sisters to irrelevance, it still looks like a very fun and original deck to play.

    Good luck in your future matches!

  20. other than the fact that I have proof that this deck is a joke, its a good article

    If you want to win, don’t take this deck.

    Does it have a matchup it “just wins”? No, not really. Not even mono red?!

    and it “just” loses to anything that can and does pack pyroclasm. “but ajani’s pridemage…”

    I guess that 5/5 vanilla is going to deal me 20 damage when you have relatively no removal and survival cache…………….

    synergy is cute, but actually having a deck that doesn’t scoop to certain cards is more important i would think nearly 100% of the time. Naya splash for soverigns would be the right choice.

  21. Missing a rebound trigger is a shame. From RoE drafts I got the habit of placing the card waiting to rebound on top of my lands, tapped. Then, when you untap next turn there is no way that you will miss the card.
    When time spiral was in T2, a friend of mine gave me the tip that I should ‘tap’ my Ancestral Vision. That decreases the risk of overlooking it. The way to handle exiled rebound spells described above is basically the same idea.
    There is no reason no to help yourself like this.

  22. Except that putting the card on top of your deck is against the rules. That’s probably a good reason not to do it.

    However, you could place a bead or other small object on top of your library instead.

  23. would baneslayer angel be a good card in this deck? it gains you life and is a lategame serra acendent.
    perhaps 2-3 vs UW control and mirror.

  24. My problem with playing this deck is that I feel that it really doesn’t have much of a chance against a lot of the field. Maybe you’re ok against naya, maybe you have an ok shot at the ramp decks, but against UW, it seems that you have a directly proportional win % to the number of days they draw. Even without day, since your clock not particularly fast, but they can simply play a wall of omens, then point spot removal at your important guys, while burying you in card advantage from any of their cards that contain the word “jace”.
    Against Jund, it seems like they adopt the game plan that they do against all creature decks-play a few guys, then pick you apart w/ their abundant removal, topped off w/ bloodwitches for the insta-win.
    And then pyromancer’s ascension is pretty abysmal as well, so long as your opponent is competent. If they side into the polymorph package, they can just cantrip and burn your guys until they come up w/ a leak for your path/o-ring, and an into-the roil for the backup plan.
    Perhaps my testing results have been particularly skewed, due to opponent’s skill level, but I’m somewhere around 10-2 against the deck on modo. How do you feel these matchups should play out?

  25. Zoo for legacy? Won’t you just want to cry when your “Fetch, Savannah, Nacatl, Go” turn 1 is met by, “Ancient Tomb, Mox Diamond, Show and Tell, Emrakul, Go” on their turn 1? It just seems to fold to combo so easily…

  26. why doesn’t this deck just run baneslayer angel? it looks impossible to win games without pridemate.

  27. As for remembering rebound, it’s perfectly legal to put small dice, tokens, etc on top of your library as reminders for upkeep effects. that’s how i always mark for myself that i have stuff during my upkeep, and i rarely ever miss triggers because of it.

  28. Seems like War Priest wouldn’t be a blind choice because it doubles as a pyromancer killer. 😛

  29. Lifegain was getting annoying on MTGO as of a few days ago, at least it seemed everybody was running it against me. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. I’m playing with a fun black/white lifegain deck now. Could use a few more key cards, but it’s pretty fun so far. A cheap 2 drop that if not answered quickly can easily grow to 10 to 20+ power in just a few turns, I can see why this is popular.

  30. LOL Israel Rivera stole my cards then threatened my life over the phone. He’s a fuckin pro indeed.

  31. @bud: So you read the title, clicked on the article, then read the first sentence before realizing what the article was about?

  32. I’ve been addicted to the lifegain deck since m11, and am determined to see it through in standard!

    I know, I know, it’s not strong enough to take on blade, and suffers to removal, but by sheer value and dynamic play style it’s my favourite deck. Dropping down a 6/6 lifelink flyer for one mana is always hilarious, as is the survival cache / ajani’s pridemate synergy.

    Sun titan loves this deck, and swords only make your creatures more versatile.

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