The Only point that Matters
Hello all and welcome to a new Setting Standards! Seeing as the brand new set, Rivals of Ixalan, drops this coming weekend I thought there wouldn’t be much point in looking at another standard deck that will no longer be relevant 3 days from now so instead I wanted to talk about something that applies to the game on a broader level and might help everyone doing prerelease this coming weekend. Magic is a game of resources and learning to manage your life total is a skill as much as any other in magic and knowing when to let it go and when to hoard it can have big implications on how you play the game.
The only point of life that matters in Magic is the last one. If you’ve been playing Magic the Gathering for a while you’ve no doubt heard this expression. While it sounds a little dramatic and a bit simplistic, it does hold some truth. Magic is a game of resource management and your life points are as much a resource as your mana or your creatures. The basic premise of the entire game is to reduce your opponents’ life total to zero while keeping your own above zero. Zero. That’s the important part. As long as you stay above zero it doesn’t matter how much life you have when the game ends. If your opponents’ life is reduced to zero then there is no need in hoarding those extra 19 points of life.
One of the biggest level ups in Magic for me was when I learned to start managing my life points as an expendable resource instead of some precious thing that I couldn’t bear to lose even a single drop of. Learning to understand that sometimes you need to be ok with taking 10 points of preventable damage to win a game can make a big difference in your win percentage.
Learning to Let Go
Let’s be clear on one thing here: there are times when you have to block. There are certain creatures that can threaten to end you if you let them through (Im talking about you Electrostatic Pummeler) and its important to recognize and respond to these threats but its also important to realize that sometimes its better to take a hit than to lose your blockers or spend your powerful spells on not so powerful attackers. When you’re facing down Ramanap Red you need to save your Vraska’s Contempt for Hazoret the Fervent or Glorybringer, don’t waste it on Bomat Courier or Earthshaker Khenra, even if it means you fall 8 or 10 points behind. Recognizing these interactions is pivotal for all decks, you need to know which creatures you can simply ignore and which ones you need to react to immediately.
If you’re strategy is to amass a bunch of token creatures so you can use them to cast another spell or trigger your win condition they are often much more valuable than the life points you might lose by not blocking. You should almost never block with a Glint-Sleeve Siphoner unless you’re about to die, its value as a card draw engine is much more relevant that more life points. The same rule applies to mana dorks, Servant of the Conduit on turn 2 gives you the possibility of casting a Glorybringer on turn 4, don’t use it to block an early creature just to save a couple points of life. On the other side of that coin, if you know your opponent is trying to ramp out a Glorybringer a turn early, you might want to kill the servant right away. Or, alternatively, if you know they are trying to ramp out their Glorybringer but you’ve got the answer for the dragon, you might want to let the servant live so you can kill the Glorybringer. The 2 points of damage from an attacking servant is a small price to pay if it means you keep their dragon at bay.
Stay the Course
Anyone who has embraced control as an archetype will tell you its not for the faint of heart. My biggest hurdle in learning to play control was getting comfortable with losing 10 or more points of life without panicking and doing something rash. If your deck has a long game plan you need to learn to stay the course and ride it out until its time to react. I kept going back to my deck list after each loss and trying to add more blockers or ways to gain life in the early game, which ended up diluting my deck and making it into a whimpy mid range deck instead of a control deck and thus making it even more ineffective. Players who have been using Approach of the Second Sun for example have become quite adept at this. These players know that as soon as they hit 7 mana, they will get a nice chunk of life back so they’re ok with taking a lot of early damage. Control players learn which creatures need to be countered and when to let them resolve, these decks are designed to lose the early game so they can win the late game, you can’t always do both. If you spend all your counter spells too early, you won’t have an answer for Hazoret or The Scarab God later on. Knowing how much life you can afford to lose and still hold on to your answers for the threats that matter is the key to piloting a successful control deck.
The Race is On
Managing your life total is no less important when playing an aggressive deck, especially in aggressive mirror style matches. When you’re playing a truly aggressive deck you can almost forget that your own life total exists, the whole point of your deck is to win fast enough that it never becomes an issue. When playing pure aggro, you almost never want to block if there is even a possibility that it might leave you with one less attacker for the next turn. Damage output is much more relevant than life totals. Its almost never correct to block with Bomat Courier as the potential card advantage as well as the points of damage it inflicts is much too valuable to give up for the sake of a few life points. This can be especially true if your trying to race against another aggressive deck. In these aggro mirrors its often the first player to blink and block a creature who loses. Its like playing chicken when racing cars, you’re both headed to the edge of the cliff, exchanging chunks of damage hoping that when the dust settles you’re parked at the finish line and they are plunging headlong off the edge. In these types match ups the opposite type of strategy for removal applies; kill anything and everything they put in your way as fast as possible. Fatal push the servo, walk the plank the Servant of the Conduit, remove any blockers and push as much damage as possible in the early turns of the game. When you trying to win by turn 5 or 6, there’s no point in holding back. If you know your opponent is just trying to make it to 7 mana and turn the corner then you need to be peddle to the metal from the beginning.
One Life to Live
The biggest take away I hope players get from this article is that your life total is a resource to be spent, not hoarded. You don’t get extra credit if you finish the game with more than one point of life so use your life points to your advantage, treat them like any other resource in the game. As with any strategy in magic it all starts with knowing what your deck is trying to do and from there you can evaluate how much life you can lose before you need to react. If you can find this balance you will be able to more accurately gauge your position in the game. To really illustrate the points of this article consider this, during live event coverage of MtG events commentators often use an on screen advantage bar to show which player is actually in control of the game because life totals are not a fair metric by which to measure the state of the game. Having 20 life does not mean your winning and having 1 life does not mean you are losing.
Well that’s it for this week, I hope this has been helpful and good luck to everyone attending pre release events this weekend!