Last updated on September 29, 2023
Daxos, Blessed by the Sun | Illustration by Lius Lasahido
With few exceptions, you lose the game when your life total drops to zero or below. There are a lot of ways to leverage your life total in Magic but one of the most common ways to gaining incremental advantage is by gaining life. A lot of cards in Magic’s history give life as an extra effect, like Lightning Helix. These cards can create big advantages, especially against aggressive decks.
Is gaining life a great way to make it harder for an opponent to win, or is it just a side benefit of other better effects? Let’s dive into some of the best lifegain cards in Magic and examine whether it’s a worthwhile effect.
What Are Lifegain Cards in MTG?
Suture Priest | Illustration by Igor Kieryluk
Lifegain cards gain you life whether through triggers, activated abilities, or just the resolution of a spell. For this list I'm primarily focusing on cards that gain you life, rather than gaining any player life. Cards like Swords to Plowshares that can gain you life but mostly give opponents life instead don’t count.
Best White Lifegain Cards
White is the main color for lifegain in Magic so it has a long list of powerful cards for this list. A lot of the most powerful lifegain payoffs are from white decks that leverage it as a primary win condition.
Authority of the Consuls
A staple sideboard card in its Standard format, Authority of the Consuls shuts down haste creatures like Glorybringer and gets you incidental lifegain against all aggressive creature decks. While it won’t win the game on its own it can lead to aggro decks being a step too slow against decks like Azorius Control.
Soul Warden + Soul's Attendant
Approach of the Second Sun
Approach of the Second Sun is an alternate win condition that still sees play in Pioneer Lotus Field and was a major player in Standard. Approach gains seven life to buy time when you first cast it from your hand and then goes into your deck seventh from the top. This seven life helps give you enough time to later cast it again to win the game.
One of the most infuriating cards to play against (especially in Limited), Approach is a card that vexes aggressive decks.
Fumigate is a Wrath of God that gains one life for each creature destroyed. This sweeper was a great tool for control in Standard and still sees play in Commander. An especially potent wrath against aggressive decks that clears the board and undoes the early game damage of the creatures swept up in the fumigation.
One of the most powerful lifegain payoffs and engines, Heliod, Sun-Crowned created combo kills in multiple formats including a pre-release ban of Walking Ballista in Pioneer once Heliod was spoiled. One of the hallmarks of any white deck with lifegain effects, Heliod is one of the strongest lifegain cards ever printed.
Suture Priest is like the two Soul Sisters except it has an aggressive component. Creatures entering the battlefield under your control gain you life while creatures entering the battlefield under your opponents’ control deal them damage. Two mana is pretty expensive for an effect like this so you generally just play the Sisters or similar cards that only costs one mana.
Daxos, Blessed by the Sun
Daxos, Blessed by the Sun is part of the demigod cycle from Theros: Beyond Death. Whenever a creature enters the battlefield or dies under your control you gain a life. Daxos also has toughness equal to your devotion, making it an impossibly large blocker in most games and a great tool against aggressive decks.
Solitude is a modern staple and provides excellent lifegain through lifelink in addition to being solid instant-speed removal. Of course, if you're casting it for free, you're not going to be gaining much life for anyone other than your opponent. However, it's a solid creature as a 3/2 with lifelink, especially considering your opponent will be down their best creature.
Best Blue Lifegain Cards
While a lot of the best lifegain cards in Magic’s history are blue they're almost entirely multicolored. Still, there are a handful of powerful mono-blue lifegain effects worth mentioning.
Illusions of Grandeur
A part of the Donate combo, Illusions of Grandeur gains you 20 life to buy enough time to hand off the “lose 20 life” part of the card to an opponent. One of the best ways to gain life in blue, even if it does have a drawback tied directly into the card.
Delusions of Mediocrity
A reference to Illusions of Grandeur, Delusions of Mediocrity gains you half the life of Illusions and loses you the same amount when it leaves. Not as powerful as a donate or stabilizing effect but powerful enough when you just need to buy some time to combo, or if you need two of this style of effect in your deck.
The flavor text says it best: “When nothing but second best will do.”
Best Black Lifegain Cards
Black is second to white in terms of lifegain effects. While a lot of black creatures have lifelink there are also plenty of creatures that drain your opponent. These cards tend to pair with sacrifice elements that fit thematically with black in the color pie.
Zulaport Cutthroat is the modern updating of the next card on this list, Blood Artist. The main difference is that each opponent loses one life and you gain one life whenever Cutthroat or another creature you control dies.
Blood Artist is a staple of sacrifice decks and decks that want to control the board by killing off other creatures. While Artist triggers off any creature dying it only drains one player, so it works better in 2-player games instead of multiplayer.
Gray Merchant of Asphodel
A massive part of the Mono Black Devotion deck that dominated Standard, Gray Merchant of Asphodel drains each opponent for your devotion to black while you gain life equal to all life lost this way. A devastating card in 2-player games this card can wipe an entire table in one shot if your devotion is high enough.
Bastion of Remembrance
Another card that pairs well in sacrifice decks (especially token sacrifice decks), Bastion of Remembrance is the enchantment version of Zulaport Cutthroat. It can quickly kill the whole table by hitting each opponent. It’s also a harder-to-answer card type as an enchantment, and it creates a 1/1 when it enters the battlefield to start fueling the sacrifices.
If you ever want to one-turn-kill a whole table with a lot of mana, Exsanguinate is for you. For the paltry cost of 42 mana you can kill a whole EDH table. For smaller amounts you still drain each opponent for X life and gain X times the number of opponents.
A massive life swing, this card can instantly end the game or swing the life totals enough to change the landscape with a single card.
Exquisite Blood translates life lost from opponents into life gained for you. Especially when paired with effects that drain life for each life you gain, this card can instantly kill tables. Exquisite Blood can change the math so much so that your opponent can’t regain control. It's one of the most dangerous cards in a racing situation.
Whip of Erebos
Whip of Erebos was a massive staple of its Standard and can reanimate any creature from your graveyard for only four mana, plus its static ability grants all creatures you control lifelink. Like Exquisite Blood, racing suddenly becomes impossible when this card comes down, and your life total can quickly get out of kill range with a single attack.
Best Red Lifegain Cards (Or Not)
Red mostly focuses on preventing lifegain from opponents since it generally wants to get players dead, not keep them alive. The best lifegain cards in red pair up with other colors to balance out this deficit.
Even the mono-red cards that gain life usually require another color to do so, like Najeela, the Blade-Blossom or Flash Conscription. For this reason there's a grand total of zero cards in this section.
Best Green Lifegain Cards
Another color that has access to lifegain, green leverages creatures and their size to gain life. A lot of these cards also gain life by playing lands or activating abilities and are staples of green midrange to aggressive decks.
Shamanic Revelation is a powerful card draw spell with the added clause for creatures you control with power four or greater. You draw a card for each creature you control, but you also gain four life for each creature you control with power four or greater.
This card can instantly bury opponents in card advantage and gain massive amounts of life, especially in big creature EDH decks.
The Great Henge
One of the premier cards from Throne of Eldraine that didn’t eat a ban, The Great Henge comes down early when you have big creatures in play, gains you life every time you tap it for , and helps you churn through your deck and outsize opposing creatures. It's one of the hardest cards for midrange decks to beat and really is an oppressive force that can also help you beat all strategies.
Just a purely dominant card that any green deck should run as long as it into play early.
Courser of Kruphix
Courser of Kruphix was a staple for its entire time in Standard along with being a Modern staple for years. It gains you a life whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control and pairs especially well with fetch lands and ramp strategies. This 2/4 can shut down aggressive starts and grind out control decks through taking lands off the top of your deck and putting them into play.
An all-star of a bygone era, Courser still does great work in EDH.
A stalwart anti-graveyard card, Scavenging Ooze can get out of hand as a threat while also gaining you incidental life by eating creatures from the graveyard. A lot of decks have fallen to the power of this 2-drop in both Standard and Modern.
Much like Courser it's mostly been supplanted, but it still helps contain various graveyard strategies in formats like EDH.
Momentous Fall is a classic green effect where you can sacrifice a creature, usually one being targeted with removal, in exchange for cards and life. In this case you draw cards equal to the sacrificed creature’s power and gain life equal to its toughness. This can lead to massive blowouts where an opponent taps out to kill your creature and you not only gain some extra life, but also draw a lot of cards.
This is a staple effect for green in EDH and can easily swing games.
Herald of the Pantheon
Herald of the Pantheon reduces the cost of enchantment spells and gains you a life whenever you cast an enchantment. Herald pairs well with other enchantress-style cards and can allow you to pump out enchantments quickly while also padding your life total enough to find and deploy your various lock pieces.
While it's played less than some of the multicolored versions of this effect, having multiple of this style of effect can greatly accelerate your ability to control the game in enchantment-heavy decks.
The green version of the Soul Sisters, Essence Warden gains you life whenever another creature enters the battlefield. It's a great effect for green to access even if it's less played than the white versions.
Best Multicolored Lifegain Cards
Pairing colors that normally don’t have lifegain with a second or third color enables some of the most powerful lifegain cards in Magic’s history. A lot of these cards have dominated their respective formats and several have even eaten bans.
One of the most powerful 1-drops of all time, Deathrite Shaman can do it all. Banned in Modern for being too universally powerful this card can ramp you, block early creatures, threaten to kill the opponent, and gain you life.
Tatyova, Benthic Druid
Tatyova, Benthic Druid is an incredibly powerful lifegain card, especially in ramp decks. You gain a life and draw a card whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control. Tatyova lets you churn through your deck and extend the game until you take over when you can put in several lands in one turn.
Moldervine Reclamation is a great payoff for sacrifice decks that pair well with Blood Artist effects by gaining you a life and drawing a card whenever a creature you control dies. Like Tatyova, this is an engine card that can keep you alive and give you enough resources to end the game quickly.
An Orzhov () version of Zulaport Cutthroat, Cruel Celebrant gives an extra copy of this effect for sacrifice decks while still hitting each opponent. Celebrant also drains when a planeswalker you control dies, even if it doesn't come up a lot.
Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath
Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath is one of the most powerful cards in various formats. It does it all as a powerful creature that draws a card, gains you life, ramps your mana, and is a late game monster. Uro’s multiple bans are a testament to its power level.
Sythis, Harvest's Hand
A piece of the Historic enchantments deck, Sythis, Harvest's Hand also helped bring enchantress back to Modern with the release of Modern Horizons 2. Engines that draw cards and gain life are great against both aggressive and controlling decks and Sythis fills that role perfectly in decks running a high concentration of enchantments.
Like Fumigate, Kaya's Wrath clears the board and gains you life. But this sorcery is much more color intensive than Fumigate and only gains you life equal to the number of creatures you controlled that were destroyed by it. While unlikely to gain you as much life on large boards, a 4-mana wrath effect with marginal upside are still powerful enough to earn a spot on this list.
One of the best value blink cards in Azorius (), Cloudblazer draws you two cards and gains two life when it enters the battlefield. The value you can get from having this card in a blink deck can quickly overwhelm any opponent when paired with cards like Yorion, Sky Nomad, Soulherder, or Charming Prince.
Knight of Autumn
A long-time staple of Standard, Pioneer, and Modern, Knight of Autumn is a strong modal card that can Disenchant, gain four life, or enter with two +1/+1 counters. Each mode suits different situations but the four life can buy enough time to take over the game against a lot of aggressive decks.
Debt to the Deathless
A multicolored version of Exsanguinate, Debt to the Deathless drains each opponent for two times the amount paid for X. This is a massive payoff spell in the late game that can either kill a table or make it difficult for anyone to attack your life total down.
A Standard all-star of old, Hydroid Krasis helped numerous Simic () decks draw cards and stabilize against the numerous aggressive decks of the old Standard formats. Krasis still sees fringe play when paired with Nissa, Who Shakes the World in Pioneer as well as frequent EDH play even if it's too costly for most formats outside of Standard.
Best Colorless Lifegain Cards
While some of the colors lack ways to reasonably gain life there are quite a few powerful colorless methods of lifegain, especially from artifact-focused sets. Even more so if you look at the myriad of gain life lands that have been printed for Limited.
One of the best combo cards for decks that play cheap cards that you can recast, Aetherflux Reservoir is both the engine and the payoff for these style of storm decks. By gaining more life with each spell you quickly get out of range of any opposing deck before dealing 50 damage to a player.
Reservoir can quickly kill a whole table if you can rack up a high enough storm count even if it's best in a combo setting and 2-player games. Even if you don’t manage to combo, the lifegain builds up quickly with just a few spells.
A staple of old Lantern control decks, Inventors' Fair gains life each upkeep if you control three or more artifacts, and it can tutor an artifact in the mid-to-late game. The incidental life gain can help you survive versus aggressive decks until you fully establish an unbeatable lock and makes this an incredibly powerful card.
High Market is a sacrifice engine in your mana base that gains life with each sacrifice you pay to it. It might not be as strong or fast as some other sacrifice engines but the lifegain can help buy enough time to maximize your value from each sacrifice.
The tap lands like Jungle Hollow that tend to fill in Limited formats are great tools in EDH to trigger gain life effects from the land slot while still giving access to two colors.
Elixir of Immortality
A staple of older control decks, Elixir of Immortality gains enough life to make aggressive decks struggle to kill you while preventing decking by shuffling back your graveyard.
Years ago I played a no-win condition Azorius deck that just looped Elixir and eventually decked my opponent. While this play pattern certainly earned the ire of opponents it was incredibly powerful in an era of mono blue, mono black, and Jund () Monsters.
Trading Post gives you all the choices in the world. You can gain life in exchange for cards, make goats in exchange for life, buy back artifacts in exchange for creatures, and sacrifice artifacts for cards. One way or another this card can help you find avenues to victory no matter the situation.
Bontu's Monument makes your black creatures cheaper and drains your opponents for one whenever you cast a creature spell. You can quickly drain out the table and pad your life total if you can cast a few spells.
Best Lifegain Payoffs
Archangel of Thune
Archangel of Thune won a Pro Tour paired with Nyx-Fleece Ram. If you can gain repeated life then Archangel can quickly kill. Especially when combined with a card like Spike Feeder that can gain infinite life and make all your creatures infinitely large.
Ajani's Pridemate gets a +1/+1 counter each time you gain life. A hallmark of all lifegain decks, Pridemate acts as an aggressive threat that quickly ends the game if you’re consistently gaining life in the early turns.
A powerful army in a can, Crested Sunmare makes 5/5 Horses that have indestructible if it's on the field. This engine quickly overwhelms decks, especially since they have to kill it before they can answer the other 5/5s. Sunmare easily dominates any board if you can gain life every turn.
Righteous Valkyrie is a newer style of Soul Sister card that pairs more with angels and clerics. You gain life equal to that creature’s toughness whenever another creature of those two types enters the battlefield. And your creatures all get +2/+2 if you have at least seven more life than your starting life total.
In a deck like Selesnya () Angels in Pioneer this card acts as both the engine and the payoff, making your creatures huge and gaining more life as the game goes on.
Resplendent Angel is another angel card that makes a stream of 4/4 white flying vigilant Angels if you’ve gained five or more life. Like the Valkyrie, Resplendent acts as both the engine and the payoff as it becomes a 5/5 lifelink flier in the late game that makes 4/4s alongside it.
Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose
Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose causes a target opponent to lose life equal to the life you gain. This type of effect can easily kill a table if you have access to infinite life.
The 5-mana enchantment version of Vito, Sanguine Bond drains out an opponent every time you gain life for the same amount of life you gained. When paired with Exquisite Blood you gain a life, drain an opponent, gain a life, drain an opponent, and repeat until they’re dead. It can instantly kill a table.
Is Lifegain Good in MTG?
There are plenty of ways to judge how good certain effects are in Magic. A card that replaces itself through card draw is more powerful than a card that doesn’t go card neutral. Cards that only gain life are less powerful than most other cards since they don’t change the state of the board. They also don’t tend to replace themselves so you pay a card from your hand and pay mana for the effect without gaining a full card’s worth of value.
The drawback of pure lifegain cards is that they will just extend the game, which can pair with powerful late game cards to help you win but can't ever catch you up or end the game by themselves. That's a big reason why incidental lifegain is good. It helps you survive while doing something else as the card's main effect.
A card like Revitalize draws a card and incidentally gains you four life. Something like Lightning Helix deals three damage to any target and incidentally gains you three life, helping undo any aggression that happened in early turns.
If your card only gains life then it just delays the inevitable. But if it manages to gain life as a bonus it tends to be a much more worthwhile card like a lot of the ones listed above.
Is Lifegain Good in Commander?
Given that you start at 40 life in Commander, lifegain is worth about half as much as it is in other Constructed or Limited formats. It definitely isn’t great without other synergies to push lifegain into a major element of your overall strategy even if it can sometimes be good.
Does Doubling Your Life Total Count as Gaining Life?
Yes, doubling your life total counts as gaining however much life you were at.
Can You Go Over 20 Life in Magic?
Unless there's a card preventing you from gaining life there's no cap to how much life you can gain in Magic. Some decks even gain theoretically infinite life, but you have to pick a finite number for in-game purposes.
Soul Warden | Illustration by Randy Gallegos
Lifegain is a difficult concept for newer players to evaluate. While there are plenty of examples of powerful lifegain cards most of them don’t just gain life, they work to gain life while fulfilling another primary win condition. Some decks focus on lifegain to buy time, some use it to help beat aggressive decks, and others leverage some of the lifegain payoffs to turn weaker cards into one-shot kill cards.
What's you favorite lifegain card? Did I miss one of your favorites in my list? Let me know in the comments down below or over in the Draftsim Discord.
Thanks for reading and stay safe out there!
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