atrick plays his second Mountain, drops an Ash Zealot, and screams into the red zone.
Abigail looks at her hand and the Doom Blade in it. She led on a Watery Grave and can put that Ash Zealot into the graveyard... But just nods instead.
"I'll take 2."
Abigail draws, plays a Temple of Enlightenment and passes her turn.
Patrick pays 2 to play a Sacred Foundry up and summons Viashino Firstblade.
"Wow, that's going to leave a mark," says Abigail... but she knows what she is going to do.
Patrick sends in his squad for 6 big damage. Abigail doesn't even look at her Doom Blade.
On cue, she plays her fourth land and drops Supreme Verdict.
Poor Ash Zealot, poor Viashino Firstblade; they go to the graveyard.
What happens next? At this moment we don't know. We won't know quite yet. Perhaps a wise Patrick baited Abigail into tapping out. Maybe a huge threat will follow (and one that doesn't "just die to Doom Blade"—like Chandra, Pyromaster, maybe). Or maybe Patrick doesn't have much left.
But what we can say at this point is that—ultimately for good or ill—she valued one extra card more than 2, 6, maybe even 8, life. Abigail could have traded her Doom Blade straight with the Ash Zealot (first 2). Then she could have taken out the (temporarily) 4/4 Viashino Firstblade. But Abigail did not pull the trigger on either opportunity to take Patrick out of his intended combats. Instead, she made the measured decision that getting both 2/2 creatures with a single Supreme Verdict was the shot at card advantage that her strategy wanted.
How about this one?
Lauren is at 6, but has six cards in hand.
David draws a card off the top of his deck, bobs his head side-to-side a second, and taps his mana. Flames of the Firebrand.
Lauren is at 6; but with that Flames of the Firebrand on the stack, her opponent David has no cards in hand. She kind of squints at her grip and thinks a moment about the lone Dissolve in it. To be or not to be; that is the question.
"Hmm?" inquires David.
"Oh, just mumbling the Bard to myself," Lauren responds. "Okay, I'll allow it."
"Okay. Take 3 then."
And she does.
Lauren could have stopped David, for sure. She had the counterspell. She chose not to use it. Probably what went through her head was some variation of "that's not going to kill me"/"I'm going to save my only counterspell on something that might." Worst-case scenario, if and when David pulls something else... she'll have the Dissolve for it.
Again, we see a player who has the tools to trade... but chooses instead to value card advantage (here, David putting a card into his graveyard), using 3 life points as a proxy.
Over the past couple of weeks, we have talked about trading life for cards using specific frameworks. In "The Philosophy of Fire" we talked about how—at least for some burn decks—one card might equate with 2 life (such that ten cards wins); and when we consider Life as Card Advantage, spells like Staff of the Death Magus or Gray Merchant of Asphodel might trade for many such red damage spells. Necropotence, of course, gave (and with Vintage Masters again gives) players a one-for-one exchange rate between life points and cards.
But what might not have been evident—at least before looking at our hypotheticals between Patrick and Abigail, David and Lauren—is that in almost every game we play we make decisions that value life points at some rate. We use our cards to preserve life points, our life points to preserve our cards, or even our life points to deal damage! Almost every single game!
Mike plays his second land and attacks with his Favored Hoplite.
Aaron is tapped out for a Leafcrown Dryad.
Why is he sending his 1/2 into my 2/2? Aaron wrinkles his nose. Gawd. He HAS to have something.
"1 or more?"
Rather than being at the beginning of the game, it is now near the end of the game. Both Mike and Aaron are at 2 life. Mike has one card and Aaron has none.
Mike still attacks with his 1/2 Favored Hoplite.
Aaron likes this sequence even less than the last one... and again chooses not to block (although this time it's an Azorius Arrester that stays out of the way).
On its face, a 2/2 Leafcrown Dryad should beat the bejeezus out of a 1/2 Favored Hoplite. But in our first case, Aaron was afraid Mike might have some kind of pump spell or other targeting capability that would turn Mike's Favored Hoplite all heroic. Aaron used 1 life point as a down payment on the future of his Leafcrown Dryad.
The second case is different, with a 2/1 potential blocker rather than a 2/2. A 1/2 Favored Hoplite will trade straight with a 2/1 creature. By not blocking here, Aaron is essentially saying that he doesn't think Mike can kill him (because the same kinds of cards that Aaron was playing around with the second-turn Leafcrown Dryad situation will kill him outright here). He is investing 1 life point in the prospect of dealing 2 life points back. The last 2.
The choice not to block in these two relatively similar situations is motivated by different resources. In the first case, Aaron was preserving not just a card, but mana. He didn't want to give Mike the chance to upgrade his battlefield position while taking out a two-drop with a one-drop.
In the second, Aaron traded 1 life point (and maybe the game) for the prospect of 2 life points (and maybe the game). In both cases, we saw an unblocked 1/2 Favored Hoplite... but the forces behind that not-block couldn't have been more different.
One of the most powerful predictors of success in the workplace is the ability of an employee to operate without a script. Most workers can execute when given clear instruction; but the folks who rise, ultimately influencing the culture or results around them, tend to have the power to make meaningful decisions in unstable environments, on rocky footing, or without supervisor assistance.
Magic is no different.
Doom Blade | Art by Chippy
Adeptly valuing/pricing life points in games where there is no set bar or criteria is an underappreciated skill. Playing with Necropotence on the battlefield can be a stark guideline; if you calculate how much damage the opponent is likely to deal next turn and compare it to your life total... you pretty much have the upper limit of how many cards you can set aside. But what about when you don't have Necropotence down? You have to think about your life points in terms of how many turns/additional topdecks you can preserve; how many attack phases you need to win, yourself; or how many life points you need before other cards become problematic. For example, going from 6 to 3 turns on all your opponent's Lightning Strikes in a way that going from 6 to 4 does not.
Block to trade with everything... or let everything in? Send in all my creatures or leave someone back to block. Which someone? Or more than one? Oftentimes, these decisions are made card-to-card, but remember that the actual goal of most games is to deal 20 before the other player does.
In some matches, life points—especially invested early—will be very meaningful; like when your opponent is a fast White Weenie or Red Deck.
Other times, a couple of life points either way will have relatively little effect whatsoever. When you are playing a slow control deck and the opponent is playing a slow control deck, paying 2 life points into your Watery Grave (in exchange for one mana) might be a trivial investment. You might get a key threat down before your opponent's mana is online, have the mana to counterspell your opponent's key threat, or just use your Hallowed Fountain to bluff a Syncopate on turn two.
Although the most common life-point valuations tend to be around the preservation of cards, life-for-mana comes up quite often, so should be something you at least think about thinking about...
The Ravnica/Return to Ravnica shocklands let you take your pick. Life or mana (this turn)?
Against another slow deck, you might think nothing of playing Watery Grave for Thoughtseize on turn one (starting on 16!)... but you wouldn't likely make that play against a deck playing Skullcrack.
The City of Brass reimagined demands life-for-mana every time you use it.
Mana Confluence is likely to be played in our fastest decks, those that try to end the game before self-inflicted damage adds up too much.
At one time, Dismember was the most popular card in Standard, played in all kinds of decks, most of them nonblack. Dismember allowed players to invest 4 life to avoid bigger problems. This was a card that prevented the opponent from killing the player immediately with Deceiver Exarch, but was effective against a variety of strategies.
Guess what? Peek (ostensibly the same color and total cost as Gitaxian Probe) still exists in most formats where Gitaxian Probe is legal! When and under what circumstances do we pay the 2 to essentially get back one mana?
What about Gitaxian Probe (without the Peek part)? More than one player has found success with a no-land hand that featured multiple copies of Gitaxian Probe or Street Wrath to get his or her deck flowing.
Life is an interesting resource in Magic, in part because the purpose of the game is to deprive the opponent of his or her life points (so, by extension, opponents are generally gunning after yours). So for some players it is counterintuitive to use life points to preserve other resources. But as we saw in this Level One, we are trading our life points for cards as often as we are trading cards for life points. We are valuing even big buckets of life points less than a little card advantage, but mindful of when our life points go too low.
Unlike with "The Philosophy of Fire" or "Necropotence," there is no easy translation table for how you use the resource of your life points, generally. Rather, it is more important to start the conversation and make sure you realize that they do exist AS a resource... and one you can tap for more options in game play. Is a card worth 6 or 8 life points? It certainly was pegged around there in our first hypothetical!
How much you value your life points will vary from game to game. Against a White-Blue Control opponent, you can probably spend them like water. Against a fast Red Deck? Guard them more closely and stay above numbers like 3, where a single card can kill you.
Above all, realize that, although we spent quite a few weeks translating life and cards, cards represent only one of the possible resources you can price your life points against. Mana, time, and others will often be easily exchanged, as long as you keep your eyes open.
Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."