Understanding when your life total is a potential resource.

Life: Is it Good?

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The letter E!ach Magic game you play is filled with decisions. Often the decision will evolve around a trade-off between resources. Is my creature worth trading for his? What is more important right now, cards in hand or life points? Sometimes these decisions are subtle, sometimes they're more blatant. In the most extreme case, the cards will present you with choices and you'll have to pick one. Most cards that explicitly present your opponent with a choice are not good cards because you are letting your opponent make that choice. Take Browbeat. If it always let you draw three cards or always did five damage, it would be excellent, but there are too many times when you want to do one badly and don't care much about doing the other. Then there are times when it is less clear. This one comes from Sean Siqianma.

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YOU (9 life): in play - Mountain x5, Skirk Fire Marshal; in hand - Brightstone Ritual
OPP (4 life): in play - Mountain x7 (3 tapped); in hand - no cards

Your opponent cleared the board last turn with the help of a Flamebreak; he is playing a casual burn deck that has a lot of cards that can do four or even more damage in one shot including Ball Lightning, Rorix Bladewing and Disintegrate but also cards that do less such as Lightning Bolt. This turn he drew and cast Browbeat. Do you take the damage or let him draw the cards?

All right, now that you know that, what do you need to take into consideration?

What are the chances of that being enough? Is it a better option?

Note that your opponent cannot win if you draw a burn spell of your own on your turn, so you ignore that possibility. In the end, letting him draw all those cards turns out to be too dangerous. Even though damage is the thing you fear the most, giving him three extra cards gives him too many ways to beat you. However, the details of this example are important and changing things a little bit has the potential to change everything. For example, what would happen if you were at seven life instead of nine?

Another variant: take four Mountains away from both players. In this case, instead of clearing the board with Flamebreak he used Wildfire. For the sake of argument, let's say you're currently at 7. Now how do you view Browbeat?

When debating whether to play Browbeat or debating putting it into a deck, you have to beware of the fact that your opponent will do his best to choose the option you do not want him to choose. If your true intentions can be disguised or your opponents are not good enough to understand their choices, cards that give your opponents options grow in power. Other cards can drastically change the relative value of different resources by presenting you with a way to exchange one for another. The classic example of that would be Necropotence. Then there are times when something that seems like it should be a good thing isn't all that good after all…

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YOU (20 life): in play - Mountain x2, Blinkmoth Nexus; in hand - Mountain x2, Solemn Simulacrum, Molten Rain, Arc Slogger, Pulse of the Forge, Beacon of Destruction
OPP (19 life): in play - Urza's Power Plant (Tapped), Forest (Tapped); in hand - 6 cards; in graveyard - Sylvan Scrying

You may remember this position from my second article. By looking at the board position, it should be clear what has taken place in the previous two turns: On turn one you played Blinkmoth Nexus, on turn two you attacked with it. What other option should you have considered?

This is also the mirror image of a position from my third article, where your opponent can improve his chances by taking mana burn to prevent you from reclaiming Pulse of the Fields. While in that game both life totals were important, your only damage source was Pristine Angel. If you always take four damage at a time, being at 9 is effectively the same as being at 12. For the ultimate example of wanting your life total to be as low as possible, check out old favorite Mirror Universe:

Under the old rules, you could actually kill your opponent with Mirror Universe, doing the last point of damage to yourself with a City of Brass. Under today's rules, you would die before you could switch life totals, but you don't need to abuse the rules for this card to change everything. I used to play casual decks that used Mirror Universe simply as a good card rather than to do anything abusive, and suddenly the game transforms as both players wonder what they want the life totals to be. If my opponent takes too big a lead, I'll switch the life totals and take over a commanding position. If he never does, the Mirror Universe will continue to hang over his head and he'll be no closer to winning.

Magic resources fluctuate wildly in value. There are games where the most important thing is how many lands you have in play or how many cards are left in your library. In some games life points are irrelevant. Your opponent might be playing a deck that knows it has won the game long before it is able to do even one damage to you. (His deck might not even win by damage at all.) But, over the course of typical games, life points become steadily more valuable as the players get closer to dying. On turn one, using Shock to damage your opponent trades a card for two points of damage that do not have much immediate impact on the game, but do it when your opponent is at four it can radically change the nature of the game. Do it when he's at two and he dies. Being at twenty life is valuable because it allows you to take a lot of damage without dying, often allowing you to trade those life points for extra cards or even for something as basic as the right color of mana. The danger is that as you take more damage, it becomes a bigger and bigger threat to you. The reason to avoid taking damage when you're at twenty is to avoid having to prevent it later on when you're at three. The better grasp you have of that, the better decisions you'll be making whether you're on offense or defense.

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