Gaining life is an oft maligned ability. I recall being told early on that you can always spot a bad Magic player: just look for the Fountain of Youth. Since then, life gaining cards have dramatically improved, but the ability is still viewed as a skill-tester for new players. Does this hold true for multiplayer?
The Meaning of Life gain (Introduction)
The answer is not a simple yes or no. Not all life gain has been created equal. Gaining life has been around since the game started, so not surprisingly, there are many functionally different ways to grow your life total. I’ll look through each area to determine whether life gain deserves its ugly reputation.
When you are playing a duel, it is generally understood that life gain, in and of itself, is not a good strategy. Playing Nourish to gain six life is almost always worse than playing a creature that can deal out or prevent damage. A creature that costs the same as Nourish (say Garruk’s Companion) won’t immediately create a swing in life totals equaling six or more, but over the course of the game, it will likely prevent and deal enough damage to be well over the six life swing Nourish provides.
Given that straight life gain cards are not a good strategy in duels, what about multiplayer? The primary difference between duels and multiplayer is multiple opponents. This leads to two very relevant changes in the game when discussing life gain cards: (1) your opponents have more life than you; and (2) they have multiple opportunities to attack you.
With more life, your life gain is less valuable than in a duel. Nourish provides six extra life. In a game where you and your opponent start at 20 life, six more life provides a 30% increase to your life total in comparison to your opponent’s life total. In spite of what appears to be a significant improvement, we know this is not good enough.
In multiplayer Commander, your life total does not match your opponents’ life total. In a four-player game for example, your opponents have 120 life, while you have only 40. Six more life moves your life total from 33% of your opponents total to 38% of their life total. Congratulations, you have gained 5% on your opponents in this game, while in the duel you gained 30%. Even if you were playing a 60-card Chaos game with everyone starting at 20 life, Nourish would only bring you up to 43%, a 13% increase. Since we know that in duels, Nourish is a bad play providing a 30% increase in your life total, how could it be a better play in multiplayer where the effect is so much smaller?
The second change is even more relevant here, and the math is much more straightforward. How many combat phases does your opponent get in a duel? How many combat phases do your opponents get in a four-player multiplayer game? Garruk’s Companion was better in a duel where Nourish netted you a 33% gain against one opponent. How much is Garruk’s Companion going to net you? How many times will you not be attacked because the creature is there to ward off random 1/1’s from pinging you? How many times will Garruk’s Companion be able to hit an opponent? He only has to hit twice to match Nourish. Are you better off with a creature that can stop multiple attacks (and deter many others), or with a card that gains you enough life to absorb a single attack?
Life gain on a Grand Scale (Congregate)
The logic showing that creatures are better than life gain is all well and good when talking about Nourish or Healing Salve, but what about the big life gain cards? Nourish or Healing Salve may only negate a single attack, but Congregate is a different story? In a duel, big life gain tends to come from big manacost cards (Stream of Life is pretty old school, but you get the idea). More mana just means that the creature that you are not getting is even bigger than the creature you missed out on from the Nourish. In multiplayer, things are a little different. Congregate is only four mana and can bring huge life swings in your favor since multiple players generally means that at some point in the game, there are many creatures on the board. The life gain they offer can often allow you to absorb damage for several turns against the entire board, while you try to set up the next move. This logic also holds true for cards that allow incremental gains every turn (such as Soul’s Attendant) that accumulate enough life to allow you to absorb damage for several turns against the entire board.
Even in these situations however, life gain cards are generally not all that good. When you add cards to your deck, you are looking for threats, ways to protect the threats, support the threats, and cast the threats. Life gain, no matter how big, is not the threat, doesn’t protect the threat, doesn’t support the threat, and doesn’t help cast the threat. While life gain may buy you more time to do all these things, in the end, life gain itself doesn’t do any of these things.
Another thing to consider for cards like Congregate is how this will affect the threat assessments of your opponents. If you gain 30 life from Congregate, what is the likelihood that you will become The ThreatTM in your group? In my playgroup, a card like Soul’s Attendant is tolerated, mostly because the life gain comes in such small, incremental amounts, that most players don’t notice it, until it has become a significant benefit. That may take several turns. Congregate on the other hand, particularly when you gain 20 or more life from it, will make you The Threat instantly. Consider these two options:
Option A: Play Congregate while you are at 24 life and gain 22 life. Over the next three rounds, you are attacked down to 24 life by players looking to return your life total to a number comparable to everyone else, or
Option B: Don’t play Congregate and stay at 24 life over the next three turns because you don’t have a gaudy life total and are not The Threat.
Both options have the same result, but the player using Option B has an extra card, and hasn’t drawn attention to himself. Of course, if your playgroup sees an extra 20 life as no reason to attack you, then Congregate and other cards like it become more viable.
Finally, when looking at the big life gain cards, consider what your position would be if your card was a creature instead of the life gain. Commander Eesha, Angry Mob, and Linvala, Keeper of Silence all cost the same as Congregate. When you consider the usefulness of other cards (Wrath of God) in relation to conserving your other resources or using up your opponents’ resources, you will find that even big life gain is not always the optimal play. Remember, Stoneforge Mystic costs only half as much as Congregate.
The Sun Droplet Conundrum
Before I go on to the final set of life gain cards that I want to talk about, I want to look at the double Sun Droplet conundrum. In my group it is Sun Droplet, but perhaps it is another card in your group. When one person plays a Sun Droplet in my group, they rarely suffer an attack. Players see the Sun Droplet and assume that attacking is hopeless, since they will get it all back eventually. It is even worse when there are two Sun Droplets in play and the player ends up gaining life due to the damage they suffered from an opponent’s creature.
Everyone can do the math and figure out how much damage must be dealt every turn to make up for the life gained, yet invariably, the player doesn’t get attacked. The assumption is that they will wait until the artifacts are destroyed, then start attacking. We all know that this is a mistake. Any player doing this is intentionally trying to slow the game down so they can find their combo or extend the game into the long game where their deck is designed to dominate. Don’t let this happen at your table! Make it clear to the others at the table that you can’t win the fight alone but if everyone attacks, you can drive the Sun Droplet player’s life total into the ground.
In these situations, life gain is paired with life loss. Someone else loses life or takes damage and you gain an equivalent amount. With these cards usually the shift is limited (an opponent loses two and you gain two) or the spell demands X amount of mana to give you X life and cost an opponent X life. Now we are talking! Spells that cause damage are actively doing something beneficial. You are bringing an opponent, or a group of opponents, closer to death. Many of these spells allow you to target creatures or players so they give you the flexibility you get from red direct damage spells, plus the added bonus of gaining X life. You are not simply delaying your opponents’ efforts to kill you by padding your life total, you are also offering up some aggression.
With these spells you are limiting the problems I have described above, by offering more than simply gaining life. With these cards, gaining life is essentially an extra bonus, and this is where life gain shines. When you can treat your life gain as an added effect; a bonus to go with what you really wanted, then you are getting real value. These cards offer life gain at no mana cost and no card cost. Drain Life for five means you paid seven to do five points of damage! Oh, and you gained five life.
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (lifelink creatures)
The final type of life gain card I want to talk about is the card that attaches life gain to another card in some way. Whether it is creatures with lifelink, permanents that give you life when they enter the battlefield, or auras or equipment that provide some kind of life gain along with another ability, the key is that some kind of life gain is added to a card that already does something else. My personal favorite example of this type of bonus is the Loxodon Warhammer. Getting trample and +3/+0 is enough for the costs involved. The life gain is just straight up gravy. Delicious, smooth, goodness nestled in a pool of mashed potatoes. Mmmm, gravy… Sorry, life gain, right. A great bonus.
This is also the place where life gain can mean more than simply gaining a few points here and there. Garruk’s Companion by himself scares off a lot of smaller creatures, but at some point, someone is going to have the bigger creature and you’ll be forced to chump block. When you add a Warhammer to Garruk’s Companion (Armadillo Cloak is another great way to provide the bonus) that same creature will still kill the Companion, but it is much more likely that the creature will die (the Companion’s power is way up) and you will likely be gaining six life. These two things will make your opponents far more likely to leave you alone. No one likes to attack someone when the result is that they will lose their creature and their opponent will gain life. This combination will keep opponents at bay far longer than it should. This is where life gain is a true champion. When you can create situations where you are getting a benefit bigger than the simple life gain itself, life gain has real value.
In multiplayer, this value is multiplied by the number of opponents. An opponent will not be willing to give up a creature to leave you defenseless to others unless the opponent has other ways to defend themselves. This means that the life gain threat not only bought you a free attack, but it forced any opponent that wants to attack you to wait until they have another way to defend themselves against other attackers.
The End of Life (Conclusion)
I use life gain. Creatures with lifelink are usually beneficial for me in some small way. I recommend you use life gain as well. Just use it judiciously and ensure that you are getting maximum benefit from your cards. You’ll find a little life gain will go a long way.
 This seems like a good place to consider cards like Felidar Sovereign, Celestial Convergence, and Test of Endurance. These cards allow you to win when your life total reaches a certain point. These are corner cases and when decks are built around them, life gain is in fact, a threat. However, these are a special subset of decks that I am not really considering when discussing life gain.
 Then your group is demonstrating a level of maturity I have never seen in any group, or even in myself. I know deep down that a larger life total is not a good reason to attack a player. You want to consider everything from cards in hand and permanents in play to determine who is the most threatening and in most need of being attacked. In spite of that, I regularly determine who I am attacking based on life totals. Early in the game it is an easy way to justify an attack. This is the wrong play, but I do it anyway.
 This card has wrecked too many games. Too many opponents have mana-ramped in a game, then waited until the life totals were lower to end the game with an Exsanguinate. Too many good games have been wrecked where all but one player was reduced to single digit life totals while one person’s life total has gone through the roof. I hate these games and hope this card has a special place in hell.