One of the biggest leaps a new EDH player can take in learning the format is gaining a better understanding about how valuable their life total is in each game. I wrote this article to help people appraise their life total and use that appraisal to make informed decisions in-game.
Appraise Your Life Total Each Game
Each game your life total will change in importance. Consider the following at the start of each match.
You don’t know everything in a game of EDH – players are constantly drawing new cards, cards like Demonic Tutor don’t reveal what they tutor, and people could be making very subtle changes to their deck between play sessions. Understanding the known information within any group of players will arm you to anticipate for when you need to deal with unknown information.
Commanders: What does each Commander at the table tell you about what is within the deck? Uril, The Miststalker should be a dead giveaway that it’s Voltron. Other commanders like Gahiji, Honored One can be built in many ways so you might need to have seen the deck in a previous game to know how the deck is structured.
Players: Players will usually be intrinsically drawn to a playstyle. If you know what that style is you can get a sense of how aggressive/defensive their plays will be and how that will relate to the value of your life total.
What archetypes are at the table? If you’re playing against three dedicated control decks its questionable if you should ever worry about your life total. The same can be true of combo decks that win the game when their combo is achieved: if you are at 1,000 life and they win anyway was your life total really worth anything?
When you start to introduce aggro decks life totals start to matter more consistently because aggro decks usually win via life totals.
When there’s only one aggro deck at the table your life total starts to matter, but there is a geo-political modifier on how much your life total matters. Because the aggro player can either A: focus on one player or B: split the damage, there are usually only two outcomes that concern your life total. You are either the player being focused and have to worry about burst damage the aggro player might be concealing, or the attack is split and your life total is only being harassed slightly.
If there are two or more aggro decks within a game life totals become seriously more relevant because the aggro decks can assist each other in finishing off other players. The output they deliver in a game is delivered to players, as opposed to rewarding themselves (like combo decks do). Like any archetype aggro decks occasionally runs cards like Coat of Arms or Goblin King that give symmetrical benefits that help other decks that are within their archetype.
Watch out for multiple burn decks. Burn is an archetype infamous for running cards like Furnace of Rath that double damage all damage dealt. When there are multiple doubling effects in play the damage is multiplied (two Furnace of Rath would equate to x4 damage, three Furnace would equate to x8 damage, and so on). Because of this two burn decks can act much more explosively together at a table.
Note: Some EDH decks focus on Commander Damage, so you always have to be weary of a voltron deck sneaking in 21 cumulative combat damage points with their commander.
How long do you think the game will last? If someone is playing Mogis, God of Slaughter and you think that the game will probably be decided around turn 6 or 7 that means that on curve Mogis, God of Slaughter will only deal around 6-8 damage to you if you don’t sacrifice creatures. The same can be true about cards like Sulfuric Vortex or Black Vise: games have to go long in order for them to deliver value.
Phyrexian Mana and Life Costing Abilities
Some decks rely on their life total to fuel various value engines in their decks. Its very common for players to pay life for phyrexian cards like Birthing pod, or pay life for effects like Phyrexian Reclamation, Erebos, God of the Dead, or Necropotence. If these decks are super low on life (like 1-3, within easy kill range) it might be possible to let them live one more turn without being punished because they won’t be able to pay life to make their deck function.
Take That Information And Use It
Through all the games that I’ve played, there are usually three general outcomes I come to:
- Life totals don’t matter that much at all, and you should play to stop combos or deploy your own. (this is the most common outcome in games I play but it will vary within each playgroup).
- Life totals will decide the game and you need to watch out when you think your opponents are approaching critical mass.
- The game will go very long and life totals will mater only if there are effects that ping players over time or in small chunks (like Goblin Bombardment, Blood Artist, etc).
Once you’ve gotten a rough handle on what your life total is worth in a game, use it during the game and test your knowledge. Use the information when you are attacking, blocking, and deciding what player should be left alive.
If you don’t know what to do I would choose to err on the side of being reckless with your life total; most decks in EDH do not win by blocking.