I enjoy gaining life. I truly am a sucker for the glorious joy that is increasing the amount of damage my opponent must inflict before finishing me off. From the surprise rouge Crypt Incursion when playing Dimir Mill to the endless fun of Whip of Erebos and Gray Merchant of Asphodel, life gain is always something I enjoy.
Life gain is not always good though. When I made my first Sultai midrange deck this season I included Feed the Clan, and found it to be of good use during the early meta, but as I watched the deck’s expected win percent fall in the Excel I use for testing I could not help but see that Feed the Clan was holding the deck back rather than pushing it forward (Taigam’s Scheming also no longer cuts it). Life gain can be a huge trap, especially if it is only a one time gain that often is a dead card when facing down a loaded board state.
The question is, can a focused life gain strategy succeed in Khans of Tarkir standard?
Life Life Baby
The most important card in this deck is not either member of the Khans all-star team of Sorin, Solemn Visitor and Wingmate Roc. Rather it is the classic, but often forgotten, M15 common Ajani’s Pridemate. The number of games that can be won with simply a Pridemate and the life gain two colored lands, such as Scoured Barrens, is surprising. Being able to add tokens to creatures simply by playing a land each turn is a huge tempo advantage as you increase your presence on the board for the simple cost that your land enters tapped. This is rarely a painful condition with such a large portion of the meta playing slower three color midrange and control decks. Aggressive decks are typically a concern when using a slower mana base, but the large amount of life gain in the deck creates a very challenging match for aggro and hybrid aggro/burn decks. This easy interaction is especially crippling against decks, such as mono red, who rely on Stoke the Flamesto do much of their creature removal as often Pridemate will have more than four toughness before they can obtain the necessary mana. Ajani’s Pridemate is an offensive powerhouse who opponents know needs to be killed before we can get him to an undesirable size.
Besides the life gain lands Pridemate’s core support team is made up of Soulmender and Underworld Coinsmith. Soulmender is a card that has always been a joke. Even in the era of Archangel of Thune there seemed to be better support options in a life gain deck. I feel that in this deck though, having the ability to start gaining life off of a one drop creature is extremely valuable, primarily for getting Pridemate out of the Drown in Sorrow, Magma Jet, and Searing Blood danger zone on turn two and into safety from Anger of the Gods, Bile Blight, and Lightning Strike by turn three. Underworld Coinsmith partners with the eleven maindeck enchantments, with nine more in the sideboard, to give even more opportunities to have Ajani’s Pridemate get bigger. A sample hand of Mana Confluence, Caves of Koilos, Wind-Scarred Crag, Ajani’s Pridemate, Soulmender, Underworld Coinsmith, and literally any other card allows for a turn three attacking 5/5. With all these cards appearing in the full sets of four, a great draw like this is quite obtainable.
Underworld Coinsmith is not just present to gain life via Constellation, but also as a secondary win condition. For just a black mana and a white mana he can drain a life from both my opponent and I. The difference between my opponent and I is that I am ideally gaining life every turn, making the burn sting a whole lot less for me than them. The other card in the deck which serves a similar purpose is Scholar of Athreos. Scholar is pretty effective at draining their life in that for only one more mana it gains you a life rather than taking one from you. Scholar of Athreos is also a decent blocker, sitting at four toughness.
The deck plays two creatures who are effectively walls with upside in Nyx-Fleece Ram and Wall of Essence. Playing a wall on turn two can be a big turning point when facing down an aggressive beatdown, further assisting the deck in succeeding in those matchups. Both of these cards do more than just draw out games though. Nyx-Fleece Ram has become a favorite of control decks to help hold down the fort. With five toughness and the ability to gain a life each turn the card is an all-star. Wall of Essence gets less love, but has the insane rule that its controller gains life equal to the amount of damage dealt to it. Against any creature without flying Wall of Essence is useful.
The deck packs seven mainboard flyers to try and go over a clogged ground board state. I admit, I misvalued Wingmate Roc when it was previewed. The card is great, for many reasons stated far and wide online, plus in this case the life gain is even more relevant than in other decks. At the end of the day, this is the sort of creature I want at the top of my mana curve. Hushwing Gryff on the other hand is a creature with received much fanfare before coming out but has failed to make much of a splash other than in Ondřej Stráský’s deck at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir. On top of giving the deck another evading attack element, it is a key card in shoring up the horrible matchup provided by Hornet Queen (while also doing well with Siege Rhino and such other cards). I had also tested with Hopeful Eidolon, but found the +1/+1 from bestow to not be a significant enough improvement to warrant inclusion.
Better than just adding +1/+1 to a creature is adding many counters, and that is where Sunbond comes in. Sunbond turns each life I gain into a +1/+1 counter. Ideally by now you can see that 42 cards in the deck cause me to gain life, meaning that there are a lot of counters just asking to be added to my creatures. Sunbond turns Nyx-Fleece Ram into a complete monster that must be answered, but can be great on any creature who needs a size boost to be relevant in the late game. The center of the show in this deck may not be Sorin, Solemn Visitor, but he plays the role of support Planeswalker exceptionally well. His +1 makes both blocking and attacking better, he can create attacking flyers, and if he ultimates, which can happen by turn six in this deck, then creature based decks quickly fall into trouble.
A word on the mana base: half the land in the deck produced the black mana needed for Sorin, Underworld Coinsmith, and Scholar of Athreos. In my testing there has only been one time where I could not play Sorin or Coinsmith on curve, but I was still able to use all of my mana that turn on other spells. I do feel confident that the amount of tapped lands is right, and that the eight untapped lands are enough to allow key spells to be played on curve. The key to this is simple fore thinking, if you do not need the mana from a land that turn, play a tapped land to keep the untapped one for when it is needed. This is not new thinking though after a year of the Theros block temples being in Standard.
The sideboard is anchored by four Banishing Light. These actually seem to be going down in usefulness as the number of Erase we are seeing get played increases, but it is still is an answer to any permanent be it an enchantment, creature, or planeswalker. Generally Banishing Light will be brought into most matchups that have threats my walls cannot handle. This includes pretty much every midrange battle and Planeswalker heavy control builds. It also is good to take care of a