Revising the Rules - The Starting Life Total Is Too Damn High

Jake FitzSimons • August 6, 2021

Mana Crypt by Matt Stewart

G'day, Jake FitzSimons here. I'm an Australian Commander player who loves everything from janky art-themed decks all the way up to cutthroat high power. I've been playing Commander since 2016 and over that time I've had my fair share of ideas about how my favorite format could change, and even more ideas about how it should change if I were in charge.

This is the first of a series that will discuss some potential changes: the positives, the pitfalls and - most importantly - the possibilities. These articles reflect only my opinions and I hope they will foster discussion and debate, or at least encourage you to try my ideas in your own playgroup. Of course, you should always play the game you and your playgroup want to!

Life Totals Should Start at 30

I'm going to begin today by trying to shake one of the pillars of the format: I think players should begin the game at 30 life, not 40.

Long before Commander became an official format, the life total was 200 divided by the number of players in any given pod. But wanting a more consistent set of rules, the RC of yesteryear changed it to the current total of 40 each, and so it has remained ever since. This massive buffer of life allows for a more leisurely pace and additional time for every deck to get up and running, but I believe it may be stifling diversity and leading to some of the problems in the format.

It gives players significantly more time to draw cards, play ramp spells, and leverage their life total into various forms of advantage. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - it's part of the format's appeal. But the issue lies in the nature of the color pie and which colors capitalize on the additional time afforded. Namely, it is a great boon to blue, green, and black, but much less so white and red.

Boro- pardon me, Lorehold struggles to transition into a format with a longer average game length and inflated life total, and the reasons are twofold. Red's primary strengths of speed and direct damage are much less useful when they are up against 100 more life than they were designed for, and white's ability to delay and gain life is somewhat muted when the nature of the format does so much of that work already. Beyond that, the increasing incentives to play game-winning combos make padding out your life total manually close to irrelevant.

It Makes Lifeloss More Relevant

Forty life also mitigates balancing effects of cards that use lifeloss as a downside, like Sylvan Library, Vampiric Tutor, and Mana Crypt. Ah but Jake, these cards are only issues in competitive playgroups where the social contract is null! Trust me, I hear you. Yet in the case of the latter, two particularly recent reprints show WotC is determined to put these cards in the hands of players, regardless of power level. I am seeing a growing amount of high power staples at casual tables, and I don't think that trend will be letting up anytime soon. 

But irrespective of budget and power level, most playgroups will be familiar with painful manabases. As WotC prints evermore five color Commanders and their popularity grows, so does the prevalence of shocklands, painlands, horizon lands, Mana Confluence, City of Brass, Ancient Tomb, and on the higher end, fetchlands. In traditional formats, color fixing this good comes at the price of precious life while lower color decks are given the benefit of painless manabases, but this tradeoff is less apparent in Commander. Even the ubiquitous Talisman cycle taxes your life, and I'd like "Pay 1 life" to feel a little more like a cost and a little less like flavor text.

Nobody likes being mana screwed, and I'm certainly not advocating for less access to the right colors at the right time, but it would be nice to feel as though there was a downside to having access to three or more colors on demand. I'm worried about just how much better it is to build a deck with multiple colors and the decreasing amount of incentives to run mono-colored decks, but that's an article for another day.

It Makes Red and White Stronger

I want to make clear that I think Commander should still remain a haven from getting pummeled into the ground by lightning-fast aggro decks. But there should be an avenue for aggressive strategies beyond Voltron decks, an already underpowered and underrepresented niche within the format. And speaking of Voltron, a lower life total would still assist their game plan! Don't get me wrong, starting at 30 won't make Monastery Swiftspear a Commander all-star, but it might lead to games where a well-timed Lightning Bolt can make an actual difference and aggro decks are treated with a bit more respect.  

It's hard to disagree that less life would help red decks, but it can be a little harder to see how it would help white decks. With lifegain being such a central part of white's mechanical identity, you might think that a lower life would be a detriment, yet the inverse is true. Scarcity breeds demand, and the less life a player begins with, the more valuable it will be to pad it out. I don't imagine anyone will be sleeving up a copy of Healing Salve anytime soon, but there is no shortage of solid lifegain cards that white players would feel much less embarrassed about using.

Everyone constantly asks for more ramp and card draw in white and red, and while we're moving in the right direction with red cards like Jeska's Will and Dockside Extortionist and white cards like Monologue Tax and Esper Sentinel, I fear an erosion of color identity. I love these cards, I play these cards, but homogenizing the color pie for the sake of Commander is bad news for the game as a whole. The easier solution - the healthier solution - is letting what makes these colors powerful shine a little brighter.

Going through the top 100 cards on EDHREC, there are a total of 12 cards that use life as a resource, and only three that gain life. Those three are Tatyova, Benthic Druid Swords to Plowshares, and Nature's Claim, and I'd argue the last two don't really count on account of the lifegain being a detriment. This tells me two things: incidental lifeloss is largely irrelevant, and life is so plentiful that gaining it deliberately is almost never valuable outside of a dedicated lifegain deck. 

It Makes Combos Weaker

At the end of the day, it is always going to be easier to put together a game-winning combo than it will be to chew through the combined life totals of three different opponents. Cards are designed around one opponent having 20 life, not 120 life across three opponents. This is what Sheldon Menery has called the "descent to the infinite." Even very casual decks increasingly include incidental infinites, simply because it is the easiest way to win multiplayer games.

True, combo players will always exist, but the temptation would be tempered if players were given less time to assemble game-winning combinations behind the safety of forty life. More deck space would have to be devoted to self-preservation and protection, and less on playing solitaire and durdling into a broken interaction. Likewise, players that totally eschew combos and want to bring down their opponents the old-fashioned way would have significantly less of a hurdle to jump over.

In short, if you want to win the game with weenies and warriors and werewolves, I don't think you should have to work so hard!

It Speeds Up Games

One of the biggest benefits that would come from all of this would be shorter game length. Longer game length draws players to Commander, but you can have too much of a good thing. We've all sat through games that stretch on for hours with no end in sight. I may be in a minority here, but I am not a fan of these games. They are beyond miserable if you fall behind and can't pull yourself back in the running. They result in more draws where everyone involved has to go home before the LGS closes. They make organized play harder to manage. But most importantly, shorter game length doesn't mean less Commander, it just means more games. That's more opportunities to see your perfect opening hand. More chances for your deck to do the thing. More opportunities for exciting, memorable moments. It's less time spent sitting on the sidelines when you get knocked out early.

A change of this size would no doubt be a titanic shift in the way Commander is played, but with just a few tiny exceptions - Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow and K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth certainly come to mind - I don't think it would make any decks too powerful or too weak. It would simply level the playing field, smooth out the variance between the strongest and weakest decks, and incentivise fairer Magic. 

So, what do you think? Have you ever tried lowering the starting life total? God forbid, have you tried raising it? Is the very idea of tweaking such a fundamental part of the format blasphemy of the most egregious kind? Let me know in the comments below!

Jake FitzSimons is a writer from Sydney and a Magic fiend. He's either the johnniest spike or the spikiest johnny, nobody is sure which. When he isn’t brewing or playing cEDH, he can be found writing, playing piano, and doting on his little cat.