Known for drawing out a few groans, lifegain strategies have always been in the same camp as milling strategies in that undoubtedly someone will try it unsuccessfully. You don't win by increasing your life total, you only delay the inevitable by drawing out the game instead of furthering your board presence.
People didn't believe it was possible for US Nationals back in 2010. The archetype was unprecedented and few other than Conley Woods and myself believed that the deck was real. Here's what I played for that tournament:
- 4 Ajani's Pridemate
- 1 Kor Skyfisher
- 2 Lone Missionary
- 4 Ranger of Eos
- 4 Serra Ascendant
- 4 Soul Warden
- 4 Soul's Attendant
It turns out that Soul Sisters demolished the popular Jund strategy at the time. It felt similar to a mana-ramp style strategy where instead of Llanowar Elves and Lotus Cobra, I had Soul Warden and Lone Missionary to power out an early Serra's Ascendant, which was really similar to an early Baneslayer Angel. What I found strange were how some of the presumably favorable matchups actually weren't and some matchups I thought were bad were good. For example, the Mono-Red Burn deck at the time gave the deck a lot of trouble. The Soul Wardens were small and inefficient and cards like Serra Ascendant and Survival Cache never got online. Seems like the lifegain deck would be an awful matchup for the burn deck on paper, but it wasn't the case in practice. The contrast to that was the U/W Control matchup. It turns out that because they were never capable of pressuring my life total that my cards had free reign to stay active, and they couldn't deal with a bunch of one-mana 6/6 lifelink flyers.
M15 introduced the missing components needed to create a competitive deck based around lifegain triggers. We already had Archangel of Thune as the big payoff card and Path of Bravery seemed strong if it could remain online. The deck was missing just a little bit of oomph to push it into playability range. Ajani's Pridemate is back alongside Ajani Steadfast as an efficient planewalker to gain some life with. Radiant Fountain comes along as the land needed to smooth out the deck without having to rely on too many inefficient lifegain cards maindeck. This is what I'm looking at for Standard:
- 4 Ajani's Pridemate
- 4 Archangel of Thune
- 3 Banisher Priest
- 4 Precinct Captain
- 4 Soldier of the Pantheon
- 4 Nyx-Fleece Ram
- 2 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
One benefit of playing a single-colored deck is access to Mutavault. With all the Glorious Anthem effects in the deck Mutavault is a real threat most of the time when you have to face sweepers like Anger of the Gods and Supreme Verdict. If you can get an Archangel of Thune trigger to put a +1/+1 counter on Mutavault, then you have strong staying power even after they removal the Archangel.
We're playing a few temples here. Archangel of Thune is such an important part of the deck that some library manipulation is nice to dig deeper to find them. In some ways, this is a combo deck in the sense that you need to piece together the synergies for the deck to fire on all cylinders. Since you have no other lands that enter the battlefield tapped there's a little room to work with a few.
I used to play Kabira Crossroads and this is often even better. The deck wants to go all the way up to Elspeth, Sun's Champion so we see 26 lands in the deck. Eight are colorless which seems like a lot, but with eighteen white sources, it's still easy enough to find double white for Precinct Captain and Archangel of Thune. Hold on to these until you have an Ajani's Pridemate or Archangel of Thune if you can.
In a deck that has so many ways to pump small creatures, it's nice to have a card that can produce multiple creatures. Precinct Captain is the most efficient thing you can be doing on turn 2 and plays great both offensively and defensively.
The best one-drop. The "gain 1 life" trigger from Soldier of the Pantheon is often looked as an irrelevant small upside, but when it's adding counters to Ajani's Pridemate or triggering Archangel of Thune then suddenly your opponents have to think twice about casting their multicolored spells.
Another creature that makes 1/1 soldiers. A good threat on its own that can leave behind a small army even after he's dealt with.
A few of these are always nice to have around. Some white decks want the full four Brave the Elements to ensure the final lethal alpha strike connects for the full amount, but here, a couple to protect your key creatures from removal spells are all you need.
Undoubtedly a strong card, Ajani Steadfast has taken a little time to find a correct home. Because it doesn't directly protect itself you need to put it in a shell that has a few creatures on defense. There's no better creature to have behind than the fluffy one…
The stats on this guy are great, but of course it doesn't attack. Or does it? Path of Bravery incentivizes getting in every now and then, and a few Ajani activations or Archangel of Thune counters and suddenly you have a lethal sheep on your hands.
Works double duty padding your life total and acting as a Glorious Anthem. While other decks have a split of Spear of Heliod and Hall of Triumph, we get a non-legendary version that can be as powerful, and you don't mind drawing multiples of them.
The most important card in the deck. We want to maximize the ways to trigger Archangel of Thune as often as possible, including the turn it comes into play. If you think your opponent may have an immediate answer then it's perfectly fine to wait to cast her until you have a Radiant Fountain to play immediately after.
Likely the biggest addition from M15 for the archetype. Ajani's Pridemate can do a very scary Tarmogoyf impression and can grow to an arbitrarily high power and toughness very fast. Left uncontested, Ajani's Pridemate will force your opponent into chump blocking very quickly.
Banishing Light and Banisher Priest serve similar roles, and the priest gets the nod because it's a creature. His biggest problem before wasn't that he died to removal, it was that the 2/2 body wasn't very relevant in combat. When Banisher Priest is a 3/3 or 4/4 that's capable of attacking or blocking, well, we can see how it's now worthwhile.
It's a bit odd to see a curve that goes all the way from Soldier of the Pantheon up to Elspeth, but the six-mana planewalker is soooo powerful in the deck. Stormbreath Dragon is a concern for a Mono-White deck, and she's your main way of removing the troublesome flying dragon. Also making three 2/2 soldier tokens the turn she comes down is very threatening. Alongside Ajani Steadfast, the ultimate of Elspeth, Sun's Champion can approach out of nowhere.
Now that we have a maindeck listed out, let's look at a few cards that didn't quite make the cut. Some are situationally better but don't make the list because they're either redundant or just too inefficient.
Lifelink on any creature is good when you can increase its power. Putting Hopeful Eidolon on a Brimaz for example creates a threat that can never be raced. There's also the benefit of leaving behind a lifelink creature after a card like Supreme Verdict. A 1/1 lifelink isn't that good, of course, but Hopeful Eidolon will often be much more, like a 3/3 or 4/4.
People have been putting Marked by Honor on this in M15 limited, and it's becoming clear that the unassuming Pegasus is actually a good card. The evasion is nice when there aren't many flying creatures in the deck and most ways to trigger Archangel of Thune on the turn you cast her are nice.
The sideboard has a bunch of cards that are worthy of maindeck play but didn't quite make the cut. Solemn Offering and Glare of Heresy are 100% sideboard cards, but the rest could go in either the 60 or the fifteen depending on a metagame. Let's look at the sideboard choices and the reasoning for running them.
Banisher Priest is filling out the removal role maindeck now, but that doesn't mean that Banishing Light doesn't have good utility. The functionality of removing a planeswalker or something like Erebos, God of the Dead, which would otherwise completely kold you, is always welcome to have access to.
Giving your creatures vigilance in a deck that wants to trigger Path of Bravery and also have creatures to block is nice. With 26 lands, there are times when you have enough mana to make two 2/1 Clerics in the same turn. Similar to Precinct Captain and Brimaz, King of Oreskos, the small clerics grow to become real threats.
The Torpor Orb bird stops a few key cards from the big decks, namely Lifebane Zombie and Gray Merchant of Asphodel out of Mono-Black Devotion; and Master of Waves and Cloudfin Raptor's evolve trigger out of Mono-Blue Devotion. I imagine that Hornet Queen would be extremely difficult to power through so stopping the 1/1 flying deathtouch tokens would be excellent.
I liked four of these maindeck in builds of U/W Ephara, but sadly there isn't enough room maindeck for it at the moment. My favorite play from that deck was to cast Keening Apparition to destroy a Detention Sphere or Banishing Light that had nabbed your Ephara. Ephara then sees on the next upkeep that you cast Keening Apparition, and you get to draw a card.
The most efficient removal spell against G/W Aggro with Fleecemane Lion, their own Banishing Light, and Brimaz, King of Oreskos. U/W Control comes with Elspeth, Sun's Champion and Detention Sphere and possibly some white creatures out of their sideboard. I don't think there are enough targets to warrant bringing this in against B/W Midrange however.
There aren't a ton of artifacts or enchantments running around, but when Solemn Offering hits, the extra four life gained couldn't be more welcome. It's narrow but continues with the lifegain plan of the deck without skipping a beat.
Great against haste creatures like Ash Zealot, Chandra's Phoenix, Stormbreath Dragon, and the Saytr tokens from Xenagos, the Reveler. Making their creatures come into play tapped leaves your creatures free to attack and gain life from Path of Bravery. Also the extort gains life to trigger Ajani's Pridemate and Archangel of Thune.
So there you have it. The proper configuration is likely a few cards off, but so far it's been a blast to play. If you expect a bunch of aggro in your metagame like Boss Sligh, R/W Burn, or the new G/W Aggro deck, this is the deck to give them fits.
Any deck that's capable of attacking with a Nyx-Fleece Ram has my stamp of approval.