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Winning Ways: Lifegain


A Rest on the Ride by Albert Bierstadt (1863-4). Aven of Enduring Hope by James Ryman.

In this month's "Winning Ways" I'm going to start with a look at another one of those cards that reads "win the game."

Winning with a "win the game" card can be relatively easy if you're going the tried and true Lab Man route. It can be extremely challenging if you're using one of the many other odd and obscure wincon cards Wizards has printed over the years. I've built more than a few of these decks and because I rotate through my deck library so much, I have a hard time sticking with one of them for long enough to let the deck get there. It's far from a sure thing. These decks might win, but it takes focus and dedication to get your janky weird wincon deck over the finish line using its "win the game" card.

Today's build is going to be the combination of a few ideas that I've had bouncing around for a while with a wincon card thrown into the mix for good measure. My card du jour is the Throne of Eldraine rare Happily Ever After.

Happily Ever After

When this Enchantment enters the battlefield, each player gains 5 life and draws a card. That's not great, but it's not a huge deal. The bar I've got to reach to win the game with this card isn't easy to achieve. I need to have five colors among permanents I control, there need to be six or more card types among permanents I control and cards in my graveyard, and my life total has to be greater than or equal to my starting life total. That's all. No biggie, right?

The art on this card hints at how to build around it. Kenrith, the Returned King is the obvious choice for a Happily Ever After deck. He's got lifegain and recursion in his list of activated abilities and even though his casting cost is White, his color identity is five-color so he gives us access to every infinite mana combo I might want to run. My problem with Kenrith is that he makes it a little too easy and I'm not at a point where I'm ready to retool my current Kenrith deck. Making infinite mana so I can gain infinite life, draw my deck and recur anything I want gives me access to any wincon I want, making a Kenrith Happily Ever After win not quite as much of an achievement as it should be.

That begs the question - if I'm not using Kenrith, how do I approach this wincon and what commander should I build around?

A Long and Winding Road

A while back I built a Niv-Mizzet Reborn deck that was designed to maximize the number of cards I'd wind up putting into my hand when I cast my commander. I wrote about it last May and you can read that column here.

Niv-Mizzet Reborn

I would regularly see casual Niv-Mizzet Reborn decks hit the field and only flop into one or two cards that they'd be able to keep. They weren't necessarily bad decks, but their construction was such that they just weren't hitting a lot of two-color cards. My build focused on two-color Dragons and also ran two cycles of cards that had land cycling abilities.

Sylvan Reclamation
Igneous Pouncer

The five-card cycle of basic landcycling cards are Migratory Route, Ancient Excavation, Sylvan Reclamation, Grave Upheaval and Treacherous Terrain. They aren't great cards, but they all have two colors and they can all be cycled for a basic land for the low cost of 2 mana. The five-card cycle of land type land cycling (Plainscycling, Islandcycling, etc...) are all creatures. Sanctum Plowbeast, Jhessian Zombies, Pale Recluse, Igneous Pouncer and Valley Rannet aren't exactly Commander staples, but they're all two-color cards and they can each be cycled for one of two basic lands for the same cost of two mana.

Are these cards "good" cards? No, they are not.

The thing is, I really enjoyed having my Niv-Mizzet 10-card flops hit a lot more cards than anyone else. I ran Food Chain combo as my wincon and would generally win off using Chorus of the Conclave and Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord. I know, these aren't exactly cEDH lines of play, but it was fun and I enjoyed it.

With the release of the 2020 Commander decks, I spent a lot of time looking at mutate creatures and for some reason resisting the urge to build an infect deck. I'm still resisting, but my Nethroi, Apex of Death deck is looking like it might soon get the infect treatment. While I did pick up the Sultai deck led by Otrimi, the Ever-Playful, I also bought the Jeskai cycling deck. I haven't played either yet, but the Gavi, Nest Warden cycling deck made me think about all of those old land cycling cards from my Niv-Mizzet deck.

I couldn't help but wonder whether I could make a five-color cycling deck work.

The Gavi precon deck has a lot of cards with cycling and that care about cycling. That's good. A lot of those cards aren't in two colors. That's not helpful, but it's also not a showstopper. I'll never get the ridiculous rate of return that my old Niv-Mizzet deck saw, but that's okay. Don't forget that my other plan revolves around setting up to win off of Happily Ever After. Cycling is a keyword that works pretty well with that plan, as discarding will help to build up the graveyard.

I'm going after my Happily Ever After wincon and I'm going all-in on cycling, combining parts of the Gavi precon with the land cycling and the commander from my old Niv-Mizzet Reborn deck. Having Niv on the field will give me five colors among permanents that I control. My cycling cards should load up the graveyard, hopefully getting six permanent types out of my library to fulfill that part of the win requirement.

What's left?

Oh yeah. Lifegain...

Living Lifegain to the Fullest

I think it's unlikely that this deck will be able to get through the average game and not have lost life. I could set up a nice little pillow fort, but I'm not exactly running Oloro, Ageless Ascetic in the command zone. I just don't see relying on incremental lifegain to make our wincon happen. That leaves one simple solution: combo.

I'm in five colors so I can run any lifegain combo I want to run. While I'd love to run ones that have cards in two colors so Niv can find them for me, beggars can't be choosers.

Spike Feeder
Archangel of Thune
Heliod, Sun-Crowned

This combo is known as "Angel Chord" and relies upon the interaction between Spike Feeder and Archangel of Thune. You remove a +1/+1 counter to gain 2 life and that instance of life gain causes Archangel of Thune to put a +1/+1 counter back onto Spike Feeder. It's janky, but it works. Chord of Calling is a good tutor that will let me grab a missing combo piece, and is where the "Chord" part of Angel Chord comes from. Heliod, Sun-Crowned can step in for Archangel of Thune, putting a +1/+1 counter on target creature or enchantment whenever I gain life.

Resplendent Mentor
Famished Paladin

Resplendent Mentor will let you tap a White creature to gain 1 life. Famished Paladin will untap when you gain life, letting you keep doing it as long as you like. We could also use Sorcerer's Wand after giving our hungry Paladin lifelink to kill the table with direct damage. One thing I like to emphasize is that if you want to win games, running backup wincons is important. These are 100-card decks and you might go multiple games without seeing Happily Ever After at all. It's always good to have a backup plan.

Until now we haven't seen any two-color combo cards, but here are a few that Niv-Mizzet might be able to grab for us.

Boros Reckoner
Nearheath Pilgrim
Boros Charm

With Boros Reckoner on the field and bonded to Nearheath Pilgrim, all we need is for Boros Reckoner to take damage. In response to him taking damage we make him indestructible with Boros Charm. We then redirect the damage from Boros Reckoner back to himself again and again for infinite life gain.

The beautiful thing about infinite life gain is that it will both set us up for a key part of a Happily Ever After win and it will provide a pretty nice buffer against decks that are trying to play fair. Anyone not running infect, combo, or a legitimate commander damage threat will have real trouble beating us once our life total has shot up into the stratosphere.

Test of Endurance
Aetherflux Reservoir

If I owned a copy, I'd throw in Test of Endurance as another potential wincon if we're going after a lifegain combo. It sets a much lower bar to win the game than Happily Ever After, but it would be foolish not to run it as a backup plan. I do own Aetherflux Reservoir and it represents a wincon if my life total has gone up enough. Cycling won't have me gaining life, but I should be casting spells along the way and there are a few ways to gain life in today's list.

Paths to Victory

As this deck comes together, it's become clear to me that this will sit comfortably in the middle of the power range. It sure isn't cEDH, but I think it should be stronger than your average precon. I could be wrong about that, but usually a deck that focuses down on one or two things will do better than precons, which famously suffer from something akin to multiple personality disorder.

The Timeless Wisdom precon comes with some powerful cards that I've kept in the mix. Brallin, Skyshark Rider and Shabraz, the Skyshark push damage out to the whole table when I discard and give me lifegain and a legitimate combat threat if I'm drawing enough cards. Gavi, Nest Warden, The Locust God, Psychosis Crawler and Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind all turn my cycling into value.

I've added a few creatures to the mix, though the creature backbone of this precon is well suited to building a cycling deck.

Drannith Healer
Drannith Stinger
Snare Tactician

Niv-Mizzet, Parun seemed like an obvious include, but unless I've got my Chromatic Lantern on the field, I think it's unrealistic that I'll be able to hit such a demanding casting cost. Drannith Healer fits right in, and will give me another way to gain life. Drannith Stinger will push damage out to my opponents when I cycle cards, making it a real threat if this deck is able to execute its game plan. Snare Tactician should let me strategically open up my opponents to each others' attacks, hopefully leaving me able to survive into the mid or late game. Nothing is quite as inviting to attack as a strong opponent whose deathtouch or vigilant blocker just got tapped before combat.

The artifacts and enchantments in the precon are also well suited for a cycling deck. That should come as no surprise; Wizards of the Coast does a good job with their precon decks, wanting new players coming into the format to have fun and actually be able to compete against other mid-level and casual EDH decks.

Escape Protocol
Unpredictable Cyclone
Amulet of Vigor

Escape Protocol will be very helpful with Niv-Mizzet Reborn on the battlefield, allowing me to flicker him and get another 10-card flop for just one mana when I cycle another card. Unpredictable Cyclone is a card I'm torn about. My dream scenario when cycling is that I get to keep cycling and this enchantment will let me cast the next card of the same card type off the top of my library for free. It's like a Chaos Warp without the helpful removal part and my hand will be down a card. If I flop into something great, I'll be happy, but if I hit a cycling card when I'm positioned to want to keep cycling, I'll be less pleased.

One card I'll probably never be sad to see is Amulet of Vigor. I've reworked this deck to have a 5 color mana base with a ton of cycling lands. Those lands all enter the battlefield tapped. With Amulet of Vigor on the field, that problem is solved.

The Decklist

This is a rough draft and the list below doesn't quite match the list in paper I've been working on, but that will change when I put my next order for cards in at CoolStuffInc.com. The precon I started with sported 30 cards with the cycling keyword. This list comes in at 55 cycling cards. I've long felt that going all-in on a strategy or keyword can result in the potential to have some pretty explosive games and I'm pretty sure this deck is no exception. If I can set myself up right, I should be able to do an awful lot of cycling. With the right cards on the field, that should help me win and should also help me draw into my lifegain combos.

Niv-Mizzet Cycling | Commander | Stephen Johnson

That's a lot of cards. With only one of each basic land, I'm looking at that rare "true" singleton EDH deck. I've done this before with a Hermit Druid Muldrotha, the Gravetide build that ran no basic lands at all, but this might be a first for me.

Final Thoughts

I'm loving this concept, but I'm genuinely nervous that it won't be able to compete at the tables I usually play at. My current meta is not at all shy about trying to win as quickly as possible and wanting to push power levels up towards cEDH. I do that too, but it does make me wonder if a deck like this belongs in a more casual meta. I tend to be overly optimistic about how easy it will be for a deck to play out its game plan, so until I've had a chance to sleeve up this hot mess and play it in a game or two, I won't be sure how well it will do.

I started out with the goal of building a deck around Happily Ever After. Somehow I wound up with a deck that has more cards with the cycling keyword than not. I don't generally get excited about cycling even though I recognize that card draw is incredibly important and is a real key to winning games. I'm also just strangely averse to discarding cards, so the chance to draw and discard doesn't usually excite me. This deck could be the cure for my condition, proving beyond any doubt that it's really powerful to be able to see more of your deck in a given game.

I like to bring you ideas and decks that you might never see anywhere else. That doesn't mean all my ideas wind up being great ones, so I'd love to hear what you think. Am I onto something interesting here, or do you think Gavi, Nest Warden is just so much more powerful a commander that the deck would have been better left as a slightly modified precon with her at the helm?

Have you ever won with Happily Ever After, and if you have, were you playing a Kenrith deck or did you take a different path to solving this puzzle? Was it Slivers? I'm betting it was Slivers. If you were going to build a Happily Ever After deck, how would you approach it?

I'll likely be diving into some new commanders in the coming weeks. I'm always open to suggestions, so if there's a new legendary creature you would like me to write about please comment below.

That's all I've got for today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!

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