- Brent Terean
At one of the most recent Standard GPs, the five most played cards had been: Forest, Island, Swamp, Mountain … and Fabled Passage. People have long claimed there's a problem with the white part of Magic's color pie. But now, with Theros Beyond Death, there is hope for a revival!
In recent years, the color white in Magic has lost a lot of its former grandeur. What was once the color of efficient removal, taxation, and protection has been relegated to aggro decks or to a supporting role. For a good snapshot of white in reference to the rest of the color pie since Return to Ravnica, we might want to look at the Top 12 Pioneer archetypes according to various online resources: there, we only find white as the secondary color in White-Blue Control and sometimes Burn, as well as the color of a single sideboard card in Lotus Storm.
Refocusing the Color Pie
In 2019 we saw a refocus on one of white's least powerful, rarely competitively attributes: lifegain. We saw Ajani's Pridemate reprinted in War of the Spark, a slew of lifegain matters cards alongside Ajani, Strength of the Pride in Core Set 2020, and Linden, Steadfast Queen in Throne of Eldraine. Also in Eldraine, we got Kenrith, the Returned King with an ability for every color. Red is haste, green is +1/+1 counters, black is reanimation, blue is card draw, and white … is lifegain.
All of this combined with the less frequent appearance of white's more traditional traits points to Wizards deciding to emphasize white's lifegain theme. The first Theros Beyond Death spoilers including Daxos, Blessed by the Sun shows that this redirection is continuing as we move into the first set of 2020.
But there's an issue here: lifegain has very rarely been a competitive archetype. Even during M20 Standard, the deck barely put up results. The issue is that you can gain a hundred life, but if that's all you've done, you're still going to lose. A control deck will still win in the late game, an aggro deck will eventually beat through your life total, a combo deck will eventually go off. Simply gaining life isn't enough to win a game. Luckily, it seems that Wizards know this and are addressing this issue by finally printing good payoffs for lifegain.
Recently, we've received excellent reasons to play lifegain in Standard, beginning with Ajani, Strength of the Pride and its mate. This planeswalker turns on other lifegain-matters cards extremely well and creates additional Pridemates himself. If you're far ahead, Ajani can even exile your opponent's boards entirely. Ajani has been around for a while in Standard, but he hasn't quite found a home yet.
Now Theros Beyond Death kicks the theme into overdrive: Heliod, Sun-Crowned is an incredible reason to involve yourself with the lifegain archetype. If it is on the field, Heliod serves as an indestructible Ajani's Pridemate that can distribute its +1/+1 counters to any creature. More than that, though, it can also grant creatures lifelink for a measly 2 mana and, once you have enough devotion, can be a respectable 5/5 beater.
A Possible Standard Decklist
Together with a myriad of support cards, we may see these two mythics push lifegain into the forefront of the Standard format. Below is where I would start for a best-of-one deck, but keep in mind that the following is merely a first draft.
This list is geared toward grinding away the mid game on the back of Heliod, Ajani, Gideon, and Elspeth while gaining life to grow our Angels and Pridemates. Healer's Hawk is a cheap way to trigger Ajani's Pridemate in the early game, but also serves an evasive threat for Elspeth to pump or Heliod to put +1/+1 counters on in the late game.
We don't know what the metagame will look like post Theros though, so this may not be the best way to build the deck. Maybe we'll see the deck splash blue for Teferi, Time Raveler or black for Basilica Bell-Haunt. We could see the return of God-Eternal Oketra, or maybe someone will want to find Heliod with Arcanist's Owl and suit it up with All That Glitters. Impassioned Orator can act as Daxos number five through eight, and both could benefit massively from a suitably devoted Reverent Hoplite. Really, there are a million ways the lifegain archetype could manifest this coming Standard.
A Breath of New Life for White
2019 and 2020 seem to be the years that Wizards really started pushing the lifegain portion of white's color pie slice. Traditionally, the archetype has never been the best, but the new support from Theros Beyond Death could change that. If white's progression this year is anything like green's was last year, we may be in for a treat — or maybe a few bans. Outside of Standard, players will even have to cope with a brand-new infinite combo in Walking Ballista plus Heliod, Sun-Crowned.
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