Top 8 Most Iconic Life Totals in Modern
“Why’d you concede the game? You had 20 life and your opponent was at 2!”
“I can take one, five equals four here.”
“Life total doesn’t matter.”
“Life total is super important.”
Life total in Magic seems straightforward, but it’s actually a pretty brilliant element of the game. It’s importance, utility, and signaling ability are each in flux depending on the matchup, but it is tracked religiously regardless. However, no one can deny that certain life totals have far more significance than others.
8. Less than Zero
This is a life total that normally doesn’t occur, which makes it extra special whenever it does. We recently had the Opportunity to run around with negative life totals in Standard thanks to Gideon of the Trials, and in Modern, Ad Nauseam often wins with less than 0 life. Of course, having less than 0 life is a risky proposition. If an opponent so much as bounces your Gideon or Unlife, you die on the spot. Well, not quite on the spot, but certainly the next time that state-based effects are checked.
Seventeen has always been my favorite number. It’s the day of my birthday, my last name was such that I was usually numbered 17 in elementary school, and it’s the only prime number that is the sum of four consecutive prime numbers. Undeniably a beautiful number, some would say that it is the best number.
Seventeen is also a celebration of the two most important lands in Modern: fetchlands and shocklands. Starting off a game of Modern with a fetchland, grabbing a shockland, and going down to 17 life is a ritual that most players are familiar with. In some decks, it’s probably safe to just write down 17 on your life pad before the game starts, so reliable is this opening sequence.
Whenever a player goes to 18, whether off a shockland, two fetches, or two hits from a Sakura Tribe Elder, you see a glimmer of light in the eyes of every Scapeshift player around you. Going to 18 takes an entire turn off the clock of Scapeshift, something your opponent is sure to thank you for, even if those thanks do take the form of a frenzy of Valakut triggers. If you’re playing against Titanshift, beware! Take extra care to avoid those first two points of damage; doing so can be the difference between a win and being dead.
Despite Death’s Shadow being a 13/13, 12 is the more important number to Death’s Shadow players. Being at 12 life means that a Shadow can be deployed without dying. As you watch your opponent Cycle Street Wraiths, cast Thoughtseizes, and shock themselves, you’re mostly hoping that they don’t go down to 12 too quickly. A Death’s Shadow on the board of a player with 12 life is the scariest 1/1 you can face down. You would really love to try to kill it, but they totally wouldn’t have played it if they couldn’t grow it at instant speed. All the tricks and glory that comes with playing a Death’s Shadow truly begin once you deal that magical eighth point of damage to yourself.
Name a more iconic duo.
While the glory days of Splinter Twin have gone, and Grixis Control ceded its throne to UW Control (unless your name is Corey Burkhart), the legendary pairing of Snapcaster and Bolt still force a reflexive hesitation when I go down to six life. Being able to use Snapcaster Mage in a proactive fashion is why URx Control decks are better Snapcaster Mage decks than UWx Control decks, even though they may be worse decks overall. Being able to switch gears and close out the game quickly is not to be underestimated, and it’s a versatility that Snapcaster Mage is more than happy to provide. The words, “Bolt, Snap, Bolt,” will forever strike fear into the hearts of players.
If you’re at four life, you might be dead to Bolt-Snap-Bolt, but you’re certainly not dead to just one Bolt. And that can be a huge relief. Being at four life means that, if your opponent is playing read, you can no longer crack fetches or take chip damage. But it also means that there’s still a chance…
If you’re at three, you might as well be dead. Since the earliest days of Alpha playtesting, Lightning Bolt has been murdering poor wizards who’ve gone to three life. The perfect mix of a removal spell and that extra reach for a fantastic rate, there’s a reason that Lightning Bolt has been format-defining, iconic, and a powerhouse. In fact, it may have killed more players than any other card in the game of Magic. That’s why, if you’re playing against Red in Modern, you never go to three.
Appropriately, the number one life total is one. As players are so fond of saying, “One is not zero,” “Only the last point matters,” and “Where did I miss a point during this game…?” There’s nothing more satisfying than stabilizing and winning when you’re at one life. One life is a true embrace of the idea that life is a resource to be used to win the game. If you’re winning at one, you’ve squeezed every last ounce of utility out of those 20 points… or you might just have stumbled your way through the game and gotten lucky. Either way, winning at one adds a degree of satisfaction that winning at other numbers simply can’t match.
May you Bolt your opponents at three life and win your games at one.
Ryan Normandin is a grinder from Boston who has lost at the Pro Tour, in GP & SCG Top 8's, and to 7-year-olds at FNM. Despite being described as "not funny" by his best friend and "the worst Magic player ever" by Twitch chat, he cheerfully decided to blend his lack of talents together to write funny articles about Magic.
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