Published on 10/16/2006

Get a Life!

Cranial Translation
[No translations yet]

Note: This article is over two years old. Information in this article may be out of date due to subsequent Oracle and/or rules changes. Proceed with caution.

Welcome back to another edition of Cranial Insertion! It's the third Monday of the month, so we're going to do a single-topic article this time. Today, we'll be talking about the life total, and all the wacky things that can happen to it over the course of a game.

As always, you can send your Magic questions to us at . We won't tell you to get a life (unless you ask us about the life total), but we will give you an answer, and we just might use your question in a future column. The only easier way to get your name in lights is to make $25 million a year, but be thoroughly unable to buy a hit in the postseason!

Let's commence with getting lives, shall we?

Q: I'm good at math and want to keep my life total in my head. Can I do this?

A: Sure, as long as you also have a visual way to keep track of it. You can be the most wizardly math wizard who ever ... uh, wized, but you still need to display your life total. Pen and paper is by far the preferred method for this. Dice will suffice, but you're able to bang the table, so what they say might go away. (How's that for some rhymes?)

I mentioned above that pen and paper is the preferred method of tracking life totals. This is because both players can clearly see what the total is, and it provides a method of tracking the changes to the life totals. If a life total discrepancy arises, it's easier for a judge to sort things out when there is a record of the changes. It can come down to something as simple as one player forgetting to record losing 1 life for a fetchland. Dice, besides being unreliable (ooops, sorry that I bumped the table!) provide no way of tracking the changes in a life total, except to say that you've gone from 20 to your current total. So make everyone happy and use pen and paper. It's easier for you as players, and it's easier for judges who might have to straighten out a dispute over life totals.

100.2. In constructed play, each player needs his or her own deck of at least sixty cards, small items to represent any tokens and counters, and some way to clearly track life totals.

Bonus: If you have a Ph.D. in math, you could use the back of your diploma as a life sheet. Who said advanced degrees weren't useful?

No infinity for you!
Q: Can I have infinite life?

A: No. Mathematically speaking, infinity is a concept, not a number. Magic uses only natural numbers, so your life total has to be a finite value. If you have some combo that generates you ridiculously large amounts of life using an in-game loop, you can execute it a certain number of times and essentially set your life total at a number of your choosing. The old "Life" decks in Extended generally set their life totals at a billion or so. It's chump change to Bill Gates, but it's way too much for an aggro deck to handle.

Bonus: You can only execute your loop an arbitrary amount of times if your opponent has no responses to any of its iterations.

Q: If I have a deck that gains arbitrarily high amounts of life, can I keep my life total on a calculator?

A: That would be up to the head judge of the event. Nothing is technically wrong with using a calculator, since it is a visible means of tracking your life total. However, there are a few issues with it. How easily can your opponent see your life total from across the table? What if the calculator goes into a "sleep" mode during a long game? What if the batteries die or it doesn't get enough light? Considering that you can execute life loops however many times you want, it shouldn't be hard to keep track of your life with pen and paper.

Q: I lose if my life total ever goes to 0, right?

A: Most of the time. When state-based effects check (whenever a player would receive priority, and during the cleanup step), if you have 0 or less life, you will lose the game. However, if your life dips down to (or below) 0 and then goes up all during the resolution of a spell or ability, you won't lose. State-based effects don't check while spells and abilities are resolving, and as long as you have a positive life total when they do check, you're fine.

There aren't a lot of examples of this, but here's one. We'll use a Timeshifted card from Time Spiral so that the example is nice and current. Your opponent is at 3 life and has two 1/1 creatures in play. You play Fiery Justice, targeting both creatures for 1 damage, and your opponent for 3. While Fiery Justice is resolving, your opponent will go to 0 life. However, later in the resolution of the spell, your opponent will gain 5 life. After Fiery Justice has resolved and state-based effects are checked, your opponent will be at 5 life, so he'll get to play on. (His creatures, however, will not.)

What's my life? Who cares!
Q: I have Platinum Angel in play, and my life total has gone down into the negatives. Isn't it treated as being zero?

A: Sometimes. The game does know the actual number, though, so anything that wants to change your life total will use the real value of it, not zero. Peep this:

104.2. If a creature's power or toughness, a mana cost, a player's life total, or an amount of damage would be less than 0, it's treated as 0 for all purposes except changing that total. If anything needs to use a number that can't be determined, it uses 0 instead.

Q: I have a Circle of Protection: Red in play. If I have unused mana from Mountains, can I prevent the mana burn with my COP?

No, for two reasons. First, lands are colorless (unless something specifically gives them a color). Second, mana burn is loss of life, not damage, so damage prevention effects won't do anything about it.

300.3. When a phase ends (but not a step), any unused mana left in a player's mana pool is lost. That player loses 1 life for each one mana lost this way. This is called mana burn. Mana burn is loss of life, not damage, so it can't be prevented or altered by effects that affect damage. This game action doesn't use the stack.

Q: So if I have Mindslaver out, I can use it to control my opponent's turn and make him mana burn?

Sorry, Dr. Evil, but your grand scheme is foiled again. While this sounds like something you should be able to do, R&D obviously felt that too many people would get cheesy wins with Mindslaver this way. One of the rules for controlling another player's turn says that a player doesn't take mana burn if someone else controls their turn.

What, you don't believe me? Fine.

507.4. A player doesn't lose life due to mana burn while another player controls his or her turn. (Unused mana in players' mana pools is still lost when a phase ends. See rule 300.3.)

Bonus (OMG Stategery!): You can tap all of your opponent's lands while you're controlling his turn; even though he won't take mana burn, he'll be tapped out and unable to respond to anything you do.

Q: What happens if something damages both players on a team in 2-Headed Giant?

A: The damage dealt to each player, and then applied to the team's life total. "So you have no individual life total?" you ask me. Yes, if something needs to know your life total, it can find that information. Your life total is half your team's total, rounded up. In this case, the damage is dealt to each head, and the team life total drops.

Look at this pair of Comp Rules citations:

606.9. Damage, loss of life, and gaining life happen to each player individually. The result is applied to the team's shared life total.

606.9a If an effect needs to know the value of an individual player's life total, that effect uses the team's life total divided by two, rounded up, instead.

Dorian Gray's favorite card.
Q: My team is at 30 in a 2HG game and I play Infernal Contract. How much life do we lose?

A: This is a case where your individual life total is needed. Infernal Contract makes you pay half your life, rounded up. Half your team's life total is 15, so that's your individual life total. Half of that, rounded up, is 8. The result is that you will pay 8 life, and then your team life total will become 22.

Q: When my life total changes because of some spell or effect that's not dealing damage, is that still considered life gain or life loss?

A: Yes, it is. If something causes your life total to become a higher number than it currently is, the game will treat it as if you gained the appropriate amount of life. For example, if you play Blessed Wind to go from 3 life to 20 life, you have gained 17 life. If Form of the Dragon's triggered ability knocks you from 12 life to 5, then you have lost 7 life. Replacement effects can modify these life gains and losses, and anything which would trigger on a life gain or loss would do so in the appropriate situation above.

The Comp Rules glossary definition of "life total" reads, in part:

Life total is a sort of score. Each player starts the game with 20 life. Any increase in a player's life total is considered to be gaining life. Any decrease in a player's life total is considered to be losing life.

Q: If I have Platinum Angel out, can I pay any amount of life for something, since I can't lose the game?

A: While Platinum Angel will prevent you from losing the game for having a life total of 0 or less, you still can't pay more life than you have. If you have 2 life, then you can only pay 2 life. If your life total is 0 or below, you will not be able to make any mandatory or optional life payments.

Bonus: The principle that you can't pay more than you have applies to all costs in the game, not just life.

Q: How does Worship work?

A: You get on your knees and pray.

Q: The card, obv.

A: There's still some prayer involved, since you'll probably spend a lot of time at 1 life. Worship does not prevent damage, nor does it reduce it. It causes some damage to be unable to lower your life total. It sets up a replacement effect that sets your life total to 1 instead of any lower number that it should be. The damage, while rendered useless by Worship, is still considered to be dealt. So an Ohran Viper that dealt damage will still see its draw-a-card ability trigger, even if you started and ended that combat phase at 1 life.

Kneel before my rules complications!
Q: I'm at 1, with Worship and one creature in play. What happens if the creature is destroyed?

A: You're still at 1. Your life total won't change because Worship left play, but the protection it afforded you is very much gone, along with your creature.

Q: Do Ali From Cairo (and its new cousin, Fortune Thief) work the same way as Worship?

A: Functionally, yes. The notable exception is that one specific creature must remain in play for those effects to apply, while Worship is satisfied with any animal on your team.

Q: I'm at 1 and have Ali From Cairo in play. My opponent plays Earthquake for 1. Am I dead?

A: Nope. Ali's ability applies until it goes to the graveyard. When that happens, Earthquake has resolved, dealing 1 damage to all non-flying creatures and players. Ali, helpful fellow that he is, has already kept your life total at 1.

Q: Similar situation, then. I'm at 1 with Worship and a creature out. My opponent attacks with a Trygon Predator that I can't block. Will the damage kill me?

A: No, it won't. Trygon Predator's ability triggers when it deals damage to you. Worship has already replaced that event with your life total remaining at 1. Since the Predator's damage is still considered dealt, its ability will trigger, and your opponent will get to target an artifact or enchantment of yours to be destroyed.

Bonus: He's probably picking Worship.

Q: Several cards have the reminder text that damage causes loss of life. Does this mean Worship stops loss of life?

A: No. That reminder text is just that: text to remind you that damage causes loss of life. While that's true, damage and loss of life are two separate things. If you're at 1 with Worship, and something causes you to lose 1 life, Worship stands idly by and watches your life total sink to 0.

That concludes our look at the life total. Life is a large and important resource in Magic, so I hope you've learned more about it. Until next time, get a life! ;)

P.S. While the title might seem like I'm telling all of you to get a life, I'm aware this means I need to get a life, too. :(

[Editor: And me, too. :/]

About the Author:
Tom is a Level 2 judge who frequently works in the MD, DC, and PA areas. He is also an active player, and has written articles from both perspectives. Tom has judged numerous Pro Tours, but would like to make it there as a player at least once.


No comments yet.


Follow us @CranialTweet!

Send quick questions to us in English for a short answer.

Follow our RSS feed!