I am one of those people that is constantly looking for new and better ways to keep track of life totals in Magic the Gathering. When I first started playing, like most, I used a D20 or two and after knocking them over and losing track of life, I was promptly told by other players that pen and paper was the best way. Paper never worked for me, as once I tried to keep track of poison and commander damage, I would run out of room on the sheet, and then lose track and have to sit and try to decipher my own scribble, which makes sense because I am also a terrible note taker.
It was around that time that life counter apps started to pop up on both the App Store and what eventually became known as the Google Play store. Since I had my phone with me everywhere I went, it seemed like a great idea, but to call these apps hit or miss would be an understatement, with most being downright unusable.
They have come a long way since then, and today I’m looking at one of the most highly rated apps on both the App Store and Google Play, simply titled Magic Life Counter by Ajfek Software. The app is currently free and ad supported on both platforms with the option to go pro on iOS to remove ads and unlock other advanced features. For this review, I used the app on LG G3 running Android 6.0 Marshmallow.
The interface and appearance of life counter apps is one of the most important factors for me in determining my satisfaction with the app. I can’t emphasize enough how many life counter apps just get this wrong. Heating up your phone and draining your battery with unnecessary animations that prohibit quick changes or corrections, badly contrasting colors that make it difficult to read, or ads that cover the screen when idle are just a few of the frustrations one can run into trying to get a free life counter app.
Magic Life Counter nails this by being simple but not minimalist, giving all the details you would need in an easily read presentation that shows you what you need to know and then gets out of your way. You can add players by tapping the add player icon on the upper right hand corner, and Magic Life Counter lets you give each player a custom name so there is no confusion. It remembers the names too, great for groups like ours that are always the same people in every match. Adding or removing life is as simple as a tap of the +1 or -1 icon below your life total, or tapping on the right or left of the life total itself to quickly add or remove 5 life. Simple and intuitive. The only drawback of note here is that there is currently no life history tracking for the Android version of Magic Life Counter (life tracking is present on iOS.). This wasn’t much of an issue for me personally since my play group is very casual, but tracking may be a necessity for more competitive players who hit up FNM every week or want to use this app in a tournament.
The interface also allows for easy customization in a way that makes sense. If you’re sharing the life counter, tapping on the player name above the life total will rotate that player’s life total and interface buttons by 45 degrees, allowing everyone around the table to easily manage their own life gain and loss. Just as you would rearrange icons on most smart devices, tap and hold on a player’s name to drag their life total and rearrange it on the screen.
Other counters and tokens are shown below the players and have the same simple, easy to read, and easy to manipulate design about them. Plus or minus signs to add or remove the number of tokens, and hold and drag to rearrange if you’ve got more than one.
Rolling to see who goes first is as easy as tapping the icon on the lower right and tapping “Who goes first,” and if you’ve named your players, it will show you the name of the winner of the dice roll. You can even roll a Planar Die for those of us who don’t want to pay the current $9 cost of the Planechase D6.
The free version I tested was ad supported and i’m happy to say the ads didn’t hinder the experience in any way. Contrary to so many ad supported apps these days, the ads in Magic Life Counter load unassumingly at the bottom on the screen and are noticeable but not in any way an obnoxious or obstructive.
Overall, the interface is pleasant, effective, and above all else, usable.
Features and Use
Magic Life Counter was among the few life counter apps I kept on my iPhone back back when I first started playing, around the time of the Innistrad block, and about 6 months later, I switched to Android. In trying to find comparable Android apps to match all my iOS favorites, life counter apps just sort of fell by the wayside. After recently coming back to Magic Life Counter on my Android phone and seeing everything that has been added since those days, it’s almost as if the app was only in its infancy back then even though it never felt lacking.
The first thing I noticed was the dizzying amount of token options available when I test piloted Magic Life Counter in an EDH match with my Teysa, Orzhov Scion deck. This deck generates a stupid amount of different tokens, and my pile of sleeved paper tokens stacks almost as high as the EDH deck itself. I’m the kind of player that likes to have a matching token for each and every card that generates them, and I never really understood using an app or a piece of paper to track tokens.
When playing this match, I finally got it. As I set up the match, I saw an area for tokens and when I tapped it, I was surprised at seemingly endless number of different tokens that come preloaded in the app. My first thought was to check to see if the 1/1 Faerie Rogue tokens generated by my beloved Bitterblossom were present, and they were. Well of course Bitterblossom is going to be there, right? But how about the 1/1 Thrull tokens generated by Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder? Also there, as were the 5/5 Demon tokens from Skirsdag High Priest, the 0/1 Eldrazi Spawn tokens from Pawn of Ulamog, and 1/1 Goblin Rogue tokens from Marsh Flitter. Not bad! I finally stumped the app when I tried to add the infamous 0/1 Serf tokens generated by Sengir Autocrat, which I sort of found funny because up until last week when Eternal Masters was spoiled, Wizards had forgot about them too and never bothered to print them (oh, the tragic plight of the serf!) Magic Life Counter had a solution, tapping on “Other Counters” lets you quickly make your own, and I was up and running.
Now was time to start using the app to actually manage the tokens using Magic Life Counter. I’ve always reveled in having a messy board late in the game, and loved the groans and eye rolls from my opponents as I shuffled dice and tokens on and off the board over and over again in a single turn. This time I skipped all of that for the purpose of this review, and I must say it was nice being able to quickly glance down at exactly how many 1/1 Vampires I had on the board to feed Teysa, and being able to remove them quickly while also pumping the number of 1/1 Spirit tokens as easy as adding and removing life. The ease of this made it a bit of a relief once the deck began to fire on all cylinders. You can also use this system to keep track of your Planeswalker’s loyalty level, which is a nice addition.
The only complaint i have here is the lack of the ability to change the color of the token. Tokens automatically show up as green, and it would be nice to have the color of the counter and the plus/minus icons match the color of the token, to make it easier to manage which colors of which you currently have on the board. The tokens also don’t mention abilities like Flying, Lifelink, Deathtouch, etc. My Teysa deck is my baby, so I always know exactly what each token is, but this could pose an issue for those piloting new decks and need to reminded exactly what they have on the board.
In addition to the extensive counter and token support, Magic Life Counter has the ability to separately but simultaneously track commander damage. This is beautifully executed by simply tapping “Add Commander Damage”, followed by tapping the attacking player and then the defending player. This puts a commander damage tracker beneath the life totals, and as you add up the damage on your way to 20 and a victory, it automatically reduces the overall life total. Seems like a no-brainer, but many life counter apps omit this simplicity, and leave the life total management up the to player. Poison counters are created the same way but obviously do not reduce the life total.
Rounding out the free features is the ability to set a match timer, starting life, and dice type. As I touched on earlier with the planar die roll, there are lots of nice options here, including rolling for who goes first, rolling a D20, timer, and a coin flip.
Performance & Privacy
My LG G3 is now two generations old, so I was by no means running Magic Life Counter on a state of the art device, but the app performed well with no slow downs or hiccups. When switching between apps, everything was just as I left it, with no graphical anomalies or interface issues when leaving and returning to the app. When I closed the app, I was happy to see that it stayed closed and I didn’t ever catch it running in the background when I hadn’t launched it myself, which is a welcome change to a lot of modern apps that want to run all the time.
As far as battery life goes, Magic Life Counter is easy on the battery life, using only 2% of the battery during the duration of a normal 30 minute match. This is a tricky statistic, as your battery life is largely governed by what you do with your screen brightness. But, as I touched on previously, there are some pretty bad offenders out there, with apps sucking your battery life down to nothing just render superfluous graphics for a life counter. Some might like that sort of thing, but I don’t particularly like a life counter leaving me with a dead battery mid match. Rounding out this apps performance, Magic Life Counter uses a svelte 18MB of storage and occupied only 179MB of my phones RAM on average.
For privacy nuts like me, the first thing I always check when installing an app is app permissions. Free apps are notorious for taking every bit of personal info they can from your phone, and even simple apps like flashlights want access to your microphone, camera, storage, contacts, and even the ability to make phone calls. I was relieved to see that Magic Life Counter requires no special permissions whatsoever, just as a life counter app should.
Everyone has their own preference for keeping life total in Magic the Gathering, and no method is truly right or wrong.
If you’re going to go the way of a smartphone app, Magic Life Counter by Ajfek Software should be at or near the top of the list of apps to test drive. The interface is simple, attractive, and intuitive, and the near endless amount of counter and token options make this a great fit for just about any match. The app also performs well, is easy on your battery, won’t bog your phone down, and if you don’t like it, the fact that it doesn’t try to access any of your personal info means there’s no harm done by at least giving it a try.
Magic Life Counter by Ajfek Software is available for download at the following locations: