Ah, lifelink. The boon of white mages, the bane of red mages (the jury is still out on how Boros feels about it). Even though lifelink has only been around for a relatively short period of time (it was introduced in Future Sight), it has caused a lot of confusion, mostly due to how the rules changed when Magic 2010 was released.
At first, lifelink was a normal triggered ability. It used the stack and could be responded to. So if you were at 3 life and your opponent attacked you with two 3/3 creatures, and all you had was a 2/2 creature with lifelink available to block, even if you blocked one of the 3/3s, you’d lose the game. Combat damage would be dealt, and before the lifelink trigger would go on the stack, you would lose the game since you have zero life.
However, the Magic 2010 rules update changed that. Now, instead of being a triggered ability, lifelink changes how the damage is dealt. So now you gain the life as the damage is being dealt, not later on. Going back to the example above, you would survive that combat. You would take three damage from the unblocked 3/3 at the same time as you gain two life from your 2/2 dealing damage, so you’d end up going from 3 life down to 2 life when state-based actions are checked, so you live.
Today’s Rules Tip written by Nathan Long