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Against the Odds: Level Up (Modern)


Hello, everyone. Welcome to episode 133 of Against the Odds. Last week, we tried something different for the Against the Odds poll by voting for mechanics instead of individual cards, and while it was a close vote, Level Up pulled away for the victory in the end. As such, we are heading to Modern this week for a deck that looks like a really good Rise of the Eldrazi draft deck: UW Level Up! The deck is basically UW Aggro but with a ton of level-up creatures—some aggressive for beating down, others more utility focused—along with ways to cheat level counters onto our creatures faster and Time of Heroes as our big finish. Can the level-up mechanic form a competitive deck in Modern? Let's get to the video and find out; then, we'll talk more about the deck. 

One last thing: no Against the Odds poll this week. Next week marks the start of Dominaria, so we'll be having a special episode. Don't worry, the poll will return next week, and it will be overloaded with a ton of sweet new Dominaria options!

A quick reminder: if you haven't already, make sure to subscribe to the MTGGoldfish YouTube Channel.

Against the Odds: UW Level Up (Modern)

The Deck

When I realized that level up had won the voting, I knew right away that we would have to have a way to cheat level counters onto our creatures. The biggest problem with the level-up mechanic is that it's slow (and also sorcery speed, which opens it up to blowouts), so having a way to get level counters onto our creatures quicker than normal is essential. Initially, I was focused on Winding Constrictor decks, since Winding Constrictor gives us two level counters for the price of one, but after working on a couple of different shells featuring the Snake along with Collected Company and Venerated Teacher, I finally gave up. There were a couple of issues with the Winding Constrictor plan. First, it pushes us into three or four colors, and while cheating creatures into play with Collected Company helps, we often wouldn't have the right colors of mana to level up our creatures. Second, it was hard to find the right mix of support cards and level-up creatures. We ended up with a lot of "cast Vererated Teacher with no level-up creatures" games, which weren't really fun or exciting. After moving away from Winding Constrictor, we ended up with perhaps the most traditional (as far as Rise of the Eldrazi limited is concerned) level up deck: UW Level Up, featuring all of the most efficient level-up creatures along with Time of Heroes as our big finish. 

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If you look at our level-up creatures, you'll see that almost all of them start off underpowered based on their cost, before eventually becoming good or even great, assuming we can dump a bunch of mana into leveling them up (without our opponent killing them in response). Time of Heroes turns all of our somewhat underpowered creatures into very strong creatures with just one level counter, making it one of our best ways of forcing through damage and closing out the game. More importantly, it allows us to wait on adding additional level counters to our creatures and instead use our mana to deploy more threats. Level up is an extremely powerful late-game mechanic because it's really hard to flood out  as long as we have at least one level-up creature. If we have nothing else to do, we can spend our turn adding level counters, but in the early game, taking turns off to add level counters can really stunt our development. Time of Heroes buffing our creatures allows us to play out our hand first, get one level counter on as many creatures as possible, and then spend our mana trying to max level our creatures.

Beatdown Level-Up Creatures

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Student of Warfare is probably the most efficient beatdown level-up creature, as a 1/1 for one and a 3/3 first strike for three, while eventually ending up as a massive double-striking threat to close out the game. Meanwhile, Caravan Escort isn't quite as efficient but still works really well with Time of Heroes, since we can level it up once, and then with the +2/+2 from the enchantment, it ends up as a 4/4, which is a pretty reasonable attacker on Turn 3. Most importantly, both of these creatures allow us to start playing things on Turn 1, facilitating our aggressive game plan.

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Hada Spy Patrol and Transcendent Master are our two big finishing, beatdown level-up creatures. While it costs a ton of mana to level up, Hada Spy Patrol eventually turns into the best Invisible Stalker of all time, and if we have a Time of Heroes on the battlefield, it can be a 5/5 shroud unblockable, which is a great way to close out the game. Meanwhile, it takes a ton of level counters to make Transcendent Master powerful, but if we get it all the way to level 12, it is an almost unbeatable (outside of exile-based removal like Path to Exile) threat. More importantly, Transcendent Master is one of our best mana-dump level-up creatures. If we play it as the last card in our hand, we can easily spend our next several turns dumping mana into it rather than letting our mana go to waste. 

Utility Level-Up Creatures

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Lighthouse Chronologist is one of the most powerful level-up creatures, only taking seven extra mana to get it to level seven, at which point it gives us two turns for every one our opponent takes. Of course, the problem is that our opponent often sees it coming and focuses on killing the Lighthouse Chronologist, but if our opponent doesn't have the right removal, the blue mythic level is an easy way to win a game all by itself. In our deck, having an extra turn is hugely important. It not only gives us an extra attack step to try to finish off our opponent but essentially doubles our mana, which makes it much easier to get our other level-up creatures to their max level. 

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Rounding out our package of level-up creatures are four copies of Enclave Cryptologist and one Hedron-Field Purists. Enclave Cryptologist isn't great at beating down (although it can sometimes attack with the help of Time of Heroes), but its a great way of filtering through our deck, becoming a looter on Turn 2. Eventually, in the late game, it turns into a powerful card-advantage engine, drawing us a card for free each turn. Meanwhile, Hedron-Field Purists is very matchup dependent. Its small body means it isn't very good at attacking, but against go-wide creature decks (like Lingering Souls or Young Pyromancer decks), it's a great way of locking out damage and can also be helpful against combo decks like Storm, where it turns off both Grapeshot and Empty the Warrens). We start with one in the main deck as a hedge, with another in the sideboard for the matchups where it is especially powerful.

Leveling Up

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I mentioned in the intro that for our level-up deck to work, we need ways to speed up the level-up process. For this, we have Venerated Teacher and a copy of Training Grounds. Venerated Teacher is extremely high in variance. If we have several level-up creatures on the battlefield, the ability to add two level counters to each for free is often worth five or even 10 mana, which makes Venerated Teacher pretty great. On the other hand, if we don't have any level-up creatures on the battlefield, Venerated Teacher does its best "hard cast a Simian Spirit Guide" impression as a sad 2/2 for three. As for Training Grounds, it's only a one-of because it only works with about half of our levelers, since Student of Warfare, Transcendent Master, and Lighthouse Chronologist already cost one to level up. However, with cards like Hedron-Field Purists and Hada Spy Patrol, being able to pay one mana to level up rather than three is very powerful, helping us get to the highest level in just one or two turns.

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And apart from three copies of Path to Exile for removal, that's pretty much the deck. Rather than being combo based, we're basically trying to play the best level-up creatures possible, get counters on them, and win by beating down. When things go well, we're basically a UW Aggro deck that can never flood out because we can always dump our mana into leveling up, which does solve one of the big problems with most aggro decks (they often lose if they draw too many lands); when things go poorly, we Time Walk ourselves a lot, as our opponent waits until after we spend our entire turn leveling up a creature only to kill it with a Fatal Push or Terminate

The Matchups

Despite a fairly respectable record (more on this in a minute), I'm not sure that UW Level Up really has any great matchups, at least against the top-tier decks in the format. When it gets good draws, it functions like a powerful aggro deck, but when it gets poor draws, it is incredibly slow for being aggressive and not very resilient to removal. Against other aggro decks, we are slower, although we do have a chance if we can level up our creatures into good blockers. Against control, we can steal wins with aggressive starts, although if we are lacking Time of Heroes, we're often slow enough that a wrath will run our plans. Against midrange decks, it's pretty easy to get Time Walked multiple times by removal spells in response to leveling up our creatures, which isn't a good way to win games. All this is to say that while UW Level Up can certainly win, it's more about getting a good draw than about having a good matchup against our opponent's deck.

The Odds

All in all, we played six matches and won three, good for a 50% match win percentage, along with winning seven of our 15 games, for a 47% game win percentage, which is about average for an Against the Odds deck. However, it's worth mentioning that the three decks we beat were all wacky (and perhaps budget) brews, while we really struggled against more tuned lists. As for our level-up creatures, they were extremely inconsistent. We saw a lot of power, with double Student of Warfare / Time of Heroes nut draws and one-creature wins thanks to the fact that if we can fight through our opponent's removal and max level a creature, most of our level-up creatures can win the game by itself, but we also got Time Walked a lot of times and occasionally just played underpowered creatures (a good example of this was against Merfolk, where their creatures were often bigger and more powerful, even without the extra work of spending mana to level up). While it's a fun theme, it's pretty hard to imagine that level up will ever become a competitive archetype—it's just very slow and mana intensive for Modern. This being said, some of the individual level-up creatures are pretty solid, with Student of Warfare specifically worth remembering with more Knight support coming in Dominaria.

Vote for Next Week's Deck

Speaking of Dominaria, it's the reason there's no Against the Odds poll this week. Instead, we'll kick off the release of Magic's newest set next week with a special episode. Don't worry, the poll will be back next episode with a ton of sweet new Dominaria options!

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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