Last updated on March 23, 2023
Echo Mage | Illustration by Matt Stewart
It’s time to level up! As in level up your MTG knowledge, specifically about the level up mechanic. How does this mechanic work, and how can you fit it into your builds? Is it even a good mechanic?
I’m not and have never been an MTG judge, but you can sit back and enjoy this summary of how to use the level up mechanic (insert Super Mushroom sound)!
How Does Level Up Work?
Nirkana Cutthroat | Illustration by Erica Yang
The level up keyword focuses on building up level counters to improve a creature. You can pay a level up cost to give a creature with level up a level counter, but only at sorcery speed.
After a certain amount of level counters, creatures gain more power, toughness, and often more abilities. Cards with level up are referred to as a “leveler,” and the card interface looks different. They have a striated design with a section for the cost of leveling up, sections for each new “level” with the creature’s power and toughness, and the number of counters for the range of each level.
The History of Level Up in MTG
Level up first appeared in the Rise of the Eldrazi set. The idea for the mechanic was inspired by Figure of Destiny and its ability to grow bigger with different levels of mana cost.
There are 25 cards with the level up keyword spanning all colors fairly evenly. Most of the level up cards were released in Rise of the Eldrazi, but some new level up cards have been added in Commander sets.
Unfortunately the keyword wasn’t well received, so it hasn’t become an evergreen keyword or been printed on a new card since 2013. The level up keyword may not be around anymore, but the theme has continued with cards like Ascendant Spirit, Warden of the First Tree, Evolved Sleeper, and Surge Engine.
Do Level Up Cards Start at Level 1 in MTG?
No, and this is a point of confusion and dislike for many MTG players. Level up cards start at level 0. You may level up a creature at sorcery speed, but they start out at level 0 as they enter the battlefield.
Is Level Up Sorcery Speed?
Yes! The variable leveling cost was changed to avoid making a ton of creatures as powerful or complex as Figure of Destiny. The level up keyword works at sorcery speed.
Can You Respond to Level Up?
Yes. The level up mechanic is an activated ability, so it goes on the stack. You may respond to a level up with instant-speed cards to disrupt your opponent’s strategy and make them waste mana.
Another difference between level up and cards like Evolved Sleeper is that once a player responds to the level up activation, the level up may not be paid for again as a response to this response because of the sorcery speed of the keyword.
Can You Level Up a Creature More Than Once Per Turn?
Yes, you may level up as many times as you can afford to each of your turns. Pay attention to the level up cost and know that it can only be activated at sorcery speed.
How Many Times Can You Level Up a Creature?
You may level up a creature as many times as you like. In theory, an infinite number of times. In practice, you want to level up your creature only as many times as it takes to get to the final level.
With Echo Mage, for example, you start at level 0 and the final level is 4+, so you’d only want to level up this creature 4 times to get the maximum benefit.
Is Level Up an Activated Ability?
Yes, it’s an activated ability with a set activation cost. This may be activated and paid as many times as can be afforded any time you may cast a sorcery spell.
What Is a Leveler Card?
A leveler card is the name of the cards that have the level up mechanic. They have a different frame from other MTG cards and striated boxes for the level up cost and each of the different levels. The level counters the card owns determine its power, toughness, and sometimes abilities.
Other than the striated boxes for the different power/toughness, leveler cards act the same as other MTG creatures.
Are Class Enchantments Level Up Cards?
No, they aren’t. The Class enchantments mention leveling up in the Class, but this mechanic isn’t the same as the level up keyword on creatures. The Class enchantment’s levels don’t interact with level counters or any other wording of level up.
Gallery and List of Level Up Cards
- Caravan Escort
- Hedron-Field Purists
- Ikiral Outrider
- Kabira Vindicator
- Knight of Cliffhaven
- Student of Warfare
- Transcendent Master
- Coralhelm Commander
- Echo Mage
- Enclave Cryptologist
- Hada Spy Patrol
- Halimar Wavewatch
- Lighthouse Chronologist
- Skywatcher Adept
- Guul Draz Assassin
- Nirkana Cutthroat
- Null Champion
- Zulaport Enforcer
- Brimstone Mage
- Kargan Dragonlord
- Lord of Shatterskull Pass
- Beastbreaker of Bala Ged
- Joraga Treespeaker
- Kazandu Tuskcaller
Best Level Up Cards
Guul Draz Assassin
Guul Draz Assassin is a small 1-mana creature that can be a great remove piece when leveled up. The level cost of two isn’t so bad, and the ability to remove creature threats each turn is amazing.
This card is a solid midrange creature removal that may not be enough against aggressive or massive creature decks.
Student of Warfare
Student of Warfare is one of the more aggressive level up cards and plays a nice role in certain decks. It works as a good beatdown kind of creature. It allows you to apply pressure on your opponent and may become a massive threat in the later game.
All around this is a solid card to threaten your opponent early.
Copying instants and sorceries is a well-sought-after effect a lot of decks need to excel. Echo Mage is a great addition to noncreature decks for its copying abilities.
You need to sacrifice some speed to get to the desired level, but you’ll be rewarded with multiple copies of all your wincon spells if you can control the game and survive.
Lighthouse Chronologist is a card that needs to be removed quickly or you start to take over the game. It doesn’t have a lot of building effects, but you get an extra turn after each opponent’s end step once you reach the final level.
The cheap level up cost makes this card a reliable removal vacuum or your wincon.
Eight level up counters seem like too much of a mana sink for most cards. Kargan Dragonlord has a cheap level up cost to reach a massive creature. You need to use your mana effectively, but it can be a bomb creature for a lot of decks.
Venerated Teacher doesn’t have the level up keyword, but you need this card if you’re considering a deck with level up. The ability can be chunky and mana intensive, so cards with proliferate or something like Venerated Teacher can help mitigate these problems.
Hexdrinker is a great little creature to build instants and fast plays around. It’s cheap and the level up cost is reasonable to play alongside your normal curve plays. Plus, who doesn’t want a creature with protection from everything?
It may take a while to get to this protection, but it should be a deadly card with the right build.
Decklist: Level Up Tribal in Commander
Atraxa, Praetors' Voice | Illustration by Victor Adame Minguez
Guul Draz Assassin
Student of Warfare
Beastbreaker of Bala Ged
Hada Spy Patrol
Knight of Cliffhaven
Pir, Imaginative Rascal
Odric, Lunarch Marshal
Toothy, Imaginary Friend
Make a Stand
Fuel for the Cause
Spread the Sickness
Part the Waterveil
Time of Heroes
Rings of Brighthearth
Temple of Deceit
Temple of Enlightenment
Temple of Mystery
Temple of the False God
This level up tribal deck is built around the efficiency of leveling up. The deck was created by IFreezeEasy on MTGGoldfish. The deck focuses on using all your mana each turn and proliferating level up counters to make effective creatures and get the great level up static abilities.
This deck’s commander is Atraxa, Praetors' Voice to make sure you can use all the good level up creatures and level up quickly.
Student of Warfare | Illustration by Volkan Baga
Take your game to the next level! I think that level up is a fun idea for a mechanic that wants to emulate D&D and its leveling systems. The actual mechanic is a clunky play that I don’t think is very fun, though. I do enjoy cards like Surge Engine, and this is the card style that’ll most likely be replicated in the future. For now we just have to get our level up fix from Commander and maybe Modern.
What do you think of the level up mechanic? Do you use any levelers in your current decks, or will you be looking to go forward? Feel free to comment below and maybe show me your fantastic level up deck, or find us over on Twitter instead.
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