Feature Article - Plunging Into Blue/White Levelers in Rise Draft
You’ve decided to take the plunge and force White/Blue Levelers. Perhaps your first two picks got you started or perhaps you are trying to force things from the start. Either way this is where you want to be unless something bizarre happens. What is your pick order and how should the deck be drafted and built in general?
Let’s start with a rough pick order in the abstract for a player committed to the strategy in an unknown situation. For obvious reasons where I placed most of the rares is based in no small part on wild mass guessing. There are a few conceptual clusters that probably should be broken up but this is a good overview:
Linvala Keeper of Silence
Student of Warfare
Sphinx of Magosi
All is Dust
Knight of Cliffhaven
Time of Heroes
Hada Spy Patrol
Wall of Omens
Sea Gate Oracle
Repel the Darkness
Ulamog the Infinite Gyre
Kozilek Butcher of Truth
Affa Guard Hound
Artisan of Kozilek
Pathrazer of Ulamog
Hand of Emrakul
It That Betrays
Emrakul the Aeons Torn
Cast Through Time
Not of this World
This list reflects a player who knows for certain that he is playing White/Blue but who is also starting out his draft. For obvious reasons these two things are unlikely to both be true at the same time but no list could properly reflect the complexities of the situation as cards rise and fall in value during the course of the draft.
Philosophically this deck plays out a lot like a Skies deck. Your primary game plan is to come out fast and use flying creatures to kill them while holding the ground against potential attackers. Early on this deck will often get in damage on the ground but later in the game the ground tends to get bogged down thanks to various larger men and Eldrazi Spawn. The cards in the deck can be broken down into the following categories: Levelers Friends Non-Levelers Auras and Tricks.
The more important component of any Leveler deck is the Levelers themselves. Without the right creatures the deck won’t function no matter how good its other cards and the value of those other cards changes radically as the number of Leveler cards changes. Many players dramatically undervalue the Leveler cards as individual cards even before any consideration that they might be a key component of one of the strongest decks. I have never seen a deck with the right colors in it that wouldn’t love as many copies of Knight of Clifthaven Caravan Escort Halimar Wavewatch or Merfolk Skyscout as it could get its hands on. The difference between getting and not getting a good Leveler deck is often the willingness to start your draft with Levelers. By doing so you give up much less than it is commonly thought and the potential influence on the draft is enormous as it opens up your options while taking them away from others.
Your Leveler count as the draft progresses will determine how highly you can take the Friends: Venerated Teacher Champion’s Drake Time of Heroes and occasionally Training Grounds. Venerated Teacher and Champion’s Drake will make your deck every time. If either card is not worth playing your deck should have shifted colors a long time ago. The only question is whether they are worth spending early picks to get. Venerated Teacher gets a lot of value from Levelers that cost a lot to level up which is why Black decks will take him so aggressively but it is important not to get too greedy when thinking about what he can do. If he levels up even a single leveler he will often be a worthwhile investment and once the deck starts to get 8+ levelers that cost 2 or more to level up he rapidly goes from excellent to outstanding to broken. At twelve such creatures Venerated Teacher can plausibly be taken over anything except Transcendent Master or Gideon Juza.
The friends reveal the hidden star of the Leveler army: Ikiral Outrider. Outrider on its own is far better than players give it credit for. Think of Outrider as a six-mana investment for a 2/6 vigilance creature that will be excellent at helping to hold the ground while occasionally hitting them for bonus damage. No one is claiming it is a superstar but there’s nothing wrong with that. The card then benefits greatly from any of the friends. With Time of Heroes you get a 4/8 vigilance creature with Venerated Teacher or Training Grounds the price becomes highly affordable. Ikiral Outrider is also one of the best targets out there for Drake Umbra. No one else will take an Outrider so it is realistic to expect to have multiples more often than not.
Champion’s Drake has a lower upside since all it can be is a 4/4 flying creature for two mana. Think about that sentence for a minute to realize how good the Leveler deck can be. In order to maximize Champion’s Drake you want Levelers that it makes sense to boost to the third level. Anything that levels for one mana is excellent and ones that cost two are still usually easy to justify. At the three level Hada Spy Patrol is still very good because it protects itself and complements the Drake so well and Merfolk Skyscout also offers a lot of synergy but often such plays are akin to moving all in on the strategy and a single removal spell can leave you too far behind to recover. Thinking of Drake as a flyer that is occasionally big rather than something that has to be big is the best approach. One key thing to remember is that Drake drops dramatically if you have Time of Heroes. Without Time of Heroes in your deck Drake is excellent with even six levelers but its relative quality drops dramatically once Time of Heroes hits the table. On the other hand Training Grounds makes Champion’s Drake far better and counts as multiple levelers.
Time of Heroes is uncommon so it may seem strange that it merits this much attention. The reason it gets so much attention is that you have seventy-two uncommon slots in which to open it. Let me repeat that. You have seventy-two uncommon slots in which to open Time of Heroes: Eight players times three packs times three cards. There are times when other players will take Time of Heroes the first time around the table but they are shockingly rare. A player not drafting the deck is usually happy to pass the card to keep you off in your own little corner of the world and will only hate the card if there is nothing else left to take and he’s trying to keep his options open. By the second pack chances are that no one else can get much benefit from Time of Heroes. There will also be times when you have to pass up a Time of Heroes for a better card and in those cases you will often fail to get it back but it’s important to remember that if you start the draft with the W/U mindset more often than not you will end up with at least one copy. The ratings for other cards take this into account. Training Grounds is a better card for your deck but other Blue decks will take it highly so it is not much of a consideration unless it is already in your pile.
Ideally creatures that don’t level up will be kept to a minimum. That doesn’t mean you should pass up premium cards in the name of purity but every creature that doesn’t level up is a card that gets in the way of progress. The two creatures that are most dangerous are Dawnglare Invoker and Makindi Griffin. There is nothing wrong with playing either but every pick that forces you to take either card is an unfortunate distribution of opened cards. Other players want these cards and will consider going into White to get them so they are excellent signals that White is available but they also don’t help the cause as much as you would like. Invoker in particular is not the star he appears to be. At first glance this is a highly dangerous creature flying over the enemy ending the game once eight mana is reached and being a card that is impossible for your own deck to stop should it fall into the wrong hands.
What that overlooks is that games do not last that long when the Skies deck is involved. By the time the game gets to that point either your flyers will win the game or their ground army will overwhelm you. Every so often Dawnglare Invoker will activate but over an entire draft with multiple copies I still feel I am an underdog to get any substantial benefit out of activating him. Makindi Griffin is better for you because it can be a strong defender as well as a strong attacker but like Invoker it is deceptively outside your game plan even though it is an efficient flying creature. Later in the draft you’ll have a better idea of how many friends you have which lets you shift the values of such cards radically. Sometimes the deck is a bunch of good cards rather than having an engine at which point good non-engine creatures rise dramatically.
Two other non-Leveler creatures are worth mentioning. Sea Gate Oracle is a mixed blessing. Leveler decks never have spare mana so by playing the Oracle you will almost always be giving up the chance to level up but the Oracle’s statistics are exactly what you’re looking for and it allows you to dig for the Friends or top Levelers. The deck will often be vastly better when it draws Venerated Teacher or Time of Heroes than when it does not and Oracle can help make sure that happens while providing a way to help hold the ground. I never want to invest in him when I could be doing something more important but I’m also never unhappy to have him along for the ride.
The other wild card is Lone Missionary. Lone Missionary is one of the most underrated cards in draft. In any other format it would be obvious how high quality the Missionary is as it provides a solid two-drop body along with a substantial bonus life swing. It especially fits into Leveler decks because it is highly mana efficient at generating tempo even though there are usually enough two-drops that the second turn is rarely wasted. Ben Hayes summarized our match at the Pro Tour as: “I don’t even know what happened. Suddenly he played Lone Missionary and I was four points short of killing him.” That happens more often than people think. The reason most players have zero respect for him is that they think of the format as a battle of bombs that play out over the long term. Leveler decks take the format in another direction but so does any deck that has a lot of flyers. There are more than enough Missionaries out there to suit your needs as this is not a card that you’ll often want in multiples (the exception is if you have multiple copies of Survival Cache or run short of two-drops somehow) so these are slots in your deck that get filled in for free. When you’re not online there’s another extra benefit: The looks on opponents’ faces when they realize how far behind they suddenly are can be priceless.
Umbras emphasize the best and worst of the Leveler deck. Already your creatures allow you to sculpt an answer to the creatures you face and being able to place Hyena Umbra on the proper target takes this to the next level. My favorite targets are Knight of Cliffhaven in order to get a board dominator Dawnglare Invoker to let it block when it comes out and then hit for three or be a quality defender while building to the Invoker ability (if he gets there often this is how he gets there) and of course Ikiral Outrider. The power of this level of customization is hard to understate and the Umbras also serve to protect the Levelers that are worth going all-in with. The flip side is that you’ve become even more exposed to removal or bounce that can go through the Umbra so often against Blue you’ll want to power up relatively harmless creatures to distribute risk. Against decks that are forced to rely on Red removal you can do the opposite and go all-in on a Knight Wavewatch or other dominator. Hyena Umbra is all but free Eel Umbra is not as good but still solid and also cheap. You want one or two of the cheap Umbras in your deck with three being fine if you have few other non-creature cards and no expensive Umbras. If you manage to snag a Kor Spiritdancer of course all bets are off but it’s not worth reaching for Spiritdancer until you know you’ll have the goods.
Auras also provide the main removal for the Leveler deck in the form of Guard Duty and Narcolepsy with Regress available to assist. Most players feel that man needs removal and recognize that many of the most dangerous enemy creatures still beat you despite the Auras. Since man needs removal and removal is hard to find it is a natural instinct to go the extra mile to make sure you have some prioritizing the removal cards and splashing for cards like Vendetta or Flame Slash.
The Leveler deck works on multiplicative effects and is heavily reliant on critical mass. Removal is excellent but it does not assist the deck in doing the things it does best. Every time you prioritize removal you decrease the chance you will later get the cards you want most and you make those cards less effective. It is especially bad to take off-color removal as those are the cards that secure other players into other plans. Even if they do end up in my pile out of an otherwise dead pack I am usually highly reluctant to play them. Evolving Wilds costs a mana that there will often never be a turn to spend as the deck at its best has several one-drops that then can be leveled and by having a third color of mana you are damaging the decks’ ability to keep two- and three-land hands.
This strategy requires accepting that there are cards out there that you cannot deal with except by pure speed and power. That’s life. To try to beat those cards any other way is to have The Fear. There are other tricks that can be picked up at minimal cost and that round out the deck nicely with the best being cards like Emerge Unscathed that protect your creatures since you’re investing a lot of work into each of them. Repel the Darkness is a strong asset because it can be scooped up for free and helps greatly when the time comes to race. Smite isn’t always maindeck material but it can be a serviceable substitute if the good removal falls short or if the matchup calls for loading up. It’s not generally that hard to engineer a block even if saving mana tends to be highly suspicious.
I would be remiss if I didn’t stop at the end to consider the game theory implications of writing this article. The Leveler deck is a strong strategy and can bear a lot more competition than it currently faces but the reason it is so awesome is that it does not need to face said competition. Every player that increases his willingness to draft this strategy makes the strategy that much worse and if other players are waiting out there like land mines trying to force it outright two such players are quite capable of blowing each other to smithereens. The more people listen to me the more likely that is to happen but I don’t find it likely that too many players will shift their preferences relative to the pool of available players. Most drafters are simply unwilling to engage in unnatural strategies such as this one that sacrifice the best cards and inherently strongest (in their minds) colors and strategies in order to try and corner a market.
Then again if you see me on Magic Online you now know one more reason I use an easily recognizable user name.