Jeremy casts spells in between his careers as a chemical analyst and campus manager.
How to Use Level-Up Cards in MTG
Most creatures in Magic: The Gathering have one set-in-stone CMC (Converted Mana Cost), meaning they require a certain amount and type of mana to cast and if you can't afford that price, you better have a Black Lotus on hand. However, a special brand of monsters bear the rare "level up" trait.
Like other creatures, they require a base cost to cast, but they can improve upon their starting abilities by "leveling up" whenever you have some extra mana to spare. You might draw comparisons to the similar (albeit once-per-creature) monstrous trait; same mechanic, more mana, better monster.
How much mana it takes to level up and how many level ups are needed before new abilities are gained depends on the creature in question. But with dozens of self-improving warriors available, which cards reign supreme? These are the 10 best level-up creatures in Magic!
10. Halimar Wavewatch
CMC (Converted Mana Cost): 2
Mana cost to fully level up: 12
As a 0/3, Halimar begins as a pseudo-defender, able to tank hits well but unable to strike back. And despite functioning like one, since she's not actually a wall, she can attack in the rare cases you'd want her to.
Halimar accepts two mana of any color to level up, and on her first milestone, her toughness skyrockets to six, granting an impressive 0/6 wall guardian. That's a decent stopping point, but if you manage to amass five level counters, Halimar morphs into an imposing 6/6, finally letting her give as good as she takes. She also gains islandwalk, rendering her unblockable if your opponent controls an island land card, and her merfolk subtype has many tribal synergies.
9. Hedron-Field Purists
Mana needed to fully level up: 18
Like Master, Hedron-Field Purists belongs to the white camp and requires three mana to initially summon. This time, leveling it up also needs three mana, but thankfully you'll notice the training at the first level. From levels 1–4, Purists jumps from a 0/3 to a 1/4 and gains an awesome ability: If a source would deal damage to you or a permanent you control (including Purists), prevent one of that damage.
There's the stopping point for most duels, as disregarding one damage to you and all your creatures (not to mention buffing Purists's strength) works wonders. However, if you amass the unholy 18 mana it takes to cast Purists and level it up five times, it shifts to an even stronger 2/5 and starts blocking two damage to you and your permanents, crafting an ever fiercer barrier around your team.
8. Kargan Dragonlord
Mana needed to fully level up: 10
The mountain-using red faction needs two red mana to play Kragan Dragonlord and one more mana whenever leveling him. Because both his base and construction cost both demand a specific color, he functions best in monored decks; luckily, neither price demands too much.
Beginning as a respectable 2/2 human creature, at level 4 Dragonlord becomes a 4/4 with flying, letting him soar over ground-based blockers. And at level 8, Dragonlord doubles again to 8/8, gains trample (letting him bleed excess damage through blockers to hit your opponent), and acquires a mana ability that lets you spend one red mana at any time to boost Dragonlord's power by one for the turn. Both upgrades are nice, and at such low prices, this is one ultimate form you can conceivably reach even in shorter formats like standard.
7. Coralhelm Commander
Mana needed to fully level up: 6
Coralhelm Commander requires two blue mana to cast, but accepts one mana of any color to level up. At level 2, he alternates from 2/2 to 3/3 and gains flying, and at level 4, he strengthens to 4/4 and grants other Merfolk you control +1/+1.
What really stands out about Commander is how cheap he is to fully upgrade. Casting and maxing him out only needs a combined total of six mana that can be divvied over numerous turns. Flying is always nice, but the ability to boost your other merfolk units helps build upon one of the game's most combo-forming creature types and cements Commander's impressive status.
6. Student of Warfare
Mana needed to fully level up: 8
One white mana to cast, one white mana whenever leveling Student of Warfare is cheap to cast and cheap to train. At level 2, his 1/1 stats triple to 3/3 and he gains first strike. This is already a decent stopping point, but if you continue him all the way to level 7, Student inches up to 4/4 and replaces first strike with the rare double-strike attribute, letting him deal both first-strike and regular combat damage.
What else can I say? A 4/4 with double strike is basically swinging for 8 with each attack, and even if you can only mentor Student up to level 2, he still serves as a respectable combatant worthy of his admission price.
5. Enclave Cryptologist
Mana needed to fully level up: 7
Enclave's first benefit comes in the form of her two types; she belongs to both of blue's most abundant families, merfolk and wizard. Cryptologist needs two mana to play and two to level, and she never improves upon her dreadful 0/1 stats. However, at level 1, she can start tapping to let you draw and discard a card, a great way to mill through your deck, keeping what you need while stocking your graveyard with potential revivals.
Then, Cryptologist maxes at just level 3, letting her start tapping to simply draw a card, granting you hand advantage with every activation. A useful draw engine and popular creature combo, but be sure to guard her 0/1 toughness against -1/-1 counters and other damaging tactics.
4. Transcendent Master
Mana needed to fully level up: 15
As a human and a cleric and an avatar, Transcendent Master synergizes with many type effects. While his base cost of three is higher than most level-up creatures, Master levels for a single mana of any color. The catch is that he only gains an ability at level 6, at which point his initial 3/3 stats double to 6/6 and he gains lifelink, letting him recover you a corresponding amount of life whenever he deals damage.
A 6/6 with lifelink is nothing to sneeze at, but if you manage to ascend Master to level 12 (or above), he becomes a daunting 9/9 and gains indestructible, making him immune to the most common form of removal: destruction. Although this takes a total of 15 mana, remember that the beauty of level-up cards stems from their ability to divide their costs over several turns. They also give you an outlet for channeling leftover resources, especially when their advancement price is as cheap as Master's.
3. Joraga Treespeaker
Mana needed to fully level up: 11
As an elf (not to mention a druid), Jorage Treespeaker helps build upon green's most abundant creature type. Only taking one green mana to cast, she needs two to improve, but honestly, you usually only need one level counter on her. At level 1, not only does she go from 1/1 to 1/2, Joraga begins tapping for two green mana! Few low-cost creatures can provide that many resources so quickly, especially considering you can divide the three mana needed for this over two turns.
Getting Joraga up to level 5 will take many more mana, but if you pull it off, she increases to 1/4 and lets all your elves gain her "tap for two green mana" ability. While this aids your other pointy-eared forest dwellers, Joraga stands out with just her fierce one-level mana ramping proficiency. Competitively viable, Joraga is a staple of my Omnath green commander deck, and she only runs you about three dollars rather than the dozens our next entry can cost.
2. Lighthouse Chronologist
Mana needed to fully level up: 9
Remember, the best level-up cards offer a fair bargain even in their starting stages, letting you effectively play them regardless of whether you can afford to improve them. As a 1/3 human wizard, Lighthouse Chronologist provides a hearty blocker for just two mana, and he only needs a single blue mana to improve.
At level 4, Chronologist doesn't gain any extra effects, but his stats boost to 2/4. However, you really want him at level 7, where he not only increases to 3/5 but also grants an astounding trait: At the beginning of each end step, if it isn't your turn, take an extra turn after the current one ends. This absolutely ruthless ability quickly amasses you a heap of extra turns, meaning extra draws, extra land plays, extra attacks, and extra taps. While he begins as a respectable creature, do everything in your power to exploit Chronologist's lethal ultimate ability.
Mana needed to fully level up: 9
Even off the bat, Hexdrinker has surprisingly capable 2/1 stats for such a cheap creature, alongside a few snake tribal supports. More than that, after reaching level three, he becomes a 4/4 with protection from instants, and at eight, he gets protection from everything just like the infamous "Progenitus"!
Powerful from the start and cheap to both cast and upgrade, Hexdrinker easily wins Magic's best level-up award.
Supporting Level Counters in Magic
Remember that, unlike some activated abilities, you can only level up at sorcery speed. However, level up effects benefit from supports like "Training Grounds" (which reduces the prices of creature abilities) and proliferating effects, which can duplicate already-present counters.
The longer your foes leave these guys unchecked, the more threatening they'll become, building towards a long-term win. But for now, as we eagerly await Magic's next expansion of self-improving titans, vote for your favorite card and I'll see you at our next MTG countdown!
© 2018 Jeremy Gill