Since the release of The Duelist Genesis,Monster Levels have been a focal point of deck building. Synchro and Xyz strategies are designed to take advantage of Levels that facilitate the Summoning of powerful Extra Deck cards. For the last few years the effectiveness of certain themes has largely been the result of their ability to Summon certain Xyz Monsters. Legacy of the Valiant was a huge boost to Rank 4-based strategies, providing them with better answers to Special Summoned monsters as well as a means of countering a developed field. Number 101: Silent Honor ARK and Evilswarm Excition Knight helped push Bujins, Fire Fists, and Geargia to the top of the format earlier this year and even led to limitations on both Coach Soldier Wolfbark and Geargiagear.

Entire themes are built around specific monster Levels. Hazy Flame, Dragon Rulers, Artifacts, and Burning Abyss cards use Levels 6, 7, 5, and 3 respectively. With the exception of Dragon Rulers, each of these themes is composed exclusively of Main Deck monsters with those Levels. And as for their themed Extra Deck cards? Their Ranks line up with their Main Deck counterparts. Hazy Flame Basiltrice is a Rank 6, Artifact Durendal is a Rank 5, and Dante, Traveller of the Burning Abyss is a Rank 3. The rest of their Extra Decks are filled with more cards of the same Rank–offering more versatility without introducing off-Level, or even off-theme monsters.

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With this in mind, it's no surprise that changing the Levels of your opponent's monsters can have a huge impact on their ability to make Synchro or Xyz Summons. Levels are carefully calculated during deck building, and there are any number of combos in various strategies that rely on the interactions between monsters with certain Levels. Ever since the Synchro era began, a number of cards packing Level-changing effects have been introduced. Copy Plant, Spore, Constellar Kaus, Gagaga Magician, and Sylvan Princessprout are obvious examples.

Their usefulness with respect to Synchro and Xyz Summoning is obvious, but cards like Mischief of the Yokai and Stygian Dirge change the Levels of opposing cards with a different goal in mind. Rather than help make Extra Deck Summons more frequently, these traps are played as counters to Synchro/Xyz strategies.

Level Changing-Traps Are Back In Style, But Why?
If you take a look at Side Decks from Regional events since Duelist Alliance hit the TCG, you'll see quite a few players siding Stygian Dirge. It's a powerful floodgate card against Satellarknights that's in many ways better than Vanity's Emptiness. Satellarknights have become one of the most important match-ups of the format, so cards that give players an edge against them have risen in popularity accordingly. Light-Imprisoning Mirror and Flying "C" are "C"-ing more play with Satellars around, but it's Vanity's Emptiness that's found its way into Main Decks everywhere. It's an all-around solid card this format that's particularly effective against Shaddolls, Burning Abyss, and Satellarknights. Chaining Emptiness to Shaddoll Fusion leaves your opponent without their Fusion and down a card; Tour Guide From the Underworld ends up useless and alone on the field; and Satellarknight Vega and Satellarknight Altair become dead weight.

Vanity's Emptiness is definitely worth playing this format, but shutting down your own Special Summons is a steep price. What's more, the Emptiness' habit of self-destructing at inopportune time often makes it a liability. Both Light and Shadow-Imprisoning Mirror are more reliable floodgates, and unlike Emptiness they'll rarely impact your own strategy. That is, unless you're playing a Light or Dark theme yourself. For Satellarknight or Burning Abyss mirror matches, both Vanity's Emptiness and the Imprisoning Mirrors are out of the question. That's where Stygian Dirge and Mischief of the Yokai come in: they're the ideal Side Deck cards for these mirror matches.

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Stygian's Continuous Trap nature makes is a strong floodgate against decks that rely on certain Extra Deck Ranks. Satellarknights are clearly designed to be a Rank 4 toolbox – much like Fire Fists, Geargia, and to some extent, HAT. Reducing the Level of every monster your opponent controls by one leaves them unable to access most of their Extra Deck. Without the ability to make Honor Ark, Stellarknight Delteros, or Castel the Sky Musketeer, Satellar players are forced to fall back on their trap line-up and play defensively. Their ability to play aggressively vanishes while their vanguard monster remains stuck in the Extra Deck.

Stygian Dirge hasn't been nearly as effective over the last few formats, and for me that says more about Satellarknights than Stygian itself. Remember back in February and March when +1 Fire Fists were dominating regional and Championship-level tournaments? Or even last format when Geargia was seeing heavy play? Stygian would have been great, right? Reducing the Level of monsters in these Rank 4-centric themes would have crippled their Extra Deck access just as it does to Satellars. But Stygian didn't see a meaningful amount of play during either of those formats, so what's the deal?

There are a couple of reasons why Stygian Dirge is so much more effective against Satellarknights than Fire Fist or Geargia, and it's mostly the result of the monsters both themes play. Fire Fist monsters have teeth: even without access to the Extra Deck, Brotherhood of the Fire Fist – Bear and Brotherhood of the Fire Fist – Gorilla are problem solvers in their own right. They can destroy cards on the field, search Fire Formation spells and traps from the deck, and with a little help their ATK scores will keep them from being easily destroyed by battle. Satellarknight monsters lack that versatility. Satellarknight Deneb only searches Satellarknights; Altair only Summons Satellars from the graveyard; and Vega...well, you get the idea. With weak stats and linear effects, making Rank 4's is about all Satellarknights are good for.

Unlike Geargia, Satellars can't afford to play Rank 3s effectively. There's been a push to run Wind-Up Zenmaines in the Extra Deck as an out to Stygian, but it's a strategy that falls flat against Mischief of the Yokai. Burning Abyss encounters a similar problem: under Stygian you can Xyz Summon Ghostrick Socuteboss, then play Rank-Up Magic Astral Force to get Alchemic Magician which grabs Mystical Space Typhoon from the deck during the End Phase. However, there's not much they can do when their Tour Guides and Malebranches are turned into Level 1 monsters.

Speaking Of Mischief
Level-reducing effects are definitely worth siding for Satellarknight and Burning Abyss match-ups, but there's a bigger question here: between Stygian Dirge and Mischief of the Yokai, which is a more effective Side Deck card? The answer depends largely on your choice of deck, and whether or not you can keep a Continuous Trap on the field. Stygian is a Continuous Trap; it's a great long-term solution to repeatable plays by both Satellars and Burning Abyss. It'll keep them locked out of their Extra Deck – for the most part – for as long as it remains face-up. You can even ride it straight to victory if your opponent doesn't draw into an answer.

Unfortunately for Stygian Dirge, answers to Continuous Traps are plentiful. Mystical Space Typhoon is a must for decks that lose to commonly-played floodgates, and you can be sure that Shaddolls, Satellarknights, and Burning Abyss players will have a full set of Typhoons going into Games 2 and 3. Wiretap and Stellarnova Alpha give Satellarknights another pair of Main Deck outs, which means you'll need to get Stygian on the field early enough to avoid negation traps, as well as Stellarknight Deletros' effect. Burning Abyss is the opposite: effect negation isn't as much of a problem, but with cards like Raigeki Break, Phoenix Wing Wind Blast, and Caius the Shadow Monarch, you'll have a hard time keeping Stygian Dirge on the field for any length of time.

As a Normal Trap Mischief of the Yokai only suffers half of Stygian's vulnerabilities. It's still negatable by Wiretap and Stellarnova Alpha, and your opponent might blast it with Typhoon before making a play, but generally Mischief is harder to counter because it doesn't need to stick around on the field to resolve. Even if it's destroyed and goes to the graveyard, its second effect is still available to disrupt a later play. Mischief's second effect is roughly similar to that of Breakthrough Skill, but with one less restriction: it can be activated during your opponent's turn. This extra activation only reduces the Level of one monster, but it's often enough to stop an impending Xyz Summon.

Still, Mischief isn't perfect. Wiretap will shuffle it back into the deck and prevent it from being used a second time, and its Level-reduction is only a temporary solution. If your opponent can defend themselves for a turn or two they can resume Xyz Summoning without waiting to draw a Typhoon or Wind Blast. Unfortunately both Satellarknights and Burning Abyss incredibly solid defenses. Stygian Dirge is clearly a better long-term solution, but Mischief is still a great short-term pick. If you're playing a deck that excavates or mills frequently, Mischief's graveyard effect can definitely come in handy. Let me know which card you prefer in the comments below!

Until next time then

-Kelly