CASUAL FRIDAYS #111: Empire, The West
A brief recast of how our group plays emperor format, so that you can understand better why I hold some of the opinions below:
- All players have a range of two for targeted effects. (That means at the start o the game, lieutenants in opposite corners cannot target each other. Neither can emperors.)
- Global effects hit the entire board.
- Creatures stay right where they are - no sharing. (Once in a while we'll allow creature movement from player to player, but we like the way our rule forces emperors to build a totally different style of deck.)
- Lieutenants must take all reasonable measures to survive (e.g., they should not intentionally take mana burn so that their emperor can reach the other one). In addition, emperors are not allowed to remove their lieutenants from the game. Of course, emperors are not obligated to protect their lieutenants, either.
This week, we'll look at each of the five colors and how they enhance/detract from different positions on the board. It's sort of the"vanilla" article that probably should have started off the series, but I was really excited to talk about Limited formats back then - so here we are, stuck with our vegetables after eating our sweets. Or, if you grew up in my mother's house, soggy Life cereal after drinking the orange juice and eating the peanut-butter-laden toast. Balance in the universe, I suppose. (Or in the 124-part multiverse, if you want to believe the sort of distractingly bad physics that continually"underpin" The One... I am not quite ready to forgive my wife for dragging me to that this past weekend... I can't even find the energy to find a cute little joke about highlander-format Magic based on the over-stated"I will be The One" line.)
All this talk about how colors work and where doesn't mean you have to coordinate with your team members each game ("Hey, you play this color over there, and I'll play that color over here!"). In fact, the reason I'm putting this out there is so you can better afford pre-game silence. The more you know what works well and when, the better your chances of helping your team without saying a word beforehand.
Let's get this one out of the way: I'm just as happy not seeing white at all in an Emperor game, and it's not just because of my traditional dislike of white lifegain. (Congregate is more stupid than ever in this format.) Most of the cards I normally have in white's Hall of Fame - global killers like Wrath of God and Armageddon - are kill-joys in the format, since they affect your teammates as well.
Where white can succeed, as I suggested a couple of weeks ago, is in sealing one side of the board against attack, so that an emperor can focus on the other side. But there are plenty of other colors capable of this as well - green can gain modest life, blue can stall perfectly well, and both can provide fat defense.
So why play white at all? Good question. But rather than cynically toss out the color altogether, I will submit that damage prevention, and protection effects, can give an excellent boost to your teammates. You can't just get by with a Hallowed Healer or other permanent; you'll need some surprises and tricks to stick around in your hand. Mirror Strike and Kor Chant should be high on your list. Embolden and Shelter are two solid new additions.
In the emperor seat, white's early and efficient defensive creatures (such as Angelic Wall) are useless. Play clerics early and more often. In the lieutenant's seat, play less cheap clerics, get those defensive creatures out, and come out with bombs like Atalya, Samite Healer and Worship in the mid- to late-game.
Speaking of Worship, I don't like it in the center. If the other team can blow through a lieutenant and her creatures, they can blow through you and your creatures. The chances that you will only face a red-black deck incapable of removing creatures across three different opponents is small. Keep the tricky enchantments off to the side - it sounds strange, but they're better in the early game to help your team define the battlefield.
I guess what I'm saying is, if you're going to play white, accept that you are going to be a supporting player, and do it well. Sure throw a Balance in there to keep everyone on their toes, but don't expect to be the breakthrough player.
Now we can get to better colors. I think every emperor game should have blue in it; I just think it shouldn't be where most people play it.
When I first learned the basic Emperor format, just about everyone in my group felt that blue worked best in the emperor seat. And I don't think it just our group: Seeing other players at different local shops play the format, and hearing what readers have to say on the format, gives me enough evidence to assert that blue"feels right" in the center for most teams.
But perhaps a bit like white, blue attracts way too many emperors who are more interested in staying out of the way and preventing big disasters. That's a reactive strategy. A strong emperor will be proactive, and will set the conditions of the battlefield to his own liking. It's not that blue-white can't do that - in fact, Gary has a blue-white"Solution" style deck featuring Unnatural Selection and Pure Reflection that works extremely well in an emperor slot. (Peter Jahn independently came up with his own version just a few weeks ago as well. It's a very effective and aggressive combo, capable of absolute pinpoint creature control.) But all too often, I'll see traditional blue-white decks in that seat playing"draw-go.""Draw-go" won't get the job done for the same reason any Counterspell-based deck has trouble against three opponents - you just won't have enough gas.
Blue feels better to me on the side, in a lieutenant slot. This is because control kills combo, and the most likely place you'll find combo on the enemy team is with the emperor. (The Selection-Reflection deck by Gary I just mentioned above is a fine example.) Of course, control has a hard time stopping aggressive decks, and if the opposing lieutenant is playing a very aggressive deck, you may have your hands full - but that's where your own emperor, and the colors below, can help. And you can always splash one of the following yourself.
As the color most capable of dealing pinpoint creature control - which is what wins nine out of ten emperor games - black is my favorite emperor color. Royal Assassin, Attrition, Phyrexian Plaguelord, Bone Shredder, Cabal Patriarch, Notorious Assassin - the list goes on and on. When you can pick and choose what dies in front of your lieutenant's armies, you give them the chance to roll over, defend correctly, or even just stall in an emergency while they get their mana straight.
Black also gives you access to"finishing touch" spells, ranging from the risky Pestilence to the more certain Drain Life, that can finish off a pesky lieutenant or stubborn emperor. The simple presence of an alternate path to victory can break a creature stalemate and give your team the edge - and only black and red can reliably go to the dome as a second option.
One of my least favorite (but admittedly most useful) emperor stories comes from a game where my teammates and I absolutely smashed the opposing lieutenants. (I believe Gary was my emperor, and Carl was his opposing number.) I mean, this was strongly reminiscent of a jailbreak. Rancor had a role on both sides of the table, and the green fat was everywhere.
The problem was, the opposing lieutenants were both playing red - and, since they realized quickly that they were on the way out, they simply threw it all at Gary. This didn't kill Gary... But Carl's Drain Life, using Bubbling Muck if my aching head recalls correctly, for nine or ten certainly did. So we suffered a most humiliating fate: In a three-on-one, we lost. Granted, the conditions in emperor are such that the"one" only has to get one of us, but still, you can't help but feel quite lame.
Black also can look neat in a lieutenant seat, of course.. Dark Ritual, Hypnotic Specter is still the best first-turn play in just about any format known to Magic players, and at closer range black can also get at those nasty manipulative creatures such as Devoted Caretaker, Chainflinger, Cephalid Broker, and Royal Assassin that might be under an enemy emperor's control.
And so can our next color.
Whereas black can feel a bit scary in a lieutenant seat - its quickest path to victory via creatures, after all, is suicide - red can feel a bit more at ease. Its early creatures are just a touch more efficient (collectively speaking, and let's pretend Dark Ritual doesn't exist, folks), and its instant-speed removal is more flexible - a Terror cannot hurt a player, but a Lightning Bolt can hit player or creatures.
With creatures like Mogg Maniac, Ball Lightning, and Skizzik - and tricks like Sneak Attack, Kyren Negotiations, and Fork - red is simply a natural to be played on the edge of the table. It puts consistent, strong pressure on a flank, and together with a more stable color - blue or green would be my favorites - it can easily attain enough staying power to threaten two opponents.
And we haven't even gotten to the Mana Flare - double-Urza's Rage strategy, have we? That's okay, we can put that in the"boring when you do it more than once" bin, and talk about something else.
When red sits in the emperor seat, it should probably be as a support color. It's not as good as black here, because you shouldn't be looking for flexible player-creature removal as much as you should be looking for efficient creature removal that can help your lieutenants succeed. Of course, red-black in the middle can be an unmitigated disaster if a strong enchantment hits the board. Blend red with white and/or blue...Or green, if you feel your own lieutenants can do without those permanents.
Green sounds like the stupid choice, of course: Who would play this in an emperor seat?
Well, in our group, Bill would.
It's become something of a tradition, I think, for Bill to come into the format volunteering to be his team's emperor, and then plop down nothing but forests. At first, this may have been due to a lack of understanding of how the format works. But over time, rather than shift into another color, Bill has dug in his heels and done his best to make green work in the emperor slot. Here are some ideas from Bill's Wacky Vault of Green Emperor Decks:
- Run nothing but Forests, Zuran Orb, and Hurricane.
- Same as above, but add Burgeoning, Horn of Greed, and some of that other turbo-land loveliness. Hint: You still win with Hurricane.
- Run lots of elves (e.g., Priest of Titania and Rofellos), Stream of Life...And Hurricane. (Okay, this isn't Bill; this is Pete, who has also caught the green emperor bug.)
- Splash blue, and play Lure with Tolarian Entrancer and Jangling Automaton. Let a lieutenant die, then attack with a (Lured) Entrancer and the Automaton. Steal all of opposing lieutenant's creatures, attack the... Oh, just scrap it, will you Bill?!?!?
Folks, play green in the lieutenant's seat.
But rather than just playing it for the fat creatures, seek out the strategies that can help you use the color most effectively. Green has fantastic utility - Uktabi Orangutan and Druid Lyrist will always, always find something. Rancor doesn't have to enchant your creature; you can put it across the board, where it might do more good. And if you splash white or red (respectively), you and your teammates can benefit from tricks such as Gerrard's Command and Fires of Yavimaya, both of which can serve as a turning point in the game. Don't forget squirrel or saproling combinations with Opposition, Reprocess, Altar of Dementia, or Last-Ditch Effort.
My point with green is, try to be creative with it. Any strategy that stops creatures shouldn't necessarily stop you. You need to have a way of getting through two players, each of whom might have an Ensnaring Bridge, Bubble Matrix, Worship, or even just Earthquake.
COMING SOON: We wrap up the emperor series with some ideas on how to funk up the format. Also, a grand opening.