CASUAL FRIDAYS #108: Empire, The North

The first of four looks at different aspects of Emperor-style casual play. In this first installment: An Emperor’s draft, both booster and Rochester. Plus,the Antelope draws nigh!

Antelope Deadline

I’d like to clarify the deadline for Break this Card; according to the original article, you have one more week (until November 1). By my rough estimate (multiple entries within emails make the count a bit fuzzy); we’re in between fifty and sixty entries at this time. That means there will be two winners. If we hit eighty, there will be three. Eighty’s usually par for the course; so I’m hopeful.


Empire Series: The Explanation

A good deal of the email I get mentions, asks about, gives advice on, or otherwise deals with Emperor format. Emperor format, for those of you unaware, is a multiplayer format where teams face off across the table, with the lieutenants at the far ends engaging in most of the street combat while more centrally located players fire over their heads. (More often than not, Emperor is a three-on-three affair, so we’ll explain it in those terms for most of the series. But I’ve done five-on-five, three-on-three-on-three, and other variants.) Emperor requires slightly different competencies of your deck than typical (that is, chaos) multiplayer decks, or even other team decks. And a good emperor’s deck looks different from her lieutenants’ decks.

With all of the potential for strategy exploration, it is past time for me to talk about some of it – what works, what doesn’t, what might. I’ll also throw in different ideas for formats; in fact, this week we start with an unusual blend of formal drafting and very casual emperor play.

While I will relax some of these rules at times in the name of variant exploration, you can expect most of the series to observe the following guidelines for Emperor. This is the way my group plays; you can do whatever you like. No one will come knocking on your door with a severe look, a baton, and a request for your Emperor Certification Card. (If they do, perhaps you should consider new neighbors.)

  • 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.

While most groups enjoy Emperor format in Constructed fashion, I want to start by shaking things up a little bit. Folks who read me often know that I dabble in serious Limited play; and where I can, I like to twist both worlds so that everyone is out of their comfort zone.

Having a box of Odyssey to spare last week, I hosted an evening of Magic where it just so happened exactly six people showed up. Someone raised the possibility of playing in Emperor style with drafted decks, and so we got right to it. We actually did up two matches that night – one in booster format (your picks are hidden, six packs rotating at once), and one in Rochester (your picks are open, one pack at a time). Perfect: Three packs per player per draft used up the whole box!

(By the way, it was a free draft, so I kept all the rares and uncommons. I joyously opened a foil Haunting Echoes during the Rochester portion. Todd Petit is auctioning off this little gem for me:

Now I normally don’t go all capitalist on auctions – Todd’s done several for me in the past, without me saying a peep – but on this one, I wouldn’t mind seeing some money made. So if the winning bidder mentions to Todd that they’ve read this article, I’ll scribble on the thing before he sends it. That may put the price higher or lower, I’ll admit; but at least you all know what you’re getting into, now.)

Boosting Your Local Emperor

For the booster draft, Toim, Carl, and Theo faced off against Jerry, Gary, and me:

Toim Carl Theo

Jerry Gary Anthony

Booster drafting follows typical rules: everyone opens a pack, picks and passes to left until all the cards are gone, opens next pack, picks and passes to right until all the cards are gone, opens last pack, picks and passes to left again. Only this time, cooperating and sending signals takes on a whole new meaning.

This draft showcased some (unintentionally?) amazing strategy, without any prior consultation or collaborating. First, let me talk a bit about the lieutenant’s job, and how I see it.

Lieutenants are expendable fodder in just about any Emperor format. Their job is twofold: First, to protect the emperor’s flank, and second, to put their emperor (or perhaps themselves) in position to crush the opposite emperor. In a Constructed format, sometimes they can even assault the opposite emperor immediately – typically with burn.

But in a limited format, there is not enough red to go around to both lieutenants and emperors. Red and/or black are very important colors to emperors: Without fancy combos or absolutely amazing permission, they must have the ability to burn away the armies of opposing lieutenants, with enough left over to take closing shots at the opposite emperor. In Odyssey, the picture is even direr: Black removal is insufficient to get the job done (i.e., there is no Soul Burn), and both black and red have fair to middling creatures; and so red removal is at an even higher premium.

So my first desperate hope in opening my first pack was to avoid red. My second desperate hope was to avoid black – both so my emperor could get it, and because it is such a weak color in Odyssey Limited, with creatures featuring very little breakthrough or holding capacity. My third desperate hope was to avoid blue, since I was sitting across from Theo and I was simply adjusting my expectations to his preferences.

That left green and white. I would attempt undertake an Odyssey drafter’s dream: Take the best two creature colors in the set, without worrying about removal. My emperor, Gary, would have my back.

Or so I hoped.

And so I open: Master Apothecary.

Had there not been a Chainflinger in the pack as well, I would have considered pushing it to Gary, since damage prevention is also a viable emperor tool. But since any one of the three of us could use a damage prevention card to help the other two teammates, there was no reason for me not to take it. I flung the ‘flinger to Gary, and we were off.

Theo passed me a Gorilla Titan and a Werebear, and so we were off to green and white. The deck I drafted and built:

WHITE: Angelic Wall, Embolden, Aven Cloudchaser, Master Apothecary, Beloved Chaplain, Shelter x2, Aven Flock, Mystic Zealot, Hallowed Healer, Tattoo Ward

GREEN: Rabid Elephant, Krosan Archer x2, Howling Gale, Gorilla Titan, Krosan Avenger, Leaf Dancer x2, Vivify, Squirrel Nest

GOLD: Thaumatog

The Cloudchaser and Tattoo Ward went maindeck, instead of a couple of one-drop clerics (to use with the Apothecary!), since I had passed a Persuasion to Theo in mid-draft.

The Leaf Dancers are there because I figured that the likelihood of both Theo and Carl packing no green was small – at some point, they were going to become useful. As it turned out, Theo was going green-blue, so they were great right off the bat.

Gary, meanwhile, drafted an absolutely stunning deck. You don’t get this kind of deck without teammates, folks:

RED: Flame Burst x2, Engulfing Flames, Chainflinger x2, Shower of Coals, Blazing Salvo, Firebolt, Barbarian Ring x2 (technically not red, but you get the idea)

BLACK: Patriarch’s Desire x2, Ghastly Demise x4 (!!!), Caustic Tar, Crypt Keeper x2, Decompose, Coffin Purge, Gravedigger, Afflict, Frightcrawler

ARTIFACT: Patchwork Gnomes

This is where our”no creature movement” rule really kicks in: Gary has no reason to follow normal rules of limited deck drafting and Construction. He can take all the removal he wants, and let the crappy red-black creatures just go around to the other team. (Toim helpfully picked most of them up.) He runs the Chainflingers for damage, Crypt Keepers for graveyard destruction, Patchwork Gnomes as a reliable pinch defender, and Frightcrawler because he finally ran out of amazing removal spells.

Jerry, the final piece of our team, was left to take whatever blue he desired, and also picked up leftover green and red to build a workhorse deck:

BLUE: Syncopate, Cephalid Scout, Traumatize (this was to target the emperor), Dreamwinder (see my rationale for Leaf Dancer), Chamber of Manipulation, Aven Fisher, Psionic Gift, Escape Artist x2 (questionable, but they worked fine this time around), Persuasion, Rites of Refusal, Cephalid Looter.

GREEN: Wild Mongrel, Cartographer, Leaf Dancer, Springing Tiger, Werebear, Krosan Avenger

RED: Acceptable Losses, Blazing Salvo, Pardic Firecat

I’ll skim over the other team’s decks, since card lists can become less than exciting. This was Toim’s first draft with Odyssey, so while he picked good red/black cards, he did leave some of them out of his deck, and over-valued cards like Demoralize (he ran three; one would have been fine). He did, however, have an Ashen Firebeast and Cabal Patriarch in his deck; so things could have gotten really ugly for us, very quickly.

Carl, in emperor position, took a control strategy, drafting blue-black-white and seeking to protect his lieutenants with cards like Hallowed Healer, Second Thoughts, Embolden, Painbringer, Execute (a really great call, and absolutely for maindeck in Emperor), Deluge, and Syncopate.

Theo, as I said before, went green-blue, with multiple copies of Nantuko Disciple, Elephant Ambush, Muscle Burst, and Aether Burst, as well as single copies of quality cards like Wild Mongrel, Treetop Sentinel, and Balshan Griffin.

The only key mistake made that we could detect was a Shower of Coals that started with Toim (playing red/black) and passed through Carl and Theo (neither of who was playing red) before I got it and gladly handed it over to my emperor, who choked on his tongue.

What hurt the other team even more, though, was the fact that Jerry, Gary, and I read each other’s signals perfectly, and apparently had the same philosophy going in. Jerry and I both wanted to avoid red and black, and Gary wanted to avoid green. Since Jerry opened great blue, and I opened great white, luck conspired with us to keep us all out of each other’s way. (There’s certainly enough green to support two people on the same team, at a six-person table.)

The match was largely a rout: Jerry blasted through his side the first game, and I blasted through my side the second game. Some highlights:

  1. In the middle of game one, with Jerry bearing down hard on a mana-screwed Toim and everyone else holding pat, Carl lays down…Standstill! Our team agrees to let it resolve, and then we watch Jerry pound on Toim some more. Clearly, we have the superior board position. The next round, Carl decides to switch strategy, and…plays Balancing Act! That certainly helps give his team a bit of a breather, since Toim has only three permanents out; but since we each draw (net, after Balancing Act resolves) two cards in the bargain, we quickly re-establish position and drive it home. My opinion of Balancing Act is deteriorating rapidly; I imagine Carl doesn’t much care for it anymore, either. (He certainly sided out the Standstill which, by the way, I feel is an excellent multiplayer card… Just not in that situation!)

  2. I play my Master Apothecary in game one; Theo steals it with Persuasion, and I can’t find one of the two cards in my library that I drafted for just this purpose to save my life. Highly annoying. The Apothecary went down in the midst of the Balancing Act.

  3. During the later stages of game two, Carl lays out a Painbringer, with only one or two cards in his graveyard. I chance a Thaumatog, and as I swing with it, the Painbringer becomes land destruction as Carl plays as many instants as he can, and I rapidly let my lands go to preserve creature superiority over Theo. I’m beginning to really, really like Thaumatog and Lithatog in limited. (During Grand Prix Minneapolis side events, I had a really fun match with Chad Ellis where the Lithatog almost did him in. I think he’s still bitter about losing that multiplayer invitational in Los Angeles last season, because after he beat me, he did a little dance he had made up for just this occasion, which he called the”In Your Face, Alongi, You Casual-Playin’, Group-Huggin’ Mother-Flipper!” Dance… Geeeesh… Let it go, man.) The land sack ability is just plain slick.

  4. We discovered that there is no such creature as Crypt Keeper. This is because Gary kept calling his Crypt Creeper a Crypt Keeper, which seemed to annoy Theo a lot. After doing some basic research, I can confirm: While Crypt Keeper is a heck of a lot easier to say, Wizards has not seen fit to publish a card under that name, skipping right ahead to the more tongue-twisty cousin. I can just imagine the pain and anguish in the Type II tourney set when Meddling Mage comes out game after game, naming Crypt Keeper, all the while missing its truly intended target – the dastardly Crypt Creeper. Pikula, beware!

Watching The Empire Fall, Card By Card

This format essentially uses draft rules like team Rochester…Except instead of three individual matches afterward, it’s just one big match.

We randomly re-selected teams and seats again, and ended up in this configuration:

Toim Carl Gary

Jerry Anthony Theo

I gotta say, Theo and I don’t like being on the same team with each other. I mean, we obviously get along – we’ve been on a real, DCI-registered team together, after all – but we don’t like it. The whole idea of supporting a guy whose idea of a good game is locking down a seven-player board at zero lands and pinging someone with Barbed Wire rather nauseates me. And I know that Theo, a.k.a. Mr. Spock, cannot stand the base emotions that are necessary to run an aggressive deck fluidly. (I once caught him practicing a red/black Invasion draft deck against a guy sporting blue. He had the other guy down to five life, was sitting at over ten himself, had five damage represented on the board, only one two-defense blue blocker in the way, and a Strafe in his hand. He sat there, thinking. After ten seconds, wondering what was in his hand, I lean over the table, get a glance, and spit out,”WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU WAITING FOR?” He actually replies,”But he might counter it!” I stare at him for a few seconds, waiting for his own idiocy to sink in. Once my wait appears to be in complete vain, I speak slowly:”And if you…don’t play Strafe, will the counterspell… Disappear??? SMASH, DAMN YOU! SMASH!” He let out a strangled attempt at a battle cry and played the Strafe, but I don’t think his heart was in it.)

So like I said, we don’t exactly share the same philosophy; we’ve even been known to counter each other’s spells while on the same team. (“NO. We will NOT win that way.”) That said, we’re fairly used to team draft, and since the second format of the night was Rochester, I expected great things from my lieutenant.

For a while, fate seemed to smile upon us. While both Carl and Gary were stealing all the good early red, that left plenty of strong green for Theo and Jerry, and excellent blue for me (Repel, Chamber of Manipulation). When Theo opened his pack, we were faced with three awesome picks: Mystic Enforcer (to Theo), Hallowed Healer (to me), and Wild Mongrel (to Jerry). I wasn’t crazy about blue-white, but the red just didn’t happen on our side. After a few more packs, I caved in and took some Patriarch’s Desire, Screams of the Damned, and other black cards that no one else was taking. And so I ended up blue-black-white.

Both Carl and I got Cephalid bombs: He opened the mighty Aboshan, while I was satisfied later on with a less powerful but more precise Cephalid Retainer. I don’t think I adopted the Gary school of emperor drafting strongly enough: I did waste a pick or two on creatures I didn’t need, when I probably should have gone for an instant or sorcery that could have affected my lieutenants favorably (e.g., I should have taken Gallantry over Aven Smokeweaver).

Let’s do a quick run-through of the decks folks created:

Carl’s deck was very interesting in that it used creature enchantments more heavily than convention dictates. His red-blue deck used three copies of Kamahl’s Desire and two of Psionic Gift; in the match, this potential for card disadvantage never seemed to hurt much.

George competed with Carl for red, while Toim competed with Carl for blue. Normally, this is a recipe for disaster; but since our side of the table wasn’t accessing much quality red, they got away with it. Theo began to dip into red somewhere toward the end of the first set of packs, but it wasn’t going to be enough to be impressive.

Meanwhile, Jerry on my left was taking mad green, and some black… But no black removal. The black removal was extremely sparse, and I had picked up most of it by the time he decided he liked that color, too. He got an airforce for his trouble – including Stalking Bloodsucker – but little else.

I had a last-second decision to make: Do I maindeck Braids, Cabal Minion or not? I ask Theo. He says no. I build and we get started.

This match went to three games. A short summary of each:

  1. Our team is slowly pressing advantage until Carl lays down Aboshan. We go about two rounds before we decide we cannot win – Jerry has no black removal, Theo has minimal red removal, and if we wait for me to be able to reach Carl, we’ll be dead.

  2. Their team is slowly pressing advantage until I lay down Cephalid Retainer. (“Phhhlllllllbt!”) While Gary’s deck may have the capability to take out this card, he is too busy fending off Theo’s army of elephants and squirrels. They concede. (Often we’ll play out even a hopeless game – but we were racing a clock, here.)

  3. Neither bomb rises to the top of either emperor’s deck. We have to play straight up. Jerry and Toim lock horns for the third time (green/black vs. blue/white, neither one with any efficient removal), and once again it’s up to Theo and Gary to define the battlefield. After an solid mid-game surge with Chlorophant and a couple of Ember Beasts, Theo runs out of gas, and begins throwing squirrels out of their nest to defend against Pardic Firecats.

    So after doing this for about three rounds, he turns to me and says,”Geez, I guess you should have run Braids in your main deck, heh?”

    Everyone has a big laugh at my expense; look at the dumb-dumb who followed Theo’s advice and didn’t run Braids when his lieutenants are running green and can afford it.

    I look at Theo innocently.”Oh, I’m running her maindeck.”

    “You are?”

    “Sure. I slipped her in at the last second, while you weren’t looking. I just haven’t been able to draw her in three games.”

    See? Theo and I can’t play on the same team.

    Shortly after that, Theo died. Gary had several red creatures on the board, but only nine life. I had two Aven Smokeweavers out, a Chamber of Manipulation on one of my ten lands, and a Time Stretch among the cards in my hand. (What the hell, I figured, it’s Emperor format.) I was desperately waiting for Braids to show, since the synergy with Chamber of Manipulation is, well, high. Everything was screaming comeback.

    Then Gary, a.k.a. The Idiot Savant, plays Simplify.

    That’s okay, go look it up.

    Who uses that trash? Even worse, it destroys Gary’s own Bearscape, demonstrating to all how stupid the card is as it wrecks me.

    It doesn’t matter, I figure, I’ll Time Stretch, take Gary out, and even take a slice out of Carl, who had virtually no creatures out. The game could still be won.

    So I attack Gary with my Smokeweavers, which takes him down to five, and then play Time Stretch.

    That’s when Carl plays Rites of Refusal, and I realize that good strategy in duel (swinging before playing the spell that you know one enemy cannot counter) is not always good strategy in multiplayer. One would expect, after writing 107 consecutive articles on the topic, that I would have learned this by now. But whatever.

    With my Smokeweavers tapped, I am open to a massive attack that takes me down to two life. I get one last meaningless turn, where I draw…

    Braids, Cabal Minion.

    Okay, that’s not funny. No, really. It’s not. So stop laughing.

Lessons Learned

Drafting in Emperor does feel quite a bit like team Rochester; but there are important differences. I’ll stay specific to Odyssey:

  • Red removal in the emperor seat. Absolutely. If you’re sure your emperor is established in red, you as a lieutenant might also try to take some, if only to draw away from the other team. But the lion’s share has to go to your chief. I suspect that most Emperor games using Odyssey draft to build decks will hinge on which team drafts red more intelligently.

  • No more than five or six creatures for the emperor. They should be things like Chainflinger, Hallowed Healer, or other board-changers. Go ahead and draft Dusk Imps if you need to send a signal; just don’t run them in your deck.

  • If you’re planning before the draft starts, plan between your lieutenants to lock out green. You’ll need to get a little lucky with your early picks, but if the other team gives you enough green for both lieutenants, take it and take it hard. The emperor leaves it alone, of course. Green should form the base of both lieutenants’ armies; the opposing emperor won’t be able to help both lieutenants.

  • White is not as good in the emperor seat as you might expect. While Hallowed Healer, Embolden, and Second Thoughts are all excellent, two other commons – Gallantry and Shelter – lose quite a bit in emperor. I sat with a Gallantry in my hand for most of game three, waiting for one of my lieutenants to be brave enough to chump-block. And Shelter, of course, only works on creatures you control. All five of these cards are still playable, but the creatures like Angelic Wall and Aven Flock are completely useless to you. Leave white to a lieutenant; every card except Second Thoughts will work just as well in his hands as they would have in yours.

  • Avoid black. I didn’t see a single deck using black work well that night, out of twelve. The removal moves too slowly to be useful to an emperor, the creatures are bad, and even the bombs can’t hold a candle to the other colors. If it’s a splash in one deck among the three of you, fine. But let the other team pick up as much of this as they like.

  • Blue can go anywhere. It holds up pretty well in both emperor and lieutenant seats. The Cephalid Looters and Brokers can help your teammates, not just you, cycle through decks. The other creatures are decent blockers/attackers, and the”removal” like Repel and Aether Burst are universally helpful.

  • Moment’s Peace would have been helpful. Theo died with three of these in his sideboard. When asked later if he thought they might have helped turn the tide, he admitted that they might have. (See? We just can’t be on the same team.) Since Odyssey has no X damage spells, games are more often than not won in creature combat. A double-Fog may not sound like much; but like Tangle, its effect lasts beyond the first turn you play it. And again… It’s a great lieutenant card, since it can help your other lieutenant.

  • Don’t tap out on your bomb spells. This was a”duh” moment for me, but given that Rites of Refusal and Syncopate both allow for the spell to resolve if the caster plays smart, it’s an important one to drive home in an Odyssey format.

COMING SOON: As we look elsewhere in the Empire, we’ll examine how emperors can be maximally useful to their lieutenants, and what makes an emperor deck tick. Plus, a breakdown of a suicide lieutenant’s deck. And of course, the Graceful Antelope Break this Card contest will wrap up.


Anthony Alongi

[email protected]