CASUAL FRIDAYS #109: Empire, The South

In Emperor format, the emperor is not the leader. Hey look, it’s modern business management theory, alive and well at your local card shop and kitchen table!

Antelopes Herded

Thanks to all who entered the Break this Card contest for Graceful Antelope. The lines are now officially closed. Despite Job van der Zwan’s valiant efforts (details to come in the wrap-up article), we fell just a tiny bit short of the eighty-entry mark; but what the heck – I’ll award three prizes anyway. The wrap-up article will interrupt this four-part Emperor series either next week or the week after, depending on my off-work time.

Format Reminder

We’re in the midst of a series on different aspects of Emperor play.

For those that missed last week, here is the Emperor format my group plays. Yours may differ without risking global annihilation; but these articles will make a bit more sense if you remember the following:

  • All players have a range of two for targeted effects. (That means at the start of 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.

Even if your group plays differently, I’m sure you’re capable of translating the strange dialect below into workable strategies!

The Real Emperor-Lieutenant Relationship

Those of you who have experience in the business world (or are taking the appropriate courses in graduate school) are no doubt well-versed in modern management theory. If you’re not, man are you in for a yummy-in-your-tummy treat…

One of the principles of good management, in many modern schools, is that managers are not just taskmasters who crack the whip over the heads of their workers. They are instead, if you are really good at suspending disbelief, support staff to the front-line workers. The front-line workers, after all, know how to get the nitty-gritty work done (the sales, the production, the marketing, etc.). Managers are there to remove the barriers that front-line workers face in getting their job done more efficiently.

Of course, I’ve tried for quite some time to convince my manager that she is the barrier I face in getting my job done more efficiently; but every time I tell her this, she just gives me a patient smile, whacks me upside the head, and tells me to get back to work. (She is probably in frequent communication with my wife, who uses similar strategies to fend off my brilliant suggestions for improving the world.)

This little corner of modern management theory works much better in the fantasy world of Magic, where we can band together in three-player teams and designate one of them the emperor, or (get this)”manager.” While an emperor-lieutenant relationship in ancient China might have been rather uni-directional, here in the 21st century emperors can expect something slightly different from their lieutenants – and lieutenants can certainly expect something very much different from their emperors.

The reason lieutenants must get more respect than their title suggests is because from the very start of the game, they can reach the emperor. Heck, if you didn’t have that annoying opposing lieutenant poking at you, you could just have a friendly duel, right? And it’s a duel that your deck will be better prepared for, especially if your emperor is backing you up.

From this, we generate the unsurprising mission of the emperor. Your emperor has to absolutely tank that lieutenant so that you can have that”duel” in peace.

So you can imagine a pleasant little two-by-two game, on two-thirds of the board, where two emperors are simultaneously trying to squash the opposing lieutenant so that their teammate can bust through and turn the game into a two-on-one. But of course, there’s another third of the board over on the other side. Another opposing lieutenant is trying to burst through. There are two two-by-twos going on at once – that’s four aggressive lieutenant decks that need either support or undermining. The emperor is stretched so thin. How awful!

Let me suggest the following strategy, which will require your group to allow consultation in advance. (You don’t have to consult in advance; in fact, our group rarely does, and it’s quite fun when you’re random. But every once in a while, I wish we allowed the conversations beforehand, because what you’re about to read is what I’d have us do.)

Quick setup of table and player labels:

portside enemy lieutenant ENEMY EMPEROR starboard enemy lieutenant

portside lieutenant YOU starboard lieutenant

Your portside lieutenant serves as the assault team. (This is because it’s the matchup where your lieutenant goes first.) They put together a highly aggressive package that almost certainly uses red, since burn can be used both to remove potential blockers and smash heads. The other color(s) is up for grabs, but is probably not blue. (See your teammates below.)

You, the emperor, use a mildly self-protective deck capable of removing permanents. When I get around to it (I nearly always play lieutenant), I will build my”utopian” emperor deck out of nasty”justice white” cards like Mirror Strike, Captain’s Maneuver, and Orim’s Thunder. Red doesn’t have to be the splash – in fact, black may be an even better splash, since it will diversify your removal, and give you more reliable tricks like Reckless Spite.

Your starboard lieutenant is the interesting twist – if you wanted a two-by-two on the other parts of the board, what would you put here? You might put the most defensive deck type of all: A blue-white wall of protective sludge that no single player would be able to blast through. Screw assault or burn as a path: That’s what you have the other lieutenant for. Use this one to seal up the side entrance, and perhaps come up with a devious secondary path (like milling, or something else silly) in case Plan A doesn’t pan out.

Let’s do some illustration. The decks below are real; though we haven’t yet been fortunate enough in our group to see all three come together like this.

The Portside Lieutenant:”Hatred Is An Option”

A few weeks ago, I built a lieutenant deck with an eye toward damaging the opposing lieutenant and emperor at an equal pace. Here is the base:

4x Sleeper Agent

4x Urza’s Rage

4x Mana Flare

4x Dark Ritual

4x Hypnotic Specter

4x Sizzle

2x Lake of the Dead


This base can pile up a massive amount of damage on an opposing emperor, very quickly. Sleeper Agents are just broken in emperor format with no creature movement – those ten-turn clocks sit there in front of the head dork until the opposing team wastes a card burning it. Two Agents in your opening hand is just cruel.

The Hypnotic Specters are great disruption against an enemy lieutenant; the less cards she has, the less you have to worry about threats coming your way. If she does get something on the board against you, let your emperor worry about it. In a pinch, you can divert attention from the opposing emperor and just start shelling the lieutenant in front of you.

I used to have Unnerve in this deck as well, since I thought it was really cute to have Sizzle and Unnerve in the same deck. But I never seemed to find a good time to play the card; and when I built another discard deck, I was just as happy to take them out and put in Shower of Coals.

I also have Shivan Zombies in the deck. Sure, I look stupid more often than not, when I have two Mana Flares out and take a bunch of burn just to play one 2cc creature. But I also looked really clever that one time when I got to play three of them out at once from tapping only two lands, and I just can’t let that go. Anyhow, Molten Hydrae would probably work better in such a slot.

More than once, I have been tempted to put a couple copies of Hatred in the deck. The thing’s suicidal anyway; I could play the archetype straight up. But Hatred in emperor implies the death of two opponents, and I’m happier when I can ignore the lieutenant. You have enough juice already to take you through about one and a half opponents. Why not make the emperor the one, and the lieutenant the half?

THE SECOND OPTION: I don’t just want to give people one idea in a slot like this. Theo has a variant on nine-land mono-green (Elvish Spirit Guide, Vine Dryads, Rancor, etc.) that often works quite well in the lieutenant spot. It has to win through creature combat, which makes it easy to stop through global removal or tricks like Ensnaring Bridge… But stuff like that doesn’t often show up at an Emperor game. The good thing about this deck is, it’s aggressive, it often takes an opposing lieutenant unprepared, and it makes life way easier for the other side of the board, since the pressure is so clear and early.

The Emperor:”I Pick One, And Hope.”

Theo often shows up at Emperor format with a mono-black land destruction deck that can play roughly equally well in lieutenant or emperor position. With the right decks flanking it, it is an excellent fit into my”ideal” three-deck team build. It is chock-full of land destruction cards, which should take care of just about any kind of permanent, since they’ll never hit the board in the first place:

4x Sinkhole

4x Rain of Tears

4x Icequake

4x Choking Sands

4x Befoul

4x Demonic Hordes

4x Rishadan Port


Theo’s philosophy is simple:”I pick one opposing lieutenant, and hope it’s the right one.” If that opponent manages to get out three successive Priests of Titania, then it’s the wrong one. Otherwise, he’s probably found a good target.

We actually have gotten this deck working together with mine up above. All I have to do is refrain from using the Mana Flares until I really need them (or until I really want to annoy my teammate). One game around the fourth round, as the enemy emperor glanced over the two Sleeper Agents he controlled, the Hypnotic Specter I controlled, and the absolute lack of land (or any permanents) his lieutenant controlled, his sigh was fairly dramatic.

THE SECOND OPTION: Many emperors play white in some percentage, for the life gain. Ah, life gain. If you’re just helping yourself, you’re not helping your lieutenants… So you’re really not helping yourself. And the”invulnerability” aspect of white – e.g., Ivory Mask – can give you neat tricks, but more often than not, a flexible spell that can help either your lieutenants or you will work better. So there’s nothing to do but grow some guts and get your hands dirty.

I’d rather see white used as I hinted above: Mirror Strikes, Eye for an Eye, Kor Chant, and so on. Splash it with red for the Reflect Damage and Captain’s Maneuver, or with black for the creature removal and, I suppose, Death Grasp (at least that sort of life gain also can win on its own). If you build something like this, you cannot expect it to stop the attacks – there is no”rattlesnake” capability in Emperor – so you should put enough of each spell to use them, and then probably find some way to make use of your graveyard as well, since the cards will pile up. Barbarian Ring and/or Cabal Pit are honest options, as are Painbringer and Skeletal Scrying.

Nobody in my group has built an emperor deck like that yet, but I can always hope.

The Starboard Lieutenant:”Draw-Kill”

I’ll get more into how colors work at different emperor positions in a later article, but for now it’s enough to say that blue and white are usually underutilized in most emperor games I’ve seen, both within our group and among others. Since these colors are considered”control” colors, they’re typically thought of as”emperor-only” territory. But both – and particularly blue – can do plenty from the angle of a lieutenant. Beyond sealing one side of the battlefield, lieutenant blue can do the following with all players alive:

  • counter an opposing emperor’s bomb (or stupid lifegain trick);

  • bounce and save a fellow lieutenant’s endangered permanents;

  • misdirect emperor’s removal or lieutenant’s burn (this includes your own teammate’s spells, if you think they’d like you to change a good target to an even better one only you can reach!);

  • get his teammates (and perhaps opponents) extra cards;

  • put a Morphling on the board and freak out the entire opposition;

  • put a bunch of pingers out and whittle away at the enemy emperor’s life total so that it’s an easier kill when your teammate breaks through on the other side.

White can also do a few of these things, though it’s usually just better at the sealant function. As I suggested last week in the context of Odyssey, damage prevention typically works equally well no matter where it is on your team, since you’re targeting what you save, not what’s doing the damage. So why automatically put it with the player who’s already trying to do too much? Give the emperor a break, and carry some of the load on the side.

A path to victory for this deck is perhaps optional; but it’s never a bad idea to have some way to win, I suppose. You can count on something as simple as flying creatures, when the time is right and you can go on the offensive; or you can create a trick deck that wins like Pete’s old ViselingProsperity deck:

4x Viseling

4x Iron Maiden

4x Prosperity

4x Indentured Djinn

2x Evacuation

bunch of 0-casting cost creatures

I’ll stop there, since long-time readers have seen it before, and in fact many of you have generated your own versions that may work better. I really like this style of deck here. Like Theo’s land destruction deck, it requires me to use restraint with the Mana Flares, since we don’t want opponents to be able to get cards out of their hands too easily.

THE SECOND OPTION: An interesting option for a deck in this position would be one of the blue-green decks from the Casual Fridays just a couple of weeks ago, where a board-warping trick like Psychic Battle or Opposition gives you the ability to wreak havoc on the enemy team from an unexpected vantage point. Tap out the emperor with your squirrels during his upkeep; redirect any enemy’s spell (even the guy out of range, since Psychic Battle is not a targeted effect) to the target of your choosing; become a second beatdown front as you play out your Verdant Force! As long as the blue half can keep the enemy at bay for a while, the green can take over quite capably.

What’s really swift about the defensive lieutenant is that it, once again, follows modern business management principles. (You didn’t think we were done with that, did you? Haven’t you people ever heard of lifelong learning, continuing education, all of that??? The train never stops, people. You can’t get off. Now sit your shiny hineys down and keep taking notes.) Good managers seek a broad palette of skills in their teams, and let them work their magic. They listen to their workers’ problems and solve them, either directly (Befoul the creature that’s annoying you) or indirectly (choke off the resources to one side and put them in an untenable position). The manager is a team member, as dependent on his staff as they are on him. To do this, they have to generate consensus, think outside the box, and…oh, all right, I’ll stop.

The”Problem” With My Plan: Symmetry

If your team adopts this approach to Emperor games, my desperate hope is that you will be successful. If we all get lucky, however, then your success may breed a problem: Everyone at your local store who plays emperor with you will soon have the same mindset, and you might easily come across a situation where the opposite team does exactly the same thing. Of course, in your enemy’s case, their starboard lieutenant will be the one rushing, whereas their portside lieutenant will be sealing defensively. In other words, both sides will feature matchups of unstoppable force/immovable object, and it will come down to a very select set of strategic choices and lucky draws made. Whether that’s a good or bad thing for you, depends.

There are certainly metagame options: That is, other ways to arrange the strategy of your team. Some shifts can be done beforehand in actual consultation, if your team works that way. But most are a simple matter of having the right kind of deck ready, and using the colors and card types to best advantage. That’s always good strategy, with or without a metagame…so that’s where we’ll focus next.

COMING SOON: What colors and card types work where, when, and why. Also, unusually-sized groups, and how they can still enjoy emperor. And a stampede of prize-winning antelopes will, of course, interrupt the proceedings.


Anthony Alongi

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