Picking Your Pets: Why Not Creatures?

How do you bring the beatdown when you’re being pounded by Generals and Emperors? Laura explains the weaknesses of creature-heavy decks in Emperor Format, then looks at how to design creature-based strategies that work.

They say there is life beyond emperor draft – but my playgroup wouldn’t know that. We’re still heavily addicted to the format. Just this last Thursday, we foolishly convinced ourselves that 10:30 p.m. was not too late to start a second, eight-person emperor draft. The struggle to keep my eyes open while driving home at two a.m. in the morning told me otherwise, but my giddiness after an extraordinarily fun night of flinging spells will persuade me to do it again.

I didn’t want to spend this article regaling you with the joys of playing such a stupendous format, but I did want to relay some of my experiences with emperor draft that can easily be applied any emperor format. Two weeks ago, while playing emperor draft, the opposing emperor played a Frost Ogre. Everyone looked at him quizzically. His defense was that he wanted a strong creature available to protect himself when one of his flanks fell. This brought a wash of memories from the first time I was introduced to emperor draft… and the Alongi casual Magic clan.

It was the latter part of January of last year, right before Darksteel had been released. I had just moved to Minnesota, and finally touched base with Anthony Alongi and was allowed to play with them that Thursday night. After a quick round of introductions while scarfing down some home cooking, it was decided that nine people was the perfect number to play a three-way game of emperor draft. Not knowing much about the cards or the format, I agreed to be empress for one of the teams. One of my first picks of the night – which I was quite proud of at the time – was Nim Shrieker. With such an artifact-heavy format, I couldn’t imagine it not being any good – this guy could easily be a 10/1 or even a 15/1 flying creature! My generals may have mentioned it not being a good card while I was building my deck, but I didn’t pay much heed. It was going in.

When the game had reached turn 4, I plopped down my Nim Shrieker. He was only a 2/1 at that time, but there were plenty of artifacts in my deck. The next few turns around the table and he’s puffed up to a 4/1, still sitting merrily behind the defenses of two generals.

It was around this time when someone piped up, "How’s that Nim Shrieker doing for you over there, Laura?" Not much, actually. I had to wait until one of my flanks fell before I could use it services. As the game continued and each turn passed, artifacts flew into the graveyard as fast as they hit the table and I was asked, "How’s that Nim Shrieker doing for you, Laura?"

By this time the answer was painfully obvious – not much.

Aside from being indoctrinated into the group’s callous sense of humor, I learned a valuable lesson that evening. Although you do want to protect yourself when a general goes down, your primary responsibility as emperor to make sure your cards are doing something to further the game along. Personally, I’m not too fond of the concept of facing defeat merely because I’ve lost one of my generals. It’s like using your buddies to do all the dirty work while you bask in the glory of the victory. I would rather use my generals as additional support to help me win the game. They do their best to take down the opponents, but if they don’t succeed, I can walk over their charred remains and clinch the win. It may seem cruel, but a true team does not live and die by one person – they sacrifice for the final result. With this mentality, I can at least always assure my generals that they did not die in vain.

If you have an innate desire to protect yourself and continue the game when a general dies, it is best to assume the worst case – that your general succumbed to an overwhelming force. Expect to be facing a rather large and numerous offense. Having a solitary creature like a Frost Ogre or a Nim Shrieker isn’t going to help much when there are four or five 3/3 creatures bearing down on you. The best method of survival is to be able to build a horde of creatures while being protected by your generals. There are two options that can be used to fulfill this goal – having a small number of cards dedicated to producing a large number of creatures or building a creature-heavy deck using creatures that have spell-like abilities.

There are many options for a deck that wants to use few cards to create several creatures. The most obvious is to find the available cards that produce several creatures and just make a little room for them in a deck you currently have built that exhibits this weakness. Each color has at least one spell that can serve this purpose: Black has Drudge Spell; Blue has Meloku the Clouded Mirror; Green, Centaur Glade; Red, Dragon Roost; and White, Mobilization.

The issue with just sticking in a card that generates several creatures is that it doesn’t do much to support your generals. You may have eighty Soldiers ready to strike at a moment’s notice, but your generals might take issue with the fact that you’re spending all this time creating tokens and not helping them out. If you decide to add this element to a deck, make sure those creatures can be used in a support role. For example, I have a Blue/Red thievery deck that combines Grab the Reins and Blind with Anger in conjunction with Fling and Donate to eliminate my opponent’s creatures. If I added Dragon Roost, I could Donate the 5/5 fliers to an appreciative general or start Flinging them for five points of damage at the dominating general. One could even consider adding a single Soulblast for a mass dragon slaughter.

Instead of squishing another card into a deck that has already been built, there is always the option of building around a theme. Create a deck that, instead of having numerous creatures as an additional bonus, relies on the propensity of creatures to make the deck tick. Your mind should be brewing with ideas now… But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t at least offer something to get your mind salivating. I have been toying with a deck that uses Horobi, Death’s Wail. It was originally built as a general’s deck in order to take advantage of green’s nontargetable creatures, but I thought Horobi would perform better as mass removal in the emperor’s seat. Thankfully, this article provided the inspiration to build the following deck:

3 Haunted Crossroads

4 Horobi, Death’s Wail

4 Counterspell

2 Forbid

3 Meloku the Clouded Mirror

4 Opposition

4 Prodigal Sorcerer

4 Rootwater Hunter

4 Barren’s Spite

4 Recoil

4 Faerie Conclave

4 Spawning Pool

4 Underground River

7 Island

5 Swamp

Meloku is used in this deck to power the Opposition – which taps creatures into the graveyard while Horobi remains in play. With eight pingers and four manlands, this deck can function without Meloku… But Meloku can quickly provide several creatures to not only lock down opposing offense, but have several left over for an air attack.

The other option – creating a creature-centric deck – should not be a foreign concept. It essentially consists of replacing all the typical emperor spells with creatures that have equivalent comes-into-play abilities. Now, instead of a graveyard full of spells, you have a board filled with creatures. Rather than playing Terror, use Nekrataal. Need to get rid of artifacts? Viridian Zealot instead of Naturalize. Use Cloudchaser Eagle to deal with enchantments.

Obviously, this is a rather simplistic approach, since creatures tend to cost more than their instant counterparts and you don’t have the flexibility to play them at strategic points in the game (unless you’re assisted by cards such as Aluren, Winding Canyons, or Vedalken Orrery, of course). However, creatures do offer an opportunity for reusability. Do I need to say Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker? If you claim you haven’t at least built one deck with that little nuisance, you’d be lying. Long before the prevalence of abuse by Kiki-Jiki, there was Crystal Shard. Before that, Erratic Portal. Cast your creature, use its comes-into-play ability, bounce it back into your hand for a mere one mana, and repeat the cycle.

There are plenty more avenues of creature-heavy decks that can be used as emperor, not necessarily using comes-into-play abilities. You can always take advantage of the inherent abilities in creatures – there are tappers in White, pingers in Blue and Red, and assassins in Black. Choosing the correct creatures this way, however, requires a bit of testing and skill in deckbuilding. Many of the creatures that have built-in abilities are small in nature, with only one or two points of toughness. Even if you have ten of them on the table, it is hard to find a route to mass attack through a much larger defending army. Also, since the opposing emperor is outside your spell range, you are vulnerable to mass removal spells. Your creatures need to be large enough to provide a late-game threat, but immediate enough to serve a useful purpose.

Sometimes, the best way to construct this style deck is to combine larger creatures that power other spells and abilities. For example, playing with Ravenous Baloth and Phantom Nishoba to support Contested Cliffs and Aether Charge. The goal of the beasts is not to attack, but to destroy all the creatures on the table. When a flank is lost, these creatures become your attacking force.

I decided to create a deck around this concept, inspired by yet another emperor draft. It was near the end of the draft, and I had chosen to pass along two Budoka Pupils. I was solid into red/black as a general, and preferred to take the Goblin Cohorts to increase the speed of my deck. These two cards passed through the two emperors in our eight-person group and landed in the hands of my general teammate. Although ecstatic that the Pupils made it into good hands, I was shocked that these creatures didn’t seem worthwhile to the emperors. It clearly seemed like the flip creatures in Betrayers of Kamigawa would be ideal for an emperor. With a little bit more time than a general, these guys could build up double the ki counters a general could sustain before flipping them over. Once flipped, not only do they provide great support for the generals, but all of the creatures now have at least three power. That gives the emperor much-needed offense in the late game.

Since I thought it worth testing my preconceived notions and experimenting with the ki flippers in the emperor’s seat, I developed this deck:

4 Callow Jushi

4 Teardrop Kami

4 Veil of Secrecy

4 Hana Kami

4 Budoka Pupil

4 Kodama’s Might

4 Kodama’s Reach

4 Orochi Eggwatcher

4 Wear Away

4 Yavimaya Coast

12 Forest

8 Island

Even though the Orochi Eggwatcher isn’t a Spirit or Arcane to help boost the Callow Jushi or the Budoka Pupil, it provides an outlet for getting rid of a flipped creature that has expended all its ki counters: Sacrifice it and boost a general’s creature by +3/+3. Splicing the Veil of Secrecy also assists with spent Callow Jushis by returning them to hand to pay for the splice cost. Another good card in this deck that would prove useful is Crystal Shard, to help boost the ki counters by repeatedly casting Hana Kami and Teardrop Kami, or returning flipped cards to your hand.

As you are thinking about building your next emperor deck, keep in mind how you might win when your flank falls. Is it through direct damage? Milling? Lockdown? What about just attacking with your own creatures? There is no written law anywhere that says emperors must support their troops through spells. Why not try through creatures?