Play A Card, Wait Five Minutes: My First Online Emperor

This past week, as I was getting ready to participate in one of the Magic Online release leagues for Betrayers of Kamigawa, I received a private message from CPAlliance member the Orgg. He requested that I join him in a MODO game of 2/2/all Emperor – also known as “Standard” Emperor. But there were some serious issues involved in the game which made it a tough experience to enjoy.

This past week, as I was getting ready to participate in one of the Magic Online release leagues for Betrayers of Kamigawa, I received a private message from CPAlliance member the Orgg. He requested that I join him in a game of 2/2/all Emperor – also known as “Standard” Emperor.

Even though I’ve been playing Magic Online for more than a year, I’ve done little more than peek my head into the Multiplayer room. Other than an occasional one-on-one with a friend in Denver, I haven’t even played any Constructed online. To add yet another excuse to growing pile, my online card collection had grown thin – I trade my cards to another friend in exchange for a continual supply of digital booster packs. With only a few cards, no decks, and only a few hours to play in a league I just paid for, it didn’t appear to be the most opportune moment for me to be trouncing off into a new and unexplored world.

Fortunately for the Orgg, the last time we chatted I had promised to play at least one casual game with him the next time we managed to meet online. He also requested we play Emperor – which, thanks to a furry little friend named The Ferrett, has become my personal little niche over the past month. It would be an opportunity to provide readers with an unbiased perspective of online Emperor from a non-corporate shill (no offense, Jay). It would only seem appropriate that I should partake in his little adventure. The Orgg didn’t really need to do any convincing, though – I’ve always been a sucker for new experiences.

With twenty minutes, two league’s worth of Kamigawa cards and a Mirrodin preconstructed deck available, I managed to cobble together a black/red Spirit deck. I had two measly finisher cards – one each of Devouring Greed and Devouring Rage. I warned the Orgg of my pathetic situation, but he was unfazed – he was just eager to finally have the possibility of enough people for a 2/2/all Emperor game.

For those unschooled in the mysterious world of online Emperor, it is not your typical run-of-the-mill real life Emperor. Instead of the standard spell range of two and global effects that touch everyone, the default format is merely a spell range of one – for everything. I am baffled by the evolution of this format, considering it is nearly the antithesis of the basic precepts of Emperor. It, however, has an inexplicable cult who relishes their own brand of entertainment, like the crowd of midnight-goers for the Rocky Horror Picture show. I was soon discover why this was the desired format for Emperor, and it wasn’t due to not knowing how to set the spell range option.

The first leg of this little 2/2/all adventure began with gathering the requisite six players. The Orgg had already collected enough of us together to make four, and proceeded to advertise the chance for anyone interested, to play an online 2/2/all Emperor game with Laura Mills. Unfortunately, I don’t have the clout or the following of the Anthony Alongi and Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar of the world; even though there was no lack of players in the Multiplayer room as several 1/1/1 Emperor and two-headed giant games rolled through the queue, we stalled out at five players. “A regular occurrence,” The Orgg admitted sadly. Several phone calls, private messages, and desperate pleading didn’t yield any help.

Fortunately, just as it seemed the bed might be calling some of us, a sixth person finally arrived. Trying to get a group game going was like a mad race to the front of the line when the school bell rings for recess. The Orgg initiated a game and the six of us had to find it and join before a stranger popped on to steal away one of our spots. Since there is no indication on the screen of the options selected for Emperor, quite a few people mistakenly jumped on for 1/1/1. It took almost three tries before we were successful in getting the entire group together.

The six of us – anuridshoplifter, CPAlliance The Orgg, Musteval, ejrider, Guler, and la_mills – managed to start our first game of online Emperor. The Orgg won the role, and we were off playing…at a snail’s pace.

Take a moment to reflect on how Emperor is played in real life, in the comfort of your own home, with a bunch of friends. A person will just play out his or her turn without stopping unless someone wants to interrupt with a response. In this case, the person who wants to respond will be responsible for jumping up and down, shouting to get everyone’s attention, “Wait! I have a response!” Online Emperor is exactly the opposite. If you do anything – cast a spell, declare an attack, change phases, blow your nose – you have to ask each person who is within spell range, “Any responses?” “Any responses?” “Any responses?” Imagine doing this while sitting at a table with a bunch of friends and time how long it takes to get pushed out into the cold.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens in 2/2/all online Emperor. For each spell you cast, at least four other people need to give their okay. For each stop a person has turned on during your turn, that person has to give permission to proceed to the next event. There is a code of etiquette to turn off as many stops as possible and make prolific use of the F4 key. For a newcomer, this is can be quite a daunting task – knowing how to turn on and off certain stops for each player, how to turn these stops back on throughout the game, and being careful not to hit the F4 key when you really want to be using the F2 key. The F4 key is a scary beast, since it effectively yields priority for the entire turn, giving no chance to respond to anything once that button is pressed. Your opponent casts another spell, you can’t respond. Your opponent attacks, you can’t block. The F2 key, on the other hand, is similar to clicking OK – which I prefer to keep my trigger finger on.

Back to the Emperor game at hand. The Orgg and Guler are Emperors, while I get the opportunity to face off against Musteval. Musteval was clamoring to play me – for the publicity, he claims – but he revealed his true intentions when he dropped a turn 1 Frostling and turn 2 Ishi-Ishi Crackshot. My responses were two of the three equipment I had packed in the deck – a Bonesplitter and Banshee’s Blade. I brought a Thief of Hope into play on turn 3, backed up by Guler’s untapped Isochron Scepter with an imprinted Mana Leak.

The Orgg decided to make things difficult by enchanting one of Musteval’s lands with Living Terrain. Guler attempted to Mana Leak, despite being out of range. This left Musteval able to Glacial Ray my Thief of Hope and attack freely. I was at a desperate seven life with a handful of spirits. I took the pain and cast Gibbering Kami to at least throw up a blocker.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the playing field, not much was happening between ejrider and anuridshoplifter. Ejrider played a Spikeshot Goblin, which was also dispatched by a Glacial Ray.

Guler continued to focus on my side of the table, where the Living Terrain met the front end of a Boomerang. I staved off another attack, but at one life with Ishi-Ishi on the table, there was not much left to do.

This is where I learned that table talk is allowed in online Emperor. This makes sense, since anyone at the table can create a message board to talk with each other privately. Better to be out in the open about it than pretend nothing is going on. So we discussed whether or not I should mana-burn myself in order for Guler to have an opportunity to stop any spells that The Orgg might cast. The general consensus was ambivalence. I chose to stick it out for one final attack.

After I had been removed from participating, I thought it worth waiting around to see what The Orgg had up his sleeve. Over the course of five turns, he had used various forest-fetching spells to give himself nine land. I never found out – Guler conceded a turn later after noticing the time. It had probably been three hours since we began this little episode.

As anuridshoplifter pointed out during play, that game of online Emperor was like several lashes of the whip – slow and painful. Will all 2/2/all Emperor games always be this excruciatingly slow, doomed to fail in the point-and-click world that expects five-minute games?

Not necessarily. With patience, proper etiquette, and willing players, it can grow into the desired fast and vibrant atmosphere that one desires from Magic online.

The first time-consuming problem we faced in this little adventure was a lack of participants. Formats that don’t have a continual religious following aren’t going to survive in a pickup environment. You want those ten or twenty people interested to be available, pick a specified date and time. Make it weekly, so it becomes a ritual for those who want to have time to play Magic. Getting the word out should be easy – post the announcement right in the multiplayer room every opportunity. Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar was successful with his public invitation last fall, there should be no reason we can’t beseech him for another attempt to kick off a weekly event.

The second time challenge was getting the correct people available to start a 2/2/all Emperor game. I’d like to insist that Wizards allow the ability to select a bunch of people for a group challenge similar to how one-on-one challenges can be selected. This may take months, maybe even years to happen through the programming side – but in the meantime, you can take advantage of text boxes to make it very clear what kind of Emperor will be played. After starting a new Emperor game, a small window with a table pops up while waiting to get all the players seated. In the text box for that window, type, “This is 2/2/all Emperor.” This will send a clear signal to those who are scrambling for the next 1/1/1 opening.

Actual gameplay was especially slow for two reasons, the first problem dealing with stops and the second a matter of general etiquette. Stops can be set individually for each opponent and yourself by double-clicking on the stops on the left of the screen during the appropriate player’s turn. To speed up a game of Emperor, I recommend using the following rules at the start of each game:

  • Turn off all stops except for the combat phase.

  • If you are a general, turn off all combat phase stops except for the person directly attacking you.

  • If you are an Emperor, leave combat stops on for all four generals.

  • The three combat stops that should be left on are declare attackers, declare blockers, and combat damage.

Stops can be turned off and on throughout the game – set the others only when something on the board would require it. For example, if you were to cast Innocence Kami, you would now want to turn on the beginning of attack stop. Turn it off when the Innocence Kami leaves play. Also, instead of using the mouse button to constantly click OK, keep a finger always ready on F2. The time difference is surprising.

Lastly, I want to discuss etiquette. Online Emperor can be slow when there are a few newcomers in the group, and more experienced players can get bored and easily distracted. This inevitably results in a bunch of side chats with friends, further distracting those players and now causing the rest of the group to wait. Now that group gets bored, decides to create their own chats, and so on, causing the game to come to a grinding halt. When playing in real life, do you talk on your cell phone with others while playing with friends in the room? Why would you do it online? This is a chance to have fun and meet a bunch of new people, but you’ve put yourself in a situation where you are too distracted to do either. Pay attention to the game. If your typing fingers are getting itchy, type inane messages in the message window. Compose your own limericks. Start asking meaning-of-life questions.

With just these few steps, I believe you can make 2/2/all Emperor a quicker and more enjoyable format – hopefully enough so that we can breathe some life back into what once showed promise last fall.