Religious Right or Liberal Left?

Sometimes, the most seemingly-trivial things can affect the strategy of your games. And when you’re playing Emperor or Two-Headed Giant, there’s one subtle fact which can affect deckbuilding in very interesting ways.

We had just finished drafting for our emperor game, and Anthony was a-titter over the black and white deck he had drafted as the other general on our team. He wasn’t excited over the two Ghostly Prisons that managed to skip around the table into his hands; it wasn’t the Cage of Hands or the Kabuto Moth that had him glowing. Even the pair of Befouls and companion Rend Spirit didn’t inspire his maniacal grin.

It was Hokori, Dust Drinker. He was salivating over the possibility of locking down the opposing team while we had creature advantage on the board.

There was one thing he didn’t count on, though — getting people seated in the correct configuration. His brother-in-law, Paul, who was the opposing general who I was supposed to face off against, sat across from Anthony. As the musical chair dance began, Anthony insisted that he needed to sit “here.” Whether out of sheer confusion, stubbornness, or his own wily tactics, Paul refused to budge. This, obviously, was not going to work. A little bit of pleading later, Anthony sullenly picked up his cards and moved to the left of his emperor.

What I didn’t understand at the time (and only discovered after Hokori hit play and locked me down while helping Paul run me over) was that Anthony really meant, “I want to sit to the right of the emperor.” Yes, men can be just as ambiguous when it comes to communicating their desires.

Why did it matter which side Anthony sat on? What were Paul’s motives for making sure he stayed on what would be the left side of his emperor? It all came down to the order in which people played.

For Anthony, it was a matter of turn sequence. By sitting to the right of the emperor, all of Anthony’s allies would take their turn before any of his opponents did. When Hokori, Dust Drinker was in play, his team would get to untap one land before any person on the opposing team. If everyone were completely tapped out, it meant we could each cast a spell one turn before the opponent. This would become valuable if I had several fast, cheap creatures that I could get into play before the general I was facing could. I would ideally run over my opponent before he could recover from Hokori.

Paul, on the other hand, wanted to take advantage of the starting position. When we play emperor in our group, turn order is decided by the winning roll of the emperor. Whichever emperor wins the roll gets to choose which emperor starts, with play proceeding clockwise. This means that the person to the left of the emperor will always play before his opponent. This means that if you have an extremely aggressive deck, you should have an uncontrollable urge to sit on the left. Paul had managed to draft a speedy red/green deck boasting a bunch of two-power critters, a pair of Ronin Houndmasters and a Genju of the Fields. He also drafted a Ryusei, the Falling Star to finish the job. Being seated on the left, Paul could put pressure on me early before my deck could muster its own offense.

Envision the scenario that we’ve just discussed, where Paul has managed to win his coveted spot on the right and Anthony has to settle for overcoming the disadvantage of playing Hokori on the left. In this situation, the correct move would have been for Anthony to not bother playing the Hokori at all, or at least wait until his teammates were completely untapped and his opponents tapped. What actually occurred was that the Hokori was played when mostly everyone was tapped out and Paul had a creature edge over me. I had a Traproot Kami in hand to hopefully stave off some of the damage until I could play the Ink-Eyes I was holding. However, since Paul was the aggressor in our match, the Hokori benefited him as he played one Ronin Houndmaster after another and my Traproot met with a Hisoka’s Defiance. I could never get enough land untapped to protect myself against Paul’s onslaught and cast Ink-Eyes to take control on my side.

So the moral of today’s story is that if you decide to play emperor draft, make sure that whichever emperor wins the die roll, they get to choose between picking who plays first and picking who chooses sides.

All right; that’s not precisely correct, and obviously, this article would be much too short if I stopped there. What I wanted to illustrate was how something seemingly trivial, like your position with respect to your opponents, could influence your strategy in multiplayer games. The kind of strategies I will highlight can be applied to any multiplayer games where there is one team against another and teammates play in consecutive order. I had briefly thought about showing an example in regards to Two-Headed Giant, but Wizards has nipped that strategy in the bud with the introduction of simultaneous play. As such, I will limit my examples to the multiplayer format I most familiar with: Emperor.

When you sit down to play emperor or any multiplayer format, how much thought do you give to where you are sitting with regards to your teammates? Do you just pick up a deck and play, or do you carefully maneuver your way to the right or left side? Is your maneuvering based on the person you have to play, the deck you have to face, or your own deck choice? If you haven’t given much thought to where you sit, you could possibly be missing out on several strategies that could offer an edge. Or, for all the deckbuilding Johnnies out there, you could be missing out on a new realm of deck construction.

The first and most obvious decision to think about when sitting down to play as general is whether or not you want to always be going first. If you want to play before your opponent, sit to the left of your emperor. If you want to play second, sit on the right.

Hold on — don’t start getting into fisticuffs over who gets to be the general that sits on the left. There are always advantages to going first, especially when everyone gets to draw a card on their first turn (which we do in our group). However, there are several reasons not to be playing first with regards to your opponent.

If you are playing an aggressive deck with lots of creatures, your choice is to sit on the left and play first — no ifs, ands or buts. What if you decide to play a combo deck that relies on an opponent having more of a resource than you? For example, if you are playing Weathered Wayfarer or Land Tax, you want to guarantee that your opponent always has more lands than you do. The best way to guarantee this is to play second. Assuming each person lays a land the first few turns, you will always be one land behind your opponent, allowing Weathered Wayfarer and Land Tax to trigger each turn. Oath of Druids is another famous card that can assist the player who is gracious enough to take the position that forces her to play second. If your opponent is playing an aggressive deck, your manners are rewarded with casting Oath of Druids after the early turn creatures have been played.

Another aspect that will influence which side to sit on as general in an emperor game will be based on how likely you are crumble before the other general does. No one likes to think about such failure scenarios, especially when it comes to your own failures. Since my primary job as an engineer is to determine every possible failure scenario and to protect against those situations, I can’t refrain from applying those skills to Magic.

One of the things I’ve noticed about many emperor decks is that they tend to rely heavily on the generals to stay afloat in order to succeed. Once a general goes down, the emperor typically falls shortly after.

Aside from the fact that it is important for the emperor to give herself a path to victory when a general succumbs, it is also important recognize the need to put the weakest general on the emperor’s right. If the right side is lost first, both the remaining general and the emperor have one turn to either recuperate or retaliate before the opponents have a chance to reach their turn. If the left side went first, the opposing emperor has one turn within spell range and the general on the other side could put additional pressure before there is a chance to recuperate from the loss.

Magic can be serendipitous — I encountered a terrific example of this situation just this past Thursday night during a Champions-Champions-Betrayers emperor draft. An opposing general tried to sneak an Oyobi, Who Split the Heavens past me. With all the arcane spells I had been drafting to support Innocence Kami, I decided that Oyobi would be a beneficial card. I decided to pick it and play it in my deck. Since we won the die roll and had the choice of where to put generals, I put the general with the less aggressive deck on my right side. Oyobi made it to play quite early, so I was ready with a horde of 3/3 flying white spirit tokens as the right side started to weaken. The minute my right general fell, I could retaliate and attack the opposing general into oblivion, leaving me open to an emperor unprepared for an offensive attack.

As it happened, it actually took a few turns for me to vanquish the general since I was low on life and had to play defensively… but you get the idea. If the left side had been eliminated first, I would possibly need to spend precious resources keeping the right side stable while trying to stave off the offense from a general open to attack me on the left.

Depending on how well you know your Magic-playing friends, it might be worth subtly encouraging certain people to sit on the right. If you don’t feel like exercising your skills in diplomacy or practicing your powers of persuasion, a better use of this strategy is in emperor draft (which I hope you are all playing and loving by now). With drafting, each team can analyze each other’s decks together and agree on the correct seating arrangement.

Lastly, but far from least, my favorite realm of exploration on this topic is discovering different cards and decks that can use location to either deny opponents or benefit teammates. There are several cards out there that benefit everyone, such as Howling Mine, Genesis Chamber, and Heartbeat of Spring. These cards are best played on the right side, where your emperor and general get the benefit before anyone on the opposing team gets a chance to take advantage of these cards. Since I like to push the envelope to better understand the nuances of different approaches, I thought it would be worth trying to develop a deck that not only provides your teammates with advantages, but denies those same advantages to the opponents:

4 Claws of Gix
4 Horn of Greed
1 Sol Ring
4 Soul Foundry
4 Intuition
3 Man o’-War
1 Concordant Crossroads
4 Eternal Witness
4 Heartbeat of Spring
1 Regrowth
3 Viridian Zealot
3 Mystic Snake
4 Tropical Island
4 Yavimaya Coast
8 Island
8 Forest

The goal of the deck is to cast the beneficial enchantments and artifacts and then sacrifice them to Claws of Gix at the end of the leftmost teammate’s turn so your opponents can’t benefit from them. The Eternal Witnesses, combined with the Soul Foundry, allow the cards to be brought back into play for another turn. Note that I’ve only included permanents that will benefit me as well for one turn instead of the more typical Howling Mine, which applies during the upkeep. Since I would play a Howling Mine after my upkeep and need to sacrifice it at the end of the left general’s turn, I would never gain any benefit from it. At least with Horn of Greed, I could cast it, play a land, and then draw a card.

Although this deck has a core idea it is focused around, it is missing several elements to develop as a decent general deck. Consider it a thought experiment to either improve on the original concept — or to open your mind to building a deck that can abuse the privilege of being stationed on the right flank.

If you’ve got more of an evil bent and take enjoyment out of ruining other people’s days, there are more options available. Decks that center around mass removal or behave as lockdown decks need to allow teammates to recover first — especially if your goal is to actually win the game. In these cases, the ideal situation would be to lay claim to the position of right general. If, however, you chose to make players suffer through such means as continual sacrifice (Call to the Grave) or direct damage (Sulfuric Vortex), sitting on the left will give your teammates a one-turn advantage. It will also prevent you from incurring their wrath.

Analogous to a right-sided deck that is designed to support only teammates, a left-side deck bent on disrupting opponents (but not your teammates) can also be constructed. Below is a deck that I created to entertain this idea:

4 Crystal Shard
4 Capsize
4 Force of Will
4 Psychic Puppetry
3 Soratami Savant
4 Stasis
4 Toils of Night and Day
1 Enlightened Tutor
4 Hokori, Dust Drinker
3 Wrath of God
10 Plains
15 Island

The concept of the deck is to effectively shut down your opponents while leaving your own team open to continue playing. This combination has three ways of occurring: Crystal Shard or Capsize can bounce Hokori at the end of the last opponent’s turn, or the Stasis can be combined with Capsize to prevent your opponents from ever untapping again. The Psychic Puppetries and Toils of Night and Days assist in keeping opponents tapped down until you can get one of the three combinations going.

After all this discussion of generals strategizing their seating, the emperors might be feeling like a third wheel. Emperors have always had the opportunity to take advantage of these concepts by replacing global sorcery spells with instant equivalents and choosing to cast them at the appropriate time — for example, by replacing Wrath of God with Rout or Earthquake with Fault Line. By casting these at the end of the last opponent’s turn, you give your team a chance to recover before the other team.

This was the old method of taking advantage casting spells on a particular turn. Now, with Vedalken Orrery, any spell can be played at any time, turning the emperor into a veritable two-sided general. With Vedalken Orrery in play, you can cast all the beneficial spells at the end of the last opposing general’s turn and all the negative spells at the beginning of the first opposing general’s turn. To get your own creative juices flowing, I offer my own concoction that I play quite frequently as emperor:

4 Oblivion Stone
4 Vedalken Orrery
4 Kodama’s Reach
4 New Frontiers
1 Regrowth
4 Consume Spirit
4 Corrupt
2 Decree of Pain
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Diabolic Tutor
4 Drain Life
3 Skeletal Scrying
1 Bayou
1 Cabal Coffers
1 Llanowar Wastes
4 Tainted Wood
17 Swamp

I do take some twisted pleasure in watching my opponents’ eyes light up upon receiving so much help from New Frontiers at the end of their turn, only see me untap and eliminate them with a single Drain Life or Consume Spirit. Unfortunately, I’ve played this deck enough in our own group that a New Frontiers now merely emits groans from my enemies. Still, I enjoy playing the deck and it tends to make regular appearances on any given Magic night.

The next time you sit down to play emperor (or any team format that allows teammates to play in sequence), give some consideration to which side you choose to sit on. See if it doesn’t open up a whole new avenue of play choices that you hadn’t considered before.