Twenty-Point Speedbump Or Strongarm?

You asked for it? You got it! StarCityGames.com readers asked to see more writing on the multiplayer Emperor format… And Laura Mills (who is now playing games weekly with Anthony Alongi) has stepped up to the plate! Read on as she dissects the two main strategies you can take in Emperor – mainly, how you view your generals.

I’ve recently become indoctrinated into the world of Emperor Magic, and I must confess that I am enamored with the format. My affection doesn’t come from building new decks or playing with an enjoyable group of people — although they do contribute to the experience, I can play almost any format and get the same level of euphoria. The most intriguing aspect is the strategy behind Emperor.

It’s rather shocking for me to write that, since I’m not a big fan of strategy games in general. I don’t play chess. I could care less for any of the staple war games like Risk and Axis & Allies. Mention Diplomacy and you’ll be met with a frown. The difference between those games and emperor in regards to strategy is a matter of knowledge.

Games like Risk and chess have been around so long that the basic strategies for winning are well-known — and so much of the focus is on trying to outwit your opponent. For example, when I play Risk with friends, the basic strategy is to try to completely take over the easiest-to-protect continents first and then grow to swarm the other continents. Chess starts with similar opening moves and counter-moves. Constructed tournament Magic also suffers from the same pitfall, with a typical core set of decks to play with and against, and a plethora of articles on how to do both.

Emperor, on the other hand, is a largely unexplored format. Though emperor rules have been around since the beginning of Magic — the first emperor rules appeared in Duelist #2 in the summer of 1994 — there is little discussion on the subject. There are no articles on who should act as beatdown in emperor. You won’t find twenty consecutive treatises on the points and counterpoints about the concept of card advantage for multiplayer. There is no control player’s bible for the team environment. In fact, if you do a keyword search on “emperor” here at StarCityGames.com, you’ll find a total of five articles in the past two years — one of which was written by yours truly.

This lack of knowledge and ideas is an exciting prospect. I take great pleasure in exploring games, trying to find which strategies are available to exploit in order to win, discovering their strengths and weaknesses, and adjusting my play accordingly. My little corner of the Magic world will be devoted to exploring the strategies of emperor. All are welcome to into my little fiefdom, and I promise no taxation without representation.

For those chomping at the bit to talk strategy, I promise not to disappoint. Unfortunately, this being an introductory article for a continuing saga, you’ll need to suffer through the necessary paperwork and formalities. Don’t worry; I’m not going to spend a whole page discussing the basic rules of the emperor format (though I am sure my editor will be kind enough to include a link for those who want a bit more understanding before continuing). Still, you do have to understand the environment from which I base my discussions.

There are really two kinds of emperor format in the Magicverse: synergized team and basic team. The synergized team acts as an entire unit in terms of both deck construction and play. This team acts not merely as a group of three people, but an exponential force by synergizing decks to assist in making each other’s deck that much more powerful. A typical example would be a team in which both generals decide to play white soldiers and the emperor would support both flanks by playing Mobilization and Steely Resolve naming “soldiers.”

Though I consider this the more intriguing format, casual players tend to be very strong-willed, independent, and chaotic — you never know who is going to show up each week with what. This usually means most teams degenerate into basic mode — picking a deck suitable for your position as either emperor or general. As such, most of my focus will be on this style of play, though I will touch on synergized team play from time-to-time. I still have the vain hope of sparking some interest in emperor Sealed and synergized teams as official tournament-worthy formats.

Onto today’s topic — an emperor’s perception of her generals.

This topic springs from a conversation I was having with my buddy Bob the other day. After sorting through and trading our freshly opened Betrayers of Kamigawa from the evening’s shred-fest, our card-combination conversations wandered over to play philosophies. Bob mentioned that some people in our group weren’t fond of having him as emperor, since he took the stance that flanks were merely twenty-point speedbumps. There sole purpose of the generals was to get in the way long enough for him to set up whatever devastating combo his deck contained.

This, he went on to explain, was antithesis to some other philosophies in the group. There are other advocates of the support concept, in which the primary goal of the emperor is to remove obstacles so his troops can do the dirty work of vanquishing the opposing general.

Whose strategy is the correct one to play? While you may alienate your generals, are combos stronger than a three-person attacking army? Or can you get more mileage from treating your generals with respect and support — aside from the resultant loving adoration?

Personally, I see both of these as valid strategies — as long as you understand the pitfalls of both and compensate accordingly.

The Twenty-Point Speedbump
Although Bob may feel like a lone ranger in regard to this strategy, he really isn’t. Combo decks have always been a staple of the casual multiplayer environment, and the emperor format is no exception. In fact, emperor is probably the best format to play combo decks in. One-on-one duels require devoting a lot of resources to countering an opponent’s pressure and focused disruption. Large group multiplayer (deemed “chaos” in our part of the world) can mean having to deal with the direct attention of more than one person — a much tougher prospect than one-on-one matches.

Granted, you can sometimes quietly sneak a combination under the unsuspecting radar of a group of players the first few times. Once people get to know you and your decks, though, you will most likely find yourself the center of attention sooner than desired.

Emperor, on the other hand, offers the additional protection in the form of a general who can absorb fast physical attacks. The general also serves as a one-person barrier against opposing emperor countermagic and such targeted board disruption as Naturalize and Disenchant.

If I took a quick snapshot of emperor decks within our own group, it would be readily apparent that combination decks are fairly abundant. I have a Black/Green New Frontiers/Vedalken Orrery/Corrupt deck which relies on my flank staying around long enough to cast two twenty-point Corrupts — one at the general’s head, the other at the emperor. Another member of our group has a slow and painful counter deck — counters, not countermagic — with Coretapper, Magistrate’s Scepter, and Power Conduit to allow him infinite turns. He has also recently managed to squeeze in a method to put continual counters on Decree of Silence. Another player has an annoying lock-down deck using Opposition, Cowardice, and Mystic Snake. Although he insists on playing this while being a general, it really has all the makings of fine emperor deck. Even my husband has gotten into the spirit of combination with a cheap, heavy burn deck centered around Future Sight, Darksteel Pendant, and Exploration.

Aside from some hurt feelings from a bruised and neglected general, using the speedbump strategy to set off a powerful combo deck may seem very appealing. However, before you start showing up with every flavor of Worldgorger Dragon, Brain Freeze, or other infinite combination deck, it is important to recognize the two downfalls of the twenty-point speedbump strategy.

First, we have a spell range of two in all our six-player emperor games. That means that the emperor is not completely immune to attack while both her generals are standing. You are still subject to disruption and countermagic from an opposing flank. In fact, you may even have to watch out for a differing strategy from the enemy general — bypassing the protecting flank and sending damage straight to the emperor’s head (I’ll get into this concept in another article). As such, you need to have a minimum of either distraction or disruption to keep that general from targeting you.

The second weakness in the speedbump strategy is that you leave your flank open to a two-on-one assault. Even though you may have decent generals guarding you and both are playing respectable decks, a weakling flank is like a bleeding fish to a school of barracudas. If it becomes readily apparent to the enemy emperor that one of your generals is failing under pressure from her general and you are not providing support for that side of the table, the emperor is going to focus attention to that side. If she can make your side collapse quickly, she has the advantage. Not only has she reduced the amount of time needed for you to set up, but you are now within her range. She can interfere with your plans while her own general lays down additional pressure. You’ve inadvertently put yourself in a similar situation to a poorly-executed game of chaos — multiple people targeting for your destruction.

If you happen to be playing synergized emperor, a standard strategy is to turn the generals from an offensive force to a defensive one. The generals will set up the needed walls, board-clearing effects, and countermagic needed to not only protect your combo, but they also have to protect themselves from collapsing while you try to find and execute all the pieces of your combo.

In basic team emperor, you don’t have the luxury of instructing your flanks to act defensive, especially if your group is a strong advocate of the “no table talk” rule (another peek into subjects of future columns). Instead, you have to rely on your flanks serving your best interests through distraction. You need to have your opponents devote their resources to annihilating your generals, leaving fewer resources to foil your own maniacal plans. The best way to do this isn’t necessarily to devote a lot of cards to supporting your generals, but just enough such that your general can stave off an attack — or even continue to apply pressure to a failing flanks.

There are two methods for supporting your general, depending on your combo deck functions: If your deck contains (or even centers around) mass destruction, you can get a lot more mileage out of your generals by expending a little bit of your destruction early instead of hanging onto it as a part of your finishing blow. For example, if you’ve chosen to play an infinite-mana/burn combo deck, you might want to consider sacrificing one of your Fireballs to dispense with the 5/5 trampling Bringer of the Red Dawn that is threatening to overwhelm your general in three turns. You may have to take another three turns to find a new Fireball, but chances are that your general has a better chance of lasting more than the three turns you just sacrificed.

If your deck is comprised solely of lockdown pieces and methods for searching out those pieces, you might want to consider making some room for a few utility spells. You don’t necessarily have to stretch into other colors to find creature removal or countermagic — there are enough utility spells in your colors (even artifacts, if you happen to be going that route) that you can give a helping hand to your general when he most needs it. If you’re playing red, devote a few spots to direct damage. In green, grab Naturalize or even Tangle. Blue doesn’t usually go wrong with bounce and countermagic. White will always have Wrath of God, Swords to Plowshares, and Disenchant. Black has the market cornered on cheap, efficient creature removal, which will serve quite handily.

The Strong Arm
The polar opposite of the twenty-point speedbump, the idea of the strong arm strategy is centered on devoting all your resources to assisting your generals. This usually means either removing obstacles in your general’s path, such as creatures blocking an attacking army, or powering up your general’s deck. The aforementioned Mobilization/Steely Resolve supporting a soldier deck is a good example of the power-up style of deck.

In our play group, we have fewer people with decks that center around the strong arm strategy. I blame America’s societal notion that individuality should trump everything else — “if you want to get the job done, you’ve got to do it yourself.” Despite such popularity, there are a few of us mavericks who like to try to win vicariously through our generals.

The first deck that comes to mind is the Isochron Scepter/stupid-broken-cheap spell deck. Some might be tempted to classify this deck as a combo… but it is more important to examine the elements of the deck than the classification itself. The standard slew of targets for the Isochron Scepter are Counterspell, Fire / Ice, and Orim’s Chant. These cards in and of themselves cannot reliably lock down multiple players at once, even if you are playing with four Scepters and four Sculpting Steels. (Trust me on this one — I’ve tried many times.) Rather, the concept is to inhibit your opponent’s actions long enough for your general to break down the flank and depose the general.

Another example of a less combo-ish style of strong arm deck is a typical black/white/green deck that plays all of the powerful destruction cards ever made. You know the kind — four Wrath of Gods, four Swords to Plowshares, four Pernicious Deeds, four Vindicates, four Naturalize, yadda, yadda, yadda.

I also wanted to discuss the powerup-style decks I mentioned briefly — but unfortunately, this style is all but extinct in our group. It is not that these decks are unplayable; it’s just that it all comes down to whether you’re playing synergized emperor. A maindecked Crusade can be quite useless if you get paired up with generals who choose to play black creatures — or worse, creatureless decks.

This actually gives me a nice little segue into the disadvantages of the strong arm strategy. Most apparent is the fact that you can’t have set expectations of what your generals will or should be playing. This is especially true if some of your key cards attempt to utilize your general’s creatures. I remember one game where Anthony (yes, that Anthony), placed a Guided Strike under his Isochron Scepter. His crafty idea was to not only allow his generals to survive in combat, but to gain some card advantage in the process. That poor Scepter was activated maybe twice all game, since everyone happened to be on a creatureless kick!

The second trap of the strongarm tactic comes as a result of focusing so much on your general that you put all your eggs in one basket. Usually the strongarm decks are themselves creatureless — and when a flank falls, you can quickly follow. You may have set your deck up such that you can stave off threats for quite some time, but the continuing problem lies in the fact that you’ve lost your primary route for winning the game, and your own deck may not have the tools to win on its own.

To prevent yourself from falling into these two traps, I like to employ the Boy Scout motto — be prepared. You want to use your generals to the fullest extent possible, but you need to have a backup plan if either they 1) aren’t playing the cards you expect or 2) happen to collapse. The best way to get around the lack of synergy with your generals is to use more versatile support cards. Instead of using cards that support your general’s creatures, use cards that remove creatures. Instead of using spells that increase your general’s life, use spells that make your opponent discard cards. Choose burn and creature kill over prevention shields and Giant Growth effects. Choose cards that defeat your opponent instead of strengthening your general.

Despite your best efforts, there will still be those disheartening times where you will lose a flank. In these instances, it is critical that you have a means to protect yourself, and provide an avenue to victory. Although it may seem incongruous for that black/green/white emperor to be playing with a Spiritmonger, it will be her lifesaver when the chips are down. Some emperors might be tempted to keep that Spiritmonger in hand until a time at which it can be used for an attack or defense — but bear in mind there will be situations where the Spiritmonger can be an effective scare tactic. Consider the case where one of your generals is weakening to the point where she won’t be able to survive two more turns from a Kitsune Blademaster equipped with a Bonesplitter. If the Spiritmonger stays in your hand, odds are your general will certainly be mincemeat. However, if you play the Spiritmonger, the opposing general has to think twice about releasing something he cannot contend with. This may give you the necessary stall time to find that piece of removal you need to keep your general alive and possibly nudge him back into the aggressive position.

A fantastic specimen of a well-built strong arm deck is Anthony’s beloved black/red “RiftaliciousLightning Rift deck. Even though he claims that this deck merely loves him, the truth is that this deck is just a great strong arm deck. The cycling creature destruction spells support clearing the pack for his general, but also offer versatility. When the decks being faced are creature-light, these spells can transform into burn spells through the Lightning Rift. The Lightning Rifts and Dragon Roosts provide a backup plan for the emperor to win if he can’t get his generals to cooperate and stay on the board.

I’ve only explored two strategies as emperor, but you can probably imagine that there are several more shades in between these two extreme cases. My hope is that this has given you a glimpse into how rich and varied the strategy can be for the Emperor format, and opened up a new world of possibilities previously left undiscovered and unnoticed. I look forward to you joining my continuing adventures as I try to dissect and understand the elements that make the Emperor format tick.