Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #85: The Problems with Emperor

Recently, I have been playing a lot of Emperor during casual magic nights. Some of the games are great, but some are just a pain — because of a fundamental weakness of the Emperor format. Too many decks we play are exploiting that weakness. I’ll tell you how to build killer Emperor deck to do your own exploitation, but I’ll also talk about how to make the format more reasonable. I’ll also throw in some solid-but-still-fun Emperor decks for your playing enjoyment.

Recently, I have been playing a lot of Emperor during casual magic nights. Some of the games are great, but some are just a pain — because of a fundamental weakness of the Emperor format. Too many decks we play are exploiting that weakness. I’ll tell you how to build killer Emperor deck to do your own exploitation, but I’ll also talk about how to make the format more reasonable. I’ll also throw in some solid-but-still-fun Emperor decks for your playing enjoyment.

Rules for Emperor vary, but the most typical rules where I play are:

1) You cannot target Emperor or Emperor’s permanents until a pawn dies.

2) Global effects hit everyone.

3) One stack — anyone can counter anything.

4) The win condition, at least, is uniform: last Emperor standing wins.

The problem is that the Emperor is in a very safe environment, since their permanents cannot be targeted. This means that the Emperor can play almost any combo deck and will generally have sufficient time to set up and go off. If the Emperor plays something like City of Solitude, and his pawns don’t die, there is no way to disrupt the combo. I have seen emperors play Isochron Scepter / Brain Freeze, Power Conduit / Magistrate’s Scepter, Goblin Charbelcher, Megrim/Underworld Dreams/Wheel and Deal and a number of different infinite mana / X spell deck variants.

The”best” Emperor combo deck is still the Worldgorger Dragon combo deck. About a year and a half ago, I wrote about a Worldgorger Dragon emperor deck that I played at the Emperor tourney at Origins. It was capable of turn 1 kills, and could go off pretty consistently by turn 2 or 3. Here’s a link to the article. The deck was pretty solid, but could be better. (For one thing, it could have used some Bazaars of Baghdad, but I still don’t own them.) In any case, if combo floats your boat, this is probably the deck to play.

Personally, I don’t like Emperor games with combo decks. Unless one pawn gets mana screwed, the game comes down to which Emperor can put together their combo first. Even if the pawns and Emperors all play counters and control elements, the game comes down to who draws more mana, and which team can win the counter war. Control on control games are better, but everyone should know, in advance, that they are going into a counter-heavy environment. If not, and some player brings a creature deck, it is usually an auto-win for the combo side.

That’s not really what I want to play in casual formats, but if you do, here’s how to build your decks.


4 Force of Will

4 Foil

4 Daze

4 Force Spike

1 Counterspell

3 Memory Lapse

4 Accumulated Knowledge

3 Misdirection

3 Intuition

R Chrome Mox

R Mox Diamond

R Mox Sapphire

R Black Lotus

R Ancestral Recall

R Time Walk

22 Islands (lots — to pitch to Foil)

Emperor: (This is based on Fabian Moyschewitz’s list from Heidelberg, with the Duresses replaced with AKs. Duress is useless in Emperor. The mana has also been changed to support the Hellkite.)

1 Mana Crypt

1 Mox Jet

1 Mox Ruby

1 Mox Sapphire

1 Sol Ring

3 Animate Dead

2 Dance of the Dead

1 Demonic Tutor

3 Necromancy

3 Accumulated Knowledge

1 Vampiric Tutor

1 Shivan Hellkite

1 Ancestral Recall

2 Cunning Wish

1 Dematerialize (Flashback, because Bazaar will empty your hand.)

4 Force of Will

4 Intuition

1 Time Walk

4 Squee, Goblin Nabob

4 Worldgorger Dragon

4 Bazaar of Baghdad

3 Forsaken City

2 Gemstone Mine

4 Polluted Delta

4 Badlands

4 Underground Sea


Chain of Vapor

Coffin Purge




Stroke of Genius


Whisper of the Muse

The strategy is simple — the pawns counter anything the opponents try to do to win, while the Emperor rips through his/her deck to find the combo. Bazaar of Baghdad is insane with a couple Squees, and once the Animate Dead / Dragon engine starts, Bazaar can dig though the entire deck. The combo can go off in the first couple turns. The Emperor version runs Shivan Hellkite over Ambassador Laquatus because Shivan Hellkite can kill both the pawns and Emperor in one turn; Laquatus cannot.

(I explained the combo in the prior article, but here’s a quick recap. Get some mana lands and a Bazaar in play. Cast Animate Dead targeting Worldgorger Dragon{WgD}. WgD removes all your permanents, including Animate Dead. When Animate Dead leaves play, it puts the Dragon into the graveyard. All your permanents, including Animate Dead, come back into play, untapped. Tap the lands and moxen for mana, tap the Bazaar to mill cards, let Animate hit WgD. Repeat until you have Shivan Hellkite in the graveyard and a boatload of mana. Then reanimate Shivan Hellkite and shoot the pawn to death, then gun down the Emperor. If you use Ambassador Laquatus, add one or two Deep Analysis to the deck, to kill the pawns so you can mill the Emperor.)

Your team wants to have your opponent’s end pawn go first, so each of your Pawns can play an Island to power Daze. Even before playing, your team should have a half dozen counters available. With an Island each in play, your team should be able to counter anything — but remember that you don’t need to counter creatures. Your Emperor should be able to go off long before anything short of a 21/21 Sutured Ghoul can hurt anyone — and if the opponent tries the Hermit Druid / Exhume trick to get that Ghoul, counter the Exhume.

The pawns-with-counters-and-Emperor-with-combo strategy works very well, but it’s not what I want to see on casual night. If you don’t have the cards to play the Worldgorger Dragon deck, other combo decks also work. The Megrim/Underworld Dreams deck I wrote about a while back (YW #62) works, just replace the Shadowmage Infiltrators with Rhystic Studies. Actually, practically any combo deck I have covered in past articles works better in the Emperor chair, so long as the combo does not involve an attack phase.

Nearly any combo deck, no matter how slow or complex, can work in the Emperor slot, provided your pawns can hold their own and no one has a ton of counters. Just to prove it could be done, I once played Emperor using The Ultimate Wumpus deck. The deck digs like mad, gets Thrashing Wumpus into play, then casts Replenish to bring back the following: Spirit Link, Charisma, Nature’s Revolt, March of the Machines, and Opalescence, plus Shifting Skies if protection from some color is a problem. This combination turns all permanents into creatures, then activates the Charisma-enhanced Wumpus to gain control of everything on the board. The Spirit Link is just to gain a lot of extra life — to really rub it in.

Of course it’s a stupid trick, but the point is that the Emperor is so well protected that he or she can spend the time to set up that sort of stupidity, and do it fairly consistently. Simpler and faster combos just makes it easier. That’s why I’m not excited about combos for the emperor any more — it is like shooting tethered or penned animals, there isn’t much sport in it.

The other problem with Emperor is decks with a lot of reusable creature control. For example, I played Emperor with my multiplayer Rock build, but my opening hand had two land, Birds, Yavimaya Elder and all three Living Wishes. I fetched a Royal Assassin, Visara the Dreadful, and Plaguebearer. The other Emperor also played a couple of Assassins. Neither pawn could attack with any targetable creature, and the game eventually devolved into a complete stall. We won, mainly because an opposing Pawn was decked first. With the pawn gone, my Plaguebearer could finally kill the opposing Emperor’s Assassins. (Plaguebearer does not tap to activate.) It was not an exciting game, mainly because the Assassins shut everything down.

I wrote a recent article (YW#84) on reusable removal, but I think that becomes problematic when played by the Emperor. The Emperor enjoys a unique privilege — opponents cannot target his/her permanents. That means that if the Emperor plays something like my Answer deck from my last article, it can really wreck the opponents without anyone being able to remove those answers. This problem is much worse if the emperor’s permanents cannot be affected by global effects. This depends on the rules your group plays by. Some groups play that cards like Armageddon affects everyone — and if so, the Emperor’s permanents can be killed by Akroma’s Vengeance, Nev’s Disk, Pernicious Deed, etc. I strongly recommend using that rule. If not, then once the Emperor resolves something like Peacekeeper or Isochron Scepter with Counterspell, it is nearly impossible to get rid of it.

Let me give you an example of the problem with reusable removal in an Emperor game: it was the worst Emperor game I have been in recently, and the incentive for writing this article. I was Emperor. All five other players had creature decks. I was playing a Lifeline deck, but did not have Lifeline. My right-hand pawn was short on life, facing a deck that could kill him quickly, if allowed an attack. I had False Prophet, Altar of Dementia, and Volrath’s Stronghold in play, plus enough mana to put False Prophet on top of my library and play it every turn. Every turn, my opponents would lay a threatening creature, and I would have to sac the False Prophet to kill it. Neither of my pawns, nor my opponents, could play anything useful, and I could not win the game at all quickly. It was like winning an Emperor game with Millstone. It was a complete waste of time.

Again, if you like that sort of thing, the Emperor can lock up the game with a number of strategies. For those of you who enjoy annoying and abusing your opponents, try these strategies.

As I mentioned above, Royal Assassin and the other Assassins (e.g. Tsabo’s Assassin, Visara) can lock down opponents really well, especially when they cannot be the target of spells or abilities. Add Icy Manipulator or Puppeteer if you face opponents with creatures that don’t tap to attack. Icy can affect other permanents, but Puppeteer can also untap your pawn’s creature to provide an additional blocker.

Umbilicus decks, and others which can bounce utility creatures (e.g. Stampeding Wildebeest builds) can work quite well, provided your pawns can handle it. If not, it can help to pass them Walls of Blossoms each turn, or squirrel tokens, or something else they can return to your hand.

Other multiplayer mana denial strategies, like Land Equilibrium, Storm Cauldron, or Limited Resource decks can also control games, but you risk screwing your pawns. Before playing something like that, I check with my pawns and make sure they can operate with those cards in play. If you do play a mana denial deck, play four Rhystic Studies. They become absolutely insane.

Many of the combo/control decks I have written about in the past do quite well — possibly too well — in the Emperor position. Unnatural Selection (YW #14) decks are very good. Lifeline decks (YW #73) are just as annoying in Emperor as in chaos games. Seedborn Muse decks are ridiculous (YW #60).

Oath of Druids decks are insanely good in the Emperor slot, if the opponents are playing creature decks. I would play Triskelion, Spike Weaver and Arcanis, the Omnipotent as my creature mix, together with a mixture of counterspells and control cards based on the classic Maher/Ped Bun Oath decks.

Traditional Reanimator strategies can also work very well in the Emperor position. If your group plays range of two, you can pull up your own Verdant Force, but can also use cards like Animate Dead to poach creatures from the graveyards of both enemy pawns.

Isochron Scepter is better than usual when it is immune to disenchant effects for much of the game. It is even better than that with Seedborn Muse. Arcane Labs/Muse/Isochron Scepter imprinted with Memory Lapse is a complete lock, but imprinting Diabolic Edict, Swords to Plowshares, or even basic Fog is pretty grim for your opponents. Add in some Mind’s Eyes and you are good to go.

Deciding what is too good and what is reasonable in Emperor is a judgment call. It depends a lot on your group likes, and what people generally play. It also depends a lot on what type of global sweepers your opponents play. If your group tends to run resets, and global affects effect everyone, then Royal Assassin or Death Pits of Rath/Noxious Field is not a serious problem. If they don’t…

Here’s my current thoughts on where I would draw the line for Emperor. Again, this is my opinion, and I am more biased against (truth be told) the decks I keep playing and writing about. (I have played Emperor using the Answer — it is undefeated. But I haven’t played it more than once with any group.)

Allowable / recommended

  • mess with combat (boost pawn’s creatures, Fog, remove from combat)

  • provide benefits (cards, creatures, land, etc.) to pawns

  • kill opposing creatures

  • do direct damage, etc.

Too Good

  • kill a creature per untap

  • destroy / remove opposing lands

  • deny untaps to opponents (e.g. Stasis) or similar locks

  • prevent every opponent attack phase or all damage (fog every turn)

  • counter all opponent spells

  • combos that kill everyone in a turn or two

  • locks

I should probably list more items, but that gets the idea across. I’d rather design some”fair” Emperor decks — decks that live within these guidelines.

Imperial Elves:

I’ll start with something simple — Elves. The deck is intended to set up a bunch with of bunch of elves, then start passing large creatures to your pawns.

Mana Elves:

4 Llanowar Elf

4 Fyndhorn Elf

4 Priests of Titania

Card Drawing

3 Slate of Ancestry (Skyshroud Poacher also works)

Mess with Combat

4 Timberwatch Elf

Untap and Retap

4 Seeker of Skybreak

Fatties to Share

4 Heedless One

3 Voice of the Woods


4 Wellwisher

3 Seedborn Muse

1 Elvish Soultiller


17 Forests

2 Gaea’s Cradle

That decklist is a few cards short. Here are some things to consider for the last slots.

Your goal is to get Voice going, so you can start pumping out elementals and passing them to your sidekicks. Seeker of Skybreak lets you pass elementals, and untap them. It also lets you reuse Timberwatch, Voice of the Woods, Wellwisher, etc.

Timberwatch can mess with combat, where your pawns are attacking or defending. Wellwisher gains you a lot of life.

Seedborn Muse is great in multiplayer when you get to use Timberwatch, Voice and Wellwisher on every player’s turn.

This deck is very good, provided your opponents don’t play Wrath of God / Pernicious Deed, Perish, or Engineered Plague. It is also in trouble against combo decks. As a last option, if you want a to play a combo version, you can splash for red and play Flamewave Invoker or even Shivan Hellkite. (Elves decks generate a lot of mana.) A better option might be to play Biorhythm and Hurricane — just dump a bunch of mana in your pool, Biorhythm and Hurricane everyone else out. You should have a lot more creatures than anyone else.

Wormy Helix:

Some of the Extended decks are running Spellweaver Helix as a method of producing a ton of wurms. Those decks use Crush of Wurms and Cabal Therapy / Acorn Harvest to generate a number of Wurm tokens. In Emperor, a handful of Wurms is not quite as amazing, since you have more people to kill and it takes more turns to get them into a position to attack, but you have time to set up a more complex combo.

The Cabal Therapy plan is good for duels, but it has a limited number of iterations. A better option is to use one of the Buyback sorceries from the Tempest block. These can be cast turn after turn, generating as many Wurms as you need. Doing so requires either a lot of mana, or Memory Crystal – the nifty artifact that reduces buyback costs. The mana route would probably involve Cabal Coffers, while the Memory Crystal route would provide an incentive to play more buyback cards.

Here’s a list of buyback cards you might consider playing:

the other sorceries with buyback are even worse.

If you go the Memory Crystal route, you should also consider the non-sorcery buyback cards. Shattering Pulse is very good — and better if you play Forge[/author]“]Thran [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]. Corpse Dance is fun, if you play cards like Bottle Gnomes and Triskelion as your only creatures. Allay is fine, if your mana supports it. Forbid and Capsize are always useful, and Whispers of the Muse is great when buyback is free.

The second half of the combo starts with four Spellweaver Helix, adds some card drawing or tutoring, and the sorceries to put into the Helix. If you are splashing Blue, then Compulsion is an automatic inclusion, as is Intuition. If you are not running Blue, then Jalum Tome does pretty much the same thing, but Undead Gladiator does it even better. If you play Black, Vampiric and Demonic Tutors are a given, and possibly Insidious Dreams and some Diabolic Tutors as well. If you splash Red, then add Burning Wish.

Once you have the framework, the next step is picking sorceries to add to the mix. Crush of Wurms is the obvious choice, since it can create a bunch of big creatures for your pawns. Look through your box of cards, though — there are a lot of great sorceries. Here are a few that could be used.

I haven’t had time to test any of these, but here are the two starting builds I’d use. In both cases, I have no intent to actually cast the Crush of Wurms, so I’m not running green.

Mono-Black Helix.

4 Cabal Coffers

20 Swamps

1 Sol Ring

2 Memory Crystal


4 Lab Rats

4 Brush with Death

4 Undead Gladiator

3 Spellweaver Helix

R Demonic Tutor

R Vampiric Tutor

2 Insidious Dreams

2 Corpse Dance

4 Bottle Gnomes

4 Crush of Wurms

1 Hymn of Rebirth

2 Eradicate

3 Befoul

1 Desert Twister

The Corpse Dance / Bottle Gnomes are just for something to use while setting up. Befoul and Eradicate are useful and castable regardless of whether you have the Helix, making it simpler to get them into play.

Red/Black Helix

4 Badlands

4 Urborg Volcano

4 Sulfurous Springs

4 Mountain

4 Swamp

1 Shivan Gorge

3 Talisman of Indulgence

3 Fire Diamond

R Sol Ring

4 Hammer of Bogardan

4 Lab Rats

3 Spellweaver Helix

R Demonic Tutor

R Vampiric Tutor

2 Insidious Dreams

2 Jalum Tome

1/4 Burning Wish (restricted in T1)

4 Undead Gladiator

4 Crush of Wurms

2 Befoul

2 Eradicate

1 Soul Feast

1 Hymn of Rebirth

Sideboard — lots of sorceries to wish for (Pillage, Void, all the above). This deck needs a lot of work — I’m not sure how consistently it can get the combo into play.

Welding 101:

This deck needs even more work, but this article is already five thousand words, and the deadline is fast approaching. I’m not going to even do an outline — just an overview of the concept.

The concept is pretty simple: Goblin Welder tricks. During your turns, for example, you have a Howling Mine in play. After your left-hand pawn has drawn an extra card, you weld the Howling Mine into a Tangle Wire. You could do the same sort of tricks with beneficial stuff like Gate to the Aether turning into an Ensnaring Bridge, and so forth. Since getting full use out of this requires tapping a Welder twice a turn, you need to run either Citanul Flute or other options for finding a second Welder, or have another card to untap the Welder. Survival of the Fittest is another strong contender, both as a method of finding cards and getting artifacts into your graveyard.

Another synergistic combo for these decks: play Voltaic / Galvanic Keys, and pass Colossi of Sardia and Phyrexian Colossi to your pawns, then untap them for them. Survival / Welder is a great way to get the Colossi into play, or recover them if they get killed.

Father Christmas:

The basic concept behind this deck is to pump out fatties and hand them to your pawns. I’m not going to do a decklist, since you can push out any fatties you like. If you like Polar Kraken or Elder Dragon Legends, and your pawns can pay the upkeep, go for it. If you like seeing Sol’Kanar the Swamp King in play, then try that. If you prefer Iridescent Angels, play those. Eternal Dragons are always good in Emperor. The creature list is up to you.

The two problems with cranking out giant monsters are:

1) Getting them into play.

2) Refilling your hand if you can get them into play.

I had several options for the first problem, but I decided to answer to second problem first. The answers to the second problem drove the answer to the first problem, at least at first, which is why I decided to write about the first, second.

Does that make any sense at all? [Not so much. – Knut, rereading it, but afraid to change anything lest the Time/Space Continuum spiral out of control]

What I meant is that the method of finding extra creatures can also be a means of putting them into play. Gate to the Aether works, but it is random and helps your opponents (unless you abuse it as described above). Temporal Aperture is another method of both finding cards and getting them into play without paying full price, but it also seems too random. A third option was Call of the Wild and either Zur’s Weirding or Future Sight to let you know what is on top of your library, but once again that is a bit random, not to mention mana intensive.

There is one great method of getting extra creatures into your hand. Survival of the Fittest and a handful of Squee, Goblin Nabobs. Tutoring, card advantage and all kinds of cool stuff like that.

At first, the thought of Survival lead to Volrath’s Shapeshifter and Reya Dawnbringer. It is a great combo, but I have done that, and it feels a bit too comboish. That option puts one creature into play each turn — the card Reya brings back. (First, the Shapeshifter becomes Reya, who then puts herself into play. You cannot use multiple Shapeshifters to have multiple Reyas in play — she’s a Legend.

I wanted to pump out more creatures per turn, so I started looking at cards like Elvish Piper, Dragon Arch, and Quicksilver Amulet. None of these were Legends, so I could get more than one in play. I could also use them multiple times with Seeker of Skybreak, Voltaic Key or, better yet, Seedborn Muse. These seemed nearly perfect. Then it hit me:

Sneak Attack!!!!

Sneak Attack can put many creatures into play each turn. It gives the creatures haste, meaning that I can pass them to pawns the same turn I play them. Most importantly, if I pass the creatures, I no longer control them at end of turn, so I cannot sacrifice them. Sneak Attack can also pop creatures out at end of turn, but since most groups only allow passing creatures during a player’s own main phase, that doesn’t really help.

The primary trick to this deck is getting Sneak Attack into play. You can wait to draw it, but that is slow and unreliable. If you stay in red, your only available tutors are Gamble and Planar Portal — neither of which is all that good. You can splash Black for Demonic, Diabolic, and Vampiric tutors. You can also splash White for Enlightened Tutor and Academy Rector. The Rector is not amazing in multiplayer, since you (hopefully) are not in a position to block early, and passing a Rector to a pawn doesn’t work. (If the Rector dies while under the pawn’s control, the pawn gets to search for an enchantment.) However, if your pawns are playing burn, FTKs or Nekrataals, they can off the Rector for you. You can also use some other methods of sacrificing the Rector — Greater Good is my favorite for Sneak Attack decks. Greater Good is even better if you are sneaking and sacrificing cards like Weatherseed Treefolk or Elvish Soultiller.

Now, if you are going to play Sneak Attack, and especially if you add Greater Good to refill your hand, you need a method of resurrecting creatures. My favorite is Reya, Dawnbringer. On your turn, you sneak in Reya and pass her to your right hand pawn. Since it changed control, it isn’t sacrificed. When it gets around to his turn, he can resurrect one of his creatures, then pass Reya to you. (It started the turn under his control, so it doesn’t have summoning sickness.) On your turn, you can resurrect a creature, then pass Reya to your left hand pawn. Your left hand pawn also gets to resurrect a creature, then passes Reya back to you.

Here’s a framework for a Sneak Attack deck.

4 Sneak Attack

4 Survival of the Fittest

R Demonic Tutor

R Vampiric Tutor

4 Birds of Paradise

4 Utopia Tree

2 Squee, Goblin Nabob

2 Reya, Dawnbringer

assorted fatties


You can add enhancements like Living Wish and appropriate sideboard if you feel the need. I would consider either a Wish sideboard, or a set of utility creatures in the deck to deal with problems. These could include land kill (Orcish Settlers or Avalanche Riders) artifact kill (Woodripper, Uktabi Orangutan, or Viridian Shaman), enchantment kill (Monk Realist, Elvish Lyrist) and possibly creature control, like Masticore and Bone Shredder). You could also play something like Volrath’s Stronghold or Genesis, but the Reya plan is probably enough.

That’s enough. You should be able to find something in here for whatever form of Emperor you favor.