Bands With Lieutenants

Posted in Serious Fun on December 2, 2003

By Anthony Alongi

The Band Of Five

Were I to try to pick five cards that all casual players should know when they think of banding, I would go to a search engine, look up "band" in the rules text (to get both "banding" and "bands with others"), and then select the five most intriguing options – the ones that either make very interesting use of banding, or have something else to recommend them.

Here they are, in no particular order:

Ayesha Tanaka
I have mentioned this card in one recent column: I sent my readers a coded signal shortly before Mirrodin previews began that artifacts would be good again, by recommending use of this card. (Okay, I didn't exactly recommend it. But I mentioned it, which is really more than it deserves.)

Just in case you're not swinging with this beatstick (and what 2/2 for four colored mana wouldn't be in a beatdown deck?), you can hold it back and annoy those players who happen to have artifacts with activated abilities...assuming they can't pay . ("Daaamn yoooouuuuu, Fellllwaaar Stoooonnne!!!")

Nature's Blessing
Here's an engine that lets you ignore banding altogether, which really is the best sort of banding card. It enables madness cards from Torment, and it also has the nice side effect of being permanent. It's really not such a bad card, come to think of it. Hey, banding is good!

Whoops, spoke too soon. I listed this card not because Desert is any sort of powerhouse, but because I think camels are pretty cool. Someday, if you work really really hard and write every week for three of the best hobby internet sites in creation, you too will be able to drag readers along on a paragraph about a mammal that spits, smells bad, and snorts pessimistically at every opportunity. (Come to think of it, this could be a paragraph on many guys I went to college with.)

Soraya the Falconer
This entry is my attempt to show I'm truly trying, here. A 2/2 for three mana isn't bad, especially when it pumps birds and doesn't tap for its banding ability. Seriously, if you wanna try banding, start with a bird deck, and find a few copies of this legend. I can't imagine it would be expensive at all.

Scarwood Bandits
See everyone, this is the problem with a search engine. You can be clever and enter "band" as search text, and you'll end up with a card like this that gets you excited because it's not so bad, and then you realize that the search engine just found "bandit", and the darn thing doesn't have banding at all.

And yet it's still better than the other four, so who am I not to list it?

All right, I've done my duty. The emperor series I began last week really started a nice conversation going – on the message boards, and in email – and so I want to return to that as quickly as possible. If you're into themes, console yourself with the thought that an emperor team involves its own sort of banding...

Emperor Note: Two Is Better Than One

Before I get started on the lieutenant (flank) aspect of emperor format, I'd like to make a quick response to an issue I heard come up a few times from last week's article. Apparently, Magic Online sets up emperor games with a range of one player. And some play groups follow this convention. As a result, players in those games "enjoy" emperor combo decks – what I termed "speed bump admirers".

I can't speak to what Magic Online does, or who makes those sorts of calls. I'm absolutely certain they're worrying about other things right now, so this isn't the time for a big campaign. But after Mirrodin has settled in comfortably, I would recommend pushing the customer support staff for that product to set up emperor games with a range of two players. Some readers have told me that there are some "cultural mores" that tend to discourage combo decks; but I would say you shouldn't have to set up a culture to make this format work. Just bop the targeting range to two.

To those of you who play this variant by choice (that is, in person): I don't get the appeal. Every incentive is for the emperor to play a complex combo deck that you can't touch until a flank goes down – and then more often than not, it's a duel between a player who has exhausted most resources and a player who's had ten turns to set up everything perfectly. (If it even gets to that point. In reality, an emperor game with a range of one is a combo vs. combo deck, with even less interaction than tournaments in the darkest days of Necropotence or Time Spiral.)

Emperor Strategy: Lieutenant Perspective

The lieutenant may at first seem like a minor player – after all, in an emperor format, it's the life total in the center that really matters. But reality begs to differ. No matter what your emperor is playing – the most supportive "pathcutter" deck or the least interesting combo deck – the lieutenant is key to a team's success.

Yes, you can even take pride in serving as a 20-point speed bump! Think of it in American football terms, as a offensive lineman's block for the star running back. You've got to give your emperor the room and time he needs to score. But like any offensive lineman, what you really want to do is catch a tipped pass and run it in for the touchdown yourself. This guide will tend to help those lieutenants who want to take a more active role in a team win.

As with emperors, it all starts with the deck you build. You have at least four options:

1. The Devoted Footsoldier. This is the deck that sacrifices all in the name of taking out one flank as quickly as possible, so that your emperor can enjoy a 3-on-2 game. Even if you exhaust all resources to get there, it's worth the few turns you'll survive to pound away at the weakened team. Having a flank go down is extremely uncomfortable, and the opposing emperor will have to divert resources to stop you – resources that could have been spent on the other flank.

That diversion is the reason for your existence. When you are this lieutenant, every Counterspell that thwarts a spell is a blessing, every Terror that waxes a creature a compliment. All you want for Christmas is a dead opposing lieutenant and an enemy emperor who's running out of cards. Whether you deal the killing blow or not is immaterial – though on a good day, you'll get that chance.

Decks here can be any color, but red and black specialize in the sorts of cards that give you short-term gain for a long-term price. Here's a sample deck fragment for this model:

Lieutenant deck fragment

4 Tinder Wall
4 Orcish Lumberjack
4 Sneak Attack
4 Weatherseed Treefolk
4 Endless Wurm
4 Gamble

2. The Relentless Machine. Where the Devoted Footsoldier is looking for speed at the expense of a long game, the Relentless Machine is more interested in a beatdown that starts early enough, but sticks around to finish the job. It starts the game expecting to deal 40 damage, mainly through combat.

Like the first type of deck, it wants to drain the opposing emperor's resources. Unlike the first type of deck, it has a plan for recovering lost cards. It might be graveyard recursion, or flashback cards, or cantrips, or some other method – but it plays the card advantage game to win.

A green-black mixture usually works best here. Take a look at the following example:

HereItComesAgain.deq Lieutenant deck fragment

4 Basking Rootwalla
4 Wild Mongrel
4 Arrogant Wurm
4 Vampire Hounds
4 Haunted Crossroads
2 Volrath's Stronghold

3. The Catapult. This deck does its best to ignore the opposing lieutenant altogether, and concentrates on dealing 20 damage to the enemy's head. It's quite a gamble, but also a fun one. (This model alone is a reason for supporting a two-player range in emperor.)

Bear in mind this isn't all about direct damage (though that certainly helps). The Catapult model tries much harder than the first two models to interfere with the direct workings of the enemy emperor deck. You want to be able to counter their spells, disrupt their hand, and/or blow away their permanents. Anything that looks like it might work in a duel is worth trying here – if you are shooting right for the enemy's head, a good emperor will support you by handling whatever your opposite lieutenant throws at you.

If your group doesn't play creature movement between teammates, then Sleeper Agent is a great play – just hand it to the enemy in the center and watch their life total ratchet down. But here's a good example of a deck that will work either way:

Lieutenant deck fragment

4 Lightning Bolt
4 Counterspell
4 Viashino Heretic
4 Cinder Elemental
4 Prophetic Bolt
4 Rolling Thunder
4 Suffocating Blast
2 Shivan Gorge

Yes, I know, I'm using a lot of rares here. But remember, these are just for illustration. There are plenty of cards that do similar things and are easier to find.

One variant of this approach is the combo deck. A flank is a heckuva place to play a combo deck, and I tip my hat to those that try. Goblin CharbelcherGoblin Recruiter decks in this position are not a bad idea.

4. The Sealed Passage. This deck makes a conscious choice not to break through to the opposing emperor. Instead, it secures a flank and holds it hard. Ninety percent of the deck is about defending yourself. The other ten percent is about either (a) helping your teammates or (b) disrupting the enemy emperor.

While it sounds secure, this sort of deck carries its own sort of risk. Once an opposing emperor sees that you are not exactly beating down his door, she will feel free to focus her resources on the other side. That's why that last ten percent is pretty important. Always remember that with a range of two, you can always help a teammate in some unexpected ways.

Unsurprisingly, white and/or blue are really good at this sort of strategy. Here's a look at a deck fragment. Bear in mind the Congregates are not necessarily for you – they can (and should) target other players. They're less annoying that way!

Lieutenant deck fragment

4 Angelic Wall
4 Fog Bank
4 Master Healer
4 Akroma's Devoted
4 Absorb
4 Congregate
4 Withdraw
2 Misdirection

Once you decide upon a deck, it's time to play smart. Here are some general tips to fit any situation or deck matchup:

* You are not the center of the universe. At the risk of insulting a few readers, I'll advance the radical notion that most young men (or women, for that matter) aren't too keen to learn this lesson. But it's worth learning.


I once played against a team that was pounding us into the ground. (Okay, that's happened more than once.) The lieutenant opposite me was just smashing my head in. My emperor was not drawing much to help. The enemy emperor was finding the right mix of land and spells. And on the other side of the board...well, it was pretty much a stalemate, which meant I was going to go down very soon, and very hard. I prepared for the worst.

Out of nowhere, the enemy lieutenant way over there plays Balance. Suddenly, everyone had as few lands as I did, as few cards as my emperor did, and no creatures at all. It was the perfect reset for our team, and we bounced back quickly to win the game.

After the game, we asked the guy (and yes, he was younger than the average player in our group) why he decided to, um, play for our team? He protested that he couldn't get through his opponent without a board-clearer.

He? You? It's not about him, or you. Not unless you're the emperor. Assess the entire board before you act, and remember that some cards are simply not team friendly. Balance has its place, even in a team game. But you have to play it smart.

* Watch what the other lieutenant is doing. I mean your teammate here, not the enemy in front of you. (Though you might want to spare a glance in that direction, now and again.) How well is she holding up? Is there a combat phase where your Giant Growth on her creature could turn the tide? Is there an enchantment she's facing that you might play Tranquility for, even if that wipes out one of your own enchantments? Is your emperor already helping out enough, over there?

If an emperor is helping one flank heavily, it's a tacit message: he's hoping you'll hold your own. It's up to you to step up the pressure. Unless your deck is designed to lock down, it's time to take a few risks and push the enemy.

Wrath of God

* Overextension is not such a big deal for you, but don't be stupid. Assuming you are playing a creature-based deck (though I have played a creatureless deck on the flank, and it's quite the rush!), you can afford to have about one or two more creatures than you think you need on the board. In fact, you probably should have that many – because remember, you're going up against two opponents, really. In the middle of combat, you might find yourself with far less creatures than you would in a duel!

The emperor is your backup plan – remember when I told the emperor last week not to overextend, because he's your backup plan? So let it hang out a bit.

Of course, you can't be a moron. If you know the enemy emperor is playing a deck with Wrath of God, because that's what she always plays, then be cautious. But always remember that your job is to get that Wrath of God out of her hand, before it hurts your emperor. At some point, you want her to pull that trigger. Bait away.

* Keeping the three points above in mind, what works in a duel will work here. The lieutenant slots in emperor games are the happy places where players who prefer tournament duels can actually excel in multiplayer. Most of the decks – especially beatdown or tempo decks – apply just fine in a pinch, and most of a lieutenant's time is spent figuring out how to gain card advantage and overwhelm the guy sitting right across from him. All those principles are good and fine. Just look up, every once in a while.

This emperor series is likely to continue, given the highly positive response so far. Here are the topics I expect to cover soon, in one or more articles:

  • Variants on basic emperor format, including 4 v 4, 3 v 3 v 3, shifting ranges, creature movements, and so on.
  • Board clearers vs. spot removal in team games (I've got a really good story about a horrible play I made just a few weeks ago).
  • Whether team games should push for DCI sanctioning.
  • Whether Wizards should reprint the all-important Camel.

I'll be happy to entertain opinions or experiences on any of these matters. (Well, not on camels.) The message boards are the best way to test your ideas against others; but email is fine too.

You may email Anthony at He cannot provide deck help.

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