Emperor Imperatives

Posted in Serious Fun on November 25, 2003

By Anthony Alongi

I was terrified Wizards was going to ask me to make a turkey deck for this week. So I'm thankful that they didn't. (Some might say I make a turkey deck every week.)

Instead, we have a "writer's choice" week, for which I'm happy to return to a topic that many readers requested a few weeks ago when I asked: emperor format and strategy.

This will likely be occasional series. Today we'll look at the emperor's role and strategy, and in future columns we'll deal with the lieutenant's role and strategies, how to best coordinate your deck with your teammates, different Emperor variants, and so on.

What Is Emperor?

It's perfectly possible there are readers out there who are new enough that they don't know the basics of emperor. I would refer them to my archives here and at starcitygames.com. The latter site has a four-part series (Empire North, South, East, and West) that really gets into the whole thing. (I'm not going to go back and read it just yet, because I'm dying to know how much my perspective on the format has changed and whether I would get into an argument with myself on this or that. Good fun for me, so don't you go spoiling it with an obnoxious email that points out all the differences. There's a good lad.)

To put it in basic terms, emperor is a team format, usually 3x3. Teams sit across the table from each other (so teammates take consecutive turns), and the players sitting in the center seats are the "emperors". The players on the flanks are "lieutenants" (or "lackeys", or "peons", or whatever else you'd like to call them). It is the job of the lieutenants to protect their emperor, at all costs. When an emperor dies, that entire team is out.

Emperors do not engage in direct battle, at least not at the start. Only the lieutenants sitting across from each other may engage in combat – that is, declare attackers and blockers, and they may only do so against each other. Targeted spells have a range of two players. Untargeted spells (e.g., Starstorm) affect the entire board.

As you can imagine, this sets up a situation where the emperor is helping out the lieutenants, who in turn are trying to push through each other to get at the nerve system of the opposition. Once a lieutenant dies, the targeted range of two means everyone can target everyone else – though attacks still can only go to the nearest opponent.

There are variations, of course – some groups restrict targeting to one player for lieutenants, or allow players to share creatures (moving a creature to a teammate cedes control and you "re-sick" the creature, so without haste it must wait a turn before attacking or using a tap-symbol ability). Others restrict untargeted spells to the range of the caster (so if a lieutenant with a range of one cast Wrath of God, it would only kill creatures controlled by himself, his emperor, and the opposing lieutenant). Some groups allow teams to talk to each other as they select decks and/or make plays, and others don't.

That ought to be enough to get you started. Go play the format a few times if you haven't already, and then come back once you have a feel for what's going on. The rest of the article will read easier that way.

The Emperor: Duties And Strategies

The central figure in an emperor format is, unsurprisingly, the emperor. Her twenty life points are the ones that count – an emperor can survive without one or both lieutenants, but the entire team is dead when the emperor goes down. If you're sitting in the center, what do you need to know to win?

It all starts, of course, with the deck you choose. Realize that you are facing the following constraints:

  • You will not be engaging in early battle. In fact, if your teammates behave, you won't be attacking or blocking at all.
  • You cannot reach the opposing emperor early on. But you can make life hell for her teammates.
  • The four players you can all reach are all engaged in battle. Combat phases are very important to you, even if you aren't the one swinging.
  • Both of your teammates are facing down two opponents. That means they are likely to need your help. Whether you give it to them is a separate issue.

With these points in mind, an emperor deck can take one of at least four approaches:

Approach Option One: The Path-Cutter.
This style of emperor deck will focus on spot removal. It assumes that the lieutenants are using rush decks and that they need a clear road to roll down. The emperor will blow away potential blockers at instant speed and let her lieutenants shine. Global removal is not necessary – far better is repeatable removal through a vehicle like Lightning Rift, Attrition, Masticore, or Flood.

Red and black are the order of the day, more often than not. They just have repeatable spot removal options that other colors dream of. Blue can also play this game a bit, and we shouldn't forget that if clearing a path means removing enchantments and artifacts, green and white may be a smart splash if your deck's strategy allows.

Another variant of a "path-cutter" would be a duel-style deck that uses one of the disruption methods that fail in chaos play: land destruction, discard, and/or countermagic. Back to red, black, and blue! Here, the deck essentially decides to take out one opposing lieutenant completely by really going two-on-one, and let the other side develop however it's going to develop. It's a bit dangerous (not least because the other emperor might decide to do the same), and sometimes a brutal deck can really ruin the fun of the game for an opposing lieutenant who never really gets a chance to play. But the option is there, if you want to try it.

Here’s a deck fragment to illustrate the basic path-cutter approach. It’s based on a creatureless deck I’ve used for nearly two years, with very few changes and a great deal of success. While four Mirari can be hard to get, the deck can work with one or two and some search; and just about every other key card is a common. (The other rares are certainly optional, and are fun stunts through the Mirari.) Certainly, more focus on red damage is also an option.

Emperor deck fragment

4 Mirari
2 Sapphire Medallion
4 Jilt
4 Capsize
4 Impulse
2 Submerge
1 Bribery
1 Reins of Power

Approach Option Two: The Protector.
If a path-cutter deck helps a lieutenant focused on rushing, then a protector deck helps a lieutenant focused on control. (Yes, lieutenants can play control decks. Who else can counter an early combo by an opposing emperor?)

Of course, a path-cutter deck can find itself playing "protector" – if early luck is bad, that spot removal will go to killing opposing attackers instead of defenders. But a protector deck aims from the start to take it slow and steady. Its owner relies on trickier cards and interactions – for example, she might play an Ensnaring Bridge, and then carefully time card-drawing and playing so that only her teammates can attack.

White works best here – Master Decoy, Righteousness, Hypochondria, and Kor Haven all make life difficult for opposing teams that need to get through quickly to win. One card I'm dying to use in a protector-style emperor deck is Second Sunrise – I think the team format, in a game where your friends just took a beating and everything looks really bad for a moment, is where a card like that shines.

Blue with its bounce and countermagic, as well as green with its pump, can also play a role here. But don't expect red and black to do much to protect allied creatures.

This sample deck fragment steals from a couple of ideas I’ve had over time, as well as a friend’s deck from our group. (Thank you, Curt.)

Emperor Deck Fragment

4 Master Decoy
4 Trap Runner
2 Auramancer
2 Wurmskin Forger
4 Smite
4 Parallax Wave
2 Narcissism
2 Kor Haven

Approach Option Three: The Speed-Bump Admirer.
Whereas the first two options assume that the emperor will play a part on the battlefields to her left and/or right, there is no rule that states she must get involved at all. Lieutenants are, in essence, twenty-life speed bumps. This is fantastic for the combo player, who just needs that extra time to get the right pieces in play.

Land Equilibrium
Imagine a deck with Land Equilibrium and Armageddon. On turn seven (or earlier, if she's using artifact mana), the emperor blows away all lands and slaps down an enchantment that disallows any recovery. Then she puts down something like Barbed Wire or Worry Beads. The opposition dies a slow death, and what this emperor's lieutenants do really doesn't have much to do with the outcome. If they recover from the Armageddon (Land Equilibrium only affects opponents), great. If they don't, who cares?

While this deck seems to favor blue and/or white, in reality any color can be a speed bump admirer. Red and black both have mass removal options that can disrupt not only opponents' plans, but those of teammates as well. And with enough mana acceleration, green can do a simple life-gain/Hurricane combo that leaves only one player standing.

We can all imagine stupid combo decks, and I’m not a big fan of this approach. If you want to play the game without teammates, seek out your own fragments!

Approach Option Four: The Pessimist.
I'll admit I haven't seen an emperor follow this approach very often – at least not by design. But a couple of people in our play group have wondered idly if something like this might work. If nothing else, it's a nice response to the intense-disruption alternative in option one.

Here's the deal: you expect at least one lieutenant to die. Instead of trying to bolster a lost cause, why not accept the inevitable and prepare a massive army? Let your lieutenants do as much damage as they can do, and then avenge the first one to go down.

There's a couple of problems with this approach that we'd have to work out before I could truly recommend this approach to any of my readers. But I do have a green-white deck ready that I figure might actually work in this role:

Emperor deck fragment

4x Astral Slide
4x Spike Feeder
2x Auramancer
2x Spike Weaver
2x Phantom Nishoba
2x Forgotten Ancient

Dragon Roost
Don’t interpret these separate approaches too literally. No deck is a “pure” type of anything. That last deck actually has a strong element of protection in it. One of the most effective decks I’ve seen in emperor was something from my brother-in-law Paul that used the well-known ProsperityViseling combo to blow out the other team, while adding in bounce and countermagic to support his own teammates. I also sport a red-black “creatureless” Lightning Rift deck that clears many paths for friendly aggression decks, and then shows a pessimistic side by sporting Dragon Roosts for the late game.

The deck you build will determine your actual game tactics, but there are some broad guidelines you should follow as you lead your team into battle:

1. You’re the one that counts. Do not spend a great deal of early energy stopping minor threats. Unless you are keyed on absolutely shutting down one side, see if your lieutenants can deal with those early Basking Rootwallas and Nantuko Shades. If they take more than one or two hits, you may need to step in. But otherwise, save those Lightning Bolts, Excludes, and Swords to Plowshares for those threats that look like they might actually break through.

2. That other emperor is the other one that counts. Spending all of your ammo to finish off a mere lackey may feel good, but always remember that once the first person dies, you and the other emperor are now in each other’s range. If you depend on countermagic, or removal, or any other spot-style strategy, you’ll need it right away to help your friends’ troops finish the job. It is worth extending a bit to get to the point where it’s a 3-on-2 – that’s an easier game to win – but if you open yourself up to a couple of consecutive Volcanic Geysers before you’re ready, you have ultimately failed. Keep your eye on the prize.

3. Know when to remove permanents, vs. players. This is related to both points above. There are some more recent players in our group who still can’t let go of the idea that a Lightning Bolt burns a hole in your hand. They have to cast it immediately, and hit anyone and anything. More often than not, they just hit a player for 3 damage. That may sound cool – and if it’s the last three damage, it’s certainly worthwhile – but too often, that Bolt has a better target. Let your lieutenant play a reusable 3/3 attacker, and let the Bolt take down whatever’s getting in the way.

4. Know which side needs help. Even the most ridiculous combo decks have a few cards that can be used to support your teammates. When you use however many you have, think carefully about which battlefront is secure, and which may need some help. At some point, you’re going to be facing one threat on each side, and you’ll only have one card to help out. Which lieutenant is most likely to recover? If neither will recover, which one can you do without for longer? And if both are doing fine, what side do you give priority help to?

There was a nice example of this last issue just last week, when our group played a nine-person (3x3x3) emperor. I had two high-performing lieutenants, and before long we were enjoying a 3x2x2, with both emperors exposed to the whims of my Lightning Rift.

Directly opposite me was a fight between the two teams that I couldn’t touch (nor wouldn’t have, even had they been in range): one enemy’s lieutenant had a Mortivore and bounce, and the other enemy’s lieutenant had Goblin Charbelcher. The Charbelcher was very uncooperative toward its controller, providing (I kid you not) five successive activations of two or less damage! Yes, he was playing with mountains! But in any case, it was firmly aimed at the other team, whose emperor was attempting control with Ensnaring Bridge and Subversion, but didn’t have a plan against direct damage.

Goblin Charbelcher
Instead of going after that emperor, I went after the emperor whose lieutenant had the Charbelcher. When one of my own men protested, I gave him my reasoning: I wanted that fellow down to ten or less, much more than I wanted to try to put Mr. Subversion down there. The Charbelcher was a useful monster – unable to hit me know, but very able to hit me later. I needed a leash on it, and the emperor’s life total was my leash.

This approach could have come back to haunt me – the controller of the Charbelcher could have decided to go out in a blaze by taking out my closest teammate, and then put me in range for a second shot. But that was a long shot for him, and there was already an emperor in range for him. Besides, if he killed that emperor, he could skip over my lieutenants altogether and take a shot at me on the next turn anyway. (This range effect one reason why 3-team emperor is different from simple 3-player chaos; the dynamics are not nearly as close as you’d think. More on that in a future article.)

The other way it could have gone wrong is if that Charbelcher kept sucking it up badly. But a Recruiter finally come out, which set up a nice, finishing slam…and because I had already invested enough damage in the emperor I trusted would survive, our team was able to finish him off before the Charbelcher could untap and burp in my general direction.

Pernicious Deed
5. Never, ever overextend. A lieutenant often has to overextend his board position, just to make sure he slams through one flank before he dies. And it’s a better bet to do so in an emperor game, since (a) fewer players will risk a massive board control deck (e.g., Obliterate) that might hurt their teammates, and (b) he has you as a backup, if things go wrong.

So if you overextend, and your flank collapses after a Pernicious Deed sweeps the board and all of your precious piles of support, do you know whose fault that is? Yours. I mean, go ahead and flog your inept servant in front of everyone else – but somewhere, in the back of your mind, save a few lashes for yourself.

A good rule of thumb is to try to have more cards in your hand than either lieutenant. For that to happen in the mid- to late game, that means you’ll have to really pick and choose critical targets in the early game, as I suggested above.

The only situation where I can think you would want to overextend is if you’re facing a heavy discard deck (so holding back cards isn’t an option, and flooding the fray with permanents has a real chance of crippling the unprepared discard player).

Flaunt Your Virtues

There’s another, shorter way to look all that stuff above: the watchwords of the emperor are patience and analysis. The first is your main emotion, the second is your main motion. You’re going to think a lot more than you act. When you’re done calming down, and you’ve fully assessed the board, your best action will often be…to wait.

In general, your busiest times should be (a) during a lieutenant’s combat and (b) at the end of the last enemy lieutenant’s turn (alternately, you can wait until the end of the turn of your own righthand lieutenant). If you’re not doing the bulk of your work during these times, and you are losing as an emperor, then take this article to heart.

You may reach Anthony at seriousfun@wizards.com. He regrets that he cannot provide deck help, even if you are the Emperor of Japan.

Latest Serious Fun Articles


January 5, 2016

Hedron Alignment by, Bruce Richard

When I first looked at my preview card, I couldn't really wrap my brain around it. The card does so much that I wasn't really understanding its value. Kind of a "forest for the trees" thi...

Learn More


December 29, 2015

Eternal Pilgrim by, Bruce Richard

When religious belief turns into religious fervor, things get problematic—particularly on Zendikar. When the Eldrazi were originally imprisoned, stories were told to ensure no one would t...

Learn More



Serious Fun Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All