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The Cutting Room Floor: Imperial March

“The Cutting Room Floor: Imperial March”

Now this one brings back some memories.

It’s been a long time, five years to be exact, that I’ve actually taken the time to look at one of my favorite decks of all time, the bizarre Imperial Painter. When I first picked the deck up back in 2008 before leaving for the service, I was on a complete tear with this monstrosity. Blowing peoples’ lands up, countering Swords to Plowshares with Red Elemental Blasts and destroying Tarmogoyfs with Pyroblasts was about as fun as you could possibly get. I was obsessed with the idea that a single, cheap artifact creature could transcend so many already useful cards into instant-speed Vindicates or hard-counters at the cost of a single mana. The insanity of the deck just took the local meta by storm, and before I knew it I had basically Blasted my way past opponent after opponent, while turning their lands into Mountains in the process.

Imperial RecruiterBe that as it may, Imperial Painter was named such due to one-half of its namesake card: the ultra-rare (and ultra-expensive) Imperial Recruiter. In the original concept, the deck was all about using a full suite of cards like Pyroblast, Red Elemental Blast and Active Volcano as a means to destroy anything and everything in its path. The deck was incredibly hard to stop when it got rolling and there were literally games that were scooped up by opposition before they even had a turn once a card like Magus of the Moon hit the table turn one in conjunction with cards like Chrome Mox and Simian Spirit Guide.

In the end, Imperial Painter proved to be a very powerful deck that to this day sees fringe play due to the rarity and price tag of Recruiters. However, those with access to Imperial Recruiters have the opportunity to piece together a very rare and special archetype that manipulates the game’s color scheme in its favor by turning anything and everything into the additional color of your choosing. Once this occurs, you can then play the role of aggressor or control player with the assortment of virtual counter-magic and Vindicate-effects in your hand.

[Editor’s note – click any of blue card names or featured card images to view and purchase the card from Jupiter Games!]

For those who don’t have a general understanding of how the deck operates, let’s take a look at the list I played back in the spring and summer of 2008 and see how it has evolved to battle in today’s meta:

As you can see, this antiquated list used was built as an aggro-control variant with a combo finish thrown into the mix (Grindstone in conjunction with Painter’s Servant, of course). Interestingly enough, the deck managed to win games more than it lost by actually attacking opponents’ life totals down to zero. Their preoccupation with disrupting the combo engine is generally what wound up being the irrelevant factor, as dwindling their life totals down with ankle-biting combat steps paired with Sword of Light and Shadow and Lightning Bolt would generally be enough to finish games on their own.

Initially, Krosan Grip started seeing lots of play once Counter-Top became a thing. This was incredibly bad for Painter decks because most decks that ran Krosan Grip out of the board had good match-ups against Imperial Painter. Merfolk was becoming more and more popular however, which kept the deck’s competitive spirit fighting with the assortment of Blasts it ran in the main and side. But in the overall scheme of things, Imperial Painter faded away into obscurity once the meta adapted and Eldrazi began making their presence known in the Legacy meta. This all but nullified Imperial Painter from being able to compete when faster and stronger combo decks just pushed it aside.

Fast forward a few years to today. We live and play in a meta that is dominated by all sorts of bizarre opposition including Turbo Eldrazi, Hypergenesis and now Show and Tell decks running ridiculously powerful cards like Griselbrand and Omniscience.

Which leads me to my first question: Can a deck like Imperial Painter thrive once again in a meta like this?

Well, let’s speak the unspoken and just say it: Imperial Recruiters are ridiculously expensive. Even with a neat new foil print of the Three Kingdoms rarity it still fetches a nice price tag well in excess of a hundred dollars and probably closer to two. Will the price of Recruiter drop? It’s hard to say. It’s a card that is really only used in a few decks and even then it’s really not crazy-good in anything else. Sure, the “Tutor” factor the deck provides is excellent, but honestly I can’t imagine why – even given its rarity – this card fetches a price tag like the one it has.

Pricing aside, I feel like Imperial Painter can definitely compete in today’s meta. In fact, I’d go so far to say that if someone were to take this deck to a competitive event there’s a good chance they would probably do well with it not simply based on solid piloting but the plain and simple fact that no one rightfully prepares for the match-up. The deck is like a boogeyman waiting to come out of that dark corner and scare you to death because of what it can do. For instance, let me reiterate the classic turn-one Blood Moon play. Few decks can stop a Blood Moon (or similarly Magus) once it resolves because of how fragile these three-color mana bases are these days. True, decks have cards like Lightning Bolt and Grim Lavamancer to kill something like a Magus of the Moon, but Imperial Painter doesn’t settle on just four effects in the main…

…It generally runs upwards of five or six. What does this mean? Well for starters (as I mentioned), few decks can stop a play like that early in the game because their resources have been crippled by fetches and dual lands. This creates a punishing situation for an unprepared opponent not capable of being able to stop it once it resolves; just absolutely crippling.

Simian Spirit GuideImperial Painter also has a sneaky little trick built into it that most players forget about or are completely oblivious to, and that’s the deck’s pseudo-Force of Will. With Simian Spirit Guide, you can not only surprise an opponent with a pitched monkey to pay for cards like Daze, you can also cast one of your Blasts at instant-speed and completely blow them out. The Spirit Guide sees occasional play in current incarnations of the deck but is not entirely necessary.

One of the more beneficial things about the Spirit Guide is that it acts as a body when you need one to start beating or chump-block. You’re looking at a card that can also pick up a Sword-of-what-have-you should you choose to run them, which can subsequently turn something like Curious George here into King Kong in a hurry. Being able to turn innocuous creatures into serious threats is a critical path to the deck’s success, as is the case with any deck that opts to run Equipment cards like Swords and Umezawa’s Jitte.

I’ve had some thoughts about how the deck performs without Painter’s Servant. You’d think it plays almost identical to Dragon Stompy, and it does in the sense that you want to deplete your hand and overwhelm your opponent with big creatures. This deck, however, seems to want to setup and establish board position and control more so than the latter. It’s important to know when to play your threats and the order in which you play them. If you can establish a dominating board presence by using Blast effects to knock off potentially dangerous threats, you can clear a path for the basic combo do ‘go off’ at any time. However, seriously contemplate when you want to use your Blasts as those are the cards that completely transform a game because of their versatility with Painter’s Servant in play.

PyroblastBe careful firing them off just because you can. Harness the power of the combination but be careful how to play them out. A good example of this is a situation where you’re playing the land-destruction line. Assume you target a land with a Pyroblast and your opponent decides to respond with a Swords on your Painter. Not only do you lose your Painter, but your Blast-effect will not resolve because your permanent is no longer blue upon resolution.

See what I mean? Play aggressive if you can, but beat the control player at their own game if you have to.

SpellskiteThese days, protecting Painter’s Servant outside of using your Blasts as counter-magic has gotten much easier with the incredibly useful critter, Spellskite. At the cost of two life, it’s going to cost your opponent big time to try and take it out. And that’s not even a guarantee, because the first thing that’s going to bite the dust is undoubtedly your Spellskite. The initial concept of the deck was predicated on Painter’s unprecedented ability to change the entire dynamic of the game both aesthetically and realistically. Over time, the deck appears to have developed a different strategy as really just being a “red weenie deck” that can win through hate by simply attacking its opponents out.

Spellskite is perfect here in this deck, though. It completely fixed issues the deck was having against not only spot-removal, but against fast aggro. With a toughness of four, it is incredibly hard to crack early when played off a Sol-land to start things off. I’ve seen lists varying from using two to three main to combat removal, and I can see why now. Spellskite is about as good as it gets in a deck like this.

Phyrexian MetamorphOnce this card became legal, a part of me wondered just how good it could be in a deck like this. Copying creatures on your side of the table that do incredibly powerful things is nothing to scoff at, nor the bonus of copying your opponent’s creatures – cards like Emrakul that need to die before it gets a swing in to end the game. Metamorph serves more than just the role of copying creatures, however: it can also copy artifacts, and that’s huge here.

For starters, being able to recur this guy onto the battlefield with Goblin Welder is just sick. If that happens, you have the ability to copy things at your leisure and possibly take advantage of some sick triggers, such as Imperial Recruiter or an opponent’s Snapcaster Mage. Being able to copy cards that are advantageous to you is a very nice quality to have, while creating redundancy at the same time. Assuming perhaps your opponent is running some configuration of big, bad dudes you can always copy your sideboarded Ensnaring Bridge to ensure nothing is coming your way anytime soon.

Speaking of Goblin Welder, this creature has so many great tricks in Imperial Painter there are just too many to count. One of the great things that some of the more involved Painter players know is the classic “bait and switch” which essentially involves activating Grindstone, holding priority and swapping the Grindstone with a dead Painter’s Servant. Once the Grindstone’s activated ability resolves you’re then looking at a situation where your opponent – assuming they aren’t running Eldrazi or something like Progenitus – will have their deck flipped and will die the following turn.

Very cool trick!

There’s also another one I particularly enjoy, and it involved Sensei’s Divining Top. With Top’s activated ability on the stack you can swap it out with any artifact in your graveyard and ensure you’re getting quality each turn without drawing into Top the following turn. Goblin Welder also ensures your potentially sideboarded graveyard hate like Tormod’s Crypt will be reused time and time again provided you have a cheap artifact to sacrifice like an un-imprinted Chrome Mox or Great Furnace at the ready.

Simply put: Goblin Welder, although generally played only as a one or two-of, can do some degenerate things once it goes active in a deck like this. And if you absolutely have to, you can Grind yourself to find a useful artifact, possibly that Painter, which is a winning situation for you when that happens.

Imperial Painter has definitely evolved over the years, that’s for sure. I remember when the deck used to run nothing but twelve Blasts and was totally predicated on destroying and countering everything. Those lists were heavily predicated on having a Painter in play, which you can’t always count on.

Here’s a current list that William Yowell managed to snag 18th place with at a Star City Open in November:

As you can see, cards like Gamble and Faithless Looting have transcended the archetype to having a bit more consistency in being able to locate its combo pieces, or to simply dump cards into the graveyard to feed a Goblin Welder. The Blast package remains solid with six spells aimed at doing some serious damage, with singleton artifacts like Wurmcoil Engine and Ensnaring Bridge joining the party, probably as Gamble targets. The list definitely looks solid and it’s no wonder Will was able to place so well with the deck, the meta was unprepared to fight it. Few metas really are, which makes this deck all the more powerful when the path to the Top Eight likely has its share of Forces and Brainstorms.

Not on Painter’s watch.

Jaya Ballard

Noticeably absent from Will’s list is the legendary Jaya Ballard, Task Mage. This was one of the most powerful cards used in earlier versions of the deck, but these days is generally limited to only a copy or two. You have to remember that while it looks easy to cast her in a mono-red deck on paper, it’s actually more difficult than it looks with multiple Sol-lands. Generating two red is never really a problem, but it can in some circumstances become troublesome which is probably what he was thinking when he built the deck.

One of my fondest memories of using Jaya was activating her “Inferno” ability in round one, game one of my first go around with the deck in big tournament five years ago. It was enough to seal the deal, which is probably why I have a soft spot for her in this archetype. She was also responsible for being an invaluable asset in destroying opponents’ permanents with Painter on the table, which is just sick at the cost of one red mana. Even without Painter, Jaya still was able to knock off cards like Counterbalance and Jace, the Mind Sculptor – or even just a turn in, turn out Incinerating-machine that wins games flat-out by herself.

I’m a big Jaya fan, but results speak quite loudly here.

Imperial Painter is just a great deck that is greatly misunderstood and overlooked. A lot of people give it flack for being a really bad version of Painter that just cannot compete in a format with Emrakul anymore, but that’s just nonsense. Do you stop playing combo because Force of Will exists? It’s just impractical to give up on a deck you love because of a single card that gives you problems, no matter how popular it may be. If you’re running into an Eldrazi-heavy meta, that’s a different story.

But don’t forget: Laboratory Maniac is still your friend should you choose to Grind yourself out – a brilliant way to combat that problem. Assuming also you run into something like Turbo Eldrazi, most of their lands are non-basics that enter the battlefield tapped so something like Blood Moon can be lights out if they can’t accumulate the mana for Oblivion Stone or basic Island for Repeal. Basically, you have game against a lot of decks you wouldn’t normally think you’d beat if you practice, pilot correctly and sideboard efficiently.

I’d just like to send a big shout-out to the folks over at The Source in the Imperial Painter thread I noticed that have continued the evolution of the archetype as lone warriors carrying its legacy forward. Imperial Painter is an incredibly fun deck if you can somehow find a way to get your hands on four Recruiters, which is incredibly easier said than done. I find myself drifting closer and closer to returning to the archetype again, but I’m sure I’ll need a little bit of work shaking off the rust of firing off Active Volcanoes and Dragon Whelps.

But I am fully aware of what this deck is capable of doing. It’s deadly, powerful and consistent. The fragility of the deck is overestimated with the presence of cards like Abrupt Decay which just can’t compete with a Moon effect before the mana can be floated. Even then, your Recruiters find you Painters which is just insane. Toss in Welder for more tricks and you’ll never have trouble finding the “Scarecrow of Scarecrows” in the event you need him.

Active VolcanoBlue may always very well be the most powerful color in the history and future of Magic: the Gathering. Should you choose to play this deck, you’ve already got five to six one mana hard-counters ready to go, which become more frightening with Painter on the table. I’ve won countless dual lands with this deck in the past, and the only reason I feel it backed off over the last few years was the scarcity and price of Recruiters. If that weren’t the case, I would still be playing this deck right now without thinking twice about it. I’ve seen grown men cry when Blood Moon hits the table before they play anything.

If that’s the case, your opponents had better bring lots of tissues, because this deck is designed to cripple, combo, control or attack your opponent from so many angles that it’s virtually impossible to gauge what will happen playing against it. But that’s what makes it so enticing to play.

If you hate blue Magic cards, there’s no better deck to take your personal frustrations out with than Legacy’s anti-establishment that is Imperial Painter.

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