What Would They Play: Napoleon Bonaparte

Welcome to What Would They Play?

I'm Charlie, I'm a storyteller, creative writer, and author; I usually handle the historical sections of the articles.

I'd like to welcome special guest-writer, storyteller and philosopher, Patrick Germain, who's writing an anarchist analysis of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte! He's based out of Philadelphia.

And I'm Dan, a Commander player who is obsessed with building thematic decks. I connect the stories to Magic cards to create decks that reflect the vibrant tales of the past.

We take famous or not-so-famous figures from history and make Commander decks based on their lives, philosophies, and histories.

Our articles are meant to be part history lesson, part deckbuilding guide. We believe that decks can be expressions of personal philosophies, so a fun way to learn about historical figures -- and flavorful brews -- would be to speculate about what sort of Commander deck a given person would play, given their times, opinions, and philosophies.

It's like a history class, only using the medium of Magic: The Gathering.

Early Bonaparte: Corsica, Snowballs, and Childhood

Gather 'round, children, and I will tell you the epic tale of Napoleon Bonaparte. His claims to fame include being, by many measures, the most successful general of all time, conquering most of Europe, and ruling over an empire as the first monarch of a dynasty he created. General Theodoros Kolokotronis, leader of Greek forces during the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire, would refer to Bonaparte as the "god of war." One of the few men to rival Bonaparte's military prowess was his contemporary, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington1, field marshal of the British army. The duke once remarked that Bonaparte's presence on the battlefield "made the difference of forty thousand men." He would study the emperor's art of war closely.

The master Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who actually fought in the Napoleonic Wars, based his seminal work "On War" on Bonaparte and his Grande Armée. You get it: the guy's legit.

Napoleon's military strategy could be summarized as "all offense, no defense." If you existed at the same time as him, he'd be happy to have you as an enemy; he wasn't picky. The perfect commander for Napoleon's style of indiscriminate offense--appropriately in the red, white, and blue of the French tricolor--is Ruhan of the Fomori.

Yet, if you're vaguely familiar with the story, you might think: didn't he fail? Didn't he have to flee Egypt and abandon a whole army there to get back to France? Wasn't his attempt to re-enslave Haiti both a crime and a mistake? Wasn't his drawn-out war in Spain Vietnam-esque and in his own words, "a bleeding ulcer"? Didn't he have the same delusion as Hitler: that he could both invade and conquer Russia? Well, yes, he did fail. Yes, like Hitler, he did lose his empire largely due to a catastrophic attempt to invade Russia. But to understand why, despite his failures, he was still such a such a military prodigy, we must start from the beginning and journey through the drama and tumult of 23 years of near-constant war.

Cue the Bryan Adams, because it was the summer of '69. In this case, 1769. A few years earlier, France had lost the Seven Years' War and, as a result, lost its North American colonies, like Quebec and Louisiana. Still smarting from the embarrassment, France looked around to see who they could beat up and decided that Corsica would be an easy target. It was in the year of Bonaparte's birth that the French succeeded in annexing Corsica.

On August 15th, little Napoleon was born to a family of relatively poor nobles, who nevertheless were well-established and influential in their community. Except, Boney wasn't known as Napoleon at this time, because his birth name was Napoleone Buonaparte; it would be Frenchified later. At first, the Buonapartes were firm supporters of the Corsican rebels under leader Pasquale Paoli, but after it became clear that little Corsica could not resist the big French hexagon, the family accepted fate. At age 9, Napoleone would be sent to the French mainland for his education. Throughout his schooling, he was ridiculed by his peers for his poor grasp of the French language and heavy Corsican accent, as well as his family's meager wealth.

Understandably, Napoleone preferred to spend time alone and to get lost in reading and writing. He was excellent at mathematics and had a keen interest in history. His academic successes brought him to the military academy of Brienne, where he would study artillery. Foreshadowing his future, Napoleone once distinguished his nascent skills in military theory by staging an elaborate multi-day snowball fight of his planning, where he split his classmates into two sides, had a snow fort constructed, and led his team in an invasion of the icy castle.2 After graduating from the military academy, Buonaparte served in the French army, but really desired to serve under his hero, Paoli. Unfortunately, Paoli considered the Buonapartes French collaborators and rejected the young man.

The Rise and Rise of Napoleon: The French Revolution and a "Whiff of Grapeshot"

In 1789, the French monarchy's poor governance and indifference to suffering finally became too much for the people of Paris, and the French Revolution broke out. Buonaparte became increasingly aligned with the radical Jacobins, who wished to eliminate the monarchy and church, and because of this eventually lost interest in Corsican independence, replacing it with a desire to spread the revolution to the island and keep it part of the Republic.

In 1793, Buonaparte wrote a political pamphlet in support of the government at the time (the National Convention and its organ, the increasingly powerful Committee of Public Safety). This just happened to catch the eye of Augustin Robespierre, brother to Maxilimien Robespierre, the guy who would soon essentially be a dictator. Ignore that for a second and focus on the fact that Augustin's support gave Buonaparte a key role in quelling a rebellion in Toulon, where a large percentage of the navy's ships were located. The royalists had asked the British for help in ending the revolution and the British were eager to provide. Fortunately for Napoleone, the port of Toulon closely geographically resembled the port of Corsica's capital, Ajaccio, so Buonaparte knew what had to be done. After constant petitioning, a general finally took command who recognized that Buonaparte's plan was the best; its implementation saved the city from the forces of counterrevolution. Napoleone could have ridden the wave of national gratitude pretty far if it weren't for the downfall of the Robespierres, who had gone on a bit of a guillotining spree. Buonaparte had to lay low. But then another royalist threat came during the 13 Vendémiaire incident on October 5th, 1795.

Since Buonaparte had been assigned to the humble Topographical Bureau in Paris, he was the only one around with the skill to suppress the insurgency in the capital. He famously dispersed the threat against the government (now called the Directory) by firing a "whiff of grapeshot" at the crowds, which is to say he used his artillery skills to fire a bunch of metal balls at them, like a giant shotgun. It was a shocking display of butchery, but it saved the greatly outnumbered pro-Directory forces and made Buonaparte a hero of the Republic.

Buonaparte's expertise with artillery translates to a predilection for pingers in Commander. With a field of creatures that can simply tap to deal damage, he can turn the tides of any combat to his advantage. While even the classic Prodigal Sorcerer complicates combat math, bigger effects, like Orcish Artillery and Kamahl, Pit Fighter, make it even tougher for his opponents, and Brigid, Hero of Kinsbaile turns any battle into a rout. Gorgon Flail and Basilisk Collar turn his pingers into assassins, and mass untap effects, like Dramatic Reversal and To Arms!, lets them reload for another round. 

Thanks to this incident, Bonaparte (he first starts signing in the French form in 1796) was given command of the Army of Italy, tasked with spreading the revolution into northern Italy, which was maybe kind of true, but the campaign was also about stealing art and riches to fund the Directory. Bonaparte's campaign in Italy was seen as subordinate to the French campaign in Germany, so the Corsican was tasked mostly with distracting and holding off the Austrians in Italy (and stealing). Except, Bonaparte had a different plan, for Bonaparte needed to make a name for himself. While the effort failed in Germany, the Corsican engineered a victory so complete that it won the whole war for France. Bonaparte was a superstitious man and, by this point, his successes had convinced him that he had a lucky star following him in the heavens.

Egypt, Flight, Ascent to Consul

The Directory was thrilled with the military successes, but also feared that Bonaparte could use all of his fame and charisma to take power... which is fair, because that's what he did. But they thought they could avoid it by sending the Corsican to Egypt. Bonaparte was eager to go. Of the many enemies of France at this time, the UK was the greatest and most consistent. Since their navy was preeminent, no one could attack the British Isles, but the French figured they could attempt to weaken the Brits by cutting off their trade through the Middle East. Bonaparte managed to defeat and overthrow the Mameluke Egyptians, but failed to defeat the Ottomans in Syria and couldn't prevent the British from burning the French fleet of ships where the army had left them. Unhindered by remorse, Bonaparte fled back to Europe, leaving his whole army in Egypt.

Yet, when he arrived home, the locals only knew of his initial successes in the land of the Pharaohs and greeted him as a hero. It was time to make his move. So, knowing that most people hated the Directory and loved him, some prominent figures came to Bonaparte to plan a coup where power would be shared between him and two others. After a desperate and daring series of events, Bonaparte succeeded and ascended to the status of First Consul of the Republic with essentially dictatorial powers, sharing them only nominally. After a string of failed governments, the French seemingly threw their hands into the air and said, "Sure! That guy." Before the First Consul could do much, he needed to return on a second Italy campaign. He deceived his enemies by training the oldest and youngest recruits in Dijon to make it seem like he would join the army in Germany, but he would instead pass over the Alps like Hannibal did and surprise the Austrians.

In a Commander game, Napoleon can similarly set up easy attacks by ensuring his opponents' defenses are occupied elsewhere, using goad and other must-attack effects. Rather than targeted goading, Napoleon goes over the top with effects that force all creatures to attack, like Disrupt Decorum and Taunt from the Rampart. Angler Turtle, Goblin Spymaster, and Pursued Whale leave his opponents vulnerable turn after turn.

Though the French won at the glorified Battle of Marengo, the victory was mostly due to his subordinates, especially General Desaix, who lost his life in the process. Nevertheless, Bonaparte took credit for the win and used consular propaganda about it to lionize himself. The people loved him more than ever and, now that a brief period of peace had come, the First Consul could make some changes around the homeland.

Napoleon Makes Some Changes to France, Refines Cheating at Chess and War

Only a frenzied workaholic and micromanager like Napoleon Bonaparte could handle the duties of being the head of all things civil and military. He went about revamping all of France, like establishing a unified legal code (the Napoleonic Code), creating a central bank, and building road and sewer systems. He founded institutions of higher learning and, to his enormous discredit, reinstituted the slavery that his Jacobin predecessors had abolished (though the Haitians were able to liberate themselves). Things seemed to be going well for Bonaparte and, having survived several assassination attempts, he decided that he should solidify his reign by taking things to the next level and declaring himself Emperor of the French. In a dazzlingly opulent ceremony, Bonaparte was coronated on December 2nd, 1804. Unlike in previous coronations in France's history, Bonaparte did not have the Pope place the crown on his head; rather, he placed the crown on his own head, for he was a truly self-made man, a self-made emperor, perhaps even the self-made god of war. And he could back up all of the bluster. He wouldn't lose a single battle under his command until 1809 and there would be plenty of battles before then. He achieved a masterpiece victory in 1805 at the Battle of Austerlitz by tricking his opponents into attacking his intentionally weak right flank. He defeated the Prussians at Jena-Auerstedt in 1806, during which one of his marshals (Louis-Nicolas Davout) sent an army with twice as many men as his fleeing in fear. He utterly smashed the Russians at the Battle of Friedland in 1807. Along the way, his empire grew and grew to legendary proportions.

After winning another campaign against the Austrians in 1809, Bonaparte took on the "Mechanical Turk" in a chess game at Schönbrunn Palace. Surely, everyone might have assumed, a semi-divine general would be good at the warlike game of chess. The show, which many seemed to have believed, was a robot that could beat anyone at chess. In reality, it was a German-Austrian chess master named Johann Allgaier hiding in a box. The Turk was customarily white, but Bonaparte insisted on being white, much like he usually insisted on striking first in battle.3 The emperor then tried to illegally move a piece; the Turk moved it back. This repeated a second time. On the third occasion, the Turk wiped the board clear of pieces, finally convincing Bonaparte to play a legitimate game, which he lost.4

But this story highlights a significant aspect of warfare: unlike in a game of chess, you're allowed to "cheat" at war, as long as you win. In a sense, Bonaparte cheated according to the standards of European warfare at the time. His innovative and widespread use of the corps system (splitting your army into multiple, independent mini-armies) has been adopted nearly everywhere today and allowed the Grande Armée to split up into different groups and live off of the land as they traveled, granting them speedy travel times and independence from slow-moving supply carts. Bonaparte relied heavily on deception to win battles and would strike whenever was most militarily advantageous. He also employed concentration of force in novel ways; only in the Napoleonic Wars did it become common to use amassed cavalry to attempt to break through enemy infantry. Likewise, Bonaparte was innovative in concentrating artillery fire on individual targets. In a unique combination of the two, Bonaparte also developed "horse artillery," artillery batteries integrated into every cavalry division, allowing the horsemen to have artillery support that could act at the cavalry commander's discretion and keep up with the horsemen (allowing his knights to also move like rooks, you could say). So, maybe it's better to say that he played by his own rules like he wished he could in chess. Even off the battlefield, many counterparts and associates found his behavior uncouth and bizarre, a rejection of the social rules suitable for an emperor.

Bonaparte's corps system is represented in his deck with melee and similar abilities that reward him for attacking multiple opponents. With this strategy, Skyhunter Strike Force and Adriana, Captain of the Guard act as a permanent Overrun on offense. Amber Gristle O'Maul and Commander Liara Portyr turn a broad attack into card advantage, while Adeline, Resplendent Cathar and myriad creatures, like Battle Angels of Tyr and Auton Soldier, can max out their bonuses on their own.5

Hubris, The Continental System, Disasters

But a whole lot of victory can go to a man's head. His weaknesses included spitefulness, hubris, and the desire to control too much. Bonaparte foolishly thought that he could prevent all of continental Europe from trading with the British in what became known as the Continental System. The blockade would be disastrous for many economies. When the moment was right, Bonaparte sent an army to invade Spain and replaced the king (for whom Boney had no respect) with his own brother, Joseph. He did not expect the Spanish civilians to resist the French so much and his marshals (most of whom were busy stealing art and treasure) could not handle the combination of irregulars and troops from Spanish and British armies. Many valuable soldiers were bogged down and lost in Spain while everything else was going on, including the disastrous Russian campaign. Russia had been secretly trading with Britain to support their faltering economy and, drunk on power, Bonaparte decided that he would show them a lesson. With over half a million men, the Grande Armée marched towards Moscow. Besides France, the soldiers originated from many nations, including especially Poland, where the citizens had long despised the aggressions of their eastern neighbor.

Along the way, as men and horses dropped from exhaustion while marching through the summer heat with very little potable water along the path, Bonaparte found a decisive victory against the retreating Russians elusive. He had never led so big and diverse of an army, and its size prevented Bonaparte from exhibiting his usual swiftness. Believing the Tsar would eventually capitulate, Bonaparte journeyed further into Russia until the Battle of Borodino, the single bloodiest day of fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. With this victory, the French could occupy Moscow. But the emperor never thought that the Russians would vacate Moscow and much less that they would set it ablaze to prevent the Grande Armée from utilizing its resources. The emperor wasted two weeks waiting for a surrender from the Tsar, until under light snowfall the French had to retreat. Due to the Russian winter cold and attacks from the Russian army and Cossack horsemen, the Grande Armée would return to allied territory with less than 10% of its original size. In spite of a brilliant campaign to defend France, Paris surrendered, and Bonaparte had to abdicate the throne and live in exile on the island of Elba.

The Hundred Days and the End

Normally the story would end here, but Bonaparte wouldn't allow it. After less than a year of monotony in the Mediterranean, the Corsican escaped. Bonaparte landed in the south of France and made his journey north to Paris. The authorities eventually learned of this and sent troops to capture him. The soldiers found him and, with guns cocked, demanded his surrender. Bonaparte offered his chest to their bullets and said that if any of them wished to shoot their emperor, here he was. In a stunning moment of sentimentality, everyone defected to his side. He gained ever more support on his journey to Paris and when he arrived he was emperor again.

It wasn't to last. Meeting defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, the emperor was exiled again, this time to the incredibly distant island of St Helena. The Napoleonic Wars were finally over, though many of the laws, policies, and systems implemented by Bonaparte would live on. Ultimately, Bonaparte is worthy of many condemnations, but it is equally true that his life was a fascinating story of incredible feats that left an indelible mark on the whole world. Let us learn what we can from him.

Napoleon Bonaparte's full decklist is below!

Napoleon Bonaparte's EDH Deck

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  1. For some of you, it may be even more significant that he is the namesake of the steak dish Beef Wellington.
  2. This event may be the most iconic snowball fight in history and, possibly, the most elaborate form of procrastinating from doing one's schoolwork.
  3. This also means that Napoleon was possibly trying to "Scholar's Mate" the machine. If so, then he severely underestimated his opponent.
  4. But so did Benjamin Franklin and Charles Babbage, so there's no shame. To this day, the white opening moves of e4-(black:e5)-Qf3 are called the Napoleon Opening, though it is generally considered a bad choice because it brings the Queen out too early and makes her vulnerable.
  5. Important rules note: While myriad does work with abilities like Amber's and Liara's, it does not increase the bonus from melee. The key wording distinction is "each player being attacked" versus melee's "each opponent you attacked." The former counts creatures that enter the battlefield attacking, whereas the latter only counts creatures declared as attackers.

What Would They Play? is a collaboration between author Charlie Allison and game designer Dan Sibley. The series is part history lesson, part deck-building journal and aims to bring historical figures back to life through the lens of Magic: The Gathering. You can find Dan on Twitter at @VedalkenSamurai and Charlie on the web at www.charlie-allison.com and https://blog.pmpress.org/authors-artists-comrades/charlie-allison/.