I love the Monarch.
A bold statement to be sure, but I do! When we first saw the cards from Conspiracy: Take the Crown, I felt like the Monarch was going to be a gamechanger, and described it this way.
"While Queen Marchesa is an amazing card, being the Monarch is what I'm really excited about. This ability is going to be a game-changer; so many multiplayer games are bogged down, slow-moving games where the downside of attacking discourages players from doing anything. When you know you are leaving yourself open to multiple attacks if you attack, suddenly hitting someone for a few points of damage seems ridiculous.
The Monarch gives a real reason to attack. With the added upside of card draw, suddenly losing a few extra life seems fine. If you are unlikely to be able to stop every opponent from taking the Monarch from you, you may be better off letting the first opponent to attack you get through. Once someone else is the Monarch, the likelihood of an opponent attacking you goes down. It isn't guaranteed that you won't get attacked, but at least the chance of drawing a card by attacking elsewhere has to be considered by opponents."
It isn't often when my predictions are bang-on, so I like to glory in it when they are! The Monarch has worked exactly as expected. The incentive of drawing extra cards has proven enough to draw players out of their shells and attack, rather than sit back and slowly accumulate cards and build up defenses. An added benefit has been the focus it brings to the early game. Players who get out attacking creatures early used to spread the wealth, attacking opponents at random as they try to determine who the primary threat at the table is. Now, those players try to target the Monarch, or protect the Monarch, in an effort to draw extra cards.
With the extra card draw, games have been faster. While I expected this to be the case, I didn't think it would be as noticeable as it has been. I think the Monarch has reduced game times by as much as 20%. This isn't based on statistically valid data, but personal experience, so take that for what it's worth.
Something I hadn't considered has been players' willingness to take damage to become the Monarch. I've played with different groups and, almost uniformly, players will become the Monarch to draw a card, even if they are incapable of protecting the crown. I've asked players about it and most simply believe that losing a life or three is worth drawing a card. They don't see becoming the Monarch as a way to stop their opponents from drawing a card; it is more about getting the card draw for themselves. The Monarch is not a zero-sum game, but something where everyone wins. Most see it as everyone basically agreeing to lose 10 life and draw five extra cards over the course of the game.
A friend has even suggested a variant called First Blood. In this variant, the first person to do combat damage to an opponent becomes the Monarch. This would introduce the Monarch into every game, whether someone is playing cards that create the Monarch or not. While my group hasn't decided to go this route yet, it is certainly an option I'd consider.
As Cersei said, "when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die." The Monarch has downsides. As someone with a Queen Marchesa deck, I'm seeing these firsthand and struggling with them.
The Monarch tends to help decks that are already in front, which is somewhat appropriate, given it is called "The Monarch." Early on, the decks with aggressive strategies can afford to be more aggressive. The Boros deck that races out to that early lead tends to pick up extra cards from the Monarch, giving it more reach than it would have otherwise. This can cause some games to wrap up a little early, since the controlling player doesn't tend to get the benefit of the Monarch early on and struggles against a more powerful aggressive player who is getting a steady stream of cards.
Assuming the aggro player can't pull it off, then the benefit swings dramatically in favor of the control decks. At some point the control player is able to hit and take the Monarch… and defend it. The control player has set up their pillow fort defenses or has a way to prevent combat damage. The Monarch is yet another piece of card advantage they use. The games where the aggro player topdecks the win are cut back even further when the control player is drawing yet another card every turn.
Another issue with the Monarch is that it isn't something you can build a deck around. You use your cards to put the Monarch into play, then make yourself a target and often wind up giving your opponents the card advantage you worked to get because all they have to do is something their decks were likely designed to do already: attack.
Given all this, what to do? I like how the Monarch speeds up the games so I'm not willing to simply stop using it and hope others will add it to their decks. I've considered the problem and have three solutions:
1. Protection. Don't put the Monarch into play until you are ready to protect it. This will cost you an early card draw or two, but given the likelihood you would end up giving those card draws to your opponents, it is hardly a loss. Whether it is Propaganda-like effects or a Wall of Denial, you'll want some way to keep control.
2. Control. Make it clear that even if your opponents successfully attack you, they will Reap no benefits. Having Queen Marchesa and an Eldrazi Displacer means that you can simply flicker the Queen before their end step, preventing them from ever drawing a card. Displacer and Custodi Lich do an even better job, adding a little punishment to the upstart.
3. Deflection. This has to be my favorite, though it is the most dangerous option. Bring the Monarch into play and lose it early on, and make no effort to take it back. Use the crown sitting on a player's head as a beacon to your other opponents to attack the Monarch mercilessly. If players are drawn to attack the Monarch like moths to those electric bug zappers, use it. You'll be able to leave your early defenses a little more open and focus your deck on the end game, knowing the likelihood of being attacked is reduced.
This is a dangerous game. How much card advantage are you giving up? If your three opponents are trading the Monarch then they are drawing two cards each to your one. If one of your opponents has taken it and is managing to successfully hold it, that player is the only one getting the card advantage, but how much of that advantage are they burning just to keep the Monarch? And what are the other two opponents doing if they aren't successfully attacking the Monarch? Are they looking at your defenseless board? There are a lot of variables that make this the most political of the options. You really will want to be a silver-tongued player to be able to pull this off, and that is probably why I love it.
All of this has affected my Queen Marchesa build. I'm not building around the Monarch as much as building with it in mind. So much of my initial build was around the idea that I would put the Monarch into play, then either enjoy the extra card draw or the 1/1 deathtouch, hasty assassins I'd get. Ideally, an opponent would take the Monarch, I'd get my assassin, then use it to get the Monarch back and draw an extra card. I'd draw an extra card on each of my turns while only one opponent would draw a card. Perfect.
Except that didn't really happen. The 1/1 assassin wasn't enough to get the Monarch back, or everyone would get the Monarch and I'd be wondering why I didn't just play a Temple Bell, since it would give me the card I wanted and I wouldn't be taking damage when an opponent attacked me.
I shifted the deck, dumping the cards that made the assassins better and focused on cards that helped me more in the later game. I've added cards that let me flicker the Queen and other cards that give me the Monarch to avoid attacking into tough battlefields. Eldrazi Displacer, Ghostway and the new Angel of Condemnation all provide defense for the Queen and an attack on the battlefield from a different axis. I play the Queen later in games and I'm finding the deck has far more success than it had in the past.
I still believe that the Monarch is a great ability, but it demands a little more nuance and care than simply launching it onto the battlefield and Reaping the Rewards. The idea that I can use it as a way to make my opponents dance to my wishes only makes me love it even more!