The Middle Kingdom is at the Center of all things. Barbarian chiefs far and wide look upon our civilization with greed in their hearts for we have magic, stability, and perfection.
T'ien Ch'i is a human nation of the ancient era. This is a time where many nations have powerful magical beings, giants, and demons as recruitable units. That's a bad place for a human nation to be, because fundamentally your people are small and squishy. They aren't protected by illusions or clouds of fire, and in the Early Era, that is a weakness. Flavor wise, Early Era T'ien Ch'i is based largely on China's Eastern Zhou Dynasty and takes its name from Confucius' famous book The Spring and Autumn Annals. If you don't have time to read ancient Chinese literature, I suggest watching a bunch of China's equivalent of the sword & sandals epic: the wandering monk genre. If you get Asian television in our area you can watch some episodes of Return of the Condor Heroes, or if not you can get the basic idea by watching Curse of the Golden Flower or any of the other "sad Chinese girls" movies by Yimou Zhang that are available at your local video store.
T'ien Ch'i has access to every kind of magic other than Blood in pretty much every combination you can imagine. And they have it all in a conveniently small number of different magicians – making their site searching second to none. That's good, because for a variety of reasons the T'ien Ch'i appetite for gems of every type is insatiable. Expect to take in and spend more gems than empires slightly larger than yourself. Expect to comb through your available spells almost evry turn and to gain a greater understanding of the spell list in doing so. T'ien Ch'i has a steep learning curve, but playing it will make you a better Dominions player.
Understanding the T'ien Ch'i Army
The army of T'ien Ch'i, like its people and its emperor, is a well-rounded whole. Each part is balanced against the center and capable of acting on its own or together as part of the whole.
Before we delve deeply into T'ien Ch'i's Pretender Choices and Magical Powers of its mages, we should talk about the armed forces of T'ien Ch'i. Like most national troops they are substantially superior to neutral barbarians (though not as game defining as the magma men of Abyssia or the vanir of Helheim).
There are two major choices when recruiting Footmen; weapons, and armor. Your footmen can be equipped with a Glaive (for a total of 20 damage at an attack skill of 9) or a Spear and a Tower Shield (for a total of only 13 damage with a skill of 10). Against heavily armored opponents or highly resilient opponents such as Giants, the Glaive's damage output is necessary. Against archers, the Tower Shield's protection is necessary. Most likely, you will want a mixture of the two armaments, and try to get the shield bearers to take the brunt of attacks as often as possible. The footmen can also be given Full Scale Mail (Protection 14) or Full Leather (Protection 8). While the Leather Armor leaves your footmen with more Defense Skill, the actual tradeoff is that Footmen in Leather have an overland movement of 2 instead of 1 and cost 11 resources instead of 20. The heavily armored footmen are much more survivable, and will be used when you don't need them to move through plains in your own territory and you can afford the 20 resources per unit. Practically speaking, a thin line of Heavy armored Footmen with Tower Shields are going to be on the front of every battle you can arrange this for, with the other Footmen taking up central positions and being used as reinforcements.
You also have Footmen armed with Pikes (Damage 15, Attack Skill 11) and armored in Full Leather (Armor 8). Like other Footmen they have very nice helmets, and they have a longer weapon with a higher attack skill than the other Footmen. Nevertheless, they are pretty weak against most enemies when compared to the other Footmen. They only cost 9 Resources, however, so you'll end up using them a lot if you take Sloth or have spare resources leftover from recruiting other units.
The T'ien Ch'i Archer is one of the best archers in the game, and will form the mainstay of your army straight through to the end of the game. 12 Resources is not an inconsiderable amount to spend on an archer, but coming as it does with a Composite Bow for only 10 gold is the best deal on an archer that is available in the Early Era except for Sauromatia (sorry, the Androphag Archer is much better than the T'ien Ch'i Archer). And you have access to Wind Guide and Flaming Arrows to a much greater degree than Sauromatia does. Other contenders for best archer for the price are the Bakemono Archer (Shortbow, 8 Gold, 4 Resources), and the Bandar Archers (Longbows for 20 gold) – putting the T'ien Ch'i Composite Bowman in extremely exclusive company.
Extremely expensive (50 gold, 45 Resources), the Noble is a trampling unit with a substantial protection (17 on the body, 20 on the face). A decent defense, a high protection, and a size 4 trample make this unit your answer to weak units and glamour units alike. High Morale (13), and a decent combat speed (16) make this unit good enough even in normal battles (especially for "hold and attack archers" or rear attack missions), but it really shines when faced with Vanir or Bakemono. Also of note is the fact that it has an overland movement of 3, making it extremely good for reinforcements if you can get a Move 3 leader (which you can as both the Noble Commander and the Celestial Master have a Move of 3)
Most light cavalry in Dominions is weak sauce, good primarily for putting in units of 1 at the front of major armies to draw fire and confuse enemies. T'ien Ch'i Horsemen is a whole different deal. At a cost of only 20 gold, they are cheaper than most light cavalry in the game, and as they are armed with Light Lances and Composite Bows they are also substantially better. The Horseman can be used as a lancer or as an archer, and its overland Move of 3 allows it to rapidly reinforce forward armies in either capacity. Standard strategies include placing them in front of the other archers on "Fire" orders in order to give a nasty lance surprise to the first enemy that breaks through to the archers; placing them on "Hold and Attack Rear" which will cause them to fire their bows at rear targets, and placing them on "Attack" orders to get their devastating charge attack early in the battle. A versatile unit that is relatively inexpensive in Resources, expect to use these guys a lot. Their gold cost of 20 and Precision of 8 prevent them from replacing the Archer outright, but they make a great supplement in any of a number of combat roles.
Warrior of the Five Elements
Cheap for a sacred unit and reasonably effective at their job, the Warrior of the Five Elements is a damned joke compared to a real blessed rush unit like a Jaguar Warrior or Helhirding. Frankly, Warriors of the Five Elements are not worth getting yourself a super bless for an early rush. You can do it, it's just that Mictlan will make fun of you for trying. What they are, is a pretty decent unit for the cost who is resistant to most forms of late game attack. Indeed, since they already have 50% resistance to every element, it is trivial for a late game T'ien Ch'i to increase their resistance to 100% as part of a plan to confront a group that uses one or another element exclusively, or as part of your own strategy to burn/poison/whatever the battlefield. Despite their capitol only status, the Warriors of the Five Elements are powerful units mostly in the late game. Against most early opposition, you'd rather have heavy footmen with tower shields.
Commanders and Magic of T'ien Ch'i
The Magic of most nations comes from its commanders, and while T'ien Ch'i sidesteps that provision in the late game, early in life this is spot on.
T'ien Ch'i can make scouts. They will even do so occasionally. There's nothing much to say here.
He's a leader of troops who costs 80 gold. That sounds like a lot, but he actually leads twice as many troops as an ordinary commander (30 gold), so you're really only spending 20 gold for the fact that he's fast (overland move of 3, combat move of 16), well armored (protection 17), trampling, and high morale (14). Of limited use as a trampling thug, the Noble Commander is primarily there to move troops around and he's really good at it. He can lead large numbers of footmen around, and if his army is exclusively Horsemen and Nobles he can travel up to three provinces through your empire.
Master of the Dead
With Death 1, Holy 1, and no randoms, the Master of the Dead is not impressive. He is however the only unit in your empire which is guaranteed to have 1 Death, and he is big enough to cast Dark Knowledge. He will do that. Every single turn. Later in the game you will use these guys to move your undead around (30 at a time), and to use Wrath of the Ancestors in combat. These guys can be produced in any castle, and will be found in battle quite frequently. Like all T'ien Ch'i Magicians, he is sacred.
Master of the Way
Masters of the Way don't have to eat. This doesn't mean anything, as the rest of the army does. Every Master of the Way has W1 and H1, and they have exactly one random chosen from NWSA. For 100 gold, that's pretty sad. Mostly these men will stand around and research (since they are sacred, they cost half upkeep – it's not as bad a deal as it looks). There isn't a heck of a lot that you can do with AWH, so a good chunk of your MotW are going to be pretty weak. However, these guys do have a number of talents that can be put to good use:
WS: Not only can these guys be made into Communion Slaves, they can also cast Celestial Rivers – a national spell that makes big sacred magic beings for T'ien Ch'i.
WW: With 2 picks of Water, you can actually throw deadly evocations like Ice Strike.
AW: A single pick of air is enough to make Phantasmal Warriors or Orb Lightning on the battlefield.
WN: With enough equipment (Construction 6), this guy can make Clams of Pearls. Also with different equipment he can cast Foul Vapors. As a nature caster he can make simple conjurations like Sea Dogs and Vine Men and cast weak early attack spells like Vine Arrow. Don't forget that he makes supply.
That's all your non-capitol-only magic, and it's weak (even if it is versatile). Fortunately, you've got the capitol-only guys as well:
Master of the Five Elements
Every one of them has a two picks of either AEFNW and one pick in all four other paths. Like all T'ien Ch'i Magicians, he is a weak priest as well. He searches for six kinds of magic site, skipping only Astral, Death, and Blood. And Death is going to be found by Dark Knowledge and Astral by Arcane Probing, so you should get these guys out and searching all of your provinces extremely early. On the battlefield, every Master of the Five Elements has access to powerful evocations and useful enchantments. They also research well enough and are gifted forgers.
These are the premier battle-mages in T'ien Ch'i. Each one has a pile of Water with a splash of Fire – that's enough to Acid Bolt yourself to some serious carnage early in the game. The base stats are WWFASHH, but they have 2.1 random picks off a weird list. 1.1 pick is off a WAS list, and the other pick is off a FEDN list, so they don't normally get 2 bonus picks in the same spell category. Still, W3, A2, and S2 are pretty common (with W4 being a distant possibility). There's some ritual potential here, and the Celestial Masters can cast just about all of the national celestial summonings (only one in four can make the Celestial Servants, but those are the worst ones).
Holy Options in T'ien Ch'i
We learn by reflection, and in this way we are noble and wise.
You don't have any Holy 3 characters in T'ien Ch'i. Therefore, you don't get anything for making one of your many sacred magicians into a Prophet. For that reason, you should probably Prophetize a Noble. He's tough, he's fast, and he doesn't have a bunch of magic that you want him to be using instead of casting Smite over and over again.
Your bless is an interesting choice, as you have a lot of sacreds in T'ien Ch'i. Every single magician is blessable, as are the Warriors of the Five Elements. You also get access to no less than 5 national summons that are all blessable (the ancestral spirits are sacred, but a bug in the program makes them unblessable because they are undead). If you pick up any national heroes, those are sacred as well. While they are great in number, they don't really respond well to the classic W9/F9 treatment because most of them are little old men and/or come out later in the game when flame weapons isn't impressive.
Late game blesses that will continue to impress you are Astral, Earth, and Nature blesses. Magic Resistance becomes more and more important as the game goes on, reinvigoration is about the only thing that sacred mages care about, and regeneration prevents battle afflictions (if you have a nature bless, you can halt diseases with a Shroud of the Battle Saint).
Casting Big Spells
Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.
The world is in many ways defined by the powerful enchantments that cover the globe in the later parts of the game. As T'ien Ch'i, the gems you will find in your pocket are unknowable before the game begins, so it is important to stay flexible. Flexibility allows you to turn any large pile of gems and research into an advantage. So it behooves you to have a strategy for using Conjurations and Constructions to produce powerful casters of very flavor so that these possibilities can be reality. You don't want to empower, because that's inefficient and not transferable (T'ien Ch'i uses its mages in battle a lot, so it loses them frequently).
You need Astral magic on your God. I'm not even kidding. You search for every Astral site there is, but you just don't make better than an Astral 2 on anybody. You need the later astral stuff. At the very minimum you'll want Astral 4 so that you can wear a Starshine skullcap and make a Ring of Sorcery and then a Ring of Wizardry. You could theoretically get an Astral 3 on a Celestial Master, which combined with a Crystal Coin could get you where you want to be – but only 1.1% of Celestial Masters have that, so you want the Astral on your god.
You normally only get 2 Air, which is harsh. What you're going to want to do is make a Ring of Wizardry and a Staff of Elemental Power and give it to either a Celestial Master (35%) or Master of the Five Elements (20%) who has Air 2. That's enough to make a Winged Helmet and a Bag of Winds, which gets you to Air 6, which is more than enough to make an Air Queen, hand her all hat equipment and make Fata Morgana if that's what you want to do.
You find yourself with only 1 Death on a Master of the Dead, but that's OK. Hand him a Ring of Sorcery and he can make a Skull Staff. With the Skull Staff he can summon a Mound Fiend. A Mound Fiend with a Ring of Sorcery can make a Skull Face and that's also more than enough to make a Lich. A Lich with a Skull Face, a Skull Staff, and a Ring of Sorcery can make Tartarians. Alternately, you can give a Ring of Wizardry to a Celestial Master with Death and have him cast Streams from Hades and have all the magic cast by her.
2 Earth comes fairly frequently on a Master of the Five Elements (20%). That's enough for Boots which will power him up to Eartth 3. That'll get you a Troll Court, and a Troll King with a pair of boots and a Staff of Elemental Mastery can make the Forge of the Ancients.
You get a lot of Fire 2s out of Celestial Masters (25%) and Masters of the Five Elements (20%). But most importantly, 1 in 4 Celestial Masters has DF, which allows them to make Flaming Skulls. A Fire 2 with a Ring of Wizardry and a Flaming Skull can make a Flame Helmet. Thereafter, any Celestial Master who holds the Ring of Wizardry, the Flame Helmet, the Flaming Skull and a Water Cloak can make a Staff of Elemental Mastery. That's important, because you want a lot of those. Also of course, anyone who holds all that stuff can cast the Eternal Pyre if you have a lot of Fire Gems.
Two Nature comes on Masters of the Five Elements with some frequency (20%), and makes a Thistle Mace cold. That and a Ring of Sorcery is enough to make an Ivy King, and if he holds that stuff he can make a Treelord Staff. Hand him the staff and your rings and you can cast Enchanted Forest or Gift of Nature's Bounty.
You build kind of a lot of Water 3 Casters. They can make their own Robes of the Sea and eventually Water Bracelets. That's a simple Water 5 you've got there, which is plenty and more than plenty to cast Thetis' Blessing.
Reasonable God Choices
Go before the people with your example, and be laborious in their affairs.
A number of scales make sense as T'ien Ch'i. Their late-game diversity makes Growth a very valid option. Their efficient and gold-cheap high resource army makes Productivity a very valid option. Order is unnecessary, but justifies itself. T'ien Ch'i has some of the best Heroes in the game and Luck looks pretty reasonable as well. And of course, if there was ever a nation who justified Magic scales it is T'ien Ch'i. So any direction you wanted to go with T'ien Ch'i's scales is something that I understand. There really isn't a "must have" set of scales for T'ien Ch'i. Turmoil, Sloth, and Misfortune are all potential sources of points if you need them.
But honestly, you don't really have to scavenge many points, because you don't need to worry yourself over much over a giant early-game bless. You are not a bless rush nation, and setting your dominion on fire is entirely unnecessary. Unlike many nations, the T'ien Ch'i special gods seem to be actually designed to fill holes in T'ien Ch'i's life.
He does Air and Earth for a reasonable price. You can have a Dominion of 7, an Awake God, and Air and Earth 4 – with enough points left over for positive 2 scales. That'll leave you hurting on the Astral, but the fact that you can just hiccup your Air Boosters and Staff of Elemental Power as soon as the appropriate tech comes online is a good tradeoff.
The Jade Emperor almost demands a modest Misfortune or Turmoil domain, as he personally stops 33% of all bad events. Furthermore, since he begins play with Air and Astral he is very cheap to purchase an Air and Astral of 4, which neatly takes care of several schools of magic that are otherwise difficult to get into.
Lady of Fortune
With an Astral of 6 and a Water of 4, a Lady of Fortune can begin in play with a Dominion of 6 and a net +2 positive scales. She generates positive events and covers most of your bases, and can take armies under water. A good mix of early game and late game powers, the Lady of Fortune fills in nicely. Shame about the lack of air, but you can cover for that anyway.
Lord of Plenty
A titan for only 75 base points, and he comes with Astral and Earth, the big Buddha is a strong pretender contender. A modest Earth/Astral Blessing can come with a decent dominion and a good research start-up.
But it's not just the nation specific gods that are good for a T'ien Ch'i position, many old favorites still shine in this environment:
Sure, you set your dominion on fire a bit. But when your god is generating over 20 research points a turn, you'll have some Evocation when you attack your first province on Turn 2. That's not bad.
Cheaper than any Titan if you want at least 3 schools of magic, this god is weak enough that you probably want to start him out of play and keep him around to speed up your late game gem expenditure. One of the cheapest chassis available for a strong dominion with several different paths of magic, the Master Lich is worth considering for every nation. And T'ien Ch'i is no exception. His mere existence means that you won't have to muck about with intermediary summoning to get your Death Economy going – and his Pathcost of 20 means that he can do the same for your Astral and Nature economy if need be.
You can afford a Dormant Astral 6 Statue with a Dominion 8, Order 3,Growth 3, and Magic 3. Just a head's up.