The big news is that I finished second in the Escalation League. As I'd hoped, the Empire got a lot more competitive once we got up in the 2k point range. I won the last few games I played and even the bonus Storm of Magic game at the end of the schedule.
So what did I learn about the army through all this? Let's take the list I ended with.
Templar Grand Master of the Knights of the White Wolf, General
Sword 0f Might, Talisman of Preservation, Crown of Command
Armor of Meteoric Iron, Dawnstone
Level 4 Wizard, Lore of Light
Rod of Power, Holy Relic
Warrior Priest (of Ulric!)
Dawn Armor, Iron Curse Icon
35 Halberdiers, std&mus
35 Halberdiers, std&mus
14 Knights of the White Wolf, std&mus
28 Greatswords, std&mus
5 Outriders, mus
5 Outriders, mus
1 Hellblaster Volley Gun
At first, I felt like the Knights were very lackluster until I added the Templar to the unit. Before, they seemed to die more than I expected them to, kill less than I expected them to, and break and run waaaay more often than I expected them to. With the Templar, they are Immune to Psychology, his Crown of Command makes them Stubborn, his few early attacks helps keep more of the Knights alive longer, and now they make a great tarpit/bunker/flanker.
Second, the Lore of Light compliments the Empire well. Timewarp and Speed of Light turns Greatswords and great weapon Knights into serious killing machines. I experimented with Life early on, but since I switched to Light I've had no reason to look elsewhere. It also fits the fluff of the army pretty well since I'm going for a 'Cult of Ulric' theme. In terms of gear, the Rod of Power is awesome and became a no-brainer. There were magic phases where between it and the Warrior Priest I has just as many dispell dice as my opponent had to cast.
The Warrior Priest was really good to have, and I think every Empire army should have at least one. I put mine in the Greatswords just to give them Hatred.
The Captain is, as far as I can tell, the only character type that can be your BSB. I would much rather have a Warrior Priest in that role for fluff reasons, but a BSB is just too useful to do without.
I found Halberdier buses to be preferable to seven wide frontage or hoard formation, but Greatswords were better seven wide since they are already Stubborn. The seven ranks worth of Halberdiers did a good job of holding steady for one or two turns against pretty much anything thanks to steadfast, but usually only won when they were up against smaller units they could wear down, less capable troops like Goblins or Zombies, or fighting in conjunction with Knights or Greatswords.
The Outriders were a late addition, but I found them vastly superior to the little detachments of Free Company I was initially trying to use as redirectors. Vanguard move, then park and shoot until your have to feign flight, rinse and repeat. Dark Riders were one of my favorite Dark Elf units in seventh edition, and Outriders have reminded my of what I liked about fast cavalry in the first place. A fast, shooty unit that is just threatening / annoying enough that you have to commit something in your army to getting rid of them or they will screw up all your plans.
Five artillery pieces is too many for a normal sized game. Mortars are great against ranked units and cannons are great against monsters, so I feel like you need one of each. The problem lies in monstrous infantry or heavily armored cavalry or infantry, like Knights or Choas Warriors. The cannon picks them off too slowly and the mortars don't have high enough strength to punch through enough of them. The rocket battery and volley gun are supposed to fill this gap, and of the two I opted to try the volley gun. The rocket battery seemed a little too random to me in terms of whether it would even hit or not. The volley gun, on the other hand, performed well in a point-defense sort of role. I would deploy it centrally in between two infantry blocks and shoot at the scariest thing coming across the table. It paid for itself easily against Ogres, Beastmen, and Brettonians. I never really felt like I missed having an Engineer, so I can't really see the point in dropping another character to include one. I'll probably drop either one or two pieces, probably a mortar since monsters are harder to deal with than rank-and-file or a mortal and cannon.
All in all, with Empire you really have to get used to, and be okay with, watching a lot of your guys die. This is a pretty significant morale and game enjoyment lesson to learn. After playing an elite army I had gotten used to hitting before my opponent and killing a lot of them before they got the chance to swing back. The Empire in many cases either attacks simultaneously or after the opponent and loses a lot more models. But, that's just how the army works and you can absolutely win games even when your opponent wracks up a higher raw body count. Once I really got that into my head, I began enjoying the games more.
After this experience, I can see myself playing Empire enough that it's actually worth doing some conversions and painting them.