For those of you just beginning your quest for Gladiator greatness on MTG Arena, getting started and finding your footing on the blood-soaked sands might be a little tricky, or even intimidating. What makes Gladiator unique? What’s the easiest way to build a deck? What is the metagame like? How much do I need to spend? What resources are there to help me? In the coming weeks I’ll be writing a series of articles that will help increase your baseline understanding of the format, make informed decisions about card choices, and get started having fun playing the best online format Magic: The Gathering has to offer.
What Makes Gladiator Unique?
The easiest answer to this question? The card pool!
At time of writing, from Abandoned Sarcophagus to Zurzoth, Chaos Rider, there are 4,910 cards legal to use for deck construction in the format. Sure, I can hear you saying “well, yeah, that’s like, 15 more cards than I can play with in Historic, so why Is that so cool?” That leads us straight to the next point: 100 Card Singleton.
Most players are familiar with the concept of the 100-card singleton deck because Magic’s most popular format is Commander, and it is a gateway to the game for a lot of new players. Commander features plenty of amazing plays, technical wizardry in terms of both player skill and deck building, and has its own unique rules and card pool. However, Commander is not a “competitive” format. Fundamentally, it completely breaks from all the rules of Magic designed to support competition. Imagine showing up to a Standard tournament and being told to “keep the power level of your deck reasonable,” or a Legacy tournament and being told “Wasteland and Blood Moon aren’t fun so you can’t play them.” To use an illustration from outside of Magic, imagine all the teams in the World Cup, or League of Legends Worlds, sitting down before the tournament and agreeing that the primary goal of the games is to make sure that all the players are to have a good time. So, when we talk Gladiator, let’s put Commander off to the side and start talking about other “Highlander” formats.
Highlander refers to the classic 80’s time-spanning action movie series “Highlander,” and it’s catchphrase “there can only be one!” In the movie, warriors from across the globe are drawn into sword duels, decapitating their opponents and gathering their strength until in the end there is a final showdown between the two most powerful warriors. Basically, a sword fighting single-elimination tournament with ultimate power at stake, with Freddie Mercury and Queen providing coverage commentary.
This has been used as a trope for singleton decks since the 1990s, and Commander was originally referred to as Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH), until it was adopted by Wizards of the Coast as an official format in 2011. But EDH is only one of a number of singleton formats, each with its own history and goals. Gladiator shares its DNA with a number of older “competitive” singleton formats, formats that are designed explicitly with traditional Magic tournament play in mind. 7 Point Highlander (formerly known as Auslander), European Highlander, and Canadian Highlander, all have dedicated communities, storied histories, and a legacy of amazing tournament plays. Gladiator stands among these other formats as the best way to get your competitive singleton experience using the MTG Arena client.
So, let’s go back to the card pool, and look at the difference between Gladiator and Historic. Gladiator has a card pool of 4,910 cards, Historic has a card pool of 4,895. But the 15 additional banned cards in historic are only part of the story. The other part of the equation? Deck variance. Let’s look at two deck lists for the same deck archetype: Gruul Aggro.
Historic Gruul Aggro
Gladiator Gruul Aggro
The Historic Decklist is an example of a 6-0 deck from a recent MTGA tournament, while the Gladiator deck is my 4-1 list from the Kaldheim Gladiator Games tournament. Notice the difference? The historic deck contains 17 unique cards in its main deck, not counting basic lands. The gladiator deck contains 78 unique cards in its main deck. And Gladiator has no sideboard, so you don’t have the option of substituting in hate cards or meta cards for game two or three depending on your opponent’s archetype. For the mathematically inclined, that means that the Gladiator deck is using 1.5% of all available cards on Arena, while the Historic deck is using 0.3% of all the available cards. To dive even deeper, as a Gruul player, I like smashing people with my creatures. Arena currently has 1,033 red, green, or colorless creatures on it. That means that in Historic I get to play 0.9% of those creatures, but my Gladiator deck plays 4% of them. That’s huge! Do you have a beater that was a draft favorite, but can’t quite cut it in a format that relies on consistency and raw card value above all else? Now that sweet card has a home (looking at you Bolt Hound, you’re such a good dog, aren’t ya boi!).
Simply put, Gladiator lets you play with your collection. Wizards of The Coast has spent the last 5 years balancing card power levels for better limited play, which means that there are some great Common’s and Uncommon’s out there. Those cards that the Limited Resources podcast refers to as “Mythic Uncommons?” You get to play them here. Do you have a fond memory of blowing out someone with Kraul Harpooner in Guilds of Ravnica limited? That bird hating bug may be just the card you need to take down a Glorybringer or a Brazen Borrower in your next game of Gladiator. Do you remember the look on your opponent’s face when they realized they couldn’t ever attack you again without dying because you had a Revenge of Ravens at your Throne of Eldraine pre-release? And now you are wondering what would happen if you had that, a Heliod, Sun-Crowned, and an Exquisite Blood on the battlefield at the same time? Could you really dare to add Lich’s Mastery to this spicy brew?
You almost definitely shouldn’t, but you could. Because 100 card singleton means variance. And variance means you need to lean hard into your game plan, utilize some sub-optimal cards, and cherish cards that provide flexibility. It’s a brewer’s paradise, where discovering a sweet piece of tech is still a quick Scryfall search away. Where even if you are playing against a deck you think you know, you can still see your opponent whip out a draft uncommon and have that stunning realization that you are about to die to a Master Symmetrist. And it’s not just jank, you can still power out a turn four Ugin, The Spirit Dragon, or be staring down the barrel of someone activating 6 planeswalkers a turn while holding up counterspell mana, or watch someone pull of the Tainted Pact/Thassa’s Oracle when you thought you had them dead on board.
Now that you have a broad idea of what makes Gladiator such a unique, fun, and exciting format, you should be able to decide for yourself whether or not you want to try it. This article, in combination with the general format rules, should answer the “What and Why” of the 5W’s on the format. The majority of the content on the blog is going to be dedicated to answering that critical question, “How.” Stay tuned for more content, including more deck techs, analysis, and strategy from other community members, and maybe I’ll see you in the #looking-for-games channel, where you can witness me trying to get that Lich’s Mastery combo above trying to go off.