A First Timer’s Great Big Gladiator Games Tournament Report

Hello, I’m sure you’re probably wondering who I am. After all, my handle seemed to be everywhere during LoadingReadyRun’s Great Big Gladiator Games. I myself was wondering if that was bias on their behalf, as I am a moderator for LoadingReadyRun’s Discord. I also stream, usually whatever strikes my fancy, more often than not Magic. I volunteer at my local children’s hospital, as well as fund raise for them through Extra Life. Autism is my superpower, as a wise man once said.

The Great Big Gladiator Games have come and gone, and I was glad to have been a part of it. While I didn’t make it into the top eight, I was proud to make it into the top 32 in a field of 180+ participants. It was my first foray into the competitive side of Gladiator, and my first major Magic tournament since I was disqualified from Extra Life United 2020 (that is a controversy I will not be diving into here). It had been only a few days after the tournament had come and gone that the idea popped into my head to write a report of my experiences playing. So, to the best of my recollection, here’s how it all shook out for me.

What I Brought: Gruul Aggro

View this deck on Scryfall

Gruul Aggro

Creatures (45)
Enchantments (1)
Planeswalkers (2)
Sorceries (9)
Instants (9)
Artifacts (2)
Lands (32)

I wouldn’t call my list for the GBGG particularly creative, and it honestly doesn’t do much justice to the Johnny half of the Spike/Johnny archetype I consider myself. It was, however, the first deck I built when I started playing the format. I built the first iteration with just a few wildcards and a bunch of stuff I had laying around my account that I’ve had since open beta. A big motivator I had in building the original version was just trying to go against the idea that even Aggro decks in Gladiator reached for five-drops. Imagine my surprise when I realized that Collected Company was on Arena.

Looking through my list now, I’m kind of eager to replace Llanowar Elves with the new Longtusk Stalker that was spoiled for the new Jumpstart: Historic Horizons, as the old mana dork has never really impressed me when I played any Aggro list. Meanwhile, while Targ Nar didn’t get a lot of chances to pop up during the tournament itself, my testing prior to the event had it as quite the nice addition to the archetype. Obviously, AFR brought a pair of creature-lands as well as Ranger Class. Domri, Anarch of Bolas was definitely a pet card, as I would run that in my WAR-era Gruul Aggro in Standard with some success, but it did help pick off some creatures now and then.

Round 1: Bye

Who knew how prophetic [REDACTED] would be?

Let me set the scene for you. This was the first tournament of this scale that LoadingReadyRun had ever run. As such, there were bound to be technical difficulties. So, we were told that the first round pairings would be posted at around noon my time. If my setup hadn’t clued you in, we did not get round pairings promptly at that time. In fact, they came about a half-hour later. So, imagine me, jazzed up for round one, waiting for a half-hour to get my hands on my opponent… and then I’m told I don’t have one due to dumb luck and an odd number of participants.

Naturally, the first thing I did was post the above in the Gladiator Discord. But then I was actually a little flummoxed what to do with the rest of that time. I already crammed a fast food lunch down my throat in preparation for an eight-hour slog. Coverage hadn’t started yet, because they pre-recorded the matches before the commentators saw them. My cat was fed and cared for. And since this was all done over Arena, there was no one in the vicinity to do the usual browse for trades (cat excluded, of course, as he’d probably just view them all as shiny chew toys).

Thankfully, time’s arrow neither reverses nor stands still.

Round 2: Feature Match vs. catmoozi on Mono-Red

For your enjoyment, this VOD has been timestamped to my feature match.

Again, chalking things up to technical difficulties, I learned that I was going to be in the feature match area before I even learned what my round pairings were. If you’re wondering why I considered the possibility of LoadingReadyRun holding a bias towards me, the fact that I was picked to have my match broadcasted was a reason. However, I would learn after the tournament that my opponent for this round is apparently a big innovator for Gladiator Mono-Red, so it’s probably more likely that a big name in the community was being highlighted instead of me. Regardless, I had the joy of streaming my end to Graham Stark, who would later get the produced footage to the booth.

I feel like the commentary team had a decent bead on game one, as I felt like the game came down to me racing my opponent. Eventually, I had the mana to wipe away my opponent’s board with Shatterskull Smashing, and that led to me slamming in with my biggest threats to close game one. Game two had me stuck on two lands for many turns, unable to double spell or turn on Blizzard Brawl. At one point, I topdecked a Once Upon a Time, and I tried to use that to find a Snow-Covered Forest so I could clear away a Battle Cry Goblin with Blizzard Brawl. I instead found a Mountain, and was just forced to eat a bunch of damage from my opponent’s board.

Game three was the most interesting game of the match. I thought I was in a good position after dropping a turn two Ranger Class to their Hall Monitor. Then came Burning-Tree Emissary into Battle Cry Goblin and I realized that I was no longer the beatdown (if you haven’t read Mike Flores’s “Who’s the Beatdown?” I highly recommend it). It was time to stop racing and start playing Rope-A-Dope a la Muhammad Ali. I just had to block and trade as much as I could. In the end, it came down to a pair of two-for-ones: the first was a Shatterskull Smashing for 3 wiping his board (and using my Burning-Tree Emissary to develop mine while I was at it), and the second was just a Thundering Rebuke on a Cartouche of Zeal-enchanted Soul-Scar Mage. Not to say that my opponent topdecking a land at an inopportune time didn’t help, because it did, but I think I was able to get a good bit of value to pull ahead.

Record: 2-0

Round 3: vs. Black Mold (Golgari Aggro)

I think it speaks to the diversity of the format that in spite of Sultai and Stompy being the most prevalent decks, the one I faced the most copies of was Black Mold. And I faced a whole two copies of it. I find it to be an intriguing deck, as it takes the beef of Stompy and adds some disruptive elements via discard and hard removal. That said, I found the matchup to be a coin-flip, often dictated by who goes first or if I can burn out a mana-dork that they’re planning on using to drop a slab of beef like Rotting Regisaur.

I apologize for not having any specifics on this game in particular, since it has been a week as of time of writing since the GBGG. I vaguely remember misplaying in game two, but managing to just out-race my opponent in game three. It’s funny how when a misplay doesn’t ultimately cause catastrophic failure that I tend to memory hole it. I wouldn’t call that a correct mindset to be in, but I recognize I don’t always have the correct mindset in a lot of how I work.

Record: 3-0

Round 4: vs. 5-Color Control

If we want to talk about catastrophic misplays, this one somehow still haunts me. I’ve played this match-up before against the exact same pilot in friendly games on the Discord, and typically have had a pretty good record against him in those friendly games. So, I went in feeling very confident, knowing that I can just play a low curve, go under my opponent, and come out on top.

In game one, I had an opening hand of two Mountains, a Cragcrown Pathway, Lovestruck Beast, Conspiracy Theorist, and two other cards that I can’t recall. It felt like a snap keep with an easy 1-2-3 curve of Heart’s Desire into Theorist into Lovestruck Beast. So, here I am, flicking the lands in my hand, waiting for my opponent to decide if they’re going to keep, and then I accidentally play a Mountain turn 1 and autopass.

I was immediately mentally thrown off by what I had just done, and had to figure out how to course-correct. It turns out that they had an answer for my Theorist, and that playing Heart’s Desire and Lovestruck Beast on turn 4 wasn’t impactful enough against him. As it happens, I eventually just ran out of gas and got buried in card advantage that game.

I seem to remember having to mulligan down to five in game two. From there, I proceeded to not draw too many castable spells, and just rolled over and died.

Rough beats for a matchup I’ve won so many times in friendly matches.

Record: 3-1

Round 5: vs. Golgari Midrange

I have only had Tony for a few months, but if anything happened to him…

For some reason, I feel like this was a deck that was given a spotlight in a feature match. And yet, I couldn’t tell you a single card that was in the deck after the fact. I wish I was allowed to broadcast my end of my matches for the tournament, even on a delay. My assumption is that I must’ve been blown out once by some sweeper my opponent was packing, or I was unable to draw an answer to Elder Gargaroth, as that card tends to just steamroll me if I can’t find a way to swing past it. Still, I recorded going 2-1 in this match, so congrats to my opponent for taking one off me. Most of my wins ended that way, to be honest.

Honestly, I remember this match more for my cat crying for his dinner. You tell me that you could say no to this cute face? I can’t. And I knew it was too early for his dinner. What do you want me to say? “Quiet, Tony. Daddy’s gaming!” He wouldn’t understand that.

Record: 4-1

Round 6: vs. Dracosinus on Sultai Cereal

Hey, that’s a name that made it to the top eight! Gee, imagine if I was going to be the one to ruin his run, huh? Honestly, if I had played game three differently, there’s a possibility I could’ve. Game three had me on edge from the moment they used their turn three Solve the Equation to grab Tainted Pact. That screamed “I have Thassa’s Oracle!” I expected to lose on turn four, and was surprised when I didn’t. Given that I had used Robber of the Rich in game two to rip a Finale of Devastation from his deck, I should’ve realized that he had that, instead. It was the same combo, but two turns slower. Had I realized that, I would not have played Hazoret the Fervent when I was nowhere near emptying my hand. I probably would’ve pumped my Kargan Intimidator and played a smaller threat. If his lines were the same after that decision point, I would’ve killed him instead of dying to the combo with my opponent at two. But that’s a big if, right? Who’s to say he didn’t have other lines instead of slamming down an Elder Gargaroth that I had a Purphoros’s Intervention to answer?

Record: 4-2

Round 7: vs. Mono-Black Aggro

Realistically, knowing that there’d only be two 6-2s in the top eight if I was lucky and knowing that I only got where I was through a round one bye, I probably should’ve done the math and realized that I was out of the top eight. But emotions were running high, I was beating myself up for my misplays, and I just wanted to prove that I was capable.

I’ve played against a fair bit of Mono-Black Aggro in Historic before, and what always impressed me about that deck was its ability to run four copies each of Dread Wanderer, Gutterbones, Scrapheap Scrounger, and Skyclave Shade. That’s a lot of recursive threats, and a lot of additional copies that would not be available in Gladiator. Indeed, the Gladiator variant didn’t have the redundancy that its Historic counterpart had. Often, its creatures were less threatening than any of the green beef I brought to the table, though the occasional bit of deathtouch did prove frustrating. Game two was at least interesting, as they went turn one lifelinker (Banehound? Vampire of the Dire Moon?) into turn three Demonic Embrace. This ate a Stomp from my Bonecrusher Giant, but he tried again with Valentin, Dean of the Vein since Demonic Embrace has a built-in recursion method. At that point, however, I had just built out too much of a board for them to actually be able to race. They realized that too late, and died (as they told me after the match) with a grip full of removal. It was my only recorded 2-0 win of the tournament.

The moral of that story? Read Mike Flores’s “Who’s The Beatdown?.” Seriously. It still holds up as a piece of Magic strategy content.

Record: 5-2

Round 8: vs. Black Mold

Oof. I previously had said that this matchup was a coin flip, and this time the coin did not flip in my direction. There wasn’t much I could do with my opponent on the draw and being able to go turn one Llanowar Elves, turn two Rotting Regisaur, turn three Rhonas the Indomitable, turn four Mutate Sawtusk Demolisher onto Rhonas. I was unable to bolt the bird(1) with my opening draw and stop that avalanche of beef, so the best I could do was kill Regisaur by blocking with a Garruk’s Harbinger and finishing with a Bonecrusher Giant’s Stomp. Sadly, that didn’t do enough to deal with Rhonas, especially when he ends up accompanied by Questing Beast.

Ouch.

I had beaten myself up over misplays, but this was a game three that I was just going to lose no matter how I played. And I went in thinking this was my possible win-and-in.

Final Record: 5-3

The Post-Tournament

With my matches all said and done, I heated up my much-deserved dinner (a leftover chicken leg from my meal plan service with plenty of rice and green beans on the side) and watched the rest of the coverage. It had been eight hours since I clogged my arteries with a large Baconator combo, and I just wanted to kick back and be happy that I came out with a positive record. Now that I was out of the Arena itself, I could more fully enjoy the diverse meta I had taken part in. Fan-run formats, when they are allowed to grow and prosper, can show us sides of Magic that are far different from what we normally get to partake in.

If I can be completely honest with you, I had actually been on a year-long Magic hiatus prior to the announcement of the Great Big Gladiator Games. During that year of COVID-19 lockdown, having only Arena as an outlet to play Magic just made the game no longer any fun to me. Something about LoadingReadyRun announcing the Great Big Gladiator Games sparked a need to conquer a format I had never touched before. And while my record was far from what could be considered “conquering,” my time playing Gladiator reminded me why I loved Magic in the first place. So if something about current Magic has you in the doldrums, maybe Gladiator is that nice bit of spice that will keep it fresh for you.


(1) An expression referring to casting Lightning Bolt on Birds of Paradise, slang for removing a mana dor