Idle speculation accomplishes nothing. Speculation is just untested opinion, and is therefore invalid. With that in mind, I've decided to test my opinions about Gideon of the Trials and find out if my initial impressions actually hold weight. I don't have enough data to make any definitive conclusion, but my testing should shine some light on Gideon's actual potential.
To recap, last week I came down rather hard on Gideon. His hype train was a little out of control, much like his preorder price. I wanted to remind everyone that his emblem was not the game changer it appeared against combo decks. I stand by this sentiment; planeswalkers are easier to remove than you might think in Modern. However, I speculated that Gideon of the Trials might be a reasonable Ad Nauseam card. The emblem is nearly Angel's Grace, the key to the combo. On that basis, Gideon could replace the current extra-Grace card, Phyrexian Unlife—the emblem even plays well with Pact of Negation. Several Ad Naus players have since informed me that this is not strictly true and that Unlife is more than just an extra Grace, making Gideon less attractive than I might think. I'm not an Ad Naus player, I don't know the truth. So I decided to find out. I took a stock Ad Nauseam list, tested it against Burn and Death's Shadow Jund, then took out the Unlifes for Gideon, and played the games again.
In this experiment, my chosen lists were MTG Goldfish sample decks (for simplicity's sake). When I was choosing lists for the Banned Cards series, I did the aggregation and averaging myself. I won't commit that kind of time to this project. Fortunately, and unlike Jacekai, Ad Naus is effectively "solved" at this point and Burn decks are standardizing, meaning that these lists are fairly "real world." The Death's Shadow deck is far from a typical list, but a lot of that comes from the deck's newness.
Since I was testing using Ad Nauseam, I choose Burn and DSJ on the basis that they are good and bad matchups respectively. I wanted one of each to get a feel for how Gideon affects things. The fact that I expected Gideon to have an impact on the games was another factor; I wasn't going to test matchups where I expected no impact. For reference, here are the decklists:
I only played single games, so the list didn't need a sideboard. For the test deck, I just replaced each Unlife with a Gideon of the Trials.
Traditional Jund was always hard for Ad Naus because of all the discard spells, and Death's Shadow plays even more. Its clock is also usually faster, so I expected this to be even worse for the combo deck.
Burn is a good matchup for Ad Naus and for combo in general. It's not only slower, but it can't interact. Angel's Grace and Phyrexian Unlife in particular are crushing, acting as un-Skullcrackable life gain. I was told this matchup in particular justified Unlife, but determining if that was true was the whole point of this experiment.
This was a very simple test. I played game one with both Ad Naus decks against the test decks. Remember, this was a proof of concept rather than a full-on study. I'm still too sane for another one of those. Give it a month before my sanity slips and I start another banned card test.
What made this test different is that I controlled the starting hands. With only time for a single game with each deck I wanted to ensure that I actually tested the right cards. Therefore, I purposefully began with either Gideon or Unlife in my hand, then drew six cards. As this hand was keepable, I used it for both games against a given deck. I used the same seven-card hand each game for the test decks. The rest of the deck was randomized normally. Burn and DSJ were going to fetch turn one anyway, and it would have been too much work to put the decks back into the exact same order each time. Things ultimately work out this way, as knowledge is a tremendous weapon for a combo deck and I would have adjusted my play accordingly.
The plan with Gideon was to plus him as long as the opponent had a threat on the board and to only emblem if I had Ad Nauseam, though that never came up.
Starting Hand vs Burn: Ad Nauseam
Starting Hand vs DSJ: Ad Nauseam
Starting Hand: DSJ
Liliana the Last Hope
Starting Hand: Burn
The play/draw was determined by coin flip and was the same for both games. Ad Naus lost the flips and was on the draw for the whole test.
Ad Nauseam did not win a game. This was not really the point of the test, but I was still expecting to get at least one against Burn. Alas, it wasn't to be. Being on the draw was certainly a problem, but my draws against Burn were uninspiring, and I also never drew Ad Nauseam (I hear it's a pretty important card in this deck). My draws were okay against DSJ, but I never had both Ad Nauseam and enough mana to cast it. In the Unlife game it was Thoughtseized after my Prism was K-Commanded, while in the Gideon game, DSJ drew a lot of Inquisitions into Liliana and I only had four mana sources when I died.
However, there is still useful data to be gleaned from this test, since I managed to resolve Gideon/Unlife in each of these games. Therefore, the measure of their effectiveness is not the end result, but how they impacted my opponent's play and the turn that I died. The results are interesting.
Burn vs Unlife
Died: Turn 6
I thought I curved out fairly well with a scryland for a Plains into Prism, then Unlife and Serum Visions. Had I found Ad Nauseam off Visions or a Temple I would have won. As it was, my opponent dealt a whopping 14 damage on turn three thanks to two resolving Rift Bolts and Atarka's Command. On turn four, I went to zero, and then to two poison thanks to Boros Charm and Goblin Guide. Had Burn drawn a spell instead of a land turn five, I would have died, but I was afforded an extra meaningless turn. I can see why Ad Naus players like Unlife in this matchup; most of the time it will gain you over than 10 life. The math this time just favored my opponent. Interestingly, I drew an Angel's Grace on my last turn but it doesn't actually prevent damage so I would have died during cleanup had I tried to save myself.
Burn vs Gideon
Died: Turn 7
My curve was the same up until turn four. I emblemed Gideon since I was at four life and dead to Charm, and my opponent put me to zero, then attacked Gideon for two. He drew another Swiftspear and attacked Gideon twice before he found a Rift Bolt to kill Gideon. In other words, Gideon prevented nine damage, which is almost comparable to Unlife, but I also gained an extra draw step because my opponent had to kill Gideon rather than just deal poison damage. That was an extra chance to win the game. I wasn't going to draw the Ad Naus for another three turns, but Gideon did give me an additional out. Furthermore, had my opponent tried to put me to exactly lethal before Gideon died, Angel's Grace would have bought me another turn. At minimum, it changed how my burn opponent had to play the game.
DSJ vs Unlife
Died: Turn 10
This was kind of excruciating. Inquisition took my Bloom in both games and subsequent discard took the non-Unlife combo pieces. It took my opponent forever to find a threat, since they didn't have delirium until turn six. Instead, they used a series of Baubles, cast a few Thoughtseizes to strip my hand of the combo, and had the opportunity to emblem Liliana, the Last Hope. I gained just one turn from Unlife thanks to a Zombie assault, led by Tarmogoyf. Twice. I was very aware of Abrupt Decay killing me, though it didn't show up. I can confirm that this is a terrible matchup.
DSJ vs Gideon
Died: Turn 8
My opponent's first four plays were two Inquisitons, Traverse, and a Thoughtseize. Variance. However, I had the mana to play the Gideon I topdecked turn four, and used him to get Liliana off the board. My opponent finally got delirium on turn five and found Death's Shadow, then drew another two thanks to Bauble, and killed Gideon and me. The Shadows were 8/8s, so Gideon definitely bought extra time, but I lacked the mana to win. I hadn't considered Gideon's use against other planeswalkers, but I think this might be his actual purpose in the deck. Liliana of the Veil is a beating and Ad Naus doesn't have a maindeck way to answer her. I don't know that it necessarily needs one, but if it does, I think Gideon does an excellent job. Being weak to Abrupt Decay and blockers is annoying, but Death's Shadow doesn't always have threats early, and Decay is seeing less and less play these days. It is definitely worth exploring.
Gideon bought me a turn in my good matchup, but lost me the bad matchup more quickly. A lot of this comes down to variance (those Death's Shadows were very timely) and losing the die roll. While I do not believe that being on the draw affected the Unlife games meaningfully, it definitely was a factor in the Gideon game against Burn. Had I been on the play, Gideon would have prevented no less than five damage from Swiftspear that turn, and would likely have been Charmed that turn as well. This would have paid additional dividends down the road, since the lost prowess triggers represented damage my opponent would not get back.
Based on my data and how the matchups played out, I believe Gideon provides a small improvement over Unlife. On the play against decks like Burn, he has a higher impact than Unlife, though on the draw he's no better, and possibly somewhat worse. Against slower decks, Gideon is a little more vulnerable than Unlife, but has the benefit of answering planeswalkers if needed. The improvement may be marginal, but I think it may be worth trying a 2/2 split between Gideon and Unlife. It won't affect the core problem of the deck (finding Ad Naus), but Gideon might add enough versatility to steal a few extra games. If you are a better Ad Naus player than I am and have tried Gideon already, I would love to hear about your experience.