You read that right! This week, in celebration of Gladiator coming back to Arena as part of an all-access special event, we're doing a spotlight on the format with Esper Reanimator. Now you may be asking yourself...
What is Gladiator?
Gladiator is a 100-card singleton, best-of-three format with no sideboard that utilizes the entirety of the Magic Arena card pool. If it's in the client and isn't part of a very small ban list of Oko, Thief of Crowns, Teferi, Time Raveler, Nexus of Fate, Field of the Dead, or Natural Order, it's fair game. That means the digital-only Alchemy cards are also in the format. For rebalanced cards, only the true-to-paper version is legal.
Back to that entire Arena card pool bit—in addition to all Standard-legal expansions since Ixalan, cards added through Jumpstart, Historic and Explorer Anthology expansions, and any other special sets are available. Even though New Phyrexia isn't on Arena, we still get access to splashy bombs like Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. Cards like Faithless Looting and Channel that are banned in other formats are fully available to abuse too.
For those interested in playing outside of the all-access event, pickup games and tournaments are organized through the official Gladiator Discord server.
Why is Gladiator?
As I mentioned above, the format is singleton, so no more than one copy of any non-basic land card unless otherwise specified such as Rat Colony. Just like with Commander, this gives a lot of self-expression in deckbuilding, but has a more competitive lean and doesn't start with free extra cards. It's you, me, and a seven-card starting hand the way Richard Garfield intended.
Due to the inherent randomness of a 100-card format, players often have to get creative and dig deeper to find a critical mass of certain effects, allowing for a more novel gameplay experience. For example, a BW deck would of course first go for Godless Shrine, followed by Concealed Courtyard, Isolated Chapel, and Shattered Sanctum for its mana base. In Pioneer, a few copies of each of these and a few basics would be plenty. For Gladiator, we're digging deeper with options like Thriving Heath and Thriving Moor.
This extends to spells as well. For a Mono-Black aggro deck, expect to see Tenacious Underdog, but also Skyclave Shade, Razorlash Transmogrant, Scrapheap Scrounger, all the way down to the sixth or seventh best version of that particular effect so that the deck achieves the necessary density to make its game plan work. Restriction breeds creativity, and letting obscure cards take the spotlight is a refreshing take on the game. Notably, it also keeps overpowered cards from being too prevalent, allowing the ban list to stay relatively small.
Who is Gladiator?
(I'm really stretching this bit to make these subheaders work.) There are tons of viable archetypes in the Gladiator format and plenty of room to brew. From aggro, to combo, to control, the world is your oyster.
This time around, I'm playing Esper Reanimator, a deck that I've been enjoying for a few years and that keeps getting some nice upgrades. Cards like Tainted Indulgence, The Cruelty of Gix, and Phyrexian Fleshgorger keep adding consistency and flexibility while contributing to a necessary critical mass of payoffs and enablers.
In addition to the A+B game plan of reanimating a big creature from the graveyard, much of the rest of the deck is dedicated to interaction. Thoughtseize, Swords to Plowshares, and Counterspell are all multi-format all-stars that are available in the format and have a home in this deck. They're accompanied by board wipes like Extinction Event and midrange threats such as Junji, the Midnight Sky that can bridge the gap between stopping the opponent and hard-casting reanimator targets when the combo doesn't quite line up.
I'm a big fan of this archetype marrying a control-style deck answering anything and everything the opponent tries to do with its own proactive combo. It threads the needle between sitting back behind countermagic and closing out games in short order, giving the opponent little recourse and determining the pace of the game.
I do want to emphasize that the format isn't a bunch of control slugfests. Archetypes like Red Deck Wins, Death and Taxes, Bant Blink, and the Thassa's Oracle-Tainted Pact combo are all alive and well, as are a plethora of other options. Find what resonates most with you and play it!
I cannot understate my love for the Gladiator format. I hope this all-access event introduces more people to the format. Getting a permanent queue on Arena would be a very welcome alternative to traditional tournament Constructed formats and Historic Brawl, which hasn't been my favorite as of late. Let me know your new Gladiator brews on Twitter at @AdamECohen or on Hive at @AdamCohen. As always, leave a comment and suggest a new deck for me to play. It might just end up on the next Adam Plays Magic. Catch you next time!