A History of the Gladiator LeagueBot

Written by J. David Smith
Published on 25 July 2020

A bit over one week ago—July 16th—we launched the inaugural Gladiator league using my LeagueBot. Despite some initial difficulties with JMP quirks, Arena exports multiple cards with the same set code and collector number. For example: and Goblin Oriflamme and Rhox Faithmender both get exported as 1 ..... (JMP) 130. the launch was fairly smooth. In this short time we've had 251 league completions, Only decks with the full 5 matches played are counted here. which has been very gratifying for me. You see: while the LeagueBot may appear to have sprung into existence fully formed, this couldn't be further from the truth.

I want to take this opportunity to walk through the history of the bot. Its history is closely tied to my own involvement in singleton formats on Arena, and so at the same time I'm going to cover some Gladiator pre-history.

In the Beginning...

The first Singleton event I can find record of on MTG Arena took place from September 27th–October 1st, 2018. Cards in Format: 1,006 The event offered a play queue for 60-card no-banlist singleton games. Wizards would repeat this event later that year from December 3rd–7th and again two months later from February 14th–18th, 2019. This is where my involvement begins.

I created a Discord server for Singleton shortly after Valentine's Day event ended and posted about it on the MagicArena subreddit. At this point in time, I stuck with the 60-card format due to the small number of cards in the format. Cards in Format: 1,526 Given that Petitioners and Rats were the two most popular (and most annoying) decks in each Singleton event, I might have also banned them to try to encourage people to give it a chance—but I honestly don't remember.

This discord never really took off, and while I will never know for sure why that happened, I do know one reason. This is also the point at which I built the precursor to the LeagueBot we all know and love: the Sharktocrab Bot. I'd intended to build it out into a LeagueBot inspired by Penny Dreadful, but ended up being overrun with work shortly after and never quite got around to it. At this point in time, I had initial plans for how to record matches in a safe manner, but hadn't figured out some details like deck submission (would we use the rising star AetherHub? the old guard Goldfish?). However, I also made a fatal mistake with this bot.

Those of you that've used Discord for a while have probably seen the "React to get speaking permissions" gatekeeping bots. That is one of the few features I got implemented into Sharktocrab—and it worked! Except I would occasionally get DMs about how it didn't—DMs that I could never reproduce. Later, I realized the likely culprit was my use of Heroku's free hosting—which, though free, comes with the caveat that your app may be put to sleep if there is no activity. While I can't know for sure, I believe that this is the cause of those unreproducible bug reports.

Enter: Arena Highlander

Between my own lack of time and the obvious failure to start, the server rotted away for the better part of the year. Then, on September 28th, 2019 corporat created the Historic Canadian Highlander discord, and advertised it on reddit a short time later. Cards in Format: 2,038
Petitioners and Rats were both on the initial points list, effectively banning those decks for much the same reason that I had previously.
The first tournament ran that weekend, a round-robin with 6 participants that was won by Oogablast with a 4-1. Tournament Results:
4-1 Oogablast
3-2 Roseface
3-2 Jesse
2-3 Corporat
2-3 Bertxav
1-4 Yuin

Within two weeks, a pool of regulars was already forming. You'll likely recognize some of them, like Roseface and GoblinMatron, from Gladiator discord. Wheeler joined fairly early on, but wasn't an active participant in the format til much later. I joined about 3 weeks into the format, and won a tournament for the first (and only) time playing Abzan Field of the Mythics. The deck wasn't actually very good, but it and tournament results around this time highlight the problems with 100-card singleton with a small card pool: at some point you just need good stuff to put in your deck. Midrange was clearly very good, with a couple of aggro decks with good top-ends (Gruul, Boros, Mono-Black) also putting up results.

Anyway, this core of players formed the bulk of tournament participation over the next few months. Participation ebbed and flowed, but never really took off. To corporat's credit, he was actively trying to generate & maintain interest in the format with both weekly tournaments and periodic posts about said tournaments on reddit. While the weekly tournaments certainly helped maintain interest, there was a chronic lack of pick-up games during the week that, in my opinion, were both a cause for and caused by the limited number of players.

The Wheeler Effect and the Birth of the LeagueBot

All that changed on April 19th, 2020, Cards in format 2,622 when Wheeler streamed Arena Highlander (then called Historic Highlander) for the first time. The format exploded. The discord gained hundreds of users basically overnight. At the same time, I had just graduated, COVID-19 had frustrated my job search, and I suddenly found myself with copious free time. With the sudden influx of players, I decided to finally finish what I'd started more than a year prior and build the LeagueBot.

During that year, designs for the bot had been in the back of my mind with some regularity. I had mapped out the flows for match reporting, and had ideas for the registration process. Putting those designs into practice was mostly straightforward, with Discord itself giving me the ultimate assist by making uploads so seamless that I could use them for deck registration. One week later, the week-long April 2020 Test League went live—but not before the format split.

I was not involved in many of the conversations preceding the split between Arena Highlander and Gladiator, so I'll refrain from commenting on it. I will say, though, that the timing was incredibly frustrating. I began work on the bot on April 20th, and had made substantial progress on it by the time that the split happened on the 22nd. While I'd hoped that the launch of the League on the 26th would help drive continued interest in Arena Highlander, it became apparent within about a month that the bulk of the new blood had followed Wheeler to Gladiator. To his credit: there was a clear effort to accomodate the existing Arena Highlander format. For example, Gladiator tournaments were deliberately not run at the same time as the existing weekly Arena Highlander tournament, despite Saturday afternoon being an excellent time for tournaments across time zones.

From the League FAQ: an attempt to encourage Gladiator players to participate in the Arena Highlander League. Can you use your Gladiator Deck in the Arena Highlander League? Yes!

Transitioning to Gladiator

Around this time, I took a break. I found work, played other games, and let my frustration with the failure of the league and with Magic in general WAR–IKO was an awful time to be playing Magic. subside. I popped into the Gladiator discord in early June when there was discussion of starting a league, but aside from that was largely uninvolved.

Then, on July 7th I (finally) reached out to Roseface about moving the LeagueBot over to Gladiator. The only thing that really needed changing was a few names that read "Arena Highlander" and the domain name it used. Two days later, I heard back: 👍. The plan was to launch on July 16th to coincide with the release of Jumpstart—giving just over a week to switch things over. Cards in Format: 3,109

This was plenty of time, and I had the opportunity to add in a couple of new features like the API. Aside from the previously mentioned issues with Jumpstart card exports, launch went smoothly. Seeing the Gladiator community jump into the league and play more than I'd ever expected was…nice. I'll take it.

Postscript

You might have noticed that throughout this I've tracked the number of cards in the format. In just over a year, the number of cards on Arena has doubled. With remastered Pioneer sets, it may well double again by next year.

I think this is relevant to understanding the evolution of the greater Arena-singleton format. For instance: prior to ELD, a 100-card singleton deck would include anywhere from 3-5% of all cards on Arena, 60/2,038 is about 3%, 100/2,038 is about 5%. A typically Gladiator deck has around 60 non-lands, and 3c decks may legitimately play 90+ nonbasic cards. which means you would often dip into borderline (or even outright) draft chaff for playables, especially in mono-colored decks. This means that your card quality was relatively low compared to now (when one plays 2-3% of all cards), and led to an abundance of 2-3c Goodstuff decks along with legitimate concerns that the consistency of Petitioners / Rats decks could be problematic despite the obviously low card quality. I'm glad those days are behind us, and am looking forward to seeing how the increasing card pool lets the format further diversify.