The Dredge Primer

I sat down, shuffled up, presented, cut, and drew for round 1 at GP Vancouver. My opening hand was: Verdant Catacombs, Windswept Heath, Plains, Faithless Looting, Golgari Grave-Troll, Unburial Rites, Simian Spirit Guide. It looked like I might go off on turn 3, so I kept. Turn 1 I cracked a fetch for Stomping Ground, cast Faithless Looting drawing Simian Spirit Guide and Iona, Shield of Emeria. I smiled and discarded the Angel and Unburial Rites. Turn 2 I played a Plains, exiled both of the Ape Spirits for RR, and reanimated Iona. Things were off to a good start, and I hadn’t even started dredging…

Dan Hanson, Zaiem Beg, and I chose to bring a new Modern weapon to Grand Prix Vancouver: a graveyard-based midrange-combo deck that uses red discard-draw spells and the dredge mechanic as an engine to find Unburial Rites and giant hosers.

Deck List

The Cards

4 Life from the Loam, 4 Stinkweed Imp, 4 Golgari Grave-Troll: The two deepest dredge cards and one that lets us cheat on our land count. Golgari Grave-Troll, fresh off the ban list, is essentially a draw-6 in our graveyard, which is great when digging for all of our sweet flashback cards and graveyard effects. The deck also sports 19-20 creatures, which is enough to make it a huge beater when the time comes for it.

Stinkweed Imp can make a fine turn-3 play to buy time against various kinds of aggro, dominates Spirit tokens, and almost dredges as well as the Troll. With Life from the Loam the deck can safely dredge even at two lands, because eventually it can find a Loam to construct its mana base with. Loam has a lot of synergy with some cards we’ll talk about later, and solves the problem of flipping your few “real” lands into the graveyard.

4 Faithless Looting, 4 Tormenting Voice, 4 Wild Guess: The challenge to dredge decks of the past has been getting the engine started. Needing a Hedron Crab to survive, or not stating until turn 3 after an Ideas Unbound resolves has been dicey or slow. Faithless Looting has been a great way to start dredging on turn 2, but Khans of Tarkir gave us the gift of consistency, reliably using red sorceries to get our dredgers into the graveyard. Crucially, Wild Guess and Tormenting Voice require discard as part of the casting cost, so that discard can’t be countered. Combined with Simian Spirit Guide, it is even possible to strart dredging on turn 1!

3 Unburial Rites, 2 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, 2 Iona, Shield of Emeria: Once the engine got going, the next question was what to do with it. We tried Scavenging Ooze/Griselbrand/Borborygmos combo, we tried Bloodghast/Tymaret/Bridge from Below aggro, and many even worse ideas. The problem was that they took up a lot of deck slots, and either you couldn’t win if you didn’t have 7 life to spare, or they were too slow for the format. Then we looked at the Gifts Ungiven decks to see what they were cheating into play and saw that Iona and Elesh Norn both were single cards that would win most matchups by themselves.

4 Vengeful Pharaoh, 2 Gnaw to the Bone: This deck started as a copy of Raphael Levy’s Loam-Pox deck from PT Fate Reforged. He mentioned Pharaoh + Golgari Brownscale as a strategy that was impossible for Zoo to beat, which got my attention. Pharaoh is fascinating as a 0-mana kill spell that works from the graveyard at the cost of some life. Using this card to control creatures meant that a) counterspell decks can’t protect their threats and b) we could use all of our mana to dredge harder or Loam for lands. Dredging Pharaoh off the top of the deck rather than drawing it is also a fantastic synergy that gets around the “drawback” of the card. Golgari Brownscale didn’t seem like enough life gain, but Gnaw to the Bone in a deck so good at filling the graveyard and with so many creatures meant it often gained 10-16 life, crushing the hopes of pretty much any fair deck depending on combat to win.

3 Simian Spirit Guide: This is the card that allows the deck to go from being an essentially fair turn-4 combo to a possibly degenerate turn-2 or 3 combo. With strong hands it can be saved to pay for a turn-3 Unburial Rites, and with weak hands it is usually used to Wild Guess, Tormenting Voice, or Life from the Loam on turn 1 to start dredging. Though, it really has a myriad of uses, making mana use efficient on any number of turns, fixing for red, providing life and Troll power from the graveyard, or even just being a Grey Ogre.

1 Raven’s Crime: A concession to the existence of control decks. In early testing I found that control decks had enough Path to Exiles, counters, and Wraths for every threat I could present. Meanwhile, they couldn’t win because of my Pharaoh + Gnaw defense. Eventually they would win when I decked. They were always exchanging resources at a favorable mana rate to them, so we could never get ahead. Raven’s Crime allowed us to turn this script around, making every Life from the Loam good for 3 resources, which could be traded for 1 mana apiece. Now they had to counter every Loam, sometimes at a mana loss, or quickly have their hand shredded. The win rate went from 0% vs. control to about the 55/60 chance it wasn’t too close to the bottom of the deck to draw and use it in time.

4 Verdant Catacombs, 2 Windswept Heath, 4 Arid Mesa, 2 Bloodstained Mire, 1 Plains, 1 Swamp, 1 Mountain, 1 Forest, 1 Stomping Ground, 1 Blood Crypt, 1 Godless Shrine: The land the deck wants most is Stomping Ground, since it can cast a dredge enabler on turn 1 and then cast Life from the Loam on turn 2 or 3. It followed that in many games Godless Shrine was desirable to hit the other colors. The four basics are concessions to both Blood Moon and minimizing damage vs. aggressive decks. Blood Crypt was the 7th land because it best supported the RR of Wild Guess, the BBB of Vengeful Pharaoh (sometimes you cast it!), and the implied BBB of Raven’s Crime. The mix of fetchlands finds all basics equally while minimizing the number of Windswept Heaths, which are incapable of finding RR with the rest of the land mix.

The Sideboard

3 Ancient Grudge, 3 Ray of Revelation, 3 Conflagrate: We wanted flexible spells that could be cast from the graveyard. Grudge and Ray are both stellar spells against cards of their specific type, and awesome for us at just G to cast. (Though we can cast them both in fair mode, as we must sometimes do when fighting hate.) Conflagrate is an all-star in this deck, since putting cards in the graveyard is an advantage, and often it’s an efficient Pyroclasm that lets us develop our game at the same time.

3 Terastodon: There are a variety of decks (Tron, Abzan, Scapeshift, and Amulet Bloom) where an Iona or an Elesh Norn isn’t always what you want. All of these decks hate having their lands destroyed, or are effectively raced by destroying your own lands and putting 18 power down. Almost all of these decks put you in a racing situation, so we need a lot of copies of The ‘Don to pair with Unburial Rites.

1 Forest: We wanted another basic vs. Blood Moon, and another green source vs. Splinter Twin so we could hold up GG for Ray of Revelation while casting Loam and Raven’s Crime. (GG because they can EOT tap a G source.)

1 Raven’s Crime: For increased percentage against control decks, since having the only copy too far toward the bottom of the deck is a loss.

1 Simian Spirit Guide: This always came in game 2 when we figured out what parts of our deck we needed and which could be cut for the specific opponent. In many matchups speed is everything, and this is where Dredge gets its speed from.

The Basics of Dredge

• The best hands have 2-3 lands, a Simian Spirit Guide, a Faithless Looting, a Tormenting Voice, and a good dredge outlet (Troll or Imp). They can often Loot turn 1, Voice turn 2, and Unburial Rites pitching Guide on turn 3 for something sweet. Of course, every hand isn’t perfect, and as long as you have a dredge card, a dredge enabler (including Loam which can both enable itself and sometimes overfill your hand to force a discard), and either two lands or fetch + Loam + Guide you’ve got something playable. The deck mulligans very well since raw card count isn’t nearly as important as what your graveyard is doing, and I’ve won plenty of games on 4 or 5 cards with land, land, dredge card, enabler + whatever. Mulligan aggressively.

• It’s very important to plan what’s going to happen on your upcoming turns, since you will often have to cast Life from the Loam at least once to get to 4 mana for Unburial Rites. Deciding whether to do this on turn 2 (to let you turn-3 flashback Faithless Looting, Gnaw, or Stinkweed Imp) or to wait until turn 3 (leaving 1 mana available, which is only really good with tapped shockland, a Faithless Looting in hand, or a Spirit Guide and another 2-mana play) is an important skill to develop with the deck.

• Against most decks you just want to dredge hard to power up your Trolls and Gnaws, find your flashback spells, or to dig for the Loam + lands you need to curve out. In these cases, you’ll probably want to stop when there are 15 cards left in your deck to give yourself enough time to finish things off.

In some cases you’ll have everything you need in hand or in the ‘yard, in which case it can be best to stop dredging in order to avoid milling a key land you might need to fetch in order to increase your mana count to cast an intended spell.

The main exception to this is when playing against control, where you want to dredge to your first Raven’s Crime, and then just do Life-from-the-Loam-sized dredges (unless they are more aggro-control, in which case you might need to set up a couple Pharaohs + Gnaw first). The other exception is vs. Relic of Progenitus or Scavenging Ooze, in which case you need to balance what’s in your hand vs. what’s in your graveyard.

Sideboard Guide

Abzan

You are a heavy favorite game 1, winning pretty much every game they don’t have Scavenging Ooze. With Iona I recommend choosing white, as many Abzan decks no longer play Liliana and so Path is their only way to get rid of her. Moreover, if they kill her with a black spell, she is available to reanimate again.

The only other element that can be tricky is planning vs. LilianaWhen in doubt, cast Stinkweed Imp on turn 3 so that you can reanimate something on turn 4 and not be worried about an edict. If Liliana is on the board, plan your turns so that you can play two threats like turn 6 Imp + Imp, or turn 7 Imp + reanimate. Be careful with Elesh Norn, as you may need her to clear tokens or pump Imps so they are lethal to the planeswalker. Unless they forget about Vengeful Pharaoh and attack, or you have enough mana to bait them into a bad play, there’s pretty much no way to beat an active Ooze. (Though an Elesh Norn on the table locks it out.)

Out

In

Abzan is a slow deck, so the speed from Simian Spirit Guide is less important. Our goal in games 2 and 3 is either to destroy all their G sources with Terastodon so they can’t Ooze, or get a Conflagrate in hand with a discard spell so that if they play Ooze we can discard the Conflagrate, keep priority, and burn it for our hand size. In general I like our post-board matchup, but live in fear of the Ooze. Keep in mind they have a lot of dead cards in game 1, and so might board in seemingly odd cards like Fulminator Mage.

Splinter Twin

Unfortunately our 2nd-worst matchup. Our Pharaohs make us good against fair attacks, and our combo makes us good against decks without counters. Splinter Twin is neither of these. We win some tiny amount of game 1s by going off earlier than expected when they tap out for sorceries (will happen less and less as our deck becomes known), or when we go off and they just don’t have the counter.

If possible, keeping and casting an Unburial Rites from hand is better than from the ‘yard since most of their counters are Remands, and that lets you keep hammering away to get Iona or Elesh into play. Remember to fetch a basic Forest early to protect yourself from Blood Moon!

Out

In

We win a lot of game 2s because they don’t know what we’re up to. The idea is to dredge into a Ray of Revelation, and then hold up GG or an untapped fetch that gets G (to play around EOT tap our land). We then treat them like a control deck, and use Life from the Loam + Raven’s Crime to strip their hand, and when finally it is empty lock them out of blue with Iona. (If we are holding up Ray, we don’t need to fear their red spells.)

Game 3 is dicier because a smart player will realize they should go all in on protecting their combo, and can fight through multiple Rays. It’s a race to see whose engine gets it done first.

Hyper-Aggression (Burn, Infect, Affinity)

Dredge is very strong against all three. In these matches we’d like to see an early Pharaoh either stop their early attacks, or force them to trade their creatures for a little damage/poison. Against Infect we’d like to Elesh Norn on turn 3 to lock their creatures, or Iona naming green is okay.

Versus Burn a turn-3 Gnaw is often game, though give them opportunities to tap out so you don’t get Skullcracked.

Against all three decks a turn-3 Stinkweed Imp is a reasonable play, but Faithless Looting to set up a turn-4 combo if you didn’t have it on turn 3 is probably best since you can’t play fair and live too long against any of these decks.

Affinity

Out

In

The match is about breaking their synergies. Gnaw is okay, but just a Fog, whereas Conflagrate and Grudge set them massively back. The hardest things to beat are Inkmoth or Etched Champion with Ravager counters.

Burn

Out

In

Eidolon of the Great Revel and Skullcrack are their best cards. Conflagrate gives us an answer to Eidolon that takes no damage (CMC will always be 5+ for x=2), and lets us clear their most menacing starts.

Infect

Out

In

We really want to combo, so we leave 3 Unburials and 3 targets in. They can go off faster, but we are also quite fast and more consistent. In general, Conflagrate every chance you get, since on any turn you could just be dead. Conflagrating for toughness +2 is often right against a tapped out player due to Mutagenic Growth. Be mindful of open mana.

Control

Dredge to Life from the Loam + Raven’s Crime and use it repeatedly. This is an easy match.

Out

In

And 2 of Ancient Grudge/Conflagrate/Ray of Revelation.

They put us under little pressure, so we can slow down and stock our graveyard with what we need. I put in Conflagrate in the dark, but each deck is different and requires some thought. We can also cut another 1-2 Pharaohs when they don’t have many threats or 1-2 Elesh Norn if they aren’t making little guys, and bring in other cards that seem useful for the match.

Aggro-Control

Dredge a little harder than you do against control to find a couple Pharaohs and power up Gnaw. Resolving a Gnaw will be key to surviving the pressure they put us under (especially if they have Young Pyromancer) so try your best not to discard them so you can cast them twice, or to bait their mana with other effects so you can resolve some life gain. Otherwise, shredding their hand with Raven’s Crime and then resolving a fattie is the plan. You’re a favorite game 1.

Out

In

Speed is valuable here, so I’ve tried to keep in the SSGs that I could. Conflagrate helps us manage threats that go wide, and Raven’s Crime will clear the way for Elesh Norn to keep their threats away for good. Their builds can vary to be more controlling or have more single threats, in which case Iona is often better than Elesh Norn. You remain quite ahead post-board, unless they have graveyard hate.

Tron

You pretty much can’t win. 4x maindeck Relic is hard to begin with, and you don’t have good answers to Karn. Sure, maybe you land an Iona and an Elesh Norn and somehow race, but don’t bet on it.

Out

In

Post-board it’s a straight race to see if you can Terastodon out their lands before they do something you can’t answer. You’re pretty fast and consistent, so it’s not the worst. If they get a Relic in play, dredge conservatively until you find a threat or Grudge that will force them to pop it, and then start again. Sometimes you’ll snake games when they leave an exposed Expedition Map and you get to Grudge it.

Storm

A race to cast Iona, who locks them out on red.

Out

In

We need a 3rd tutor target to consistently race them, and Terastodon for their lands will do if we can’t find Iona. Ray of Revelation for Ascension and Conflagrate for Electromancer helps slow down their best draws. Storm is a powerful deck, but I like our odds here.

Going Forward

Before GP Vancouver we thought Splinter Twin would be about 8% of the metagame, Tron would be 3%, and Scapeshift would be 2%. We were willing to accept those bad matchups to have great matchups elsewhere. Unfortunately, Twin turned out to be double our expectation, meaning that our deck needs to be tweaked some to be tournament viable. The deck is also extremely vulnerable to graveyard hate, but for the time being there is virtually none in Modern aside from Scavenging Ooze in Abzan and the odd 1-of in people’s sideboards that they have as insurance.

If I were registering for the tournament again, my main deck would be -2 Wild Guess, +1 Raven’s Crime, +1 Simian Spirit Guide, and possibly -1 Mountain, +1 Boseiju and/or -1 Swamp, +1 Overgrown Tomb. These hedges generally make the deck better vs. countermagic, and the mana base weaker against damage-based decks and stronger against blue decks.

I would modify the sideboard -1 Forest, -1 Raven’s Crime (now main), -1 Ancient Grudge, for +3 Boseiju. These turn the Scapeshift matchup favorable, and allow us to either force Iona or Terastodon through vs. Twin so they can’t combo us. I would move the 4th SSG main since we almost always want the speed, and have +1 Wild Guess in the SB for games we’re racing. If I put 1 Boseiju in the main, I would have the Mountain in the SB to give +2 life per game vs. aggro.

This deck has a powerful engine, and I’m not 100% sure reanimation is the right thing to do with it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see other decks using the dredge engine to accomplish their goals. I look forward to seeing what y’all do with it.

If you have any questions, I’ll try to read the comments here or reply to questions over Twitter.

Until next time,

Alexander West
@TolariaWest

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