There’s never been a better time for Dredge in Modern. For quite some time, Dredge flew under the radar as a quality deck that didn’t get the attention it deserved. Expert pilots would consistently put up good results, but it never reached the point of being considered one of the best decks in the format. Then Guilds of Ravnica saw the printing of Creeping Chill, which provided a significant notch up in power level, as well as changing a major archetype (Burn) from a bad matchup into something you’re happy to be paired against. Finally, the announcement of the London Mulligan test has the potential to benefit Dredge more than any other major deck in the format.
For reference, here’s what a Modern Dredge deck looks like:
Joseba Garcia, 3rd place at Grand Prix Bilbao
2 Blood Crypt 1 Bloodstained Mire 4 Copperline Gorge 1 Dakmor Salvage 1 Gemstone Mine 1 Ghost Quarter 1 Mana Confluence 2 Stomping Ground 4 Wooded Foothills 2 Mountain 4 Bloodghast 1 Golgari Thug 4 Narcomoeba 4 Prized Amalgam 4 Stinkweed Imp 4 Cathartic Reunion 3 Conflagrate 4 Creeping Chill 1 Darkblast 4 Faithless Looting 4 Life from the Loam 4 Shriekhorn Sideboard 3 Ancient Grudge 2 Engineered Explosives 1 Leyline of the Void 3 Lightning Axe 4 Nature's Claim 1 Ravenous Trap 1 Vengeful Pharaoh
And for anyone not familiar with the news of the London Mulligan, here’s how it works (taken from the official WotC announcement): “When you mulligan for the Nth time, you draw seven cards, then put N cards on the bottom of your library in any order.”
Note that so far this is only announced as a test to be used specifically for Mythic Championship London. But if history is any indicator, it’s possible that this rule could be adopted for all levels of play, so long as the feedback from the players is positive.
The reason that this would benefit Dredge is two-fold. First, it would increase your ability to search for key cards while mulliganing (say, Faithless Looting and a dredge card), because you get to see more cards on a mulligan before you decide whether or not you’re keeping. Second, Dredge doesn’t mind being down cards, since it plays primarily out of the graveyard instead of out of its hand. These things combined mean that Dredge can potentially mulligan three or four times to look for key cards, and still have a great chance to win many of those games.
To make a long story short, Dredge is here to stay. Beating ‘em and joining ‘em are both valid options, but ignoring ‘em and hoping they go away is not. So let’s discuss how to beat ‘em!
How Much Graveyard Hate Should You Play?
There are two ways to interpret this question. The first is, How much hate do you need in order to be favored against Dredge? My rough answer would be 4-8 pieces of graveyard hate in your sideboard, depending on your archetype, and which hate cards you pick.
If your deck is fast enough, then you might be able to win some games in the absence of graveyard hate. Certainly, if you’re playing something in the category of Infect or Amulet Titan, then a good draw with one piece of graveyard hate ought to allow you to win the race.
If your deck is slow and grindy, then an opponent who puts wave after wave of creatures into play from their graveyard is not exactly whom you want to face. I’ve struggled against Dredge playing Jund with three Scavenging Ooze in the main deck and additional pieces of hate in my sideboard.
The second way to interpret the question is, What’s the optimal way to build my sideboard in a world where Dredge is popular? This version of the question is far more important but in my experience, it’s the version that’s asked far less often.
Being “favored” in a matchup feels nice. It’s a reasonable benchmark to look for. But there’s absolutely nothing unique about the number 51% where your tournament equity is concerned. Increasing your chances to win a matchup from 25% to 35% is great! Improving from 65% to 75% is great! Improving from 49% to 51% is marginal, so why get hung up on it?
My point is, if you have access to high-impact cards for a certain matchup, then play with them! If you don’t have access to high-impact cards for a matchup, then maybe you shouldn’t work too hard to put a band-aid on the problem.
Take a look at this deck, and in particular the sideboard:
4 Misty Rainforest 4 Scalding Tarn 4 Arid Mesa 2 Temple Garden 2 Stomping Ground 1 Sacred Foundry 1 Hallowed Fountain 1 Steam Vents 1 Treetop Village 1 Forest 1 Plains 1 Island 4 Noble Hierarch 4 Tarmogoyf 4 Knight of the Reliquary 4 Baneslayer Angel 4 Wild Nacatl 4 Lightning Bolt 4 Path to Exile 3 Lightning Helix 4 Bant Charm 2 Umezawa's Jitte Sideboard 4 Meddling Mage 4 Negate 4 Ravenous Trap 3 Tormod's Crypt
Why, you might ask, am I featuring a ten-year-old deck list from a format that no longer even exists? How, you might also ask, did I even find it?
Ten years later, I still know the exact tournament (Worlds 2009) and feature match (round 18 against All-In-Red) where I can look to dig up this deck list. The reason I’ve remembered it for all these years is because it taught me such a clear and important lesson about deckbuilding. Saito’s sideboard features just four distinct cards—the four highest-impact sideboard cards available to him, in the largest numbers he could legally play them. His main deck is as strong as possible for “normal” matchups, and his sideboard is simply seven cards against Dredge decks and eight cards against spell-based combo decks.
Something tells me that he didn’t arrive at this sideboard by determining that he needed seven cards to be 51% against Dredge and eight cards to be 51% against Hypergenesis Combo. I believe that he arrived at this sideboard because these were the cards that most dramatically improved his equity in the important matchups. Why limp across the finish line when you can blow past it in a blaze of glory? Why get to 51% against Dredge when a few extra cards might allow you to pummel it?
So how should you build your sideboard with Dredge in mind? You should consider the options available to you, and if you find them appealing, you should play them in as many copies as you can fit.
What Graveyard Hate Should You Play?
Leyline of the Void is one of the game’s most iconic graveyard hate cards. It remains a potent and useful option that can be utilized by any deck, black mana or no. Leyline is great against Dredge, as they will not beat it if it remains on the battlefield. The London mulligan rule also boosts your ability to look for it in your opening hand. But it can be destroyed by Nature’s Claim, Assassin’s Trophy, or Maelstrom Pulse, which are cards that Dredge players are trained to sideboard in “just in case.”
The downside of Leyline is that it’s a very extreme measure. A nuclear missile is a powerful weapon, but many battles require something with more precision. At face value, Leyline is card disadvantage—you spend a card and you do not impact your opponent’s resources in a direct way. Additionally, its expensive price tag makes it a very poor card to draw into later in the game. For these reasons, Leyline is great against Dredge, but less appealing against decks that peripherally use the graveyard such as Izzet Phoenix and Death’s Shadow.
The best time to choose Leyline is when you believe that the game will be decided in the first couple of turns. When the game is compressed in speed, then your opening hand makes up a larger portion of the total number of cards you draw. This increases the power of the pre-game action and lessens the downside drawing it later. Note that having black mana does help.
Surgical Extraction is good if your deck has a lot of Snapcaster Mages. Otherwise, it’s complete trash. Luis Scott-Vargas leads a public service campaign to combat the overuse of Surgical Extraction, and I support his efforts one hundred percent. It has all the downsides of setting you back a card, but without the potency of the other graveyard hate options. You will beat Dredge if you stick a Leyline. You’ll probably still need more help even if you Surgical their Narcomoebas or Stinkweed Imps. (Which is why it’s a good pairing with Snapcaster Mage to get double-uses).
Personally, Nihil Spellbomb is my favorite graveyard hate option in Modern. A weapon of precision, if you will. Spellbomb strikes a good balance of being fast and potent (1 mana to take out a whole graveyard if you need it), but also replaces itself in a game where you need your resources. It also does its job even when the Dredge player is ready with their Nature’s Claim.
Spellbomb is low-risk because it’s cheap, it replaces itself, and it’s good in either your opening hand or off the top of your library. This makes it good against both Dredge and the less-dedicated graveyard decks (Phoenix and Shadow) alike. It’s even a fine main deck option for some decks.
I love Nihil Spellbomb in my G/B/x Midrange decks because, unlike Leyline, it allows me to keep a Thoughtseize into Dark Confidant hand and know I have lots of helpful cards that I can draw into. It usually slows down the Dredge player enough for Scavenging Ooze to become a major player. (More on Scavenging Ooze to follow.) It also has solid synergy with Tarmogoyf and Grim Flayer.
Spellbomb is closer to Surgical Extraction in potency than it is to Leyline of the Void. For this reason, you’ll often need a fast draw or a second piece of graveyard hate to really slam the door against Dredge.
Relic of Progenitus is the cousin of Nihil Spellbomb, for players without black mana. Spellbomb is generally a little better because you can crack it in an emergency even if you don’t have mana open. But Relic has some upsides also, with the tap ability coming in handy in some situations and matchups. Additionally, the fact that it exiles both graveyards changes its relationship to cards like Tarmogoyf.
With my love for Nihil Spellbomb, it’s little surprise that I’m also a fan of Relic. It’s a great option for UrzaTron, Valakut, and some control decks.
What Grafdigger’s Cage loses in potency, it makes up for in being a good draw off the top of your library. It doesn’t stop all graveyard shenanigans, but it does an awful lot. The biggest downside against Dredge is that it doesn’t stop them from progressing their game plan, dumping cards into the graveyard, and then killing it later, at their convenience. Still, Cage is one of the better options for the matchup.
Another use of Grafdigger’s Cage is against Collected Company. I could take it or leave it against a deck like Bant Spirits, which has four Collected Company as the only cards to shut down. But against Elves, which often plays Chord of Calling, or against Abzan Company, which may have Kitchen Finks, it’s as good as gold. On the flip side, Grafdigger’s Cage fails miserably against Living End, due to the unusual templating of its namesake card.
I generally view Cage as a slightly-less extreme version of Leyline of the Void. You shouldn’t bring it in against decks with only Snapcaster Mage, but in 1-2 copies, it’s still a good option for many sideboards.
Rest in Peace is the gold standard for graveyard hate. Gaining access to this card is a huge appeal of playing a non-graveyard white deck. It does everything that Leyline of the Void does, but without needing to be in your opening hand. If you cast it later, it exiles everything already in the graveyard, even if the opponent is prepared with a Nature’s Claim.
Rest in Peace obliterates both graveyards, so it will be annoying alongside your own Tarmogoyfs, Lingering Souls, or Snapcaster Mages. Still, if my deck can support it, Rest in Peace is an example of a card I would likely slam in 3-4 copies, even if I already felt fine about my Dredge matchup.
One-shot graveyard removal effects aren’t my favorite, since you can still lose games to Dredge if the rest of your draw isn’t strong enough. Still, these can be fine options for decks that are good at racing and just need that little extra oomph to get over the finish line. In particular, Tormod’s Crypt is pretty good in Hardened Scales and Affinity due to the fast clocks and presence of Mox Opal.
For the same reason, I’m not excited about Bojuka Bog. But searching it up at instant-speed with Knight of the Reliquary is very powerful, so I’d likely play one copy alongside that card. If I only had Traverse the Ulvenwald, I think I’d choose Scavenging Ooze instead.
These creatures are quite powerful, and have utility in a wide range of matchups and situations. Sadly, they will all be too slow to combat Dredge on their own. Still, when mixed with other graveyard hate options, they can be part of a well-balanced breakfast.
I didn’t cover every graveyard hate option available, but this ought to be enough information to sketch out a good sideboard for your Modern deck of choice. With Dredge and other graveyard decks being major players, these hate cards are among the most potent sideboard tools you’re going to have access to. Choose them wisely, and they’ll go a long way towards helping you win matches.