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In Development – My Zombies Rise from Seas and Bayous

My friend Dave has a unified belief about bacon and zombies – they both make everything better. Salad? Better with bacon. Action-adventure game? Better with zombies. He’s the reason I own Mall of Horror, a great, slightly tongue-in-cheek board game that is exactly right for you if you’ve ever thought, “You know, I want to play out the action from Dawn of the Dead, only with more backstabbing and betrayal.”

And yes, I did just link to the 2004 remake. I have great respect for George Romero, but the 1978 original is a painfully slow movie. Maybe I’m just jaded.

This past weekend I took my variation of Dredge into the Legacy day of the SGC Open Weekend in San Jose. Today, I’ll take a look at why I picked Dredge, how I substantially modified a part of the deck that is usually left untouched, and a few thoughts on how the deck plays.

Why Dredge?

As I touched on in last week’s Legacy overview, this is a format rife with archetypes. Also, to echo a comment Phil Yam made on twitter after my article last week, there are fewer clear best decks in Legacy than in Standard or Extended. His exact quote was “Tier 3 decks are better than they look” and this is true. Another way to consider this is that when you find yourself saying, “That deck looks terrible” in Standard, there’s a decent chance you’re right…but in Legacy, there’s a decent chance you don’t understand how the deck will operate.

So, the question this leaves generally is “Why pick any one archetype?” In my case, what led me to choose Dredge?

I’m like a Buffy character

Which is to say, “I like graveyards.”

I rocked a play set of Vengevines in the Standard Open, and the second best play of the day for me was casting a Squadron Hawk, filling my hand, and overflowing two Vengevines into the graveyard at the end of the turn. I’m not much of a griefer at heart, but the kicked look from my opponent at that play was kind of sweet.

So, I like recursion. I like the tricks that you can do where you’re moving cards into and out of your graveyard, flashing things back, returning and sacrificing creatures, and generally making a wall of zombies.

I think people generally undervalue, at least in presenting why one should play a given deck, the role of having fun. If you aren’t thrilled by how your deck operates, you’re not going to pay nearly as much attention to your games as you should.

The power of drawing your deck

In its own unconventional way, the Dredge deck draws a ton of cards. Every time you replace a draw with a “dredge N,” you effectively draw N cards. Of course, these cards must fit within particular constraints to be useful in that context – you have to be able to get some use out of having them in your graveyard. But there are a lot of cards that work just fine from your graveyard, and being able to massively outdraw your opponent is exactly as powerful as you think it should be.

Relative mana independence

Another trait that really endears Dredge to me is how well it operates in the absence of that most basic of Magic core elements, lands. Although the deck can technically operate entirely sans mana, you probably do want to have mana access to start your game plan off and to make it flow as smoothly as possible.

However, the deck still does operate quite cleanly in the absence of mana – and this matters in Legacy, where many of the major archetypes pack some form of mana denial. The most common are Wasteland and Rishadan Port, and both show up reasonably often. The ability to just ignore these after the first few turns is really nice, as it leaves the opposing deck with the tempo cost of running these lands, but with very little gain in terms of disrupting your game plan.

Ichorids mock counterspells

The final Dredge trait that we tend to ignore is how well Ichorids make their way around countermagic. This is especially relevant when you can expect to face any number of Force of Will decks at a Legacy tournament. While they try to use countermagic to disrupt your other accelerators and dredge enablers, you can simply churn out Ichorids, turn after turn, dealing 3 damage at a time until you win.

Altering Dredge

If you followed the coverage of the Legacy Open, you may have noticed that they ran a deck tech on the Dredge build I ran at the tournament. That deck tech briefly discussed some of the changes I chose to make to the deck, including one fairly significant modification that I’ve been nothing but pleased with.

So many things to leave alone

When we’re experimenting and playtesting, it’s good every so often to change things just to change things. Even though we tend to assume that deck builds that we see in tournament coverage are optimized, that’s usually far from true. We want to change our card choices to test the boundaries of what works and what doesn’t.

That said, you don’t want to actually run random changes at a tournement, so it’s good to figure out what can be left alone.

In the case of Dredge, there’s a basic framework that doesn’t need to be monkied with:

 

Even this might be pared down a little bit for personal preference. It also isn’t exactly a “functional” minimal Dredge build, as you need more enablers in there…it’s just that the choice of specific enablers varies and isn’t as locked-in as the other cards I listed.

So, that’s a decent Dredge core. What does a typical Dredge deck look like?

Here’s Caleb Neufeld’s Dredge deck, which he piloted to a top 16 finish last weekend:

Dredge (by Caleb Neufeld)

That’s a pretty good example of the species. So how and why did I move away from that?

The lands, they (continue to) burn me

In extensive playtesting of various Dredge builds over the last several months, I noticed on thing that really bothered me about all of them.

The lands.

Pretty much all contemporary Dredge decks feature a carbon copy set of lands like so:

 

(Some feature three copies of Tarnished Citadel.)

I loathe these lands.

They’ve hurt me. They’ve betrayed me at critical moments, either stabbing me in the back to bring me one point (or three!) closer to death, or simply disappearing from view. Although the deck is, as I’ve mentioned, reasonably solid in the absence of mana…it just doesn’t mesh well with my desire to win to have to abandon three-point life chunks just to get access to some colors.

I found myself wishing, really wishing, that I didn’t have to play such terrible lands just to run this deck.

And then I realized I didn’t.

The costs and consequences of changing your mana base

So, in a Dredge deck like Caleb’s, what do these rainbow lands give us access to? You may want to review the deck list for a moment before continuing.

As you can clearly see from the list, the bulk of the spells that you’re actually going to cast in a game are blue or black. Here are the spells that require other colors, from Caleb’s list:

 

Only one of these, the Tribe, is a main deck card. Everything else lives in the sideboard. While we can’t rule them out as “essential” simply based on that fact, it does mean that fundamental mechanics of the deck operate just fine without them.

Keeping that in mind, I did a quick review of sideboard options (more on that below) and decided to swap out the mana base almost completely. The only cards I kept were the Cephalid Coliseums, which are actually integral to the functioning of the deck itself. The new mana base looked like this:

 

The new mana base offers major advantages over the old one. After a potential one-time investment of a single life point, your land is “free” forever. It doesn’t deal 1 to you, or deal 3, or disappear after three uses. They just sit there, being functional lands, at least until they get Wastelanded.

That single Bayou is there to serve some of the sideboard cards I wanted to run, but note that if you prefer different cards, you can certainly run a different singleton dual. I recommend a B/x dual, where x is the color you want access to, because you’re reasonably likely to want to cast black spells in a sideboarded game.

Obviously, this cuts off access to Tireless Tribe as a dredge enabler, as well as too many of those sideboard cards. That said, I think this change is totally worth it, as the ground you buy in wins against decks that try to win by attacking your life total far exceeds the ground you lose by not having access to those specific sideboard cards.

It does, of course, make the deck more expensive. We shouldn’t let a major change in a Legacy deck go by without mentioning price.

One final note, something that came up for me once during the tournament – this mana base alteration does mean that Fish decks can islandwalk you. Just something to keep in mind.

The full list

The mana base alteration was the biggie, but I made other changes to the general Dredge structure, which I’ll comment on in a moment. Here’s the list I ran at the Open:

Underground Dredge

Time to check in on some of my card choices:

Hapless Researcher – Caleb’s deck runs a set of fifteen Dredge enablers, featuring 4 Breakthrough, 3 Careful Study, 4 Tireless Tribe, and 4 Putrid Imp. In cutting Tribe, I was left with the Imps, one more Careful Study, and the Breakthroughs. Hapless Researcher simultaneously fills this gap in enablers with an on-color card while also promoting even more explosive game ones by letting you “bridge” gaps in one of your big dredging turns. This bridging may either involve casting a Researcher, or even Dread Returning it just to sacrifice it, make more zombies, and dredge some more. I have been nothing but happy with this little guy.

Note that he’s also a killer in the Dredge mirror, where he lets you nail the opposing deck’s Bridges at will.

Flame-Kin Zealot – You have your choice of main deck “combo kills.” Caleb has gone with Iona, where the “kill” involves Dread Returning Iona and hopefully locking your opponent out of an essential color. I’m not fond of this, having tested it, because many decks can still either remove Iona or simply kill you with their remaining colors. On the other hand, the Zealot is an excellent game one win condition, as it offers an immediate, “you’re dead right now” kill – and it’s a kill that can flow around an enemy fattie or other blockers.

Angel of Despair – Where I have Angel, Caleb has Woodfall Primus. Either is probably fine, but one creature of this type is necessary, as you can otherwise randomly lose game one to a card like Elephant Grass. I prefer Angel of Despair since I like to be able to kill a creature if I need to.

Darkblast – I run one in the main deck over a second copy of Golgari Thug, as I appreciate having access to a way to kill annoying hoser creatures like Gaddock Teeg.

Over in the sideboard, you can see how the color constraints of the revised mana base have focused my sideboard choices.

I expected the specific metagame of the San Jose Open to feature many decks that would rely on artifacts as their graveyard hate. With that in mind, I ran four copies of Nature’s Claim and, after some deliberation, three more copies of Ancient Grudge, there solely to be flashed back.

The sideboard also features four copies of Unmask, a card that I feel is excellent in Dredge. Unmask is my go-to card when I’m unsure of my opponent’s sideboard plans against me. It’s also excellent against fast combo decks such as Ad Nauseam Tendrils, where it can let me knock them back a turn or so. The true sickness involves hitting your opponent with an Unmask, then following it up with multiple Cabal Therapy strikes. In my game two against an opponent playing Hypergenesis, I kept a five-card hand on the draw featuring Unmask, Cabal Therapy, some random black cards, and no lands. My opponent dropped a Leyline of the Void pre-game (boo, etc) and I started my game out by Unmasking to take their one cascade spell, revealing a hand with two copies of Iona. I topdecked a land on my second draw and Cabal Therapied for those Ionas. This gave me a tremendous amount of free time in which I was able to kill my opponent with Narcomoebas, a Stinkweed Imp, and eventually a hard-cast Ichorid.

Overall, I was very happy with this build of the deck. However, after conversation with Frankie Mach, my final round opponent in the curiously odious Dredge mirror, I think the Ancient Grudges can go in favor of a more general replacement. If I were to play this deck in a random Legacy metagame today, I’d run this:

Underground Dredge update

Pithing Needle gives a more proactive solution to those unpleasant anti-graveyard artifacts, while also, Unmask-style, being able to nail a whole host of other cards. In fact, Needle is a beautiful Legacy card, seeing as it’s a general answer to cards in a format that features so many cards. I like it, and I’m going to be giving it a shot for the near future.

Ending on a PSA

I’m out of space today, so I’ll have to return in the future to talk about considerations like opening hands, sideboarding for specific matchups, and playing around the inevitable hate. In the meantime, here’s a public service announcement, courtesy of our own Michael Sohn in his role as a judge.

Arrange your graveyard like this:

Not like this:

In Legacy and Vintage, graveyard order matters, which means that your graveyard must be contiguous. You are, of course, allowed to just have it as a big pile, as my opponent in the Dredge mirror does here:

But I tend to lose track of my cards when I do that, so I prefer to keep my graveyard spread out. If you want to use that approach, then you, too, need to have your graveyard snake around in a contiguous pattern so that you aren’t accidentally reordering that sucker.

Zombies, lands, and sideboard cards

It took me a while to be willing to so fundamentally alter the Dredge mana base, but at the end of the day, I’m super happy that I did so. In exchange for giving up some sideboard cards that I’m not particularly excited about, I have a deck that is more consistent, more resistant to aggro and damage-based combo, and thus more reliable overall. If you can swing it, I’d recommend giving this variation on Dredge a try at your next Legacy event.

What do you think? Is this an exciting new turn for the deck, or is the pain of losing Tireless Tribe just too much to bear? Let me know in the comments.

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magic (at) alexandershearer.com
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