In Development – Playing Dead Odds

If all goes according to plan, I’ll be at Worlds this week, playing in some of public events and meeting up with people I normally only get to talk to online. Right now, I’m going to be just a weekend participant, and I have my eyes set on Modern (Saturday) and Legacy (Sunday), with the backup plan of “Standard or whatever” if either of those go awry.

The need to ramp back up for Legacy got me to thinking about my fairly constant weapon of choice, Dredge.

Dredge, as we are all fond of pointing out, does not exactly operate like other decks in the game. It’s possible to play – and win – an entire game of Magic with a Dredge deck without ever, say, casting a spell. It’s a deck that can operate entirely on triggers and replacement effects…although usually it does better if we get to actually cast some spells, too.

In fact, if you look at a typical Dredge deck, it can seem downright rickety and unlikely to succeed.

So why does Dredge work?

More to the point, what do you need to know to make it work for you?

The basics of this undead monstrosity

If you need to check in on Dredge and some ideas about how to play it, I have sort of a “back catalog” going on here in the In Development archives. I first talked about my long-standing “dual land” build , then gave a full, two-part primer for playing Dredge here and here. Most recently, I talked about a change in the physical mechanics of how I play the deck as well as other changes.

That should get you started, although it tends toward my quirky dual-color builds of the deck, rather than more typical “rainbow” Dredge decks. To make today’s piece as universally useful as possible, I’m going to stick to those more typical builds.

A rickety construction

Although Legacy decks in general can tend to look a little less than robust – at least if we’re used to Standard – Dredge is especially guilty of seeming like an unstable pile of cards. Consider this fairly typical Dredge deck, piloted to a solid finish by Ryan Daly at the Kansas City Legacy Open:

Dredge (as played by Ryan Daly at the 2011 Kansas City Legacy Open)

[deck]1 Flame-Kin Zealot
4 Golgari Grave-Troll
4 Golgari Thug
3 Ichorid
4 Narcomoeba
4 Putrid Imp
1 Sphinx of Lost Truths
4 Stinkweed Imp
4 Bridge from Below
3 Firestorm
4 Breakthrough
4 Cabal Therapy
3 Careful Study
3 Dread Return
4 Cephalid Coliseum
4 City of Brass
4 Gemstone Mine
2 Tarnished Citadel
1 Ancestor’s Chosen
1 Angel of Despair
4 Faerie Macabre
3 Ancient Grudge
3 Chain of Vapor
1 Nature’s Claim
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria[/deck]

Daly’s Dredge is a perfectly solid representative of the class. The main deck is focused on mugging the unprepared opponent – as it should be. Ryan has explosive enablers and extenders such as [card]Breakthrough[/card] and [card]Sphinx of Lost Truths[/card], and packs in the [card]Flame-Kin Zealot[/card] finish. The sideboard features various solution cards that are all tested and proven.

So this is, by any standard, a “good” example of a Dredge deck.

Consider what it looks like when you break out the essential elements.

The deck features just twelve actual dredge cards.

There are eighteen enablers:

[card]Cabal Therapy[/card] is sort of the “unhappy enabler,” of course. We’d really rather not be casting Therapy on ourselves, both because that’s a waste of a Therapy that could have gone to work on your opponent, and because you hand out a painfully large amount of free information when you reveal your hand to the Therapy.

Finally, at least for today’s discussion, the deck has fourteen lands:

There are other cards, and they matter – clearly so, since we’re not simply running more dredge, enabler, and land cards. But for today’s discussion, we want to focus on this trifecta, because…

What makes a good Dredge opener?

…they’re the critical cards for an explosive Dredge opener.

Dredge is fascinating inasmuch as it has two very distinctive options for starting the game. On the play, you probably want to play a land, cast some sort of enabler, then use that enabler to get your dredge engine online.

In contrast, on the draw you can do that, or go with the simple “draw, go to cleanup stage, discard” turn one play, which removes any tricky considerations like “having proper mana” or “opponent’s [card]Force of Will[/card]” from the equation. In fact, that ability to completely sidestep these core elements of the game is the main motivation for running a manaless Dredge deck like this one:

Manaless Dredge (as played by Youmelia Gay at GP Amsterdam 2011

[deck]1 Angel of Despair
1 Flame-Kin Zealot
4 Faerie Macabre
4 Ichorid
4 Phantasmagorian
4 Golgari Thug
3 Narcomoeba
4 Stinkweed Imp
4 Shambling Shell
4 Golgari Grave-Troll
1 Sphinx of Lost Truths
4 Nether Shadow
4 Street Wraith
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
4 Dread Return
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Cabal Therapy
4 Bridge from Below
1 Platinum Angel
1 Blightsteel Colossus
1 River Kelpie
1 Ancestor’s Chosen
2 Gigapede
1 Sphinx of Lost Truths
4 Chancellor of the Annex
4 Surgical Extraction[/deck]

…but I’m not a fan of this “slow and steady” approach to Dredge. It’s very resilient but lacks explosive power.

For a typical Dredge deck like Ryan Daly’s, the land-enabler-dredge plan of action requires, quite naturally…

1 – a land

2 – an enabler

3 – a dredge card

There are degrees of “good” for even this kind of opener, but that is the essential dredge triad.

So is that common? I mean, we’re looking for the intersection of twelve dredge cards, eighteen enablers, and fourteen land. Is that okay? Or is this deck a mulligan-prone disaster?

Those Dredge openers and their numbers

So, we’re looking for an opener that has our essential three features. How likely is that? How well can we mulligan into it? Does this change if we have to start thinking about sideboard cards?

Good questions. Let’s take them in that order.

How often do we have a good opening seven?

Consider the basic seven-card opening hand. How often does it contain working hands for a deck like Daly’s?

Before I give you the numbers, there are some things we need to keep in mind – and that you’ll want to keep in mind as you modify or tweak your own Dredge deck to suit your tastes.

First, our enablers tend to come in several colors.

In Daly’s take on Dredge, his enablers require blue, black, and red mana. In some other builds, [card]Tireless Tribe[/card] takes the deck in a white direction.

Second, our lands don’t make all those colors.

Daly has a fairly typical “rainbow” mana base with ten lands that can produce any color you need. It also features the “must have” four-pack of [card]Cephalid Coliseum[/card], which is tremendously useful and a key element in this deck…but can only make blue mana.

So, in other words, an opening hand with only [card]Cephalid Coliseum[/card]s for lands and [card]Firestorm[/card]s, [card stinkweed imp]Imps[/card], or [card cabal therapy]Therapies[/card] is not a good hand. It’s a dead hand on the play, being unable to actually get your dredge engine online, even if you have dredge cards.

Those color issues are baked into the numbers I’ll show you today. I won’t break them out since that’s tedious and not very informative. However, you do want to keep these issues in mind, both for main deck design and in terms of which sideboard cards are likely to work.

With that basic setup in mind, here’s a fun fact:

Is that higher than you expected? It was for me.

So about two thirds of our seven-card opening hands in Dredge feature the appropriate combination of land, enabler, and dredge cards.

…and as a reminder, that does take into account the need to have lands that can produce the correct colors for your enablers.

Recall also that this doesn’t mean all of these opening hands that work are amazing…but it does mean that they will work just fine on the play.

If you’re instead in the position of being on the draw and you want to go for the draw-discard plan, then you have a chunky 85% chance of having a hand that will enable this. All you need for that, after all, is a dredge card in hand or on top of your library.

Are mulligans good for us?

One of the downsides of the draw-discard strategy is, of course, that each mulligan kills one of your turns.

In contrast, mulliganing when you’re trying to run via the more conventional land-enabler-dredge approach hits you with the normal consequences of being down a card…but remains a tenable approach.

What do mulligans do for your odds of having a working Dredge opener?

If you’ve read that Dredge is highly resilient to mulligans, those numbers are the structure that underlies the claim.

The percentages there are the cumulative chance of getting a working Dredge hand, depending on how far down you’re willing to mulligan. So if you’re okay with going to five cards, then over 90% of the time you’ll have an opening hand that can get your dredge engine online.

That’s quite solid, although we do sometimes need to weigh it against the fact that each mulligan we take moves us one step farther from the backup plan of drawing to eight cards and tossing a dredge card. If you’re on the play and have mulliganed to six, then you won’t be dredging until the start of turn four. That’s not great.

We’re talking about straight opening hands here, of course. What about all of those sideboard cards? What happens if we want to, or need to, hit those?

Balancing engines and solutions

Let’s take a look at Daly’s sideboard:

1 [card]Ancestor’s Chosen[/card] 1 [card]Angel of Despair[/card] 4 [card]Faerie Macabre[/card] 3 [card]Ancient Grudge[/card] 3 [card]Chain of Vapor[/card] 1 [card]Nature’s Claim[/card] 1 [card]Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite[/card] 1 [card]Iona, Shield of Emeria[/card]

If you’re in a sideboarded game with this deck against an opponent who’s going to smack you with [card]Leyline of the Void[/card], then you want to hit one of those [card chain of vapor]Chains[/card] or that single copy of [card]Nature’s Claim[/card].

So you need to hit at least one copy of this set of four sideboard cards that you’ve shuffled into your sixty. In addition, you’d ideally like to do this while still hitting starting hands that can actually get your dredge engine online.

How likely is that?

If we’re talking about four copies of a sideboard card, here are the cumulative odds of getting an opening hand that contains one or more sideboard cards and still has our dredge triad of land, enabler, and dredge card:

That’s, well…hunh. That’s okay.

It also presents a bit of a dilemma for us. The idea that we can mulligan down to five cards and have about a fifty-fifty chance of hitting the sideboard cards we need is very tempting.

But there’s an important “however” here.

Only 43% of five-card hands work at all. So while you’re mulliganing down to five cards in hopes of hitting that perfect hand, you’re trading much better odds of getting a “good dredge hand” for a coin flip chance of getting a working hand with some sideboard cards.

It’s a tough balance.

There is, of course, another option.

Consider the case where you’re not looking at [card]Leyline of the Void[/card], but at something like [card]Relic of Progenitus[/card]. If you’re running Daly’s build, then you probably want to bring in [card]Ancient Grudge[/card] to deal with Relics and friends.

Grudge is particularly nice in that you retain access to it even if you dredge it away into your graveyard. And if they pop their Relic to hit your Grudge…well, that’s close to what you wanted anyway, so that’s fine.

If you just sideboard those three [card]Ancient Grudge[/card] copies into your deck, then your odds of getting them in your opening hand are even worse than the ones we just talked about above.

However, if you decided to just stick to that seven-card hand and dredge for two turns, your cumulative change of having access to an Ancient Grudge is:

That’s quite solid…and notice how we’ve hit our coin flip without stepping away from our full hand of seven cards.

None of this accounts for one of the major decisions you have to make as you start siding in cards, of course. What are you taking out? If you’re taking out enablers or dredge cards, then your odds will decline. That’s one of the reasons that we don’t want to go above more than about four dedicated sideboard cards in a Dredge deck…we run the risk of crippling its ability to actually function as a deck.

Your number is up

As often happens, I’ve hit you up with a lot of numbers today. Here’s how they all wrap up together.

Two thirds of the time, your opening hand just works.

If you’re willing to mulligan to five, you’ll get there nine times out of ten.

With three or four sideboard cards, you won’t hit them more than fifty percent of the time even with aggressive mulligans…

…and those mulligans push you down to a elss than fifty-fifty shot at having a hand that works at all.

Finally, [card]Ancient Grudge[/card] plays well with your strategy, giving you that fifty-fifty sideboard shot with no real damage to your primary game plan.

…and there you go. It’s a powerful, resilient strategy. Know your numbers and use them to win.

magic (at) alexandershearer.com
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