Nobody likes Dredge.
They don't like testing against it they don't like thinking about what to board against it and they really don't like losing to it.
Why play it at your next Legacy tournament? Here are my reasons.
You almost always win your maindeck games.
You usually win your post-board games.
In short the case for playing Dredge is pure unadulterated matchup percentages. Provided you know how to pilot it nearly every opponent should rightly fear you.
There are good reasons not to play it of course. For the record Mental Misstep is not one of them. Force of Will never held Dredge down before and given that having one spell countered for free was rarely enough to stop it Misstep's main contribution against Dredge is that it gives the opponent more ways to counter two spells for free in the same game. That's bad for Dredge but so was the printing of Relic of Progenitus—and neither is enough reason not to play it.
Nor is the deck's propensity to mulligan a very good reason not to play it. I can't think of a competitive deck in the history of Legacy that has cared less about a mulligan than Dredge. Can you? Maybe Hulk Flash?
Nor is graveyard hate a good reason not to play it. Since 2007 when the deck was Extended legal the informed consensus has been that it takes roughly half a sideboard worth of hate to keep Dredge down and not only does no one play that much right now they're not likely to anytime soon. There are just too many viable archetypes—who can afford to dedicate half their board to just graveyard decks? It's just not a reasonable fear.
I'm on the fence about the draw spell consistency thing. On the one hand as long as you have a discard outlet going you get to “see” a ton of cards each turn—way more than even a Divining Top/fetchland engine does in a protracted fight (although that's hardly a perfect comparison since you're also seeing more blanks). On the other hand if you don't have a discard outlet going you don't run much to help you topdeck one. You don't have Brainstorm or Divining Top or anything like that; basically all you have is Careful Study and maybe Breakthrough and until you establish that outlet you're basically treading water while the opponent works on you.
But the main reason I can think of not to play Dredge is that it's not very Jedi-friendly. Whereas most decks play cards from their hands which are hidden Dredge plays most of its cards from its graveyard—in plain sight. It's hard to bluff Bridge from Below. Know what I mean?
Still facility with Jedi mind tricks is just one way you can stack the odds of a tournament in your favor. Another is deck advantage and if you ask me Dredge is a strong choice right now. Another is tight play—I believe Antonino De Rosa once said (I'm paraphrasing) the fundamental difference between pros and non-pros is that non-pros punt games while pros just play tightly and wait to receive a punt.
Something that fascinates me about Dredge is how it seems to induce poor play from my opponents. Maybe it's that they hate playtesting against it and are under-practiced. Maybe it's because their attention is divided between my graveyard and what they fear might still be in my hand. Maybe it's that they start to think they have perfect information because I haven't hardcast anything in a while and forget that I might be sandbagging Cephalid Coliseum. Or maybe it's just that they're used to dealing with decks that draw roughly one card per turn whereas this one “draws” 4-6 into the graveyard on its slow turns.
One way or the other I have definitely found myself thinking “Wow thanks!” in response to my opponent's plays more often with Dredge than with most decks I've played. If you want to know the truth what scares me way more than Mental Misstep or graveyard hate is the idea that people might start learning how to play against this deck.
It's been a good while since I've seen an article that has really dug into the guts of Legacy Dredge and since lately I've spent an inordinate amount of time testing it tuning it and discussing it with Golgari Grave-Troll expert Max McCall I thought I should map out what I've learned.
Combo Mode vs. Beatdown Mode
The first thing to understand about Dredge is that it isn't always a combo deck at least not in the traditional sense.
Often you're just beating down with Ichorids adding creatures to the board doing some attacking and blocking—pretty straightforward beatdown stuff really. You have some 3/1s some 2/2s some 1/1 fliers the occasional 1/9 Tireless Tribe the odd 2/2 flying Putrid Imp maybe a Golgari Thug. And you do typical beatdown stuff with them: attack with this guy block with that guy. You do combat math and usually find that the math is in your favor because you explode out creatures faster than fair decks can—even when dredging only once per turn.
When you're in combo mode on the other hand you're concerned less with combat math and more with how soon you can assemble three creatures for Dread Return. Once you've reanimated a fatty and surrounded it with a Zombie entourage—kind of like the best Grave Titan ever—the only math you'll be doing is whether you'll deign to leave back a token defender or two as you smash face.
Now put the two together.
For as long as Magic has been Magic the reason to play combo over beatdown is that it kills faster and the reason to play beatdown over combo is that it weathers disruption better. For exactly this reason many combo decks in the past have adopted “transformative” sideboards which allow them to become a beatdown deck in order to attack the opponent from a more resilient angle.
One of Dredge's greatest strengths is that it can transform mid-game. When its combo is disrupted instead of scrambling to recover and reassemble the combo it can seamlessly transition from a Genesis Wave-style explosive creature generation combo into a beatdown deck that churns out an ever-expanding stream of attackers. This forces the opponent to have a hand that can not only disrupt the combo but which can also withstand a second volley from one of the most powerful beatdown decks in the format.
As a Dredge player this is critical to understand—in large part because of sideboarding.
When you expect heavy disruption post-board it often makes more sense to embrace the beatdown deck. When you know you're most likely to end up on Ichorids boarding into the best Ichorid deck you can be (even when that entails boarding out your combo-tastic but super-hate-vulnerable Breakthroughs) can give you a major edge over blindly running your combo into a brick wall.
Conversely if you're Dredging against another combo deck it's rare for either player to untap for a fifth turn; most often the game has already ended in one player's favor by that point. And since Ichorid's damage curve tends to be hitting for three on turn three and then another seven-ish on turn four (with the help of the 1-3 Zombies he made last turn) the odds that you'll actually kill a combo player with random Ichorid beatdowns get pretty poor pretty quickly. In fact combo mirrors are so very much All About Dread Return that my rule of thumb is to board out all the Ichorids because they so rarely contribute in a meaningful way.
Don't Make It Worse
One time our dog Freyalise (half German Shepherd half Rottweiler 100% awesome) in the course of rampaging around the backyard managed to cut her side pretty badly. It wasn't life-threatening but she did need stitches.
As long as she left the stitches alone the vet told us she would heal just fine. But they itched so she kept licking them and reopening the wound risking infection each time. Ultimately the vet had to put one of those plastic cones around her head to save her from herself. She hated the cone—it was always catching on corners and making her crash into things clearly bothering her more than the itchy stitches ever did—but she was stuck with it because she could not resist trying to “fix the problem” of her itchy side.
For a long time I was doing the same thing with my Dredge sideboard.
There'd be this thing bothering me—Relic of Progenitus Tormod's Crypt whatever—and so I'd bring in reactive answers like Pithing Needle Nature's Claim or Chain of Vapor. Ahh that's better! Peace of mind. Now I can beat those cards.
It took me way too long to ask: “Wait am I really making things better with this plan?” Am I cleverly outmaneuvering my opponent's sideboard hate or am I just slobbering all over this minor cut until it festers into a serious infection?
I can't even count how many post-board opening hands I've sent back because I saw a reactive card instead of the combo piece I needed... but just how often did the reactive cards actually save the day?
To answer this I “dredged up” some old tournament reports of mine and Max McCall's. Between us we encountered pretty much every commonly played graveyard hate card in those tournaments—from Leyline of the Void to Jotun Grunt and the many artifacts in between often in multiples—and still ended up with a winning record across our post-board games.
I went game by game and counted the number of times either of us got value out of a reactive sideboard card. The final tally?
Between my Day One and Day Two at GP Chicago and Max's winning one event and Top 8ing another neither of us ever used a single reactive sideboard card to get ahead in any meaningful way let alone to actually win a game.
Not even once.
That revelation floored me. Not only did we play all these rounds with these do-nothing cards taking up half our sideboards but even worse we were boarding them in! It was as if we were bringing in blank pieces of cardboard so we could mulligan more—four Spellbooks to begin with and then maybe some additional Darksteel Relics if we were really worried about the opposing hate package. What a beating. You're welcome opponents.
The implication of this was pretty exciting though. If we were doing that well post-board after siding out business for Spellbooks imagine how much better we could do without handicapping ourselves!
Since expunging all those terrible negative-EV anti-hate countermeasures the deck began performing better than ever. On top of that the board now had open slots for more effective proactive cards something Dredge has traditionally struggled to find room for. Imagine that!
Graveyard Effect Composition
One of the first things I look at when I examine a new Dredge list is the number of graveyard effects. Typically I see:
2-4 Cabal Therapy
2-3 Dread Return
4 Bridge from Below
4 Golgari Grave-Troll
4 Stinkweed Imp
2-4 Golgari Thug
0-2 Dedicated Dread Return targets
0-2 Dakmor Salvage
Some people like to play fewer than four Brainstorms in their blue Legacy decks. Counts of two and three have been pretty common in lists I've seen lately—and I understand the impulse. It's one of those things where like cutting a land it's difficult to pin down just how much it's hurting you. You know it makes you slightly less consistent but how bad could that be? It can't be that big of a deal—just cheat a little and you can fit extra exciting cards. Who's going to miss them?
Wizards of the Coast has only printed three cards with Dredge 4-6 and you should max out on them. Why? Because you're worth it.
This is a Dredge deck. More than anything else it loses when it fails to Dredge. Not only do you snap-mulligan when no dredgers are in your opener (and I'm barely being hyperbolic about that) but you often rely on chain dredging one into another—like when you have to Breakthrough with only a Stinkweed Imp to Dredge—so the concentration of them in your deck matters well beyond your opening hand.
You could run a Darkblast instead of the fourth Thug but if Concentrate and Tidings were both free why would you pick Concentrate? Is it concern for Gaddock Teeg? You already have plenty of solutions to that guy: Cabal Therapy Firestorm and my personal favorite shrugging and bashing with Ichorids . Is it just “for value?” Let me tell you what's valuable: Tidings.
Seriously though play four of that guy. It will improve every single matchup.
Cabal Therapy is another great card to max out on because hard-casting it is both affordable and strong. Besides serving as an emergency discard outlet firing off an extra Therapy against combo and countermagic decks can be a game-changer and can make more hands keepable. In game one you can beat a decent number of combo draws with just a discard guy a dredger and a Therapy; even without a draw spell hard-casting and then flashing one Therapy can often buy you enough time to dredge into another.
You certainly want four Ichorids when you're up against sideboard hate but I don't think four maindeck is necessary. No matchup really puts up enough of a fight game one to demand it.
As for Dread Return when you slam Super Grave Titan (let's say a 12/12 Golgari Grave-Troll plus eight-ish power worth of Zombies) onto the table on turn two or three then flashback a couple of Cabal Therapies it's curtains for almost every draw of almost every Legacy deck. You play four Golgari Grave-Trolls already so you don't strictly speaking need dedicated Dread Return targets like Iona or Flame-Kin Zealot to finish.
Dedicated DR targets generally serve one of two purposes. One is to beat the very few decks against which Super Grave Titan won't cut it (such as the mirror or Stax with their accelerated Ghostly Prisons and land destruction) and the other is to reinforce the Ichorid plan when you want a way to turn around protracted races in which the opponent has wiped out enough of your Bridges to pull ahead.
Even against combo all you really need to stop High Tide Tendrils Painted Stone Reanimator and Show and Tell from going off before your lethal army can swing are a couple of well-aimed Therapies. Elves and the mirror are more Therapy-resistant than those decks but it doesn't seem wise to maindeck cards like Flame-Kin Zealot or Iona just for one or two matchups when you could instead load up on enablers that will make you more consistent against every matchup.
That said most combo draws in this format can recover quickly (sometimes immediately) from a single Therapy so running four copies is non-optional if you want to eschew Iona and Zealot and still expect to beat combo.
In my experience two Dread Returns is all you need unless you're running Sphinx of Lost Truths into Iona or the like in which case you need more because you must cast two Dread Returns to actually finish going off as intended when the first one targets Sphinx. On the other hand if one DR is all you need to win it's not difficult to find it after flipping half your deck even if you're only running two. (Just as it's not difficult to find one of two DR targets after flipping half your deck.)
Bloodghast has never made sense to me. It demands that you warp the deck in hugely damaging ways—Undiscovered Paradise is horrible not just because Daze exists but also because turn-one Paradise precludes a turn-two Coliseum activation and Dakmor Salvage both enters the battlefield tapped and is Dredge two—for a benefit that is just not that impressive. If you feel compelled to run more than four Ichorid-type effects why would you Undiscover yourself before turning to Nether Shadow? (After all you're usually in it for the Zombies not the printed power and Nether Shadow can block.)
My preferred maindeck mix?
4 Cabal Therapy
2 Dread Return
4 Golgari Grave-Troll
4 Stinkweed Imp
4 Golgari Thug
4 Bridge from Below
0 Dedicated Dread Return Target
0 Dakmor Salvage
Non-Graveyard Effect Composition
One way to look at this mix is in terms of how many discard outlets you play (don't forget about the Therapies from the previous section) how many draw effects you play (necessary to combo out but not required for the Ichorid plan) and how many multicolored lands you play (since Cephalid Coliseum cannot cast Putrid Imp).
As a discard outlet Trickster Mage has a lot of drawbacks. She only discards one card per turn can be killed before she can discard a single dredger (whereas Tireless Tribe and Putrid Imp can pitch in response) and depends on your having a land out to be a discard engine—hardly a given with both Wasteland and Gemstone Mine in the picture. Her upside doesn't overcome these deficiencies.
Lion's Eye Diamond is worse. It speeds up a deck that hardly ever loses due to slowness and in return makes it more draw-dependent and vulnerable to basically every kind of disruption that is not Mental Misstep. Put another way it fixes what ain't broke and then introduces real problems.
If you cut lands to make room for it you will mulligan significantly more because LED cannot provide the mana for both a discard effect on one turn and a draw effect on turn two next unless you are playing Deep Analysis or the draw effect is specifically Cephalid Coliseum and you did not mulligan. This is to say nothing of the games where you need the mana but cannot afford to pitch your hand or need to be able to hardcast creatures past turn one—extra Imps Tribes Narcomoebas or Thugs—to win.
If you do not cut lands to make room for it LED becomes the worst discard outlet in your deck. Breakthrough is otherwise the worst (because of their shared downside: mandating that you pitch your entire hand rather than just the correct cards which is bad in game one and horrendous after the opponent brings in graveyard wipes) but compared to Breakthrough LED has the dubious differentiators of costing zero (nice) providing mana at the wrong time (awkward) and not being a draw-four (ouch). Tireless Tribe not only lets you pitch what you want when you want as often as you want but it's also a huge blocker and provides a warm body for Dread Return.
Careful Study is a more reliable discard outlet than the Mage or the Diamond though still no Imp or Tribe. A decent way to think of it is Breakthrough Lite: a more controllable discard effect but a tamer draw effect.
In environments with lots of countermagic and/or Chalices of the Void I could see maindecking Firestorm as a playable uncounterable outlet to supplement the cleanup step but for the moment combo is the much greater concern—and Firestorm is almost unilaterally worse than Tireless Tribe in those matchups. Not only does it discard cards only once but it doesn't offer the extra body for Dread Return.
As nonstandard draw effects go I've tried basically all the one-mana ones (two-mana goodies like Tolarian Winds and Deep Analysis are tough to cast when you pack only sixeen or fewer lands especially given Wasteland and Daze)—including Hapless Researcher Winds of Change Burning Inquiry and Brainstorm. Researcher doesn't do enough (Draw one card? Discard one card?) but the others are worth considering as Breakthroughs 5-8. Winds of Change does the best Breakthrough impression since it actually draws four cards instead of three on a regular basis.
Regarding which multicolor lands to play going U/B is dead wrong. Tireless Tribe and Firestorm are two of the most valuable support cards in Dredge's arsenal and obsessing about a few points of Tarnished Citadel damage in a deck this monstrously powerful is a joke on the order of playing 61 cards for fear of games going to decking.
I've already made my position on Undiscovered Paradise clear I hope so the remaining question is how many lands to play. Long ago I went from sixteen lands to fifteen and it has seemed slightly superior. I have not tried going to fourteen mostly because I haven't found a reason to yet. I'm fine with three Ichorids two Dread Returns and zero Dread Return targets main and I'm already maxing out on every other nonland card.
Here's my preferred maindeck mix.
Dredge sideboards are an eclectic bunch. Reactive cards are usually auto-includes; popular choices include Ancient Grudge Ray of Revelation Chain of Vapor Nature's Claim Pithing Needle and Null Rod. Anti-permanent Dread Return targets are likewise common—Terastodon Woodfall Primus and if you want to hit creatures Angel of Despair. Beyond that most Dredge lists make sure (correctly I think) to be capable of boarding up to four Ichorids or four Therapies and fill the remaining slots with whatever anti-combo cards they can fit.
Here's my mix.
Winds essentially comes in as Breakthroughs 5-7 against other combo decks. It typically draws three or four cards in practice depending on how many mulligans you've taken though I have seen the occasional mediocre two or overkill five. Because speed is of the essence in those matchups you want to bring out the three too-slow Ichorids and you really want to see a draw effect every game. When you see an opening hand that contains neither a draw effect nor a Therapy to hardcast you have to strongly consider mulliganing even if you have a discard outlet and a dredger because unless you flip a lot of Therapies on your first dredge or two they're simply going to go off before you can kill them.
Although Winds is not a backup discard outlet it can “mulligan” both players if your initial discard outlet is countered giving you the chance to find another discard outlet while scrambling the opponent's hand—thereby scuttling whatever plans he had set up so far this game and potentially leaving him flooded or mana-screwed.
It's rarely correct to cast Winds when there's a Breakthrough in your hand and a dredger in your graveyard—Winds shuffles things back in diluting future dredges whereas Breakthrough just pitches them—but in the specific case where you have Narcomoebas in hand and need them back in your deck to be dredged into play Winds can actually be the better choice.
I tried anti-Storm combo cards including Mindbreak Trap Leyline of Sanctity Thoughtseize and Unmask (generally worse than Thoughtseize as it turns out—you have many black cards but few expendable ones) but none of them proved as effective as simply loading up on Breakthrough lookalikes. That could change if other combo decks start loading up on graveyard hate but right now they don't seem to have room.
I also considered Gitaxian Probe over Winds—it lets you start dredging on turn one can supplement a Careful Study as a draw effect for free and makes your Therapies better—but ultimately a hand with a land discard outlet Dredger and Probe is hugely worse than the same hand with a Winds against combo. And that's what you're really in it for.
Against midrange and beatdown decks Firestorm comes in for Breakthrough. You're on the beatdown plan against them and Breakthrough is just god-awful against a Tormod's Crypt. Firestorm meanwhile is insane against it—you pile up a minor attacking force maybe seven power worth not quite enough for them to justify blowing the Crypt yet... then all of a sudden: Bam. Flame Wave you deal you eleven wipe your board go. Nice Tormod's Crypt.
Both when you're bringing in Firestorm and when you're bringing in Winds the message is clear: my deck is more powerful than yours so I'm just going to pile on redundancy and defy you to draw enough disruption to cut through it. And that's really all it takes. You don't have to get fancy; you just have to overwhelm whatever disruption they draw.
I'm normally reluctant to dedicate board space to a single matchup but Blightsteel gives you a huge leg up against Painter's Servant for the price of one slot. As long as it's in your deck they have to not only combo you out but also Crypt you. Otherwise you'll untap with a fully stocked graveyard and will momentarily fill the board with Zombies and a pair of record-sized Grave-Trolls an army which will be lethal several times over. Then you'll Therapy yourself for Blightsteel Colossus (you'll have access to all four Therapies so it's fine if they counter a few of them) to make sure you don't deck on the following draw step and pass the turn with a Cheshire Cat grin on your face.
The fourth Ichorid and one Elesh Norn typically accompany the Firestorms against beatdown as they are both important in races. You want as many Ichorids as you can get for obvious reasons but if you start running low on Bridges in a protracted fight you want access to a trump card to make sure the race ends in your favor. I was previously using Blazing Archon for this role but Elesh seems a slight upgrade against most beatdown decks (in no small part because it can wipe out a number of creatures even if they remove it right away) and a substantial upgrade against Elves and the mirror—against which I definitely want two copies. Archon was better against Progenitus naturally.
Obviously this is a nonstandard list. It's not as splashy as what you might be used to having no Dread Return targets in the main and almost never boarding any in. It might also look overconfident giving no respect to Mental Misstep or to whatever hate package the opponent might be bringing to bear post-bard.
But remember: a win is a win. No matter how ugly it looks to spectators getting there with the cleanup step discard plan into a janky assortment of Zombies and lumbering Grave-Trolls backed up by Therapies earns you just as many points as does grandiosely smiting your foes with Lion's Eye Diamond into Iona or a furious Flame-Kin Zealot horde.
In return for eschewing these concessions to The Fear (or to Johnny perhaps) what the deck gains is consistency—and in turn more of those aforementioned point things.
It's bad enough when you draw Narcomoebas in your opening hand instead of business spells; it's even worse when you draw Iona in a game where one of the Grave-Trolls you already had lying about would have done the job. Playing another Therapy in that slot or the fourth Golgari Thug pays dividends in game after game shrinking your rate of failing to go off (the Number One Cause of Death) as low as you can reasonably get it. Ditto Lion's Eye Diamond and sturdier discard outlets.
For what it's worth I keep feeling like I need Dread Return targets—“that game was too close” I constantly find myself thinking; “if only I'd had Flame-Kin Zealot I wouldn't have needed to do those gymnastics”—but then I look back at my notes over the playtesting session as a whole and realize yet again that almost all of my losses came from an inability to start not an inability to finish...and yet again I find it correct to favor pre-combo consistency over post-combo craziness.
And remember this approach is hardly without precedent. I maindecked only one Flame-Kin Zealot through two days at a Grand Prix (and never needed it) and Max McCall has reported on two different tournaments (one win one Top Eight) worth of gunning with zero maindeck Dread Return targets. And in none of those tournaments did either of us get any value out of reactive sideboard cards which is similar to (but clearly worse than) not having boarded any in the first place.
So what's the big deal? Where's the convincing evidence that I should miss those cards?
There isn't any and I don't. Neither should you.
I can't really say this enough or too emphatically: more than anything else in every matchup Dredge loses when it fails to dredge.
Because of this I frankly wouldn't recommend so much as thinking about keeping hands with no dredgers in them unless you're already at five cards and debating going to four. One of the easiest ways to hand your opponent victory is to rely on something like a turn-one Careful Study (or your draw step—I think I just threw up in my mouth a little) to topdeck your dredger failing to see one and going “Oh. Well I guess I'll do nothing this game. You win.”
The next-biggest threat to your ability to start dredging is free countermagic—and to a lesser extent Thoughtseize when you're on the draw—because they can stop your discard outlet from resolving and getting a dredger into your graveyard. If you have a spare Cabal Therapy you can still get going if your Putrid Imp gets countered but if not remember that you are one counter away from having essentially kept a hand that cannot start dredging.
Keep in mind that once you've boarded out Ichorids any opening hand containing two Narcomoebas has only two 'moebas left in the deck and is therefore going to have an extremely tough time scraping together three creatures for Dread Return. So if it doesn't also have a second land that's going to be sticking around (read: not a Coliseum) with which to summon dredged Thugs consider shipping it even if it otherwise looks keepable.
Now as a result of the above scenarios you're going to mulligan a lot. And that's fine. As a general rule most decks are fine with either six or seven cards and only start getting into “inherent underdog” territory when they hit five. Dredge is typically fine with seven six or five but once you hit four you're definitely in “inherent underdog” territory. Almost all the mulls-to-four I've survived in Magic have been with Dredge but that's not to say I have a positive record when I go that low.
As such I will generally stay at five if I have two out of three of the following: a dredger a discard outlet and a land with which to cast the outlet. I'll need a topdeck of course but one good peel is more likely to happen than scoring three out of three ingredients from a random four-card hand.
Using Therapy to beat hate cards is straightforward: think of the card you fear picture it in your mind then say its name out loud. Do this as Cabal Therapy is resolving.
This might sound easy but I've definitely managed to mess it up. Remember your scouting from previous games is all I'm saying. A punt I've made before is to drop game two to my opponent's surprise Jotun Grunt then forget about it and name Tarmogoyf like a doofus in game three—only to see Grunt in his hand and lose to it again when I had both the knowledge and the opportunity to steamroll him easily.
Using Therapy against combo is much trickier. The most important thing to remember is that what matters is whether they can go off. It does not matter if you hit.
I recall a PTQ long ago in which I was facing off against the inimitable Cedric Phillips (sporting a crisp suit and rainbow sneakers that basically meant I had no shot at any kind of moral victory). I was on a midrange deck featuring Cabal Therapy while Ced had Early Harvest combo featuring Nostalgic Dreams. I flashed my second Therapy of the game a turn before I was going to swing for the win and consulted my notes. I knew he had Cunning Wish in his hand from my previous Therapy but I couldn't imagine him turning that into a win from that position. So I named Nostalgic Dreams even though I didn't know of any in his hand—since I could think of several ways for him to win next turn had he topdecked one.
He discarded Nostalgic Dreams and shook his head. “I could have named Cunning Wish” I noted. “Needed the Nos Dreams thanks” he said. Next turn I swung for the win. (Then he crushed me game three but let's move on.)
If you look at your opponent's board and think “the only way he can go off next turn is if he's holding High Tide” name High Tide even if you think you have a better chance of hitting by naming something else. If he had it then now he doesn't. And if he didn't have it you missed but he still doesn't have it. He still can't go off next turn and that's what you really care about.
When you have three or four Therapies to cast though this strategy changes somewhat if the first one resolves. Now you know you're going to get to fire off another Therapy or two with full knowledge of the opponent's hand so it may make more sense to first name a card you actually think will be there. Once it resolves you'll know exactly what he needs to go off and you'll have two more Therapies to make sure that doesn't happen so you might as well come as close to Mind Twisting him as you can along the way.
Before unloading a Therapy barrage it's important to take stock of how many Therapies you have. For example if you have two Therapies against High Tide bear in mind that the opponent knows you have two and may let the first resolve even if he has Force of Will in hand. If you miss he'll Force the second one now that you know what to name (especially if he's holding multiples of an important card). So if the first Therapy resolves one strategy is to name Force of Will simply to ensure the second one is maximally effective. If you have one or three Therapies however this strategy doesn't make much sense.
If he Brainstorms in response the “what card don't you want him to have in hand?” approach goes out the window; if he had that card chances are it's on top of his library now. Instead your strategy must shift to trying to blunt that card as much as possible. What support cards will he need to go off with that card? Try to eliminate the most potent of them; it's the next best thing you can do when stopping the killer card itself becomes out of the question.
Finally pay attention to your opponent's plays prior to the Therapy. How quickly did he keep this hand? Did he shuffle with Ponder or just reorder? How did he Scry with Preordain? Has he missed any land drops? If you can figure out what he's digging for it can give you clues as to what sort of hand he kept and thus what you should name to cripple that hand.
How To Battle Tormod's Crypt Relic of Progenitus Nihil Spellbomb Bojuka Bog and Ravenous Trap
First don't forget that you can spend your first turn of the game casting Cabal Therapy for most of these cards when you're on the play. If Relic is your hand's only worry and you know that's the hoser they run just name it turn one like you would Gaddock Teeg on turn two.
Second consider that these are sweepers and remember what you know about playing against board sweepers such as Wrath of God and Firespout: don't overcommit. In this case don't overcommit to your graveyard. Put whatever amount of pressure on the opponent will make him blow his sweeper and no more.
To do this you have to be careful when you dredge and you have to keep a vigilant eye out for opportunities to stash spare engine cards in your hand.
Part of the reason Putrid Imp and Tireless Tribe are so strong is that they combat graveyard wipes so effectively. Your opponent can Crypt you on your upkeep wiping out nearly all of the work you've done this game and Tireless Tribe will let you pitch that Stinkweed Imp you kept in reserve to start dredging right away on that very first draw step.
It's usually pretty easy to stash a spare dredger like this but it's a lot harder to figure out when to do so with opening-hand copies of Ichorid Cabal Therapy Dread Return or Bridge from Below. Basically you have to ask yourself whether you need to use the effect right now if it's going to win you the game balanced against how difficult it would be to recover if the opponent were to Crypt you in a turn or two.
Suppose you have a single Ichorid early and dredge into a Bridge from Below. You're holding another one and could pitch it to Tireless Tribe. Should you? Well pitching it right now will get you exactly one Zombie from the Ichorid. So a 2/2. You'll still be able to play it next turn if another Ichorid shows up or a Narcomoeba that you want to sac to Therapy so you'll still have it on hand if an opportunity arises to get 4-6 power out of it in one fell swoop.
If you hold it and the opponent wipes out your graveyard the difference between having access to one Bridge to rebuild with and zero is pretty huge. So if the only cost to holding the Bridge for later is one measly 2/2 you need to believe that 2/2 is going to be the difference between your losing this game and winning it for you to pitch that Bridge right now. Sometimes especially against Tribal decks it will be—and if so definitely do pitch it—but thinking critically about doing so instead of just snap-discarding minimizes the effectiveness of your opponent's wipes.
You should also keep in mind when to do your dredging. For example in game one it is usually best to fill your graveyard as much as possible on your turn because that way you can flash Therapies and Dread Returns before your opponent gets the chance to untap and potentially topdeck an answer.
What you have to remember is that in game one there's not much downside to being foiled on your turn versus on your opponent's. Say they have already killed some of your Bridges for example so Dread Return is not immediately lethal. Or say they've got a Top out and could be floating a Force of Will for your Dread Return. If they do manage to stop you from locking up the win on the spot it's not a big deal; you can just keep dredging and try again next turn.
However post-board they can follow up a disrupted Dread Return turn with a graveyard wipe which can be very difficult to recover from. To avoid this consider activating Cephalid Coliseum on your opponent's end step (or in response to a Wasteland activation) waiting to pitch Ichorid food until your upkeep with Ichorid's trigger on the stack and so on.
Sometimes the answer to the question of “when to dredge” is simply “not this turn.” If you have enough board presence (and graveyard presence—Ichorids with food Bridges etc.) that your opponent is basically dead in two turns barring some sort of miracle play around the miracle.
If the only way he can win is by Crypting you don't help the Crypt do more damage. After you've made sure to stash a backup dredger in your hand to restart the engine take the opportunity to see if you can topdeck a land or a draw spell or something else that could help you recover from a wipe if he turns out to have one.
After all if he has it you'll be glad you gave yourself the best possible shot to recover from it and if he doesn't have it you're going to win anyway.
There are a ton of situations like this that come up when battling post-board but once you get out of the mindset of hoping they don't have it and start instead planning for how you will successfully recover if they do have it the hate cards drop from scary to annoying faster than you might think.
Finally there's Firestorm.
First remember that you pitch cards as an additional cost to casting it so even if they counter it you still get to discard. This makes it literally the most reliable starting discard outlet in the entire list although it doesn't give you the recurring discard power of Tribe or Imp.
Second understand that you can't pitch more cards (or deal more damage) than there are legal targets. So if there's only one creature in play at most you can Firestorm with X=3 targeting you your opponent and the creature. This means that if there are no creatures out yet using Firestorm to pitch two cards entails shooting both you and your opponent for 2. (Which favors you on average by the way so don't be afraid to damage yourself if you need a Careful Study-sized discard effect.) It also means if you're just one target shy of killing a big creature or the opponent you can add yourself to the mix so long as the racing math still works out.
Third don't underestimate the power of Flame Wave to swing games. Even if casting it for enough to cripple or obliterate the opponent's team will force you to pitch your backup dredgers directly into the opponent's Crypt consider whether the opponent can still beat you—Crypt or no—if you wipe his team dome him for 3-5 and swing for the fences.
How To Battle Leyline of the Void Yixlid Jailer Jotun Grunt Gaddock Teeg Wheel of Sun and Moon Extirpate and Surgical Extraction
Of these alternate hate cards Leyline of the Void is by far the scariest. The problem with explicitly boarding cards to deal with it (read: Chain of Vapor) is that they take up a lot of sideboard space for something that is very unlikely to actually win you a game. You can't assume Leyline in game two (pretty much ever) so the only time you'll realistically be bringing in Chain is for game three. Then for it to have been worth it you have to draw Chain and a keepable hand and they have to draw Leyline and they also have to not draw more Leylines than you draw Chains. And then after all that you don't automatically win—you just get to play Magic.
It's just not worth it. Too much has to go right for you to get your money's worth out of 3-4 sideboard slots devoted to fighting Leyline. Better to maximize your chances of winning when they don't draw Leyline. And if they mulligan aggressively to find it and end up missing early land drops you can potentially get there with a janky squad of donks featuring Putrid Imp and a Flame Wave or two. (I've actually pulled this off before. At a sanctioned tournament.)
Wheel of Sun and Moon is the Leyline that hits turn two. It's likewise not worth boarding enchantment removal for but the fact that it doesn't hit until turn two means you'll have gotten in one turn of dredging (and hopefully going off!) if you're on the play but none if you're on the draw. Thus if you expect Wheel from the opponent having access to turn-one Therapy on the draw becomes much more valuable than normal.
Extirpate and Surgical Extraction are unpredictable effects to play against. Different players use them in different ways and often what they target depends as much on their deck as the situation in which they're casting it. Gerard Fabiano once had a double Extirpate hand against me at a GP so he used it on first my Stinkweed Imp then on my Golgari Thug reasoning that it would be highly unlikely that I'd drawn all three dredge cards and would thus be stuck unable to dredge. He was right and this beat me.
However a single Extirpate on a dredger is usually a very risky play—if the Dredge player has a backup dredger that can be game over right there. Taking Ichorid out of the picture can be solid but if Dredge then shows you Cephalid Coliseum or Careful Study and just makes a mess of Zombies with Narcomoeba you'll wish you'd gone for Bridges. On the other hand if you go for Bridges Ichorids and Narcomoebas/Tireless Tribes/Putrid Imps/Golgari Thugs can swing and Dread Return all by themselves...
Generally speaking the difference between Extirpate/Extraction and a graveyard wipe is that it doesn't so much reset you as force you to come up with a new strategy. Whereas with a Crypt you're managing the juiciness of your 'yard and trying to bait them into blowing it so you can start over with the usual strategy with these cards you need to think things like “okay I have to win without Bridges now so that means Dread Return and Ichorid. Cabal Therapy's not as good now because it doesn't make Zombies but I still need to clear out removal spells before I get my Troll so I'm going to Therapy this turn off Ichorid and then Dread Return next turn after the coast is clear.”
In those cases there's not much you can do about Yixlid Jailer—he's just going to completely shut you down until you find a Firestorm so try to Therapy him first if you know he's coming and you don't have a Firestorm handy (or need to use it as a discard outlet before he lands).
With Gaddock Teeg remember what he's shutting down on the opponent's side. From Bant for example he precludes Force of Will and Natural Order—so if you're worried about those cards remember that the opponent will have to Plow his own Teeg to regain access to them—unless Teeg gets used as a blocker in which case they'll be back online. So keep that in mind when deciding on which side of the attack step to cast your spells.
The critical question about Jotun Grunt is whether to let him die or try to outrace him. Usually if he comes down after you've already dredged a couple times you're stuck with him—but if he comes down on turn two you may be able to just decline to dredge let him get in a few hits and watch him disappear.
How To Battle Countermagic and Hand Destruction
If the opponent leads with a first-turn Thoughtseize on the play it's too late to do anything about it. If you kept a hand with one discard outlet and they strip it you either have to find another or draw up to eight cards and use the cleanup step. Whether or not you go on to win such games generally comes down to how quickly they can finish you off versus how quickly you can topdeck a backup outlet so the best thing you can do to hedge against them is to adjust your opening hand valuations based on the likelihood that they will end up featuring one fewer discard outlet than they appear to.
Sometimes you have to worry about a topdecked Force of Will stopping the Dread Return you finally found after three turns worth of dredging off a Putrid Imp. In those cases playing around countermagic is fairly simple: don't start flashing Therapies unless you're either casting Dread Return this turn or have some specific and urgent need to jump the gun. Ideally don't even flash Dread Return until you have a Therapy—unless of course you're just in it for the Zombies.
What takes significantly more thought and understanding to deal with is the possibility of your discard outlet being countered.
A simple solution is just to use Firestorm. If you know they are heavily reliant on countermagic to disrupt you using an outlet that discards as an additional cost is about the easiest way to dodge it.
Another is to use the cleanup step. The ideal scenario for using the cleanup step to dodge countermagic plays out something like this:
1. Be on the draw and don't mulligan
2. Let yourself hit eight cards in hand on your first turn then pitch a dredger
3. Keep dredging and discarding until you have two dredgers and a Therapy in the graveyard
4. Use Ichorid or Narcomoeba to flash Therapy naming the countermagic card you think they have (most likely Force of Will though possibly Daze or Mental Misstep). If they have multiple counters wait for another Therapy.
5. Once you have Therapied away their counters play a land and proceed as normal—ideally by casting Breakthrough.
Now obviously it doesn't often go this perfectly but once you're familiar with this strategy you can better evaluate how to handle deviations from it.
For example if you had to mull to five and are on the play you should probably just abort mission on trying to use the cleanup step. Having to do nothing but draw a card for the first three turns of the game is highly unlikely to be a recipe for success; better to just run a discard outlet out there and make them show you a counter. Hey—even if they do have it you might just topdeck another discard outlet.
It gets trickier if you're on the play and considering whether to keep an opening hand with a dredger and a Breakthrough but no other discard outlet. Do you keep and plan to just say “go” for the sake of securing an uncounterable discard outlet on the following turn?
In that situation a lot depends on what you know about the opponent's deck. For example against an unknown opponent this is probably hugely damaging. What if they lead with turn-one Thoughtseize? Or what if they're Combo and go off turn two when you could have gone off on your own second turn if you'd just mulliganed?
If you know they're a slower deck however most likely nothing bad will happen. You'll be a turn slower but this is going to be closer to an eight-turn game than a two-turn game so removing their easiest way to disrupt you is probably worth sacrificing your first turn. Against those decks you might even be able to get away with keeping an opening hand with as few combo pieces as just a dredger planning to get there with Ichorids and never needing to hardcast a single spell.
But then consider Team America (and perhaps now Team Italia as well) where you make their hand destruction a lot better by relying on the cleanup step. Every Thoughtseize becomes a Time Walk as well and Thoughtseize is already good against you. Merfolk is a lot faster than these decks but on the other hand countering your first play and then using Wasteland on your only land can be a lot worse for you than just racing their clock with delayed Ichorids.
Also consider Relic of Progenitus. When you are stuck discarding one card per turn a first-turn Relic becomes almost a Leyline of the Void. It's a card you can easily beat with a resolved Tireless Tribe but if you lose a dredger to its tap ability the opponent will be much more likely to use the sacrifice ability on your second dredger—and often enough you won't have a third. On the other hand if your hand can't handle even one piece of countermagic are you perhaps better off risking the Relic for the sake of dodging the more common threat?
The most important thing to remember is that the cleanup step is a powerful tool in Dredge's arsenal but a risky one as well. It can blank half the opponent's hand or it can get you killed. You should use it opportunistically based on whatever information you have to work with not as a matter of reflex.
Having said all this you can get a very long way with Dredge just running every spell into whatever countermagic the opponent might have demanding that he show it to you and being pleasantly surprised how often he can't. You can get even farther by spotting the opportunities to go for the cleanup step and blank a major chunk of your opponent's disruption but as with sideboarding be careful not to do more harm than good. Respect the opponent's clock acknowledge that sometimes the best play is simply to assume they don't have it and don't get cute if you don't need to.
How to Battle High Tide
First remember that you can just out-goldfish them. If you go off turn two on the play and Dread Return back twenty power worth of Grave-Troll and Zombies you'll get to swing with them before Tide gets its third turn. Do the math on that before you start getting all Therapy-happy sacrificing your attackers; a turn two Tide kill is not likely enough to worry about.
Merchant Scroll is your friend in this matchup. If you name High Tide with Cabal Therapy the opponent is most often stuck trying to fetch another with Merchant Scroll. The problem with that of course is that with only three Islands out all he can do is cast Merchant Scroll and then High Tide—he can't actually go off. And if he Scrolls for Tide and passes the turn he's painting a big bull's-eye for the next Therapy.
That said this is a turn three combo deck packing free countermagic and that's never something to take lightly. They can stop your discard outlets even when you're on the play so hands with only say a discard outlet a dredger and a Therapy become more dangerous to keep than ever.
Finally don't forget that they can now Cunning Wish for Surgical Extraction on turn three in game one (or even turn two if they had turn one Candelabra and are willing to blow a High Tide on it) so if your draw is weak to that consider valuing Therapy for Cunning Wish higher than normal.
How to Battle Tendrils
This is the only other deck in the format that goes off as consistently on turn two as you do. If you know you're up against Tendrils you have to keep this in mind on your second turn if Therapy is in your hand and must weigh whether it makes sense to play a discard outlet or just Therapy the opponent. (In some cases you want to do both playing Tireless Tribe pitching your dredgers and then immediately flashing Therapy.) Especially when your discard outlet is Careful Study sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and say “I hope they don't have it” but always keep the Therapy First play in mind.
By far the most common card I find myself naming with a blind Cabal Therapy is Dark Ritual. If they have Lion's Eye Diamond they'll usually cast it to keep it safe from Therapy so if I don't see any LEDs and my Therapy clears out their Dark Rituals then I can expect that they have neither and thus are most likely stuck with a hand that's too slow to kill me next turn.
If I do see LED I'm pretty much stuck naming Infernal Tutor. This is undesirable because there are so many analogs—what if they have Grim Tutor or Burning Wish instead or just an Ill-Gotten Gains?—but better than naming Dark Ritual when they already have LED to crank out mana. This is why it's preferable to attack the acceleration; the only cards they play that net two or more additional mana (pre-threshold which is almost always what we're talking about here) are Dark Ritual and LED so you don't have so many analogs to worry about.
How to Battle Elves
I hate to board out Tireless Tribe because it's so good as a recurring discard outlet and for feeding Dread Return but Firestorm is too savage against them to leave on the bench and extra draw spells (Winds) are more important than extra discard outlets against a turn 2-3 combo deck with no Force of Will and no Thoughtseize-type effects.
Obviously Grave-Trolls are somewhat lacking as finishers here but Elesh Norn is basically Game Over.
How to Battle Painted Stone
Game one you have the upper hand because they don't have any graveyard hate yet. Even though it costs more for them to play name Painter's Servant with Cabal Therapy if they have neither piece and you can only stop one or the other because a resolved Painter vastly improves their Force of Wills and enables Pyroblast as a countermeasure.
If they go off and deck you to Blightsteel (question for the judges in the house: technically because of graveyard ordering I believe you'd have to actually resolve all the shuffles...is there any way to speed this up in sanctioned play?) once you untap your entire deck will be at your disposal. If you can't quite attack for the win this turn the most important thing is that your Blightsteel ends up back in the graveyard (and thus in the library) so you don't deck next turn meaning if you don't have a discard guy in play make sure to start by Therapying yourself as many times as necessary until one resolves and Therapy shuffles Blightsteel back in.
I go for Ichorids here because now that the opponent's combo is three cards one of which is Tormod's Crypt I need to play in such a way as to maximize my ability to beat Crypt—and that means Ichorids. If he just windmills Painter Grindstone Crypt and blows me out of the water having the full set of Breakthroughs is not going to help with that and if he has only two of the pieces early Ichorids actually might be able to get him before he can find the third—especially given how slow Painter generally is to combo.
Angel of Despair is just to force them to blow Crypts prematurely; since they're not trying to establish control or race they can otherwise just leave the Crypt on the table waiting for the other combo pieces to join it until you present lethal on the next attack step.
How to Battle Goblins
How to Battle Merfolk
Avoid the temptation to overvalue the cleanup step as a means of dodging countermagic as giving the opponent Time Walks while you draw up to eight leaves you vulnerable to an explosive Lords draw powered by AEther Vial.
Don't forget that Cursecatcher can kill your Bridges. Unless they have Echoing Truth they usually have to aim countermagic at one of their own spells to generate a target for his ability so it's often worth refusing to flash Therapy or Dread Return if doing so would allow Cursecatcher to activate.
How to Battle Dredge
The first thing to remember about the mirror is that Combo Mode smashes Beatdown Mode. Don't be the guy stuck durdling with Ichorids if you can help it—and if you can't help it use Therapy aggressively to try to keep them off Breakthrough and Careful Study. If they have Cephalid Coliseum and you've got an Ichorid there's not a lot you can do.
The second thing to remember about the mirror is how Bridge from Below works. It only triggers for non-tokens so if you swing your Zombies into the other guy's Narcomoeba you're going to lose your Bridges and he's going to get more Zombies. Conversely though if the other guy has nothing but Zombies you can swing as much as you like and never lose a single Bridge.
As important as combo speed is Winds of Change is not in the same league as Leyline against Dredge. (The fact that it combos both of you is largely mitigated by the fact that your Dread Return should trump whatever he's going to do on his turn—and even if it doesn't you still get to wipe out all his Bridges before he untaps.) If I didn't have the Leylines though I'd probably bring in Winds here.
This is also one of the few matchups in which you need dedicated DR targets as Grave-Troll is too easily chumped. Elesh Norn is about as thoroughly Game Over as it gets in the Dredge mirror. Everything in both decks either has 2 or fewer toughness or is a reanimated fatty and those you can usually beat when all your Zombies have +2/+2 and they have nothing but the fatty. Moreover Dread Return requires three creatures and they're unlikely to have even one—so it's not like they can Dread Return back their own Elesh Norn or Angel of Despair to turn things around.
In other words if you're about to bring back Norn definitely Therapy for Chain of Vapor first. Firestorm is not a feasible answer to a 4/7 so once the legend hits play it's basically Chain Or Death for the opponent.
Speaking of Firestorm it can “Stifle” Bridge triggers by smoking your own guys in response but I don't think it's worth bringing in. You'd have to take out Tireless Tribe which would definitely do more harm than good when comboing out is the top priority.
How to Battle Junk:
I leave in Therapies here because it's valuable to zap Knight of the Reliquary before he can tutor up Bojuka Bog. Firestorm also isn't as hot in this matchup as it is against purer beatdown decks as the opponent tends not to present many targets.
How to Battle Zoo:
Name Gaddock Teeg with Therapy.
How to Battle Team America/Italia/Counterbalance/RUG Control
Although I favor the posted list for a SCG Open–type Legacy metagame your mileage may vary depending on the local metagame you're expecting.
For example game one against Elves and the mirror would be improved by the addition of some dedicated Dread Return targets main. If you are expecting a lot of those you may want to consider Elesh Norn or Iona main.
If you go that route I would only recommend cutting Therapies and Ichorids to make room; they are the only cards that are really nonessential. Think of cutting other cards as “cutting Brainstorms” and honestly you won't be far off the mark regarding the impact it will have on the deck.
As a general rule cutting Therapies makes you worse against combo cutting Ichorids makes you worse against beatdown and cutting either makes you worse against countermagic. Elesh Norn tends to be better than Iona against beatdown whereas Iona tends to be better against Storm Combo. So for example if you really wanted to hate on combo and were not really worried about beatdown +2 Iona and -2 Ichorid would probably make the most sense.
If you go down this route and decide to incorporate Sphinx of Lost Truths remember that you will also need to find room for a third Dread Return if you want to consistently locate both the other DR target and a second DR when you first reanimate Sphinx.
Dredge isn't going anywhere. Unless the format goes suddenly topsy-turvy because of some format-warping new graveyard deck no one has the sideboard space to hate it out and the sky is not actually falling because there's one more free counter in the format.
Dredge is not easy to play nor does it provide many opportunities to bluff but it's extremely powerful and most opponents are unprepared to play against it. If you've decided to play it hopefully this will help you sort through the various options out there.