"Attack for 8."
Dude, you have me dead on board next turn, and I've taken one turn. Why did you tank?
Grand Prix Chicago is this weekend, giving North America its first taste of Modern since Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. Last weekend, we saw a relatively diverse field at Grand Prix Lyon. The French GP was won by Jund, despite Jund's performance in the whole being relatively uninspiring. Rounding out the rest of the Top 8 were some combo decks (Twin, Storm, and Pod), some aggro-control decks (U/W and BUG), and some Affinity decks.
Jund, at 21%, and Affinity, at 17%, are no surprise as the two most popular decks on Day 2, but Infect at 12% is likely to raise a few eyebrows. The combo elements of the format has settled down a little, perhaps with people scared to play unfair combo decks in fields as wide open as Grand Prix.
I can't make it this weekend, but I would have loved to, if only to get a chance to play a deck I spent a lot of time on before PT Return to Ravnica...
Now, I'm not a person who just walks around playing Dredge in every tournament it's legal in. However, during testing for the last PT, I got to talking with David Ochoa about possible strategies to explore, and the topic of Dredgevine came up. Gravecrawler and Faithless Looting obviously added a powerful new dimension compared to what was available for the last Modern Pro Tour before PT Return to Ravnica, and Izzet Charm was also an exciting new option. It is both an enabler and a meaningful form of interaction that can help against combo and problematic creatures like Deathrite Shaman.
Web (Ochoa) is no stranger to Dredgevine, having made Top 4 of Nationals a couple years ago with a similar strategy. He had some good ideas that helped move the deck away from Lingering Souls and Rally the Peasants to a more Viscera Seer oriented place.
Here's the deck I would play at Grand Prix Chicago:
- 4 Bloodghast
- 4 Drowned Rusalka
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 4 Hedron Crab
- 1 Skaab Ruinator
- 2 Stinkweed Imp
- 4 Vengevine
- 3 Viscera Seer
The single most important card in the deck is Faithless Looting, and it's not close. Any hand with Faithless Looting and a land that can cast it is a snap-keep, and part of why the deck mulligans well is that any hand that can cast Faithless Looting can present a very strong game, even with just four or five cards in your opener. It is, without exaggeration, better than Ancestral Recall in this deck.
To begin with, you draw two cards compared to Ancestral Recall's 3, but the tradeoff is that you get to discard two cards (which is often better than drawing a third card) and you even get another copy, albeit more expensive, in your graveyard (the flashback).
Keep in mind that this comparison is with Ancestral Recall, one of the absolute strongest Magic cards of all time. This is not exactly the threshold for "playable." Now, to be fair, you do have to play a lot of stinkers to make this deck work, but fortunately, Ancestral Recalls are only the beginning.
As this Dredge list is extremely wrapped up in its synergies, it's hard to discuss any single card in the deck without bringing into the discussion quite a number of others. A good way to break the deck down into its fundamental components is to look at each card as being in (at least) one of these four categories:
- Graveyard Cards
- Sacrifice Outlets
Dredge is a strategy that thrives on exploiting cards that function in the graveyard, effectively letting you turn self-milling into card draw and discard into mana acceleration. It takes some pretty "bad" cards to fuel the engine, but the payoff is among the most "unfair" strategies in the format. Many decks have basically no prayer unless they draw a graveyard hate card after boarding.
To fuel this engine, we need cards that let us get our graveyard cards into the graveyard. There are basically two types of these: discard outlets and self-mill. Faithless Looting does let us look at two new cards (which is awesome, to be sure), but the real strength is getting to discard two cards of our choice. Most of the time, we're going to have two cards that are better once they're discarded.
Looting is so good, in fact, that we use Izzet Charm as a "bad" Faithless Looting. It has the upside of giving us a situational Counterspell or removal spell, but most of the time we're just using it to draw two then discard two.
Eight discard outlets isn't nearly enough, however, as we can't keep most hands that don't have an enabler of some kind. Fortunately, we have access to Hedron Crab, an extremely powerful Dredge enabler. It doesn't actually let us discard, but getting to mill six a turn is somewhat like drawing 2.3 cards per turn since 23 of our cards function in the graveyard (23/60 x 6 = 2.3).
Glimpse the Unthinkable is a bit like a "draw 3.8," which isn't as efficient but can be enough to get the party started. We experimented with Ideas Unbound and Grisly Salvage but found neither more effective than just Glimpsing ourselves. Still, I don't like to be too all-in on Glimpse since it's the card that gets hurt the most by sideboarding.
In addition to all these "normal" methods of getting our deck rolling, we also have the backdoor Drowned Rusalka discarding Stinkweed Imp plan. This is particularly effective if we have a Gravecrawler we can sacrifice. Drowned Rusalka is a discard outlet anyway, so we can get our graveyard cards into the yard this way, but if we can start dredging a Stinkweed Imp, we're effectively drawing 1.9 cards per turn (from the quantity of graveyard cards we're milling). While we have lots of great sacrifice options, Gravecrawler is particularly juicy since we can just bring him back over and over.
It's important to note that Drowned Rusalka works a bit differently than other discard outlets. With the Rusalka, you actually discard before you draw (which means you can discard a Stinkweed Imp then immediately dredge it). What is really strange, however, is that if you had no cards in your hand, you still get to draw a card (which you get to keep).
Finally, when push comes to shove, sometimes it's right to just play nothing on turn 1 and discard. I've had plenty of games where I was on the draw and just discarded a Vengevine each of the first two turns then played land setting up the double-Vengevine return turn. It's a really slow way to do it, but sometimes it's the right line against certain decks.
Ok, let's say that we're discarding cards left and right, milling ourselves silly. What are we supposed to be doing with it all? How are we getting paid?
Well, for starters, the biggest payoff in the deck is Vengevine. Cheating a 4/3 haste creature into play without spending any mana is a very powerful attack. Putting multiples into play? Now you're getting into unfair territory. While you're just attacking, if you Looting away two Vengevines then cast two one-drops on turn 2, you're getting eight mana worth of creatures for free (and without having to even spend the cards). Not only are you attacking for eight and possibly threatening lethal, but even if your opponent kills them, they can return.
Actually triggering Vengevine is fairly straightforward. Using lots of cheap creatures means it's quite easy to meet the two creatures in a turn criteria. There's nothing wrong with saving a Bloodghast to cast as your second creature in a turn, just remember that bringing it back from the yard doesn't count. It's important to note that Gravecrawlers out of the yard work, which even includes casting the same Gravecrawler twice assuming you sacrifice it the first time and have another Zombie on the battlefield (perhaps from a Bridge from Below).
Vengevine is the primary offensive threat, but it's also one of the primary defenders since many of our creatures cannot block and even if it dies it'll be back anyway. While we usually cheat it into play from the graveyard, it's important to determine in a game if we might need to actually cast it. I used to play a third green mana, but right now have just two sources, meaning aggressive milling could leave us without green if we don't search it up relatively early. If I was expecting Blood Moons, I think it's totally reasonable to put a basic Forest in the sideboard, which would help with the green cards in games 2 and 3 even in non-Blood Moon matches.
The other creature we're getting for no mana is Bloodghast. While it doesn't block and has a smaller body, it's nice that it comes back so easily. This lets us quickly start applying pressure to people even before our "big turn." It's is certainly weaker than Vengevine by a large margin, and it's totally acceptable to trim the Bloodghasts when boarding against fast aggro decks.
An important skill to master with Bloodghast is knowing when to pitch it (letting you return it to play for free) and when to save it in your hand to be one of two creatures cast to bring back Vengevines. This is why you might sometimes actually need three black mana at once. Another important pacing thing to get used to is making the most of its haste, which only kicks in when your opponent is at ten or less. It's often worth reasonably large sacrifices to position to do that 10th point of damage if it means you'll be able to put a bunch of Bloodghasts in play on the next turn with haste. An important part of this skill is being able to look ahead on the next few turns and figure out when you can actually realistically kill them. Getting an extra two points a turn in for a couple turns generally isn't worth delaying your big turn by even one.
More powerful than Bloodghast but a bit harder to use is Gravecrawler. While Bloodghasts are coming back over and over without any effort, Gravecrawler will often just be sitting in the graveyard waiting for a big turn. The primary ways we have to turn on our Gravecrawlers are actually drawing a copy of Gravecrawler (which conveniently means we have two creatures to play in one turn, triggering our Vengevines) or Bridge from Below. It goes without saying, but Bloodghast is not a Zombie.
Getting Bridges into our graveyard is certainly awesome against creature decks or those with a lot of removal, as it makes both strategies far less effective. In fact, if we hit a second Bridge, a lot of opponents will be stuck in no-attacks, no-blocks mode until they can use a removal spell on their own creature.
Bridge is certainly awesome in its own right, particularly against fair decks. However, to actually break the card, we need a sacrifice outlet that lets you kill your creatures at your leisure.
Drowned Rusalka is just fantastic with Bridge from Below. Not only does it give you a way to sacrifice lots of creatures to make lots of Zombies, but it also lets you discard Bridges to turn them on. Plus, as if that wasn't enough, sacrificing your creatures leaves you with lots of Zombies (particularly if you have two or more Bridges). That leaves you with even more creatures to sacrifice should you want to. Remember that you can actually abuse Rusalka with no cards in hand to draw an awful lot. That said, there are a lot of cards you would rather discard than hold in hand, so we don't even want to do this all of the times that we can.
Viscera Seer isn't as strong a card as Drowned Rusalka, but it does have a powerful advantage: it doesn't require any mana to use. The scry ability is solid and it's nice to dig for stuff, but where Viscera Seer really shines is in letting you sacrifice most or all of your guys to make an absolutely enormous Zombie mob when you have multiple Bridges (though, of course, sacrificing Zombie tokens doesn't produce more Zombie tokens).
Another nice advantage to Viscera Seer is that it lets you really take advantage of the free recursion of Vengevine and Bloodghast. Let's say you bashed your opponent with a Vengevine and then cast Viscera Seer. If you're about to cast another creature, you might as well sacrifice your Vengevine, giving you a free scry plus untapping your Vengevine should you want to threaten to block.
Bloodghast comes back for free, so you might as well sacrifice it before every land (assuming you've already attacked or your opponent is at ten or less). This added digging can be invaluable for finding Vengevines or setting up a Bridge from Below.
Another neat trick with Bloodghast is to declare an attack against an opponent with a low life total and Cryptic Command. After they tap your creatures, you can sacrifice your Bloodghasts then return them to play with a fetchland. Now they're untapped, have haste, and can attack!
One common strategy against fair decks is to lock up the board with a Bridge from Below, a sac outlet, and one or more recursive creatures. Perhaps each turn you're sacrificing a Bloodghast once or twice or a Gravecrawler a few times. This makes your Zombie horde grow, quickly outpacing "fair" strategies.
Opponents may try suicide attacks to remove your Bridges. Remember to consider sacrificing your creature before damage, even if it's a token that won't give you more tokens. Every turn you get to Bridge might be worth a lot more than what you're sacrificing.
It's also important to keep an eye out for games where you can sacrifice all of your creatures at the end of your opponent's turn. Obviously, keep cards like Jund Charm in mind, but if you have multiple Bridges, sometimes you'll be able to sacrifice most or all of your guys to get two or three times as many Zombies, completely overrunning your opponent.
Ok, so what if don't have any creatures in hand?
- We're dredging Vengevines that we want to trigger. If we had two creatures to play, they could get us our win.
- We're dredging Gravecrawlers that we want to trigger. If we had a Zombie in play, our Gravecrawlers could get our Vengevines that could get us our win.
- We're dredging Bridges from Below that we want to trigger. If we had a sacrifice outlet, our Bridges could get us a Zombie that could get us our Gravecrawlers that could get us our Vengevines that could get us our win.
Ahh, so what if we have no sacrifice outlet?
Well, if we draw a single creature of any variety, we can dredge our Stinkweed Imp to ensure that we have two in the same turn. Alternatively, we can play our Skaab Ruinator out of the graveyard, which is a rather large Zombie himself. This lets us immediately play a Gravecrawler then trigger all of the Vengevines.
Skaab Ruinator and Stinkweed Imp offer another really important dimension to the deck: flying. Bridge from Below and Vengevine recursion often make locking up the ground relatively easy. Being able to dredge into a flier or two can make all the difference in the world against an opponent trying to beat you down with Vendilion Clique, Restoration Angel, or Inkmoth Nexus.
It addition to dredging all the various graveyard creatures, it's important to remember that we'll also be hitting some Faithless Lootings. This means that even if we don't have a discard outlet at the moment, we can generally reliably find one, so we can plan accordingly with the Bridges and Vengevines in our hand. Dredged Lootings are also one of the best ways to dig into a hand of two creatures so that we can "go off."
The mana base in this particular Dredge deck is certainly not trivial to wield. It isn't just the usual puzzle of a four-color deck trying to fetch out all of the right lands since if you're not careful you might accidentally mill a land you needed.
Watery Grave is generally our best land because we potentially need extra black or extra blue depending on what creatures we draw for our big turn. Additionally, we need lots of black mana to recycle Gravecrawlers and lots of blue mana to abuse Drowned Rusalka (or cast Skaab Ruinator).
Blood Crypt + Breeding Pool is generally a better combo than Steam Vents + Overgrown Tomb since it lets you cast Izzet Charm. That said, if you're Looting on turn 1, you'll often want to find Steam Vents so that if you hit a Hedron Crab you can play it before playing your land for the turn.
Speaking of which, if you're facing an opponent with a lot of removal, be sure to consider if it's worth saving your Crab until turn 2. When given the choice of Looting or Crab on turn 1, that's an easy Looting. However, even without Looting, you often will just play a land tapped on turn 1, then play your Crab on turn 2, then play a fetchland, mill yourself for six, and if you hit a Vengevine, you'll generally get to hit your opponent with it by following up with a Rusalka, Gravecrawler, Seer, or another Crab. Make sure you're searching up a combination of lands that will let you play two creatures in the same turn!
The sideboarded Maelstrom Pulses and Abrupt Decays are obviously versatile anti-hate cards, but their number one purpose is against Jund. Sometimes they'll hit Grafdigger's Cage, sometimes Relic, sometimes Nihil Spellbomb (a tough way to do it, to be sure), but it's also very valuable to be able to hit creatures like Tarmogoyf. Their hate cards can slow you down a lot, so you need to be able to slow them down a little.
While Abrupt is great (and invaluable against Twin), Maelstrom Pulse has a few advantages (plus we want more than four). First, the way the games play out, you will actually sweep multiple Tarmogoyfs a reasonable percentage of the time. Second, having some answers to more expensive cards is important. Olivia and Batterskull are two of the most common out of Jund's sideboard. Finally, Maelstrom Pulse gives us options against unknown and fringe strategies. While it isn't that popular, being able to hit Leyline of the Void is a big game if you face it.
Remember that unlike many Dredge decks, this one actually has a lot of card draw that works even in the face of graveyard hate. This makes it easier to dig to answers.
If I wanted a little extra edge against Jund, I would find room for a third Maelstrom Pulse, perhaps in place of a Grudge. Against Jund, I generally like to cut the Izzet Charms (though I might keep one once in a while if they know this is my plan). I also look to trim at least one Bloodghast and then consider shaving Seer, Glimpse, and/or another Bloodghast. As always, Pithing Needle is a great option if I know my opponent has several copies of the same hate card, like Relic.
The Ancient Grudges are obviously primarily for Affinity, which is difficult game 1. They're just a little faster, and we can't always block them effectively. After boarding Grudges, Abrupts, Needle (naming Relic or Plating or Ravager or a Nexus), and Gnaw to the Bone, we can actually play a bit more of an aggro-control game. Our threats are very hard for them going long, so we just have to get the game to last that long.
After boarding, the greatest risk we face is from Etched Champion, as it can sidestep our removal. As long as we can keep a Plating off the table, it's generally not too bad, though. The one Gnaw can be absolutely game winning because it puts us out of range of Galvanic Blasts and Shrapnel Blasts. It might be right to play a second copy, but we're boarding in so many spells and will have to take out some creatures, not to mention they'll have graveyard hate anyway.
Thoughtseize is obviously anti-combo, but we're definitely scaled way back to what I would have played in Seattle (where I was running four Thoughtseize and two Thought Hemorrhage). Now that few people are playing Scapeshift and Storm has diminished, replaced with Infect and Twin (both of which are vulnerable to Abrupt to Decay), I think we can get away with it. That said, there's certainly no shame in playing a fourth Thoughtseize (instead of a Grudge or an Abrupt Decay).
I tried Lotleth Troll and he was ok, but he really pushed the deck into a more beatdown direction. The theory was that they would make you better after boarding, but I found it gave up too much of the degenerate game 1. If you're playing a style of Dredge that's similar to what people played at the PT, then Lotleth Troll might be right for you.
I also experimented with Grisly Salvage, but I wasn't surprised at how often I wanted to discard all five cards. We only have room for so many noncreature cards, and Izzet Charm is far more versatile while Glimpse is more powerful. If anything, you might want to play a third Glimpse, perhaps in place of the third Viscera Seer (I go back and forth on this one).
Lingering Souls was too slow and grindy since most of the games came down to giant blowouts. Two 1/1 fliers could be ok for defense, but you generally have better things to be doing with your mana. Similarly, while Rally is capable of dealing large amounts of damage, by the time it does you've often already won.
While your game 1s against Affinity and Infect are tough, you gain after boarding. Jund is a great matchup and a big reason to the play deck, but there are actually tons of matchups in Modern that are like Jund: medium speed midrange decks that can't meaningfully interact game 1. Then, after boarding, they're so reliant on a few pieces of hate that if you can remove it you just need one of the next two. If you expect a rise in combo decks that don't rely on creatures or artifacts (like Storm or Scapeshift), you may need to up the discard again.
Why didn't I play Dredge in Seattle?
There's only so much time to prepare, and it can be tricky evaluating how many people will actually have the right kinds of hate for your combo deck. Additionally, there were enough people getting varying results that it wasn't yet clear how resilient Dredge actually was after boarding. If I got to do it again, I'd play Dredge, no question.
Modern looks to be a format where you want to be one step ahead of everyone else's sideboards. There are a lot of targets people are aiming for this week. Dredge is nowhere near the top of that list, and adding a bunch of graveyard hate to sideboards now is generally a poor investment. Jund, Affinity, Infect, U/W, Pod, Tron, and Twin are the seven most popular decks, none of which are graveyard decks.
Good luck to everyone playing in the Grand Prix! See you Monday!