Every format has a deck that newer players are always pointed towards. These are generally the decks that are the most straightforward. They are the decks that get the most “free” wins but crumple against decks that are prepared. Dredge is a deck that I frequently see recommended to newer players in both Legacy and Vintage. The pitch they give is that Dredge wins an absurdly high percentage of pre-board games. A reasonable number of players aren’t going to have an appropriate sideboard or won’t know how to leverage their sideboard hate.
Parts of this are very true. Namely, Dredge wins most game ones and still crushes post board against unprepared players. As for Dredge being a straightforward deck, I have my doubts. Every decision you make over the course of a game seems to be contrary to the habits that you may have formed with “normal” decks in any format. There are a lot of triggers to keep track of and a lot of mechanics that you have to keep straight, both in-game and in the way you execute actions. You have to be very clear about what you’re doing, how you’re doing in, and in what order. Small mistakes make the difference between winning and losing. All of this and we haven’t even started thinking about how you deal with countermagic and discard, much less actual hate cards.
This week, I started out by goldfishing the Dredge deck a few times to get a feeling for the mechanics of the deck. Then I picked out a deck to run games against and played both sides of the match-up to learn how to play against disruption and to best leverage disruption against the Dredge deck. Last, I brought the decks to a local Grand Prix Trial (GPT) and played actual matches with some of the local players who are more familiar with the format.
To start, I want to recognize that there are a number of builds that have been doing well and take some time to talk about the differences. Generally, the decks that I’ve seen doing well fall into two categories: the ones with Flayer of the Hatebound and the ones with Sun Titan. There are three key differences between these two builds.
The first difference is how many Dread Return the deck runs. Sun Titan builds generally only need to resolve one Dread Return to win. Dread Return targeting Sun Titan gets back a Lion’s Eye Diamond or a Cephalid Coliseum to allow you to resolve multiple Cabal Therapy and set up an easy win next turn. On the other hand, Flayer builds generally want to resolve two Dread Return in one turn and kill the opponent on the spot. Because of the increased reliance on Dread Return, the Flayer builds need to run one more copy. You’d think that one slot wouldn’t be a huge deal, but in a deck where you see most cards in your deck every game, it makes a much bigger difference.
The second difference is using Bloodghast or Ichorid. Sun Titan for Cephalid Coliseum buying back Bloodghast for more Dread Return and Cabal Therapy shenanigans is very powerful and easily sets you up to win on your next turn. However, Bloodghasts are much worse at grinding out games with zombie tokens than Ichorid. Ichorid requires extra turns but gives you more longevity in the face of countermagic or other disruption.
The other card that goes along with Ichorid is Putrid Imp. If you don’t need a high density of creatures to exile to Ichorid, you can use extra slots for more dredgers and Cabal Therapy. The downside is that you’re less explosive than other builds and much more reliant on the “Draw, Discard, Dredge” plan.
The last difference between these decks is the number of Cabal Therapy. As I mentioned, the Sun Titan decks have a few more slots free and are more reliant on their disruption since they typically can’t kill in one turn. My impression is that the other builds use Cabal Therapy more as a sacrifice outlet and a way to check that the way is clear first. They are meaningful disruption second. The Sun Titan decks, on the other hand, are heavily reliant on the discard.
Here’s the build that I settled on:
The real question is: what should I play games against? I wanted to pick something that would be interactive. Not something like Reanimator, where there may be some interaction but it’s essentially a race. There are also match-ups that basically revolve around one card, like Dredge vs Maverick. The only card that really matters is Scavenging Ooze, and you either answer it or you don’t–not really that interesting. In the end, I decided to try the UR Delver deck that’s been picking up on MTGO and the SCG series. The list is Chris Boozer’s from SCG Birmingham.
Now, Dredge is usually portrayed as a deck that is very much non-interactive. For the most part that’s true. It puts tremendous pressure on the other deck/player to create opportunities to interact or just to race.
Because of weird cards like Bridge from Below, I wanted to go through this UR Delver deck before playing any games and identify how different cards could interact favorably with the Dredge deck. I think that it’s important to get into the mindset of looking for weird ways to interact so that you’re not making things up on the fly in actual games.
Fortunately, our pre-board interactions are pretty straightforward as far as I can tell. Counterspells stop huge spells like Breakthrough from just killing us on the spot. Creatures and Price of Progress give us a realistic chance of racing. Lastly, your burn spells and Grim Lavamancer give you ways to interact with Bridge from Below, since you can kill your own creatures to exile Bridges. In particular, instant speed burn means that you can wait until they go all-in on generating zombies and kill one of your creatures in response to the Bridge from Below triggers. The Bridges get exiled and because of the way Bridge from Below is worded, the Dredge player does not get any zombies to beat down with.
To sum everything up, here’s how I think you’re approaching this from the Delver side of the match-up. Counter early discard outlets at all costs. If they kept a loose hand, this will give you a few turns to run out creatures while they have to find missing pieces. Otherwise, just run out a few creatures, counter draw spells, and look for opportunities to exile multiple Bridges with burn spells.
With this out of the way, I played ten games where I ran both sides of the matchup just to see how the games tended to play out. Before I get into the games against actual players, I wanted to sum up the things that I took away from the solitaire games.
On the Dredge Side:
- If the Delver deck isn’t applying a ton of pressure, it’s definitely more than possible to just draw, discard, dredge every turn and grind them out with Bloodghast and Cabal Therapy. If your Bridge from Belows get exiled, this is your primary plan. The Narcomoeba/Bloodghast beatdown plan is better than it seems.
- Cabal Therapy is a very difficult card to play with. Generally, blind Therapies name Force of Will or Daze. If you resolve an important spell when they’re tapped out, Spell Pierce and Lightning Bolt aren’t bad calls either.
- The game changes a lot depending on who’s on the play or draw. If you’re on the play, you really want to have some kind of enabler and a Dredger. If you’re on the draw, you can start with the slow dredge plan so that you don’t have to cast spells into their countermagic.
- The problem with the slow dredge plan is that if the Delver deck applies adequate pressure, you have to start casting spells into their countermagic. Once you do that, then just dredging and discarding isn’t really an effective plan anymore. You’ve already invested multiple turns into that plan instead of just trying to kill them.
- Resolving Sun Titan means you win the game. You can pretty easily Dread Return Sun Titan into play and use his trigger to set up another Dread Return that either wins the game or easily sets you up to win next turn.
On the Delver Side:
- You are capable of racing if you have a Delver of Secrets or Goblin Guide backed by a reasonable amount of burn or countermagic. Fundamentally, the match-up hinges on whether or not you have a one drop. If you have one, then you get to play a game. If you don’t, you’re very likely to lose.
- You have to be aware of how Bridge triggers go on the stack. You don’t want to attack into Narcomoeba that can trade because they will end up with Zombies. But, you can block without fear if that ends up happening. The Active Player’s triggers go on the stack before the Non-Active Player. It’s just like how when each player has a Huntmaster of the Fells in play, you want to be the one who passes the turn without playing a spell.
- The spells that you want to counter are exactly what you’d expect. Lion’s Eye Diamond is the most dangerous card in their deck, followed by their draw spells. Other than that, it generally doesn’t matter whether you counter their spell or not since everything else they do is usually more about sacrificing creatures than the actual effect of the spell.
- You are the aggressive deck in this matchup. Dredge can sometimes combo off and just kill you on turn one or two. But, they’re also more than capable of just grinding you out with Bloodghast. You want to capitalize on early dredges that miss key cards. If you give them more time, they will find the cards they need to kill you.
Getting in Some Games
With these lessons under my belt, I brought both decks to our Standard GPT and planned on getting in a few games with some of the better Legacy players at the store. I got in a few hours before the event started to help make sure everything at the store was ready to go. When Chris showed up, I asked him to play the Dredge end of the matchup for a best-of-five match. We’d play the first two games unsideboarded to get an idea of how the dynamic of the pre-board matchup changes based on who plays or draws.
I lost the roll, we resolved mulligans and then Chris turn one’d me on the play, obviously. I guess that’s what I get for keeping a hand without countermagic on the draw. But, mulliganing into disruption seemed like a losing proposition when you can’t win the long game either. Chris ran the mandatory rub-ins while we shuffled up for game two.
Game two was much more interactive–which is not saying a whole lot. I ran out a turn one Goblin Guide, while he started with Lion’s Eye Diamond and Breakthrough. A Daze for Breakthrough buys me time to run out a Delver and Chain Lightning him. At this point, I had a Snapcaster Mage and a Lightning Bolt and was just hoping to find one more burn spell and get in once or twice with my guys to kill him in two turns. His Dredge hit three Bridges and a pair of Narcomoeba. This made it very difficult for me to get in for damage. I threw the game away here by burning a Lightning Bolt on my Goblin Guide to exile his Bridges. Then we sat around for a few turns while my Delver didn’t flip and he started beating me down with Narcomoeba and Bloodghasts.
Here’s how Chris and I sideboarded:
In most of the games I’ve played, Dredge very rarely has more than two lands in play unless they’re just killing you. If Price of Progress is only dealing four damage, I’d rather have cards that do a little more. Similarly, Snapcaster Mage does a lot of work but is very mana intensive. If the game is getting to a point where you can spend three mana to Brainstorm or Lightning Bolt, you’re either already way ahead or you’re too far behind for Tiago to dig you out of it.
I actually disagree with Chris’ sideboarding, but he’s played a lot more Dredge than I have. Elesh Norn seems great against my deck, since you can just reanimate it and buy yourself infinite time to win the game. However, Firestorm seems like a card that you board in against creatures you can’t beat. Scavenging Ooze, Yixlid Jailer, and Gaddock Teeg are reasonable examples. I’d rather have a more consistent engine against a deck that only runs eight counterspells–only four of which are difficult to play around.
In post-board games, Delver did much better. I got to start on the play and had turn one Delver while Chris drew and discarded a dredger. Delver flipped and I Surgical Extractioned his Dredger and then cast some cantrips looking for a Snapcaster Mage, Surgical Extraction, or burn spell. Fortunately, Chris had kept a hand with one dredger and whiffed for two more turns while I ran out guys and burned him out.
In the last two games, countermagic on key plays like Lion’s Eye Diamond and Breakthrough kept him from going off too early. A Surgical Extraction on Narcomoeba/Bloodghast or Dredgers made it much harder for him to assemble the pieces he needed to really do much of anything. These games, if anything, showed me just how powerful the cantrip engines are in the blue decks of this format. Chris’ deck didn’t really get much better after sideboarding, where I was in a much better position to find and leverage my sideboard cards into wins.
Here are the lessons I learned from these games:
- UR Delver is the aggressive deck, first and foremost. All you’re trying to do is use your countermagic and disruption to buy enough time to kill them. Your Surgical Extraction doesn’t have to be a giant blowout. If you’re “only” paying two life to stop them from dredging on their next turn, that’s more than worth it.
- You generally don’t want to burn out your guys to exile their bridges. While this is a cute trick and may seem like the “pro” play, this is a deck that is going to kill its opponent at two life with one card left in its hand. You really can’t afford to waste cards unless you would die otherwise.
- When you’re casting cantrips, leave burn spells and Snapcaster Mage on top of your deck rather than drawing them. Once the Dredge player resolves a spell, they know that you don’t have relevant countermagic, and they’ll start naming burn spells with their Cabal Therapy so that you can’t kill them.
After we finished, it was just about time to get the GPT started. We helped make sure everyone was registered. The GPT went pretty well. The store got just over 75 players, the event paid out to the top 16 and the prizes included multiple foreign boxes of different sets in standard. After seven long rounds, I ended up in 11th, got some Japanese Dark Ascension for my trouble and was ready to get in some games of Legacy while the top eight played out.
This time I asked a different Chris to play the Dredge side of the matchup. This Chris plays Vintage and Commander almost exclusively, but is willing to play in Legacy events when he has the time. He’s been playing Dredge since the deck was good in both Vintage and Legacy. This seemed like a great opportunity to see how experienced Dredge players pilot the deck differently; maybe there were some things that I’d missed.
Unfortunately, we only had time to get in the first three of five games. He smashed me in all three, so we didn’t really need the last two except for the sake of experience. That said, the difference between someone who “plays dredge” and someone who “Plays Dredge” was pretty readily apparent. In each of the games that we played, Chris took a more controlling role than I would have. He wasn’t racing to go off. He wasn’t Cabal Therapying away counterspells. Instead, he was getting rid of burn spells, leaving Narcomoeba in play to make it difficult to attack, and just protecting his life total.
When I asked him about it, he said that if I couldn’t kill him, he was going to win. I had very few meaningful ways to interact before sideboarding, so there was no reason for him to play into countermagic or even worry about resolving very many spells. He can win the game without casting any spells, and has infinite time to do so unless I can apply adequate pressure.
This is how Chris sideboarded with the list that I built:
On the play:
His thinking here is the same as before. As long as I can’t kill him, he’s going to win. Realistically, I have to present a reasonable clock while being capable of exiling Bridge from Below, Narcomoeba, and Bloodghast in order to not eventually lose to the inevitability of infinite guys. Leylines buy you at least two turns, since I have very few actual creatures in my deck. This gives you more time to set up and play around graveyard hate. Sometimes I’ll find all of it and neuter your deck, but what happens then? We go to game three, you’re on the play, and I’m very unlikely to be able to win on the draw.
On the draw:
While Chris brought in his Leylines on the play, he chose not to on the draw. You almost always want seven cards in your hand on the draw so that you can immediately discard. If you put a Leyline into play, you either give your opponent a free turn to get in another hit with their creatures or you have to cast spells into their countermagic. If they counter your spells, it takes even longer to get back to the point where you can discard.
Elesh Norn is a creature I will have a very difficult time beating and can’t realistically interact with if it resolves. Going for a Dread Return on Flame-Kin Zealot has the potential to be a gigantic blowout in my favor if I can exile your Bridge from Belows so that you invested a ton of time and effort into a 3/3 with haste as opposed to a game-ending bomb.
So in the end, what did I learn from all of this? Dredge is a very cerebral deck. Playing it correctly requires paying a lot of attention to small details. You can’t miss any triggers and can’t stack your effects improperly or you will lose games on the spot. But there are also more subtle mistakes that people who just start playing it may make without realizing – mistakes regarding sequencing, choosing to draw cards as opposed to dredging when you’re missing a piece, when to cast spells and when to just discard and dredge.
That said, the deck is very powerful, and you will win a lot of game ones against the field. You will also win a lot more sideboarded games than you really should because people don’t really know how to interact with the deck.
I also learned that, thus far, the deck that’s been the most similar to a deck from any other format is UR Delver. The deck plays an awful lot like UW Delver in Standard, and is the most straightforward of all of the decks I’ve played with so far. Your gameplan is simple. Cast some guys, burn their guys out of the way, counter any spells that kill you or stop you from killing them, and then cast Price of Progress. Of all of the decks I’ve tried so far, this one seems the most accessible to someone completely unfamiliar with the format.
UR Delver doesn’t have any matchups that you auto lose. The deck has enough play that you can adapt to things that you didn’t see coming. Most importantly, the deck will be fine for someone new to the format, but still gives plenty of space to improve by identifying the important facets of each matchup.
In the end, I’m glad that I got a chance to play with and against Dredge. That said, I don’t think that it’s a deck I really want to play for an extended period of time because it’s not particularly interactive. I’m much more of a control player than a combo player. With that in mind, I think next week I want to try some kind of BUG or UWx control deck, and run it against the flagship midrange deck of the format: the Esper Blade deck that took off at GP Indy!
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