Chatter of the Squirrel – Dredge

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Normally, when I talk about a deck I immediately go into the different matchups, how to play versus each opponent, what particular strategies to worry about, but the unique thing about Dredge is that against any given opponent there are, between maindeck and sideboard, only twelve to fifteen cards that you care about whatsoever.

A lot to say, a little time to say it, even less space. I’m the type of person who needs a desk and a full belly to do any amount of work, and here I sit hungry and boxer-clad on the edge of my bed trying to type while an LCD screen flickers in my lap.

Originally this article was going to be epic, as both Magic: The Gathering and my own relation to it are undergoing broad changes that may affect their very foundations. But as I started to type I realized I needed to withhold judgment – at least until Kuala Lumpur – and capitalize on something that’s been very foreign to me lately:


Yes, kids, Chatter actually had the opportunity to sit down and play ten-game sets this past weekend, and for the first time in a very long time he developed – gasp! – what he considers to be an optimal list for an established archetype.

Normally, when I talk about a deck I immediately go into the different matchups, how to play versus each opponent, what particular strategies to worry about, but the unique thing about Dredge is that against any given opponent there are, between maindeck and sideboard, only twelve to fifteen cards that you care about whatsoever. Instead of broadly covering archetypes, therefore, I want to talk about how this deck works against the particular cards you can expect will be used against it – and, if you’re the person employing those cards, how to get maximum value out of them.

Even more importantly, though, I want to discuss the composition of the maindeck and sideboard, because this list is very different from many of the lists I’ve seen. I’ve been working on Dredge since Valencia, and I feel that I have a good amount of insight into why the deck works the way it does, and why certain directions people are taking the archetype are less than optimal.

I won’t bore all of you with a card-by-card, but I will explain everything that might raise an eyebrow. Anything else you’re curious about, please let me know in the forums.

First, what’s not in the deck.

0 Tolarian Winds.

This is the exact type of card I think is utter garbage in the Dredge deck. With this deck, more than any other deck I have ever seen, you want the exact same thing to happen every game, and you want to streamline your cards so as to keep the maximum number of possible hands. Seventeen or maybe eighteen lands is the absolute maximum you can run – four of them being Cephalid Coliseums – while keeping the core of the deck intact, and most lists from the PTQ season run anywhere from fourteen to sixteen. With that low of a count – and four of those lands being Cephalid Coliseums, which draw cards anyway – I simply do not understand the desire for a two mana spell. The number of games in which you can cast it is not that large. Moreover, and this is even more important, the two best (or most frequently played, anyway) styles of decks in the format play Thoughtseizes, Cabal Therapies, Spell Snares, Force Spikes, and even good old-fashioned Counterspells that are likely to rip this card from your hand before it does anything. This is not the archetype for spells that cost more than one mana.

0 Cephalid Sage

I have played around forty pre-board games and sixty sideboarded games with this version of the deck, and I have literally yet to lose a game when I have cast a Dread Return. The golden rule of combination deck design is that you don’t need to expend any space making your deck better once it’s going off. In fact, a guiding principle you’ll see me talk about again and again and again is that the overwhelming majority of the time you don’t need to actually kill the opponent to win a match with this deck.

One of the reasons people think PT Junk is (or was) insane is that it has multiple five-power creatures it can play on turn 2. It actually makes significant sacrifices – playing Extended without Blue cards in the deck, playing disruption without a “trump card” like Destructive Flow – to play more second-turn five power guys. Imagine if you had a deck that, instead of casting five-fives, routinely dropped 9/9 regenerators that Ambassador Oaked in three to six 2/2 Zombie tokens. You’d play that deck in a heartbeat, right?

Cool. This deck does that. Why do you want to get greedy and take up valuable space reanimating little dudes that reanimate more little dudes that eventually can potentially attack for one big lethal strike at the cost of 1) making yourself dependent upon Bridge from Below, which can be dealt with in fifty thousand different ways and 2) using 3-5 slots in your deck on spells that can never feasibly be hard cast. It makes no sense.

The one Flame-kin Zealot is only a concession to the other combo decks in the format that you might not be able to race with a Troll or Akroma.

0 Polluted Delta, Flooded Strand, Watery Grave, Hallowed Fountain, Breeding Pool

I am mystified by why people play dual lands and sac lands in this deck. In a deck that can maybe afford thirteen or fourteen multicolored sources maximum, you absolutely do not under any circumstances want to have to mulligan a hand because you drew your one Watery Grave and need to cast a Tireless Tribe. Moreover, even if you think that Tarnished Citadel is too loose to play, the configuration should still be 4 Mine 4 City of Brass 2 Sac-land and 2 duals. Mine and City of Brass are actually the perfect lands in this deck. In any given match you’re going to tap lands a total of three times maybe. That’s much better than any dual is going to give you.

Given those conditions, why is Tarnished Citadel even that bad? Cracking a sac-land for a dual is three damage, and if your manabase is three to five duals and six to eight sac-lands, you’re probably going to do that twice. That’s exactly the same as using a Citadel twice, without the restrictions on colored mana.

4 Tireless Tribe

This is the best card in the deck hands down, and I’m mystified why people do not auto-include this guy as a four-of. Against any deck that tries to attack you with creatures, you draw this guy and a Dredge outlet and you cannot possibly lose. You block their biggest creature, every turn, for free. Moreover, playing eight one mana cheap creatures decreases your reliance on Bridge from Below, which is the easiest angle people think they can attack this deck from. In fact, I hate publishing this article because I know once I point out what people need to attack I’ll stop winning so many games that I never should take under any circumstances. Whenever someone Extirpates my Bridges I want to take a victory lap.

Extirpating Dread Return = extremely difficult to win. Extirpating Bridge from Below = “sweet, my opponent spent a mana and cannot interact with me anymore!”

Also, the Tribe creates a lot of awkward situations on the opponent’s side of the table, such as the following match from an actual playtesting session:

Opponent: Overgrown Tomb, Birds of Paradise

Me: Gemstone Mine, Tireless Tribe

Opponent: Forest, Doran the Siege Tower

Me: Attack

Opponent: “No Blocks”

Me: “This is so awkward.”

The thing is that even if your opponent doesn’t just donk the game there, he still trades the Tower for a random card in your hand. When he is set up to make that his strongest play, the entire gameplan changes.

Speaking of decreasing my reliance upon Bridge from Below

3 Golgari Thug

I really wanted this number to be four, but Darkblast was just too important in the mirror and against Jailers (if you can see it coming) and Gaddock Teeg that I had to make a concession. But one of the most effective ways of combating Dredge game 1 is to kill (or steal) most of its actual creatures and neutralize its Bridges with removal on your own guys or via creatures with sacrifice abilities. With this many Thugs, though, it is very easy to just Dredge him back and cast him, or sacrifice him to Cabal Therapy, get a Bridge token, and put a Narcomoeba on top of your library before dredging again. All of the sudden, instead of the four Putrid Imps and maybe one or two Thugs that many lists play as their actual non-Narcomoeba creatures, you now have eleven. This means that unless the opponent kills you, you will be casting Dread Return within one to two turns after you start Dredging, even through Sakura Tribe Elders and Mogg Fanatics.

2 Cabal Therapy

I fought very hard for the first one of these, and the second solves so many problems. See, one of the reasons that you can be so reliant upon the Grave-Troll plan is that you can Therapy away Wrath of Gods or Putrefies or Cryptic Commands or Solitary Confinements that people may attempt to use to deal with him. A lot of people seem to think that if you deal with Dredge’s first wave you’re clear, high, and dry, but that is simply not close to the case. It’s very easy to cast two, even three Dread Returns if necessary with this deck, and assuming you have to take a hit before you can deal with the Zombies or Akroma or Grave-Troll it’s more than reasonable that you’ll die to an army of flying Narcomoebas and Putrid Imps. Remember, the PImp can smack you around.

1 Ichorid

The thing is, you don’t have enough Black creatures to really make an Ichorid plan effective on its own. The only matchup where this really came up, anyway, was against Tron; they had actually no plan against even two recurring hasty 3/1s a turn. Nobody plays Tron. You run this guy as a fifth Narcomoeba, essentially, or a way to kick-start your Bridges that’s a little more versatile than a third Cabal Therapy (because again, it’s a guy that can come into play around a Mogg Fanatic). I wish I could run one more of these, but there’s no way to make that happen.

1 Akroma, Angel of Wrath

Sometimes, a Troll is going to get chump-blocked into oblivion or killed. Akroma, she doesn’t hang with that.

Clearly, though, you don’t need me expounding at length about why Dredge is good game 1 against most of the field. Although I think this is the most highly-tuned version of the deck, you’ve still got to have a plan for the sideboard or you’re going to lose to Leylines.

I’ve tried a lot of innovative solutions to try and circumvent the graveyard hate problem, but time and time again they keep proving to be suboptimal. As much as I hate to do it, you basically have to fight the opponent on his terms. I’ll give most of the sideboard plan credit to Richard Feldman, and include his notes on why he sideboards like he does. He can say it better than I can. More important than figuring out what cards you use to fight certain battles, though, it’s crucial to understand why you care about certain cards.

If Chapin (::dreamy::) can c/p his chats with GerryT, I sure can c/p my facebook messages with Richard, since he explains sideboarding better than I do anyway…

I tested the Dredge mirror and learned the following:

The most luck-dependant part of the matchup is the order in which you draw your Bridges and the opponent draws ways to remove them. If you flip three Bridges early but can’t go off and he just gets you with Therapy, Ichorid, or Darkblast on one of his own Narcomoebas next turn, it’s really tough to win the Zombie war. You have to hope you can get there with Akroma before he Legend Rules it.

This matchup is why Darkblast is important. Unless one of you goes off right away and just crushes the other guy, it’s important to be able to off your own Narcomoebas ASAP in order to kill the opponent’s Bridges and trigger your own, and Darkblast is a dredgeable way to do that. Obviously it has applications in other matchups as well.

However, most often what happens in the Dredge Mirror is that one guy just goes off a turn earlier and steamrolls the other. I tried Platinum Angel in the maindeck, but found that if you’re in a position to Dread Return anything at all, it almost always means you’re winning.

The most important part about the post-board matchup is having Leyline of the Void. Seriously. The most effective strategy I found is mulliganing to Leyline no matter what. One time I did that, kept a zero-lander, and drew a land before my opponent’s Putrid Imp could solo me (it never gets to 2/2 when Leyline is out). I eventually won on like turn 7 after I drew a land. I also tested the Cripple Fight matchup (where we both have Leylines), and learned that Stinkweed Imp is the king of that matchup. The other creatures involved are Tireless Tribe, 1/1 Putrid Imp, and Narcomoeba, and Stinky is just bigger than all of those. Grave-Troll is always 0/0, obviously. Basically, you never want to Darkblast anything but a Stinkweed Imp, and you want to use Breakthroughs only when you can cast them for 2+. Ichorid is crap and should be thrown away if anything better at all shows up; 3 points to the dome is sort of like 1 point to the dome in regular Magic, because everyone’s life total is inflated due to the fact that damage is only being done in one-point increments.


Board versus Doran bringing in Leylines
+3 Chain of Vapor
+2 Ray of Revelation
-2 Golgari Thug
-1 Flame-Kin Zealot
-1 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
-1 Ichorid

Board versus Shackles
+3 Pithing Needle
+3 Chalice of the Void
-2 Careful Study
-1 Golgari Thug
-1 Flame-Kin Zealot
-1 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
-1 Darkblast

Board versus Dredge
+3 Leyline of the Void
-1 Golgari Thug
-1 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
-1 Ichorid

Board versus Martyr
+3 Leyline of the Void
+3 Pithing Needle
-2 Careful Study
-1 Golgari Thug
-1 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
-1 Flame-Kin Zealot
-1 Darkblast

The most important thing I discovered was the 3/3/3 sideboard strategy of Leyline, Needle, and Chalice. Note the difference between Red Decks on the Play and Red Decks on the Draw, and how completely destroyed Martyr decks are when you bring in both Needle AND Leyline.

Anyway, I am definitely PTQing with this. Not close.

Board versus Red Decks on the play
+3 Chalice of the Void
+2 Pithing Needle
+1 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
-4 Putrid Imp
-1 Golgari Thug
-1 Flame-Kin Zealot

Board versus Red Decks on the draw
+3 Pithing Needle
+3 Leyline of the Void
+1 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
-4 Putrid Imp
-1 Golgari Thug
-1 Flame-Kin Zealot
-1 Cabal Therapy

The reasoning behind boarding out Putrid Imps is that the primary situation in which Putrid Imp (and Tireless Tribe) is good is when you play him, discard something, untap, dredge, discard the thing again, and then cast a draw spell to dredge a second time. Against the Red decks he often gets burned, and can only discard once. In that situation, he is not the hotness, to say the least.

I struggled a lot with what to take out in that matchup, because you need to bring so much in. The reason I went with Imp was that although you only have eight “quality” turn 1 plays when you board out Imp (Careful Study, Tireless Tribe), you can still keep certain hands against the Red decks that bank on turn 1 or turn 2 Breakthrough as a discard outlet, provided you have a Leyline or Needle or something to back them up.

For example, turn 1 Needle, turn 2 Breakthrough for one (keeping another Breakthrough or activating Coliseum), turn 3 go nuts drawing, is probably going to beat whatever the Red deck has. This is not necessarily true in other matchups – Next Level Blue can counter your discard outlet of Breakthrough if you wait to cast it, for example – but against the Red decks, when you really do need two Akromas AND the six anti-hate cards AND the Crippling Fatigue, you have to make cuts somewhere, and I think the weakest of the discard outlets (in the matchup where it can get burned out, that is) is the right one to cut. Along with a Thug and the Zealot, naturally.

By the way, the reason I leave in a Therapy on the play against them instead of a Needle is that turn 1 Therapy for Tormod’s Crypt (only when you’re on the play, obviously) gets rid of it while putting a Therapy in your yard.

Okay, sweet. That’s brilliant, because it’s Rich, but what are the dependent variables upon which those different strategies rely?

Decks in the format have five primary strategies against you: Leyline, Crypt, Bridge-hate (STE, Fanatic, Wild Cantor), “Hosers” (Confinement, Meddling Mage, Gaddock Teeg, Yixlid Jailer), and Extirpate.

Leyline is simultaneously the best and worst card to bring in against you. What’s the absolute best about it is obviously that you cannot go off at all while it’s on the table, and you can’t pre-emptively deal with it because it’s on the table at the beginning of the game. If they keep a hand with both Leyline, a way to make you discard a bounce spell, and the mana to do anything else relevant, then you’re in bad shape. On the other hand, if you do have a bounce spell, then they’re not casting Leyline on any relevant turn and it’s almost as if they hadn’t brought hate in at all. Also, unlike Crypt or especially Extirpate, they can’t topdeck the card and have it be relevant immediately. One of the reasons that LSV is brilliant, actually, is that he incorporated a Trinket Mage shell into his Junk build, and so through the addition of one mere sideboard slot now can fight Dredge on two entirely different angles (Leyline and Crypt). This proves to be too many cards to fight at once – there are only so many cards to bring in, after all – and so the Dredge matchup is extremely, extremely good for him.

Crypt is much worse than Leyline against you because you have a chance to take it out of their hand with Therapy, and one Needle/Chalice stops all their Crypts. Chalice in particular is a huge beating because you don’t have to spend a turn doing it, and this crucial advantage is worth spending the extra three slots (because much like Chain of Vaporing a Leyline, it allows you to play your straight game-1 game). Be careful, though, for timely Grudges on your key artifacts. It’s possible to play around Crypt, actually – remember, you can easily cast two Dread Returns in a given game in the span of two turns, maximum – but don’t Dredge more than you absolutely have to.

You actually don’t care about Bridge Hate at all unless you’re on some kind of lightning fast clock. Mogg Fanatic is much more relevant because it kills a Narcomoeba and prevents you from getting to the three-creature threshold, but if someone’s taking the Wild Cantor angle just keep dredging and eventually you’ll put three creatures on the playing field. What is tight is that the decks that most frequently have these cards – Red decks – cannot actually disrupt you, so it’s very possible to just chill with a Breakthrough in hand behind a Tireless Tribe and wait until you rip the gas. Also, if you are concerned about Akroma not being enough to kill them before you get in burn range, you can always board Ancestor’s Chosen. The fact that Leyline trumps things like Fanatic and STE is icing on the cake.

Hosers like Confinement, Teeg, and Mage are easy because of Crippling Fatigue and Ray of Revelation, respectively. Yixlid Jailer is much more difficult because it’s hard to anticipate people’s bringing him in in multiples, but against most Black decks you’ll have bounce spells anyway and so you can create a one-turn window to cast relevant spells (and if you see Darkblast then you’re obviously in the clear). Overall, these are also very bad against you because you can trump them strategically and don’t need to rely on drawing a particular card.

Extirpate is the most problematic because you won’t know if they have it until you see it. Therefore you have to rely on seeing a Cabal Therapy before you see a Dread Return, which is a full crapshoot (though you can still dredge DI and make a ton of Zombies with your Therapies – and if they stop that by Extirpating your Bridges, you just say “Sweet” and reanimate a Troll or Akroma). Once you know they have it you can play a nice Chalice at One game, which as a side effect will allow you to play a turn 1 Dredge outlet while still crippling a good portion of their interaction mechanisms.

Well, that was a whole lot of words. In short, I think Dredge is the deck to play, not close, for the average PTQ player. I will most likely be running it at the next GP I attend. The Patrick/Gerry/LSV/Tom/DI others deck is excellent, don’t get me wrong, and I completely appreciate the argument that a lot of other decks in the format give you the “chance to play more Magic.” But Dredge is much, much more interactive than people think it is, and has a lot more B, C, and D game after its initial angle of attack is disrupted (Putrid Imp and three Narcomoebas – which you can easily Dredge to by turn three or four – is a very fast clock, for example) than people generally worry about playtesting. Many of the deck’s optimal plays aren’t intuitive, and many of the interactions are complex.

Nevertheless, you’re playing an entirely different game than anyone else is, and I expect that’ll manifest itself in your records.

Happy grinding.