Deep Analysis – Join ‘Em!

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Last week, Richard walked us through some of the non-graveyard decks that may feature highly in the upcoming Pro Tour: Valencia. This week, Deep Analysis concentrates on those very graveyard-centric decks that last week he was trying to beat. Utilizing the yard is the strategy du jour for any serious Extended mage… so how do you maximize your chances to prevail despite the inevitable hate?

Last week, I wrote:

“Depending on how things go, I may have more to talk about on these ‘Beat ‘Em’ decks next week, or else a brand-new discussion of what is in store for our ‘Join ‘Em’ Graveyard-ful strategies.”

For a summary of how things went, see the title of this article. The three decks I presented last week each stumbled on too many of the following: the Dredge matchup, the Red Deck matchup, the Loam matchup, and/or the TEPS matchup. I’m greedy (er, ambitious?), so I want favorable matchups against all of those – or, barring that, maybe all but one – so it’s back to the drawing board for me.


There’s an interesting school of sideboarding methodology that has you sit down with your deck and a list of matchups, and construct an ideal build of your deck for each matchup. You then find the fifteen cards that let you most effectively transform into all of those ideal builds (making allowances for space where necessary), and Bob’s your uncle. I’m oversimplifying, but you get the gist of it.

What would an ideal post-board Dredge list look like against the average Extended deck?

I didn’t pick a specific matchup, because – let’s be honest – it’s all about the hate. You know they have it; the question is how you’re going to deal with it. In this environment, you really should expect Leyline, Yixlid, or Tormod’s in all post-board games.

So what’s the ideal build? Say you start off with Patrick Chapin’s NarcoBridge list, which is “tuned to goldfish people.”

One option is to shrug and say “they won’t draw ‘em.” Don’t even reach for the sideboard in between games, just keep your deck doing what it does best and crush them if they have the ill fortune to draw none of their relevant cards. I mean, obviously they will draw ‘em sometimes, but if you won the first game, the pressure is on the other guy to see trump cards in both post-board games. This is not a joke option, by any stretch – even slight variations like “just bring in some Chain of Vapors” are terrifyingly successful in this format. You seriously can opt to ignore the presence of the opponent’s sideboard and just power through him on goldfish consistency any time he doesn’t “have it.”

If you lose the first game, however, this is no longer a viable strategy. The effectiveness of the “a match is two out of three games, friend” sideboard plan is predicated entirely on your consistent ability to win game 1, and as the power of dredge becomes more and more apparent, more and more maindecks are setting themselves up to bring the hate. We’re not at the point yet where people are maindecking Tormod’s Crypt as anything but a tutor target (with the notable exception of Affinity), but if we get to that point before the Pro Tour, is it wise to have settled on a dredge list that is unprepared for that scenario?

When you’re down a game, betting on the other guy’s inability to draw trumps in either post-board game is more of a Hail Mary than a calculated risk. Even if the opponent isn’t equipped to disrupt you in the first game, Magic is still Magic; you won’t always draw the cards you need to put together a win. Of course, if you find yourself in a “must win both” situation after game one, you’re in a heap of trouble if you have omitted an anti-hate sideboard strategy in favor of the above goldfishing plan.

So what do you do? What is Dredge’s game plan if you need to win two games against Jailer and friends?

One way is the default “answer your trump” plan, which Patrick’s list includes. You just aim to draw Chain of Vapor when they have Leyline or Jailer (though Chain does not have the greatest track record against the 2/1 for 1B), or Pithing Needle if their answer is Crypt or Engineered Explosives. That’s simple enough, but what do you take out?

One option is to remove Ichorid plus some number of Golgari Thugs and/or discard outlets (preserving the ratios of dredgers to outlets as much as possible) to make room for these countermeasures, moving all-in on the Bridge into Dread Return plan. This will work fine unless the other guy has an easy way to remove Bridges by killing his own guys, by using such suicide soldiers as Mogg Fanatic and Grim Lavamancer, or by flashing Cabal Therapy. If NarcoBridge is all about Bridge, these cards present an entirely new angle of attack, and require additional sideboard answers. If the other guy has Mogg Fanatics and Tormod’s Crypts, will one Needle save you if you are all-in on Bridge?

So maybe you leave in the Ichorids, shift away from the Bridge strategy a bit, and take out some Narcomoebas instead. You might also remove a Bridge or two, maybe a discard outlet, or possibly a Thug. With this plan, you’re definitely better off in the Fanatic plus Crypt versus one Needle scenario… but by how much? You have these Ichorids in your deck, but not much to back them up. Depending on the exact circumstances, you can probably sneak some Zombies in from Bridge, but you still have to actually kill the other guy with those couple Zombies plus the three Ichorids.

How to handle the post-board games is the critical question facing every Dredger today; the deck is under all kinds of fire right now, and the haters are fanning the flames every day. A few theorists scoff at the notion of resilience, and are inherently opposed to exploring a deck that is targeted for hate; at that, I scoff right back. If the most powerful deck in the format is speed-oriented Dredge, who can say with certainty that the second-most powerful deck must be of another archetype altogether, and that Dredge is not so busted that the runner-up might not be resilience-oriented Dredge? Furthermore, who can say that a resilient build of the mighty Dredge must be a worse tournament choice than a more fragile build of the same, and also a worse choice than an underpowered archetype with fewer guns aimed at it? When I see a deck so powerful that it commands sideboard respect from every player in the room, I have to wonder how the deck would fare if it were built to anticipate those sideboards.

The broad question at hand is, “Can I still win if the opponent lands his hate card early?” If all he has is a Leyline, and I immediately Chain of Vapor it away, the answer should be pretty obvious. If I don’t have the Chain, though, or if bouncing Yixlid Jailer for a turn doesn’t buy me enough Dredging time to eke out a win, there is still room for improvement.

So let’s dust off the ol’ spectacles and take a look. Where to start?

The obvious downside to a Dredge deck optimized for speed is that it has to play all sorts of individually wimpy cards. They are focused tools selected to be combo pieces first and “Plan B” supporters second, if at all. Compare Zombie Infestation to the shiny new Tireless Tribe. Mox-less Zombie Infestation is a full turn slower at getting you moving than the Tribe is, but which is better when Leyline of the Void is in play? Turn 2 ZI into three immediate 2/2s plus reinforcements every other turn is a fragile Plan A, but if you didn’t draw Chain of Vapor for their Leyline, it’s a lot better than a 1/1 dork that pumps itself +0/+4. You’d be surprised how many draws fold to six power on turn 2; by choosing ZI over Tribe, you sacrifice a bit of speed in game 1 to gain opportunistic game 2 victories, stolen out from beneath the opponent’s graveyard hate.

Is that a worthwhile trade, though? Zombie Infestation is a full turn slower than Tribe, unless you have a Mox to go with it. Losing a turn is a big deal when you are relying on a speedy kill to get the job done.

However, you don’t get bonus points in Magic for winning quickly. You just get points for winning. If you play Tireless Tribe, you might kill the other guy on turn 3. If you play Zombie Infestation, you might not even have him on turn 4; maybe he mounted a counter-offense while you were setting up, and now you have to chump with some tokens while racing with your Ichorids. If you still win that game on turn 7, though… who cares? You still won.

People may cry up and down that “diluting the deck” is inherently bad for the archetype, but ignoring the Pros column of the trade-off and cranking up the volume on the Cons does not make the Pros magically disappear. Whether sacrificing speed for tactical superiority (when “Plan B” is necessary) is an overall improvement or detriment to the deck’s win ratios is something that cannot be answered by theory; only testing will tell which strategy yields the best results when unclear trade-offs are present on both sides.

When Yixlid Jailer is choking your ability to dredge, Narcomoeba is… well, it’s no Storm Crow. Again, by tuning for maximum speed when undisrupted, you commit yourself to a real stinker when you’re backed into a corner. Even the mighty Tolarian Winds is pitiful in the face of a turn 0 Leyline of the Void. Who wants to pay 1U to discard their hand and then actually just draw a set of new ones? Let’s not even get started on Dread Return and Bridge from Below.

Pre-Future Sight Ichorid lists had a lot more room to maneuver. They had not only Zombie Infestation, but also Psychatog (who is more useful against Yixlid Jailer than Leyline or Crypt, to be fair) and, in some cases, even Wild Mongrel to brawl with. A motley offense, by a dedicated aggro deck’s standards, but much better at stealing wins than the all-star team of Tireless Tribe and hardcast Narcomoeba, backed up by exciting blanks like Dread Return and Breakthrough.

Tinkering With Dredge

So how do we put this concept into practice?

The danger of tuning for resilience is that if you are not careful, you can dilute the core strategy to the point where it loses the general potency that made the deck a good choice in the first place. Obviously if you cut a single Tireless Tribe for a Zombie Infestation, you have not crippled the deck’s speed… but replace all the Tribes, and then the Putrid Imps with Wild Mongrels and the Careful Studies with Psychatogs, and you have to start wondering if you are doing more harm than good. Only testing will tell you if you can make the deck resilient without disarming its original selling points.

For both the NarcoBridge and Ichorid-centric lists, the core strategy is the same.

Step 1: Discard a card with Dredge
Step 2: Dredge it
Step 3: Profit from cards that are good when placed in the graveyard

You repeat those three steps as many times as it takes to kill the opponent.

There are many different discard outlets available to accomplish step one, from Putrid Imp to Zombie Infestation to Tolarian Winds to Psychatog. Besides the obvious factor of cost, I think the easiest way to illustrate the relative upsides and downsides of their effects is to examine what they do for you when you have 0, 1, or 2+ dredge cards. (We’ll say that the “zero dredge cards” case applies whenever you cannot dredge, such as when Jailer or Leyline are in play.)

Discard Outlets

Tolarian Winds

The Good (2+ Dredge cards): In a speed-oriented build, the game is often over as soon as this resolves. Even if you have only two dredgers in hand, you will probably dredge into a third one, meaning at least a quarter of your deck should hit the bin thanks to this card alone – potentially as early as turn 1. Winning should come easily from there.

The Bad (1 Dredge card): The hope here is that the one dredger mills you into some more; otherwise, you’re going to be stuck actually drawing a bunch of cards that you can only hope will be more dredgers and/or discard outlets for you to use later. This scenario has a lot of potential power, but it is not the glittering-eyes blowout that you expect when you cast Winds with two dredgers in hand.

The Ugly (0 Dredge cards): Unless you are in this position because you are cut off from dredging (Leyline, etc.), Winds is surprisingly nice here. If none of the cards in your hand are dredgers, then presumably you have mulliganed once or twice. Discarding them all in exchange for taking a fresh look at the top 3-5 cards of your library gives you a better shot at finding a dredger and getting the engine going than, say, Putrid Imp would.

Putrid Imp / Tireless Tribe

The Good (2+ Dredge cards): Since you’ll probably pitch two or more of the dredgers right away, you can expect to be attacking for two points of Flying damage per turn with Imp, beginning on turn 2. Your dredge outlet disappears if the creature dies, but unless the removal is Sudden Shock, you can set yourself up for a few more dredges in response by dumping whichever ones are left into the bin. Tireless Tribe is tougher to burn out, but unless you find a Deep Analysis or Cephalid Coliseum, either of these guys limits you to one Dredge per turn.

The Bad (1 Dredge card): As long as the enabler doesn’t die, you can keep dredging the one dredger in your hand every turn until the cows come home. That’s a lot better than going into topdeck mode like you do if Tolarian Winds whiffs on one dredger.

The Ugly (0 Dredge cards): 1/1 for one, anyone?… Awesome. You can, like, maybe pitch an Ichorid and another Black creature, and beat for three.

Careful Study / Breakthrough

The Good (2+ Dredge cards): Casting one of these on turn 1, drawing some random cards, and discarding two dredgers, can lead to chain dredges on your draw step that make it irrelevant that you have no persistent discard outlet. In that respect, they’re pretty much worse than the other turn 1 enablers in the same situation; at least the others give you explosiveness (Tolarian Winds) or a body.

The Bad (1 Dredge card): Far more so than when you have two dredgers, you really want another discard outlet here so that you can cast the draw spell with a dredger in the graveyard. It will be much tougher to ride one dredge card to victory off a Careful Study or Breakthrough, unless you immediately dredge into another and begin chaining thereafter, or end up with a different outlet in your hand after the drawing.

The Ugly (0 Dredge cards): As with Winds, these don’t present much of a Plan B themselves, but they at least offer the chance to draw you into something better. That’s not much consolation for a deck that aspires to explosive draws, but it’s better than dead weight.

Zombie Infestation

The Good (2+ Dredge cards): You get as many Zombies as you like, plus a discard outlet that is tough to contend with. However, you don’t get these things until turn 2 unless you have a Chrome Mox. In terms of explosive dredging potential, ZI is worse than both Putrid Imp and Tolarian Winds; at least when Winds is cast on the second turn, it can dredge multiple times to compensate for having missed out on the first turn.

The Bad (1 Dredge card): On average, this is a much more reliable card to have in this situation than either Imp or Winds. You don’t have to immediately dredge into another dredger as you do with Winds, and it’s a much tougher recurring outlet to kill than Putrid Imp.

The Ugly (0 Dredge cards): Assuming you have nothing better to do with your hand than turn it into undead beaters, this is a perfectly fine standalone card. It is possibly the best of the discard outlets to have when you cannot profitably discard anything.

Wild Mongrel / Psychatog

The Good (2+ Dredge cards): Like ZI, these guys require Mox action to let you start dredging on turn 2 (lots of Mox action in the case of Tog), but they do a better job supporting your dredge action than do Imp or Tribe. Like the White one-drop, Tog and Mongrel are much tougher to burn out than is Putrid Imp, which is an important quality for enablers. Tog justifies his lofty three-mana price tag by presenting lethal damage within a turn or two of hitting the table.

The Bad (1 Dredge card): These guys are kind of middle-of-the-road here. Imp and Tribe get the engine going faster, ZI offers more support than Mongrel does, and Tog only offers any support at all if you can cast him in time for him to matter.

The Ugly (0 Dredge cards): Certainly better than Imp or Tribe. The cards in your hand represent an additional six-ish points of potential damage to the opponent’s dome via Mongrel pumps over the course of the game, and another 3-6 on top of that for Tog. Those really help out when you’re relying on suboptimal beaters and maybe Cabal Therapy to win it for you.

The trend is that the recurring outlets, Putrid Imp, Zombie Infestation, Psychatog, and Tireless Tribe, offer consistency – assuming they stay on the table. You can discard a Stinkweed Imp and dredge it every turn with an Infestation, but a Careful Study that lands only one Grave-Troll in the bin can stall your graveyard development unless you flip another dredger.

The draw-and-discard spells, on the other hand, offer explosiveness over consistency. A second-turn Tolarian Winds will not help you dredge one lick from turn 3 onward, but man oh man will it ever mill some stuff on turn 2. The same goes for Careful Study and Breakthrough.

Support Cards

Deep Analysis / Cephalid Sage

The former has been a staple of Ichorid that has been largely absent in NarcoBridge, as the latter deck prefers to use the mana-free combo of Dread Return into Sage to propel its milling engine forward. Either way, it seems important to have some way to draw cards once the ball is rolling, in order to put the opponent away in a timely manner.

Street Wraith

This is one of the hottest cards for Dredge to come out of Future Sight. Consider that the big difference between (Mox-less) Zombie Infestation and Tireless Tribe is that one lets you dredge from turn 1 onward, and the other lets you dredge from turn 2 onward. There is a big difference between discarding an Ichorid and a Grave-Troll on turn 1 and doing the same on turn 2… likewise, there is a big difference between discarding them on turn 1 and then dredging the Grave-Troll before the second turn even begins. When the most exciting part of your turn is the dredging during your draw step, cycling Street Wraith is like half a Time Walk. Even better, the Wraith immediately provides a Black creature with which to feed Ichorid.

Wonder / Cabal Therapy

More staples of traditional Ichorid, these cards are rarely present in NarcoBridge because the assumption is that you will either combo the opponent out before you care about his blockers (or disrupting his game plan, in the case of Therapy) or else flood the board with so many Zombies that you won’t need flying to push damage through. The main concern with playing Ichorid without Therapy is that it may be too difficult to outrace TEPS without being able to disrupt their hand.

Narcomoeba / Dread Return / Flame-Kin Zealot / Sutured Ghoul

I mention these as a package because they really do come together. Dread Return is unreliable without Narcomoeba, and Narcomoeba doesn’t seem worth it unless you are powering out Dread Return. If you play all of these, you’re NarcoBridge. If you play none of them, you’re Ichorid. I don’t see much profit in playing some of these and supplementing your Ichorid offense with some random 3/1s, or in flashing back Dread Return using your legitimate offensive bodies.

Bridge from Below

This little gem works fine in any Dredge strategy, regardless of whether or not you have Dread Return to go with it. As long as Ichorids are dying, a fleet of 2/2s following in their wake is a good way to break the game open. The only problem with it is that it can be dealt with by Mogg Fanatic and the like.

Coffin Purge / Leyline of the Void

I have yet to see a Dredge deck maindecking these, but with Dredge being as big as it is, I don’t think they’re out of the question. Something I haven’t seen anyone mention is that maindeck Leyline not only hoses opposing Dredge decks, but also guarantees the safety of your own Bridge from Below.

With that last piece of insight, I present to you my experiment for the upcoming week.

While most Dredge lists choose from the enablers list based on their ideal-scenario draws (“The Good”, with 2+ dredgers available), I have focused more on the ones that have merit when I have one or fewer dredgers available. I am banking on the presence of two dredgers plus one of these less-explosive enablers being enough of a beating that I can win those games anyway (albeit more closely) despite the lack of a maximally abusive card.

I’m also acknowledging the mirror, with a full four maindeck Leylines with which to steal wins, and a Wonder to break stalemates in close games. I won’t expect a massive advantage, as the other Dredge lists will be admittedly faster than I am, but it’s important that I have the tools to beat them despite that disadvantage.

There are four distinct, painfully simple sideboarding plans for this deck:

Versus Other Dredge:

+4 Coffin Purge
-2 Street Wraith
-2 Cabal Therapy

Versus Loam:

+4 Coffin Purge
+3 Echoing Truth
-4 Leyline of the Void
-2 Street Wraith
-1 Wonder

Versus Scepter-Chant and TEPS:

+4 Tarmogoyf
+3 Echoing Truth
+2 Cabal Therapy
-4 Bridge from Below
-4 Leyline of the Void
-1 Wonder

Versus The Hate:

+4 Tarmogoyf
+3 Echoing Truth
+2 Tombstalker (Therapy instead if I’m sure they will have Leyline)
-4 Bridge from Below
-4 Leyline of the Void
-1 Wonder

The maindeck is geared partially for speed, and partially for denying the opponent ways to disrupt me. I won’t be goldfishing as fast as NarcoBridge, but I also won’t be slowed down as much by a Mogg Fanatic or Grim Lavamancer. I have packed 11 dredgers and 12 discard outlets into my maindeck – 4 Putrid Imp, 4 Infestation, 2 Mongrel, 2 Therapy (all of which are useful draws even in the face of Yixlid Jailer), and 4 Troll, 4 Stink Imp, 3 Thug – to try and minimize the number of mulligans I will have to take. I’ve also maxed out on Street Wraiths, as they add a lot of explosiveness to my maindeck without being weak in the face of hate like other explosive cards (particularly Breakthrough and Tolarian Winds) often are.

I’ve omitted Psychatog because of his effect on the manabase. Without him, I think I can safely play 18 mana sources without having to take too many mulligans. With him, I either need to play 20+ lands or expect to cast him quite infrequently. I think as long as I’ve got the mana sources to play two-drops, I would rather have Echoing Truth with which to bounce multiple Leylines (and Goblin tokens from TEPS) and more easily dodge Top/Counterbalance than the cheaper Chain of Vapor. A single Wonder remains in the maindeck to break ground stalls against Red decks and Zombie-flooded Dredge mirrors. If it proves unnecessary, I could see a third Deep Analysis or Cabal Therapy filling that support slot instead.

The sideboard is extremely simple. When I expect hate, I bring in Tarmogoyf and Tombstalker. Consider this draw against Domain Zoo:

Me: Turn 1 Mox, Zombie Infestation. Pass.
Red deck: Turn 1 land, Isamaru. End step, I discard Golgari Thug and another card to make a Zombie.
Me: Turn 2 dredge Thug. Attack with the token to trade with Isamaru.
Pitch Thug, and another card, to make a second Zombie. Play Tombstalker, removing everything in my graveyard but the Thug.
Red deck: Zombie Infestation, a 2/2 token, and a 5/5 Dragon to my empty board, eh? Not to worry! Turn 2 Yixlid Jailer.
Me: Curses, foiled again? Untap, draw, beat for seven.

Sure, I won’t be dredging into my usual Ichorid-Bridge nonsense, but does it matter? My opponent has a 2/1 that he can’t block with (or else I’ll go nuts on him), he’s already taken 10-13 points of damage on turn 3 from my attacks and his lands, and I’ve got a dragon plus a Zombie-making machine working on his life total.

What if my draw is Tireless Tribe instead of Zombie Infestation? What if I have Narcomoeba – or worse, Pithing Needle – in place of Tombstalker?

That’s the whole advantage of this setup. Will losing the speedy NarcoBridge combo be worth the post-board boost? My money is on yes; I suspect that the Dredge deck’s biggest advantage in game 1 may not be speed, but denying your opponent the ability to interact with you – which this Ichorid list maintains. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

At any rate, I’m very interested to see how the testing goes. See you next week!

Richard Feldman
Team :S
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