How To Build Dredge

If you’re interested in playing Dredge in Legacy at the SCG Open Series in Baltimore, Maryland this weekend, take a look at Drew’s in-depth article about how to build it.

A month ago I wrote an article telling you that a great way to get into Legacy is by playing combo decks. I told you about Lion’s Eye Diamond strategies ranging from Dredge to Goblin Charbelcher to Storm. Then the focus was on sequencing acquisitions to maximize the ongoing value of your collection.

Today I want to take a deeper dive into how to build a Dredge deck. For all of the hype that Show and Tell, Dark Ritual, and Reanimate get, people don’t talk about Dredge that much. There are plenty of possible reasons why Dredge doesn’t get enough attention, most of them based around possible negative perception. People have maligned Dredge decks as "not real Magic," "not skill intensive," "dead to hate cards," and so on. Regardless of how accurate these opinions are, they impact how much people test against, talk about, and play with the deck.

Dredge is an odd blend of incredibly powerful and mostly unpredictable—you "draw" between three and six cards every single turn, but it’s never clear what options they will afford you. There is no illusion of control in games—you need a card with dredge, and then you flip cards over in your draw step. There are no Brainstorms or Ponders to find your Narcomoebas when you want them, and that frustrates some people. Sometimes you mulligan into oblivion and don’t get to play Magic. That’s frustrating too. But there’s a secret to Dredge. Want to know what it is?

Dredge is a math problem.

A huge percentage of your decisions are probably mathematically correct or incorrect—not "judgment calls," not "well, it could have gone one way or another" but right and wrong. This is because as I just mentioned there are two tenets of how Dredge as a deck operates:

1. You need to have a land, a discard outlet, and a card with dredge in your opening hand—the deck will not win games without dredging. This rule can be broken sometimes, but it’s negligible.

2. Once you can dredge instead of draw, it is preferable to do so in almost all circumstances.

Some people don’t want to play Magic if they’re playing a deck that is so clear cut. Magic provides an avenue for creative expression, for outside-the-box thinking, for . . . how shall I say this . . . playing. Many people would rather be wrong but get to make "their" choice than be right and make the "standard" choice. Dredge as a deck is filled with "standard" choices, and that is a bad feeling for many potential players.

It’s comfortable to think about Magic as a nebulous exercise where two people can have divergent solutions to the same problem but both can be right. In a great many cases, that paradigm applies. When you play a midrange deck, you want to have the right threats and answers for your metagame, so your choices can look and play very differently from someone else’s while still being right for what you’re trying to do. When you build a control deck, you want to have the right answers for everyone else’s threats. If you can more accurately predict the field’s threat composition, you put yourself at an advantage by virtue of your wit, cunning, and careful research. That feels very rewarding. Similar sets of choices and rewards exist with aggressive decks, tempo decks, and so on.

That set of choices still exists with Dredge, but it exists in far smaller numbers. For instance, although this list made the semifinals of a StarCityGames.com Legacy Open three months ago, it is misbuilt:

Before we get into why this deck is misbuilt, I want you to introduce you to my good friend hypergeometric distribution. Hypergeometric distribution (HGD from now on) is a formula that tells you the odds of a binary event happening. It is the way that you calculate the odds of hitting your "outs"—the set of cards that will positively impact the game in a given situation.

Imagine a very simple situation. Let’s say you’re playing Mono-Red Burn. It’s turn nine, your opponent is at three life, and you have no cards in hand or creatures in play. They just played a creature that advances their board to the point where you’ll take lethal damage next turn. They also have no cards in hand. You have plenty of lands.

What are your odds of winning? If you have four Lightning Strikes as the only burn spells in your deck and your deck is 44 cards (nine turns, seven-card opening hand), we can calculate this really easily. The odds of you winning (drawing a Lightning Strike) are 4/44. You have one turn to draw any of four cards out of a population of 44. So you’re 9.09% to win. That’s interesting but not useful.

Let’s add in a complicating factor. If you draw a creature, you get to chump block and draw to Lightning Strike again. How do we account for that? You aren’t +25% to win the game; you’re just 25% to get another draw at winning the game.

So in 9% of the future, you win. Cool.

In 25% of the future, you draw a chump blocker. It lives, you block, and they pass again.

Now you’re 4/43 to draw a Lightning Strike since you definitely didn’t draw a Lightning Strike last turn. Since this only happens 25% of the time, we can account for that in our math.

Odds of winning = (4/44) + .25*(4/43) = 11.4%

The reason why Dredge decks in particular find this useful is that a lot of your circumstances are things like "what are my odds of having an opening hand with [element X] in it?" or "what are my odds of dredging into a Narcomoeba in my first two draw steps?" HGD can figure out how likely you are to dredge into a given card in a specific situation, which allows you to make intelligent decisions multiple turns in advance.

Let’s apply HGD to deckbuilding for a bit. The decklist I mentioned earlier plays ten dredgers. Let’s say you want to know what your odds are of drawing a dredger in your opening hand. It turns out that the odds of drawing at least one dredger in a seven-card opening hand with ten successes are 74%. That’s not great, but it’s not awful. If you’re willing to mulligan to four to find just a dredger, your success rate goes up to the mid-90s.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story. You want to calculate the odds of finding at least one discard outlet, at least one dredger, and at least one land, not just the odds of finding a dredger. You can multiply across the table of probabilities of hitting a success in each universe if you were so inclined to find out the cumulative odds of drawing a hand with one or more each of land, dredger, and discard outlet.

This section on math is in service of a larger point about Dredge—you want to play enough lands, discard outlets, and dredgers. Because you have to mulligan hands without one of those three elements, it makes sense to maximize your numbers of those cards within reason. We are of course not interested in playing Lotus Petal because "it’s a land"—at some point we’re going to experience negative outcomes. Similarly, we don’t want to play twenty cards with dredge printed on them since Darkblast is laughably bad nowadays. There are only so many lands that are worth playing, and there are only so many dredgers worth playing. You get the point.

Darkblast aside, the utility provided by the third and fourth Golgari Thugs almost certainly exceeds the utility provided by any nonland non-dredger. Imagine that you could play eight copies of a card in your deck. Would you rather play with eight Golgari Grave-Trolls, eight Narcomoebas, eight Bridge from Belows, or eight Faithless Lootings?

Since you’re already playing the fifth through eighth Golgari Grave-Trolls in Stinkweed Imp and you’re neither maxing out on Ichorids nor playing extra free creatures like Nether Shadow, it’s pretty clear that extra dredgers are where it’s at. Why do we definitely want extra dredgers?

Because they create more playable hands. When mulliganing to oblivion is one of the main ways that Dredge loses, you want to reduce that event’s incidence as much as possible.

There are four basic headings in a dredge deck. You have lands, which cast your spells. You have dredgers, the engine of the deck. You have discard outlets—ways to get dredgers into the graveyard but which often have other utility. And then you have your payoffs: Narcomoeba, Bridge from Below, Ichorid, Dread Return, and so on.

If you have twelve playable dredgers and most lists play twelve lands, it stands to reason that we should be shooting for at least twelve discard outlets, right? So what are they?

4 Faithless Looting is a red Careful Study with upside. This has supplanted rather than supplemented the original. Why? Because of Lion’s Eye Diamond.

4 Lion’s Eye Diamond allows for the extraordinarily powerful sequence of "land, LED, cast a looting spell, respond with LED’s ability, discarding a dredge card." From there you can dredge a dozen or more cards on your first turn, setting up an overpowering game state before your opponent has played a land.

Faithless Looting lets us use our Lion’s Eye Diamond as more than a One With Nothing—it lets us Flashback our Faithless Looting. In situations where we have Faithless Looting, Lion’s Eye Diamond, a dredger, and no land, we can still keep our hand and dredge on our first turn by flashing back our Looting.

4 Putrid Imp is our best discard outlet, as it allows us to discard cards over and over. One of the ways that Dredge can lose is by bricking off on new dredge cards—you discard your Stinkweed Imp, dredge it, and hit five cards that don’t dredge. If your Stinkweed Imp isn’t card #8 in your hand, you’re not doing much next turn. That’s a big problem. Putrid Imp solves the problem of getting stuck without dredgers, attacks for two late in the game, gets removed to Ichorid, gives you game against one-shot graveyard effects like Tormod’s Crypt, and flashes back Cabal Therapy and Dread Return. That’s a big game.

4 Breakthrough isn’t so much of a discard outlet as a way to win the game. Breakthrough works about as well as you could imagine with dredgers—you can cast it with a single dredger in your graveyard, replace the first draw with a dredge, flip over a second, replace the second draw with a dredge, flip over a third, and so on. After your Breakthrough for zero flips over twenty or so cards, you also get to discard your hand full of dredgers—that’s the "drawback" of the card. There are a lot of powerful cards in the deck, but Breakthrough is the one most likely to set off fireworks.

4 Cabal Therapy isn’t a discard outlet per se, but it can act as one in a pinch. Unlike Duress, Cabal Therapy is a discard spell that targets players, not opponents, so you can Cabal Therapy yourself for Golgari Grave-Troll, Stinkweed Imp, or even Bridge from Below if you want to start generating a more significant board presence. Of course, Cabal Therapy does most of its work as a free discard spell from the graveyard, sacrificing a soon-to-be-dead Ichorid or a free Narcomoeba to clear out the most worrisome card from an opponent’s hand.

Although I wrote about this topic a month or so ago in the Premium newsletter, it bears repeating—do not name the card until your opponent has told you that your spell is resolving. By naming a card before you’re entirely certain that Cabal Therapy resolves, you’re actually putting yourself in a really bad spot. If your opponent wants, they can let Cabal Therapy resolve and force you to name that card; alternatively, they can tell you that they hadn’t let Therapy resolve yet and respond with much more information than they would have otherwise possessed.

I actually dislike Careful Study in Dredge right now. If you look through the Legacy deck database for 2013, you’ll see twenty decks that played at least one Golgari Thug. Of those twenty decks, half of them played all four Careful Studys:

The reason I dislike Careful Study nowadays is that its upsides—being a draw/discard spell that can be cast off of any of the twelve lands that you want to play—are outweighed by its downsides. It was made redundant by Faithless Looting, you don’t want too many draw/discard spells in a format where Deathrite Shaman can be waiting to pick off your dredgers, and it costs too much mana.

Wait. Careful Study costs too much mana? I can understand not wanting too many Careful Studys, but one mana is as good as it gets, right?

Well, not exactly.

People tend to forget about Street Wraith.

Of those same twenty decks, only three Top 32 lists played Street Wraith. Dredge master and commander David Thomas accounts for two of those lists. People do not respect Street Wraith.

Why is the Wraith so good?

It jukes Deathrite Shaman. I’ll explain why that’s important by giving you a tiny history lesson.

Years ago, back when Mystical Tutor was still legal, Dredge was actually a very respected deck. People regularly packed five to seven slots of graveyard hate for it and still lost. People would load up on Tormod’s Crypts or Relic of Progenitus or Ravenous Traps or whatever, draw them, cast them, use them, and lose.

Over time the "variety pack" strategy caught on, wherein people would show up with one each of Yixlid Jailer, Relic of Progenitus, Tormod’s Crypt, Extirpate, and whatever else they wanted to use to interact with the graveyard. This approach tended to dodge anti-hate the most—after all, you can Pithing Needle Relic of Progenitus, but you’re still going to get Tormod’s Crypted and are playing with a diluted deck that has Pithing Needles in it.

Nowadays people play Deathrite Shaman, Rest in Peace, and maybe a few Grafdigger’s Cages. That’s it as far as graveyard hate goes. If they’re white, they have Rest in Peace. If they’re a Bayou deck, they probably have Deathrite Shaman. If they’re neither, they either have Grafdigger’s Cage, think they can combo kill you faster than you can kill them, or both.

It’s that cut and dry these days.

Because Dredge hate is so narrowly applicable, people don’t like playing Leyline of the Void. People will play Rest in Peace because it interacts with Tarmogoyf and Snapcaster Mage and Deathrite Shaman and Nimble Mongoose, but they hate playing Leyline of the Void when they’re only going to bring it in against graveyard decks. When the format is this diverse, people don’t want to spend a lot of sideboard slots trying to beat a narrow cross-section of the format’s decks. There are just too many.

People will play two, maybe three Rest in Peaces. They’ll play one or two Grafdigger’s Cages. They’ll play Deathrite Shaman, sure. But they aren’t bringing the big guns anymore, and that’s a huge weight off of any Dredge pilot’s shoulders.

Because Deathrite Shaman is Public Enemy #1 for Dredge players, it’s easy to find a way to beat it. That way as I mentioned is Street Wraith—a card that is useful both in situations involving Deathrite Shaman and in situations not involving Deathrite Shaman.

Here’s how a game will go:

Them: Deathrite Shaman, go.

You: Get a dredger into the graveyard somehow.

Them: Activate Deathrite Shaman.

You: In response, cycle Street Wraith and dredge my thing.

You: Dredge for draw step.

Them: Can’t win, too much stuff to deal with.

That’s the easy way—your opponent tries to take you out of the game on the first turn, and you have the answer. It’s high variance, but it also relies on you not having a second dredger. In a world where you have Putrid Imp, you can just discard another dredger and go to town with no interruptions.

The other way this could play out is:

You: Start dredging.

Them: In response to your Narcomoeba’s trigger, eat it.

You: Keep dredging.

Them: Eat an Ichorid.

You: Keep dredging.

Them: Eat another Ichorid, somehow sacrifice a creature to remove multiple copies of Bridge from Below.

This is a bad spot for the Dredge player to be in. Here an opponent is managing threats instead of attacking the engine. For the Limited players out there, the first example is someone casting Befoul turn 4 on the play targeting your land, while the second example is the opponent holding on to Befoul until you play a real threat.

Fortunately, Street Wraith does a good job of churning through your deck early, giving you a good shot at overwhelming their Deathrite Shaman with threats. No matter how they use their Deathrite Shaman, Street Wraith is excellent against it. I would recommend four. It even gets eaten by Ichorid!

So where are we so far with this list?

4 Gemstone Mine
4 City of Brass
4 Cephalid Coliseum
4 Golgari Thug
4 Stinkweed Imp
4 Golgari Grave-Troll
4 Breakthrough
4 Lion’s Eye Diamond
4 Faithless Looting
4 Putrid Imp
4 Street Wraith

We have sixteen slots left, and we don’t even have our payoff cards in the deck yet. Why are we playing this deck anyway? These last sixteen cards give us a great reason to be flipping our own deck over:

4 Narcomoeba is a zero-mana uncounterable 1/1 flier. That doesn’t sound inherently impressive, but remember that you’re "drawing" four to six cards a turn—you really want ways to get on the board.

4 Bridge from Below is a bunch of zero-mana uncounterable 2/2s. How many you get is highly circumstantial, but you did build your deck to include Cabal Therapy, a card that flashes back by sacrificing a creature like Narcomoeba or Putrid Imp. Even if you don’t have Cabal Therapy, you have Ichorid, a card that kills itself every turn, creating more and more 2/2 Zombies with which to overwhelm your opponent.

One interaction that I see people miss all the time is how Bridge from Below’s triggers stack. Contrary to how the card reads, you control both the "when your creature dies" and the "when their creature dies" triggers. If an Ichorid and a Flickerwisp trade in combat, both triggers will go on the stack. You get to choose how to stack them. If you stack the "when their creature dies" trigger first, it will remove your Bridge from Below after you get your 2/2. If you stack the "their creature dies" trigger last, it will resolve first, removing your Bridges and denying you your 2/2 Zombies. Don’t be a victim of misunderstanding!

4 Ichorid is a zero-mana uncounterable 3/1 that triggers your Bridge from Belows every turn. It doesn’t have to attack; it gets to die, and it’s capable of flashing back multiple Cabal Therapys on its own. People often convince themselves that Ichorid is cuttable because it’s slow against combo decks and especially vulnerable to Rest in Peace or Deathrite Shaman. I disagree. I think Ichorid is the best threat the deck has. It allows Dredge to overwhelm blue tempo decks with 2/2 Zombies and recurring 3/1s. If they can’t kill you with an Insectile Aberration really quickly, you can grind out most Delver decks. There’s a dance in the middle of the game where you want to Cabal Therapy away their Equipment, but that’s about it. I strongly believe in maximizing the power of Ichorid.

A neat trick with Ichorid is to put the "remove a creature" trigger on the stack and activate Cephalid Coliseum’s threshold ability. You get to dredge into more creatures, giving you added shots at removing a dead Street Wrath or Putrid Imp, and you get to discard an in-hand Golgari Grave-Troll for maximum draw-step value.

4 Cabal Therapy ties the room together. It lets us sacrifice our free creatures for value and for time, clearing out threatening cards like Batterskull, Umezawa’s Jitte, Show and Tell, Infernal Tutor, and more. Don’t leave home without all four, as they’re excellent against a huge range of decks. In situations where you fear a graveyard nuke—Rest in Peace or Grafdigger’s Cage or whatnot—you can Flashback all of your Cabal Therapys to make as many 2/2 Zombies as possible, giving you a huge board presence for a world where you don’t have a graveyard.

With the addition of those sixteen cards, we have a deck—all four-ofs, very clean, no nonsense . . .

What’s that? I forgot about Dread Return? Why didn’t I talk about which Dread Return target is best? Your brother plays three Griselbrands and a Flame-Kin Zealot and he’s been doing really well?

I see.

Here’s the thing about Dread Return in Lion’s Eye Diamond Dredge—it’s very hit or miss. When you’re doing well—you’ve got board presence, you’ve got cards that do things in your graveyard, you can dredge next turn—you don’t need Dread Return. If you play tight, you can get around their cards with Cabal Therapy and a huge swarm of Zombie tokens.

If you’re not doing well—they have Deathrite Shaman online, they Tormod’s Crypted you, whatever—Dread Return is a miserable card to see. It doesn’t do anything in your hand ever, it occasionally does something in your graveyard, and it forces you to put a spell on the stack in a format where people play Daze, Spell Pierce, Flusterstorm, and Force of Will.

You don’t have to cast any of your other creatures. You have to sink a lot of resources into a Dread Return, and there are tons of ways for it to get blown out. Maybe they have a taxing counter. Maybe they have a Force of Will. Maybe they have an active Deathrite Shaman. In all of those cases, Dread Return just takes up space in your graveyard.

A worse offender than Dread Return is the idea of a Dread Return "target." This card—whatever it is—also does nothing in your hand and does nothing in your graveyard. If you happen to dredge into it—and remember, you’re playing one or two copies, so good luck lining all of that up—you also need to have a Dread Return in the graveyard. After that comes together, you need to be able to cast Dread Return. And then you need Dread Return to resolve.

After all of those hoops, you can kill your opponent, sure. You probably want Griselbrand since you can dredge seven cards and presumably Dread Return your Flame-Kin Zealot on the same turn. So if you want to, you can weaken any of:

  • Your ability to cast spells
  • Your ability to keep hands
  • Your ability to get ahead on board
  • Your ability to interact with opposing cards

In order to put two Dread Returns, a Griselbrand, and a Flame-Kin Zealot in your deck.

Alternatively, you could just try to be as efficient as possible in flipping over your deck, Cabal Therapy them a bunch, and then return four Ichorids and kill them the following turn. Either way, but I recommend the latter.

So the all-four-of deck, for reference:

The sideboard can be tinkered with, but I would recommend moving to a Dread Return package to let you race combo decks. This could mean Iona, Shield of Emeria or could mean Flame-Kin Zealot, but you definitely want a way to speed up your clock.

From there you probably want a way to overload on threats. The next-best threat is either Bloodghast or Nether Shadow depending on how many lands you’re playing. Since we don’t want to play Dakmor Salvage (the best way to return Bloodghast), we’re probably playing Nether Shadow.

The reason we want to overload on threats is because against BUG decks you want to beat Deathrite Shaman by going over top of it. Every time they go to remove a creature, dredge into two more. This is a far better path to invalidating their strategy than trying to kill their Deathrite Shaman. It goes back to a fundamental tenet of deckbuilding—stop putting answers in your aggro decks. Instead of boarding some card like Avoid Fate, just play another threat that they have to answer.

Finally, you want some ways to beat categorical answers, the Grafdigger’s Cages and the Rest in Peaces of the format. Thankfully, this part is easy because the only one-mana Disenchant in the format is Nature’s Claim. Play three or four of them, don’t go all in on Breakthrough without Flame-Kin Zealot in your deck, and spend some time each turn thinking about what will happen if they untap and play Cage or Rest in Peace—you’d be surprised at the lines you can come up with to minimize the damage from those cards. Since we only have eight sources of green in our maindeck, I’d like to sideboard at least one more—our answers aren’t going to be very good if we can’t cast them, you know?

If I had to hazard a rough sideboard, I would start with this:

1 Ashen Rider
1 Flame-Kin Zealot
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
3 Dread Return
4 Nature’s Claim
1 Undiscovered Paradise
4 Nether Shadow

If you have suggestions, comments, or critiques, I can be found here or on Twitter. I’ll be playing this deck through some two-man queues later this week, so if any of you have been waiting with bated breath for Dredge videos your long wait is almost over.