The Pitfalls Of Deck Familiarity

Ross Merriam believes in “playing what you know,” but that doesn’t mean you can skip being current on your pet deck! He highlights examples from his SCG Baltimore performance with Modern Dredge so you don’t fall into the same trap at SCG Charlotte!

For years now, I’ve been a strong advocate for playing the deck you know best as opposed to constantly switching archetypes in the hopes of constantly staying ahead of the metagame. The advantage you gain from intimately knowing your deck and its sideboard plans for the various matchups is invaluable, and it allows you to mitigate the downside of an unfavorable metagame with proper tuning and tight play.

In larger formats like Modern and Legacy, the advantage of familiarity is even stronger. The metagames in these formats are varied enough that predicting them for a single weekend is incredibly difficult, and the potential advantage to be gained is minimal. Few, if any, decks pass the ten-percent mark in metagame share, so you’re not going to play against the top decks that often and instead have to prepare for a wide array of strategies. Doing so is much easier when you have a deep familiarity with your own deck.

That’s how I ended up playing Dredge last weekend at #SCGBALT. Last week, I wrote about the potential for U/R Gifts Storm to show up in a big way, given that its performance online had far outstripped its performance in paper tournaments.

Indeed, I spent much of the week testing the deck to become more familiar with it, only to be left disappointed.

Gifts Ungiven was ineffective outside of the straightforward piles with a bunch of mana, Past in Flames, and perhaps a Grapeshot if needed. Those piles immediately lead to a win when you’re ahead, but utilizing the card from behind was a struggle. Value piles with a bunch of blue card draw weren’t reliable enough, and as a result the deck ended up being more graveyard-dependent than I was comfortable with.

I was also unimpressed by the use of Grapeshot as a removal spell or mini-sweeper against aggressive decks to buy time. The deck simply wasn’t powerful enough to commit significant resources to a cause other than its primary gameplan. That lack of power also hurt the deck’s resilience to disruption of all forms, from graveyard hate to discard spells.

That isn’t to say that the deck was a complete bust. It put up a few solid finishes across the various Modern tournaments last weekend, highlighted by Martin Muller’s Top 4 finish at Grand Prix Copenhagen. His list is similar to the ones I was testing but with slightly more variety in its spells, which could be enough to drastically increase the utility of Gifts Ungiven. I could see going as far as including one copy of Noxious Revival so your Gifts Ungiven can function as a tutor, guaranteeing that you find a win condition, Ritual, or creature as needed.

I could’ve spent more time working on the deck and arrived at a better list, but working on short time means that the risk of overcommitting to a potential dead end is great, and by Thursday I had decided to fall back on the last Modern deck with which I had significant success, Dredge. Drawing on my previous experience with the deck, I arrived at the following list:

There’s nothing particularly flashy here except perhaps the singleton copy of Leyline of the Void in the sideboard. I had one open spot and I knew I wanted another piece of graveyard hate, but Leyline of the Void isn’t the type of card you normally play only one of.

However, Dredge isn’t a normal deck.

It already operates almost entirely from its opening hand, meaning any of your sideboard cards that aren’t accessible from the graveyard should be as high-impact as possible when in your opening hand. Leyline of the Void certainly fits that description, so it got the nod and even managed to make it onto the battlefield against my Esper Death’s Shadow opponent. Unfortunately, an unanticipated Grafdigger’s Cage from my opponent left us playing a mutually troubled game in which my army of Stinkweed Imps fell just short.

After a strong Day 1, a mediocre 3-3 record on Day 2 left me with a fine, if unsatisfying 24th-place finish. I say unsatisfying because, after looking over my weekend, I was surprised at just how little graveyard hate I had encountered. Only one of my opponents had Rest in Peace in their sideboard and they never drew it. There was a small handful of Relic of Progenituses and Grafdigger’s Cages but not many, and I never ran afoul of Surgical Extraction or Ravenous Trap.

Playing a linear deck in an unprepared field is the absolute ideal, so failing to put up a Top 8 stings a bit more than usual. Surprisingly, the most effective hate card against me on the weekend was Scavenging Ooze. You may recall my match against Reid Duke from Round 8, where, in addition to playing excellently, Reid was able to take Game 1 in a lopsided matchup on the back of the graveyard-hungry Runeclaw Bear.

Granted, I was somewhat unfortunate to not find any Conflagrates and then to hit the last copy of Narcomoeba when I finally found a copy, giving Reid a window to exile it with his Ooze, but Game 2 was also dominated by Scavenging Ooze when I didn’t have an answer and my draw wasn’t explosive enough to ignore it.

And that’s the key. When Golgari Grave-Troll was around, Dredge was simply a faster, more powerful deck than it is now. The games where you put eight, ten, even twelve power onto the battlefield on turn 2 came more often, and the games where you limped into the mid-game were practically non-existent. Scavenging Ooze was viewed as a maindeck hate card for some decks, but rarely could you activate it before turn 4, at which point one or two activations weren’t nearly enough to undo the damage already done.

In my games against Reid, I wasn’t able to establish a large enough lead before Scavenging Ooze came down, making it a must-answer threat that dominated each game. It did the same in my later matches against Counters Company, where the only game in which I was able to defeat it without an immediate answer was a game in which my opponent blundered, giving me an opportunity to dredge into Conflagrate, which I did.

Scavenging Ooze wasn’t a card I was worried about going into the tournament, although I ended up being well-prepared for it regardless with my sideboard Lightning Axes and Abrupt Decay. Regardless, the card’s effectiveness against my last weekend is emblematic of the biggest problem of relying too heavily on past experience when choosing a deck: namely, past experience breeds preconceptions.

Preconceptions are very dangerous in a game as dynamic as Magic. Even without a significant ban, as there was in this case, decks and metagames are constantly in flux, and picking up a deck after only a few months away necessitates updating your knowledge base for the new context. Had I respected Scavenging Ooze more, I likely would’ve mulliganed my hand in Game 2, as it cannot race or answer a card that Reid was very likely to have.

Oddly enough, this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered this issue. I started my now-enduring association with Legacy Elves with a Top 4 finish at the Season One Invitational in Atlanta in 2013. But I had played the previous iteration of the deck years earlier, which played into my choice to play it in that tournament. Unfortunately, my list was heavily influenced by my previous experience, and the two decks were much more different than I had anticipated.

The version I was familiar with did not have Natural Order and Craterhoof Behemoth, so it was forced to heavily rely on Glimpse of Nature, with Regal Force acting as the major creature threat. It was a combo deck through and through, while the current version is a combo deck first but much more versatile. Without Deathrite Shaman, the old lists also had a much worse aggro plan, so I was accustomed to dismissing that potential entirely. I eventually adjusted, but I lost to Esper StoneBlade decks three times in that tournament, including in the semifinals against Shaheen Soorani, a matchup which, once practiced, I considered very favorable.

Adjusting to the newer Elves deck required learning how to balance the many different plans the deck had. I believe adjusting to Dredge post-Troll requires a similar adjustment, although in this case it’s due to the deck becoming less powerful rather than more.

Before, Dredge could simply run over its opponents on raw power, and now that it can’t do so as consistently, you have to prepare to play a normal game. Well, as normal as Dredge can.

From a tactical perspective, that means mulliganing more aggressively for hands that are either fast or have plenty of answers to opposing hate. Your fail rate is higher on mediocre hands, which can easily lose to not only hate cards but just good draws from your opponents. Modern is a format full of decks that will crush any stumbles, and you have to try to beat some of those draws to do well in a long tournament.

But that adjustment is one to be done with a list like mine. A more permanent solution would be to redesign the deck in light of its new, less powerful position. Unsurprisingly, those steps were taken by the best-performing Dredge pilot in the tournament and noted Magical cowboy, Ben Friedman.

Ben’s list has a number of innovations that make it better suited to play long, interactive games of Magic. First, Insolent Neonate has been replaced in the maindeck by former sideboard standout Collective Brutality. Insolent Neonate is the biggest loser from the Golgari Grave-Troll ban, since it doesn’t consistently dredge as many cards anymore, so Ben made a sacrifice in speed to play a versatile piece of interaction that either reloads your graveyard after dredging or primes the pump for a turn 3 Cathartic Reunion.

In exchange for slowing down, you get a card that is good against a huge portion of the format, killing mana creatures, Scavenging Oozes, Signal Pests, etc. while stripping Collected Company, Gifts Ungiven, or Scapeshift, just to name a few. And if you’re playing against Burn, which I did three times last weekend, I don’t know if there’s a better nonwhite card in the entire format.

The bigger changes, however, are in the sideboard, where mainstays like Nature’s Claim and Abrupt Decay are replaced by slower, more powerful answers in Engineered Explosives and Maelstrom Pulse. Both are effective at answering any permanent-based hate, from Rest in Peace and Leyline of the Void to Scavenging Ooze, but are also good answers to anything your opponent is doing.

In long games you’ll eventually need to answer more than hate cards. You’ll have to answer various threats as you slowly accrue an advantage with your graveyard engine. Having cards that can generate card advantage in and of themselves lets you overcome the fact that you have fewer removal spells to begin with, and that your dredge engine reduces your access to them by taking away some of your draw steps.

The commitment to interactivity in Ben’s list even shines through in the manabase, where he has a Sheltered Thicket and Ghost Quarter as utility lands. Cycling lands plus Life from the Loam is a classic pairing, either accelerating a slow dredge plan or simply letting you draw two cards a turn over a long game, and Ghost Quarter is particularly good in a metagame where Death’s Shadow decks are so land-light and Tron decks are ever popular.

I’ve seen a lot of these changes individually in various Dredge lists, but Ben put them all together in a very coherent package that fundamentally reshapes what the Dredge deck is.

Now, that shift does not come without downside, as the decreased speed will make you much worse at opposing combo and aggro decks and decrease your free win potential across the board.

The shift away from cheap removal in the sideboard also hurts the Affinity matchup, which previously was among the best for Dredge. Engineered Explosives is still quite good, but Ben’s list is soft to the Nexus lands, which can combine with Arcbound Ravager for a fast kill.

Moving forward, I’ll be looking into something between my list and Ben’s, especially since a slower list should be more capable against hate cards that should increase in the coming weeks after a strong performance by Dredge in all three Modern tournaments last weekend. Regardless of where I land, I’ll be more prepared for the grindy attrition games that the new, slower Dredge deck has to play to succeed in the format.

We all have decks that we come back to time and time again, and having those fallbacks is great. But it’s important that we maintain the skills that made a deck a fallback in the first place and keep our understanding of our pet decks current. Otherwise, you’re giving up the very advantage that deck familiarity is supposed to lend you.