Thirst for Knowledge – Dredge and Death Cloud in Extended

The StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Open Series Comes to Nashville!Wednesday, October 28th – Dredge has always been a powerful deck, but it feels like it really might be the best deck in the format, much like it was two years ago. At that time, most players would tell you that Next Level Blue (with Counterbalance) was the best deck and that Dredge was too easy to hate out, but that season easily belonged to Dredge.

I spent the past week doing only a handful of things: sleeping, going to class, testing Extended, and playing in a PTQ. Sleeping and class went fine, and Extended testing was superb. The PTQ, though, was as depressing as the previous week’s: I dropped at 2-2, with a deck I felt was actually pretty decent (sporting a World Queller, two Bladetusk Boars, and some decent removal). I just don’t seem to do well at Limited events, despite being fairly good at the format. I’ve only been playing Limited for a year, but even so I feel like I should be doing better than I have been.

Regardless of my lackluster performance, it wasn’t all bad. My good friend Caleb Estrada, the one who actually drove us to the PTQ, ended up winning the whole thing. His deck in the Swiss wasn’t even that great — we all took a look at it, and none of us saw anything special about it. He actually had to play a lot of pretty awkward cards (Tempest Owl, etc), but he never lost a match the entire day. I think the problem I’ve been having with this format is that I tend to play three colors due to a fear of playing those “bad” cards, and in doing so I usually end up with a powerful deck instead of a consistent one. If I built in two colors and played some of the “passable” cards I would probably win more often.

Caleb’s deck in the draft was a disgusting RW build that sported two Bladetusk Boars, a Hellkite Charger, and some pseudo removal spells packed in (Bold Defense, multiple Slaughter Cries, and Mark of Mutiny). He actually won a game he was clearly closing in the first game of the finals by playing a Mark of Mutiny on his opponent’s 14/14 Scute Mob and then adding Bold Defense to pump his Boar and the Mob to enable a swingback that would end the game in one fell swoop. I was the only other person aside from Caleb that could see his hand, but I watched him hold onto Defense and Mark the entire game, just waiting for the chance to turn things around. I was positive that he was just going to walk into a Cancel (not that he had a choice), but much to our surprise the spell resolved and so did the subsequent Bold Defense for lethal. Caleb played hard, and he earned his right to play on the Pro Tour.

Given that I’m no pro at Limited, naturally I’ve been spending more time testing Extended and less time drafting on MTGO. So far it’s been a mostly just gauntlet testing, but we’ve tossed some homebrew lists into the mix (like a UWrg control deck that I hope to expand on and write about in the near future). At this point, the one deck that has stood out to me has been Dredge. Dredge has always been a powerful deck, but it feels like it really might be the best deck in the format, much like it was two years ago. At that time, most players would tell you that Next Level Blue (with Counterbalance) was the best deck and that Dredge was too easy to hate out, but that season easily belonged to Dredge — it Top 8’d the most events, and I think it might have even been the deck that earned the most blue envelopes (I might be wrong on this one). PV has said time and time again that Dredge is one of those decks that can be beaten if players want to beat it. While I suppose that’s true to an extent, let’s be honest: the guy bringing in four Leylines or a set of Traps isn’t going to beat Dredge very easily. The problem is that Dredge only needs to win one out of two games, considering that it has the highest game 1 win percentage of any deck probably in history. To me, if I was playing Dredge in Extended this coming season (which is probably what I’ll end up doing), I’d be packing lots of discard in my sideboard and using game 2 as a means to see which hate card they’ve decided to use on you. Leyline of the Void is a superb card against Dredge, and I think in general it is among the best hate cards. Ravenous Trap can be dealt with via Thoughtseize and Duress, whereas you can’t play around Leyline preemptively. Leyline is also one of the least popular methods of hate, which means that most Dredge players won’t be expecting it rather than Crypt or Trap, and thus will not bring in Echoing Truth to deal with Leyline and just lose. I tend to view game 2 as a “test game,” where they hate me out and I get to see what I’m dealing with. Because, really, you certainly don’t want to bring in Echoing Truth when they’ve got Traps or Relics coming in (though there’s a case to be made for Truth versus Crypt, as if you have the means to combo on your turn then bouncing it at the end of the turn is actually viable). Nix is another card that players have been talking about, one that I thought of very early on (yes, I actually recalled the fact that Nix existed), and it’s a very efficient way to stop the most popular hate cards (Crypt and Trap). The problem, though, is that it still doesn’t deal with Leyline of the Void, and unfortunately that’s a pretty big deal. I’m not sold on Nix yet, but I’m certainly going to give it a shot in the coming weeks.

Anyway, Dredge is nuts. There were games in testing where there was no way I was going to win, and then my opponent would pass the turn and I would dredge thirty or so cards and just win anyway. Dredge last year was more or less a joke, as Magus of the Bazaar is truly trash. I understand that it was used in one of the two Dredge lists in the Top 8 of Austin, but I really do hate it. As a 0/1 it’s as fragile as they come, and keeping it in play for long is a fool’s errand. Hedron Crab, on the other hand, will always do its job given that you play it immediately before dropping your land, and usually it only takes one or two activations of the Crab to get the ball rolling. Hedron Crab does not draw you cards and therefore does not allow you to dredge all on its own, but even if you have to rawdog your dredges once a turn it’s far better than the “draw to eight and discard” plan that you often have to resort to with awkward seven-card openers.

Drowned Rusalka is still as amazing as ever, and even more so now that the deck has Bloodghast. And speaking of Bloodghast, let me just say this: it actually might be better than Ichorid. In Legacy Dredge, Ichorid is vastly superior because your land count is insanely light and your deck can function on literally zero lands. In Vintage, it’s even worse: only four lands in the entire deck (most of the time)! But in Extended, Bloodghast is everything Ichorid was and much more. There have been numerous occasions where I’d cast Dread Return two to three times in a turn without using more than a two Zombie tokens by reanimating Bloodghasts with fetchlands, allowing me infinitely more options in any given turn than I ever had with Ichorid. You don’t even need to have one in the graveyard at the start of your turn to have the ability to go off later in the turn in such a manner, whereas with Ichorid you’d be locked into the number you had in the graveyard due to its upkeep trigger. But with Bloodghast, you can start the turn with zero copies and then dredge into one or two and suddenly have the ability to utilize in-hand fetches to mill sometimes three to four times as many cards because you have a Drowned Rusalka in play. I mean, when I untap with Rusalka and a Bloodghast in play and at least one land in hand, I feel confident I can usually get the win. That’s not a fairly difficult thing to achieve, either, which is pretty scary.

Watanabe’s list is the one I’ve been working with, and so here it is for reference:

The first thing I knew I wanted to change was the number of Life from the Loams in the deck. Life from the Loam is such a crucial card in the deck’s game plan that I feel if definitely needs to be a two-of, maybe even three. It’s certainly a worse Stinkweed Imp most of the time, but the thing to remember is how much more important lands are to this deck than they have been in the past. The last two iterations of this archetype in Extended rarely needed too many lands, but this version of the deck wants to always have a couple in hand, especially if it’s forced into the lategame. Because you want to mill yourself with Hedron Crab, and you also want to abuse Bloodghast later in the game, it’s very important that you mulligan correctly (you don’t want to keep land-light hands if you can avoid it) and have a way to get lands into your hand at some point. The downside to Bloodghast over Ichorid is that you can’t really do much when you mill it if you don’t have lands to play, but with Life from the Loam it’s rarely an issue. Most of the time it’s simply a matter of finding Loam, dredging it either for the turn or off of a Rusalka trigger, and then playing it to get back fetches so you can mill more and get back your vampires. The only other option is to play Dakmor Salvage, as that’s a land that you could mill past and still get back to help with landfall. That’s yet to be explored on my end, but I will definitely be trying that out in the near future. For now, though, Loam just seems to fit better (mostly since Salvage is a really lousy land).

To fit in another Loam, I think the logical cut would be either a land or one of the Glimpses. I’m inclined to say it’s the Glimpse, but a strong case can be made for the land (as additional copies of Loam obviously gets you your lands easier and the one land won’t make that much of a difference in mulligan decisions and the chances for a keepable hand). Beyond that, I think Watanabe’s maindeck is pretty perfect. It has all the necessary parts needed, and it’s as stream-lined as the archetype gets. The sideboard, in addition, addresses all the things it should — and heck, since we moved the Loam to the maindeck, we can even play the fourth Thoughtseize now. To anyone looking to play this deck this season, I think that this list with my proposed changes would be the best place to start. Magus of the Bazaar makes the deck slightly faster, but at the cost of making it far more vulnerable. Glimpse can be a little awkward, but when you consider that it avoids the “man, a removal spell on this 0/1 will ruin my day” issue altogether it doesn’t seem so bad. I don’t like making the most-hated deck easier to hate, to be honest.

So obviously I feel like Dredge is the best deck. There is still a lot of time for my opinion of the format to change (and Worlds, which could change everything), but as of now I think it’s the best option. With an incredibly high game 1 win ratio and the ability to easily overcome hate, I don’t see a reason to play anything else based on what we know now. Still, not everyone likes combo, and even more so some people just don’t like Dredge in particular. Understandable — learning to beat the hate and having the ability to win in any bad situation with the deck takes not only deep understanding of the deck but also hours upon hours of post-sideboard playtesting against every deck in the format. To those people, I recommend looking into Death Cloud. Here’s a list from the Pro Tour:

There are a couple things about this archetype that I like very much. One is the sheer amount of disruption and removal. Thoughtseize is at its very best right now, and Death Cloud is very easy to resolve and is as punishing as it ever has been. Putrefy remains the best non-Path removal in the format because it hits artifacts, and Shriekmaw is a wonderful innovation alongside Eternal Witness. The other thing I like about this deck is how powerful its lategame is and how well it sideboards. For example, this is one of the few decks that can actually utilize Cranial Extraction to its optimal potential, since Death Cloud can resolve that spell on turn 3 rather than 4 or 5. Extraction is so strong in this format, and it is just brutal against literally sixty percent or better of the field. That’s a very large number, and it actually might justify maindecking the card as opposed to bringing it in for games two and three. Damnation, too, is very good in a format filled with Zoo decks and 1/1 Thopter tokens (although it’s only good against the Thopter tokens if you have Extirpate alongside it). You also get to play Tarmogoyf, which is always a plus, and you even get a creature that hates on Dredge all on its own: Sakura-Tribe Elder.

One of the hardest cards to deal with for this deck, though, is Punishing Fire. In testing, there were many times where I would Death Cloud for five or six against Zoo in the lategame just so I could get rid of Grove of the Burnwillows. The upside, though, is that I usually won when that happened (which shouldn’t be as surprising as it sounds, because Zoo can do pretty well if it topdecks well post-Death Cloud given that you didn’t Cloud with Garruk and some Rot Farms or something absurd), and so it’s very possible to win even when under Fires lock.

The other Death Cloud deck that did well at Austin featured Maelstrom Pulse and Oran-Rief, both cards I really liked. Pulse is actually just superb in Extended play, and Oran-Rief was very strong alongside Kitchen Finks. Taking the two lists, I arrived at this one for my gauntlet:

This updated list does all the things the other two lists did, but I think it does them a bit better. Cranial Extraction might be a do-nothing against a few decks in the format, but even against a deck like Zoo it’s far from useless. Naming Punishing Fire with it against Zoo is actually very good, and might even steal game 1 in a number of scenarios. Against a combo-centric format like the current Extended it just infinitely increases your game 1 win ratio, which is huge. The best part? You get all of this without sacrificing anything crucial from the maindeck. The sideboard still covers all the bases, as you have graveyard hate, hand disruption, auto-win cards like Chalice, crippling blows like Night of Souls’ Betrayal for Thopter decks, and much more. One of the things the deck lacks, though, is a better plan against Hexmage Depths than “make you discard and Extirpate” or “Death Cloud you for one,” which might be a problem. A reasonable sideboard card for that deck, though, would be something like Cruel Edict or Warren Weirding. I don’t think you really need those cards given that you’ll have six discard effects, Extirpate, and Cranial Extraction, but you never know. The bottom line, though, is that Death Cloud could easily become one of the top decks in Extended given that the format doesn’t shift too much between now and the PTQ season, though either way I think it will always be a big contender. My money is certainly on Dredge for now, but this deck has my creative juices flowing almost as furiously.

Until next time…

Chris Jobin
Team RIW
Shinjutsei on MTGO and everywhere else