Dredge is part of a select group of Magic decks with a particularly bad reputation, alongside the likes of Eggs, Lantern and more recently Nexus of Fate decks. It is often called into question to what degree these decks are good for Magic or, in fact, if games they are involved in are “real Magic” at all. I certainly have my problems with some of these offenders, however, such hypotheticals are not of much use, given that these decks are and remain an element of the formats they haunt. We will therefore encounter them in tournaments, whether we like it or not and it pays off to know how they work. Some particularly dark souls may even enjoy playing decks from among this number, and in my case it is Dredge.
Regarding the Dredge deck specifically, I occasionally hear mutterings that playing it is trivial; you simply flip over your deck into your graveyard, put a seemingly endless number of creatures into play, Lightning Helix your opponent three times and finish them off with a big Fireball from the graveyard. Admittedly, some games with Dredge play out in a comparable fashion, particularly before sideboarding. After sideboarding, the dance around the hate cards begins; making things more intricate, but even in general, I believe there is a lot of play to the Dredge deck. The most appealing property of this deck to me is its incredible consistency and inevitability. You always reach the same insurmountable game state, provided you can enact your game plan.
Part of the reason people may perceive Dredge as a simpler affair than it is, may be the fact that decks like Dredge warp the games they are involved to the extent that traditionally important concepts no longer apply. As a result the important decisions that lead to Dredge establishing its overwhelming advantage can be oblique. The focal points of the game revolve around something entirely different and consequently, what you need to pay particular attention to and what is important in games shifts accordingly.
As a basic example, the exact contents of Dredge’s hand are of minor importance (to the extent that I find it somewhat quaint when people diligently keep track of exactly which land the Dredge player returned with Life from the Loam), their total number however can be crucial for Conflagrate. Similarly, with regular decks, whether or not you should play a land is typically not a question, with Dredge, this can be an extremely important decision. Playing a land to get Bloodghasts back immediately versus waiting until the graveyard is more stocked, or holding a land for a bigger Conflagrate versus playing the land to afford the option of flashing back a Faithless Looting followed up by a Life from the Loam later on can make or break a game. Let’s therefore take a look at some of the ways you can maximise your Dredge gameplay.
The maindeck I played in GP Bilbao
Objectives as the Dredge player
As mentioned before, the natural progression of a game with Dredge will typically lead to an overwhelming board state in favour of the Dredge deck. Your task as the Dredge player is therefore to ensure that you reach that state as efficiently as possible. Beyond the obvious of ‘getting a Dredger in the graveyard and start Dredging‘, there are some overarching goals you are trying to achieve during each stage of the game. Sequencing your early turns well is very important to maximise your snowball potential.
Turn 0: Mulliganing and ideal hand states
Evaluating opening hands and making sure you have a viable game plan is one of the most important factors of playing Dredge and is another aspect in which it is very different from normal decks. You are looking for a particular combination of cards and therefore the raw number of cards in your opening hand is of secondary importance.
At the bare minimum, you need a combination of a card with Dredge (or a Shriekhorn in the hopes if milling a Dredger) alongside an enabler, i.e. a Cathartic Reunion or a Faithless Looting and at least two lands, one of which can produce green mana. The green mana is of absolutely essential importance, as you need to refill your hand later on with Life from the Loam in order to fuel Conflagrate, be able to flashback Faithless Lootings and make land drops to return Bloodghasts as the game progresses. The second land is not absolutely necessary if you have a Faithless Looting and an otherwise functional hand within the requirements above, but I would not typically recommend keeping one landers without Looting, hoping to ‘get there’ Every turn you don’t get there, severely hampers your momentum, as you do need a couple of turns to fill your graveyard.
Whatever cards you have beyond the aforementioned core are essentially gravy, though of course the more powerful hands contain multiple copies of Looting, Reunion and/or Shriekhorn. However, the combination above is typically sufficient to enact your game plan. Conversely, that also means that hands that do not meet these criteria should be mulliganed. You don’t need to be afraid of mulliganing, since the very essence of Dredger/Shriekhorn, Looting/Reunion and land(s) is only 3-4 cards, with the requirement of the second land becoming increasingly softer the lower you mulligan. Mulliganing to a 5 or even a 4 card hand which contains this combination will typically be better than a 6 or 7 card hand relying on a slower start (e.g. via a hardcast Life from the Loam or a turn 1 Conflagrate into turn 2 flashback to discard Dredge cards).
Turn 1: Faithless Looting vs. Shriekhorn
Once you have kept your hand, you are immediately faced with a decision point: What land should you play? The default generally would be to lead on something like Copperline Gorge or Mountain to avoid taking damage, but often leading on a fetchland into Stomping Ground can be better – this guarantees a target for Life from the Loam (which can be upped to 2, if you have a second one on turn 2) and ensures access to a green source, which may otherwise not be guaranteed, since there is a chance you dredge all your Stomping Grounds into your graveyard. Additionally, it is often better to make sure you have access to multiple green sources in case of unforeseen circumstances, like Ghost Quarter or Spreading Seas cutting you off from green, while the extra life loss is often mitigated by the presence of Creeping Chill.
The other common question on turn 1 is what card to play first if you have multiple options, namely Shriekhorn vs. Faithless Looting. In the majority of cases, it is better to lead on the Shriekhorn (and activate it in their second main phase in case you hit a Narcomoeba and an Amalgam). That way, you preserve your Looting to accelerate your Dredging. . However, there are definitely cases in which you are better off leading on Looting. This is mainly the case when you have a Conflagrate and a Dredge card in hand and anticipate needing or wanting to kill one of your opponent’s creature on your next turn. This often comes up against Devoted Druid decks where it is imperative to kill their first Druid, against BG decks to disincentivise them from casting Scavenging Ooze but also against UR Phoenix to insulate against Thing in the Ice (though if you’re on the play, it can be better to hold the Conflagrate and surprise them with it on turn 3). In a case where you are deciding between Shriekhorn and Conflagrate (without Looting, presumably having mulliganed), the same logic can make it correct to Conflagrate for 0 on turn 1, to go after creatures on turn 2.
Turn 2: Cathartic Reunion vs. Life from the Loam
The choices begin on your upkeep if you played a Shriekhorn on turn 1. If you milled over an Imp, it is typically correct to wait on activating your Shriekhorn until after the dredge, as it is better to respond to a potential Narcomoeba trigger by activating the Shriekhorn in search of an Amalgam. This protects against potentially milling a Narcomoeba in the two cards from the Horn, and then an Amalgam (which then wouldn’t come back) with the Dredge 5. The same concept applies whenever you already know what you want to be Dredging that turn. From there, the options clearly multiply on turn 2 because in addition to getting access to the two mana cards more combinations of one casting cost cards become available, but in general your course of action comes down to whether you already have access to the third land. If yes, there is rarely a reason not to start going off completely with Cathartic Reunion (barring counterspell mana or some bizarre situation in which you want to not present targets for Surgical Extraciton) or any Shriekhorns and/or Lootings you have available. Remember to mill yourself with Shriekhorn if you hadn’t yet before playing a land in case you hit more Bloodghasts or Amalgams.
If you don’t have your third land yet, however, it can often be good to play Life from the Loam, even if it’s just for one previously used fetchland. This guarantees you a land drop on turn 3, gives you something to Dredge and can have the added benefit of making your Cathartic Reunion more impactful – say you Dredge a Stinkweed Imp of the Loam, and have a Bloodghast in hand, that you would like to discard but otherwise couldn’t have since you needed to discard a Dredger. You can then Reunion on turn 3, and immediately return the Bloodghast alongside any Amalgams that might have found their way into the graveyard or Flashback a Looting you may have played on turn 1 without interruption. Additionally, it is part of the overarching game plan to get a third land into play at some point, as this enables the Life from the Loam -> Land -> Conflagrate sequence.
Turn 3+: Working towards the end-game
After the establishing turns, your main concern is ensuring a win in as quick and as safe a manner as possible. Flashbacked Lootings fill your graveyard quickly, while also allowing you to pitch spare Bloodghasts and Amalgams from your opening hand. Creeping Chills and the creatures you hit will naturally reduce your opponent’s life total and bring them into reach for you to finish them off.
Your finishing blow is almost always a Conflagrate fuelled by Life from the Loam, so as mentioned above you want to make sure that you gain access to 4 mana in this phase of the game, so that you can cast both in the same turn. Each Loam increases your hand size by two, so you can build up to a Conflagrate for 10 pretty quickly (go up to 8 cards in draw step then Loam into Conflagrate). In grindier games, you can get to higher numbers by casting 2 Life from the Loam before the Conflagrate, but that rarely comes up.
In this phase of the game, paying attention to small details can be important to minimise things that can go wrong, as you will win eventually. Amongst these are keeping track of what fetchable lands you have left to avoid being stranded with useless lands in play. Beyond that, it is a matter of leaving sufficient number of Narcomoebas back to block, in case of sudden Infect kills from Scales, or Hasted Phoenixes, not running into potential weird main deck cards like Settle the Wreckage, and making sure your lethal Conflagrate doesn’t get blown out by potential Lightning Helixes or – Dredge gods forbid – Warping Wails. This also includes playing around maindeck copies of sideboard cards or randomly powerful effects against you, such as Surgical Extraction out of Phoenix, Anger of the Gods, Ugin, Relic of Progenitus/Nihil Spellbomb, and Scavenging Ooze/Kalitas, which we will be taking a look at later on. Often, you will win even if you do not play around such things, but there are certainly games in which these sort of things matter. At any rate, this general overview is how you want basically game to play out with Dredge, regardless of pre- or post-sideboard, the additional dimension that sideboarding adds is mostly having to play around hate.
The Sideboard – inclusions and basic sideboarding guidelines
Dredge sideboards are mainly focused around tools to fight against hate. Nature’s Claims help against Rest in Peace and Leyline of the Void (and, as I recently discovered at my local store Pariah on a Hazoret!), Ancient Grudge is obviously great against Whir and Scales and takes care of Grafdigger’s Cage or can force an activation or Relic of Progenitus and Tormod’s Crypt (and Nihil Spellbomb, but I wouldn’t bring it in against the black midrange decks playing that card). Lightning Axe is an excellent answer to creature-based hate such as Scavenging Ooze, Kalitas, Anafenza, and Thing in the Ice, while also serving as an excellent piece of interaction and enable against decks with a lot of creatures or sporting one drops (Burn/Spirits/Humans/Devoted Druid deck). These cards are present in every Dredge sideboard and for good reason.
After that, there are always some number of slots dedicated to graveyard hate. This number can range from 1-4 from what I have seen and the exact setup varies from Leylines to Ravenous Traps and most recently even to Surgical Extractions (though I don’t like these, I think they are too low impact). Firstly, it should be noted that these cards are intended only for all-in graveyard decks like Dredge and Living End. Against decks that utilise the graveyard only to a limited degree, like UR Phoenix, Hollow One or Grixis Death’s Shadow, these cards are not worth it, as you are the more powerful deck. The onus is on them to stop you, and by boarding in these cards (in addition to whatever counter-hate is appropriate), you will be diluting your deck too much.
Secondly, the exact setup of these cards is interesting. On the surface level, Leyline seems the obvious option, as it is the most impactful effect. This locks you in to 3 or 4 slots, 3 being the sweet spot where the likelihood of having one in your opening hand increases significantly from lower numbers. Now as you see, I am suggesting 3 slots for the graveyard decks here, and yet am not playing 3 Leylines. This is because the expected hate is Leyline at this point, so people are prepared for it by bringing in Claims to combat it. If you have Ravenous Trap instead however, you are blanking those claims, while still having access to a powerful hate effect. In addition, mulligans tend to intensify in the postboard games in the mirror, in order to find hate and/or counter hate. This leads to more awkward hands and taking more natural draw steps, be that due to lacking some part of your engine, or due to an opposing Leyline making it necessary to find an answer. In such cases, drawing a Leyline is terrible, but drawing a Trap is quite good, as a well-timed trap can be truly devastating.
Why then is the hate not 3 Traps and 0 Leyline? Well, your opponent in the mirror will often see a large portion of your deck Dredged into your graveyard if you win game 2, and thus can see how you sideboarded. If they don’t see any Leylines but see Traps, they are free to board out their Nature’s Claims in a potential third game. If you flip over a Leyline though, this is riskier for them and keeps them guessing about what your split is exactly. I first saw this logic explained in an article by Matti Kuisma, who has written several excellent articles on Dredge that I would recommend. Of course, this sort of thinking can devolve into somewhat of a levelling game, for instance I saw that Dredge aficionado Sodeq on Magic Online played 3 Leyline in the most recent MTGO Modern tournament, when he had previously played 1 or 0, which I assume was a decision based in part on him expecting people to sideboard against his previously published lists. One of these lists contained the very cute Memory’s Journey, as a counter to Surgical Extraction by targeting your own card and a means of interacting with Arclight Phoenixes in their graveyard, however with UR Phoenix increasingly adapting Ravenous Trap as their sideboard hate card, I don’t think that one is good enough anymore.
The final slots are a bit more varied. A second copy of Darkblast is a common inclusion, but I think with the Axes you are already improving in creature matchups and generally feel pretty good about them anyway, so I don’t think it is crucial. The Assassin’s Trophy is a catch-all, which I like as a one-of. It’s a bit awkward to cast and giving your opponent an extra land is not ideal, but it helps having access to this when you are not exactly sure what their hate will be (e.g. when playing against a creature deck that might have Grafdigger’s Cage). Additionally it complements the Lightning Axes in matchups where their hate is mostly creature based, such as The Rock or Devoted Druid decks, where you are otherwise lacking options.
The final two slots may seem a bit random and they could definitely be used to include a 4th Nature’s Claim and a 4th graveyard hate card instead. In fact, on the eve of GP Bilbao I was talking to Jan Stadler, who would go on to Top 8 the tournament, about exactly the Explosives vs Claim slot, and he ended up on the Explosives while I played the Claim. Having thought about it more in retrospect, I have since come to the conclusion that given that Dredge is so intrinsically powerful and you have access to 3 Claims and potentially 1 Trophy already against hate like Leyline and Rest in Peace as well as Looting and Reunion to dig for them, it makes sense to cover additional bases, so that you are not just cold to certain situations just because you didn’t include an answer in your sideboard. With the Explosives specifically, it being an elegant answer to Humans spamming Auriok Champions into Phantasmal Images makes it appealing to me (plus its additional value against Welding Jar decks). In a similar vein, the Sphere as a tool against Tron, which is one of the few decks that can win the first game against Dredge via Relics of Progenitus, Wurmcoil Engines and Ugin, makes sense to me. However, if the London mulligan is implemented, maybe it makes sense to add an extra answer to Leyline again, since its numbers are likely to go up with that rule.
I only want to touch on what to actually take out and put in briefly, as you can find a number of good guides elsewhere online already (again I can recommend https://twitter.com/MtgSodek, who also gives his reasoning in his sideboard plans, Sam Black also recently wrote on this matter). In general, you want to keep the number of cards you board low. Shriekhorn gets boarded out a reasonable amount, particularly when you bring in Lightning Axes as replacement enablers. You can trim some of the creatures, e. g. Narcomoeba when blocking is not important, Bloodghast when they have many good blockers for it, or Amalgam when you are worried you might be stranded with them in your graveyard due to Surgical Extraction on your Bloodghasts and Narcomoebas. It is also feasible to board out one copy of a card you think they are likely to want use Surgical Extraction on to mitigate its impact, though I wouldn’t really do that with Imp, since it’s high Dredge number is too unique an effect. Darkblast frequently gets cut when there are no good targets for it (though I sometimes keep it in to kill my own Bloodghasts in response to Angers and similar effects). On the draw and/or in slower matchups, it is possible to cut a land (typically Mountain or Dakmor Salvage) or a Life from the Loam (one of these can also be cut in matchups that are too fast for the value from it to matter, I think). Cathartic Reunion can be cut in some number against decks with many counterspells (e.g. Spirits); however do be mindful that it is an important card to have when you need to find counterhate.
I would not advise boarding out Creeping Chill in most cases, as it is an essential part of your deck’s plan, the uncounterable damage is incredibly valuable and in conjunction with Conflagrate makes it possible to win games with hardly any attacking. An exception is the matchup against Hardened Scales, where you can board into a control deck due to the ludicrous amount of removal that is naturally in your board. Even there though, I feel keeping a couple of Chills is worthwhile so you don’t lose to a stray few tokens from a Hangarback Walker followed up with getting burned out by Walking Ballista. In general, the boarding often comes down to trimming a few of the mentioned cards here and there and replacing them with the appropriate counter hate.
Beating the hate
Since this has been going on for quite a while, I am going to provide the individual points here in a more digestible form. A general note in advance however: I would almost always keep good functional hands in postboard games even if they don’t contain a mechanism of fighting the hate they could have. After all, it is on them to prove that they have the necessary interaction, and if you mulligan solid hands you are giving up a lot of equity in the games where they don’t. Additionally, even if they do have the hate, Dredge’s functional hands tend to be the ones with Lootings and Reunions, which can then function as a means to dig for the counterhate. That said, here are some tips on how to combat hate, some of which are also useful tips in general.
- Be mindful of countermagic on Looting and particularly Cathartic Reunion
- On a general level, rather than go all-in by e.g. leading on Looting discarding two big Dredgers, you can make an effort to keep a Dredge card (and maybe even an enabler) in case they have hate you can kill (e.g. a Relic or a Rest in Peace). This is not always possible in the long term, but it is good to try, so that you can quickly get going again
- Conversely, on the play against decks with Rest in Peace, it is often good to aggressively try and put as much power as possible into play in the first two turns before they can play it
- Against Surgical Extraction and also Relic of Progenitus/Nihil Spellbomb, a timely fetchland can guarantee that your Bloodghasts don’t fall victim to these cards, as you can crack your fetch should they try and meddle with them
- On the draw against Rest in Peace decks, it can be worth it to hold on to a Looting so if they don’t play RiP on turn 2 you can play Looting, discard a Bloodghast (and maybe even an Amalgam), play a land and put the creature(s) into play
- Against Grafdigger’s Cage, you can play a land, put Bloodghast’s trigger on the stack, hold priority and kill the Cage to get the vampire back
- Against Ravenous Trap, it can be correct to naturally draw on some turns, denying them the option to interact with your graveyard that turn, allowing you to either flashback Conflagrate unimpeded or return previously milled creatures. Note that a flashbacked Looting also does not enable Ravenous Trap’s condition
- If you have Conflagrate in hand, it can often be good to keep it there. This means you have access to playing it for 0 and then flashing it back immediately with your opponent getting a chance to use Surgical Extraction or Ooze on it
- In a similar vein, if you have a sure-fire kill using this method, don’t Dredge or mill yourself before your main phase to avoid milling the other Conflagrate and them Surgically Extracting it. Consider not Dredging and then only activating Shriekhorn and/or Looting if you are looking for the Conflagrate in such circumstances
- You can limit the targets they have for Surgical Extraction by strategically keeping certain Dredge cards in hand and not discarding them. This is particularly applicable against Grixis Death’s Shadow, where Stinkweed Imp is a big trump card
- You can decline to put Narcomoebas and Bloodghasts into play so that you are not forced to bring Amalgams back, instead triggering them via a Fetchland and Bloodghast. This is useful against sorcery speed effects like Terminus, Anger of the Gods and Ugin, where you can return Bloodghast on your end of turn or their second main phase, resulting in Amalgams returning in your opponent’s end step
- Be aware that leaving Amalgams in your graveyard on purpose like this does run into them playing a Relic and cracking it, or similar effects. You will have to make a judgment call which you deem more likely to be worth playing around
- Amalgams that are already being returned by something will trigger Amalgams that get put into the graveyard later. This way, you can sometimes engineer a sort of Amalgam chain, with some returning in your end step, and others in their end step – this can be a midway solution against sorcery speed effects while also mitigating them exiling your graveyard in some way on their turn, as some Amalgams already returned
- On rare occasions and if you can bring them to less than 10, it can be correct to kill your own Bloodghasts with Conflagrate to store them in the graveyard, planning to return them the turn after, which insulates you from Anger-style effects. Darkblast can fulfil a similar role
- Against Blood Moon and Leonin Arbiter, it can be important to get a Life from the Loam off early, just so that you have access to more lands. Otherwise, you may not be able to easily return Bloodghasts later, since you may be locked out from playing Loams in the future. These are also a situations in which Dakmor Salvage can be very valuable
- You can Nature’s Claim your Shriekhorn against Burn, which makes keeping the latter in in this matchup more valuable
That’s all I have at this point, but don’t let the length of this article fool you – the most important thing to realise when committing to the Dredge life is that you will live and die, lose and win at the mercy of the Dredge gods. Winning their favour by bold and fearless self-milling will be paramount to your success. Happy Dredging!
About Raoul Zimmermann:
Raoul started attending GPs in 2007 with Time Spiral block. Following their World Magic Cup appearance in 2015, he co-founded Team Axion alongside Kayure Patel and Tom Law. Within the team, he enjoys collecting the data from testing and making it presentable. Raoul is from Germany and currently lives in Poland; his Magic home, however, is still very much the UK. He travels to UK events where possible, including Nationals, where he made the Top 8 in 2018. He has a few Pro Tour appearances and is eagerly looking to requalify. His favourite Magic format is Draft, as he enjoys the theoretical overlap from format to format, while the change in individual cards keeps things fresh. As such, he is always eager for a team draft with friends and has 18 boosters of various formats stocked up at home.