In Development – Be the Big Bad (Part 1)

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with having “tournament music” – one song that I listen to in between rounds at a tournament. You’ve almost certainly read about this recently via Brian Kibler, who is known for doing this since his return to the game. It’s a part of the broader suite of tools competitive folks use to keep themselves engaged, as enumerated in books like The Power of Full Engagement.

Generally, Brian just picks a song he likes and finds energizing or focusing. Given my love of metaphor, I’ve picked songs that feel suited to the event and my choice of deck. Of late, this has been my Dredge accompaniment:

First, I like the song. Second, check out that chorus. To me, that speaks a lot to how I want my Dredge deck to operate. We aren’t going to game, as such…I’m just going to take your money.

Having laid out the case for Dredge and the specifics of my variation last week, this week I’m going to talk about how I play the deck, and on the fascinating transition it makes after game one.

It’s an extensive discussion, so this will be part one of a two-part article.


The elevator pitch version of “How to play Dredge” might well be, “Win game one, then duck around hate in at least one more game in the match.”

It’s a little simplistic, but this explanation gets at the essence of playing any highly linear strategy. If you play Affinity, you have to expect artifact hate in boarded games, and so forth. I might expand that short description as follows:

Game 1 = warp speed goldfishing.

Game 2 = a tactical struggle.

If the difference between this version and the blurb above is unclear, I think it boils down to our attitude about how the deck works. The first version essentially says, “I win game one, and then probably lose the next two, but I hope not.” The second version says, “I am highly likely to overwhelm my opponent in game one, and then have to win a normal game of Magic after that to take the match.”

Hopefully it’s clear why I think the second attitude is more helpful.

Variable geometry

The natural consequence of this approach to matches is that you should almost always expect to sideboard extensively after the first game in each match.

Philosophically, most decks features sideboards that either attempt to nudge certain matchups in a more positive direction or include Hail Mary choices – that is, a few cards that hope to take down an entire line of attack on their own.

Consider the sideboard from Matt Nass’s Elves list from the San Jose open:


Tormod’s Crypt and Mindbreak Trap are both (mostly) Hail Mary sideboard choices. The hope against Tendrils, for example, is that you’ll either mulligan to a Mindreak Trap or have drawn into one by the time the Tendrils deck starts comboing out. Similarly with Tormod’s Crypt. There are no real synergies with these cards – for example, the deck doesn’t already feature Trinket Mages to tutor up those Crypts or [card]Academy Ruins[/card] to recur them. I did say “mostly,” however, as the deck can at least Intuition for these cards, meaning that it effectively has more copies – at least, if you survive long enough to cast a three-mana spell.

Sideboarding in Dredge is almost entirely not about Hail Mary choices. Instead, it’s about structurally altering your entire game plan to present a significantly different attacker in sideboarded games. It’s not quite a fully transformational sideboard, but it’s close.

The default change

Given this idea, I have sideboarding changes that I carry out in almost every single post-board game.

First, as a reminder, here’s the list I introduced last week:

Underground Dredge


Here’s what nearly always comes out after game one:


Here’s what nearly always comes in after game one:


Yes, there’s some more variability in the cards that come in, rather than the cards that come out. I’ll explain how these choices are made in Part 2.

28 Days Later (playing game one)

My philosophy for Dredge’s game one is simple – I’m looking for one big turn (OBT). The ideal case for Dredge is to have a turn, often turn two or three, that gives bystanders the impression that I accidentally dropped my cards face-up on the play area. There are occasional risks around this approach, but usually you can either kill your opponent during your OBT or, at the very least, develop an overwhelming board state.

Ranking your enablers to enable OBT

Your enablers are those cards that let you pitch other cards into the graveyard, which in turn lets you get your dredge going, have access to flashback cards, and place your Bridges where they’ll do some good. My take on Dredge features 14 enablers:


These are all playable on turn one, but they’re not all equal as turn one plays. Here are some considerations:

Putrid Imp is our ideal turn one enabler. It’s reusable, it can start attacking the following turn (with evasion, no less!), and it can be flashback fuel for Therapies and Returns once you’re done pitching cards with it. In addition, it has the massive additional benefit of having basically no opportunity cost for having played it on turn one, rather than holding it for later.

Hapless Researcher is second best. It’s not reusable – but then, none of my non-Imp choices are. You’re wasting some of its utility when you use it on turn one, as later-game use gives you one card draw’s worth of dredging and the ability to make some zombies.

Our third choice is Careful Study. The case here is straightforward – you get to pitch two cards to start your dredging (yay), but you lose access to two dredges once that process has begun (boo).

Finally, there’s Breakthrough. If at all possible, I want to hold back Breakthrough for after the dredging has begun. I’ll emphasize this point because Breakthrough is a super-tempting first-turn enabler. After all, it’s effectively a One With Nothing with a copy of Tidings spliced on for free. Awesome, right?

However, a first-turn Breakthrough has by far the highest opportunity cost of the enablers. First of all, your hand is gone…and you might have had, say, a Cabal Therapy in there that you could conceivably have actually cast rather than just flashing back. Second, while drawing four cards for one mana is nifty, drawing up to twenty-four cards for that same cost is just that much better. A single Breakthrough cast as a second-stage card, after some earlier enabler, gives you four dredging opportunities – that’s often enough to dig you about half way through your deck.

I often end up casting Breakthrough for 1U, as there’s that one card I’d like to keep in hand for the following turn, whether that’s a Cabal Therapy or perhaps an extra Cephalid Coliseum.

So, our enabler priority use order is Imp, Researcher, Study, Breakthrough.

Enabler honorable mention goes to Cabal Therapy, which can, of course, get cards out of our own hand. Keep this in mind as a backup plan in case your only true enabler is Forced or otherwise stymied. It’s not a great plan, since they get to see your hand and it has none of the benefits of the other tools at your disposal. Still, it exists, so best not to forget about it.

Chaining your way to OBT

One reason I run that pair of Hapless Researchers – and the Sphinx as well – is so I have the ability to chain together my OBT and go for the throat as soon as possible in game one. Essentially, the Dredge deck faces the challenge that in the absence of those cards, you may reach a point, on turn two or three, where you have one third to one half of your deck in the graveyard, several creatures in play – Ichorids, Imps, Narcomoebas – and access to some Dread Returns.

But, tragically, no Flame-Kin Zealot. This does leave you the option of making a bunch of zombies and just letting the opponent have a turn. Essentially that’s what decks like Natural Order Bant do, presenting a big win condition and then weathering a turn. But that gives the control deck time to find Engineered Explosives or Ratchet Bomb for your zombies, and the combo deck time to just kill you.

So I prefer the same-turn kill.

Getting there means dredging more, and dredging more means…well, more enablers, but ones that you can access from both your hand and the graveyard. The latter is important because this “out of gas” moment tends to come about after you’re tapped out, either from casting earlier enablers or from using your Cephalid Coliseum. So we want “free” enablers, which means we want Dread Return targets.

Sphinx of Lost Truths is the default best choice in this area, so if you find yourself at this stall point, but with a Sphinx that you can Return, then you’re gold. Bring it back, dredge three times, go to town. However, it’s not weird for both Sphinx and Zealot to be hiding in what’s left of your library (in fact, you have about a one in three chance of having both Zealot and Sphinx stuck in the second half of your library if you’ve dredge thirty cards in).

Since we can’t run three Sphinxes to smooth out this problem, we run two Researchers instead, combining first-turn enabler and dredge chainer in one convenient card. You can Dread Return a Hapless Researcher, generating some zombies, pop it, generating more zombies, and get another dredge. This is probably going to be a Grave-Troll dredge if you’re deep into your deck, which means you see 20% of what’s left. This, in turn, gives you a one in three (or better, if fewer cards are left) chance of accessing either Sphinx or Zealot, and about a fifty-fifty chance of hitting another chainer if you still have a Hapless Researcher left down there as well. This is all, of course, on top of spewing out additional [card]Narcomoeba[/card]s and other fun cards.

Yellow lights

Generally, you don’t face a lot of specific game one hate.

The two big “danger” cards are Trinket Mage and Knight of the Reliquary. Trinket Mage sports an obvious warning – if the Mage is fetching up a Relic, Crypt, or Spellbomb, you get to see it right away (and potentially lose your graveyard to it immediately). In contrast, Knight is an alert, indicating possible access to Bojuka Bog.

In the Trinket Mage case, that’s when it’s helpful to know your archetypes. If you know you’re facing a deck that always packs Trinks, then you may want to play more conservatively.

When Knight hits, I inventory my play state. Can I win right now? If so, then I go for it. Can I kill the Knight? If so, then keep extending with my dredging and don’t worry about it. If not…then once again, it may be time for conservative play so I don’t auto-lose to Bojuka Bog.

However, in either case it’s possible that you’re already so overextended that you shouldn’t play to minimize your damage. Instead, you may want to maximize your board state even if you can’t figure out how to stop their potential hate card. We could imagine, for example, responding to the casting of a Knight by running an extensive dredge turn. Even if we don’t kill the opponent with Zealot and friends, we may end the turn with a bunch of Zombies and their hand Cabal Therapied out of existence. Sure, they can hit our graveyard, but we can just roll them the following turn with our zombies, graveyard or no.

Speed bumps

In addition to the potential for main deck graveyard hate – a potential that is typically only fulfilled these days in Knight decks and the occasional Trinket Mage build – we can also run afoul of main deck speed bumps, those cards that can stymie our zombie kill long enough for the opponent to get their act together, take control, and win.

The most universal and generic speed bump mechanism out there is having a creature take one for the team…in turn removing all of our lovely Bridges from the graveyard. The main offenders are Zoo decks, which can point removal at their own dudes, and Merfolk, with the “sacrifice me” effect on Cursecatcher.

Cursecatcher is the easiest to play around, as it can’t operate without a target – so you can hold off on giving it one until you must, generating zombies via Ichorid death in the meantime. More generally, losing your Bridges is annoying, but non-critical. It does slow you down, which can be a problem…but on the other hand, if your dredge engine is humming along, you should be able to churn out one or two Ichorids each turn, with an occasional guest appearance by a Narcomoeba…and that is enough to switch to plan B and Dread Return a Grave-Troll or Angel to crush the opponent with.

The big speed bumps are pesky cards like Solitary Confinement and Elephant Grass…and this is why I like Angel of Despair in my maindeck. When you hit one of these, you dredge your way into an Angel, take it out, and then kill with collected zombies. This brings up a good point…

Don’t dread those Returns

I really like to work my Dread Returns.

It’s easy to run afoul of tunnel vision and start thinking that Dread Return is just there to bring back our kill cards and that’s it. However, in addition to using Return to bring back Hapless Researcher and extend my OBT, I also run a lot of Dread Return tricks when it comes to dealing with on board issues.

Consider, for example, a game one in which the Enchantress player has these cards on board:


…and assorted other less relevant cards.

Hm. Kind of a pain, right? We can’t attack, can’t Therapy them, and the Grove defends that Confinement.

But we can do something about it. Maybe like so:

So, something like that. I often find myself doing these kind of “ping pong” plays with Angel using the combination of Dread Return and Cabal Therapy. Sometimes it’s about taking out speed bumps, but other times it’s about turning a big board position into an insurmountable one.

For example, in one game against Goblins, I had a decent OBT, but hadn’t hit Zealot and was out of ways to dredge deeper to try and find it. Instead, I chose to Return Angel, sac it, and Return it again…hitting lands both times. This left me with a giant zombie army, a 5/5 flyer, and my opponent with all of a single land to try and handle it.

Naturally, I’d also Therapied all of his cheaper plays out of his hand…

Just keep in mind that even if you can’t win this turn, you may want to burn through your Dread Returns to leave their board and hand devastated, and you with an enormous undead army.

Remember to loot the bodies

One final thing before we close out today’s discussion of game one – remember to get your free information.

It’s game one, turn three. You’ve had your OBT. You’ve done the math – you’re going to generate twelve zombies, Return Zealot, and kill the heck out of your opponent this turn.

But first, use all those Cabal Therapies.

If you have the clear win this turn, now is the time to burn a couple spare zombies and fire off a Cabal Therapy. If your opponent can do arithmetic and is reasonably awake and aware, they’ll concede in response. But if not, you get some free information that you can take with you into those sideboarded games.

It’s free info – take it!

G1 in the books…

That closes out our extensive discussion of the basic philosophy of Dredge, and how we play game one. In Part 2, I’ll talk about sideboarded play, where we switch from throwing our deck at the opponent to playing real, tactical Magic.

So look forward to Part 2 in a week’s time, and in the meantime, let me know if you have a different game one philosophy, or specific questions about how to handle specific game one situations.

magic (at) alexandershearer.com
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