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In Development – Be the Big Bad (Part 2)

Aliens is actually my favorite zombie movie of all time.

At a glance, you might not think of Aliens as a zombie movie. But give it a little time and the basic structural similarity is striking. We have our outnumbered heroes stuck in a remote colony (the mall), fighting seemingly endless waves of vicious aliens (zombies), only to lose most of their group before the few survivors eventually make it away to the dropship (boat, helicopter) under the guidance of our heroine.

One of the great turns in Aliens occurs late in the movie, when our heroes have barricaded themselves into the colony’s operations center. As the aliens make another push, there’s a tense half minute or so as the Colonial Marines read their motion sensors and a swarm of dots close in on their position. Curiously, the sensor traces show that the aliens have made their way into the room – at which point Corporal Hicks has the sickening realization that the creatures have changed their game plan, and are bypassing the barricades entirely by clambering through the colony’s utility crawlspace.

Welcome to Dredge, games two and three. You’re the aliens.

This week, we’re going to follow up on last week’s discussion of game one with a discussion of how we play games two and three with Dredge, fighting the hate, and all the rest.

A little bit of review

In case you missed last week’s article, here’s a very brief overview of what I discussed there.

In game one, we more or less throw our deck at our opponent, overextending vigorously and wiping them out with One Big Turn (OBT). Going into post-boarded games, we switch up our overall strategy, changing from being more of a combo deck into playing a true, tactical game of Magic.

Okay. So that’s what we covered last week, very briefly. Now, let’s move on to those post-board games.

“That’s inside the room.”

As I introduced last week, the big turn for Dredge happens between game one and your subsequent games, as the deck changes from something that is more akin to a combo to a deck that is more aggro-combo in nature. Why we like to operate this way with Dredge has a lot to do with how our opponents choose to fight us.

Stick your neck out, and the hate will chop it off

The fundamental shift away from the overextension plan that we prefer for game one is a product of the fact that Dredge hate is not particularly nuanced. As I described last week, it frequently involves “Hail Mary” cards that attempt to shut us down entirely, rather than the more prosaic cards that we might see against other matchups.

Consider Gerry Thompson’s CounterTop deck from the SCG San Jose Open, for example. His sideboard features an extra copy of Firespout, a Submerge, and two copies of Sower of Temptation. These are all cards that benefit out against Zoo, for example, but you wouldn’t expect any of them to shut down a Zoo deck entirely. Instead, your expectation is that they will, in concert, dent and deform Zoo’s game plan enough to buy you the time and space to win.

In contrast, the majority of the hate leveled at Dredge tries to kill the deck in one shot…and the only way this is possible is if we have overextended tremendously, as we did in game one.

How they try to bring you down

Dredge hate, or more broadly, graveyard hate, lives in a certain number of thematic batches based on what approach it takes to trying to get the job done. It’s useful to think in these categories because there are too many cards to be constantly burning your cognitive capacity trying to recall them all. Our general hate categories are:

This category of hate attempts to keep you off your game plan entirely by blocking your access to the graveyard. Intuitively, this feels like the “scariest” type of hate to face, since it seems like to absolutely undercuts your ability to operate. However, it’s not nearly as bad as it seems for two reasons.

First, as I’ll cover in a little bit, your opponent frequently has to so mutilate their game plan to “hit their hate” that you have a lot of time to deal with that hate.

Second, enchantments that “just sit there” are ideal targets for our “hate nullification” sideboard cards – the first sideboarding path I’ll describe below.

In short, it’s generally wrong to think of cards like Leyline of the Void as a crippling hit to your game plan. Rather, they turn your metaphorical path into a muddy one, forcing you to wade through the muck to get your win. You’re far from crippled – you’re just slower.

The “semi-disruptive” category cuts you off from some aspect of your overall game plan. They’re interesting choices, and typically show up either as part of a diversified package, where the opponent is trying to make it hard for you to beat their hate, or because they specifically work well within the deck. Jotun Grunt, for example, is a solid beater in a Zoo deck. Similarly, Ground Seal is a natural inclusion in Enchantress builds.

In general, these cards are the easiest to work around, as they only partially slow you down, but you retain the normal ability to use your sideboard cards against them.

The “incidental” hate category basically comprises those cards that can lead to your Bridges being removed. In old Odyssey+ Extended, Dredge was a major driver for Zoo decks including Mogg Fanatics, as the ability to nullify Bridges at will helped keep Dredge decks, to some extent, in check. Fanatics are not so common in contemporary Legacy Zoo, but it’s worth keeping in mind that any deck with creatures and burn can simply aim a burn spell at one of its own creatures to remove your Bridges.

This is the first of the true “ambush” categories, where, without preamble, you can have part of your game plan nailed, perhaps even on your turn. These cards are kind of underpowered compared to the last two options, so they typically show up in decks where there are specific reasons that they’re good. Faerie Macabre, for example, was the logical go-to graveyard hate option for last year’s Survival decks, as you could simply Survival for a Faerie Macabre and nail a couple key cards at will.

Although spot disruption is not nearly as devastating as the two bigger-hit options that follow, it is still deceptively effective. For example, you might very reasonably keep a mulligan to six featuring just Grave-Troll and one enabler.

But if they pitch a Faerie Macabre to remove that Grave-Troll right after you pitch it, you’re suddenly running a significantly slower deck. The work-around for spot disruption is straightforward, as it involves building slightly more redundancy into your game plan – that is, never rely on a single card in your graveyard, whether that means trying to go for hands that have two dredge cards or making sure you’re not relying on being able to Dread Return one specific creature.

Ah, the pocket nukes. Whereas Leyline and Wheel are not as bad as you might first think, Crypt and friends are approaching the territory of actually being that bad. They’re also going to be by far the most common hate, as they go in every deck, are very cheap, and can be tutored up with Trinket Mage. Relic of Pogenitus is the most frequent among them and is also basically the most powerful, as it offers the dual plans of nuking your graveyard versus grinding your graveyard out, and it can cantrip for the opponent if nothing else of note is going on.

You’ll notice that we’ve been running across a gradient of hate approaches here, starting from those cards that try to keep your game plan from ever taking off in the first place. At this end of the gradient, the hate hopes to take a chunk – often a crippling one – out of you once you’ve initiated that game plan.

Whereas the last group of Relic and friends lets the opponent drop a card on their turn to either nail your graveyard or set up the standing threat of nailing your graveyard, this final set of cards is the most insidious – it can strike at any time, utterly gutting your graveyard plan in the process. Bojuka Bog lives in this category on the assumption that it will be deployed by a Knight of the Reliquary, which is why I presented Knight as a such a warning signal in last week’s article.

These cards are less versatile and thus less common than the Crypt category, but can be similarly devastating to your game plan…with the added “bonus” in the case of Ravenous Trap that there’s no preamble to getting nailed by the Trap. It can go in any deck, and it doesn’t even have a Knight there for a turn as a warning.

Planning your trench run

That’s quite the panoply of hate. Given that, what do we do?

Well, as I noted toward the end there, these hate cards form a gradient from those that seek to hinder Dredge’s development up front through those that attempt to take a crippling chunk out of it after it has extended itself a bit. I presented them in roughly gradient order above, from the strictly preventative, such as Leyline, through the strictly crippling, such as Ravenous Trap. In a sense, we’re looking at a gradient between vaccination and medical treatment after the fact, with the understanding that sometimes they overlap a little bit.

We’re going to want to tune our strategy, and our use of the major paths of tactical post-board Dredge play, based on the type of hate we’re facing. Like so:

In other words, there’s a gradient of responses to the hate between those that require sideboard cards on your part, and those that are primarily tactical in nature – that is, that require a change in how you play. The big take-home from that chart above is that the two gradients don’t map perfectly to each other.

For example, it’s usually best to play around spot disruption, and you generally don’t want to burn effort on cards that try to interact with it.

Cards

This branch of your sideboarded game tries to give you tactical advantage based on using your cards against your opponent’s sideboard plan. In some cases, you’ll be leaning heavily on these card choices, but in general, you’re going to use a mix of sideboard cards and tactical changes to address most situations. In this section, we’ll focus on the card side of things.

Hate their hate

The goal here is, naturally, to nullify your opponent’s hate strategy using your own cards. The classic example in this category is using a sideboard card to deal with one of the preemptive hate cards, such as Leyline of the Void. Leyline is simply not a card one can “play around” in the traditional – either you have access to a graveyard, or you don’t. As a consequence, you need something you can actually cast out of your hand to deal with that problem.

This is why my Dredge build runs four copies of Nature’s Claim. Other popular choices in this area include Chain of Vapor and Ray of Revelation (the last one going in more traditional “rainbow” Dredge builds).

The downside to hating their hate is that the more cards you bring in, the slower your deck runs and the more often it clunks to a dead stop, running out of dredge cards in your graveyard, enablers in hand, Dread Returns, and so forth.

Of course, they’re doing that dance, too…

Why you can get away with sideboard cards

It can feel pretty cringe-worthy to move solid action cards out of your main deck as you bring in those sideboard cards. But it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s a reason you can get away from this, even as you “un-tune” your deck from a brutal combo deck into a reasonable sort of wacky aggro-combo concoction.

Simply put, your opponent is damaging their game plan to get to the hate.

Consider, for example, the opponent who tries to stifle your game plan with Leyline of the Void. If they side in four copies, they have about a 38% chance of seeing one or more in their opening hand. If they’re willing to mulligan to six cards, that goes up to about 60%. Willing to go to five? 70%.

What those percentages leave aside, however, is the fact that hose “mulligan to hate” percentages are entirely independent of the consideration of whether the rest of the hand is any good – at all – in carrying out their primary game plan. Imagine the simple case, for example, of the opponent who mulls to a hand of Leyline and four lands. Is that good? Is it going to win the game before you Claim or Chain that Leyline?

Probably not.

Keep this in mind as you form your plan for a specific post-board game, as it’ll keep you from embracing a variation on the “dies to Doom Blade” fallacy. Your opponent does not magically get a free Leyline or other hate card to start the game – they have to warp their own game plan to get there, often much more so than you have to warp yours to cope.

Here’s a quick example – at the San Jose Legacy open, I guessed wrong about my Hypergenesis opponent’s graveyard hate, and brought in Unmasks, expecting Ravenous Traps. Thus, the mulligan to six and pre-game Leyline of the Void could have seemed like certain doom for me, especially as I’d mulliganed to five cards before keeping a hand with no land and no enablers other than an Unmask.

However…in mulliganing to the hate, he’d kept an otherwise “slow” Hypergenesis hand. As a consequence, my turn one play of “Unmask, take your cascade spell” bought me an extra turn to draw a land off the top of my library and then do the very dirty play of Cabal Therapy for his only in-hand threats. I then killed him with Narcomoebas and Stinkweed Imps in the many, many turns that bought me.

There’s no free lunch – in adapting to you as a threat, your opponent becomes less of one themself.

Tactics

The teammate to your sideboard cards is the idea of altering your mode of play to interact with and defeat your opponent’s hate.

Which sounds, oddly, like advice a Jedi would give.

As we saw in the gradient, above, most hate is best addressed through a combination of sideboard cards and tactical choices, rather than just one or the other. In fact, nearly all my sideboarding decisions are based around the idea of altering my tactics away from that OBT to the more drawn-out, tactical game…while still maintaining some form of “combo” finish.

Generally speaking, tactical decisions come down to reducing overextension, and to forcing uncomfortable choices on your opponent.

Forcing decisions with cards

So your opponent has a Relic of Progenitus out. That sucks. What can you do about that? Play the slowest game in the world? Hope to win on Narcomoeba beatdown?

The answer may be “yes,” and that option shows up below. However, a lot of our sideboard cards are oriented toward taking situations like this and acquiring the initiative for ourselves.

Let’s return to that Relic situation. So…they have a Relic out. Sweet. That means I’m going to need to be careful how I play (again, below)…until I draw a Nature’s Claim, Ancient Grudge, or Pithing Needle. Once we factor those cards into the equation, we’re suddenly giving or opponent a choice on extraordinarily short notice.

“Would you like to use your hate now, or can I neutralize it whenever I feel like?”

This is a much more significant power shift than it intuitively feels like. Intuitively, we know that their only answer that retains any kind of initiative for them involves popping that Relic right now…and we still lose our graveyard anyway, which feels bad.

But.

Now we can start up the dredging next turn, and they’re highly unlikely to have a solution. We can speed up our pace, and return to being a deck that draws an unfair number of cards, recurs its threats, and so forth.

Of course, some of our cards – like Pithing Needle – can simply negate their strategy if we drop it before they deploy that strategy. But much of the time, you’re going to be making this kind of play, where you choose for your opponent how much they get to hurt you.

And if you can wrap your mind around that, this next part will work well for you, too.

Forcing the issue with threats

There is a simpler way, a blunter way, even, to get your opponent to deploy your hate.

Do something frightening.

In game one, we usually get to dredge all out, churning our library into our graveyard until we unleash a zombie swarm. In sideboarded games, we could do that, losing horribly in the process…or we could dredge one turn, then draw off the top the next, and so forth.

Suddenly, your opponent has to make some choices.

I’m getting punched in the face by this Ichorid each turn. Do I Relic his graveyard away, or will the follow-up dredge just be worse?

Wait…now he’s dredging again? Oh, crap. Iona. I have to Relic now, right?

Essentially, this is about slowly edging closer to your opponent, challenging them to “call a market top” on your threat level. Is the known stuff that’s in your graveyard right now better or worse for them than the unknowns that remain in your deck.

This approach takes more practice on your end, but is also surprisingly powerful. Once again, it pays to step back and actually consider what’s going on.

From your opponent’s perspective, they may be expecting that OBT and a zombie horde at any time. If that’s the result of your deck once their hate is offline…can they afford to burn that hate just to take out a recursive Ichorid? Or to catch some Narcomoebas with their return triggers on the stack?

One more thing – punch them in the face

With all this discussion of how we can counteract our opponent’s hate, it’s important to remember that we also want to kill their game plan when we can. Much of the time – perhaps even most of the time – we are the aggressor, even in boarded games. As a consequence, your main interest is in “keeping on keeping on” – just making sure you don’t let them stop you from doing what you do.

But in some cases, you have to be concerned that they’ll be able to kill you before you kill them. My specific concerns in this area these days are decks such as Tendrils, Burn, and Zoo, roughly in that order. A Tendrils deck is reasonably likely to not even bother trying to hate you out, feeling safe in the assumption that they’ll just storm you out before you can do anything about it.

Our trump card, which I include in almost all post-board games, is Iona. She’s a reliable, 7/7 stop sign for most strategies, and is especially devastating against decks that look for their reach in off-board spells.

For example, Tendrils.

Other cards in this category include Terastodon (taking out their mana base), Ancestor’s Chosen (putting your life total out of reach), and Blazing Archon (making you immune to attack).

This is also the primary driver for my inclusion of Unmask in my sideboard. It gives me outs against decks that may be otherwise faster, even if I can’t hit an Iona or zombie horde in time.

Some select sideboarding

Legacy is a big, big place, so sideboarding is a big topic. However, we can review some specific categories of opposition to give you an impression of how I might sideboard in each case.

Note that there is no rule that says your sideboarding must be consistent from game to game within a given match. Often, for example, I find that my sideboarding in game two is a little off from time to time, and if I’m especially uncertain, I’ll start on the Unmask plan before moving to a more tailored one if there’s a game three.

For reference, here’s my deck list again:

Underground Dredge

 

Versus CounterTop

IN:

 

OUT:

 

My expectation in playing against CounterTop is that I will be facing Relic of Progenitus as the default hate. Thus, Nature’s Claim and Pithing Needle to shut down that plan, with the bonus option that excess Claims and Needles can be used to punch holes in the Counterbalance-Top plan. The extra Ichorid is there to grind out games – it’s good in a matchup where the opposing deck relies primarily on countermagic to deal with threats.

Versus Elves

IN:

 

OUT:

 

Once again, I’m assuming there will be a smattering of artifact-based hate, but with less access to it than in CounterBalance, where we have fetchlands, Top, sometimes Trinket Mages, and Jace. Given that the deck has less access to it, I’m willing to pull back on the specific cards meant to face that hate in favor of cards such as Darkblast and Pithing Needle, that will help stick a knife in the Elves deck’s game plan.

Versus Goblins

IN:

 

OUT:

 

Although I could theoretically drop a Needle on Aether Vial, in general that’s not a big enough threat in this matchup to warrant the space. Claim, on the other hand, is pretty multifunctional, taking down the expected Relics as well as the less frequent option of Leyline of the Void. We bring in the Chosen to buy a lot of space against the Goblins, and the backup Darkblast to take down that occasional pain in the neck Goblin Lackey.

And, naturally, Iona is a pretty big problem for a deck that is either mono-red or mostly red.

Versus Merfolk

IN:

 

OUT:

 

In the case of Merfolk, Aether Vial is a card that I want to do something about, since the deck has significantly less tempo without it. Spare Needles can also be applied to stifling the operation of Mutavaults and Coralhelm Commanders. We don’t bother with the Ancestor’s Chosen this time, as the game will be won or lost before a big chunk of extra life comes into the picture…but we do keep Iona, because she’s pretty solid against a deck that only casts blue spells.

Versus Tendrils

IN:

 

OUT:

 

And now for something completely different. Tendrils is a faster deck – fast enough that the Tendrils player may well not bother to run graveyard hate. Should that prove to be the case, we want to build in as many outs as we can. We begin by punching their game plan in the face with Unmask, hoping to buy a turn or two, and then round it out by going for the best OBT we can, hoping to kill them with zombies or build an unbeatable board state with Iona so that we can kill them a turn later.

With zombies, naturally.

Zoo

IN:

 

OUT:

 

Zoo is one of the main things that pushed me into running a fetch-based mana base, as I like the extra turn (or more) it can buy me in that kind of matchup.

Zoo has the greatest likelihood of running a mixture of hate, so we need to be especially on our toes. Going into game two, we have Nature’s Claim in case they run Leyline or an artifact, and we must play very tactically, mindful of the fact that they may also run Ravenous Trap, or have access to Bojuka Bog via Knight.

From beatdown to boxing match

Today’s column is on the long side, and I’m certain there’s more to discuss on the topic of hate, fighting the hate, sideboarding, and everything that happens in games two and three. But hopefully today’s piece has given you a good base for considering your own Dredge game plan, no matter what version you choose to play.

As you’re considering your own Dredge game plan, consider this take home message:

Game one is a beatdown, game two is a boxing match. Either way, you have the initiative. Use it.

***
magic (at) alexandershearer.com
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