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In Development – Crime, Looting, and Wagers

If you’ve been keeping up with articles here on ChannelFireball.com, you may have noticed a recurring theme about how you all should focus a lot more on deck selection and optimization rather than deck design. That generally seems to be the case, although someone always has to be first in coming up with any design, and there are the Travis Woos and Sam Blacks of the world who consistently knock weird cards together and come away with powerhouse designs.

But in general, you’ll gain a bigger edge out of choosing and optimizing an existing archetype.

With that caveat out of the way, today I’m writing about a new take on Dredge for Modern. It remains a rough concept, but I think there’s a real base there for a deck that uses the dredge mechanic to be a competitor in the Modern metagame.

Why Play from the Graveyard?

Before we launch into this nouveau Dredge deck, let’s consider why we want to play from the graveyard in Modern. Our two main motivators may sound awfully similar to our discussion of Affinity last time: speed and resilience.

The “Unfair” Speed of Combo

If your cards are useful from or in the graveyard, then the dredge mechanic effectively lets you draw a lot of cards. It’s similar in impact to [card]Thought Scour[/card] from pre-Ravnica Delver, where it drew you one card and fueled [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card], [card]Moorland Haunt[/card], and [card]Runechanter’s Pike[/card]. If replacing a single draw step with dredging [card]Stinkweed Imp[/card] flips five cards that include another dredge card, a creature that can be played from the graveyard, and a card with flashback, then you just “drew” three cards.

The caveat is that Modern Dredge is not as fast as the pure combo decks of Modern. Whereas Legacy Dredge can potentially race Legacy Storm, Modern Dredge, at least as far as I’ve seen it optimized, doesn’t. With a little disruption you can buy enough time to use your speed to win, but keep in mind that the engine doesn’t manage it on its own.

Recursion Blows Out Removal

When we talked about Affinity last week, one of its big wins was resilience—the ability to keep beating down even through waves of opposing removal.

Dredge has resilience like crazy.

A typical Modern Jund deck has about 10-12 removal spells.

How many creatures does the Dredge deck have?

Effectively “infinite,” actually. The deck we’ll look at today runs [card]Gravecrawler[/card]s, [card]Bloodghast[/card]s, [card]Vengevine[/card]s, and various creatures with dredge. You can always recur the dredge creatures, any land drop brings back a [card]Bloodghast[/card], and those [card]Gravecrawler[/card]s and [card]Vengevine[/card]s form a little recursion team.

Like a zombie movie, a dredge deck has a crawling inevitability.

There are always more zombies than you have shotgun shells.

As long as your opponent doesn’t kill you in the meantime, you’ll always overwhelm their removal via recurring creatures.

The Deck Lists

The Dredge design I’m presenting today is based on this deck designed by and played by the poetically named ‘tabletPCpymp’ to a first-place finish in a Magic-League Modern tournament back on December 20th.

Here’s the original list:

Vengevine Jund (courtesy tabletPCpymp)

[deck]Main Deck:
3 Darkblast
1 Deathrite Shaman
4 Faithless Looting
4 Goblin Bushwhacker
4 Gravecrawler
4 Lightning Axe
4 Bloodghast
2 Golgari Thug
4 Grisly Salvage
4 Lotleth Troll
3 Stinkweed Imp
4 Vengevine
2 Marsh Flats
4 Blackcleave Cliffs
4 Copperline Gorge
3 Overgrown Tomb
4 Verdant Catacombs
3 Blood Crypt
Sideboard:
3 Leyline of the Void
2 Nature’s Claim
3 Abrupt Decay
2 Ancient Grudge
2 Vandalblast
2 Crime Punishment
1 Deathrite Shaman[/deck]

Although I liked the basic idea of the deck quite a bit, I wanted to change it to make more use of dredge cards and to more easily recur the [card]Gravecrawler[/card]s without having to naturally draw one of them or a [card]Lotleth Troll[/card]. I also wasn’t sold on [card]Lightning Axe[/card] as one of the deck’s discard outlets, as you can’t always rely on your opponent providing a target in the early game (or at all, for Storm decks).

After some testing, modification, and optimization, here’s my current deck list:

Dredge

[deck]Main Deck:
4 Faithless Looting
3 Raven’s Crime
4 Gravecrawler
4 Bloodghast
4 Dangerous Wager
3 Life from the Loam
4 Golgari Thug
4 Tidehollow Sculler
4 Shambling Shell
4 Stinkweed Imp
4 Vengevine
2 Blood Crypt
1 Dakmor Salvage
4 Gemstone Mine
1 Godless Shrine
4 Marsh Flats
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Swamp
4 Verdant Catacombs
Sideboard:
4 Path to Exile
3 Thoughtseize
3 Ancient Grudge
3 Ray of Revelation
2 Crime Punishment[/deck]

Key Cards and Play Notes

This revised deck list revolves around a combination of dredge cards, recurring creatures, and the [card]Life from the Loam[/card] engine. Unlike Legacy Dredge, it also sometimes needs to simply return to drawing cards to go for the kill.

Starting the Game

My discard outlets of choice are:

[draft]Faithless Looting
Raven’s Crime
Dangerous Wager[/draft] [card]Faithless Looting[/card] is an obvious choice. It would be weird to try to play any kind of Dredge deck in Modern without this one-mana enabler. [card]Faithless Looting[/card] is your ideal first-turn play, with the added benefit of being able to flash it back on your third turn if nothing else is going on.

[card]Raven’s Crime[/card] is a handy enabler, and serves the dual purpose of providing disruption against combo and control decks.

[card]Dangerous Wager[/card] is a fantastic card for this archetype. It has the ever-so-critical ordering of having you discard first, before drawing some cards. It’s also an instant, which means you can wait until the end of your opponent’s turn and then use Wager to drop your hand and dredge twice immediately, followed by a dredge replacing your draw step.

Recur Those Vines, Recur Those Zombies

This deck includes creatures with three different means of returning from the graveyard to the battlefield. We’ll leave [card]Bloodghast[/card]s for the next section, as they don’t interact with the other two. The other recurring creatures are part of a synergistic system that relies on Zombies to recur Zombies and then recur [card]Vengevine[/card]s.

Here’s how this works:

1) Dredge your deck until you have some number of [card]Gravecrawler[/card]s, [card]Shambling Shell[/card]s, and [card]Vengevine[/card]s in the graveyard.
2) Dredge a [card]Shambling Shell[/card] back into your hand.
3) Cast [card]Shambling Shell[/card]—congratulations! You now have a Zombie in play.
4) Cast [card]Gravecrawler[/card] from the graveyard.
5) Congratulations again! You just cast your second creature spell this turn. Return all [card]Vengevine[/card]s to the battlefield.

That’s the basic setup. By having dredge and the right creature type, [card]Shambling Shell[/card] means you can always unlock the “cast me from the graveyard” ability on [card]Gravecrawler[/card]. You can then cast two Zombies in a turn—whether that’s the original [card]Shambling Shell[/card] and a [card]Gravecrawler[/card], or two [card]Gravecrawler[/card]s on a following turn.

I think the deck really needs this capability, so that you’re not otherwise stuck waiting for the top of your deck to deliver a Zombie to unlock the “[card]Gravecrawler[/card]s into [card]Vengevine[/card]s” chain.

Lands, Loams, and Ghasts

The other recursion engine in the deck centers on land. Lands hitting the battlefield recur your [card]Bloodghast[/card]s. Lands also fuel a fusillade of [card]Raven’s Crime[/card]s if you need to take apart a control or combo deck. You can return lands via [card]Life from the Loam[/card], which also contributes to the deck’s underlying dredge capabilities.

In most cases, the mechanics of spending and using lands in this engine are pretty straightforward—you drop some lands, bring back some [card]Bloodghast[/card]s, rinse and repeat each turn. The only potentially unintuitive element is the decision to cast [card]Life from the Loam[/card] instead of a more “active” play when you’re on the attack. If you have [card]Bloodghast[/card]s in the graveyard, or think you may lose some on an attack you’re about to make, casting [card]Life from the Loam[/card] to grab some lands—and thus more future [card]Bloodghast[/card]s—is often the most aggressive play you can make.

Cards that Didn’t Make it in

There are a few options I tried while developing this list that didn’t quite make the grade. They all hearken back to traditional Dredge decks as played in Legacy, old (old, old) Extended, or Standard.

Bridge from Below and Narcomoeba

I tested a version of this deck that included both [card]Bridge from Below[/card] and [card]Narcomoeba[/card]s. As fun as it is to dredge [card]Narcomoeba[/card]s off the top, if you aren’t also sacrificing them to something and using that to trigger Bridges or power out unfair [card]Dread Return[/card]s, they’re really not that useful. Most of the time a Narcomoeba is simply a free 1/1 flyer in Modern.

On an entirely related note, [card]Bridge from Below[/card] also isn’t all that great in this deck. Although it can be nice to get free 2/2 Zombies when your creatures die and recur, you don’t have access to the explosive power of Legacy Dredge to give you a killing wave of Zombies in a single turn—or to recur [card]Flame-Kin Zealot[/card] to power out that kill. You also don’t have as much need for those Zombies, since you’re not using them to fuel [card]Dread Return[/card]s or [card]Cabal Therapy[/card].

Unburial Rites

[card]Dread Return[/card] is banned in Modern.

Just in case you forgot.

The next best-case scenario for a reanimation spell in this deck is [card]Unburial Rites[/card], since it 1) can be cast from the graveyard and 2) “only” costs four mana when you cast it that way.

Given these considerations, it seemed reasonable to imagine loading a couple fatties into the deck along with two or three copies of [card]Unburial Rites[/card] and building a reanimation component in as well.

Unfortunately, four mana to hit the reanimation spell is pretty slow in Modern.

Even more unfortunately, this deck does not smoothly hit four mana, even by turn four. Since you’re ideally dredging from turn two onward, you only have the lands in your hand through those early turns unless you’re lucky enough to dredge and cast [card]Life from the Loam[/card] awfully early.

A dedicated reanimator deck in Modern would resolve this problem using mana dorks and [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] to accelerate into the four or five mana for [card]Unburial Rites[/card]. I’m not a fan of trying to run those accelerators in Dredge, however, as they will largely end up in your graveyard where they offer no value for your overall game plan.

If I could build this deck so that every card either 1) could be played/recurred from the graveyard or 2) had dredge, I’d do so. Cards that take away from that goal have to be very, very useful, and the mere “useful” for most mana dorks doesn’t make the cut.

Some Zombie Developments Left to Go

This list remains a work in progress, one that I’d take into an FNM or Daily Event, but wouldn’t stake a PTQ on. With the prevalence of [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card] in Modern, it’s possible that a dedicated graveyard strategy is either a bad idea, or at least requires that the deck pack similarly dedicated hate for that potentially derailing Shaman.

But as long as Modern remains the stomping ground of Jund, any deck that can win an attrition fight and occasionally deliver explosive attacks has a real chance to cut through the opposition, so a Dredge build of some kind merits more attention, even if today’s list is just the starting point.

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