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A different approach to Modern Dredge

How many lands are there in your Modern Dredge deck?

The land count may not be the first thing you think of when you build your Dredge deck, but it’s important; if you don’t have enough mana you can’t cast your spells reliably.

Opinions seem to vary on what is the correct number. Justin O’Keefe (winner, SCG Baltimore, July 2016) played a list with 4x Greater Gargadon and 4x Bridge from Below, and had only 18 lands. Ross Merriam (winner, SCG Syracuse, August 2016) played almost the same list, but increased the land count to 19. Players who favor the list with 3x Conflagrate and 3x Life from the Loam, including Zen Takahashi (Winner, New Zealand WMCQ, July 2016) and David Merced (winner, SCG IQ, July 2016) seem to prefer 21 lands.

Although initially we were talking about two distinct archetypes, one with Greater Gargadon and one with Life from the Loam, the latest trend is for players to find some kind of middle ground. For example, Tom Ross (#6, Syracuse Open, August 2016) played a version with 2x Greater Gargadon, 2x Bridge from below, 2x Conflagrate and 2x Life from the Loam. His land count was also in between the others, at 20.

SO WHICH OF THESE (IF ANY) IS CORRECT? 

It all depends on the spells you want to cast, so let’s start there. Here is what a Dredge player wants to cast on the first three turns of the game.

It is pretty important that we hit our third land drop on turn 3, because a flashed-back Faithless Looting is very powerful. How many lands do you need in your deck to do so reliably (say – 75%)?

The answer is 23. *

Naturally, if you have a Faithless Looting in your opening hand (which is about 40% of the time) you get to see two more cards. On the other hand, if your turn-1 play is Insolent Neonate and you immediately start dredging, you never get to draw any more cards after your opening hand.

Perhaps the 75% is unrealistic, and we don’t always have to flashback Faithless Looting on turn 3. Perhaps the risk we take by playing fewer lands is worth the reward; we increase our variance, but if we are lucky with our draws and dredges we reach a winning board presence by turn 2-3.

But my own experience with Dredge (with 20 lands) is this: for each game where I curve out as planned, there is one where I get stuck on one or two lands, and have to dredge until I find Life from the Loam or Dakmor Salvage to increase my land count gradually .

How did we end up with 18-21 lands in the first place?

Before Prized Amalgam and Insolent Neonate became available, with the release of Shadows over Innistrad, the most recent version of Dredge that performed well was by Jason Chung (top 8, Melbourne GP, March 2016). He played many of the same cards as the Dredge decks that are currenty being played. His deck also played a couple of cards you don’t see anymore, such as Zombie Infestation, Vengeful Pharaoh, and Squee, Goblin Nabob. Yet he made space in his list for 23 lands.

I believe that there are two reasons why current Dredge decks are playing fewer lands. First, there is a perception that Dredge is a low-mana deck. Legacy ‘Ichorid’ Dredge plays 12-14 lands, while Manaless Dredge plays – well – zero. However, Legacy Dredge never needs 3 mana in a single turn, unless it uses Lion’s Eye Diamond to flashback Faithless Looting. Ichorid comes into play for free, and Dread Return is a zero-mana finisher.

Second, people needed space for 4x Prized Amalgam and 4x Insolent Neonate, and in some cases for 2-4x Greater Gargadon and 2-4x Bridge from Below. You can’t reduce the number of discard/draw spells and dredge cards too much, so the only choice that was left was to cut lands.

Something has to give

If we want to build a technically sound Modern Dredge deck, where it doesn’t happen too often that we can’t cast our spells, there are two directions we could take. Either we increase our land count to 23, so we can flashback Faithless Looting reliably; or we simply don’t plan to cast Faithless Looting from the graveyard at all, in which case we could probably reduce our land count even further.

In the following sections I will discuss each option in detail.

23-LAND MODERN LOAM DREDGE

For a Dredge deck to work you need the right balance of five components:

  • Mana
  • Discard spells
  • Dredge cards
  • Draw spells
  • Payoff (creatures/burn)

Each of these is vital, although the ideal opening hand only contains the first four, since payoff cards only become important once the Dredge ‘engine’ is already running. You want to play a land, use a discard spell to drop a Dredge card in the graveyard, and then use a draw spell to accelerate your dredging and start finding your payoff cards to finish the game.

The most powerful cards in a dredge deck play multiple roles. For example, Faithless Looting and Insolent Neonate allow you to discard and draw at the same time. Conflagrate is a win condition and discard spell at the same time. These cards make it less likely that you need to mulligan, and therefore make the deck more reliable.

all in dredge

The deck below is based on this idea; playing as many multifunctional cards as possible. One choice I made was to play Tormenting Voice over Shriekhorn. Shriekhorn only fulfills one function (mill, which for Dredge is similar to discard), while Tormenting Voice fulfills two (discard and draw). The main benefit of Shriekhorn is that it costs only one mana, but I already have 8 spells I can cast on turn 1, and with 23 lands I am pretty certain that I can cast Tormenting Voice on turn 2.

The second choice may shock other Dredge players: I cut Narcomoeba in favor of Haunted Dead. Narcomoeba is a staple in Dredge decks across formats, but without Bridge from Below (which I will get to in a moment) it is simply not impactful enough, and once it dies it doesn’t come back. Haunted Dead gives you two bodies, including a 1/1 flyer, and can be returned from the graveyard any time.

In this configuration the deck has 23 mana sources (plus 3x Life from the Loam), 18 discard spells (including 3x Conflagrate and 4x Haunted Dead), 11 Dredge cards, 11 draw spells, and 12 payoff cards (not including Stinkweed Imp and Golgari Grave-Troll), which is the balance I am looking for.

This version does not play Greater Gargadon and Bridge from Below, mainly because these two cards are great together but much weaker separately. Playing 3-4 of each simply takes too much space, and will make my deck less reliable because I’d have to cut other deck components.

14-LAND MODERN GARGADON DREDGE

The other extreme is a Dredge deck that does not try to flashback Faithless Looting, and I believe it is possible to build this deck with as few as 14 lands (the same number as Legacy Dredge).

A consequence of this is that we are probably never going to have 3 lands on the table, and not always 2, so each spell we want to cast should have a mana cost of 1. Therefore I am playing 4x Faithless Looting, 4x Insolent Neonate, 2x Shriekhorn and 4x Burning Inquiry. In this deck the mana cost is more important than in the 23-land variant, and therefore Shriekhorn is a better choice than Tormenting Voice. Burning Inquiry is risky but very powerful if you use it correctly; ideally you cast it only when there’s already a dredge card in the graveyard, and after you play your second land.

gargadon dredge

The only exception I’m making is for a 2x Haunted Dead, which costs 2 mana to activate but is useful to return Prized Amalgams when you don’t find any Narcomoebas. Even if you only have one land in play, you can Dredge and play Dakmor Salvage, and activate Haunted Dead the following turn.

This 14-land variant has 14 mana sources, 16 discard spells, 11 Dredge cards, 12 draw spells, and 17 payoff cards (including 3x Greater Gargadon).

Which variant should you play?

Although the two variants are in a way extremes, at least in terms of land count, I don’t believe there is a middle ground; it is never correct to play 19 lands. Perhaps the Gargadon variant should have 16 lands instead of 14, but I wanted to explore how far I could go while keeping the deck technically solid.

It is impossible at this point to say which variant is better. I’m a big fan of Conflagrate, because it gives the deck both reach and removal (without having to play Lightning Axe), but I have seen Ross Merriam and Tom Ross do things with Greater Gargadon that make me reconsider this preference. I intend to test both variants further.

The decks are far from finished; besides the obvious lack of sideboard, there are several cards I have left out, for example Rally the Peasants and Collective Brutality. It will take me a while to come up with a final list.

Over the last weeks we have seen Dredge develop into a viable Modern deck, which is exciting. I hope that with this article I can assist in the further development of the archetype, at the least by encouraging discussion; and possibly by persuading players that the right choice may not be a compromise that includes both Gargadon and Loam, but that a choice needs to be made between the two variants.

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* For this calculation I have used the hypogeometric distribution, assuming 9 cards drawn (turn 3 on the play), and a 60-card deck.

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