I have a long history with Dredge. I experimented with it on Magic Online a few years ago (after seeing some videos by Travis Woo), building a range of different versions, including Dredge-Reanimator and Loam-Seismic Assault. My second paper Modern deck (after Soul Sisters) was Dredgevine. My first Legacy deck was Dredge, and I still play this whenever I think my local metagame is weak to it.
For those who are unfamiliar: the Dredge mechanic allows you to fill up your graveyard quickly instead of drawing cards. Combined with creatures that return from the graveyard and spells that can be cast from there, this is the basis for very powerful combo-aggro decks (primarily in Legacy and Vintage). Dredge decks are typically non-interactive and hard to deal with for opponents unless they draw their sideboard card (such as Rest in Peace and Grafdigger’s Cage), in which case you mostly just lose.
Modern Dredge used to be fringe-playable at best, and you occasionally saw it do well at a small local tournament. The Modern deck simply isn’t as powerful as the Legacy version without cards such as Dread Return, Ichorid and Lion’s Eye Diamond. The best version of Modern Dredge was probably an attrition-based control version featuring cards such as Smallpox and Zombie Infestation. This deck was fun to play if you liked a challenge, but with some glaring holes in its strategy.
That has all changed with the release of Shadow over Innistrad. Two innocent-looking cards, Insolent Neonate and Prized Amalgam, have given the archetype a huge boost, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it would soon become a tier-1 deck. In their metagame breakdown for June, Modern Nexus reported that on Magic Online, Dredge represents 8.4% of the Modern Metagame, while on paper it is still only 0.6%. Dredge is also regularly going 5-0 or 4-1 in Magic Online Leagues.
Now that I’ve finally had the time to test a few variants myself, I want to discuss the different variants of Modern Dredge, how they are different, and which I believe is most powerful.
Four flavors of Dredge
1. Zombie Infestation Dredge
Jason Chung reached the top-8 of Grand Prix Melbourne, in the middle of Eldrazi Winter, with a version of Dredge that was similar to the Zombie Loam deck that Raphael Levy played for a short period one or two years earlier. The true innovation in the deck was the card Conflagrate, combined with 4x Life from the Loam and 4x Squee, Goblin Nabob. This gave the deck the ability to cast huge fireballs at the opponent, or to clear the opponent’s board before an all-out attack; all by casting a card from the graveyard for only two Red mana.
This version of Dredge is worth mentioning because it appeared recently, although it was created before Shadow over Innistrad. It performed well in a metagame dominated by Eldrazi and Affinity, when players believed there was little need for graveyard hate in their sideboard.
That’s no longer the case. People are tuning their sideboard to beat Dredge, and they are starting to play Grafdigger’s Cage to beat Nahiri, the Harbinger and Collected Company. Zombie Infestation is slow, which gives the opponent more time to find their answer.
Additionally, Zombie Infestion Dredge has a couple of terrible match-ups, for example against Burn (which was not present in the Eldrazi-dominated metagame). Although adding more copies of Golgari Brownscale helps to some degree, the match-up is still unfavorable.
2. All-in Dredge
This is the version of Dredge that I have seen most often, and that has had some success recently. For example, Zen Takahashi won a WMCQ recently with this variant, and Davis Merced won a StarCityGames Invitational Qualifier with a very similar version.
While the Zombie Infestation variant can be hard to play, All-in Dredge has an extremely linear game plan: you get a Dredge card in the graveyard, Dredge to get a Narcomoeba or Bloodghast in play, followed shortly by Prized Amalgam, and overwhelm your opponent with 2-3 massive attacks. This version borrows the Conflagrate + Life from the Loam technology from Jason Chung, to finish off the opponent or clear the board.
I have played this variant extensively the last weeks, and I am highly impressed with its power and consistency. Most control and midrange decks simply cannot deal with the number and recurring nature of your creatures, while you can race many other aggro decks; even Affinity and occasionally Infect.
3. All-in Gargadon Dredge
This variant is very close to the previous; however, it plays 4x Greater Gargadon and 4x Bridge from Below. Justin O’Keefe won the StarCityGames Classic in Baltimore with this variant.
The idea is to use Greater Gargadon as a sacrifice outlet, allowing you to bring it into play quickly, while triggering Bridge from Below to get lots of 2/2 zombies. Although this approach can lead to explosive situations, it is important to note which cards this variant is not playing (compared with All-in Dredge).
Justin O’Keefe plays only a single Conflagrate and zero Life from the Loams, making it much harder to kill the opponent with reach. Additionally, by taking out 4x Tormenting Voice the deck has a harder time getting the first Dredge card in the graveyard (from 12 down to 8 cards – 4x Faithless Looting and 4x Insolent Neonate)
I have only played a few matches with this variant so far. It is much harder to play, because it is not self-evident when to sacrifice permanents to Greater Gargadon. My impression is that the deck can be explosive but is somewhat less reliable than the regular all-in variant. But I could be wrong.
Dredgevine is a deck that is similar to Dredge, built around the card Vengevine. It has been around for years, and occasionally posts a good result; for example in 2015, Legion273 reached 4th place at the Magic Online Championship with this variant.
Dredgevine is different from ‘regular’ Dredge because you need to cast creatures to return Vengevine from the graveyard. You also need a discard outlet to drop Vengevine in your graveyard, typically Lotleth Troll, while Gravecrawler can be cast from the graveyard to trigger Vengevine when your hand is empty.
It is important to note that cards like Bloodghast and Narcomoeba do not trigger Vengevine because they are not cast, and are typically not present in this deck. In fact the deck does not even need to play any Dredge cards at all to function (although 2-4 copies of Golgari Grave-Troll is typical).
My personal experience is that this deck has too much variance to be reliable, and that often if your opponent manages to kill your first wave of creatures, it is hard to come back. This is because you first need to find 2 creatures that you can cast to return you Vengevines. The deck is fun to play, and reasonably interactive (because you can easily include 4-8 removal or discard spells), but not close to Dredge in terms of power level.
It should be clear from the previous discussion that I prefer the All-In Dredge variant. Zombie Infestation is too slow, and Vengevine too unreliable. I’m still not sure about Greater Gargadon, and will continue testing, but I think Tormenting Voice is too important to remove from the deck.
This is how I would build the deck right now:
By having 14 discard outlets (4x Looting, 4x Voice, 4x Neonate and 2x Axe) and 11 Dredgers (4x Grave-Troll, 4x Imp and 3x Loam) I rarely have a slow start and minimize my mulligans.Conflagrate is a vital part of the deck and to use it optimally you need Life from the Loam, so I play 3 of each. I like having 2x Lightning Axe (and 3x Conflagrate) to deal with Scavenging Ooze and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet.
20 lands should be fine because I have 4x Looting as well, although I have seen lists with 21, so I will keep an eye on my mana in coming matches. If necessary I will cut a Loam or Voice.
The sideboard still needs some fine-tuning, but I think it addresses the match-ups that are a problem. 4x Leyline of the Void is especially important if the mirror match becomes a thing, and also has utility elsewhere.
Decks such as Infect and Affinity can race us, so we’re playing 2x Sudden Shock (much better than Darkblast), 1x Darkblast (still very good, and recurring), 2x Engineered Explosives, and 2x Ancient Grudge. Engineered Explosives and Ancient Grudge can also take care of graveyard hate, while they are rarely dead cards.
I’m not sure about my burn match-up, and if Dredge is fast enough to race it, but 2x Gnaw to the Bone should shift things in my favor. Finally, I started testing Nahiri’s Wrath as a sideboard option against other creature decks, and so far I am impressed, so I have 2 in my sideboard now. If I change my mind on this I will replace them with another Engineered Explosives and another Sudden Shock.
CARDS I AM NOT PLAYING
Some people seem to like Shriekhorn to fill up the graveyard; personally I find it too unreliable and would rather play more dredge creatures and draw spells. Darkblast is a good sideboard card, but I want my removal to kill Scavenging Ooze and Kalitas, so I went with Lightning Axe.
A single Rally the Peasants is a reasonable inclusion, but could be a win-more card; not sure. A single Haunted Dead can be useful when you’re not finding any Narcomoeba, and I intend to test this soon. At the same time, too many one-ofs may come at the expense of your ability to put a dredger in the graveyard, so I need to be selective.
Dredging up the future
I am excited for the future of Modern Dredge. Opponents will adapt to it and that will make it harder to win. However, Dredge is still an overwhelming favorite in game 1 against most opponents; and after that it needs to be lucky one more game, hoping that the opponent doesn’t draw their hate cards. Affinity has the same problem, hoping that the opponent doesn’t draw their Stony Silence in game 2 and 3, and is a tier-1 deck based on that premise.
The new set, Eldritch Moon, has a couple of new cards that could be useful for Dredge. I mentioned Nahiri’s Wrath, which could become a useful sideboard card, playing the same role Firestorm in Legacy Dredge. Collective Brutality has been discussed on social media as a potential discard enabler; my initial tests are disappointing, since it only allows you to discard one card unless your opponent plays an early creature. Travis Woo, on his YouTube channel, is working on a version of Dredge with Splendid Reclamation and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, which is another direction the archetype could take.
As is often the case with rogue decks, initially the deck is played by a few enthusiasts who see its potential, and as a result the deck develops slowly and never become ‘polished’. Now that Dredge has become at least tier -2, and players such as Sam Black and Conley Woods have noticed its potential, we can expect to see more innovation and stronger performances. I am curious and excited to see in which direction Modern Dredge will develop next.