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Dredging up Success at Grand Prix Phoenix

Hello friends! This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending Grand Prix Phoenix. It was a very well run event with an excellent judge staff and plenty of space to play Magic and do side events. This event was a special one for me as I decided to play something other than Lantern Control or one of my many other brews. Instead, I chose to play Dredge! It's a deck that I've been wanting to play at a large event for some time but I just never committed to registering until now.

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Dredge is one of my favorite Magic the Gathering mechanics, not necessarily because it's incredibly powerful but rather because it offers a different want to play and win a game of Magic. I'm using the word "play" loosely here, as often times it doesn't feel like playing Magic, since you aren't exactly drawing cards or casting spells like a normal deck.

About the Deck

Here is the full main deck and sideboard that I registered at the event.

The Modern Dredge deck is a very curious combination of Magic the Gathering cards. If you've never played against the deck before, you might not notice at first how the deck plays out turn-after-turn and how to actually win games. On the surface, the general goal of the deck is to take advantage of the Dredge mechanic on cards such as Stinkweed Imp and Life from the Loam. Instead of drawing a card for your turn, you would choose to "dredge" cards back from the grave by putting cards from your library into your graveyard. This may seem a bit odd as each time you would draw a card you are instead filling up your graveyard with more and more cards. This, however, is the primary goal of the deck: to put as many cards into your own graveyard as quickly as possible. As more and more cards fill your graveyard, creatures begin to rise up from the grave like Narcomoeba and Bloodghast, bringing along their zombie friend Prized Amalgam. This horde of creatures, which amasses more quickly than you might expect, is what you'll use to win the game.

The deck has a powerful engine to help accelerate its primary goal of flooding the board with creatures. Cathartic Reunion and Faithless Looting are the best cards in the deck for achieving this. Cathartic Reunion is especially important as it allows you to first discard some Dredge cards from your hand, and then draw cards, but replacing each draw with Dredge 3, 4, or 5. An otherwise simple "draw 3" spell becomes "put a dozen or more cards into your graveyard" which often finds a handful of creatures to put into play on the same turn. There are same games where you can end up with 10 power worth of creatures in play on turn 2. 

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One of the biggest strengths of this deck is this very strange card Conflagrate, which if you're curious, is pronounced con-fluh-great. This card alone is what lets you win a majority of your matches against creature-based decks. Basically, if your opponent is playing a creature deck aimed at attacking your life points down to zero, then this card alone will easily prevent that. The idea behind Conflagrate is not to cast it for XXR, but rather to first get the card into your graveyard by dredging or simply discarding it. Then, you simply pitch your entire hand of cards to pay for the Flashback cost to deal around 6-8 damage divided as you choose among all of the opposing creatures. This single card lets you pick off the entire army of creatures an opponent might have assembled in the first few turns of the game which gives you plenty of time to assemble your horde of zombie-like creatures and attack for the win. One of the big supporting cards of Conflagrate is Life from the Loam. Often you will choose to dredge Life from the Loam on your turn to then cast and fill up your hand with lands, then use these lands as fuel for a large Conflagrate.

Tips for Playing the Deck

1. Learn to organize your graveyard

Dredge is a very unique deck in that most of the decisions you will make throughout the game depend on the cards in your graveyard as opposed to the cards in your hand. Laying out your graveyard in an organized fashion can go a long way to making important decisions with clarity. Each person has their own method or preferred placement for their cards, but there is one layout that I found particularly helpful while playing Dredge.

Below is a screenshot of one of my feature match games in Round 14. You'll notice my graveyard takes up a majority of my side of the battlefield (outlined in red), my creatures and lands are somewhat squished in the center, and my exile pile is all the way on the opponent side (outlined in yellow).

What's important to note about this layout isn't the exact positions of the general gameplay areas (graveyard on left or exile on right), but rather how I'm separating out the graveyard itself. Notice how all of the lands are in a separate "graveyard pile" away from other potential action graveyard cards, those with Dredge or Flashback. This separation really helped me make quicker decisions through all of my games, especially those where I was repeatedly casting Life from the Loam and pulling out three lands from an otherwise messy graveyard.

2. Know when exactly Narcomoeba triggers

Narcomoeba is an important engine piece for Dredge in that it enables Prized Amalgams to come back from the graveyard. The concern with Narcomoeba is the timing in which its triggered ability resolves. Typically you'll dredge over many cards at once, hitting some combination of Narcomoebas and Prized Amalgams, then your Illusions will trigger and get put onto the battlefield, triggering your amalgams in the graveyard to come back later. However, the important thing to note about Narcomoeba triggering is that triggered abilities don't go on the stack when they trigger.

When anything in Magic triggers, it is put onto the stack the next time a player would receive priority (See Comprehensive Rule 603.3). Most of the time this is immediate, as the effect that caused the trigger has finished resolving and the game checks to see what triggered to put it onto the stack. There are two unusual cases where Narcomoeba's triggered is "delayed" so-to-speak letting you get additional Prized Amalgams into play before the Narcomoeba is returned to the battlefield.

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The first is when you dredge over a Narcomoeba in the middle of resolving a Faithless Looting. If you dredge over a Narcomoeba or two while "drawing two cards" for looting, those creatures won't be put onto the battlefield yet until you've finished resolving Faithless Looting. This means that you are able to discard any stranded Prized Amalgams in your hand first before the Narcomoebas are returned to the battlefield, allowing you to revive your zombies at the end step.

The second situation comes up when you dredge to replace multiple draws at once, such as with Cathartic Reunion. If the first of three dredges reveals a Narcomoeba, you won't put it directly into play yet. You'll want to finish performing the other two dredge/draws of Cathartic Reunion first, meaning you may find Prized Amalgam on the last dredge attempt and those will see the Narcomoeba from the first dredge come into play. This works for the same reason that it does with the Faithless Looting example above: you wait to put triggers onto the stack until after a spell or ability finishes resolving.

3. Understand that land drops are important resources

It's a common thing to see players play their land for the turn as soon as their turn begins. When playing Dredge, you'll want to discipline to hold off on playing your land for the turn as long as possible. This is because of the fact that this deck has a playset of Bloodghasts in it. You'll almost never cast Bloodghast from your hand as it's almost always easier to simply discard it or dredge it over, then put it into play for free by playing a land.

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It's important to build a habit of not playing a land as soon as your turn begins even if you don't have any Bloodghasts visible in your hand or graveyard. This is because of the potential to find Bloodghast that you can't see yet, maybe because they are the next card on top of your deck that you are about to draw from your Faithless Looting. Even if you do have a Bloodghast in your graveyard that you can bring back, it's still best to wait because you may dredge over Prized Amalgam that you didn't know about yet and would love to have brought that back too simply by playing a land.

You can also get extra mileage out of your fetch lands like Wooded Foothills thanks to the way Landfall trigger works. For example, often times my opponent will have a Relic of Progenitus in play. I can lead with a Faithless Looting and discard two Bloodghasts and then I can put a fetch land into play to trigger the vampire spirits to come back. If my opponent responds to the trigger by activating their Relic of Progenitus, then I can respond to that activation by fetching up a land to re-trigger the Bloodghasts. This is a fairly simple trick that seems to always catch unknowing opponents off-guard.

4. Aim to do things during the post-combat Main Phase instead of the End Step

Playing with Prized Amalgam changes when you want to play certain cards or activating certain abilities. Rarely will you want to activate Insolent Neonate or crack your Bloodstained Mire during your opponent's end step. This is because if you return a Bloodghast or Narcomoeba to play during the end step, this will cause the Prized Amalgam to return to the battlefield at the next end step, not the current one.

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For example, let's suppose your opening hand has a few lands, an Insolent Neonate and a Stinkweed Imp. You play Neonate on turn 1 and pass the turn. Your opponent doesn't play anything meaningful on their turn and simply says "Pass." You say, "During your post-combat Main Phase, activate my Insolent Neonate." You discard the Imp, dredge 5, and reveal two Prized Amalgams and a Narcomoeba. Since this was all done during the second Main Phase, this means that the Prized Amalgams will return tapped during the next end step, which will be during your opponent's turn. You will be able to untap with them and attack with them during your second turn of the game. If instead you accidentally said "At the end of turn" then your Amalgams wouldn't be in play until your turn 2's end step. So be careful about timing for when you activate abilities.

5. Darkblast can kill creatures with 2 toughness

Darkblast is a fairly useful one-of card to have access to in Dredge. Often times it will be used to kill of smaller threats, such as Noble Hierarch or Signal Pest. However, it's actually possible to kill off any 2-toughness creature with a single Darkblast. This can be incredibly helpful for getting rid of a Gaddock Teeg or a Meddling Mage naming Conflagrate.

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The way to do this is by casting Darkblast in your upkeep to give a creature -1/-1, then dredge back the same Darkblast in your draw step, and finally cast it again on the same creature you initially targeted. You can also string together multiple Darkblast with help from your draw spells like Faithless Looting. The only thing you have to watch out for is having enough black mana producing lands to cast Darkblast multiple times in a single turn. Having knowledge of this trick means that it's often correct to always fetch a Blood Crypt on your first turn of the game in the event that you'll need access to casting it twice in the near future; you'll want to have enough black mana to do so.

Building an Effective Sideboard Plan

For Grand Prix Phoenix I did something new to prepare for the event with regards to my sideboard plan. I not only spent time researching what cards needed to get swapped in and out during certain matchups, based on other people's experiences with the deck, but I also made myself a quick-reference sheet that I could use the whole weekend to guide me on my sideboard process during matches.

One of the best decisions you can make before a Magic tournament is to have a plan for how to sideboard against the majority of the decks you intend to play against as well as a general idea for those you don't expect at all. In the Modern format, that can be quite the number as there are so many different strategies you could run into.

Having a solid plan for sideboarding is important for three reasons:

  1. You identify which cards you will be taking out and putting into your deck, as swapping out the wrong cards could greatly hinder your deck's ability to function. This is especially true for Dredge as you do not want to cut too many of the core cards that make the deck function.
  2. You identify which matchups or opposing decks will give you the most trouble and dedicate more sideboard slots to those matchups. You may also want to dedicate more cards in your fifteen card sideboard to beating decks that you personally struggle against. For example, if you find yourself having trouble beating Burn even though you think the matchup is close, you could add an extra Gnaw to the Bone in your sideboard. 
  3. To save time and brain power! Simply put, if you spend the time before the event planning out how you will sideboard, then during the tournament itself you won't have to spend that time thinking too hard in-between games. You can instead refer to your sideboarding notes to quickly swap out cards, then spend the same time you use to shuffle your deck to think if there's anything else you want to add or remove.

I'm going to walk through each of these three points using Grand Prix Phoenix and Dredge as an example.

1. Knowing what cards to swap out

Testing a deck and playing several games with it are definitely good ways to figure out the decks strength's and weaknesses. This process rarely covers all of the possible decks you could potentially face at an event but it will give you a good idea of what you're weak against. Additionally, you can find information on what sideboard cards work best from other members of the Magic community. You can use others' experiences as a tool to help you better sideboard, building on their guides and involving it in your own plan.

While I personally understand the general game plan and goal of playing Dredge, I lacked the experience of sideboarding. I wasn't exactly sure what the common cards to cut from the main deck to make room for important sideboard cards. This is where I referred to Zen Takahashi's Ultimate Dredge Sideboard Guide which goes over more than 30 different matchups. Zen has been playing and improving Modern Dredge for some time now. I looked to his expertise as a guide to how to sideboard with the deck that I planned on playing. While my deck obviously differs from his, the guide was still immensely helpful in determining a general rule of thumb for what cards are important in what matchups, as well as what cards can easily be removed from the main deck without harming the primary goal of Dredge.

2. Understand which matchups will give you trouble

There were a few decks that I was particularly concerned about facing over the course of fifteen rounds at Grand Prix Phoenix. One of those was Humans. At first this would seem like an easy deck to beat, as the power of Conflagrate should allow me to clear the way of all of their creatures. The problem is that Humans has Meddling Mage, which completely turns off the ability to use Conflagrate as a sweeper. With this burn spell disabled, there's not really a good way to fight back against Humans as they continue to grow bigger thanks to Thalia's Lieutenant and fly over your zombie horde with Mantis Rider. To counter this, I made sure to include additional copies of Abrupt Decay and Lightning Axe in my sideboard as ways to get rid of Meddling Mage and free up my sweeper burn spell.

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Another deck I was worried about was Bogles as it has increased in popularity quite a bit since it's Grand Prix Toronto win earlier this year. Bogles is yet another creature based deck where Conflagrate just doesn't do much of anything. The majority of the creatures in the Bogles deck have Hexproof, notably Slippery Bogle and Gladecover Scout, and cannot be targeted with Conflagrate. This presents a very large problem as your Prized Amalgams and Bloodghasts will have trouble attacking through large vigilant, first striking, lifelinking creatures. My sideboard plan for this was bringing in several Nature's Claims and Abrupt Decays as ways to remove the enchantment auras on the creatures to weaken them. As long as I could keep Daybreak Coronet off their creature I would have a chance of racing their creatures.

3. Saving time and brain power

A little known fact of tournament Magic at Competitive REL is that between games, players may refer to a brief set of notes made before the match. It's important to stress that you can never refer to notes you took before a game started during the game itself, as that's considered Outside Assistance and will result in a match loss. For more information on this, please refer to MTR 2.11 Taking Notes. If you are ever uncertain about what is allowed or not allowed, always ask a judge!

With that said, I would highly recommend writing down matchup and sideboarding notes before the day of the tournament, folding them up, and putting them in your deckbox to use throughout the event. This will not only save you time between games because you'll have a quick reference sheet to help you sideboard, but it will also give you plenty of additional time to consider if you want to make any last minute changes. While swapping out cards based on your notes, you don't have to spend thinking power on if it's the right swap or not because you already did that beforehand. Instead, you'll be able to spend your time thinking about what plan your opponent has to beat your deck and what additional cards, if any, you want to bring in or consider. 

Here are the sideboarding notes that I half-printed, half-wrote out for myself for the event:

I referred to these during every match over the course of the 2-day event. It was one of the best decisions I made that weekend: simply taking the time to write out a plan for what I expected to see.

As always, I hope you enjoyed reading my experience of playing Dredge at a large event and how I prepared for it. I hope this can help you become a better Magic player. Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter @UTDZac if you have any tips for preparing for events with your favorite deck.

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