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Vintage 101: Defense Against the Dark Arts


Howdy folks! It's Joe again, and this week we're continuing our look at the various decks that make up the Vintage format, with an eye at deconstructing these lists to help others understand why they're built the way they are.

Before we get into the thick of things, I just want to mention again the contest that I ran via Twitter! The winners were announced last week, and I was greatly excited to give away five sets of Magic Online Power Nine! Mucho thanks to Sean Hilliard for donating these cards to help others get into Vintage!

Now then, this week we're going to be taking a look at a deck that is often regarded as "Magic as Richard Garfield intended," a deck that is always in the back of the mind of every Vintage player (whether they like it or not). I'm of course talking about Dredge.

Dredge as a deck utilizes the signature mechanic from the original Ravnica: City of Guilds, to fill the graveyard with creatures that can enter the battlefield for free, cast spells from the graveyard, and overwhelm its opponent with power. It's a crazy, insanely powerful deck that can devour unsuspecting opponents, but can fall short to graveyard hate. This has caused many fractured variants of the deck to pop up over the years as Dredge players attempt to develop different plans versus the Vintage Meta game.

The History of the Dark Arts of the Graveyard

Dredge began with the set Ravnica: City of Guilds. As the signature mechanic of the Golgari Swarm in the set, Dredge offered a significant different way to approach playing Magic. However, the real power of this mechanic would not be fully realized until the release of Time Spiral block with the advent of two cards.

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These two cards (which conveniently ended up in Standard alongside the Dredge mechanic) gave Dredge another avenue of attack, by allowing the deck to sacrifice creatures in order to trigger Bridge from Below (one of Magic's most unique cards) and overwhelm its opponent with Zombie tokens.

Dredge in Vintage quickly adopted the usage of the card Bazaar of Baghdad, along with Cabal Therapy to shred its opponent's hand apart while being able to generate tokens and push through its deck. Since then, the deck has undergone numerous variant changes, running cards like Fatestitcher, Unmask, and even sometimes developing into variants that play Mental Misstep and even Force of Will. There was even a period of time that Dredge lists played Dark Depths and Thespian's Stage out of the sideboard.

In 2017-2018, the deck discovered a new piece of technology in the form of Hollow One to get around graveyard hate. Hollow One would go on to develop as well in Survival decks.

Deconstructing Dredge

Since there are numerous Dredge lists that encompass many different kinds of strategic plans, we're going to look at a few lists:

We can generally distill these lists into several key components.

Lands

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Dredge lands (and it's general Mana base) has played all sorts of different lands over the years, but every list contains four Bazaar of Baghdad, the engine on which the deck functions. Rainbow mana lands, such as Mana Confluence are often played to allow the deck to cast various spells out of the sideboard as well as to trigger cards like Bloodghast. Undiscovered Paradise can be used as a way to re-trigger Ghasts, and cards like Cabal Pit are able to be used to kill opposing creatures like Containment Priest if needed.

Dredgers

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The bread and butter of how this deck starts getting cards in the graveyard, Dredgers are the most important part of the deck. In general, most decks will be playing a combination of Four Grave-Troll, Four Stinkweed, Two Thug, and typically Two Salvages. Dakmor Salvage also is great for being able to be dredged in case a land is needed to trigger Bloodghast.

Free Creatures

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The other bread and butter of this deck, free creatures are also very importan to this deck's game plan. Narcomoeba is one of the most important of these, since it entering the battlefield can happen quickly off dredges to enable cards like Cabal Therapy and Dread Return. Hollow One is one of the deck's newest threats, having its cost reduced to zero by activating Bazaar of Baghdad, while Ichorid is a powerful threat that can recur every turn (as long as it has creatures to eat) as well as being able to trigger Bridge from Below.

Free Spells + Effects

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Free spells and effects are generally what makes this deck tick. Cabal Therapy acts as both a sacrifice outlet and a way to pull an opponent's hand apart, while Dread Return gets back anything from the simplest Golgari Grave-Troll to a silver bullet card. Both of these spells interact favorably with Bridge from Below, providing ways to generate Zombie tokens.

Serum Powder

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A card so unique, it deserves its own category. Serum Powder is one of the biggest reasons that a deck like Dredge can solely operate on four Bazaar of Baghdad, due to its ability to get rid of cards in your opening hands to simply see more cards in your deck. I would gather to say that 95% of the time a hand is very likely to get exiled to this card's ability, which says a lot about the card's sheer power level. Learning how to evaluate opening hands that contain Serum Powder is one the skill curves of the deck.

Silver Bullet Creatures

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Silver bullet creatures for this deck are numerous and differing as the builds that exist of the deck currently. Cards like Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite answer board states of creatures while pumping your own, and Ashen Rider is good for dealing with nearly any permanent. Beyond that, combo focused creatures like Flame-Kin Zealot and Dragonlord Kolaghan push through quick and dirty combat damage in the early parts of the game (Kolaghan is brilliant for this because she works with lesser counts of Bridge from Below), and even further down the chain are cards like Lotleth Giant, Sun Titan, and Molderhulk.

Options...

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Outside of the core of the deck lies... options. So many, many options. Various lists have tried many different types of builds, from Pitch Dredge (playing Force of Will and Mental Misstep) to Unmask to attack its opponent on a further discard basis. Some lists opt to play Leyline of the Void main deck to hedge against both Oath and the mirror match as well as making it harder for decks that play Yawgmoth's Will to function properly. There are even versions that play Power Nine (with the card Fatestitcher) to accelerate a combo kill quickly using cards like Sun Titan. The options listed here don't even begin to scratch the surface of the variety in Dredge lists. The best way to deal with figuring out which version you might want to play with is to research all the various variants and learn about all of them.

The Art of Dredging 

In regards to actually playing Dredge, especially in Game 1, is somewhat of a simplistic chore. There is an adage for Dredge players to remember: if your opening hand does not have at least one copy of Bazaar of Baghdad in it, it's a mulligan. This is pretty much the truth. Bazaar is one of the most important cards the deck has going for it, and if you don't have one, you are not going to be able to function. Sometimes this means mulligan'ing into oblivion. One of the hardest pieces of this is the involvement of Serum Powder.

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Serum Powder allows you to exchange your current hand for a fresh new one of however many cards you had, all for the cost of exiling the cards from your hand. On the surface this seems relatively simple, but can be deceptively hard to evaluate. Any time you are looking to evaluate whether to Serum Powder away a hand, you have to ask yourself whether or not you are okay with not having those cards for the rest of the game. Most of the time the answer to this is going to be "Yes", but there are some occasionas where simply mulligan'ing is the best decision.

Beyond your mulligans, actually playing the deck involves playing out your Bazaar and turning it sideways. It's just about that easy. There are going to be some relative occasions where you will want to wait to tap Bazaar (such as during your opponent's end step if you're on the play, or if your opponent has a Wasteland / Strip Mine possibility) but for the most part, playing and tapping Bazaar is the most correct Turn 1 play in the blind. From that point on, most of the deck revolves around trigger management and combat damage. It is important to remember how many of the triggers of this deck function. A short and dirty primer to the various triggers of this deck:

  • Narcomoeba *does* not technically trigger its ability until an effect like Bazaar finishes resolving. So if you hit a Narcomoeba during resolving Bazaar, you have to completely resolve the effect (including discarding cards) before the trigger goes on the stack.
  • Ichorid's trigger always goes on the stack, but you don't select the creature that Ichorid eats until the ability resolves. One of the normal tricks you can do is activate Bazaar with the Ichorid trigger on the stack in order to maximize your chances of hitting a creature to feed to it.
  • Golgari Thug has a trigger when it dies, and it's worth noting that if the Thug is your *only* creature in the graveyard, it has to select itself as a target to put back on top of your library.
  • Stinkweed Imp's ability to kill creatures is *not* deathtouch. It's a triggered ability.
  • Bridge from Below's triggered abilities are controlled by you, so you can order them however you please if they were to occur at the same time (such as during combat damage). So if one of your creatures trades with an opponent's creature, you can order the triggers so that you get your Zombie tokens before your Bridges get exiled.
  • Also, Bridge from Below and Leyline of the Void generally prevents any opponent's creatures from exiling your Bridges, except for Tokens. Tokens are not cards, so if an opponent's token creatures dies, it will trigger the exile trigger off Bridge.

Dredge Sideboarding

As with any deck in this format, sideboarding is an important piece of the puzzle for Dredge. Dredge sideboards often pack some strange and unique ways to attack the Vintage Meta game. We can however, distill those cards into several key definitions.

Artifact/Enchantment Destruction

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One of the most important pieces of the Dredge puzzle, having destruction effects versus artifacts/enchantments is one of the key ways of beating various pieces of graveyard hate. This emerges in numerous ways, from the simple Nature's Claim (one of the most efficient destruction spells for artifacts/enchantments), to Evoke creatures like Ingot Chewer and Wispmare that can work through cards like Mental Misstep. The Evoke creatures are fairly interesting in that they are also able to trigger any existing Bridges in the graveyard (such as if an opponent casts Leyline of the Void somehow) by ordering their "enters-the-battlefield" triggers and the Evoke trigger so that the Evoke trigger occurs second. Some builds have also used cards like Fragmentize due to the fact that the majority of graveyard hate options cost four or less.

Alternate Game Plans

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Dredge sideboards can also sometimes run alternate game plans in its sideboard, opting to move around your opponent's hate instead of choosing to fight it. The deck has adopted many different ways to do this in the past, with the current incarnations of this being cards like Hollow One and Gurmag Angler, but has on occasion played cards like Dark Depths and Thespian's Stage to combo its opponent off.

Lands?

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One of the stranger things about this deck is that quite often, Dredge can run cards from its sideboard Main deck to hedge against different matchups, slimming down on lands in order to do so. To make up for this, the deck will run rainbow lands in its sideboard so that when it brings in sideboard cards it can bring in the mana needed to cast them.

The Fractured Identity of Dredge

Fractured Identity [C17]

As I mentioned before, Dredge has often gone into very deep territory and into the unknown as it has tried to keep up with the Vintage Meta game, adopting different plans and different methods in deckbuilding. This has led to a very fractured identity for the deck as of late, with many different people trying to attack the deck's construction. There are a lot of different dredge lists out there now, and it has made it hard to determine what is the correct list for the current Meta game. One of the Dredge discord users, ajfirecracker, put together some interesting thoughts on the current state of Dredge lists and how he believes the decks should be constructed. It's worth taking a gander at, so you can check it out over here.

For the most part, I do agree with AJ in regards to the various lists we keep seeing pop up. Despite the limited number of results we can glean from Wizards' data from Magic Online, it is possible that the current crop of Dredge lists is actually the wrong way to attack the current Meta game. It will be interesting to move forward and see if there are ways to improve upon the archetype and tune it towards the current climate of decks.

Keep on Dredging

Gimme Five [UST]

Dredge is a deck that rewards a lot of patience, deck-building understanding, and practice. It's also extremely high variance, so it can be very easy to get discouraged playing this deck if you end up on the wrong side of that variance. A word to the wise from myself: Don't get super discouraged, and keep at it. The deck will eventually reward your play and understanding, and you can do well with the deck just by playing and learning through that variance. Never forget that other players often fear your deck, enough so that they will try to throw all the hate they can at you. Just remember the most important quote you can ever remember when playing this deck. A quote from the Dredge Queen Erin Campbell herself:

"Bless their hearts."

That's all you have to remember. Dredge is a deck that if you really enjoy doing busted things, and you enjoy the graveyard as a secondary resource, you will find that you will like this deck.

The Spice Corner

Our spice comes this week from Magic Online user Spencerbot15. Paradoxical Outcome that transforms into a post-sideboard plan of Oath of Druids.

Wrapping Up

That's all the time we have this week folks! This week was a lot of fun. Dredge is a favorite deck of mine, one I enjoy very much, so it was a great pleasure to share the dark arts with you all. Next week we're going to take a hard look at one of the decks that is exceptionally powerful. It's the Show and Tell of Vintage. I'm talking about Oath of Druids!

Now then, as we go ahead into December, keep an eye out on The Mana Drain for a EOY 2018 Mail Bag post that I'm going to be putting up this week. This is your chance to ask me some questions and talk heart-to-heart about the format we all love. It's going to be exciting!

In addition, we're headed into the Holiday season! What are you most excited to get in your stocking this year? And what are you looking forward the most to in 2019? For me, I'm hoping to attend some large Vintage events next year and get to meet many more lovely folks from the Vintage community.

Until next time folks, keep on practicing those Dark Arts (or the Defense of)!


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