Vintage 101: Unmasking Dredge
by Islandswamp // Mar 17, 2017
The Vintage Super League is in it's sixth season and it's still bringing us interesting Vintage action after all this time. In many ways the VSL has a profound effect on the Vintage metagame. Often times I run into players on Magic Online who have copied some new and flashy deck from the VSL. This is great for entertainment value and for the variety and experience of seeing new things, but it's important to remember that the Vintage Super League isn't just a microcosm of the broader Vintage meta. In fact, the league environment is quite different and somewhat warped compared to the format as a whole.
When someone builds a deck for a tournament they generally try to anticipate what decks they will face (at least if they want to succeed). The participants in the VSL do the same thing, but the metagame they're expecting is much different than what most people will have to prepare for. The VSL is a closed meta; players know the other participants in the league and can use that information to their advantage. This makes it more like going to a small, local tournament where all of the players know each other. Of course in the VSL all the players are ringers, so that does complicate matters somewhat.
The important point to remember is that copying a VSL list verbatim and expecting it to do well in a large event is not a great idea. Copying a VSL list and practicing with it and tuning it for the metagame you expect to face is likely to yield much better results. The players in the league are very talented and generally design good decks, but they can also get away with things that might not work as well in a large event like the Vintage Championships.
I've been thinking a lot about Dredge lately. Dredge has always been one of the cheapest ways to play sanctioned Vintage in paper and on Magic Online. The lower-than-usual price tag makes it an attractive option for many people so it tends to be popular in the online queues.
Today I'm going to show you a few different takes on Vintage Dredge and discuss some of the card choices. The first list I want to look at is an example of a deck that did well in the VSL, but also has a few adjustments that might not be the best in a wide-open field. Here's Rodrigo Togores' Dredge deck.
For the most part this deck is a normal Dredge deck. It has a traditional sideboard instead of the Dark Depths transformation plan that is so popular online. The thing about the deck that jumps out at me as somewhat unusual is the lack of main-deck Leyline of the Voids. Typically Dredge decks like to play Leyline of the Void as it performs several key functions.
Leyline protects your Bridge from Belows from being exiled as they prevent your opponent's creatures from ever touching the graveyard. Leyline is also an obvious nod to the exciting Dredge mirror matches, should you find yourself having to navigate one. There are other benefits as well, although they are mostly situational and most likely they don't come up as often. Treasure Cruise, Dig Through Time, Yawgmoth's Will, and Dark Petition become much worse when facing a Leyline. Bomberman combo and Oath decks also like to utilize their graveyards.
Even with all of the reasons there are to decide to include Leylines in your Dredge deck, there are valid reasons for not running it. The biggest reason I can see to not running Leylines would be if you knew you wouldn't have to play any mirror matches. When you consider the fact that Rodrigo designed this list to face a small list of VSL contestants, the choice to abstain from Leyline makes much more sense. Dredge has not been played much throughout the history of the League, and the chances of facing a Dredge mirror were likely negligible.
Once you cut Leylines you open up four more slots in the deck, and Dredge has always been somewhat cramped for space in my opinion. Certain cards simply must be played. You have to play Bazaar obviously, and that means you have to play four Serum Powders. You must run a certain number of Dredgers, and they need to be the highest Dredge value possible. Bridge from Below is also a four-of in almost every list I've ever seen. The point is that with such limited space, removing four cards can really be beneficial, as long as you don't shoot yourself in the foot in the process.
I always found that the main tension with Leyline of the Void was that it only worked if it was in your opening hand. If you see an opening hand with Leyline but no Bazaar you have to either mulligan or (hopefully) use a Serum Powder. In practice I found myself rarely getting to actually use my Leylines, and I felt like I wanted more cards that could be useful when drawn or dredged.
Ultimately the choice of whether or not to run Leyline of the Void in your Dredge deck will need to be carefully considered. I think that most of the time it is the correct move though. There are a lot of Arcbound Ravagers and Walking Ballistas in the format right now, and both of those cards can be used to slow you down by exiling your Bridges. Plus you don't want to have absolutely no answer to a mirror match either.
There's another card that's noticeably absent from Togores' list, Undiscovered Paradise. As I have mentioned in the past, Undiscovered Paradise is an integral part of the Vintage Dredge archetype. It painlessly provides mana of any color, and more importantly it is a repeatable source of Landfall triggers for Bloodghast. People sometimes swap it out for extra copies of the much-cheaper City of Brass.
Participants in the Vintage Super League gain access to any card they need, so I was curious as to why it was omitted. It turns out that Undiscovered Paradise is still bugged on Magic Online. Some unknown percentage of the time it will fail to return itself to its owner's hand when used, so it doesn't function as it is supposed to. I suppose it wouldn't look good to use a bugged card on stream, so it was cut.
The only other reason that you might see some Dredge decks omit Undiscovered Paradise is if the deck does not contain Bloodghast. This is typical of the "Pitch Dredge" version, which is basically another archetype altogether. Pitch Dredge has to cut a lot of the core Dredge staples in order to fit the blue Counterspell package, and that leaves little room for a mana base or extra graveyard value creatures.
The Combo Kill
Dredge is known for having an instant-win combo available to it. The combo involves reanimating a certain creature with Dread Return that enables the deck to win on the spot. Rodrigo's Dread Return package includes a copy of Griselbrand and Flame-Kin Zealot. For some time it was common to see Dragonlord Kolaghan instead of Flame-Kin, but the metagame has shifted enough that I think Flame-Kin Zealot might be the better choice now. When Kolaghan was king, Swords to Plowshares wasn't quite as popular and Lightning Bolt saw more play. Now that Monastery Mentor has usurped Young Pyromancer as the number one token-generator in Vintage Lightning Bolt just doesn't cut it. Flame-Kin is likely to be lethal even if it gets plowed, as it grants its bonus until end of turn. Dragonlord Kolaghan creates a static effect bonus, which makes Swords to Plowshares much more effective.
Griselbrand has seen plenty of play as a second reanimation target, but I haven't seen a lot of people using it recently. Usually I have seen people playing Elesh Norn or Sun Titan. Elesh seems particularly good in the current metagame as it is good in mirror matches and it can do serious work against Monastery Mentor or any other creature-based deck.
Dredge decks all use four copies of Cabal Therapy as disruption, but sometimes other cards can be utilized as well. Mental Misstep and Unmask are two of the more popular options, but I have also seen people use Mindbreak Trap in traditional Dredge as well.
The common thread among these choices is that each of them do not require mana to be played. The primary mode of Dredge revolves around playing and using Bazaar of Baghdad to Dredge through the deck, which does not facilitate casting these spells. Cabal Therapy is by far the strongest of these spells as it can be cast from the graveyard and it acts as a sacrifice outlet for triggering Bridge from Below.
Mental Misstep is good against certain decks in the format and completely dead against a few decks as well. With Workshops and White Eldrazi both holding prominent positions in the metagame it might be a good time to avoid Misstep. When Dark Ritual Storm decks were more popular, Misstep was much better, but right now the best Storm deck (Paradoxical Outcome) is nearly Misstep-proof.
Unmask is another option for disruption, but it would normally take the spot that Rodrigo gave to Mental Misstep. Unmask is not very common in Magic Online Dredge lists, but I suspect that this is heavily influenced by price. Like most Mercadian Masques block cards the online version of Unmask it is still very expensive compared to its paper counterpart. This would also explain why I have seen it used in paper much more frequently.
Now that I've discussed the VSL Dredge list, and the lack of Unmask in that particular list, I think it's a prefect time to segue to a traditional Dredge deck with some different card choices.
This list by Oestrus has most of the same cards as Rodrigo Togores' deck, but it was built to play in a more open metagame. This finish was from a Daily Event, and players won't know exactly who they'll play against.
The major changes are the main deck Leyline of the Voids and Unmasks. Leylines are much more important to a Dredge deck when there's a real chance you'll face a mirror match. Unmask is probably a lot better than Mental Misstep against a larger field as well.
As I mentioned previously Mental Misstep is bad against Shops and Eldrazi and pretty useless against Paradoxical Outcome combo as well. Unmask at least has a chance to snag an important combo piece from an Outcome deck if the Dredge deck is on the play. Single-card discard isn't very good against the Prison decks, but it can at least take out one card. Prison decks typically have one target for Mental Misstep: Sol Ring. The odds are very bad against Misstep being relevant in game one versus a prison opponent.
Oestrus' deck has two Dread Return targets: Flame-Kin Zealot and Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. Personally I like that combination quite a bit in the current metagame. Both creatures will make a small army of zombies into a formidable force, and Elesh is a silver bullet against many strategies. It's always nice to be able to wipe out your opponent's monk tokens right before your zombies take over the world.
Most of the sideboard in this deck is made up of typical anti-hate cards. Ingot Chewer takes out artifacts and helps against Shops. Nature's Claim is a versatile answer against most problematic permanents a Dredge deck will face. Barbarian Ring is tech against Containment Priest that can't be countered and it acts as extra red mana in the Workshops matchup.
The really interesting card selection is Leyline of Sanctity. The popular combo decks on Magic Online have become very fast and can often defeat Dredge one turn before the Dredge deck can present lethal damage. Leyline of Sanctity can buy this deck a few turns at least, and that's all it really needs. Leyline of Sanctity also shuts off Ravenous Trap which is very nice.
Building for your Meta
Looking at two versions of the same basic archetype illustrates the subtle but important differences between them. Both decks are good examples of successful Dredge decks, but nobody should blindly copy either one and expect it to perform the exact same way. The VSL Dredge deck makes perfect sense only in the environment it was tuned for! The same thing goes for the second list as well. If you're looking to build Dredge for the first time both versions are a good place to start, but adaptations for your expected metagame will have to be made.
I get asked for deck advice by a lot of people. The first thing I usually tell people is that they might want to consult someone who's better than I am. If they insist on getting their info from me I usually make sure they know that the tournament they're building for is probably different than the online metagame I build for. Usually people will send me a list they found online, typically something from the Vintage Super League or a Daily Event listing on MTGGoldfish. The chances are that the tournament they're going to is only superficially similar to the VSL or Magic Online meta.
So, if you've been out of the loop for a while, or are just new to Vintage, make sure you take everything with a grain of salt. With any deck list you find your results may vary. Be prepared to test with your list, ideally against a gauntlet or decent cross-section of the meta, and make changes accordingly. In the real world you'll end up facing your bad matchups at least some of time time. If you find a deck that did very well it is probably really good, but you might want to run one extra sideboard card for a certain matchup or whatever. Netdecking for concepts is a great idea, but netdecking as a replacement for testing and common sense is a fool's errand.