The Cutting Room Floor: ‘He-Brand and the Masters of the Dredgeverse.’
Good versus Evil.
Heaven versus Hell.
Dredge versus Everything.
That’s really the way it works with Dredge. It lives and dies by the choices you make in a format that is dead set on hating it out. Let me be absolutely clear about something: people hate Dredge. They despise it because it doesn’t use involved, ‘traditional’ interaction and operates on its own without interference. For years, graveyard hate has been used against a variety of strategies necessitating the graveyard as a primary source of winning games. But there has never been, and may never be, another archetype in the history of Magic that uses the graveyard explicitly as a means to bypass interaction and win games than the most malevolent of Legacy boogeymen: Dredge.
In the ‘universe’ of Dredge there are a multitude of different card combinations and variations that can be deployed. As previously mentioned there are a core group of cards that probably will never be replaced within the architecture of the deck for as long as it exists and as long as it’s legal for Eternal play. I’d like to go into detail not only looking at these particular cards but also taking a look at the future of the archetype as a whole.
I’d also like to point out this is strictly subjective material. Having played Dredge continually for a long period of time I can offer my knowledge and expertise on the subject, but there will be people who think and act differently and that’s okay.
Golgari Grave-Troll is the basis for which any type of Dredge deck exists. Some people may argue this point, but the fact is the card is so incredibly necessary to the overall raw power of the deck that depleting your library of one more card can mean the difference between winning and losing games. Since we know that dredging for six is the highest amount the deck can put into action, it’s also important to recognize that the Grave-Troll is a very important aspect in winning games itself.
For instance, let’s assume we cast a Dread Return and target the Grave-Troll in our graveyards. In doing so, we’re bringing a potential monstrosity into play. And I’m not talking about a 6/6 or 7/7, I’m referring to a creature that generally enters the battlefield as a 10/10 or higher, counting itself in the process. As if attacking with a huge Grave-Troll weren’t enough, you can trigger lethal damage off of a Flayer of the Hatebound or amass an army of Zombies from multiple Bridges in the graveyard to supplement your already gigantic undead Troll.
Golgari Grave-Troll is arguably the most important card in Dredge. Which can also explain its banning in the Modern format and why it is the frequent recipient of Surgical Extractions and Extirpates.
Stinkweed Imp is another staple in Dredge that really has multiple emblematic uses. Dredging five cards is the next best possible option behind its predecessor, so we must consider it nearly or just as important to the scheme of the archetype. As a black creature it works quite well with Ichorid; definitely a nice little bonus. But one of the neatest functions of the Imp is its pseudo-‘Deathtouch’ ability that enables it as a legitimate blocker off of Show and Tell against Griselbrand or Emrakul, if you have the tokens to proceed to give to annihilator triggers.
Because of its multifaceted uses, the Imp remains to this day an incredibly important creature that makes up the critical hierarchy for which Dredge as a whole exists.
Golgari Thug is next on the list, and often the most misunderstood creature in the entire archetype. The Thug traditionally finds itself as the lower recipient of active dredges because it flips four cards instead of five or six. While doing so is not necessarily the best a Dredge player can do, Golgari Thug has a much wider and important application than people give it credit for – which is where the term “slow dredge” derives from.
Slow dredging is an important aspect of Dredge because it allows the player piloting the deck to play around hate with more precision. The idea is not to dump as many cards into your graveyard in a situation that would break you, such as facing down a Tormod’s Crypt or Relic of Progenitus. You don’t want to straight-up lose the game, so being able to mindfully dredge at a steady pace early in the game will entice an opponent to activate said hate in the event something worthwhile hits the graveyard. You’re not overextending your resources, which is why slow dredging is critical philosophically in fighting hate without actually having anti-hate in hand.
Thug’s triggered ability is also nice to return Narcomoebas and other goodies to the top of your deck. It gets gobbled by Ichorids and is a decent blocker or sacrificial outlet in a pinch with Bridge from Below(s), the next card on the list.
The folks who designed Future Sight must have had some ulterior motive when they printed this card. I don’t think they understood the true potential of its power in a deck that solely revolves around abusing the graveyard, but we’ll take it. The ability to generate multiple tokens early and often is what transcended early versions of ‘Friggorid’ and pushed the deck into an immediate threat in Eternal Magic. With creatures that come back turn in and turn out, you’ll be surely generating an army of undead warriors as the game progresses.
That being said, Bridge from Below also necessitates attention and quite a bit of it. The triggers are mandatory, not optional, and you must remember to stack them in your favor whenever possible. Attention to detail is critical and remembering to take advantage of your Bridges before they hit the dust is essential when trying to cast something like Dread Return or Cabal Therapy so you can win the game immediately.
Bridge is the ‘backbone’ of Dredge: it enables the broken plays and generates a serious amount of threats at virtually no cost. Without it, the deck wouldn’t be nearly as viable.
Narcomoeba is a card that deserves special attention because of what it does without actually having to cast it. Triggering from the graveyard (like almost every other card in the deck), Narcomoeba is the ‘carpenter’ of any Dredge variant because of what it can do in a variety of circumstances. As a flying blocker, a sacrifice outlet to Therapy and Dread Return, an attacker and token generator it’s probably the niftiest and most critical aspect in speeding up faster kills.
Honestly, I love this card. The synergy the card possesses with a mechanic like Dredge is relatively scary when you think about it; it’s almost as though the card was destined to find its way into the archetype much like its aforementioned Future Sight counterpart. You can hard-cast it if need be, too.
Next up is the critical Cabal Therapy – a card predicated on advantage and advantage only. It strips cards out of either your or opponents’ hands and enables tokens off Bridges with a variety of recurred threats. The real trick with Therapy is knowing what to name in the event you cast it, which unfortunately necessitates a working knowledge of the format you’re using it in and becoming an expert at situational Magic, much like situational football.
A good example of this was my round one match at the September NELC against James Higginbottom on RUG Delver. With only three cards left in James’ hand, I evaluated the scenario. His board consisted of several creatures and not much else. James was sitting back and casting a creature a turn. I know from experience that being proactive against Dredge is the best way to beat it, so James ideally is not sitting on Brainstorm because I know he wants to find answers quickly; giving him the benefit of the doubt. Sitting there and waiting with one of the most powerful cards in Legacy against a virtually non-interactive deck like Dredge isn’t really the best line, so I ruled that out. Hiding cards early is fine, but not on turn five or six when he needs something then and there.
In the previous turn, if he were on Scavenging Ooze, he would have used Brainstorm to find it and cast it.
With that off the list, I moved on to what could be the next high-value target: Spell Pierce. My graveyard had Griselbrand and Dread Return with three (plus) creatures in play, so I don’t care about Bolt or any other removal as he would have done that during my upkeep or draw step on his own creature to exile my Bridges. I have a Dryad Arbor out, so Daze is effectively useless in this scenario. Spell Pierce is interesting, however; I was initially going to name it but my gut told me that because he let Therapy resolve, he would have used the Pierce to protect something even more valuable, which he didn’t.
Daze. Lightning Bolt. Spell Pierce.
Force of Will was the one card left I was concerned about because it was the only hard counter that could stop my Dread Return no questions asked. Unless James was trying to next-level me, I was going with what felt like the most reasonable and situational choice predicated on his board state, his hand and his demeanor so I named “Force of Will.”
I stripped two out of his hand. Then I cast Dread Return and won the game.
The funny thing? I did the exact same thing in two games, stripping two more Forces out of his hand. That play won me the next game.
This example illustrates not only the strength of Cabal Therapy but how to use it properly. It’s a card that requires in-depth training and constant use to extract prime value out of it whenever it’s used. Cabal Therapy is undisputedly the most difficult card to play in Dredge, and perhaps even more so, in Eternal Magic as a whole.
Finally, Dread Return is the combo-centric card in Dredge that enables big wins out of nowhere. As the title of the article humorously tries to suggest, Griselbrand is perhaps the most influential card in the entire Dredge ‘universe’ in that it performs as the ultimate win condition. Not only is it easily one of the most powerful creatures ever printed, but it’s even more so one of the common creatures that are ‘cheated’ into play by various means (Show and Tell, Sneak Attack, Reanimate, etc…). Dread Return is our primary source of reanimating this monstrosity and with a built-in virtual ‘Bargain, we’re apt to flip our deck and win at the cost of seven life.
Depending on which variation of Dredge you’re running, Dread Return may not even be necessary. Some versions that run LED can power through their deck on the very first turn in conjunction with Breakthrough and Faithless Looting, so there’s really no need to do anything more than strip an opponent’s hand, make an arbitrary amount of tokens and win the next turn.
Aside from that, Dread Return sees play in sideboards and can also be used to target specialized creatures that can destroy annoying permanents or some other utility like Iona preventing colors from being played. In Manaless Dredge, however, the card is maxed out as a four-of because that variation of Dredge is more combo-oriented than its counterparts with a more robust recursion package.
Dredge’s future right now is relatively bright. For as long as the core group of cards stay legal and Wizards continues printing goodies useable from the graveyard, Dredge will continue to thrive and force tournament players to prepare their sideboards until it disappears entirely. Which suffice to say doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon. Dredge has only gotten more popular over the years as the price of Legacy’s cost-barrier increases. Affordable as it may be to some, the appeal of Dredge is really its secondary market value in addition to being competitive in the hands of a skilled pilot.
As of today, I see Dredge going in a variety of directions. Just recently, the deck nailed down a few high finishes at the Star City Open in Baltimore, a sign that the deck continues to remain a force in the overall meta. Even in a format with main-deck Rest in Peace running all over the place. As an avid player of Manaless Dredge, life becomes more difficult with the printing of Deathrite Shaman, a card that has literally changed the scope of the entire format. That won’t stop me from playing the deck I love and embracing the challenge of conquering these strategies over time.
It’s not entirely unbeatable, but with the raw speed and power Dredge possesses, until people learn how to beat those cards and understand how the mechanics and intricacies of Dredge works, it will continue to sporadically place in high-level events. The deck regularly benefits from opponents executing poor piloting, lack of practice and porous sideboarding strategies. Fortunately, there is a very large pool of players that work together to further the archetype as a whole and a community such as that helps it thrive in the face of adversity, even with all the people that hate it and hate playing against it.
I for one am looking forward to some exciting Legacy play in 2013. There is a great number of potential cards that can be invited into the vast and dark world of the “Dredgeverse.” And if the world does in fact end in a few weeks, I for one will be playing Dredge until something comes out of the sky and sweeps us all away…
…preferably not something resembling Griselbrand.
(Next week we’ll look at Cabal Therapy in-depth and how to play it accurately and with deadly precision!)