Partial Resurrection: Assessing the New Dredge

As the metagame shifts, decks rise and fall. Sometimes, that churning is explosive. Such events are exciting and foster discussion and articles. However, it is important to remember to temper excitement with reason. Spikes and oscillations are just that, and only matter if they’re sustained.

After Golgari Grave-Troll was banned, Dredge dropped out of sight. It never went away, and in fact maintained similar metagame numbers post-ban, but it stopped being the format’s boogeyman. Even archetype aficionados like Ross Merriam went silent, acknowledging that it just wasn’t the time for Dredge. However, over the past month, Dredge has returned to prominence. Where previously Dredge spiked up and down in accordance with the Dredge Cycle, this time’s sustained push is owed to Creeping Chill being printed. Chill has excited commentators to the point that some now believe Dredge beats anything that isn’t combo.

Contrarily, I’ve seen nothing to indicate the deck is drastically different than previous versions. Dredge is still dependent on its graveyard to do anything, and recent tweaks also soften it to other angles of attack. This article explores the new Dredge’s allures and pressure points.

A Chilling Return

Traditional Dredge was largely absent from the PPTQ season. Instead, the previously hot deck Bridgevine filled the niche. Besides being something fresh and exciting, Bridgevine boasted the new Stitcher’s Supplier to enable better starts than previous iterations. Once Guilds of Ravnica spoilers began, that was a different story. Creeping Chill was as obviously a traditional Dredge card as possible, and players went to work immediately. As far as I can tell, the most successful version to date is Alek Jones’s from SCG Dallas.

Dredge, Alek Jones (SCG Dallas, 3rd Place)

Creatures (18)
Bloodghast
Narcomoeba
Golgari Thug
Prized Amalgam
Stinkweed Imp

Artifacts (4)
Shriekhorn

Sorceries (19)
Faithless Looting
Cathartic Reunion
Life from the Loam
Conflagrate
Creeping Chill

Lands (19)
Bloodstained Mire
Copperline Gorge
Wooded Foothills
Stomping Grounds
Gemstone Mine
Blood Crypt
Mountain
Sideboard (15)
Nature’s Claim
Ancient Grudge
Thoughtseize
Lightning Axe
Darkblast
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Gone is the pile of random dredgers in favor of a tight package of the best and most useful ones, respectively. Shriekhorn serves as a means to essentially dredge 4 by the second draw step, and replaces Insolent Neonate, presumably because the vampire’s applications prove too marginal without more literal dredgers.

The sideboard reflects how vulnerable Dredge is to graveyard hate. Nature’s Claim replaces Ray of Revelation, as it’s cheaper and more flexible. Thoughtseize is mainly here to provide hope against combo, but can also be useful to preemptively remove hate. The rest of the board houses anti-creature cards that also enable dredging.

Subtle Shift

Creeping Chill is good in Dredge primarily because it provides uncounterable reach. Flipping Chill doesn’t cast a spell, but rather triggers an ability. This means Dredge can “burn” out control decks through permission when Conflagrate would be useless. Because Chill is a drain effect, it’s also useful against aggressive decks. Humans can be quite tough for Dredge because Meddling Mage shuts off Conflagrate as Thalia’s Lieutenant grows the team past Prized Amalgam. Chill allows Dredge to get in some chip shots and buy time to find enough Bloodghasts and Amalgams to force through lethal.

The effect is actual fairly small, but can be significant. Against Humans it helps Dredge win more close games. Slower decks must suddenly contend with the inevitability of Chill’s reach, and will therefore be forced to drop its shields more often. Doing so provides Dredge with the opportunity to exploit strategic cracks and win the game, as was prominently displayed two weeks ago at SCG Dallas.

Visibility Distortion

However, a few weeks of good showings does not a good deck make. A rather strong reality check is that Dredge did well in the October 7 Modern Challenge and took four spots at SCG Dallas, but had very few results otherwise. Dredge has performed prosaically in subsequent Challenges, more in line with what it normally does. Regardless of the actual value of Creeping Chill, it isn’t drastically changing Dredge. At best, the deck does what it always did, if perhaps a little faster.

As usually happens when a niche deck receives a lot of press prior to an event, Dredge did do well in Dallas. However, the same thing happened in 2016 with Lantern Control after Sam Black and other prominent Pros picked up the deck. Lantern even won a Pro Tour. Despite continued praise, Lantern has failed to catch on in Modern.

Then there’s Death’s Shadow. Sam Black declared Jund Death’s Shadow the best deck in Modern in February 2017. By May, Jund had been displaced by Grixis. By June, Grixis was so good bans were called for. By December, Grixis had lost its luster and Humans was rising. These days, Grixis Death’s Shadow is just another deck in Modern. Bursts of interest in these non-traditional decks are almost always only that: bursts.

In the past, I’ve lamented the lack of GP and Open Day 1 data. Without them, it’s impossible to tell the real strength of the decks represented in Day 2. A deck representing 15% of the Day 2 metagame might sound impressive without knowledge that started off at 50%. In that scenario, there was very little chance that it would be well represented Day 2 no matter what happened. Whenever a deck does well after weeks of hype and attention, the odds are good that it is a function of population more than of strategic credentials.

Dredge Remains Dredge

Despite the hype and Dallas results, Dredge is still Dredge. It may have acquired a new toy, but the strategy with all its strengths and vulnerabilities hasn’t changed. Dredge’s metagame share may have risen recently, but it only had any worth mentioning in the first place because of being lumped together with Bridgevine.

It made sense to switch because if Bridgevine is going to win, it will always do so before most graveyard hate starts to bite, whereas Dredge is slow enough for late hate to still win the game. This fact remains true, and so the only reason to adopt Dredge now is the slight re-positioning advantage Chill gives in certain matchups. Once this metagame opportunity fades and the hype dies down, I cannot see why Dredge wouldn’t also fade again.

Just as Linear

The other glaring problem with Chill is that it attacks from the exact same angle as every other card in Dredge: the graveyard. It can still be cast, but that’s not why Chill or any other card in Dredge is playable. For Chill to be effective, it needs to be free, and the drain needs to be meaningful. Alongside a pile of free creatures, that will absolutely be true. However, on its own, Chill is meaningless. Decks must handle their life total carelessly to lose to 12 damage. Chill reinforces Dredge’s linear graveyard strategy without actually changing anything.

If anything, Chill may make Dredge even more susceptible to grave hate. There’s been a trend in Dredge since the ban to cut back on actual dredgers and become more of a Life from the Loam deck, facilitating bigger and better Conflagrates. This has meant cutting Golgari Thugs, shrinking average dredges. Chill is a four-of, so Thug is now getting cut completely, often along with Darkblast. Together with Shriekhorn‘s adoption, this has created a Dredge packed with cards that do absolutely nothing in the face of Rest in Peace, where once they could still be cast as beaters.

Altered Playstyle

The trick to fighting Dredge is recognizing how Chill has actually affected its matchups. Close races are going to be closer, and locking the board down doesn’t guarantee victory. It’s important to either hate Dredge out or win faster. However, that’s always been true. Dredge wins when it either explodes onto the board or through grinding with recurring creatures. The most substantial change that players need to make is adjusting how they utilize one-shot hate.

When using hate in this vein, such as Nihil Spellbomb or Relic of Progenitus, the temptation is to blow them at the first opportunity for value, especially in response to Narcomoeba and/or Creeping Chill triggers. This is often wrong. Since many decks only have 2-3 pieces of graveyard hate, it’s critical to be judicious and try to maximize the value gained. Recall my previous tautology: Don’t try and get value, go get some value!

Only a few cards actually matter in Dredge. Losing to mediocre beats from Narcomoeba or Stinkweed Imp sucks, but if that happens, you weren’t winning anyway. Dredge’s pedigree is founded on big turns with Prized Amalgam and Conflagrate. Therefore, players need to hold their hate for longer to nail as many of those cards as possible.

Generally speaking, the minimum value I’m willing to pop a Remorseful Cleric for is Bloodghast, Conflagrate, and Darkblast. Put another way, get at least one great card and some extra value when you blast a graveyard. Creeping Chill is a nice hit, but not enough by itself to warrant action. Let Dredge have its medium cards, and target the real killers.

Also, ignore the dredgers themselves. They’re only threatening in conjunction with Amalgam and Conflagrate.

Alterations have Consequences

After more than a month of running UW Spirits into various Chilling Dredge decks and pilots, I’m not certain that actual graveyard hate is necessary for the matchup. I’ve been winning handily by Spell Quellering Life from the Loams and dumping Spirits into play. The matchup has become far easier than I remember it being, which birthed my initial skepticism regarding Dredge’s resurgence. The only times Chill has mattered were very tight races when hitting Chills were the only way to survive and then win.

The changes to Dredge make the deck more inevitable, but less explosive. While Dredge is now better at powering Conflagrate, it’s also more dependent on Conflagrate. Shutting off or weakening that angle of attack can spell doom for Dredge. Without some 3/3 meat or reach, swarms of 2/1s and 1/1s are too weak for Modern. Spirits can shut down the Loam engine, brick the board, and fly over for the win without hate now. As a result, I think Chilling Dredge is a worse deck than the non-Chill versions.

Golgari Grave-Troll let Dredge dump its library far too quickly. The decks that followed the banning played more dredgers to make up for Grave-Troll’s loss, and I thought they were still so explosive that I resigned myself to defeat whenever Cathartic Reunion resolved. Playing the full set of Stinkweed Imp and Golgari Thug along with some Lifes and Darkblasts meant that every big dredge was likely to hit several more. Now, the odds of chaining dredgers are low enough that I don’t fear Reunion.

The focus on Loaming for Conflagrate means Dredge feels almost fair, which is the most scathing indictment of the deck I can think of. The second- most is that Surgical Extraction is a reasonable card against Dredge because the deck has become so reliant on Conflagrate. My experience says that even with Chill, Dredge just isn’t that scary anymore.

It’s Already Begun

Dredge’s fall-off has already begun. As mentioned, Dredge took four spots in the first Modern Challenge of October and SCG Dallas. Otherwise, it’s posted fairly average numbers. There was a single Dredge deck in the second Challenge, and in the most recent one, there were two. However, that’s about equal to September and August‘s numbers, accounting for lower quantity of events. If Chill was really supercharging Dredge, I would expect far more results than I’m actually seeing, so my skepticism will stand.

The data just don’t back the narrative around Dredge being back and a greater threat. With time, that could become more true, but such is the case for any deck that receives new cards. Rather, it appears the primary effect of Creeping Chill is to give players a reason to consider Dredge over an alternative like Bridgevine. While this will improve its metagame representation, it doesn’t change Dredge’s overall place within the metagame.

Both Feet in the Grave

Just because a deck suddenly returns in force doesn’t mean it’s back to stay. Any deck can win any event with the right pilot and/or favorable matchups. As I’m writing this conclusion, the Top 8 for SCG Charlotte is being announced, and no Dredge decks made it. In their place at the finals table was a pair of Amulet Titan decks. Titan is another deck that has been neutered by bans but still hangs around. I wouldn’t be surprised if it became the hot deck this week, but just like Dredge, its numbers will sink back down once the frenzy calms. Great showings are one thing, but it’s metagame contexts that make the deck.

David began playing Magic during Odyssey block, quit playing Magic when Caw Blade ruled the world, and returned to Modern shortly before Deathrite was banned. He’s made an appearance at the Pro Tour, made money at GP Denver, and is constantly grinding and brewing in Modern.

3 thoughts on “Partial Resurrection: Assessing the New Dredge

  1. “As a result, I think Chilling Dredge is a worse deck than the non-Chill versions.”

    I was with you until here. Maybe this is true in particularly the Spirits matchup, but I think to say this as a non-Dredge pilot about the deck in general is, quite frankly, arrogant and very likely wrong.

    As far as Amulet goes, it was basically a good meta call. It’s good against Dredge, creature decks, and control/midrange, which had to have been a huge reason for its great performance last weekend.

    1. Maybe, but that was my experience. I always felt behind and disadvantaged, even with Spirits, against earlier versions of Dredge. The Chill version just hasn’t performed as well, and so my results say it’s a worse deck. This may be particular to me, but as I said I also can’t find evidence that Chilling Dredge is measurably better in the first place.

  2. I think the chill versions are almost a bit more glass-cannon in the sense that they are cutting actual dredgers to make room for the chills. So yes, when everything goes right, and you go t1, drop a dredger in your graveyard, t2 cathartic reunion and go nuts, it feels more powerful than previous versions. BUT, the fact that you’re cutting cards with the dredge keyword to fit in creeping chill means you’re trading power/speed for consistency, which can potentially be problematic.

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