Dredge is back, baby.
I know that's a bold claim to make, and let's be clear up front: I'm not saying that Dredge is coming back to dominate Modern. But what has been, for most of its existence, the most-feared deck to spot across the table, is coming back to Modern.
In order to understand how this version of the deck operates in Modern, we have to understand its roots.
Let's start at the beginning. Upon its printing in Ravnica, dredge has been a problematic mechanic. While the flavor and mechanical gameplay of it — the number of cards in your library are now a resource! — are fun and clever designs, in reality the mechanic is extremely imbalanced. I wouldn't say it's storm-level broken, but Dredge has been and still is a powerhouse in both Legacy and Vintage.
Using dredgers to fill the graveyard, the deck does all kinds of crazy things, thanks in particular to Bridge from Below. The goal was to spill Bridges, Bloodghasts, Dread Returns and Narcomoebas into the graveyard. The creatures then come back from the graveyard, fueling the ability to flashback Dread Return to make a bunch of Zombie Tokens from the Bridges, while getting back Flame-Kin Zealot to swing in with a ton of pumped-up zombies or Reanimate something like Iona, Shield of Emeria to lock out opponents.
The deck was extremely good, and it's no surprise that Dread Return and Golgari Grave-Troll ended up on the original Modern banlist. When it's working right, Dredge is an uninteractive deck that doesn't even have to use the stack to win (see: Legacy Manaless Dredge).
As it turned out, Modern is a different place than Extended was, and with those two cards banned, Dredge was a non-factor in Modern outside of the occasional "Dredgevine" lists utilizing Vengevine. These weren't particularly competitive, and so Wizards felt comfortable taking Golgari Grave-Troll off the banlist, after which there was still little to no Dredge presence.
Enter Shadows over Innistrad.
Dredge got some key cards from the set, and in fact they are the two that make the current iteration possible. Insolent Neonate is the ideal first-turn creature, functioning as a discard outlet and draw outlet all in one. And, crucially, because the card makes you discard first, you can replace the draw trigger with the dredger you just discarded. Later on, it will even give you a Bridge from Below trigger if you've milled one previously. Combined with Faithless Looting there are now plenty of early discard outlets for the deck to function smoothly.
Of course, there still needs to be a payoff for that, and that's where the next piece of the Shadows Over Innistrad puzzle comes in: Prized Amalgam. Looked at originally as a flavorful zombie design, Prized Amalgam plays a key role in new Dredge, and allows for some of the more broken starts.
Here's the list we battled with this week, supplied by rogue deck aficionado and Grand Prix Oklahoma City champion Zac Elsik, also known as the man you can blame for Lantern Control.
I understand that to people not familiar with Dredge it can be intimidating to look at the list and make sense of it all. I remember that on my first time playing Legacy dredge years ago, I did not know what I was supposed to do to make my deck work.
It's easier if you break it down into the main roles the deck needs filled. There are the dredgers (Golgari Thug, Stinkweed Imp and Golgari Grave-Troll), the discard outlets (Insolent Neonate and Faithless Looting) and then the "payoff" cards (Bridge from Below, Bloodghast and Narcomoeba, which both trigger Prized Amalgam). Gitaxian Probe and Street Wraith are "free" ways to draw a card and get a dredge trigger, meaning you can play a Looting or Neonate on the first turn, immediately discard dredge cards and then "draw a card" for two life, starting the dredging off immediately.
The final role is that of Greater Gargadon, which is a poor man's way of imitating Dread Return. While it is nowhere near as powerful as Dread Return, it does still function as a sacrifice outlet for your Bloodghasts and Prized Amalgams to flood the board with Bridge from Below zombies.
With both increased consistency ( Insolent Neonate) and increased payoff ( Prized Amalgam) from Shadows Over Innistrad, Dredge is now poised to be a solid contender at Friday Night Magic, even if I don't see it winning a Grand Prix anytime soon. The pros of the deck are pretty exciting; who doesn't like to have 10+ power in play on turn two? But the cons — a painful mana base, awkward draws and an obvious weakness to graveyard hate — mean that I don't see Dredge returning to the relative power level it enjoyed back in Extended.
As you can see from the videos, there are also some problems inherent to the deck, and players have been brewing like crazy to try and figure out the best build. From Lotleth Troll and Gravecrawler versions to Stitchwing Skaab and Unburial Rites to Rotting Rats and Vengevine, there is no consensus what the best build of the deck is right now. Even the mana base is in question, with some players opting for the mana base we played with and others going fetch/shockland and still others playing Scars of Mirrodin fast lands instead.
Time will tell what is the best course forward, but after playing a lot with the list we used for the videos, here's what my current list looks like going forward.
As you can see, it's relatively minor changes (-2 Golgari Thug, -1 Greater Gargadon, +2 Life from the Loam, +1 Stitchwing Skaab), but in a deck that gets to play out of its graveyard as much as its hand, they make a big difference. You'll notice in the videos how difficult it was to get to three lands in play, which is where you want to be so you can flashback Faithless Looting and you rarely draw lands from your deck because you're dredging instead. Adding Life from the Loam means that along with Dakmor Salvage you can actually plan on hitting land drops later in the game. It also makes Unburial Rites + Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite or Iona, Shield of Emeria viable.
While it's slightly less "pure" dredging power, the added consistency is worth it, plus making room for the Stitchwing Skaab means we have another way to get our best dredgers back into the graveyard, while also providing a ninth creature we can use to trigger Prized Amalgam.
The rest of the sideboard changes reflect those changes, and I'll usually board out the Gitaxian Probes or Street Wraiths (Street Wraith first unless you're bringing in Gnaw to the Bone) to make room. Obviously you can expect some amount of graveyard hate in post-board games, but Pithing Needle and Nature's Claim mean you have outs even if they find their hate card, which they'll need in the first few turns to make an impact.
One final note, and something I think is pretty exciting to many players: this is a fairly inexpensive Modern deck. My list clocks in under $300 in paper and under $200 online, which is much more affordable than many decks similarly positioned in Modern. If the deck puts up some results in the months moving forward, I don't know how long those prices will last.
But I do know that until then I'll be dredging.
Until next week, may your dredges always hit Narcomoebas and Prized Amalgams.
Thanks for reading,
@Chosler88 on Twitter/Twitch