After focusing on Standard a lot lately, I am shifting gears a bit to revisit Modern as Grand Prix Dallas approaches this weekend. While there have not been too many major Modern events since the release of Kaladesh, there have been enough for it to be clear which Kaladesh cards have a significant impact on the format.
The first card which immediately jumps to mind is Cathartic Reunion. Dredge has been a major player in Modern for a little while now, but it seems like Wizards just continuously prints cards that make the deck better. Cathartic Reunion may have finally taken the deck over the hump and pushed it from being good, to great. On the other hand, Dredge still has a lot of the vulnerabilities it has always had, and that is to graveyard hate. Similar to how Affinity is a worse choice the more Stony Silence are being played, Dredge is a worse choice the more Grafdigger's Cage and Rest in Peace are in players' sideboards. I would argue that almost every deck in the format wants to play graveyard hate in the sideboard to accommodate for the menace that is the Dredge deck. Here is the semifinals list of Kent Ketter from the Open in Milwaukee.
When Golgari Grave-Troll was taken off the banned cards list I was fine with it; after all Dredge was still not good enough to be played then. When Insolent Neonate and Prized Amalgam got printed Dredge felt like it was good enough to be a top tier deck. Then Collective Brutality came along, and finally Cathartic Reunion. The deck has upgraded cards that were strictly less efficient like Tormenting Voice, and replaced them with cards that are straight up better.
Enter Cathartic Reunion. A lot of Dredge lists already played Tormenting Voice, and Cathartic Reunion is better on so many levels. The discard two is almost a bonus because of how many cards in the deck want to be in the graveyard. Then the draw three means you can dredge one more Stinkweed Imp or Golgari Grave-Troll off the effect.
In its current incarnation Dredge takes over the game very quickly, and yet it can grind out wins too. How is that remotely fair? If Dredge is playing against any midrange or control deck Game 1 is more or less an auto-win for Dredge. Prized Amalgam and Bloodghast, as it turns out, are surprisingly difficult to answer effectively. The exception here are the black-green strategies with access to Scavenging Ooze. Scavenging Ooze is the type of main deck graveyard hate that is very important in order to combat this deck. Most of the time though, Dredge is going to have strong Game 1 matchups across the board, and then sideboarded games will depend on whether a graveyard hate card sticks in play.
Do these sound like fun games of Magic? I say they really aren't. Most of the time Dredge will either win by a mile or never get off the ground because of a hate card, there isn't much in between. This weekend I still haven't made the choice of whether I will join the Dredge herd or not. If I don't play Dredge at the Grand Prix in Dallas, then I will be choosing to play a fast deck. Dredge is capable of winning on turn three. In order to have a good matchup against Dredge it is necessary to match it with speed. At the Open in Milwaukee, Burn and Dredge were the two most-played decks on Day Two of the event, yet in general Dredge ended up winning more on Sunday.
When comparing Dredge and Burn, we see two decks that can win quickly and do so in different ways. When playing against each other, this is a matchup which is die roll dependent, and Game 1 is largely a push. You might think, then, that shouldn't Burn have the better end of the matchup since most decks only get better against Dredge during sideboarded games? Wrong. The mistake Burn players make is that because they are a fast deck they think that sideboard hate isn't necessary against Dredge, which couldn't be further from the truth. Burn players need to show up with graveyard hate. Not only do Burn players not bring in much in the matchup, but Dredge players have access to the potent Gnaw to the Bone.
Gnaw to the Bone is an amazing card for the Dredge player to have access to, and getting off a clean flashback of this card — where the opponent isn't able to respond with Atarka's Command — stops the Burn player from having any shot to win. Dredge is able to board in two copies of Gnaw to the Bone, yet because of how quickly the Dredge player goes through their deck it is that much more likely they will find a Gnaw to the Bone at some point. This is the perfect sideboard card against decks which will attempt to race Dredge. This leaves only a couple decks which are capable of having a good Dredge matchup without adding a million graveyard hate cards to the sideboard. Infect is a deck that isn't affected by a card like Gnaw to the Bone, and kills on turn three a reasonable amount of the time. The list I recommend is that of the Infect king himself, Tom Ross.
Dredge wasn't the only deck that gained cards from Kaladesh. We see Tom sporting a full playset of Blossoming Defense here. Blossoming Defense can be played alongside Vines of Vastwood as ways of giving your creature hexproof and doubling as a pump effect. It is difficult to say which is better between Vines of Vastwood and Blossoming Defense, so it is nice to not need to make that decision and just play four of each. In order to make room for Blossoming Defense something had to get cut, so we are no longer seeing Apostle's Blessing. Apostle's Blessing could be used to protect a creature or help get a creature past opposing blockers. Now with two copies of Rancor to help Infect creatures deal damage through blockers alongside Blossoming Defense, Apostle's Blessing really isn't necessary.
We see that even though Infect is a turn three kill that isn't enough, and it is important to have graveyard hate after sideboard, even for a deck like Infect. Tom has gone for three copies of Grafdigger's Cage, which are new to the Infect decks' sideboard, but necessary in this metagame. Smart sideboard decisions are key in Modern, to help anticipate which decks you want to gun for. With so many decks in the format preparing for everything just isn't realistic. Tom cut Kitchen Finks from the sideboard, which was certainly a bold choice but one that seemed to pay off. Infect is a deck which clearly still has legs in this Dredge-driven metagame.
Fast aggressive decks are the name of the game. Last week I talked about the Blue-Red Prowess deck and I still think that is a solid choice. Along those same lines we have Death's Shadow Aggro. This deck definitely wins on turn three, and it can also deal so much damage that even a card like Gnaw to the Bone may not be enough to stop it. Here is an undefeated list from a Magic Online league, in the hands of Lowkey Lyesmith.
This deck is just about as explosive as decks come these days. In exchange for coming out of the gates quickly there is a drawback, and that is a lot of the cards cause life loss. However, it is possible to turn that around and make the loss a good thing once Death's Shadow enters the equation. The power of Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage is very real, as these are the cards that really help close the game out. A lot of the other cards are cheap cantrips which easily go to the graveyard, which helps importantly fuel Become Immense.
Decks like Infect and Death's Shadow Aggro do have a vulnerability to spot removal, as one spot removal spell can potentially ruin the entire game plan. These decks can try to play around the removal, but a deck like Jund also has discard and big creatures to back it up. Theoretically Jund should be on the decline, and if that is the case then these super aggressive decks do make a ton of sense. We see once again that even a super aggressive deck like Death's Shadow is playing Grafdigger's Cage. While it is true that Grafdigger's Cage is good against decks like Abzan Company and Goryo's Vengeance, it is still there primarily for Dredge.
When aggressive decks come up against each other it often comes down to goldfishing, which means that being even a half a turn faster than the opponent is important. The aggressive decks often have some interaction like the two Lightning Bolt in this list, but that is only going to be good enough to slow the opponent down a little bit. Right now in Modern Plan A is have the ability to kill your opponent as quickly as possible, and then Plan B is have a way of grinding the game out against decks like Jund. The best decks in the format have two plans which they are capable of using based on a given matchup and situation.
The last deck I want to mention is a deck that has been slowly falling off the radar, yet it will always be a Modern classic. I am talking about Affinity. Affinity isn't the fastest deck, as a lot of the time it does kill on turn four rather than turn three, but it is still quite consistent. As players are gearing their sideboards in different directions such as adding more graveyard hate, Affinity can been forgotten. This is still a major deck in Modern and shouldn't be counted out. Here is the list of Toastmachine.
This is another one of those decks which naturally has a solid Dredge matchup, and it just does its thing without worrying about Dredge. There are a lot of singletons in the sideboard which helps indicate that the deck is not going to need to change its primary gameplan much after board, and merely change a few cards here or there. The issue with such a versatile sideboard is that rather than focusing on a couple matchups which may be popular, it is instead trying to tackle the entire format. Affinity is a deck that doesn't leave much room for innovation. There is a choice to be made at the three-drop slot, and we see a split here between Master of Etherium and Etched Champion.
Looking towards Grand Prix Dallas, I expect decks capable of winning quickly — like the ones mentioned here — to rise to the top. Modern is not a format where you can afford to play big expensive cards right now, so I'm leaving my Sphinx's Revelations at home. When a good portion of the field is Dredge, the last thing I want to do is play a control deck.
Thanks for reading,