Fact not Fiction – Dredging in Modern, by Michael Maxwell

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Fact not Fiction – Dredging in Modern by Michael Maxwell

Modern has taken a bit of a back seat to Standard over the last few months with PTQs and WMCQs seasons in full swing, but has come back into focus recently as both the constructed format of choice for the Players Championship and the next Pro Tour.

It is easy to forget that Modern is only a year old. There are so many decks and interactions that haven’t been properly explored, with a fairly predictable metagame having become established in a very short time. Here in Preston we have a Modern tournament every month, getting up to 20 or so people, and Liverpool and Manchester have recently started hosting regular events too. This has given me plenty of opportunity to try out a few decks that I think could have some merit to them.

One thing I’d noticed in both our local metagame and from results at larger tournaments was that graveyard-centric decks had largely disappeared. Storm, Living End and Assault-Loam were basically non-existent, and while other decks such as Melira and anything using Snapcaster Mage were still around, reasons to have significant graveyard hate were few and far between. Yes, people have the odd Nihil Spellbomb or Grafdigger’s Cage, but you certainly weren’t seeing Leyline of the Void, Ravenous Trap, or anything of that sort.

 

So, how can we abuse the graveyard?

Gerry Thompson was championing a reanimator strategy for a while, but I wanted to go a different route – a combo deck, even one attacking from a slightly different angle, wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I’ve always loved the card Vengevine, so my first thought was to try this:

4 Birds of Paradise
4 Hedron Crab
4 Gravecrawler
4 Rotting Rats
4 Vengevine
4 Stinkweed Imp
2 Skaab Ruinator
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
1 Griselbrand
(28)
4 Faithless Looting
2 Life from the Loam
2 Darkblast
2 Unburial Rites
(10)
4 Scalding Tarn
3 Misty Rainforest
3 Verdant Catacombs
2 Forest
1 Island
1 Swamp
1 Watery Grave
1 Breeding Pool
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Steam Vents
1 Stomping Ground
1 Temple Garden
1 Blood Crypt
1 Overgrown Tomb
(22)

The Dredgevine archetype got a massive shot in the arm with the printing of Gravecrawler and Faithless Looting earlier this year. I was impressed in testing by this deck, it has a lot of lines of attack. At heart this is an aggro deck which typically wins through recursive Vengevine and Gravecrawler beats, but a reanimated fatty can end the game in short order, and Skaab Ruinator is a real pain for some decks to deal with. A few games against some of the top decks showed promise, but before I got much further I decided to see how far I could push the Dredge aspect.

 

What if we try to REALLY Dredge?

4 Bridge from Below
(4)
4 Narcomoeba
4 Golgari Thug
4 Stinkweed Imp
4 Gravecrawler
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
1 Iona, Shield of Emeria
4 Greater Gargadon
4 Drowned Rusalka
(26)
2 Darkblast
2 Life from the Loam
2 Wild Guess
2 Unburial Rites
(8)

22 lands (same as above, or could try City of Brass/Gemstone Mine)

This deck should really have been playing Hedron Crab too, and although there were problems the deck could do some very powerful things. Losing Golgari Grave-Troll didn’t actually hurt that much, and I knew there would be nothing that could replace Lion’s Eye Diamond, but the real loss for a deck like this is Dread Return. Not being able to Dredge into a free sacrifice outlet was the real thing holding this deck back.

If you have a Rusalka, or even better a Gargadon in your opening hand then you can set up loops where every mana makes you a zombie for each Bridge in your ‘yard: just sac any creature to the Gargadon, get a zombie token, cast your Dredged Gravecrawlers, sac them to make more zombies, recast them, repeat, and make an army. If you don’t start with a sac outlet though then you have to Dredge into one, then get a thug into the ‘yard to put the sac outlet on top of your deck, which you then have to draw naturally, which is a pretty slow process.

At its best this deck did feel powerful, but the consistency issues and the ease with which many decks could remove your Bridges made be go back to Dredgevine.

Although I’d tested the Dredgevine list a bit, I never quite managed to convince myself to play it in a tournament, at least until last weekend. Fanboy3 was hosting a GPT for Lyon, and since I can’t make it and therefore wasn’t overly bothered if I won, I figured it was good a chance as any to take the deck for a spin. Also, at the last few tournaments the metagame had largely consisted of midrange and aggro-control decks ,which I expected to have a hard time dealing with an endless stream of 2/1s and 4/3s. Combined with the lack of graveyard hate in most sideboards I was quietly confident, provided I didn’t face any deck designed to combo me out by turn 4 since there are few ways to interact with combo decks in the 75. 

Here’s the Dredgevine list again, with sideboard:

4 Birds of Paradise
4 Hedron Crab
4 Gravecrawler
4 Rotting Rats
4 Vengevine
4 Stinkweed Imp
2 Skaab Ruinator
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
1 Griselbrand
(28)
4 Faithless Looting
2 Life from the Loam
2 Darkblast
2 Unburial Rites
(10)
4 Scalding Tarn
3 Misty Rainforest
3 Verdant Catacombs
2 Forest
1 Island
1 Swamp
1 Watery Grave
1 Breeding Pool
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Steam Vents
1 Stomping Ground
1 Temple Garden
1 Blood Crypt
1 Overgrown Tomb
(22)

SIDEBOARD

4 Tidehollow Sculler
3 Ancient Grudge
2 Gnaw to the Bone
1 Darkblast
1 Damnation
2 Phantasmal Image
2 Raven’s Crime

I don’t usually do card-by-card explanations, but if you haven’t played a deck like this before then a lot of the choices and interactions aren’t obvious so lets go through why each card is there.

 Birds of Paradise: The mana in this deck is something you really have to keep an eye on. You need all 5 colours, potentially including double blue, double black, and double green, so the birds really pull their weight. They’re also another 1-cost creature which makes returning Vengevine easier. Having 3 mana on turn 2 can also lead to some pretty filthy starts.

Hedron Crab: The chief enabler. With 10 fetches in the deck you can mill a lot of your deck very quickly. One thing to be aware of is that all your shocks are 1-ofs, and you might mill the one you want to get when you lay a fetch, so it’s usually best to respond to the initial mill trigger by fetching the land you want and then letting both triggers resolve.

Gravecrawler: Having more creatures beside Vengevine that you can cast from your graveyard has really helped this archetype. Not only is it another recursive threat, but since you are actually casting it multiple Gravecrawlers is an easy way to trigger your Vengevines any time you need to.

Rotting Rats: Perhaps the card that raises the most eyebrows when people see it, but this card performs a lot of important roles. It is a discard outlet for you and makes them discard too, it becomes a mind rot once you unearth it, it’s another creature that does something when you Dredge it, and, crucially it is a zombie which makes casting your Gravecrawlers a lot easier. I’ve seen lists with Magus of the Bazaar instead, which is a more powerful card if you have it in your opener and you get to untap with it, but the rats add a level of consistency that I think the deck needs. I’ll be testing Lotleth Troll in this position once Return to Ravnica is released.

Vengevine: The card that makes the deck work. Getting multiple hasty 4/3s into play each turn for free is just so unfair. I’ve gotten several turn 3 kills by flipping multiples with an early Hedron Crab. With a couple of these and some Gravecrawlers you can grind out just about any opponent.

Skaab Ruinator: Another card that I was sceptical about, and boy was I wrong. This guy is a 5/6 flier for three mana! Jund and other non-white decks have absolute fits removing this guy, as you usually have enough fodder to cast him 2 or 3 times quite easily. Any Dredged birds or crabs are happy to get eaten, and removing a rats, another ruinator or even occasionally a Gravecralwer is fine. The fact that you are casting him again makes triggering Vengevines easier, and it’s a zombie to let you cast all those Gravecrawlers.

Stinkweed Imp: Mostly there for the words ‘Dredge 5’, but has its uses too, most of which involve sitting infront of Tarmogoyfs and laughing.

Unburial Rites, Griselbrand and Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite: A powerful plan B, reanimating either of these guys often ends the game on the spot. Some decks are almost cold to an Elesh Norn, and Griselbrand basically lets you draw your whole deck as well as being a 7/7 lifelinker. Sometimes you just rites back a ruinator or Vengevine to have another guy too.

Faithless Looting: A great discard outlet and another spell you can cast from your graveyard, looting does it all. It says something about the power level of the deck that I don’t think I flashed this back all tournament because there were always so many things to do.

Life from the Loam: largely there because you need more cards that Dredge, but had obvious applications with Hedron Crab. Combined with the fact that it helps you get to 5 mana, which you want to get to eventually, and it helps out if you get some awkward Dredges and mill all of a certain colour land I much prefer this over Golgari Thug.

Darkblast: Another Dredger and just a great card in the format. Wrecks affinity and pod decks, kills snapcasters, delvers, and cliques, and usually lets Vengevine trade with a Tarmogoyf which comes up a lot of the time.

 

The Mana

The manabase if very tight, about the only thing you could change is adding another fetch for the second basic forest. You take a lot of damage from your lands but since you’re usually the beatdown it doesn’t matter too much.

 

The Sideboard

As for the sideboard, one of the best things about this deck is that you can play great sideboard cards since you have access to all five colours.

 Ancient Grudge: I should have played 4 of these. Obviously good against affinity, but you really need to draw one to beat a Grafdigger’s Cage too. You should basically always bring a couple of these in as most people will likely have some sort of artifact based hate, and if they don’t then just discard them.

 Tidehollow Sculler: You need some ways to disrupt the combo decks. Some lists had Thalia instead but I wanted to try the sculler since it’s a zombie to help with Gravecrawlers, but I never needed these so I didn’t get to find out if it’s any good.

Raven’s Crime: your other tool against the combo decks, can rip hands apart in tandem with Life from the Loam.

 Gnaw to the Bone: some tech I stole from Living End decks, finding one of these will usually buy you enough time to overwhelm the aggro decks.

 Darkblast and Damnation: more removal for aggro, the Damnation was an experiment which I didn’t really get to try properly, but in theory you don’t really care if all your guys die so it seemed sweet, and no-one was ever going to play around it.

 Phantasmal Image: Mostly there as insurance against Geist of St Traft but I’m not sure they’re necessary, they could become the fourth grudge and a third Raven’s Crime.

 

The Tournament Report

So, how did the tournament go? Well, I went undefeated, losing only 1 game before scooping in the final since my opponent was planning to go to Lyon. Of the 18 people there 4 were on Affinity, 4 on Jund, and most of the rest was U/W and delver, so my metagame prediction was pretty good. In 6 sideboard games I played against 2 Nihil Spellbombs and 2 Grafdigger’s Cages, less than 1 piece of hate per game, so all was well on that front too. Getting those 2 predictions right is crucial – if the metagame is all Storm and Splinter Twin, or everyone has 5-6 pieces of graveyard hate, then you should probably leave the deck at home.

 5 of us headed down from Preston, and in Round 1 I was paired against my mate Steve who was on U/G poison, a spin on the deck he took to the top 4 of the PTQ in Milton Keynes a few weeks earlier. Turns out the modern version was less about insane speed and more about protecting one threat, which made things much easier for me. Game 1 I had the Hedron Crab into reanimate 2 Vengevines on turn 3 draw, leading to a turn 4 kill. Not a bad start.

Game 2 Steve mulliganed a bunch and I killed him fairly leisurely as he struggled to find a threat.

Round 2 I face Jack Mitchell-Burns, a good player from Liverpool who I seem to have played almost every tournament in the last few months. Last time his U/W build got the better of my U/W/R delver deck, this time he was on Jund. A turn 1 Hedron Crab brought a curious look, but as soon as I targeted myself with the ability the jig was up. The usual pile of Goyfs and Bobs emerged on the Jund side of the board, but my side was soon clogged with Gravecrawlers and Vengevines. A Skaab Ruinator made short work of his life total.

Game 2 Jack had Treetop Village into spellbomb into no second land. My draw was pretty slow, probably my slowest all tournament, but Jack bricked for a few turns on land so by the time he hit his second I was far enough ahead to finish him off. Beating Jund, particularly the way game 1 went, gave me some confidence that this deck could actually beat the decks that I thought it would.

Round 3 I played George, another Preston player, who was also on Jund. As in most matches I start by taking a whole load of damage in the early turns from my lands, but this deck gums up the field so quickly that it makes it hard for them to get through. Griselbrand proved too much for him to deal with and game 1 was in the bag.

Game 2 he starts with Cage into Spellbomb. I have a couple of Gravecrawlers, but cant find an Ancient Grudge and I get quickly overwhelmed. Game 3 he mulligans to 5 looking for some hate, which he finds in the form of a cage, however his mulligans mean he has a slow start which gives me time to find a grudge and the game ends soon afterwards.

Rounds 4 and 5 are I.D.s, which I regret both because I didn’t realise the swiss standings were used to determine seedings in the top 8 (though I ended up first anyway) and because I was having so much fun! This deck gives you so many options, and seeing your opponents face as you just cast your creatures again and again is priceless. Getting Thoughtseized with a hand of Vengevine, Gravecrawler, and Stinkweed Imp feels pretty good too.

In the quarters I played against Jack again, and it went the same way. My side of the board gets gummed up with Stinkweed Imps and various chump blockers, and he has no good answers to my recurring threats.

Game 2 a couple of Tarmogoyfs came close to racing me, but reanimating Griselbrand twice is tough for any deck to stop.

The semi-finals pitted me against Affinity, which I was worried might end up being too quick for me. Game 1 he got me down to 6 pretty quickly, but once again it was Griselbrand to the rescue. His team came in, I blocked his guy with Cranial Plating on, and fortunately he had no way to kill his own guy. Even though I lost my demon, the 7 life bought me enough time to overwhelm him with Vengevines.

Game 2 was an utter blowout, as I started with turn 1 bird, turn 2 Ancient Grudge and flashback to kill his 2 creatures and make him sac Glimmervoid. Turn 3 was Hedron Crab, land, mill 2 Vengevines, play Gravecrawler, attack for 8, concession.

I conceded the finals since my opponent was planning to go to Lyon, but I ended up with a box of FtV Realms, which wasn’t too shabby considering I was playing the deck just for fun. Beating Jund 3 times seemed to confirm my thinking that the midrange decks that are so popular right now would struggle to deal with the threats I was presenting.

 

Final Thoughts

If there’s a Modern event in your area soon, and you want to beat up on the metagame whilst having enormous fun (really, this deck is SO much fun), then I definitely recommend Dredgevine. If anyone has any questions about the deck, or any thoughts on how to make the Bridge from Below/Narcomoeba deck better, then let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for sharing.

Michael Maxwell

Fact not Fiction – Dredging in Modern, by Michael Maxwell
Modern has taken a bit of a back seat to Standard over the last few months with PTQs and WMCQs seasons in full swing, but has come back into focus recently as both the constructed format of choice for the Players Championship and the next Pro Tour.

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