At the Syracuse Open we saw Dredge take down its first big tournament in paper. For those of you who don’t play on Magic Online, this may be the first time seeing this iteration of the deck, but make no mistake – Dredge is very popular right now.
While it’s a little early to start calling for bannings – if anything Modern needs fewer bannings – it’s always a fun thought experiment to consider why new decks are performing well: is it degenerate, or just powerful? Understand I am not saying something from the deck needs banned at the current time, but level headed discussion about the direction of the format does no harm - I find it quite fun. Don’t get me wrong; I get that the deck can be answered, but I also understand people’s frustration.
A Brief History
Modern Dredge has been around for years, in multiple different flavors. We’ve seen Vengevine variants, Gravecrawler variants, slower Life from the Loam and Smallpox control variants, and others. None of them have reached the meta share that this Dredge variant currently has online (and looks like is slated to claim in paper):
What makes this version of Dredge so much better than its predecessors?
I think the answer is fairly straightforward. It’s not like Amulet Bloom, where all the cards were legal for years before someone brought them to mainstream success. Dredge got some new toys over the past year.
Golgari Grave-Troll, for one, was unbanned in January of last year but had little impact. Second, with the printing of Shadows over Innistrad, Dredge got another turn 1 enabler in Insolent Neonate and another payoff card in Prized Amalgam, both adding to the consistency, speed, and power of the deck.
With all that being said, what problems can the deck present in the near future of the Modern format and what are some reasons for its (hypothetical) banning?
Why should Dredge be banned?
“Just Sideboard For It”
“Dredge has always been a surprisingly resilient deck, much to the chagrin of its detractors, and the wide-open nature of Modern means that it's difficult to commit too many sideboard slots to a single deck. As such, I believe that Dredge will continue to reward those who put the work into learning and tuning it.” -Ross Merriam, SCG Syracuse Champion
“Just sideboard for it” is an argument I hear a lot of people lead on when anyone talks about the degeneracy of the deck. I’ve heard many people compare the deck to Affinity, so you’ll find me using that a lot in my arguments. I think the sideboarding argument is fundamentally flawed for two main reasons.
One, the deck is very fast and resilient. We saw Dredge beat a turn 3 Rest in Peace on the draw, a Leyline of the Void put into play before the game began, and put 11 power into play turn 2 while their opponent had played a land and a Birds of Paradise.
Two, sideboard hate doesn’t do much if they have an answer for it. I understand in every format, but Modern especially, sideboarding is important. With a deck like Dredge, for many decks, it’s only the sideboard that’s important. While beating a deck like Affinity comes down to having a good sideboard for it, Affinity at least attacks on an angle decks can more easily interact with game 1. You can’t say the same for Dredge.
Many of the sideboard games can devolve into a silly subgame of “I drew my X, did you draw your Nature’s Claim/Ancient Grudge/Lava Axe/Thoughtseize/other answer to my sideboard card?” While Affinity can do the same thing, you can at least tread water against Affinity with other removal while you dig for another sideboard card. Dredge, however, demands an immediate and high impact sideboard card. If you haven’t interacted by turn 2-3 either because they answered your sideboard card, or you didn’t draw it, you probably lose. Make no mistake, this deck is not “like Affinity.”
Sideboard Cards Don’t Make a Deck Acceptable
Another thing is that Wizards has shown in the past that being able to sideboard to beat a deck doesn’t matter. Almost every deck in the format could sideboard a Grafdigger’s Cage against Birthing Pod and that deck was still banned (you could still technically play Birthing Pod staring down a Cage, but it didn’t feel anywhere close to a real deck).
Almost every deck in the format could also sideboard a Torpor Orb against Splinter Twin and that card just destroyed that deck. You go from a tempo-combo-control deck to a deck that’s playing terrible creatures.
You could sideboard to beat Zoo decks but that didn’t stop Wizards from banning Wild Nacatl (although it was later unbanned).
I don’t think anyone wants to play a format that devolves into “if you can’t beat it, sideboard for it.” You can sideboard to beat just about anything, but you can’t sideboard to beat everything. I’m currently 6-1 against the deck with Jund, beating it twice to top 8 the MOCs. I’ve now moved to playing 3 Leyline of the Void. The problem is that if the solution to beating too many decks in the format becomes “just sideboard for it” then Modern turns into a format where games are decided before you sit down. Some games are already like that to a healthy degree, but let’s not poke the bear.
Punished for Playing a Fair Deck
A big problem with Dredge in my opinion, and unfair Modern decks overall, is the dynamic they put on the format. The current best plan against Dredge game 1 is “race it.” What’s the best way to race it? Do something just as unfair as what it’s doing. The problem is what it does to the face of the format. If Dredge ends up being the best deck with the best plan against it being to also play something unfair then you can end up pushing other fair decks out of the format.
It Doesn’t Win Before Turn 4
Yes and no. I think the big thing with Dredge is while it doesn’t “win” before turn 4 in the sense their opponent’s life total becomes 0 it does effectively win before turn 4 in a lot of matchups. We saw this multiple times on camera at Syracuse. I’ll explain.
Look at a deck like Bloom Titan. While many decks could interact with a turn 2 Primeval Titan, the deck gained too much of an advantage from its busted openers. The speed of the deck, mana advantage Summer Bloom provided, and the snowball effect of Titans fetching more Titans allowed it to effectively win turn 2 regardless of what state-based actions say. Even when they had a turn 2 Primeval Titan get killed, the Bloom Titan player had still all but won the game. They had access to 8+ mana the next turn and likely fetched Tolaria West to get another Primeval Titan if they suspected a removal spell.
Playing a deck that can’t race (and sometimes even decks that can) staring down 8+ power of resilient, easily recurrable threats on turn 2 means you effectively already lost the game. Sure, your life total hits 0 on turn 5 but you were dead the second your opponent flipped Bloodghast and double Amalgam on turn 2. Affinity can put just as much power, if not more, in the early turns, but if I kill those creatures my Affinity opponent is not going to get it all back just for hitting land drops.
As I said, we saw similar games play out on camera numerous times at the Open.
On top of all this, Dredge gets to do something that Wizards has made clear they don’t like in Modern (and Magic in general moving forward): cheat on mana.
In many games, the only spell the Dredge player ever casts is a Faithless Looting or Insolent Neonate. They dredge every draw step and bury their opponent in their virtual card advantage and free threats.
While early tournament results do not predicate a ban, there’s no shame in asking questions. It seems like the deck fundamentally breaks many of the rules of Modern. The question is, does it do so to a serious degree? While I reiterate that I do not think the deck needs anything banned at the current time, I think it may begin piquing the interest of Wizards if it continues to surge in popularity. The deck won the Syracuse Open, took down the Baltimore Classic, is exploding to over 10% of the meta online and is looking to start staking its claim in paper.
The true test will be the upcoming Grand Prix in Indianapolis; everybody has Dredge on their radar. If the deck is still able to put up consistent numbers at the Grand Prix then we may need to consider the topic more seriously.