Inner Workings: Dredge

In each installment of the Inner Workings series, we'll examine a different Modern archetype to find out what makes it tick. This time, it's the turn of the most successful combo deck in the current meta, a unique strategy that the DCI bans have tried to keep in check since the very beginning of the format.

Here's a fact that you might find quite strange to contemplate: Dredge has now been part of Magic: The Gathering for longer than it took for it to make its debut in 2005. This defining mechanic was introduced in Ravnica: City of Guilds as part of our initial meeting with the Golgari Swarm. Players have been exploiting it ever since in Vintage and Legacy, single-handedly forcing anti-graveyard tech into every single sideboard in order to counter its often inescapable explosiveness. The proliferation of Deathrite Shaman kept it at bay for a while in Legacy, but when the little Elf got banned last summer, it reopened the meta to Ichorid and Bridge from Below, as already detailed here on Cardmarket Insight.

Ichorid Bridge from Below Dread Return

Modern doesn't have natural access to the returning Horror (and we can be sure Modern Horizons won't change that), and the format began its run with Dread Return firmly banned, as no one wants massive threats reanimated with ease through a trio of Narcomoebas or Bloodghasts brought about by Dredge's self-milling. Similarly, no one wants the endgame engine that's also dumped along with the Dread Return fodder. That's the whole strategy in a nutshell - using the graveyard as an extension of your hand and make things happen out of nowhere without spending any mana. Dread-returning Iona, Shield of Emeria or Flame-Kin Zealot was never possible in Modern, but as far as the actual cards with the dredge keyword go, there were just too many of them to get rid of, so the basic plan remained viable. The most effective of these cards, Golgari Grave-Troll, saw a bit of a dance going on over the years, as it was banned right away, then unbanned in 2015, then got the axe again in 2017. In the last case, the accompanying statement posited that:

Dredge, the mechanic and the deck, has a negative impact on Modern by pushing the format too far toward a battle of sideboards. With the printing of Cathartic Reunion and Prized Amalgam, the deck once again became unhealthy for the format.

Golgari Grave-Troll

So, what happened in the format, seeing that two years later, smack in the middle of the Phoenix Spring, a Troll-less Dredge is once again exerting its negative impact on Modern from a tier 1 position? Well, let's have a look at a recent, very successful list and analyze the still-kicking archetype from there.

Dredge by Bradley Yoo, Top 4 at Grand Prix Los Angeles 2019

The Setup

Stinkweed Imp Golgari Thug Life from the Loam

We can see Cathartic Reunion and Prized Amalgam are indeed part of the tech for the deck, as the DCI feared. The absence of Golgari-Grave Troll and its dredge 6 is filled by the next best things, namely Stinkweed Imp at dredge 5 and Golgari Thug at dredge 4. Life from the Loam is only dredge 3 but it's a crucial way to hit the land drops, since Modern Dredge can't really take the basically (or literally) manaless route we occasionally see in Vintage and Legacy (no Bazaar of Baghdad or Lion's Eye Diamond around here!).

Faithless Looting Cathartic Reunion

Filling the graveyard is not the prerogative of dredge cards, though. The Nalaar family reunion came only as a backup Faithless Looting, as it's the second best option in the well-populated field of the red looting/rummaging spells, which aim to find us the cards we want to cast/play while dumping the cards we really just want in the graveyard, including the dredge cards in our opening hand. The synergy between the red rummagers and the dredgers also means you can dredge off the draws ensuing from the rummage (or from the second looting), accelerating into the gameplan at considerable speed.

Conflagrate Darkblast Shriekhorn

Conflagrate and Darkblast are the only main deck interaction, adding some degree of removal to the self-milling routine; the former works from the graveyard and targets the hand; the latter is bona fide dredger, which makes it repeatable removal, although limited in its scope (however, being an instant, Darkblast can be cast then dredged then cast again as many times as you draw cards in the turn, so it's actually more versatile than it might seem).

Shriekhorn is clearly the worst card in the pile (the one that really marks the difference between Modern and its Eternal big brothers), but it's necessary to pad the list with a surefire cheap way to start the dredge party on turn one when Faithless Looting is not around.

The Payoff

Bloodghast Narcomoeba Prized Amalgam

The second stage of any dredge plan is having all that self-milling amount to something, specifically the appearance of threats that come off the graveyard as a side-effect of the milling itself. In this case we have the classic dredge companion Narcomoeba, the landfall-triggered Bloodghast (another reason why Life from the Loam is key), and the more recent addition, Prized Amalgam, which is enabled by the first two, thus creating a nice chain of automatic creature drops.

Creeping Chill

What really brought renewed attention to this archetype, though, was the printing of Creeping Chill in Guilds of Ravnica. This is basically a Drain Life for three that materializes spontaneously as the byproduct of a Dredge deck that just goes about its business, generating a free six-life swing out of nowhere. When hit multiple times across a small number of turns, it's often enough to seal the deal; and at the very least, it makes easier for your creatures to reach lethal.

The Mana Base

Copperline Gorge Mana Confluence Dakmor Salvage

The deck works on Jund-colored mana, with an emphasis on red due to the looters requiring players to actually cast them (the nerve!) and especially Conflagrate asking for double red. Green is only for Life from the Loam and the sideboard cards. And Dakmor Salvage is, of course, another dredge source.

The Sideboard

Lightning Axe Assassin's Trophy Leyline of the Void

Nature's Claim and Ancient Grudge are there to fight the artifact-based archetypes, the latter fitting the deck's plan particularly well because of flashback. Lightning Axe mixes an improved removal capability with more self-discard. Assassin's Trophy and Engineered Explosives are just all-purpose removal options.

And of course Leyline of the Void is for the mirror (as well as against other degenerate graveyard strategies), since, unlike Rest in Peace, it targets only the opponent.

In conclusion, Modern Dredge is enjoying a new era of success these days; at the time of writing, it's the third most winning deck in the meta after Izzet Phoenix and RDW, and the best combo deck well ahead of Valakut and Amulet Titan. This said, Dredge is typically very meta-sensitive; any new graveyard hate that would see wide maindeck play like Deathrite Shaman did is bound to cause trouble for the archetype, which is easy to hate in game two already. In the current form, it doesn't really feel like a long term menace to the meta that could elicit a response from DCI. It's worth noting, though, how it has sort of spun off some "cousin" lists, like Bridgevine, that don't actually use dredge cards and are more about discarding for value, including several ways to trigger Bridge from Below, which is notably absent from proper Modern Dredge lists like the one we just examined. It remains to see where all this dredging will go from here; at any rate, better to keep an eye on those graves, who knows what's going to emerge from them.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.

Inner Workings Archive

  1. KCI
  2. Creatures Toolbox
  3. Bogles
  4. Ad Nauseam
  5. Bloomless Titan
  6. Saheeli Evolution
  7. Hardened Modular
  8. Spirit Aggro
  9. Izzet Phoenix


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jolssoni(2019-03-28 21:24)

You're wrong. You can keep hands with nothing but land(s) and Faithless Looting, same doesn't apply to Cathartic Reunion. Looting can be flashbacked, often leading to (effective) turn 3 kills, cannot be discarded or countered turn 1 when you're on the play and just overall makes the deck run smooth like nothing else. Reunion has better goldfish potential, but Looting is the best card in the deck and that's not even close.

Eidos(2019-03-27 16:24)

"The Nalaar family reunion came only as a backup Faithless Looting, as it's the second best option". I strongly disagree. Cathartic is the real deal when it comes to dredging. If you would give the option between 4 FL and 4 CR, and 8 CR, Looting would be likely left aside, or split into 2 copies versus 6 of CR at most.