Preamble: In a span of 2 months, I went from going to SCG Vegas, losing a member and being dead to go to Vegas, to scrambling to find a third, to teaming with a guy I would not meet until 10 minutes before round 1 of SCG Vegas, to winning the whole thing. Funny how things work out sometimes, eh?
As a lot of these winning teams’ backstories tend to start, ours ended up forming as a result of a last minute scramble. Of course, when your teammates are one of the best local players period in Vancouver and one of the best Legacy grinders online (not to mention the eventual Eternal Weekend Legacy finalist), that helps. I was tasked with “solving” Modern, and given my previous results it would be as easy as running back Grishoalbrand, right?
Thoughts on Modern: As astute readers know by now, I did not play the tried and true Grishoalbrand. How did end up not playing my bread and butter, but another graveyard deck?
Given that I have a Modern RPTQ and GP Portland in December, this was a great chance for me to find out what’s what in the Modern tier ½ landscape. With a ManaTraders subscription in hand, I played ~200 matches in a few weeks to get a good feel of the top tier decks that intrigued me and see what the story is. Unfortunately, my findings affirmed my previous thoughts about Modern; everything is mediocre and rock-paper-scissorsy in Modern, so unless you can bring a machine gun to this game of R-P-S (ala Eye of Ugin Eldrazi, Summer Bloom Amulet), you just need to play an objectively powerful, linear strategy and hope to play the matchup bingo game well.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t learn anything through exploring Modern though, so I’d like to share some quick thoughts that people will hopefully find helpful ahead of the RPTQ/GP Portland/GP Liverpool season:
Humans: What I’d call the 3-2 deck. The deck is powerful, proactive and has the tools to win even the worst matchups with the right draws. It’s super solid, but I didn’t find it exceptional. Combo is not running rampant and I found that I had to fight hard for most of my wins.
Of note, I tried Tajic with the logic being it plays well vs. Dredge (Conflagrate) and the response to Dredge (Anger of the Gods) but in practice it didn’t come up enough for me. Anafenza was strong but usually slow for the relevant matchups. I’d probably just jam the Heretic Cathar/Bugler and call it a day. Verdict: Solid but unspectacular.
Various Arclight Phoenix Decks: The first iteration, the mono-red semi-burn deck, was too one-dimensional, cold to graveyard hate and couldn’t ever beat Dredge or the card Tarmogoyf. Hands with and without Faithless Looting/Manamorphose were night and day and I didn’t want to be too reliant on a few particular cards. The Hollow One + Arclight versions are powerful but maddeningly inconsistent (though it did win the Nov. 24 Modern Challenge). The Izzet decks with Thing in the Ice was a bit more promising, as I believe Thing is very well positioned right now. However, it’s still pretty slow by Modern’s standards, and it’s fair to wonder if interactive pieces like Izzet Charm and Fiery Tempers are enough to make up for the lack of speed. I was intrigued by Ross Merriam’s Grixis version with Crackling Drakes to decrease your reliance on the graveyard, but I would probably splash Unmoored Ego rather than Brutality, as splashing a third color for Brutality for Burn seems a bit off to me. Verdict: The Thing/Arclight shell has some potential and needs to be iterated on. The current Arclight iterations are not good enough.
Valakut Variants: The siren’s call for me in Modern. It always looks great on paper in some metagames, as it did here (maindeck Anger/Bolt/Relics for the top tier decks, reasonable clock), but it never does well for me in practice when I try it. I think there are metagames when the black splash for Slaughter Games or white for RIP/Stony/Timely/Ghostly Prison is right (in fact, the white splash impressed me the most). As it was, I just wasn’t up for durdling around and drawing the wrong interaction pieces or never drawing my bombs. Verdict: Could be the right choice in certain metagames, but just not for me.
Infect: I thought that a version that’s heavy on Distortion Strikes would be well positioned. My theory was if people are trying to outlinear each other, why not pick the fastest of the linear decks? The problem has always been the printing of Fatal Push, and the deck still attacks on the same axis as the other top tier decks (Humans, Spirits, Scales etc.). My experience was that you had to work so hard for every win and there were very little free wins. Even Tron is no longer a slam dunk, as they are playing 2-4 Ballistas with Humans in mind. It’s pretty embarrassing when your historical bye matchup is nowhere near a free win now. Also, I overestimated its matchup vs Dredge. I thought it’d be an easy matchup as Dredge is bad at blocking, but the Narcomoebas/Stinkweed Imps are very annoying, and they can take out their Creeping Chills and bring in a lot of cards vs. you (including 2 Darkblasts!) and become the control deck. Verdict: Probably a great GP deck if you can outmaneuver the less experienced players and reach the winners’ metagame, but be ready to fight for every inch.
Tron: I think this deck is fairly well positioned right now. Good matchups vs Humans/Spirits and you have the tools to fight the bad matchups as configured now (Relics/Surgicals/Cages for combo/graveyard decks, Ballista for Infect, etc.). The problem was that it’s a deck I just can’t personally win with and I have no logical explanations for it! I would guess we all have a deck or two that we think is good but can never do well with. Tron and Valakut are those for me. Verdict: The deck is fine, and people who are “good” with it should definitely consider playing it in this meta.
Hardened Scales: I didn’t get to test this one but it’s on the top of the list for me as possibly one of the best decks in the format. The facts that you have a powerful, linear plan A and Ancient Stirring can find your powerful hate pieces are very appealing to me. I love that you always have the floor of cheesing people out with a very fast Inkmoth kill. These facts, plus the fact that UWx’s share has decreased, makes it a very appealing deck for Modern in the December metagame. Verdict: The deck is likely very good and is highly recommended.
KCI: It’s incredibly resilient and I am a big fan of the latest innovations (Sai to attack from a different axis, permission to help with blue decks/spell based combo decks, which are two tough archetypes to play against for KCI, Spine of Ish Sah as a tutorable and recurrable answer to everything). I was a bit overwhelmed by learning its intricacies at first and ended up not devoting time to it, but it’s likely one of the best decks in the format. Verdict: The deck is likely one of the best decks in the format, but needs considerable time to master.
Amulet Titan: I loved the idea of a big mana deck that can beat other big mana stragies and control/midrange strategies, as well as Dredge. This has been something I’ve been meaning to learn for a long time, but it’s simply not a deck that I’m willing to pick up with just one month’s worth of preparation. Verdict: The deck is conceptually appealing and likely one of the best decks in the metagame right now, but needs considerable time to master.
So Why Dredge?: Creeping Chill is the absolute nuts. Bryan from the GAM Podcast theorized that Creeping Chill polarizes Dredge’s matchups (makes the good ones better, doesn’t improve the worse ones), but I disagree. The archetypes that Dredge struggles with, big mana/fast combo, are now much better matchups now that you can credibly race them. That Creeping Chill not only materially increases the clock to race the bad matchups, but also a significant life swing vs. creature decks like Humans/Spirits is a significant boon for the archetype.
This does not come without deckbuilding sacrifices, though. I would posit that my Vegas list is still wanting the 20th land, the 12th Dredger and the third Conflagrates in the 60 all at the same time. In my testing, I found myself mulliganing a bunch, but I suppose it is a worthwhile cost you pay for the explosiveness Creeping Chill brings. I tested versions with 3 Creeping Chills and have not gone back to it. Its applications are too wide. Who doesn’t like free, uncounterable Lightning Helixes!
Playing the Deck in Paper: SCG Vegas was my second time playing the deck in paper. My first time – the Wednesday before when I first got my hands on the deck. My advice though – don’t do it! Through my testing, I was too spoiled by MTGO and its automated triggers. Whereas on MTGO you can simply click on cards to Dredge cards or automatically trigger your creatures/Creeping Chills, no one is doing that for you and it was sort of a trial by fire for me. I missed around 10 triggers during the winning weekend, not to mention neglecting to Shriekhorn with Narcomeobas on the stack. My advice is to goldfish a bunch in paper to get comfortable with the triggers and have a good system for physically arranging the graveyard, lands, battlefield, and the deck on your playmat.
Notes on My List: Shoutout to MTGO grinder Sodeq, who has a fantastic track record with Dredge and whose list I used as my inspiration. The 2/1 Conflagrate split was a concession to the tight maindeck. I reasoned that you are favored vs. most decks in game 1s and it’s less likely that you are finding yourself casting multiple Conflagrates in game 1s. Damping Sphere is a nod to my bad matchups (Storm, Tron, KCI, Amulet). Trophy isn’t great but there are certain matchups where you are not sure what hate pieces you need to kill (Scavenging Ooze/Nihil Spell Bomb/Cage/Leyline from GBx, Leyline/Nihil Spellbomb/Death’s Shadow+TBR from Grixis Shadows), so it’s nice to have a little bit of a catch-all answer. Thoughtseize was my 75th card and I’m not sure how much I like it. It snags Rest in Pieces and has wide applications vs control/combo/big mana. My other choices were Engineered Explosives or the fourth Nature’s Claim.
The one Leyline of the Void? I have much to say about it, but I’ll try to keep it short:
- I dislike the heuristic shortcut of “Leylines should always be a 0 or 4-of!!11!1!”. Your goal is to create the optimal 60 vs. the metagame, not simply to hose certain strategies. In a Leyline mirror for example, because your plan B is likely worse than other decks’ plan Bs (Hollow, Bridgevine), you absolutely need your first four cards to be Nature’s Claims. After that, you can start considering Leylines but given how synergistic your deck is, the marginal benefit of the first Leyline for the fifth card out is much smaller than the first Leyline may seem in a vacuum. It’s easy to overestimate how often my opponents have graveyard hate because those games are more memorable than the ones without, but I’d much prefer to be as consistent as possible in the games where I am facing no hate.
- You can gain virtual card advantage if you show your opponent a Leyline. Depending on how much you mill your deck, your opponent may or may not be able to infer how many Leylines you have brought in. For example, if you crushed the mirror after having a turn 0 Leyline and milling ~20 cards without milling over another Leyline, it’s likely correct for your opponent to keep in 4 Nature’s Claims.
Moving Forward: So the SCG has come and gone but I still have the RPTQ and GP Portland to prepare for, so what’s the verdict? For myself, I’m going to keep exploring Modern but I’d still highly recommend Dredge as of now. It’s incredibly powerful with Creeping Chills and can fight through hate reasonably well. It was also fun for me in unexpected ways, as there were multiple games where you turned into the control deck with inevitability (gigantic Conflagrates and Creeping Chills) while you gum up the board with Stinkweed Imps and Narcomoebas. I may want to test a configuration with some Lightning Axes main over Shriekhorns, and a list where I have Dakmor Salvage as my 20th land and the 12th Dredger. For the sideboard, I may tune my Trophy and my Thoughtseize slots into something more streamlined and powerful for my expected metagame.
Conclusion: After having played Grishoalbrand exclusively for the better part of two years, it was very refreshing to be able to explore the Modern metagame and test the top decks in Modern. Creeping Chill is the real deal and allows you to have some really busted starts and also allows you to play interesting, interactive games when you aren’t just running over your opponent on turn 4. I would highly recommend you give Dredge a try if you are looking for a new, powerful deck in Modern!
Good luck and until next time,
If you wish to see the notes Jonathan used to win SCG Vegas (which includes how he approaches/sideboards vs. 25 different matchups), the Dredge Battle Plan can accessed by being a patron of First Strike, a podcast Jon co-hosts.