A Guide to Playing Pitch Dredge in Vintage

The Pitch Dredge deck that I have been writing about and advocating for the past couple of years is performing well, and may well be considered the premier Vintage Dredge deck. This variant, which emphasizes counterspells, has out-placed the older variant featuring permanent destruction (or counter-hate_ in 5 out of the last 5 major events for which placement data is available. While Bazaar of Moxen’s October 2016 published results did not include any Dredge decks, the Vintage Championship at Eternal Weekend as well as the past four Power 9 Challenges on Magic Online all featured a finish by Pitch Dredge ahead of any other Dredge variant finish. I wish my congratulations to the various pilots – even with the best deck it takes skill and luck to perform well at a large event. Here’s a sample decklist from a recent event:

Pitch Dredge, Top 4 by KDBKGB, MTGO October 2016 Power 9 Challenge

Maindeck (60)
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
Flame-Kin Zealot
Golgari Grave-Troll
Golgari Thug
Stinkweed Imp
Vengeful Pharaoh
Cabal Therapy
Dread Return
Force of Will
Mental Misstep
Mindbreak Trap
Serum Powder
Bridge from Below
Bazaar of Baghdad
Petrified Field
Sideboard (15)
Dark Depths
Riftstone Portal
Thespian’s Stage
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Vampire Hexmage

How to Play Game 1

As is typical for Dredge, the Pitch build is highly favored in Game 1. Play follows the same basic structure with high consistency. In most matchups, the advantage requires the mindset of a police detective. The Dredge player should sniff out possible paths to victory for the opponent and shut them down, all while executing a fast and consistent kill.

1) Mulligan for Bazaar of Baghdad. Use Serum Powder aggressively. You should be willing to exile almost anything searching for Bazaar, including the single Flame-Kin Zealot or other seemingly-key cards. You can consider keeping a hand of 2-3 cards if you expect those cards to buy you multiple turns, such as Force of Will + Mindbreak Trap where the opponent might be on a combo deck. Don’t stop mulliganing in order to conceal that you are playing Dredge. The Dredge archetype is widespread in Vintage, and your opponent will assume that if you mulligan aggressively and concede without playing land that you are on Dredge.

2) Discard dredge cards. Almost always you will play Bazaar of Baghdad to discard, but if you have 7-8 cards on your first turn you can consider drawing up to 8 and discarding to hand size in order to play around land destruction effects such as Wasteland. With fewer than 7 cards, you are better off using the Bazaar to discard even if your opponent has Wasteland. The one use of Bazaar that you would have gotten is offset by dredging during 2 extra draw steps.

3) Tap Bazaar in your upkeep, replace each draw with a dredge, and rapidly fill your graveyard. It can be important to keep track of your hand size and manipulate it intelligently; more on that below.

4) Make free creatures and use Cabal Therapy to disrupt the opponent or ensure that you can win through disruption. The most common cards to name with Cabal Therapy are Ravenous Trap, Force of Will, Time Walk, Monastery Mentor, and Gush. Each is optimal at a different point in the game. Ravenous Trap is often the only card in Magic that can beat you. For example, when you have the capability to present lethal the same turn and the opponent is tapped out and you have access to multiple Cabal Therapies, Ravenous Trap is likely to be the only card that can disrupt you. Force of Will is similar. When you are presenting lethal that turn, you will often name Force of Will to ensure that you can finish the game successfully and deny future draw steps. Time Walk is usually named when you are in an advantageous position, but cannot close the game out the same turn. The opponent needs a major effect to get back into the game, and Time Walk is the most likely. This situation is one in which you might also consider Yawgmoth’s Will or Time Vault, depending on the opponent’s deck. Monastery Mentor is the threat most likely to successfully race you. In the mid-late game (typically turn 3-5) Monastery Mentor may be too late to have an impact, but it is worth considering throughout the game and especially around Turn 2. Gush can be a high-impact card, and can often clog up an opponent’s hand in multiples. An early Therapy with other Therapies as backup can afford to shoot for bulk over value, and so in this situation Gush is often the card to name.

There is much more variation in other matchups, but the consistent principle is to look at the current game-state and evaluate which card is most likely to create or sustain a path to victory for the opponent, taking into account both the impact of the card, as well as the odds that it is in the opponent’s hand. For example, a Workshop-playing opponent who has had plenty of opportunity to play Arcbound Ravager will probably play it, but it is one of the top cards to name if there has been little or no opportunity to play it. This is because the sacrifice ability counteracts Bridge from Below and thus opens on of the few non-land-destruction paths to victory for that archetype.

5) Attack for the win. Combat math can become complicated in a few matchups if you have to attack repeatedly. The basic assumption should be that the opponent will prioritize survival, followed by minimizing the value of Bridge from Below. In some cases, “attack for the win” actually means “return Ichorids to play and let them die without attacking each turn to build up zombie tokens, then eventually attack for the win”. Again, the detective mindset of finding and eliminating paths to victory for the opponent is key.

Sideboarding with Pitch Dredge

There are fundamentally 3 sideboard plans in the above list, and in Pitch Dredge in general.

1) Transform away from the graveyard plan entirely. Typically you will do this when you think your sideboard cards are extremely likely to beat the opponent without access to the graveyard plan at all. For example, Grixis Pyromancer decks often cannot beat the dedicated Dark Depths post-board plan. This totally blanks the opposing hate cards. As a result, it can also be worth doing against decks which have realistic plans against the Dark Depths combo, but who overload on hate.

2) Remain all-in on the graveyard plan. Against decks which run little or no graveyard hate, such as fast combo decks, the best option is usually to tweak slightly and remain on the graveyard plan. A common tweak is to take out Petrified Field, which can be relatively slow, in favor of Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. This allows the player to cast Cabal Therapy from hand, and potentially present more disruption more quickly. With the free counterspells the deck runs, this can also be the preferred strategy against light amounts of graveyard hate.

3) Maintain access to both plans. This is the most common strategy against Monastery Mentor and archetypes like Mishra’s Workshop. While these opponents will often have the tools to deal with each kind of threat, it is rare that they can consistently find all the tools in the right order in both Game 2 and Game 3. Depending on the matchup, this might mean boarding out most or all of the counterspells or it may mean keeping counterspells and shaving cards here and there to squeeze everything in. For example, against Mishra’s Workshop you will usually cut Cabal Therapy because it is hard to cast and Dread Return is more impactful in most of the same situations. However, in a matchup like Monastery Mentor, you will almost never cut Cabal Therapy and will instead look to trim other pieces, such as the Dread Return package and the number of Golgari Thugs.

How to Play Games 2 and 3

There is not a single well-defined game plan. Depending on which sideboarding strategy you have chosen, as well as the opponent’s ability to answer that plan, you may have to adjust substantially. Pitch Dredge requires a gambler’s mentality post-board. Some games will be unloseable, some will be unwinnable, but overall the key is to play as well as you can, build a deck that gives favorable odds overall, and trust in those odds. Unlike in Game 1, where the focus is on calculating an opponent’s outs and eliminating their most likely paths to victory, in Game 2 and 3 the focus is often on calculating your own path to victory and making it as likely as possible to occur. Even in matches where Pitch Dredge is favored, the fundamental strategic inevitability of Game 1 is often lost, and a change in mindset is warranted.

When mulliganing on a pure transformational plan, you can continue to use Serum Powder aggressively. The goal is to find either a Bazaar of Baghdad to later dig into the combo, or find a substantial portion of the combo in a strong hand that can survive long enough to draw into the combo the slow way. Because Vampire Hexmage represents additional combo pieces beyond Thespian’s Stage, it is more acceptable to keep a lone Dark Depths as a combo piece, than to just keep a Hexmage or Stage.

When mulliganing on a split plan, Bazaar of Baghdad is basically always keepable. The bar for keeping a sideboard-based hand is higher, because keeping a pure Bazaar hand is more enticing in the split plan than the pure sideboard plan. If you can reasonably win off a mulligan to 2 and finding a Bazaar of Baghdad, then you should be more willing to mulligan aggressively than if you couldn’t.

The Dark Depths sideboard plan depends on a number of interactions that are not normally prominent. One axis of interaction that becomes more essential is the land destruction battle. Key plays include baiting Wasteland with a Bazaar, copying a Wasteland or Strip Mine with a spare Thespian’s Stage (to force an early use of the opponent’s land destruction ability and combo in response), and using Petrified Field to recur important lands. An important decision that has to be made when the Dark Depths combo has been assembled is when to activate the combo. Against Jace, The Mind Sculptor and Phyrexian Metamorph, it is ideal to activate the combo on the opponent’s end step. Against decks with land destruction lands, it is generally best to activate the combo on your own turn so the opponent cannot draw and play a Wasteland or Strip Mine (which would disrupt your combo). Playing land does not use the stack, so you cannot respond to a land play in the opponent’s main phase. Another consideration is the spell count for your counterspells. If the opponent has played multiple spells and you have Mindbreak Trap in hand, it can be ideal to make the Marit Lage on that turn to beat Swords to Plowshares and Repeal by countering them with the Trap.

On the graveyard plan, Cabal Therapy should be used in a manner similar to Game 1. The main difference is that it can be ideal to name graveyard hate cards, especially Containment Priest when the Dredge player is on the play and the opponent has not yet had access to 2 mana. On the other hand, on a sideboard plan Cabal Therapy is often used to protect the sideboard combo or to buy time to draw combo pieces. This can involve naming Swords to Plowshares or Monastery Mentor, for example.

Finally, a key consideration in mixed-plan games post-board is when to switch plans. The less likely it is that the opponent can present hate cards, the more likely it is to be worthwhile to push hard on the graveyard plan and attempt to at least secure a board of creatures prior to being disrupted. For example, against a deck with little ability to draw cards, countering Grafdigger’s Cage and opening a window of a few turns before the graveyard is disrupted can frequently win a game. On the other hand, it is often worthwhile to avoid fighting over graveyard hate and simply transition to the sideboard strategies. This converts all of the graveyard hate for which the opponent has been sideboarding and mulliganing into dead cards. When the opponent is likely to have copious graveyard hate, this is usually the best plan. Another consideration is one-shot graveyard hate, such as Tormod’s Crypt. A single “sweeper” like this can often be beaten by dredging just enough to generate pressure on the board and on the opponent’s life total, and then rebuilding after the sweeper is used.

Controlling Your Hand Size and Using Bazaar

One of the most unique aspects of the Pitch Dredge archetype, especially in the modern environment, is the combination of Bazaar of Baghdad and reactive spells. Just as Gush and Thirst for Knowledge demand different styles of play, Bazaar as a draw engine requires a different style of play. In Gush decks, there is a kind of fundamental rule that you want to Gush when you have a land drop available on your own turn, and no land to play. You can often break this rule, but it is the baseline for maximizing the value of Gush.

Bazaar of Baghdad can be reduced to a fundamental rule as well. In the case of Gush, the limiting factor to the manaless draw engine is the availability of lands in play, and by consequence the availability of land drops. In the case of Bazaar of Baghdad, the limiting factors is the number of unwanted cards in hand. With three or more unwanted cards in hand, there is little to no drawback to Bazaar of Baghdad and it can be used aggressively, including on your own turn. With two unwanted cards in hand, a draw of one wanted card and one unwanted card converts nicely into a discard of three unwanted cards. A draw of two wanted cards requires a hard decision about what to discard. With two unwanted cards in hand, you should only activate Bazaar if you’re under pressure (whether from creatures or from an opponent who threatens to topdeck powerful cards) or close to completing the combo. While these situations do come up very often, it is worth noting that in some cases you may have little pressure coming from the opponent and can afford to sit back on draws for the turn and counterspells. This allows you to keep the tap ability available at instant speed in an emergency situation or if something changes to make you want fewer of your cards (such as an opponent playing a Cavern of Souls and trumping your hand of counterspells). With only one unwanted card in hand, you will have to discard a “wanted” card from hand in order to keep a “wanted” card you draw from the top of your deck, so you should only activate Bazaar if you are under great pressure. Finally, with zero unwanted cards in hand you will have to discard two cards from hand to keep one from the top of your deck, so this should only be done in an emergency situation or under tremendous pressure, such as a short clock based on creature damage.

Over a 2-turn cycle, a single Bazaar of Baghdad activation allows a net interaction of drawing 4 cards and discarding 3. Once you burn through the initial excess cards such as unwanted dredge components, this is a common way to play Bazaar, adjusting in some cases to Bazaar each turn when you draw no cards worth keeping and to Bazaar less frequently when you draw many cards worth keeping. With no cards worth keeping, you can “float” two unwanted cards in hand. For example, you have an unwanted card in hand and draw a second unwanted card on your draw step. At the end of the opponent’s turn, you tap Bazaar and draw two unwanted cards (bringing the total to four, plus any number of cards you do want to keep). Discard three unwanted cards, and you’re back at one with a draw step coming up. In this way you can dig through the deck with Bazaar every turn, but if you draw two cards you want in a Bazaar activation you will be forced to discard either one of the fresh wanted cards from the deck or an old wanted card from hand. This is relatively rare, especially once you draw one of the combo pieces, so usually if you do not have a strong hand you will want to keep digging in this way.

Another aspect of Bazaar of Baghdad is its instant speed ability. Like Sensei’s Divining Top, it allows the possibility of interaction with combo decks even if your hand has been stripped of relevant spells. Mindbreak Trap in particular maximizes the value of this mode, but it is dependent on luck. More broadly, the instant speed allows you to wait until the end of the opponent’s turn before deciding what to discard, or to use Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth or Riftstone Portal to make Bazaar tap for mana rather than for its discard ability. Riftstone Portal is particularly notable for enabling Bazaar of Baghdad into Thespian’s Stage and Dark Depths as a way to both play and use Bazaar while still maintaining a Turn 3 Dark Depths activation.

One final piece of advice: Force of Will is just a card. Be willing to think practically about discarding it when it is better to keep a Cabal Therapy, Mental Misstep, or another valuable card such as a combo piece.

That’s all for this lesson. To read and watch more about Pitch Dredge, check out some articles in my archive. Thanks for reading.