Commander Top 10: Volrath, The Shapestealer!

Bennie Smith builds a counter-loving Commander deck around Volrath, the Shapestealer!

Even though 2020 is promising to be a feast for Commander fans, let’s not forget so many goodies that have come down the pipe in 2019.  The back half of the year has been so full of great new legends between Core Set 2020, Commander 2019, Throne of Eldraine, and the Brawl decks, it occurred to me that I’ve skipped over some great commanders to build decks around.  In the weeks between now and the release of Theros: Beyond Death, I’m going to circle back on some of those. 

Last week I focused on Chainer, Nightmare Adept.  Next up is another gem from Commander 2019: Volrath, the Shapestealer!

The sincerest form of flattery.

I’m a bit surprised that I overlooked Volrath the first time around, but when you’ve got a firehose of good legends blasting, you’re bound to miss a few.  Seven power is a cool number in Commander because it means you only need to connect with an opponent three times to kill them with commander damage, and Volrath keeps its power and toughness no matter what creature it copies.  But it’s the text box that’s the real reason we’d want to build a deck around Volrath, and there’s a lot to unpack.  Here are a few things to keep in mind, taken from the FAQ:

  • Activating Volrath’s last ability causes it to lose its first ability until your next turn, so if you activate it before the beginning of combat step, it won’t trigger during that turn. Players can cast instant spells and activate abilities (such as Volrath’s second ability) during the beginning of combat step after that first ability has triggered or resolved but before attackers are chosen in the declare attackers step.
  • If a creature has +1/+1 counters and -1/-1 counters on it, state-based actions remove the same number of each so that it has only one of those kinds of counters on it. This may cause the creature to no longer have any counters on it.  Because of this, I’m going to include a fair number of creatures with undying since Volrath can get rid of those +1/+1 counters and keep them coming back from dying again and again.
  • If an effect begins to apply to Volrath before it becomes a copy of another creature, that effect will continue to apply.  Since Volrath’s copy ability is so cheap, we can do things like copy a creature, use it’s activated ability to give Volrath something interesting, and then copy another creature to splice together abilities.
  • If Volrath becomes a copy of a creature whose power and toughness are defined by an ability (usually printed as */* or similar), Volrath doesn’t copy the ability that defines its power and toughness. Volrath remains a 7/5 creature.  Which dashes the dream of copying a gigantic Lord of Extinction so we can one-shot someone with commander damage—Volrath would just be a 7/5 Lord of Extinction.

What’s particularly interesting about Volrath is that his first ability deals with -1/-1 counters, but his second ability only cares that the target creature has any sort of counter on it.  Magic is filled to the brim with support for +1/+1 counters, and it would be tempting and very easy to go that route.  However, after Amonkhet came along, there were a few more cards that cared about -1/-1 counters and looking at the ones available in Sultai colors, I think it might be cooler to lean more heavily in that direction.  Besides, the odds are pretty good that somebody at your Commander table it probably doing some sort of +1/+1 counter shenanigans so Volrath will likely have plenty of targets without having to lean too heavily on its own trigger.

So, let’s get into it—the Top 10 cards for a Volrath, the Shapestealer Commander deck!

1. Necroskitter

Necroskitter is a fearsome monster in any deck that throws around -1/-1 counters, and if you’ve got a way to put a bunch of counters on multiple creatures you’ve got the potential for some huge swings.  Something like Black Sun’s Zenith?  At the very least, Volrath can ping off any one toughness creatures and Necroskitter can bring them over to your side.

I’m including quite a few other cards that do cool things with -1/-1 counters:

Crumbling Ashes Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons Blowfly Infestation Dusk Urchins Nest of Scarabs Obelisk Spider Soul Snuffers Flourishing Defenses Skeleton Ship Cauldron of Souls Grim Poppet Black Sun's Zenith

Flourishing Defenses, Nest of Scarabs and Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons do a nice job of creating an army of small creatures that can serve chump blocking duty or swam on the offense.  

Cauldron of Souls does some cool work here, saving your own creatures when they die by giving them persist, which happens to leave them with a -1/-1 counter so that Volrath can copy them.  You can do the same trick to one of your opponent’s creatures if it’s dying and you want to copy it. 

2. Sylvan Caryatid

Even though Volrath isn’t the most threatening of commanders you can see at your Commander table, there will come times when opponents will want to deal with it, and for those times I like having a creature around with hexproof to wave off pinpoint removal effects.  I really like Sylvan Caryatid for this since it comes down early, helps cast Volrath ahead of schedule, and later can be held at the ready to tap for mana and activate Volrath’s copy ability.  Sylvan Caryatid has defender, but if you’re already attacking with Volrath when you copy it, defender doesn’t matter.  This is one way to fizzle the effect of a pesky Maze of Ith

I’m also including some other quality creatures that have hexproof:

Troll Ascetic Carnage Tyrant

Troll Ascetic and Carnage Tyrant offer some other abilities in addition to the hexproof that can sometimes come in handy. 

3. Vhati il-Dal

Volrath’s triggered ability is mostly there to make a creature susceptible to Volrath’s copy ability, but there a few ways we can use it to kill creatures.  Vhati il-Dal used to see more play in the early days of EDH, but its tap ability to turn a creature’s base toughness to one is a stone-cold killer when you’re distributing -1/-1 counters.  And sometimes setting the power to one will be a lifesaver!

I’m including some other ways to set toughness to one:

Warkite Marauder Mass Diminish

Warkite Marauder’s ability is tied to combat much like Volrath, and the two can tag team to destroy just about any problem creature that’s not otherwise enhanced.  I also really like Mass Diminish since it can potentially take out multiple creatures that have gotten -1/-1 counters.

4. Viridian Joiner

If we’re creative, we can take advantage of Volrath’s unusual copy ability that copies everything except power and toughness.  One of the best of the bunch is Viridian Joiner; even though putting a -1/-1 counter on it will keep it from tapping for mana, if Volrath copies it, you can tap for seven green mana.  That is a huge rush of mana that can lead to some impressive plays way ahead of schedule. 

I’ve included some other creatures with abilities that appreciate the larger power that Volrath has:

Champion of Lambholt Phyrexian Crusader Aerie Ouphes

Copying Champion of Lambholt means that only very large creatures can block your creatures due to Volrath’s seven power, and it’s particularly nice to copy because any creatures that enter the battlefield under your control put +1/+1 counters on Volrath no matter what shape it changes to. 

5. Howlgeist

Howlgeist provides a similar ability to Champion of Lambholt but has the added benefit of having undying, which I really like in conjunction to Volrath’s triggered ability since -1/-1 counters knock off +1/+1 counters, making creatures with undying that much more difficult to deal with.  Copying Howlgeist while having a hexproof creature at the ready can make Volrath very difficult to deal with. 

I’m also including other creatures with undying:

Young Wolf Strangleroot Geist Endling Vorapede Mikaeus, the Unhallowed

Endling is a fun include here since Volrath can copy it, activate some of its abilities, and then change to copying something else but still have the activations linger between forms. 

6. Generous Patron

Generous Patron is the gift that keeps giving.  Assuming putting +1/+1 counters on two creatures your opponents control isn’t an immediate danger, you get to draw two cards from its support ability, and then draw a card each time Volrath puts a -1/-1 counter on an opponent’s creature.  And if you’re chaining triggers from something like Blowfly Infestation, that can add up to a ton of new cards!

I’m including plenty of other ways to draw or select cards:

Volrath's Stronghold Skullclamp Phyrexian Reclamation Treasure Map Yawgmoth, Thran Physician Greater Good Guardian Project Rishkar's Expertise Villainous Wealth

Volrath’s Stronghold is a great card in any black deck, but the flavor win here pretty much means I should include it.  And I feel that any Sultai deck capable of generating a huge amount of mana at some point in the game needs to also include Villainous Wealth, one of my all-time favorite cards.

7. Necrotic Ooze

Speaking of all-time favorite cards, so is Necrotic Ooze!  As creatures die over the course of the game, Necrotic Ooze can splice together a bunch of interesting activated abilities, so why not let your commander Volrath get in on the fun?

Here are a few other cards to widen our horizons:

Cascading Cataracts Exotic Orchard Bow of Nylea Wickerbough Elder

I made sure to include Cascading Cataracts and Exotic Orchard along with Sylvan Caryatid so that I could generate colors outside of Sultai in case we want to copy abilities that require colored mana we wouldn’t normally have access to. 

Bow of Nylea gives us another way to put a counter on a creature so Volrath can copy it, and if that’s not what we’re looking for we’ve got lots of other options too, in addition to giving all our attacking creatures deathtouch. 

Wickerbough Elder is cool, not as a copy target per se, but just to make Volrath’s triggered ability enchantment or artifact destruction.

8. Devoted Druid

Devoted Druid can be used an extra time to power out Volrath, and then Volrath can copy it later to untap up to four times if there’s an activated ability you want to use more than once per turn.  Or imagine having Volrath out with these three fine creatures on the battlefield?

For one mana, copy Joiner, then tap for seven green mana, use one of it to copy Devoted Druid and then add a -1/-1 counter to untap Volrath, then use one of it to copy Grim Poppet, and then move that -1/-1 counter to an opponent’s creature.  Then, for one more mana, copy Joiner again and repeat.  If any or all these creatures are in the graveyard, then Necrotic Ooze can make it all happen too.  What do you want to do with all that mana?  How about that Villainous Wealth we were talking about!

I’ve included some other, more stock ways to accelerate our mana:

Blighted Woodland Myriad Landscape Sol Ring Sakura-Tribe Elder Incubation Druid Kodama's Reach Cultivate Revel in Riches

Revel in Riches is another one I’m glad to find room for so the Treasure tokens can provide off color mana for activated abilities.

9. Golgari Charm

Sultai provides tons of great interaction for your opponents, and one I wanted to highlight here is Golgari Charm.  Two mana isn’t too much to hold up later in the game to save your creatures from a sweeper, but being able to destroy an early Rhystic Study or Smothering Tithe can be huge.  It can also be used in conjunction with Mass Diminish to devastate someone’s battlefield when they’ve gotten way out of hand.

I’ve got a lot of other Sultai all-stars here:

Swan Song Arcane Denial Tragic Slip Reality Shift Assassin's Trophy Go for the Throat Damnation Windgrace's Judgment Casualties of War

10. Scavenging Ooze

It’s my hope that Volrath might be able to copy some abilities to gain life along the way, but I’m including a few other options in the deck too.  Scavenging Ooze is a great choice since it can put a counter on itself, and then Volrath can add some +1/+1 counters too by eating dead creatures. 

Here are a few other lifegain gems:

Basilisk Collar Miren, the Moaning Well

Okay, so here’s how the deck ended up:

Volrath, the Shapestealer
Bennie Smith
Test deck on 12-02-2019

And here are two handy charts courtesy of Archidekt, including that sweet, sweet mana curve broken out by color.

What do you think?  Are there any cards I’ve overlooked?  If you see any new cards from Throne of Eldraine that should find a home here, let me know!

Do me a solid and follow me on Twitter!  I run polls and get conversations started about Commander all the time, so get in on the fun! 

Also, come play Commander with me!  Star City Games will be putting on #CommandFestDC December 13-15th and I’m thrilled to be one of the special guests there.  Be sure to check out the website for all the exciting details!