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Volrath's Bag of Tricks | $50, $100, $200 | Budget Commander


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Hey friends, it's Tomer, and welcome back to Budget Commander! Today we'll be covering one of the weirdest commanders out there: Volrath, the Shapestealer. Volrath comes with two abilities: the first ability lets you put a -1/-1 counter on up to one target creature at the beginning of your combat step. The second ability lets you turn Volrath into a copy of a creature with a counter on it, except it's 7/5 and it has this ability. So the basic idea with this card is that you weaken your opponents creatures by putting -1/-1 counters on them, then have Volrath constantly shapeshift into the best creatures on the battlefield except he's often going to be a bigger, beefier version since he's always a 7/5. Sounds simple enough, right?

Well yes, but actually no: despite his relatively simple card text, Volrath has boundless potential for shenanigans, which is fitting for a legendary shapeshifter. There are many angles to build off Volrath, such as:

  • Copy Tricks. We can turn Volrath into a creature that can copy itself, such as Spawnwrithe and Mist-Syndicate Naga, making 7/5 tokens that can make more of itself and still copy other creatures!
  • Size Tricks. Turn Volrath into 7/5 version of creatures with scaling size abilities, such as bouncing 7 permanents with Cephalid Constable, drawing 7 cards with Cold-Eyed Selkie, or making opponents discard 7 cards with Needle Specter!
  • Utility Tricks. Whatever neat keyword or card text Volrath needs, he can get! Need evasion or protection from a Swords to Plowshares? Volrath can turn into Invisible Stalker. Need to survive a board wipe? Turn Volrath into Young Wolf, letting Volrath die and immediately return to the battlefield thanks to undying. Need to one-shot opponents? Turn into Jodah's Avenger, use its ability to give Volrath double strike, and while it's still on the stack turn into Blighted Agent to attack with an unblockable 7/5 double strike infect creature for an easy kill!
  • Combo Tricks. Unsurprisingly, Volrath has insane combo potential! To start, how about turning Volrath into Nacatl War-Pride, attack an opponent that has at least two creatures, then with the Nacatl's ability on the stack turn Volrath into Biovisionary to win at end of turn!
  • Counter Tricks. There are tons of ways to get counters on creatures so Volrath can turn into them, but my favorite is Tetzimoc, Primal Death, which can repeatedly put a prey counter on any creature for just one black mana!

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So yeah, Volrath, the Shapestealer has a TON of cool tricks up his sleeves. Do keep in mind, however, that most of these combos require a lot of mana and cards to set up and they're pretty easy to shut down. Volrath is definitely on the lower end of the Commander power scale because of this, like a jank version of Lazav, the Multifarious. But if you love jank, then oh boy does Volrath do jank!

You might like this deck if ...

  • You want a janky Johnny deck that is all about wacky and wild card interactions
  • You want a super flexible, open-ended commander that can be built many different ways
  • You want to surprise your opponents with cards and combos they probably have never seen before
  • You like Counters, Combos, and Clones!

You might NOT like this deck if ...

  • You want a simple, straightforward deck
  • You want a competitive deck that wins easily and consistently
  • You like the idea Shapeshifting to victory but want something more competitive (play Lazav, the Multifarious)

If you're interested in a janky Johnny deck packed with weird, unique interactions not seen anywhere else, then Volrath, the Shapestealer is the commander for you!

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Our Game Plan

Our deck is all about janky combos with Volrath, the Shapestealer. Our goal is to cast Volrath, put counters on all the creatures we're turning into with Volrath, and then having a fun time shapeshifting into the best creature for value or straight-up combo victory. Our deck is also a +1/+1 Counter deck, adding counters to our creatures with Renata, Called to the Hunt, ramping with Rishkar, Peema Renegade, drawing cards with Fathom Mage, and protecting our creatures (and drawing more cards!) with Inspiring Call. Even if Volrath gets shut down, our powerful +1/+1 Counter cards can still carry us to victory!

 

Combos

Decks have to win somehow, and Volrath, the Shapestealer can do it a dozen different ways. If you want to kill through combat damage, you can turn Volrath into either Cultivator of Blades or Wild Beastmaster and give all your other creatures +7/+7 when attacking, or go for an infect kill by turning Volrath into Jodah's Avenger, using its ability to give him double strike, but before the ability resolves turn into Blighted Agent to attack as a 6/4 unblockable infect double strike one-shot.

I found these combos from King of Jank while researching this article, so credit goes to their channel for these ones. If any viewers have additional sweet/jank combos they'd like to share, post 'em in the comments section below and I might add them to the article after publishing:

First up we've got Undying/Persist infinite combos. One version is Volrath, the Shapestealer + Ashnod's Altar + any undying creature (Young Wolf) + any persist creature (Woodfall Primus). In this example, sacrifice both Young Wolf and Woodfall Primus to Ashnod's Altar, which return to the battlefield with a +1/+1 counter due to undying and a -1/-1 counter due to persist, and you generate 4 mana. Then spend 1 mana to turn Volrath into the Primus and sacrifice it, returning Volrath to the battlefield with a -1/-1 counter due to persist. Then turn Volrath into Wolf and sacrifice it, returning it to the battlefield with a +1/+1 counter due to undying. Repeat for infinite colorless mana.

You can also do this combo even better with any sac outlet (Ashnod's Altar) + Renata, Called to the Hunt or Master Biomancer + any persist creature (Woodfall Primus). In this situation, we sacrifice Primus to Altar, which returns to the battlefield due to persist with no counters on it since the -1/-1 counter from persist and +1/+1 counter from Renata cancel each other out. So you can sacrifice the Primus infinite times, generating infinite mana and blowing up infinite noncreature permanents in the process.

There are a bunch of infinite mana combos as well. Volrath, the Shapestealer + Viridian Joiner + an untapper like Pili-Pala. Turn Volrath into the joiner, tap for 7 green mana, spend 1 mana to turn Volrath into Pili, then spend another 2 mana to untap Volrath and generate 1 mana of any color, generating infinite colored mana. Spend that infinite mana on Exsanguinate or whatever. You can also replace Pili with Farmstead Gleaner so Volrath gets infinite +1/+1 counters.

Another infinite involves Volrath, the Shapestealer and Devoted Druid. Turn Volrath into the Druid, tap him for G, then untap him four times for 4 more G with the Druid's ability. Then spend 1 mana to turn Volrath into Grim Poppet, removing the -1/-1 counters from Volrath and putting them on other creatures, letting you machine-gun down opposing creatures while generating mana. Or replace Poppet with Wickerbough Elder, blowing up all the artifacts/enchantments, but it's not infinite mana.

My favorite combo, however, involves Volrath, the Shapestealer + Nacatl War-Pride + Biovisionary: attack an opponent that has at least two creatures, then with the Nacatl's ability on the stack turn Volrath into Biovisionary to win at end of turn!

There's even weirder Volrath combos out there, but these are the ones I'll be focusing on with the sample decks.

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Adding Counters

Volrath, the Shapeshifter can only turn into creatures with counters on them. He can put a -1/-1 counter on a creature at the beginning of your combat step, but we should have more ways to enable this. The best options are cheap, efficient, and repeatable. Tetzimoc, Primal Death is one of my favorites, as is Renata, Called to the Hunt and Master Biomancer, both efficient ways to get counters on your creatures.

We can also expand our Counter theme to be a main focus of our deck. Heck, you can drop most of the tricks and just go for a full-out Sultai Counter deck, merging the -1/-1 Counter tricks of Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons with the +1/+1 Counter power of Pir, Imaginative Rascal & Toothy, Imaginary Friend. This isn't the direction of the deck that I'll be covering in this article, but it's worth noting the possibility.

Here are some of my favorite cards that either efficiently put counters on creatures or support a Counters theme:

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Volrath's Utility Forms

Here are a list of my favorite utility creatures for Volrath, the Shapestealer to turn into. These generally deal with copying himself (Spawnwrithe), abilities that scale off size (Cephalid Constable, and protecting himself from removal (Thrun, the Last Troll).

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Card Draw

For Counter-related goodies, we've got Inspiring Call which holy moly is this card ridiculous, but also other goodies like The Great Henge and Tezzeret's Gambit.

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Removal

Glen Elendra Archmage, Wickerbough Elder, and Scavenging Ooze are all-stars in our Counter-themed deck, but there are others as well. And generic goodstuff like Swan Song and Nature's Claim are also great here.

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Tutors

Assembling our combos will be much easier with some tutors. Luckily we're in the best colors to fetch up anything we need.

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Recursion

Important cards got binned? No problem, we have tons of ways to get them back!

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Ramp

For Counter-related stuff, there's Devoted Druid, Incubation Druid, Rishkar, Peeme Renegade, and a bunch of other stuff. But other generic good cards like Rampant Growth are great here too.

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Lands

Since we're a 3C deck, most of our land slots are devoted to mana fixing, but we have some fun Counter stuff too like Llanowar Reborn, and manlands like Inkmoth Nexus.

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Deckbuilding Checklist

Alright, now that we've gone over the card pool we're working with, it's time to talk about how we craft the deck. As I often explain in my Budget Commander articles, every time I build a rough draft of a deck, I make sure I have a certain amount of mana, interaction, card advantage, etc. This gives me a reference point to compare to the deck and see which areas may need improvement. This is my general checklist of minimum requirements:

  • 50 mana; lands and ramp, usually a 37–13 split
  • 10 sources of "card advantage;" I use this term loosely but am mostly looking for card draw or any spell that nets me 2+ non-land cards in hand / directly into play
  • 6 targeted removal, split between creature / artifact / enchantment removal
  • 3 board wipes; creature-light decks might want one more, creature-heavy decks might want one less
  • 2 recursion
  • 2 flexible tutors
  • 1 graveyard hate; since you need to keep Graveyard decks honest 
  • 1 surprise "I Win" card; something that can win games the turn you cast it without too much setup

The remaining deck slots are filled with whatever cards fit the deck's theme and add to the overall synergy. That's always my starting point, which is then tweaked to suit the individual deck's strategy and further tweaked with playtesting. I always find it immensely useful to figure out some quick ways to improve the deck in question.

Now that we've covered the deck's goal, the cards we're going to building with, and have a check list of cards that we'll need, let's build the sample decks!

 

$50 List

The first list is currently $50 US. It is a Counters deck, looking to beef up our creatures with +1/+1 counters and weakening our opponents with -1/-1 counters, and running tons of cards that care about counters. Eventually we win with big beatdowns, or by smashing in with Volrath, or with any of our infinite combos. 

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$100 List

The $100 list has a big money upgrade with Finale of Devastation, being an excellent tutor + recursion + finisher, perfect for when we generate infinite mana for an easy win. We also have big improvements to the manabase and our card draw, notably with The Great Henge which does a little bit of everything.

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$200 List

The $200 list picks up even more tutors, like Demonic Tutor. The rest of the budget is spent on starting to upgrade the lands, moving towards duals that enter untapped. Thanks to Pioneer, cards like Breeding Pool are depressingly over $20 these days when you could've snagged those shocklands a year ago for around the $10 range. Upgrading to the "budget" duals has never been more expensive. Sad times.

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That's All, Folks!

I hope you enjoyed this take on Volrath, the Shapestealer! This was one of the harder decks to write about since it's so open-ended, but I think it turned out well. Next up are two commanders that are less janky and more straightforward. Thanks for reading!


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