How They Brew It - Be Yourself, Volrath

Michael Celani • March 20, 2023

Volrath, the Shapestealer | Illustrated by Heonhwa Choe

They told you a great many things. They told you to do unto others as you'd have done unto you. They told you that bad actions have bad consequences, and good actions good consequences. They told you that Tide PODS® aren't food and to just put them back, Johnny. I can't help but laugh at their lies. And the biggest lie they told you? "Just be yourself."

I'm sorry, Grandma, but what if yourself sucks? What if "yourself" owes back taxes to the federal government in the amount of tens of thousands? What if "yourself" is wanted in several countries for super-treason? What if "yourself" accidentally killed his own dad, and married his own mother? I'm talking like, total wiener levels of suckitude, here. No, I don't think I'll be myself. I think I'll be everyone else.

Happy Mask Salesman

Who am I? Well, last month, my name was Antonio Romano. Last week, Pasquali Fontina. And now? You can call me Michael Celani. For twenty-seven years, I've been running; running away from the law, from the truth, from the Illuminati, my responsibilities, my ex, my parents, my past, my present, and that snail that kills me if it catches up to me. I've assumed a great many identities. I have become one-thousand two-hundred and forty-seven people. At once. It really hurt.

One time, I even became Volrath, the Shapestealer. Volrath puts a -1/-1 counter on a target creature when you go to combat. That's not all: he can also spend to temporarily become a copy of any creature with a counter on it, except that he's 7/5 and retains his copy ability. With this power, we can become anyone and everyone we want: a second Loyal Drake to draw cards, a second Defiler of Vigor to buff our creatures, or even a second Kentucky State Senator from the 34th District, Jared Carpenter, so I too, can look like I'm smiling upside-down. Anyway, just by associating with me, you've committed at least twelve felonies, so why not disappear alongside me?

A Counter Attack

I've had some close calls with people discovering my true identity. I once ran into someone I once knew at the Gap. I looked up and stared straight into his eyes for what seemed like hours, trying to see if he recognized me. Then, a janitor asked me why I was looking into that mirror for so long, and he looked away. Shaken, I resolved to double down on disappearing. For Volrath to transform into someone else, that someone else needs to be marked with a counter. Any counter will do, so you could, of course, decide to simply target your Hyde-to-be with Volrath's triggered ability. However, we won't want to put -1/-1 counters on our own creatures if we can help it, especially since, like my failure of a son, some of them just aren't tough enough. To make up for that, we're running a few cards that deal in +1/+1 counters:

  • Though unlikely to survive much longer than her character did in those War of the Spark novels, Nissa, Voice of Zendikar is a three-mana way to put a counter on each of your creatures and might even stick around to grow a Plant or two.
  • Biophagus, despite sounding like a severe throat disease, is actually pretty useful here. It's a mana dork that adds a +1/+1 counter to anything you use its mana to cast, making that creature an instant Volrath target.
  • Though Generous Patron is usually used to pump up my Patreon income in Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons decks when putting counters on enemy creatures, don't forget that you need support, too. Split the difference: put one counter on an opponent's creature and one on your own to draw a card while creating a new disguise.
  • Master Biomancer is excellent, as with him on the field each other creature you cast will enter with at least two additional +1/+1 counters. Once you make Volrath a copy of him, that floor is bumped up to nine.
  • Defiler of Vigor turns all your green permanent spells into an activation of Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, but to compensate, it also reduces the cost of all of them by , too. What were they thinking?
  • Loyal Guardian's perfect with Volrath, since once both of them are out, everything becomes legal for him to copy as soon as your next combat step. You can even make a Volrath-Loyal Guardian if you want to give your team a significant boost.
  • Neoform is extremely useful no matter what mana value you're aiming for, since the deck has a consistent curve. We'll get to the specifics later, but the best mana values to sacrifice are two (to find good mana dorks), four (to find Loyal Guardian and Defiler of Vigor), five (to draw tons of cards off Prime Speaker Zegana), and seven (to win).
  • Titania's Command puts two counters on all your creatures and either makes some big blockers, finds two lands, or forces your friend playing Chainer, Nightmare Adept to resign. Note that this can even find nonbasic lands, so you'll almost certainly want to fetch up something like an Oran-Rief, the Vastwood or Yavimaya, Cradle of Growth.
  • Snakeskin Veil and Gaea's Gift both protect a creature that's about to be removed with the counter as a bonus.
  • Inscription of Abundance is usually a fight spell, but if you've got something you really want to dress up as, don't count out that +1/+1 counter mode. It can also gain you at least seven life if your commander's out, which is not nothing, and of course the choice is moot if you plan to kick it.
  • Ah, Simic Ascendancy. This'll win you the game easily if it goes unchallenged, but before it bites it, might as well put a counter or two on something you have.
  • Song of Freyalise is both quick ramp to Volrath and a confirmation that he won't have to stop by a Spirit Halloween for more fake mustaches on the way to his next hideout.
  • Master Chef, though not as good as Master Biomancer, gets the job done well enough if you have no other options.
  • Oran-Rief, the Vastwood and Vastwood Fortification both go in the land slot, so they're basically free ways to add counters to your creatures. Unlike other lands, I'm never sad to draw these.

Power's in the Costume

All the counters in the world won't matter if there aren't any good alter egos, and believe me, I've passed myself off as James Cordon enough times to crave becoming someone worth a damn. Luckily, years of evading the FBI, CIA, and RIAA have put me in touch with some... shall we say, interesting people. People who housed me, clothed me, and guided me through danger to safety. People I owe my life to. People whose identities I immediately thefted. But I always strive to be better than the people I become, and one of Volrath, the Shapestealer's strengths is that he's still a 7/5 when he dons his clever disguises. Most people use that with Infect, but this is How They Brew It, so my lists can't be unironically good (unless it's Ten Dollar Storm). Instead, let's take advantage of that to turn him into creatures that really, really don't expect their power to be that high.

  • One of the things we'll need to do to win is connect with our opponents. That's why most of our mana dorks incidentally have flying: Birds of Paradise, Gilded Goose, and Ornithopter of Paradise pull double duty as both commander evasion and additional mana.
    • Even regular Ornithopter makes an appearance: it triggers your Beast Whisperer and can become a threat on its own if you have any counter engines.
  • On the other hand, a Volrath-Champion of Lambholt is practically unblockable unless you're fighting a really tall Voltron deck. It extends to all of your creatures, too, meaning...
  • ... that Wild Beastmaster becomes an actual threat. If both Wild Beastmaster and a Volrath-Wild Beastmaster attack simultaneously, they'll pump each other up and radiate that benefit out to the rest of the team.
  • Need mana? Of course you do. Heronblade Elite, Marwyn, the Nurturer, and Selvala, Heart of the Wilds all base the amount of mana they make on creature power. Heck, some of them even put counters on themselves, making them easy targets.
    • Worried about the legend rule? Don't be. One of your removal spells permanently deals with that: simply put a name sticker on Volrath after killing a creature with a Finishing Move, and nothing he copies will ever have the same name as him again. Becoming a Bioluminary can help, too. You'll need to select sticker sheets, but they truly don't matter; I've got a different deck for that.
  • Want a Will-o'-the-Wisp stapled to a Horseshoe Crab? Have I got the plague for you! Locust Swarm's the best of both worlds, so protect Volrath by transforming him into one or untap him to generate more mana.
  • And finally, if you're worried about the commander tax increase by sacrificing a Volrath-Rampant Rejuvenator, don't. You're going up at least seven basics!

Carding Hard

You won't always have the luxury of being on the offensive, though. When you're on the run, you have to keep moving. Sometimes, spending just to get another copy of a draw engine's all you need to keep going. Just find the next place to sleep. I once wandered into a village where everyone spoke in bees. Made 'em spell out what they wanted to say. And I'm the weirdo?

  • We've already talked about Generous Patron, but there's a bit of additional tech you can do with Volrath, specifically. Wait until the start-of-combat trigger, which will put a -1/-1 counter on an enemy creature and then shift to the Patron to draw two cards a turn.
  • If you're less deft with declaring things on the stack, two Loyal Drakes will draw you two cards at combat with no fuss.
  • Of course, doubling up on Beast Whisperer and Defiler of Dreams makes creature spells insane value over time...
  • ...and since you're going to have consistent access to a seven-power creature, why not include a Soul's Majesty, Rishkar's Expertise, or Return of the Wildspeaker? Heck, Volrath curves wonderfully into Prime Speaker Zegana who will enter and draw you at least eight whole cards.

Learning a Lesson

Truth be told, giving up and letting myself be captured by one of the one-hundred and thirty-seven extant shadow governments has been tempting.  I've become so many different people, I don't even know who I am anymore. Did I even commit any crimes? I can't remember. Instead of hiding beneath the mask, I might as well just invent a completely new persona and stick with it. ...Wait a minute!

Yes, the answer has been staring me in the face the whole time! Those children's books, television shows, and knife-clowns were right after all. I'm not going to run anymore; I'm going be myself. Over, and over, and over!

Because it turns out, "if Volrath copies a creature with an ability that can be activated only once each turn (such as Beledros Witherbloom), you can activate that ability once. If Volrath then becomes a copy of that same creature, you can activate that ability another time, and so on." Unfortunately, most creatures with worthwhile once-per-turn abilities are legendary and subject to the legend rule. But who cares? Volrath's ability doesn't require us to target another creature. Once he's who we need him to be, he can simply target himself to become a clone of himself and refresh the limit without any help at all. Don't believe me? Remember the world's most bizzarre Arena bug from last time? It's the same principle.

  • Putrid Leech, Avizoa, and Pulsating Illusion each give substantial power and toughness boosts with no mana down. You only need to get to twenty-one to KO an opponent.
  • Wirewood Symbiote allows you to return an Elf to your hand to untap a creature. With our cabal of Heronblade Elite-style mana dorks, you can easily afford to pay and the cost of a Reclamation Sage to go mana-positive.
  • Speaking of Elves, Elvish Warmaster usually won't trigger off his own tokens, because his ability only happens once per turn. But what if you could respond to that trigger by resetting it? Throw in an Ashnod's Altar, and you can build an army as wide as you want.
  • Want to fly through dungeons like you're speedrunning the San Fran kink scene? Look no further than Varis, Silverymoon Ranger. It basically gives all your creatures dungeon kicker , in addition to being an Elf.
  • Remember Locust Swarm? Turns out he's as effective as Horseshoe Crab when it comes to untapping Volrath, the Shapestealer. It's pretty clear where this goes, given the general pattern of the previous cards.
  • Now for something that truly doesn't go infinite, you can cast any number of permanents you want from the graveyard by becoming new copies of Muldrotha, the Gravetide. Just pay per set of permanents you want to cast, and you're golden! It's fair and balan -- wait, this list includes an Ornithopter and an Ashnod's Altar, doesn't it?
  • Even though Volrath, the Shapestealer is becoming a new copy of the creature in question, it's still the same permanent the entire time. That means if you smack someone, you can activate Steel Hellkite's second ability on them as much as you'd like.
  • Beledros Witherbloom is straightforward, but it's unlikely you'll have the life to use him more than once or twice in a turn. You better really commit to winning that turn when you go for it.
  • Jin-Gitaxias, Progress Tyrant is much more defensive than other options here. You'll mostly want to use this to keep countering your opponents' spells, but there is something to be said for copying your Soul's Majesty in the meantime.
  • And last, but not least, is Patron of the Orochi. All you need is a Forest and any green creature that makes mana, and you're good to go. He's even kind enough to untap Volrath all by itself! In fact, the folks over at Commander Spellbook were good enough to implement and even animate this combo, check it out:

Only Then Will Your True Self Reveal Itself

You know, I think I've learned something today. If you're worried about being yourself, because you don't like yourself, or are mad at yourself for something you, yourself, did in the past, you can just improve yourself and then be yourself, or something. Me? I'm done running. I'm pretty content with who I am for now, and -- Aw hell, there's that damn snail.

If you enjoy How They Brew It, please check out the Discord and my other projects at my website. You can vote on what article you want to see next, or just check out the other cool stuff I do. Also, check out the rest of the articles by our talented writers here on Commander's Herald. I really liked the one with the Larvesta or the one that reviewed Commander 2014. See you next time!

Be Yourself, Volrath (Volrath, the Shapestealer EDH)

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Commander (1)
Planeswalkers (1)
Creatures (34)
Sorceries (6)
Instants (13)
Artifacts (5)
Enchantments (5)
Lands (35)

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Newly appointed member of the FDIC and insured up to $150,000 per account, Michael Celani is the member of your playgroup that makes you go "oh no, it's that guy again." He's made a Twitter account @GamesfreakSA as well as other mistakes, and his decks have been featured on places like MTGMuddstah. You can join his Discord at and vote on which decks you want to see next. In addition to writing, he has a job, other hobbies, and friends.