One of my biggest complaints about generals is how linear they can be, or that everyone focuses on the “best shell.” When I analyzed the Faceless Menace deck, I thought that Volrath, the Shapestealer would capture my attention and lead to an exciting interpretation to write about. Instead, as I began to formulate plans they splintered off into different ideas all using Volrath at the helm, to the extent that I developed three distinct ideas. Just as last week we looked at Volrath as a Clone tribal deck, this week will cover a specialized Voltron build, and next week I will be focusing on the lore of the character.

A Brief History: Volrath

As a refresher from last time: The man that would become Volrath was born Vuel, and was introduced as an antagonist to Gerrard Capashen. Vuel grows friendly to Gerrard, then resentful as Gerrard’s actions got Vuel exiled from his homeland. Vuel’s lust for power leads him to the artificial plane of Rath, where he became an apostle of Yawgmoth, god of Phyrexia.

This led Vuel to become Volrath, the new Evincar of Rath and one of the main antagonists of that period of Magic story leading into Invasion block. He experimented on slivers as part of his plans to use flowstone to overlay Rath onto Dominaria and invade the plane. Volrath dies during the invasion at the hands of Ertai, the Corrupted, being disassembled from the inside out.

This much clearer representation of Volrath over Volrath the Fallen comes with a lot of advantages, both flavorful and strategic. He has a link to Phyrexia through his use of -1/-1 counters and he can mimic others while retaining his natural base stats. He is leading you in a direction as a general, but his open-ended design allows for him to be used in different ways, such as this week’s deck, built around Infect.

I Can Only Count to Ten

Infect is a polarizing mechanic that acts as a fun alternate win condition. For the purposes of Commander, I would admit that it’s never really had a solid deck skeleton to allow it to play competitively against three other players at a table. While examples exist, mostly from Game Knights, infect has been competitively stunted by a limited card pool that doesn’t necessarily stack up well in a format where you have to battle multiple opponents. The upside being, your creatures all have scaled-up combat damage and you only count to ten.

Infect: Blackcleave Goblin, Blighted Agent, Corrupted Conscience, Flensermite, Flesh-Eater Imp, Glistening Oil, Grafted Exoskeleton, Pestilent Souleater, Phyresis, Phyrexian Crusader, Phyrexian Swarmlord, Plague Stinger, Putrefax, Septic Rats, Spinebiter, Tainted Strike, Triumph of the Hordes

By design this deck is heavy handed on creatures with infect as they all serve two purposes. When we look at creatures like Spinebiter and Blackcleave Goblin, we definitely aren’t getting a competitive rate for Commander. But they do have a purpose, as Volrath, the Shapestealer can take the text on these creatures and graft them to his 7/5 base stats. Additionally, infect creatures will naturally put counters onto other creatures, something we need to get our general going. These interactions became the impetus for the entire deck.

My deck skeleton might not be optimal, but I believe it can be a blueprint to leverage these overlooked infect gems into something worthy of respect. This means that as the game progresses we can use our Pestilent Souleater to acquire infect, before taking on the form of another creature that may be on the table. But our suite of counter-distributing cards goes beyond our infect creatures.

Distributing Counters

Last week I discussed a suite of cards that would help that deck super-charge Volrath’s ability, citing Bloodspore Thrinax, Generous Patron, Lead by Example, and The Crowd Goes Wild as the limited package needed to fuel Volrath in that deck. But this week, we’re going to be up the saturation of counter distribution to not only allow Volrath to take on other forms more easily, but frankly because infect creatures are better when they have +1/+1 counters on them.

Counters: Altered Ego, Black Sun’s Zenith, Bloodspore Thrinax, Combine Guildmage, Generous Patron, Midnight Banshee, Lead by Example, Ridgescale Tusker, Spark Double, Tetzimoc, Primal Death, The Crowd Goes Wild

Support is an excellent mechanic for the purposes of this deck. It allows expedient distribution of counters and can also act as a political element in games. Lead by Example is nice as either a combat trick to change the math on one of my creatures, or as a way to spontaneously have another option for Volrath’s shape-stealing. Thanks to our genrally low mana curve, Combine Guildmage can add a slight upfront charge to cheap creatures for counters. Then there is a staple for this deck, Tetzimoc, Primal Death. Once in your hand they work as a cheap method of adding counters and a harbinger of the pinpoint Wrath effect to come.

For awhile, I assumed that getting a massive pile of counters on Volrath was going to be my route to victory. But I soon realized that spreading the counters out was going to be more beneficial. As such, the only creature I wanted to fit into this deck only to cut for being counterintuitive was Solarion. Without some untap support akin to Mairsil, the Pretender, I believe the combo is too clunky to speed up poison kills.

A Game of Proliferation

One of my weaknesses in Commander deckbuilding is a lack of several clear win conditions. Modern Infect decks win by hitting one opponent as hard as possible with one creature, but the nature of Commander requires long-term strategies to achieve a poison assassination. Luckily I lived through the Mirrodin Besieged Standard, so I know the power of proliferate in the block and the added power we’ve gotten from War of the Spark. It can be rudimentary to get a single poison counter onto each opponent and proliferate them out of a game. The important part is to have several repeatable mana sinks to help close it out.

Proliferate: Contagion Clasp, Contagion Engine, Contentious Plan, Courage in Crisis, Grim Affliction, Guildpact Informant, Roalesk, Apex Hybrid, Throne of Geth, Thrummingbird, Viral Drake

This section is not perfect—I wish the available pool of cards was a little wider. With Contentious Plan only proliferating and not providing any kind of counter for which to replicate, that means the cantrip is good but the purpose of the card is slightly situational. Courage in Crisis and Grim Affliction are more helpful, but not repeatable.

I am pleased with what the rest of this suite offers. Remember, repeatable mana sinks are key here. Contagion Engine and Viral Drake not only facilitate a poison win but also slowly deteriorate the creatures that my opponents might have with -1/-1 counters on them. Thrummingbird and its functional twin Guildpact Informant can mean that damage anywhere could change the math of the table. Roalesk, Apex Hybrid has the right kind of card text to allow Volrath to be a regular Voltron commander if need be, and also can be used to finish games with the sacrificial double proliferate.

I know that infect gets a bad rap in Commander as this boogeyman that requires changes to the rules to properly answer. Honestly, I wouldn’t change anything. Infect is an aggressive strategy in format that discourages fast combat-damage-based decks. Volrath might not be the perfect build, but I honestly think he could add some legitimacy with his unique spin on copying creatures. I have no doubt that if this deck does catch on, pilots would need to be ready to be the first target at a table. As benign as I believe infect is at the moment, it creates a visceral feeling in players that is hard to overcome.

Next week we’ll be diving into a Commander deck focusing on the lore of Volrath, something less conventional than Clones or Infect. The idea of dedicating three weeks to covering Volrath seemed overblown at first. But I realized it wouldn’t be a waste, because I wanted to demonstrate that every general comes with so much potential when you’re allowed to broaden your horizons. When a player pulls out Sliver Overlord, you can assume you’re about to face down a swarm of slivers. But I’d love to see a change so that maybe when Atraxa, Praetors’ Voice comes out, you have to wonder if you’re facing down anything from infect to a graft-theme deck.

Commander allows for so many different expressions of similar ideas. My hope is to highlight the need for people to be empathetic to people that want to try new ideas without the intention of creating something fundamentally broken. Be good to each other and I’ll see you all next time.

Ryan Sainio is a Graphic Designer who writes about EDH and the EDH community. He has been playing Magic: The Gathering since 7th Edition in 2002 and values flavorful and fun gameplay over competitively optimized decks.

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