Phyrexia: All Will be One is admittedly a difficult set to compartmentalize. The first time I was introduced to the plane of Mirrodin, I saw it as an exciting new direction for Magic to go in, exploring a world that put artifacts first. At that time, artifacts were one of my favorite types, along with the creature type “Legend”. By the time we returned to the plane in 2010, I had a much better understanding of Magic and even went as far as buying a playset of Stoneforge Mystics, knowing Mirrodin would likely mean strong equipment. I saw the Mystic as an obvious plant for the coming year. What I wasn’t ready for was the reintroduction of the Phyrexians, a big bad long thought dead but foreshadowed in the prologue of the 2003 novel, The Moons of Mirrodin. What felt like a chilling return of evil in 2010 has become a gruesome foe, finally ready to perfect the multiverse. 

As the set was being previewed, I had a difficult time enjoying myself. There is so much iconography which reminds me of what we had, which has now been completely corrupted. Ironically, the only glimmer of excitement I really had was the reintroduction of poison in the form of the Toxic keyword. As an avid fan of alternate win conditions, I’ve had a soft spot for poison since Scars of Mirrodin. It’s the kind of aggressive deck I enjoy, probably because it felt like a puzzle to solve. But in the context of Commander, it’s always felt like an undue boogeyman. Today, let’s look at the current state of poison in the context of Commander, and resurrect a poison deck I haven’t played in over three years, built around Volrath, the Shapestealer.

Without the benefit of extensive play testing, I don’t yet know if this is an extremely linear deck which may lose my interest after a few games in public. But in terms of being an upgrade to a deck I had back in the fall of 2019, this really excites me for what it seems capable of doing. This will be contrasted against the previous deck, which often felt like it was stalling for time, trying to reach the key cards which were really going to enable the infect strategy. After dismantling the deck due to a lack of interest on my part, I had not considered new cards which came out set after set. Uncovering this deck list was a bit of a thrill which I am excited to share.

Commander: Volrath, the Shapestealer

Creatures: Blackcleave Goblin, Blighted Agent, Bloated Contaminator, Bloodspore Thrinax, Cankerbloom, Defiler of Vigor, Dune Mover, Flensermite, Glissa’s Retriever, Kodama of the West Tree, Midnight Banshee, Myr Convert, Paladin of Predation, Phyrexian Crusader, Phyrexian Fleshgorger, Phyrexian Swarmlord, Plague Stinger, Putrefax, Ridgescale Tusker, Roalesk, Apex Hybrid, Septic Rats, Tainted Observer, Tekuthal, Inquiry Dominus, Tetzimoc, Primal Death, Thrummingbird, Tyranid Prime, Tyrranax Rex, Viral Drake, Viridian Corrupter

Artifacts: Contagion Clasp, Contagion Engine, Glistening Sphere, Grafted Exoskeleton, Sol Ring, Talisman of Curiosity, Talisman of Dominance, Talisman of Resilience

Enchantments: Alpha Authority, Awesome Presence, Corrupted Conscience, Glistening Oil

Instants: An Offer You Can’t Refuse, Grim Affliction, Reject Imperfection, Sultai Charm, Tainted Strike, Tear Asunder

Sorceries: Artful Dodge, Black Sun’s Zenith, Contentious Plan, Courage in Crisis, Distorted Curiosity, Geth’s Summons, In Garruk’s Wake, Migration Path, Persist, Skyshroud Claim, Slip Through Space, Tezzeret’s Gambit, The Crowd Goes Wild, Unnatural Restoration

Lands: 6 Island, 9 Forest, 6 Swamp, Breeding Pool, Contaminated Aquifer, Drowned Catacomb, Haunted Mire, Hinterland Harbor, Karn’s Bastion, Llanowar Reborn, Morphic Pool, Nesting Grounds, Novijen, Heart of Progress, Overgrown Tomb, Rejuvenating Springs, Tangled Islet, Undergrowth Stadium, Watery Grave, Woodland Cemetery, Zagoth Triome

Does This Still Look Infected?

Poison has been a polarizing mechanic which can act as a fun alternate win condition. But, it has always been treated like a mechanic on the edge of being unfair. In the past, I would admit that a Commander deck built around poison never really had a solid shell to allow for economic play against three other players at a table. And my first pass of Phyrexia All Will Be One would be inclined to agree with the discussion around the topic on a recent Command Zone episode. Toxic provides a lot of new tools. But, the amount of poison isn’t linked to a creature’s power and creatures deal combat damage in conjunction with the poison. This provides nuance that infect never did. Additionally, the Corrupted keyword, while not abundant in the deck I have constructed this week, provides another hook to be considered while making card selections.

Having no experience with the cards in my hand at the time of writing, I don’t want to come down on either side to say the cards coming out of ONE are or aren’t good for the format. Not yet, at least. However, Commander is a meaningful factor in how Wizards designs cards, especially when contrasted against Infect’s appearance in 2010 to 2011. Because of this, I feel pretty confident in saying Toxic was designed with healthy consideration of how it balanced in a multiplayer environment. In fact, as an Infect acolyte, I would even say the card pool was so bare, the archetype had no nuance and could be unraveled by a table with any sense of agency. Now, we actually have decisions to make during card selection, and can even move into Abzan pretty seamlessly. Overall, I feel unafraid of what Toxic will bring to Commander and hope it will become a branch of aggressive decks, just with a slightly different make-up.

Making the Comeback

If there are now viable options to build a poison deck around a dedicated commander, why am I choosing to hamper myself and return to an outdated option? Well, as a Commander Hipster, I will admit to being a bit of a contrarian. But I also find some joy in building around commanders who are more open-ended, in an effort to create something more uniquely fit to my preferences. Volrath, the Shapestealer was a dependable commander throughout the tail end of 2019, who fell by the wayside as we entered the “webcam Commander” era. Not only did this deck highlight a mechanic which was frowned upon, but it was built around spreading counters across the entire table. This was hard to track when everyone was working with varying battlefields and visual clarity. But it’s hard to overlook all the fun times had during our original time together, and I think the added choices we can make with the deck mean it’s primed to come out of retirement.

Firstly, a wider swath of poison-enablers means I am not solely relying on my commander to deal the poison counters out. In the original build, creatures like Blackcleave Goblin and Blighted Agent were only in the deck because they were a good suite of abilities to make into a seven power creature. But Paladin of Predation will always deal out six poison counters, even if only one damage were to make it through, thanks to the trample granted by Kodama of the West Tree. Also, with the nature of the mechanic, Toxic allowing combat damage to matter means we can still consider commander damage as a factor. This is something I rarely did in the previous iteration of this deck.

But with the wealth of proliferate cards in War of the Spark and All Will Be One, getting even a single poison counter onto each opponent could make death by poison inevitable. In fact, there are so many different counter shenanigans going on in this list, I’m certain there are multip,e ways to defeat players with poison or regular damage, with only one or two swings in their direction. Tekuthal, Inquiry Dominus not only can make our general indestructible, but they have a built-in method to become targetable by Volrath. And Tyranid Prime takes what I had tried to do with a card like Generous Patron and makee it a constant flow of +1/+1 counters. So while it may be a little anticlimactic, I think that’s a good summation of what this deck is capable of. In flavor with the Phyrexian, this deck is single-minded and inevitable in a way which feels a little problematic.

Poison has at times had a bad rap in Commander as this boogeyman which requires changes to the rules to properly answer. Honestly, I wouldn’t change anything at this juncture. Infect has been an aggressive strategy in formatwhich discourages fast combat-damage-based decks. I think Toxic changed the game plan enough to not make the strategy completely overwhelming. Maybe this reinvention of Volrath can catch on, 

I still maintain that Commander allows for so many different expressions of similar ideas. My hope is if poison does become a problem, players can be empathetic to the people who invested in the strategy, and work towards a middle ground. They can find one where the archetype still sees play, but at the appropriate time. Be good to each other and I’ll see you all next time.

Ryan Sainio (he/him) is a Graphic Designer exploring the Commander format and Magic history on a regular basis. Notable decks that value flavorful and fun gameplay over competitively optimized decks include Shattergang Eldrazi, Doran Soul Sisters, and Chatterfang ProsBloom.

MTG Content Creator Awards 2022 nominee: Format Specialty Writing & Excellence in Writing Overall

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