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I was surprised to see that the wording on Volrath Shapeshifter is not just old card text, but the actual oracle wording. I am curious, why does it not simply copy the the other creature, and have that ability added?

Instead of

As long as the top card of your graveyard is a creature card, Volrath's Shapeshifter has the full text of that card and has the text "2: Discard a card." (Volrath's Shapeshifter has that card's name, mana cost, color, types, abilities, power, and toughness.)

why isn't it

As long as the top card of your graveyard is a creature card, Volrath's Shapeshifter is a copy of that card except it gains "2: Discard a card."

The latter wording is used by lots of cards such as Evil Twin or Progenitor Mimic. Is there a functional difference between the 2?

In fact, I just now noticed that older version of the card DO use the "copy" wording. So there must be a good reason for the change!

Related question, what exactly happens when the top card of the graveyard changes? The wording "As long as the top card of your graveyard is a creature card..." was part of the original Shapeshifter, but it card no longer has that text once it takes the text of another creature. So what rules or text is there in the game that would cause it to change to another creature, or to change back to a 0/1 blue creature?

For example, if you discard Grizzly Bears, then the card on the battlefield is now simply a Grizzly Bears with the discard ability. No where in that card's new text does it say anything about changing to a different creature if the graveyard changes, so how does it work?

The rulings specifically say "A copy of a Volrath's Shapeshifter will have the shapeshifting ability", but why?

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It is probably worth it to split this question into 2 questions, especially since you have already answered one of them. –  Colin D Feb 6 at 16:33
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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

GendoIkari has the first part covered. This covers the rest.


No where in that card's new text does it say anything about changing to a different creature if the graveyard changes, so how does it work?

As the passage GendoIkari quoted says, it's a text-replacement effect, so it does lose his ability. Yet, it still continues to function!

Text-replacement effects are a form of continuous effect, and continuous effects are reapplied whenever the game state changes.

Even though the replaced VS no longer has the ability, he changes form when the top of the graveyard changes because the layers are reapplied whenever the game state changes, and you always start with the card text.

613.1. The values of an object’s characteristics are determined by starting with the actual object. For a card, that means the values of the characteristics printed on that card. [...]

For example, say a Llanowar Elves tops the Grizzly Bear in your graveyard. What is the Shapeshifter?

  1. Start with the card text: A VS with the text-replacement ability.
  2. Then apply the changes to layer 3: A Llanowar Elves with the discard ability.

For example, say a Lightning Bolt tops the Grizzly Bear in your graveyard. What is the Shapeshifter?

  1. Start with the card text: A VS with the text-replacement ability.
  2. Then apply the changes to layer 3: Still a VS with the text-replacement ability.

The rulings specifically say "A copy of a Volrath's Shapeshifter will have the shapeshifting ability", but why?

It's straight from the rules:

706.2. When copying an object, the copy acquires the copiable values of the original object’s characteristics [...] Other effects (including type-changing and text-changing effects), status, and counters are not copied.

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Some credit goes to @John for trying to answer this. –  ikegami Feb 6 at 17:24
    
I think you guys are over-thinking what he's asking. The answer imo is just: 706.2. When copying an object, the copy acquires the copiable values...Other effects (including type-changing and text-changing effects), status, and counters are not copied. the results of text-changes are not copiable, so when you copy the shapeshifter you get a 'base' one that then text-changes itself to the top card of your GY. –  Affe Feb 6 at 18:12
    
I read OP's question as "If I Clone my opponent's Volrath's Shapeshifter, why do I get a shapeshifter of my own instead of a copy of the top card of my opponent's GY?" –  Affe Feb 6 at 18:14
    
@Affe, Oops, I quoted the wrong question from the OP. (See update.) What you just answered is a third previously-unanswered question. It's now included in my answer. –  ikegami Feb 6 at 18:23
    
Oops, I see that my last sentence caused some confusion. I misread the rulings, and I thought it said that the creature that VS becomes will retain the shapeshifting ability, as opposed to it talking about another creature that is a copy of a VS. So my last sentence wasn't meant to be a new question, just a different wording of the other question. Sorry about that! –  GendoIkari Feb 6 at 18:25
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Sometimes Google does wonders. According to the January 2009 Update Bulletin, the oracle wording was changed because of the new layering system rules.

Oh, Volrath's Shapeshifter. Sometimes when the rules are systemically changed for the betterment of the game as a whole, and for most cards in general, one or two cards get thrown under the bus. That's what happened to Volrath's Shapeshifter. When the continuous effect layer system was implemented, different kinds of continuous effects were broken out so they'd apply in a set sequence. It was determined that copy effects would apply before control-change effects because all existing cards—except one—would work that way. (Switching those layers to save Volrath's Shapeshifter is not an option; if we did, Copy Enchantment copying Confiscate, or Clone copying Sower of Temptation, to name a couple of more modern examples, would cease to work as you'd expect.)

The reason Volrath's Shapeshifter breaks under the layer system is that it cares about the top card of its controller's graveyard—so its copy effect is dependent on who controls it. Say Player A controls Volrath's Shapeshifter, then Player B Confiscates it. Volrath's Shapeshifter will continue to look at Player A's graveyard. That's because Volrath's Shapeshifter knows who its original controller was, and its copy effect is applied before Confiscate's control-change effect is applied to swing it over to Player B.

To handle this, Volrath's Shapeshifter's effect was changed from a copy effect to a text-changing effect (which happens after control-change effects). Most text-changing effects change a single word of text, like Mind Bend does. Volrath's Shapeshifter changes all its text, and expands the definition of "text" to include color and mana cost, among other things. It's ugly, but it does the trick.

I'd love to tell you that I have an elegant fix for this card, and that's why it's on the list. Nope. I'm deleting some unnecessary text from the card, putting in a comma, and fixing the italicization of its reminder text. (The unnecessary text is that Volrath's Shapeshifter's ability says that it works "as long as Volrath's Shapeshifter is in play," but that goes without saying, so this is just redundant.)

The short version is that with the copying effect version, if someone steals control of the Shapeshifter with Mind Control or something similar, then the Shapeshifter would have continued to look at the original controller's graveyard, not the new controller's graveyard, which is counter-intuitive. So the text-changing ability was given instead to make it work as expected.

I still have no answer to the second part of the question, though.

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