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15, Jan, 23

The History of MTG Phyrexia

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Over the years, Magic: The Gathering has drawn from a wide rogues’ gallery of villains. From the power hungry draconic tyrant Nicol Bolas to the eldritch and unknowable Eldrazi titans. None of Magic’s villains have been with the series longer than the Phyrexians. The cards Phyrexian Gremlins and Priest of Yawgmoth appeared in Antiqiuties, Magic’s 3rd set released all the way back in March 1994.

The upcoming release of Phyrexia: All Will Be One promises to thrust the Phyrexians back into the spotlight. Let’s go back through the history of these long standing villains from Yawgmoth to the present day and analyse what makes them so formidable.

Yawgmoth and “Old Phyrexia”

Yawgmoth, Thran Physician
Yawgmoth, Thran Physician | Modern Horizons

The story of Phyrexia begins with the story of Yawgmoth. Yawgmoth was a doctor native to the Thran Empire, an ancient but technologically advanced civilization which thrived during Dominaria’s early history. Yawgmoth was called to the Thran capital of Halcyon in order to treat a disease known as Phthisis. Yawgmoth’s cure for Phthisis involved replacing diseased organic limbs with artificial ones, a process he named Phyresis. Yawgmoth was able to deceive a Planeswalker named Dyfed into opening a portal to a new world, which he claimed he would transform into a paradise where he would care for the ill. Yawgmoth instead corrupted this world into the nightmarish hellscape of Phyrexia. He transformed his patients into an army of grotesque partially synthetic, partially organic monstrosities.

Yawgmoth’s horrific experiments were uncovered and the Thran Empire fell into civil war. At the end of this war, the Thran capital of Halcyon was destroyed in a cloud of deadly gas, ultimately leading to the fall of their civilization. Though the Thran Empire fell, Yawgmoth and the Phyrexians were sealed away and the portal to their realm was closed off.

Many thousands of years later, the brothers Urza and Mishra unintentionally reactivate this portal to Phyrexia during a search for Thran relics. The Phyrexians gradually corrupted Mishra, leading to the Brothers’ War. Urza prevailed over his brother, but at a steep price. The war ended with Urza detonating a superweapon known as the Golgothian Sylex. The explosion from the Sylex devastated much of Dominaria, eventually plunging the plane into an ice age, but also sealing the world away from Phyrexia’s reach. These events are depicted on the card Urza’s Ruinous Blast. The blast also awakend Urza’s spark, transforming him into a planeswalker.

Having won the war, Urza realised that the Phyrexians were the greatest threat to his world. He spent generations devising a plan to stop them. Urza resorted to some less than moral means, such as instituting “the bloodlines project” a program designed to breed the perfect hero over hundreds of years. The project resulted in the birth of Gerrard Capashen Urza’s most powerful pawn in his mission to destroy the Phyrexians. When the Phyrexians eventually did invade Dominaria again, Urza was ready for them. Using a series of powerful artifacts known as “the Legacy”, alongside sacrificing his and Gerrard’s life, Urza was able to kill Yawgmoth and destroy the Phyrexians for good. Or so it seemed…

Mirrodin and New Phyrexia

Mirrodin Besieged
Mirrodin Besieged | Modern Horizons

One of the powerful “legacy” artifacts used to destroy Yawgmoth was the silver golem, Karn. The strike that killed Yawgmoth caused Karn’s spark to awaken, enabling him to planeswalk. Karn constructed his own plane, a mechanical world that became known as Mirrodin. Unfortunately, Karn unknowingly tainted his new world with Phyrexian oil. This Glistening Oil corrupted Memnarch, a golem Karn appointed as the guardian of Mirrodin. Although Memnarch was defeated, in 2003-20004s Mirrodin block, the corruption did not stop with him. The storyline of 2010-2011s Scars of Mirrodin block depicted how the plane was gradually overwhelmed by Phyrexian influence, as the glistening oil spread. The plane’s greatest champions were corrupted, in a process known as “compleation“, turning them against their home. Glissa Sunseeker one of Mirrodin’s heroes who took down Memnarch became Glissa the Traitor.

In a unique marketing strategy, Wizards of the Coast refused to provide the name of the final set of Scars of Mirrodin block. They marketed it both as Mirrodin Pure and New Phyrexia. Ultimately, however, the Mirrans lost their war and the plane of Mirrodin was warped and twisted into New Phyrexia.

Whilst the original generation of Phyrexians were associated with Black mana, the new generation created on New Phyrexia were different. The plane has five suns, one for each color of mana. These suns influenced the development of five seperate Phyrexian factions, each led by a Praetor.

-The Machine Orthodoxy: the White aligned Phyrexians, led by Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. A religious sect who believe it is their holy mission to spread the glory of Phyrexia across the multiverse.

-The Progress Engine: the Blue aligned Phyrexians, led by Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur. The scientists of New Phyrexia, they conduct experiments to improve the perfection of Phyrexia.

-The Seven Steel Thanes: the Black aligned Phyrexians, led by Sheoldred, Whispering One. Several separate roving bands of warlords. They fight amongst themselves to prove they are worthy of claiming Yawgmoth’s former crown as the “father of machines”.

-The Quiet Engine: the Red aligned Phyrexians, led by Urabrask the Hidden. The least malevolent of Phyrexia’s faction. They have retained their individuality. They coexist with Mirrans, rather than attempting to compleat them or wipe them out.

-The Vicious Swarm: the Green aligned Phyrexians, led by Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger. A violent horde of mutated creatures, the Vicious Swarm believe in the survival of the fittest. They kill and consume one another to prove their strength.

The Phyrexian Arc

Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines
Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines | Phyrexia: All Will Be One

For a long time after the conclusion of Scars of Mirrodin block, the Phyrexians were content to lurk in the shadows biding their time. We spent nine years getting only fragmentary snapshots of what was happening on New Phyrexia. The printing of Atraxa, Praetors’ Voice in Commander 2016 gave us a few insights. Atraxa was an angel corrupted by four out of Phyrexia’s five Praetors. The lack of Red in her color identity, demonstrates Urabrask’s refusal to work with the other Praetors. We also got a handful of cards, like Plague Engineerin sets such as 2019s Modern Horizons that showed the Phyrexians were still very much a presence, even if they weren’t currently in the spotlight.

Then the Phyrexians came roaring back into the foreground, with the release of Kaldheim in 2020. The card Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider showed Phyrexia’s Green aligned Praetor running wild across the Norse mythology inspired plane. Vorinclex was hunted by the planeswalker Kaya before escaping and murdering Eskia, the Godess of Kaldheim’s world tree. Vorinclex stole some of the tree’s sap and returned to New Phyrexia.

After this, the Phyrexians lay dormant again for another two years before Jin-Gitaxias, Progress Tyrant appeared in 2022s Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty. On Kamigawa, Jin-Gitaxias managed to devise a method of corrupting planeswalkers with the taint of Phyrexia, something previously believed to be impossible. He compleated Tamiyo, a moon folk planeswalker native to the plane.

No longer content to wait on the sidelines, the Phyrexians appeared again in Magic’s very next set: Streets of New Capenna. Urabrask, Heretic Praetor appeared, beaten and wounded on the metropolitan plane. Urabrask revealed that he had turned against the other Praetors and planned to stop them from conquering the multiverse. He argued that halo, a magical substance that flows through New Capenna, would be the key to their defeat.

It was in Dominaria United that the Phyrexians returned in full force. Sheoldred, the Apocalypse traveled to Dominaria, filling the plane with Phyrexian spies. She corrupted Ajani Goldmane transforming him into Ajani, Sleeper Agent. Karn had been hoping to use the Golgothian Sylex, Urza’s ancient superweapon, to destroy New Phyrexia, however, Sheoldred had the device destroyed and Karn abducted and taken to New Phyrexia.

Fortunately, the artificer Saheeli Rai was able to create a perfect replica of the Sylex. The time manipulating magician Teferi traveled back in time to the Brothers’ War in order to find out how to operate it. He succeeded and passed this knowledge along to characters in the present, but ended up getting Desynchronized from time.

Now, the replica Sylex in hand, a ragtag group of Planeswalkers travels to New Phyrexia in order to stop the corruption of the Multiverse. They discover that Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines intends to use the sap taken from Kaldheim’s World Tree to build a Phyrexian tree called “Realmbreaker” with roots that will spread across the entire multiverse. Currently things look pretty bleak for our protagonists. Five out of the ten planeswalkers who arrived on New Phyrexia have already been compleated. But this is a story which is still being written…

Read more: Who Are the Phyrexians in MTG?

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