Phyrexia and political ideologies
Elesh Norn, proving religious fanaticism can be campy.
Phyrexia is by far one of the most interesting creations of Magic: The Gathering. A civilization of evil transhuman cyborgs is nothing new, but they’re magical evil transhuman cyborgs, and art and flavor across nearly three decades of existence have definitely sold them as one of the coolest takes on this trope. Phyrexia evolved drastically, perhaps fittingly for this biomechanical menace; starting as a “hell for artifacts” in the earliest flavor, this was quickly rectified as a society of eugenicist cyborgs under an evil god, and now they have returned as an infection consuming the whole of the multiverse.
As soon as the shift from generic hell to biomechanical nightmare occured, Phyrexia acquired unique thematic elements. Like most fantasy villains, it became a foil to the ideals the heroes represent, as as time passed this was expressed in a myriad of ways. Most notably, Yawgmoth was connected to real life atrocities early on, and in its current state the allegories have not ceased, making them also one of the most transgressive elements in modern Magic.
Old Phyrexia: Oily Eugenics
Moral of the story: goths are nazis.
The Thran, the chronologically oldest work in the Phyrexian saga (though written well after they debuted), explicitly connects Yawgmoth to Stalin in an author’s note, praising his muse for surviving “a real life Yawgmoth”. However, the beliefs of Yawgmoth and the practises of Old Phyrexia are not very Stalinist in nature, and at the risk of Godwin’s Law they truly are more similar with Germany’s stint with evil.
Yawgmoth in The Thran is a charistimatic individual, clearly interested in power. However, he sincerely believes in the concept of eugenics, of what he calls “progressive evolution”, phyresis. We’re initially lead to believe that the eugenicists of this setting are just another world’s term for biologist, since they believe in heretical things like microbes being the vectors of disease instead of demonic possession. However, as the book progresses we truly see Yawgmoth as an actual eugenicist, not only looking down at non-Thran peoples and experimenting on them but mutating and selectively breeding the Thran stock he was allegedly healing.
Thousands of years down the line, Phyrexian society is one where genetic engineering and artificial augmentation are its cornerstones. Vats are tended with creations called newts, who are then tested for their very lives’ worth. Occasionally outsiders are made into phyrexians via the process known as compleation, but this is comparatively rare. Phyrexia is mostly interested in invading planes to strip them of resources, be in metal or biomass to be used in newt creation.
This reveals a very profound in-group mentality and can be seen as a mockery of the concept of “chosen people”, since Yawgmoth lords over his favoured creations as God. In this regard, Old Phyrexia truly more closely resembles eugenicist nations with a concept of a master race, not just Nazism but also Imperial Japan and really most western powers until the mid 20th century. Beyond the most useful of tools, all other life is simply fodder at best, and Phyrexia represents an existential threat to all other beings.
Old Phyrexia is extensively religious, all phyrexian creatures serving Yawgmoth and there being several orders of clerics and knights. The highest beings within this hierarchy, the pneumagogs, are flat out based on Ezekiel’s seraphim. This brings to mind the many Christian nations preaching the “values” of racism and ethnical cleansing. This is married with terms like “evolution”, just like how scientific racism was contemporary with religious racism in grotesque misinterpretations of Darwin’s work.
In conclusion, beyond being simply an evil machine faction, Old Phyrexia digs deep in the darkest aspects of historical ideology, which makes them a nuanced and terrifying embody of depravity.
Machine Orthodoxy: Porcelain Horseshoes
Still better than Bible camp.
The New Phyrexia spawned by the infection of the plane of Mirrodin by glistening oil differs dramatically from the Old Phyrexia of Yawgmoth. For one thing, the once mono-Black Phyrexia now has access to all five colors of mana, resulting in varying ideologies. But most importantly, Phyrexia is now an infection, and eugenics no longer apply (for the most part).
This contrast is best exemplified in the Phyrexian faction aligned with White mana, the Machine Orthodoxy. They are highly dogmatic and traditional, basically the religious aspect of Old Phyrexia now with the mana to make it more authentic, but whereas the old vat priests selected the best genetic material for newts, the suture priests now sew every war captive they can find.
No longer exclusivist, the white Phyrexians compleat all organisms they can find, flaying them and either joining them together or covering them in bony porcelain. This is of course an extreme take on White’s ideals of peace and purity, transformed into a genuine desire to make the multiverse a better place. It’s just that “severing the tongues of the forsaken” is usually not considered a good thing outside of this church.
In this regards, Phyrexia under White mana resembles all the assimilatory allegories for communism in fiction. This is quite ironic given the religious motifs this faction has, but in the end mainstream religions also want for universal peace and equality. It’s a true horseshoe scenario where the allegory works well for both of these extremes.
That said, hints of Old Phyrexia’s elitism can still be found even here. Compleated people are unlikely to reach higher positions compared to core-born phyrexians, perhaps commentating on the hypocritical application of “equality” in historical theocratic and communist regimes. As Phyrexia consumed Mirrodin, the fanatical Machine Orthodoxy also brings to mind historical colonialism, using religion as a justification for resource acquisition and subjugation.
As Elesh Norn eventually won in the battles against other praetors, this is the face of New Phyrexia as a whole. So officially, the previously eugenicist faction has been rebranded as a cosmopolitan, “welcoming” civilization; if this isn’t commentary I don’t know what is.
Progress Engine: STEM[CELL] Fields
He will never live this down.
The Progress Engine is the New Phyrexian faction aligned with Blue mana, and filling the archetypical mad scientist niche I initially thought there wasn’t much to talk about, especially since they’re not in charge anymore. However, Jin-Gitaxias own ideology is reasonably well thought out and nuanced, and even has a few real life parallels.
Like most factions in New Phyrexia, the Progress Engine seeks to compleat others instead of resorting to insular eugenics. Indeed, Jin-Gitaxias rejects the term “evolution” in regards to phyresis, like a reasonable scientist sees through social darwinist bullcrap. Sure, they do tamper with genetics to create better designs, but at least they don’t exclude others from this.
If not for the still Unit 731-esque daily routine, the Progress Engine could almost be seen as an allegory for modern science rejecting most of the racist bs of past centuries, seeing the eugenicist Yawgmoth as a dumbass. Beyond this, however, there is not a lot of political allegory to be gleamed: they essentially operate as a giant lab, not as a government.
Being under Norn now, they essentially are little more than her R&D.
Steel Thanes: Truly Archaic
Sheoldred cosplaying as Norn.
The faction still aligned with Black mana, the Steel Thanes, are described as the “most traditional”. Yet, they differ from Old Phyrexia fundamentally, not really being interested in eugenics, lacking religous fundamentalism (though aligning with the Machine Orthodoxy once it becomes dominant) and welcoming any potential tool into their fold.
Instead, they are flat out described as a feudal system, with the Thanes competing among themselves for power and influence and holding territories, communicating with each other with a veneer of politeness, hiding murderous intentions. Under Norn, many swore loyalty to the church, while others threw their lot with the rebels.
Being also the only phyrexian faction openly interested in slaves (guess that justifies their open doors policy now), they are indeed “traditional”… just not to the horrific system created by Yawgmoth.
Quiet Furnace: Logcabiner Rebellion
When self-hatred saves the day.
The most radical of the new phyrexian factions is the one aligned with Red mana, the Quiet Furnace. Red mana represents things antithetical to the machine-like existence that is being a phyrexian: emotion, freedom, compassion. In contrast to both eugenicist Old Phyrexia and infectious New Phyrexia, this faction simply wants to be left alone, and even allowed the Mirran Resistance to take shelter in their territory.
Despiste the dominant urges to be anarchist, the Quiet Furnace still follows a rigid hierarchy with Urabrask at the top. In fact, most phyrexians in this faction display a lot of self-hatred according to the original Planeswalker’s Guide, dealing with their emotions by devoting themselves single-mindedly to industry. This quite parallels people within repressive systems fighting against who they are for the sake of it, which is quite sad.
Luckily, they seem to have gotten over this if the previews for Phyrexia All Will Be One are anything to go by. Urabrask has now allied himself with Mirrans and planeswalkers and even dissastisfied Steel Thanes in an open rebellion against Norn. If this will mean a redemption for Phyrexia, who knows.
Vicious Swarm: Hungry Hungry Luddites
Why go back to monkey when you can be a nazi fungus?
The Phyrexian faction aligned with Green mana, the Vicious Swarm, is at once very traditionally phyrexian and divergent. They reject the hierarchy found in Old Phyrexia, but otherwise engage in most of its pasttimes. Wholly devoted to a redditor’s interpretation of “evolution”, they seek to get rid of intelligence altogether and resort to a system where only the strongest survive.
Comparisions to the more deranged takes on Luddism and anarcho-primitivism are self-made, but worth noting is that this phyrexian faction is the least assimilatory. They would rather devour everything non-phyrexian, and hold that the phyrexian way is still superior. In this regard, they bring to mind racial environmentalist; Nazis were very pro-nature, and so are a variety of white supremacists nowadays who think healing the earth means ethnic cleansing.
Unlike other iterations of Phyrexia, the Vicious Swarm is thus less of a clear cut allegory and more of a Frankenstein’s Monster of bad take ideologies. Under Norn though, they are leashed, perhaps the only good thing she ever did.
Conclusion: Remember The Sins Of The Past
Still don’t know who this guy is.
Beyond a cool monster concept, Phyrexia is allegorical to many past crimes that cannot be forgotten. While in some ways WOTC has made Magic tamer and more palatable to a broader audience, Phyrexia continues to be a reminder of the worst thoughts, words and deeds humanity has commited, and to me this is equally as important.