Magic: The Gathering - The Cursed Realm of Phyrexia, Explained
Matthew Beilman
The multiverse of Magic: The Gathering can be a pretty dark place, but the inkiest, and most terrifying, evil flows from the cursed realm of Phyrexia and its vile master Yawgmoth. The original antagonist faction for the game, the horrific machine-zombies called Phyrexians have plagued the story's heroes for decades. Let's take a look at the lore and history of the original Phyrexians.
Long ago, a planeswalker spark gave its bearer vast godlike powers, including the ability to create entire planes of reality out of nothing. The original version of Phyrexia was one such plane, its original designer having died before putting his creation to much use. Phyrexia then was a plane consisting of a few nested spheres, each with its own unique but artificial ecosystem. Mechanical life was born, thrived, decayed and died here in a closed-loop, unnoticed by the multiverse at large for decades until Yawgmoth arrived.
On the central plane of Dominaria, Yawgmoth was a mad scientist on the run. He had swindled the Thran Empire, murdered and experimented upon several people and unleashed biological weapons on the innocent to amass personal power. Many wanted him dead, but Yawgmoth and some followers managed to escape through a planar portal to the strange artificial world he would name Phyrexia. Although trapped when the portal closed, Yawgmoth still had plenty of followers to play with -- and now he'd just been handed the keys to an entire world he could use to refine his vile genetic research for the next 5,000 years.
Yawgmoth went about constructing additional spheres within Phyrexia, bringing their total to nine. Each sphere would be used for a different vast industrial purpose, such as a world-sized furnace encompassing the 7th sphere. The people trapped along with Yawgmoth became the first true Phyrexians as they were genetically and cybernetically modified to thrive in their new environment. The artificial ecosystem of the plane was tinkered with and spiraled out of control while Yawgmoth developed ways to spread his genetic augmentation through viruses and then through a complex mutagen known as the glistening oil. This oil was able to not only infect others with Phyrexian plague but could carry with it genetic information and programming. In a process similar to Star Trek's Borg, any useful lifeforms could be physically broken down, reconstructed and then mutated by glistening oil to compleat an individual into a Phyrexian. New life was soon developed that could propagate, and castes were soon instilled upon the nascent population of horrors growing and evolving across the plane.
To keep his new creations loyal, Yawgmoth elevated some of his more trusted minions into demonic beings of great power called Praetors to serve as his hellish middle-management. He would also write a book cloaked in the trappings of a religious text, known as The Phyrexian Scriptures, which painted him as a deity to his experiments. The scriptures detailed the Phyrexian dogma for continuous self-improvement at any cost, the supremacy of the strong over the weak and the promise of one day finding other worlds to bring their mad philosophy.
The Phyrexian need to find perfection was codified as a philosophy known as the Grand Evolution -- the search for evolutionary supremacy. The Phyrexians would come to believe that mortal flesh was not only weak and prone to decay, but actually sinful. Constant mechanical and genetic modification was not only helpful to the user but mandatory. Comparable to extreme social Darwinism, the Phyrexian way of life called for the subsumption or annihilation of all foreign creatures, ideas and cultures in striving for maximum efficiency. In time the only will on Phyrexia was Yawgmoth's, and he cocooned himself at the center of the ninth sphere to become the dark god he had always wished to be, yet divorced from the world of his birth -- now only a hermit king to a hollow people.
Thousands of years after Yawgmoth's imprisonment, two brother artificers on Dominaria named Mishra and Urza accidentally reactivated the portal to Phyrexia and everything changed again. Yawgmoth could once more access an entire world of people with which to experiment and consume. Unfortunately for Phyrexia, these same events culminated in Urza becoming the greatest planeswalker MtG has ever known and spending the rest of his long life engaging in a personal vendetta against Yawgmoth. It was this story and the stories that emanated from it that became the backbone of early Magic: the Gathering fiction. While there have been many story arcs throughout the game's history, for a long time most of them could trace their origins to Urza's long war against Phyrexia that ran from Antiquities in 1994 up until it's climax during Invasion in 2000, when years of storytelling culminated in a full-blown Phyrexian invasion of Dominaria and the mutual destruction of both Urza and Yawgmoth.
The original Phyrexians were creatures entirely represented by black mana cards and on plenty of artifacts. Early game Phyrexian mechanics included artifact hate and a lot of ways to kill opposing creatures, but as the Phyrexians were the main mono-black faction of the game for so long, they came to encompass most of the mechanics inherent in that color. Today the classic Phyrexians are best remembered for cards that let the player trade resources like life for cards on Yawgmoth's Bargain or creatures for black mana on Phyrexian Tower. Poison wasn't featured as a Phyrexian thing in the game originally, so although the glistening oil was created conceptually for Urza block, it wouldn't be until Scars of Mirrodin in 2010 that the horror of Infect would be unleashed and the Phyrexians would make their return to the game's stage.
The Phyrexians, like many good science fiction villains, are a dark mirror held up to ourselves. They are a life of maximum industrial efficiency without art, context or meaning. Religious dogma without thought or spirituality. They are, without a doubt, the most lethal and effective villains of all the MtG lore, but not only because they are dark and scary, but because they represent the deaths of freedom and individuality.