Last updated on June 22, 2022

Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite - Illustration by Igor Kieryluk

Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite | Illustration by Igor Kieryluk

The best part of any story is its villains, and boy does Magic have its share. There’s Nicol Bolas, the egomaniacal dragon whose quest for ultimate power has been the focal point of a number of blocks is Magic’s most famous villain. And the Eldrazi, a trio of eldritch horrors whose raw power is completely unmatched. But the best villain that Magic has had in its almost 30-year history is without a doubt Phyrexia.

Phyrexia puts the “cult” in “culture.” They have a fanatical devotion to their cause and their leader, even mutilating themselves in the name of their religion. The warped physique that’s intrinsic to its minions makes them uniquely identifiable and makes for some truly iconic art.

At the helm are a series of dynamic leaders with unique personalities, and this fluid identity has made the Phyrexians my favorite among the baddies. Let me introduce you!

Who are the Phyrexians?

Jin-Gitaxias, Progress Tyrant - Illustration by Chase Stone

Jin-Gitaxias, Progress Tyrant | Illustration by Chase Stone

The Phyrexians are a faction devoted to overrunning worlds while eradicating or “compleating” anyone in their path. They get their name from their home plane, Phyrexia, an artificial plane made by an ancient planeswalker.

The first Phyrexians were made when a number of people from Dominaria called “the Thran” fell ill to a disease called Phthisis and were cured by Yawgmoth using a process called Phyresis. These days the term “Phyrexian” is applied to pretty much any twisted monstrosity that’s born out of that civilization, to the point where it became a supported creature type retroactively applied to hundreds of cards.

Phyrexia has a long, storied history in Magic. Today I’m going to give you a glimpse of its glory.

The Phyrexian Lore of Magic

The Thran

Fall of the Thran - Illustration by Jason Felix

Fall of the Thran | Illustration by Jason Felix

The Thran were a highly advanced progenitor civilization of Dominaria, the plane on which most of Magic’s early storyline took place. An ancient race, they created highly advanced artifacts that Urza and his brother Mishra uncovered in their archaeological expeditions.

The story of the Thran conflict originates with their lead artificer, Glacian, who fell ill with a disease. The council of the Thran recalled an exiled Yawgmoth, then still human, to help him with this disease. Yawgmoth recognized it to be a degenerative disease caused by powerstones which were the prized energy sources of the Thran. This disease took its course and ravaged a lot of the Thran peoples. It caused tremendous unrest through which Yawgmoth consolidated power.

A planeswalker named Dyfed then visited Dominaria seeking an audience with Glacian. Dyfed recognized Glacian for the genius he was and hoped to use his expertise in powerstones to map out the multiverse. Upon meeting Yawgmoth the latter managed to sway her to show him other worlds, which led to Dyfed bringing Yawgmoth to an artificial plane made of nested spheres teeming with artificial life but somewhat abandoned after its creator died on it. This plane would become Phyrexia.

As his influence grew on Dominaria, so did Yawgmoth’s enemies. A number of people claimed that Yawgmoth was the mastermind behind the plagues that consumed the Thran during his exile. These people, representing multiple city states, promised to declare war unless Yawgmoth was deposed. As you can imagine Yawgmoth stayed in power, deposed the council, and declared martial law.

Yawgmoth had Dyfed exile the council to Mercadia and then opened a portal to Phyrexia and offered it to his Thran allies as a refuge from powerstone radiation with Dyfed’s assistance. As a final thank you for their continued loyalty, Yawgmoth slaughtered them for use in making what would become the first Phyrexian horrors.

Yawgmoth returned to Dominaria with these horrors where he annihilated his enemies, causing the Fall of the Thran. And he also killed Dyfed while vivisecting her to find the root of her planeswalker spark. In her last act, Glacian’s beloved, Rebbec, sealed the portal and sent the Phyrexians back to their home plane.

The Brother’s War

Mishra, Artificer Prodigy - Illustration by Scott M. Fischer

Mishra, Artificer Prodigy | Illustration by Scott M. Fischer

Many years later, in the early years of his life, Mishra found remnants of Phyrexian technologies. In his prolonged conflict with his brother, Mishra exposed himself to the Phyrexian corruption while researching them. The conflict between the brothers was exacerbated by the underhanded designs of Gix, a Phyrexian demon whose many cultists exerted his will to shape the conflict.

In their climactic showdown Urza would strike a near-fatal blow on Mishra, ultimately revealing him to be part Phyrexian metal in form. The constructs that both Mishra and Urza had fighting each other become crazed by the influence of Gix who did everything possible to escalate the conflict to apocalyptic proportions. When Urza activated the Sylex, an ancient Thran doomsday device, all the forces fighting were eradicated and the continent was launched into an ice age.

Gix returned in a number of different ways until Urza, tracked down the representative of those whom he blamed for his brother’s insanity and ensuing death with the help of a sleeper agent and killed him, putting a halt to Phyrexian encroachment.

Rath

Winds of Rath - Illustration by Drew Tucker

Winds of Rath | Illustration by Drew Tucker

Rath is another artificial plane (boy, those sure end up as the focal point of a lot of conflicts!). Made largely of a very volatile substance that caused tremendous chaos called “flowstone,” Rath is the plane that embodies chaos. It also embodies tyrants called “evincars” who generally happen to be Phyrexian puppet rulers, ruining the lives of all of its inhabitants.

There are a lot of cool details about Rath but it was by and large the forward base of the Phyrexians as a staging point for their renewed invasion of Dominaria.

The Invasion of Dominaria

Tsabo Tavoc - Illustration by Michael Sutfin

Tsabo Tavoc | Illustration by Michael Sutfin

And here’s where it all gets going!

Headed by Tsabo Tavoc, a horrifying multi-legged horror, the Phyrexian assault on Dominaria ravaged large parts of the land including Tolaria, Urborg, and New Argive. But it fell short of taking Yavimaya or Koilos. The Phyrexian forces were eventually forced to retreat and a badly wounded Tsabo was punished for her failures, eaten first by the vampire Crovax and then the Evincar of Rath.

Speaking of Rath, the Phyrexian stronghold started shifting into Dominaria, opening the gates for another Phyrexian invasion. But the second invasion was answered by a counterattack from the coalition that banded together against Phyrexia

The Invasion of Phyrexia

Legacy Weapon - Illustration by Terese Nielsen

Legacy Weapon | Illustration by Terese Nielsen

Urza sought out a number of powerful allies to fight against Phyrexia. His plan was to take himself and eight other planeswalker (the “Nine Titans”) and plant apocalyptic bombs in the very core of Phyrexia to vanquish them once and for all.

After making his way into Phyrexia one of the “allies” he recruited, Tevesh Szat, assassinated two of the other Nine Titans, Daria and Kristina of the Woods. Urza revealed to the others that this was part of his calculation and that it would give him the ability to sacrifice one of them to fuel the bombs. As you can imagine this was met with intense fury from his allies. In another act of betrayal Urza realized that he lacked the determination to activate his bomb, grieving the loss of such an intricate artificial plane as Phyrexia.

Urza found his brother Mishra at one of Phyrexia’s cores, delirious and insane after being subjected to torture. Urza surrendered to Yawgmoth who then forced him to fight to the death with Gerrard Capashen, one of Urza’s many trusted followers who Urza betrayed in his search for vengeance. Gerrard himself was fighting for Yawgmoth because he was promised the resurrection of Hanna.

Unfortunately for Yawgmoth, Urza survived his decapitation as a result of two powerful artifacts, the Weakstone and the Mightstone, which served as his eyes. It was at this point that Urza revealed the existence of a Legacy Weapon that was a collection of powerful artifacts granted a form of collective consciousness. Gerard himself was the final living being as part of a bloodline project dedicated to crafting the Weapon, which also included Karn, Silver Golem and even the Skyship Weatherlight itself.

Yawgmoth decided to unleash the full extent of Phyrexian devastation upon Dominaria, where he manifested himself as an immense cloud of death and malice that descended upon all living beings with the essence of his hatred. Urza and Gerrard flew towards him and shot a beam of power at an artificial structure the Thran constructed that orbited Dominaria called the “Null Moon.”

Upon being struck the moon shed all the white mana, which Urza collected through a conduit and let it consume Yawgmoth, finally defeating the god of Phyrexia.

Mirrodin

Mirari - Illustration by Donato Giancola

Mirari | Illustration by Donato Giancola

But Yawgmoth being dead didn’t stop the Phyrexian menace from festering!

Karn, who was part of the Legacy Weapon as a sentient golem far removed from the events of Dominaria, decided to create another artificial plane called “Argentum” with mathematical perfection in mind. And so with the help of many other golems that he used to terraform the environment he did.

Karn was eventually forced to planeswalk away to help Jeska, another one of his friends, after he created his perfect world. He gave over the stewardship of Argentum to another golem.

This golem wandered the wide world and noticed its emptiness. Using a number of soul traps this golem breathed life into the plane by kidnapping life forms from other planes. He renamed Argentum after a powerful artifact Karn left there called the “Mirari.” And so Mirrodin was born. The golem later came to be the tyrant known as Memnarch but was driven mad from blinkmoth serum and loneliness.

Even worse for Mirrodin, Karn was infected by Phyrexian oil, something that he transferred to the core of the world. This is apparent through the existence of a sort of fungal growth that uses the metal world as a substrate called “mycosynth.” The Phyrexian oil slowly seeped into Mirrodin’s existence where it corrupted all the metal-based creatures.

The Phyrexians spread to other colors of mana which was seen in Scars of Mirrodin where they were represented in green cards. Then again in Mirrodin Besieged where they moved into blue, and finally in New Phyrexia where they took over red and white creatures.

Given the existence of Phyrexians across multiple different colors, New Phyrexia is where we see multiple philosophies arise within their ranks which often leads to inner conflict. Each of these philosophies are commanded by their own leaders.

The Praetors

A new creature type was introduced in New Phyrexia: praetor. The praetors were a cycle of creatures that each commanded their legion of dark forces under their guiding principles.

Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite

The guiding philosophy of Elesh Norn’s faction, the Machine Orthodoxy, is the indoctrination of non-Phyrexians to their ranks so that they can achieve “blessed” perfection. You can see one of my favorite evil aesthetics in her art, which is the cracked white porcelain layered over exposed muscle and sinew.

Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur

The leader of “The Great Synthesis,” Jin-Gitaxias believes that all living beings are imperfect and strives to develop creations that are more perfect than the last in his own twisted ways.

Sheoldred, Whispering One

Sheoldred is the leader of the Seven Steel Thanes on New Phyrexia where she embodies the more classical Phyrexian ethos: the slaughter and subjugation of any who oppose them.

Urabrask the Hidden

Of all the Praetors, Urabrask is the one we know least about. He doesn’t have a form of top-down philosophy that the rest of the Praetors have, even going so far as to tolerate the existence of native Mirrans in his domain.

Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger

The first card to officially bear the praetor creature type in Kaldheim, this monstrous tyrant embodied the “survival of the fittest” philosophy. Vorinclex believes that those who are too weak to fend for themselves should be subject to the will of the powerful.

The Phyrexian Language

One of the many cool aesthetics of the Phyrexian culture is the existence of a Phyrexian language. As part of the world-building for the Scars of Mirrodin block, Wizards decided to develop an artificial language for the Phyrexians.

Phyrexian language Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite

While at first it existed mostly as an easter egg for a couple of webcomics it was used in my favorite set trailer of all time, one of the few instances where it was actually spoken, until it stunned people with a version of Elesh Norn actually printed with the language.

Is Phyrexian a Real Language?

It’s hard to say if Phyrexian is a real language. Does anyone actually speak it? No. Can you write a sentence in Phyrexian? Yes. Does anyone exist who can read it? Probably a handful of people.

So it pretty much has all the makings of a real language with the exception of having practically zero “native” speakers.

The Phyrexian Cards

We can actually translate Phyrexian into real languages and decode it using the promo cards that have been printed in the Phyrexian language. Those include a Secret Lair featuring the original five praetors and a Swamp printed with the text in Jumpstart.

Phyrexian Mana

One of the strongest and most broken mechanics of all time was Phyrexian mana. This mechanic allows you to reduce the costs you pay for cards by paying life instead of mana. Phyrexian mana allowed for the color pie to bleed over and share colors with mechanics that didn’t usually feature in them. This represented the Phyrexians pushing to unite life on Mirrodin under one guiding dogma.

This mechanic, which exists on 27 cards, left scars across pretty much every format where it was legal. Mental Misstep and Gitaxian Probe have been banned or restricted in every format they would be legal in while Birthing Pod caught the axe in Modern.

Best Phyrexian Cards

Phyrexian Dreadnought

Phyrexian Dreadnought

Phyrexian Dreadnought is the largest of the Phyrexians. A biomechanical monstrosity engineered to be a battlecruiser for the Phyrexians, this card has shown up in a number of decks that have creative ways of cheating around its drawback.

Phyrexian Negator

Phyrexian Negator

While its drawback seems particularly horrendous by modern standards, Phyrexian Negator was by far the most efficient beater against fast combo decks in its era. It presents a very fast clock for a deck whose challenge was interacting with unfair decks while clearing the way with removal spells against the fairer decks.

Chancellor of the Annex

Chancellor of the Annex

One of a cycle of five chancellors with pregame effects, Chancellor of the Annex’s ability to put your opponents on the back foot for the first turn is a good way to preempt free interaction if you’re playing something grossly unfair.

Porcelain Legionnaire

Porcelain Legionnaire

Porcelain Legionnaire was quite the creature in its time. It provided a very aggressive option for white decks in Standard and became a Cube staple that any deck could play. It’s a threat that was cheap and hard to block effectively.

Blighted Agent

Blighted Agent

An unblockable infect creature, Blighted Agent is predictably the centerpiece of most infect strategies in older formats. A couple Might of Old Krosas or Become Immenses often lets this card kill in one swing.

Glistener Elf

Glistener Elf

The only 1-mana creature with infect, Glistener Elf is the counterpart to Blighted Agent. It allows for a variety of ways to kill by attacking on turn 2, usually involving Mutagenic Growth.

Vault Skirge

Vault Skirge

Vault Skirge has largely fallen out of favor these days. But the potent combination of lifelink and flying still lets it occasionally fall into some all-in artifact strategies.

Plague Engineer

Plague Engineer

A one-sided Engineered Plague on a stick, Plague Engineer was one of many Modern Horizons cards that severely altered the landscapes of eternal formats. Chances are you’ll have to find a way to answer this card after sideboarding if you want to play a tribal strategy in one of those formats.

Blightsteel Colossus

Blightsteel Colossus

Blightsteel Colossus is one of the big three giant monsters that are the best thing to cheat into play. This is an artifact unlike Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and Griselbrand, which means that it has a slightly broader range of cards that let you cheat it into play.

Volrath, the Shapestealer

Volrath, the Shapestealer

Volrath, the Shapestealer is one of my favorite made-for-Commander cards. The -1/-1 counter plays very well with the Phyrexian motif and is such an awesome representation of its character. A home run for flavorful decks.

Wurmcoil Engine

Wurmcoil Engine

Wurmcoil Engine endures in the Modern format even today, where it’s the best creature for Tron decks to cheat into play for less than seven mana. It can be played by just about any deck, is extremely resilient to removal, and stabilizes you against any deck intent on killing you through combat.

While these are the best cards that feature the Phyrexian creature type they also embody the relentless pursuit of power that the Phyrexians seek.

Yawgmoth, Thran Physician

Yawgmoth, Thran Physician

The Yawgfather. A very elegantly designed card, Yawgmoth, Thran Physician borders on being broken where it’s the centerpiece of an eponymous Modern deck.

Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

I love Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth’s flavor text. A battle with Yawgmoth where his evil and complete moral corruption have poisoned the land itself. It’s fitting that a card oozing with flavor is also so good in many formats.

Dark Ritual

Dark Ritual

While Dark Ritual existed in Alpha, its reprint in Urza’s Saga legitimizes this as a Phyrexian card. The forearm of a dead or dying viashino as it’s slaughtered on an altar to collect its blood is my favorite of about a dozen Ritual arts, and you can see a callback to it in Phyrexian Scriptures.

Yawgmoth’s Will

Yawgmoth’s Will

Banned in Legacy restricted in Vintage, Yawgmoth’s Will had no shortage of busted things to do. An absolute bananas card, there have been a number of designs like Past in Flames that are just strictly worse and still ridiculously powerful. This is one of the most overpower designs of all time and very fitting for the faction.

Yawgmoth’s Bargain

Yawgmoth's Bargain

A bargain with a demon. Another completely ridiculous card, Yawgmoth’s Bargain is a take on Necropotence that’s still so overpowered it got itself banned in Legacy and restricted in Vintage.

Phyrexian Obliterator

Phyrexian Obliterator

And finally, of course, behold blessed perfection in Phyrexian Obliterator.

What Happened to Phyrexia?

Phyrexia as we know it appears to be mostly desolate. Following the assault by the coalition on Phyrexia, the infrastructure of the plane was devastated. Not many seem to still live there following Yawgmoth’s death. If you could even call it that.

The last time we truly saw what was happening with the Phyrexians was on Mirrodin back in 2010. In the Scars of Mirrodin block we saw the Phyrexians overrun Mirrodin and claim it as their new home, all but eradicating the last remnants of Mirran resistance. Most of the noteworthy events since then were the result of infighting between the Praetors and their respective factions.

Does Phyrexia Return?

Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger - Illustration by Karl Kopinski

Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger | Illustration by Karl Kopinski

The return of Phyrexia is basically guaranteed. There was the grand duel between the Gatewatch and Nicol Bolas in War of the Spark after seeing a bunch of hints that Nicol Bolas would return following his defeat during the Shards of Alara block.

Given that both Vorinclex and Jin-Gitaxias have already made guest appearances in Kaldheim and Neon Dynasty, it seems pretty safe to say that we’ll probably see another couple praetors make appearances before the storyline moves towards a grand conflict featuring the Phyrexians.

They’ve done it before on Mirrodin and there’s no doubt that they’ll do it again.

Who’s the Leader of Phyrexia?

Back when Phyrexia was a bit more monolithic, Yawgmoth was its god and master. But after his death, leadership of the Phyrexians was passed around like a hotcake.

The last time there was a true leader of the Phyrexians it was Karn, who was corrupted by the Phyrexian oil. Luckily for him he was freed from the corruption by Elspeth, Melira, and Venser, the last of which sacrificed himself to save Karn.

Now the Phyrexian leadership is splintered among the five Praetors of Mirrodin.

What Did Yawgmoth Look Like?

Yawgmoth, Thran Physician

Yawgmoth was one of the Thran and had a very human appearance which can be seen on Yawgmoth, Thran Physician. At some point Yawgmoth decided to bind himself to the plane that he made his world, severely altering his appearance. He was considered too powerful to depict on a card until Modern Horizons depicted him before he ascended to god status.

Yawgmoth's Vile Offering

We can get a rough approximation of Yawgmoth’s figure as a god on Yawgmoth’s Vile Offering, which depicts the scene where he offers Gerrard the resurrection of his beloved Hanna in exchange for him killing Urza.

What Happened to Yawgmoth?

Yawgmoth is dead as far as we can tell. After having assumed his death cloud form he was extinguished by the light of the Legacy Weapon housed inside Karn. And in that fateful encounter Yawgmoth, the god of Phyrexia, died.

Although there were rumors that he survived, a number of sources later confirmed that Yawgmoth is indeed no more.

How Do You Pronounce “Phyrexian?”

“Phyrexian” is a four-syllable word with the phonetic spelling “fye-reks-ee-an.”

The first syllable is pronounced “fy” in the same way as the second syllable in “Fee Fi Fo Fum.” The second syllable is pronounced as it’s spelled, “rex.” The last two syllables are pronounced “ee-an” like the name “Ian.”

Wrap Up

Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth - Illustration by John Avon

Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth | Illustration by John Avon

The Phyrexians are best bad guys in all of Magic. They’re a faction that oozes flavor (figuratively, but also maybe literally) and have a host of unique characters associated with them. Yawgmoth is a human who became a literal god, Gix has a cult of his own, and that’s not even mentioning all the backstabbing between the Evincars.

My first memories of being invested in Magic’s lore as a new player was learning about the storyline during Scars of Mirrodin and becoming invested in the war between the Mirrans and Phyrexians during Mirrodin Besieged before seeing the Phyrexians triumph in New Phyrexia.

The Phyrexians have extremely flavorful mechanics involving paying life and sacrificing creatures, and an aesthetic that really engages your emotions from disgust to a weird fascination. They’re an inexorable plague on order and happiness in the multiverse and there’s nothing that’s got me more excited about the story than seeing a glimpse of Jin-Gitaxias here and one of Vorinclex there and knowing that their return is right around the corner.

What are your thoughts on the Phyrexians? Are you excited to return to New Phyrexia, or is there another plane you’d rather visit first? Let me know in the comments down below or pop over to Twitter if that’s more your thing.

Until next time, may you avoid any glistening oil and stay safe from the phyresis!

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