Hello everybody, and welcome back (for the last time) to Magical Creatures! As you probably know already, this series was aimed to spot and discuss all the creature types created specifically for Magic. Doing so has helped us further expand on Magic's more artistic side after my last series on real-world quotations. In last week's instalment, we discussed Aetherborn and a few other creatures, while today we'll wrap things up with the last subtype: Phyrexian.
Last week, we managed to cover Magic's history until Strixhaven (April 2021). Today, we're going to move a step back, just a couple of months, and talk about Kaldheim (February 2021). It's an exception in this series, but for a good reason: Phyrexian is a rather peculiar creature type with a curious history, and it felt like the right way to close the series.
Kaldheim, or How It All Changed
Inspired by Norse mythology, Kaldheim brought back the snow mechanic (including snow lands), although that was not expected at first. More importantly, it introduced the Phyrexian creature type for the first time in Magic's history, on Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider.
So, what's the big deal? We saw new creature types introduced in every single piece of this series, that's the whole point of it. Well, it's not that common for such an old creature type to only be formally recognized this late.
The fact is that phyrexian creatures were a thing from the very beginning of this game. Or at least from Antiquities, which means March 1994! To give an example, consider Phyrexian Gremlins. It has "Phyrexian" in its very name, but back in 1994, it used to only bear the creature type Gremlin (well, technically Gremlins). Add to this peculiarity that Phyrexian is possibly the most famous type typically associated to Magic, and you have the recipe for something truly special.
The Case of Thalakos and Soltari
In the first years of this game, it was common practice to name a creature after its subtype. Or to invent a subtype simply by copying the name of the first creature with those traits. We saw that time and again over the course of this series: Atog, Lhurgoyf, Masticore and so on. But it was just as common to leave something implicit. Which explains why creature types such as Thalakos and Soltari did not have those subtypes for many years.
When Tempest came out, cards such as Soltari Priest and Thalakos Sentry didn't feature the relevant subtype. Everybody could tell they were a Soltari or a Thalakos... I mean, it was in their name! But still, it took almost ten years to fix, when the release of Time Spiral retroactively added those subtypes to older cards.
Phyrexians Before Phyrexian
Something similar happened with Phyrexian, but it was even bigger a surprise: it took not 10 years, but 27! A good moment to introduce it would have been New Phyrexia (2011), since it introduced "Phyrexian mana." Such cards were good enough to frequently receive bans across all competitive formats. Mental Misstep, Gitaxian Probe, Birthing Pod... the list of staples goes on. If only tribal hadn't been such a failure; these spells might have been the first official Phyrexians!
However, Wizards decided to postpone the change for 10 more years, until the realease of Kaldheim. In fact, Mark Rosewater once declared that "there are characters that are Phyrexian by flavor (but not by appearance)." Eventually, when that happened, it was one of the most important shifts in Magic's history. Unlike the famous Grand creature type update (2007), it only influenced one specific subtype, but it was a huge one. And that change had been expected for a very long time, too!
What Is a Phyrexian?
Today, no less than 251 cards exist with this subtype, making it one of the most widespread types ever. Still very distant from the overwhelming 2,000+ Humans, but a big number nonetheless. That being said, it's hard to define this creature type with precision. We may start by saying that the Phyrexian faction is probably the best villain in Magic.
Their goal is to overrun and take control of everything, by "compleating" everyone they might find on their way. Scary! Their history goes on for so many years, and is so pervasive in Magic's lore that it would be vain to try and sum it up. Let's just say Phyrexians had something to do in many of the most important events of this game's lore, from the invasion of Dominaria to the infection of Mirrodin.
So, back to the original question: Phyrexian is a race, and not a class. That is why many creatures that are now Phyrexian were once raceless (Suture Priest, Tormentor Exarch). As Doug Beyer explained back in 2011, in its series Savor the Flavor, "What you do to advance the civilization of Phyrexia is much more important than what vat-grown or slag-harvested materials you're made from." For this reason, they weren't ready to make Phyrexian an actual creature type; it was just too vague.
Phyrexians are a mixture of organic matter and metal, which means they can assume an enormous number of different forms. Some of the most typical traits, however, are "dripping ichor, eyelessness, cysts, pustules, or the expulsion of noxious gases." And of course, once they are mature, they are compleated, meaning they have replaced every organic part of their body with artificial parts.
Some of the most important creatures of this game now bear the Phyrexian subtype: Phyrexian Dreadnought and Phyrexian Negator are just some examples from the older cards. As for more recents ones, there are the Infect staples Glistener Elf and Blighted Agent. And as we saw earlier, many other cards are obviously Phyrexian, but haven't received the type because they are not creatures.
Tribal subtype erratas are pretty much never going to happen. So, let's just mention a couple heavy-hitters like Yawgmoth's Will and Yawgmoth's Bargain and dream of them getting the subtype they deserve.
Wrapping Up Magical Creatures
This was a journey I really enjoyed, as it brought me back to the beginning of Magic and to its last few years, too. Since I was mostly active in the years between Mirrodin (2004) and Innistrad (2011), the first and the last ten years are the ones I knew the least about. Researching for this series gave me a chance to learn something more about these periods, during which I either only played Limited if at all.
I think it's time for a final Top 8; one that depends entirely on my personal taste! You'll find a link to the relevant article on each creature type, in case you missed some of them or are in the mood for revisiting.
- Kithkin: I played a Kithkin deck at my first GP in 2008 (Grand Prix Rimini). Funny story: in the end Emanuele Giusti won with almost the same deck. Kithkin will always remain my favorite creature, at least among those unique to Magic... otherwise I'd say Elves.
- Myr: I just loved the five "mana Myr" in the old Mirrodin, which was my first set. And I also used two of them (Gold Myr and Iron Myr) in my first Top 8 at a Scars of Mirrodin limited PTQ.
- Saproling: If you ask me, it's among the best creature types ever. I just adore tokens, and how these are created by Thallid creatures. Also, I'll always remember (with terror) Sprout Swarm during Time Spiral - Planar Chaos - Future Sight drafts.
- Atog: I played it in my first competitive deck (Affinity), before Modern replaced Extended.
- Thrull: I pulled a particularly awful Thrull in my first booster pack from Fallen Empires and fell for this race. Can you guess which one?
- Spellshaper: I just like how varied they are, and how they were used to quote and reference so many other cards from the past in the Time Spiral block. Spellshapers helped make that block so nostalgic.
- Phyrexian: I'm not a huge fan of any one of these creatures, but I had to either play with or play against many spells that are Phyrexian by lore, so I still have a relationship to this race.
- Kavu: when I first learned how to play, I was 10, and somehow a friend of mine managed to persuade us all that Thunderscape Familiar was able to get +25/+25 by discarding a card or something. That obviously worked only before 1) the card was not in Italian or English, and 2) we had no access to the internet. Yay for memories!
That's my personal list... yours may differ! Drop your own Top 8 in the comments or on Twitter, and thanks for following this series until the end. Stay tuned, as I'll be back soon with more insight on Magic's lore and IP!