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Phyrexian Lies, Phyrexian Scriptures

"Myths! Lies," Godwin hissed, "I won't die to defend lies."

When I first read "Phyrexian Creations", J Robert King's short story from The Myths of Magic, I really didn't like it. As a young teenager, what I was looking for from a story like this was Lore, or rather, Data — information that I could slot into my growing binder (my literal binder) of information about Magic's storyline. I wanted the truth, dammit! But most of the story wasn't true at all! It was myths — lies! It was a bunch of stuff about The Ineffable, the Lord of the Wastes, wrestling bears, and dying and becoming the universe, and then wrestling the universe! It was weird. It's STILL pretty weird.

Seeing those lies reappear a decade and a half later on Phyrexian Scriptures was therefore a little unsettling.

Well, really, it's probably not strictly true that Phyrexian Scriptures, one of the new Saga enchantments from Dominaria, represents the exact creation myths in King's story. The card is inherently abstract and any narrative has to be read into it, though we can use context and callbacks to make that happen. Its abilities are:

That could fairly effectively represent Phyrexia in general: take everything, turn it into Phyrexians, murder everything left that isn't Phyrexian, and then uh . . .  exile all cards from all opponents' graveyards? That one's a little more unclear to me but it seems to line up pretty well with Yawgmoth's sort of harrowing of hell he performs in Apocalypse, his death cloud emptying the world's graveyards. It doesn't fit exactly, but it's ok for that third ability to be a little weaker given the strength of the other two. In particular, the first ability being Ashnod's Transmogrant is pretty great.

Phyrexian Scriptures might then simply represent the process of phyresis that gives the dark biomechanical civilization its name. The ultimate goal is to take organisms and artifice and evolve them through pain and struggle and death until they become more perfect, more compleat, and to finally pass judgment on all incompleat matter, eradicating it.

What's interesting to me about Phyrexian Scriptures, though, is that it probably more accurately mirrors the myths Yawgmoth told about himself than the literal creation of Phyrexia.

We learn these myths through the character of Godwin, a young New Argive scholar who, in the years prior to the Invasion, is captured by Phyrexians. He is compleated and turned into a brainwashed agent who can recruit more humans on Dominaria, but during his compleation he is indoctrinated psychically with (broadly) three different myths.

First, we hear a story of how Yawgmoth willed himself dead, killing/creating the whole Multiverse in the process. He goes down to death to become something greater. He then summons bacteriophages who devour his corpse and release his spirit. Once his corpse is devoured, he takes pity on the starving phages and grants them the power to devour each other. From this, life emerges. He takes the best, most violent aspects of life and builds them into a colossus called Phyrexian, which he wrestles with and kills, creating Phyrexia.

Second, we hear a story of his pre-death god days, compleating himself by doing things like grafting bear and horse muscles onto himself. By the time he was done, "Yawgmoth was eight feet tall, 500 pounds, and five thousand years old." Apparently.

None of this is accurate even remotely to what we see in The Thran, of course. That doesn't necessarily mean it's untrue though. Godwin, fleeing from the invading Phyrexians, has a moment when he bitterly complains about the "myth! lies" he's dedicated himself to. (Poor Godwin just finished writing a whole argument that Phyrexians are mere legends.) He reproaches himself, though, reminding himself that myths are still culturally real for those who believe in them and act upon them. It's a bit of a clunky aside, but it gets the story where it needs to go thematically.

And the theme has direct relevance to our understanding of Phyrexian Scriptures. Doesn't the card let us carry out the sort of great transformation Yawgmoth himself goes through? We get to take our creatures and transform them into something new, more compleat . . .  then we descend into death and purge death itself in order to create a new, better Multiverse, a multiverse dominated by Phyrexia! The scriptures here (possibly the same scriptures as those on the Urza's Saga Dark Ritual if people are translating the Phyrexian script correctly) don't have to be literally true for them to move us to action within the game or the world we imagine for it.

This is what I didn't get as a kid about what "Phyrexian Creations" does. Yeah, the stories about Yawgmoth don't necessarily make literal sense (or even make for particularly good stories in their own right, let's be real), or even agree with each other or with other snippets of Phyrexian scripture we see elsewhere, but that doesn't make it bad worldbuilding. Part of a world is myths, legends, lies, misinformation, garbled translation, inaccurate scholarship, dubious interpretations of whether or not "Jodah" could really be just one guy, and unreliable narration. It's taken a while for me to start accepting that fact, given I've spent more than half my life chasing after absolute certainty in this, the storyline for a trading card game, but I'm coming to accept that sometimes what matters is less the absolute truth, than the way a character or a culture's beliefs motivate action.

Godwin certainly gets motivated once he fully understands the scriptures. It motivates him to, among other things, "recruit" a young woman named Kari, who he compleats and indoctrinates in turn. Kari declares that she will always hate Godwin, but compleation is a persuasive process.

Except . . . 

In the third and final piece of Phyrexian scripture, we find out that Dominaria was stolen from Yawgmoth by the world-witch Rebbec and tragically denied His perfecting touch, after she seduced him with her dastardly feminine wiles. She disguised her hate as love.

Oh, yeah, it's probably worth noting that a bunch of Yawgmoth's motivation comes from Rebbec dumping him and then sealing Phyrexia off from Dominaria for centuries. In fairness to Rebbec, Yawgmoth had by that point murdered a bunch of diplomats, converted a bunch of the Thran into biomechanical horrors, started an apocalyptic civil war, medically tortured Rebbec's husband Glacian for several years, and finally ditched the plane entirely for Phyrexia, so, it's not like she lacked motivation for hating Yawgmoth.

All this is important because it seems to motivate Godwin in his crusade. The story, after he compleats Kari, takes on a different mode, less like a short story and more like scripture itself, as Godwin and Kari march across a region of Terisiare, destroying five cities (listed as a righteous litany), and finally invading New Argive's academies again. There, Godwin takes a kind of revenge on the scholarship that failed him in life: he orders the burning of the library.

But it also motivates Kari in an unforeseen way. Godwin and Kari happen upon (and kill) a scholar protecting a recent work of scholarship on the fall of the Thran. Godwin orders Kari to burn it without reading, but she rebels and discovers the last letter written by Rebbec to Glacian, in which all of Yawgmoth's crimes are revealed.

Kari, learning this new truth, joins Godwin at the bonfire, where she kisses him... and injects him with paralyzing venom in the process. The gender politics of this are admittedly a bit skeevy in a very J Robert King way (his stories are weirdly full of dangerous-but-also-sexy women) but it's pretty easy to see the parallel being set up here. Like Rebbec in both Yawgmoth's myth AND Rebbec's own account, Kari disguises hate as love and takes revenge on her oppressor. The story ends with Kari lifting the paralyzed Godwin and carries him into the pyre of burning books where they are both, presumably, immolated.

So, Kari's final act represents a triumph of the truth over Yawgmoth's lies . . . 

Right?

Well, sort of. Rebbec's letter to Glacian isn't exactly a whole, absolute truth, though. It's one person's historical account written in the moment of Yawgmoth's betrayal. It's evidence, and information, not a kind of absolute truth. It's a truth for Kari in that moment, though, that she recognizes from her personal subjective experience with Godwin (in the same way that a female identity is a truth for Xantcha that she comes to in response to Gix's assault — almost like there's some sort of feminist bodily autonomy reading we could do to Phyrexia).

And when she walks with the paralyzed Godwin into the burning pyre of New Argive books, she promises to him: "I will bring us down to death to make us more." She, like Yawgmoth's version of Rebbec, asserts her ability to subvert and steal phyresis, to claim the right to do what Yawgmoth does in the myth: die and be reborn. Kari rejects Phyrexian scripture not as apostate but as heretic: she takes the myths and comes to radical new interpretations about their significance to her life (or unlife). In turn, her own life follows the pattern of physical phyresis and compleation -> death -> final release into a new even more compleat form that we see in Yawgmoth's creation myth and in Phyrexian Scriptures' three stages.

So does Godwin die for a lie as he feared at the start of the story? Sort of, if you take myths like these Phyrexian myths, these Phyrexian creations to be simply lies. But in another sense he dies for Kari's new myth, her truth.

Dominaria is shaping up to be a block all about that complex dance between lies and truth and the weird space myth occupies in between. Playing sagas like Phyrexian Scriptures draws us into the world of Dominaria by making us part of the setting's own myth tradition, which we then take on and manipulate for ourselves. In this sense, Kari is right: in death, they become much more than they were. They become myths.


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