In Magic: The Gathering, the Phyrexians are the kind of bad guys who don’t want to kill you because they’d rather remake you. Sure, recasting might kill you, but that’s not the point of it. The goal is to strip away everything you thought you were and turn you into a twisted mirror image, becoming the thing you hate. Swings and carousels, really.
They’re the bad guys you fight once, and then the second time around they come at you with the faces of your friends and family between their ranks. They’re the Borg from Star Trek, but they’re also tyrants from the 40K, cenobites from Hellraiser, and zombies from everything, all thrown together and wearing a trendy new hat.
Magic’s next expansion set, Phyrexia: All Will Be One (Opens in a new tab)Then, they travel to New Phirixia, the plane they have remade to their liking. Physical horror has a clear influence on the group’s art. Phyrexians absorb their former enemies through a process called “growing”, perfecting their targets while also absorbing them into their larger biomass. It begins with an infection by means of a shiny oil that alters the body and distorts the mind, and ends with a surgical modification that fuses flesh with metal.
The end results are not uniform, as Phyrexians lack the human mind that tends to possess villains that look like them from other universes. Instead, they are split into two platoons and split, split and then sewn back together. (Conveniently, their main sections are aligned with the colors of Magic. Imagine that!) Depending on what type of Phyrexian pleases someone, they may end up with a mixture of exposed red muscles and white bony armor, lose limbs and fuse into shiny metallic force, or be pinned Her exposed head is at the top of a spider crab. Trader’s choice.
None of them seem to be particularly interesting options. “Body horror has been identified with Phyrexians since their inception nearly 30 years ago,” says Ovidio Cartagena, chief artistic director of this group and many others to come later this year. “This time around we’ve engineered several new species of Phyrexians, leaving out some aspects of body horror but finally seeing a ‘fully finished’ world, where the body has been either eliminated or adapted more successfully into Phyrexian exteriors.”
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According to Cartagena, in imagining what the entire world Phyrexians had designed would look like, “much of the illustrated versions of the Divine Comedy have been inspired, as well as by Hieronymus Bosch and his ‘spiritual successors’ in the 20th and 21st centuries.”
Dante’s Divine Comedy is an epic poem about a descent through hell, then an ascent through purgatory and finally heaven. It’s the first book, Inferno, that people tend to be remembered for thanks to its vivid maps of Hell, with each circuit housing different types of sinners and demons responsible for their punishments. Cartagena figured that the paradise the Versians had made would look like hell. Sure enough, the new Phyrexia atlas looks like a colorful, modern version of Antonio Manetti’s woodcuts from Inferno. (Opens in a new tab).
The poster girl for Phyrexia: All Will Be One is Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite of the Orthodox Machine faction, of a new class of Phyrexia called the Fair Basilica. She has an uncomfortable headdress that looks like she has grown blister wings, and her followers go for Catholic iconography, porcelain dolls like bugs, and anatomy lessons.
“Ilich Norn’s arrogance is evident in the beauty of her species and environments,” says Cartagena, “so I wanted to see a villain that was both frightening and engaging.”
This is what Junji Ito made. Popular creator of horror manga like Uzumaki and Tommy converted alternative art by Eilish Norn who immediately saw it called “Panharmomikon” online, a reference to Barnharmonicon (Opens in a new tab) The card and the fact that the internet can be massive for anything.
“Junji Ito is a legend, and I am honored to be able to say that he drew a magical drawing: the gathering card of Phirixia,” says Cartagena. “When working with an artist of this caliber, you can imagine he’s given a lot of creative freedom.”
Elish Norn has also received the treatment of surroundings with marble statuary that appears as large as any ladylike sculpture or group portrait tagged “accidental Renaissance” (Opens in a new tab)The illustration was by Martina Vicova, a specific request from Cartagena, who says it was “informed by a scene in Dante’s second circle of hell, where souls whirl in whirlwinds, and it was illustrated by William Blake, Gustave Dore, and others.”
“Of course, polite art was a great source of inspiration,” said Cartagena, “because my artistic training comes from the classical tradition and those sensibilities fit well with imaginative art.”
Cartagena was pleased with how the image turned out, and it appeared in various marketing materials as well as on a card. It is a wonderful result of what he describes as the “Easter egg” of classical art. “Keep an eye out for other references to the Divine Comedy in art; I found it surprising how well so much of that classicism fit into a biomechanical setting.”
It’s a shame some players only see these artworks on the top half of the card they look at before playing, and I wish Arena had a gallery to display in full screen. (Maybe when it comes to Steam later this year?) But Cartagena notes that there are plenty of other ways people can view these images, and the artists he works with contribute art worth seeing in a variety of ways.
“These arts are always seen in different contexts besides cards, such as in prints, play mats, websites, exhibitions, etc,” he says. “It makes me so happy. There are so many masterpieces in this release that deserve thoughtful note.”
Phirixia: All will be one (Opens in a new tab) It will launch in Arena on February 7, in paper form on February 10, pre-release events will start from February 3 to 9, you can use the locator (Opens in a new tab) to find one near you.