Germ Warfare: The Flavor of Living Weapon

Posted in Savor The Flavor on March 9, 2011

Why let nature control the living destiny of your planewide civilization? You let the vagaries of natural evolution run the show, and all that results for your living empire is a smattering of confused evolutionary dead ends. To become a truly dominant realm-culture, you need to hand-craft the development of your component species for maximum predatory advantage. You need a tiered system of developmental stages by which you can create dread biomechanical warriors from humble pupae. What you need is a life cycle.

If we only had a topical example of some civilization that had a carefully controlled life cycle... Hmmmm...

Flayer Husk | Art by Igor Kieryluk


Okay. Sheesh. It's Living Weapon Week—time to take a look at this mechanic from an in-world, flavor perspective.

    Life Cycle, Modified

Artifacts with the living weapon mechanic represent a unique deviation from the normal course of Phyrexian development. They're an innovation over the already strictly guided, meticulously tampered-with journey from creepy little embryo to final destination—whether that be a fully-developed vat priest, a murderous witch engine, or any other type of brutal Phyrexian culture-spreading machine.

The living weapons are pieces of equipment that can be grafted onto this or that Phyrexian to provide additional abilities as needed. But this interchangeability is not their innovation; Phyrexians have had access to modular weaponry and hot-swappable body parts for eons.

The innovation is that these graftables don't have to wait for a host. The living weapons are autonomous Phyrexian body parts. They're unusual pieces of equipment that can live on their own, separate from a host body.

Strandwalker | Art by Igor Kieryluk

The Flayer Husk, for example, is a clawed hand that scrabbles around on its fingertips when it hasn't been fused onto a Phyrexian's wrist. The Strandwalker is a set of jointed, spiderlike, necromechanical legs that can climb and move without a true body or brain to guide it. The Skinwing is a framework of greasy, corroded metal across which wings of ragged skin have been stretched—designed to allow flight for other Phyrexians, but capable of crude aerial action itself. The Bonehoard is a bizarre structure of ligament, bone, and metal that roves over the Mirrodin metalscape, harvesting calcium sources to reinforce its body until it is joined with a host organism that seeks its sinewy strength. The Mortarpod is a walking metallic tube attached to a boiling furnace-orb, designed to allow the projectile ejection of part of its living host. It can scurry along and move into position independently, allowing Phyrexian armies to set up batteries of cannon-like living artifacts.

These living weapons have added a crucial new advantage to the Phyrexian arsenal, and the key to all of these remarkable weapons is their autonomy. To understand how these artifacts can move and fight on their own, we have to investigate what drives them: Phyrexian germs.


A germ (in this context) is a vat-grown, embryonic Phyrexian being that has been that has been gathered from its birth vat before growing past its larval state. It's similar to a newt, for those who know something about Phyrexia's backstory; normally, Phyrexian embryos grow to a certain level of maturity in the vats, and then they're extracted before finally being "compleated" with various biomechanical enhancements to become a full Phyrexian. Germs, on the other hand, are harvested from the vats in their premature larval state and are put to other purposes immediately.

Germ Token | Art by Igor Kieryluk

The immature germs are not fit to survive on their own outside of the protective gels and vein-cables of the vat environment; their exobodies are soft and their parasitic organs haven't been congealed with the proper balances of Phyrexian oil and adaptive fluids. But if they're put in symbiotic relationship with a particular kind of biomechanical Phyrexian body part, they become a living weapon capable of autonomous action. Each half gains something out of the arrangement—the artifact gains a semisentient "pilot" that's able to operate its limbs and sinew-pulleys, and the germ gains an insulated housing that lets it survive for long periods without so much as a fluid umbilicus!

(Germ tokens are 0/0, so they, of course, die when not attached to their protective living weapon Equipment. However, with some careful magical manipulations, you could probably manage to keep a naked germ alive if you did something else to increase its toughness before unattaching the Equipment. I love the flavor of these ooky little Phyrexian embryos being kept alive outside of their birthing vats by unnatural magics.)

Mortarpod | Art by Eric Deschamps

You can see the germ in the art of most of the living weapons. Flayer Husk, being the smallest of the living weapons, has the clearest "pilot," shown operating its scrabbling claw from right up there at the wrist. Strandwalker's driving germ hangs upside-down from the center of all its spidery limbs. Skinwing has its germ plugged in right between the "shoulders" where the wings are mounted. Bonehoard's germ looks like a creepy face socketed onto the forward side of its radial center. And can you find the germ on Mortarpod? Check the mechanic: the germ is the ammunition, parked there in the bowl of the mortar, awaiting the command to (be) fire(d).

Skinwing | Art by Igor Kieryluk

    The Era of the Living Weapon

The living weapon artifacts are an ingenious new development in the war between the Phyrexians and the Mirrans. Phyrexians have a new tool for modifying and altering their necrotech horrors to achieve maximum Mirran-conquering potential. And the Mirrans have to fight the war on a new axis; they have to worry not only about the creatures wielding Phyrexian weaponry, but also about the pieces of weaponry themselves (and the embryonic germs that have been fused into them). Perhaps the most creepy scenario might be multiple living weapons equipped onto the same germ (which you may have pulled off while playing games with Mirrodin Besieged)—an unholy conglomeration of claws, bone-limbs, mortar-cannons, and skin-stretched wings all wielded-slash-driven by a single, juvenile Phyrexian embryo.

Phyrexia tinkers with every stage of its organisms' life cycle, from creepy, vat-grown seed-being to metal-adapted, machine-engineered oil-spreader. While the Mirrans now understand more than ever about Phyrexia's greatest plans and capabilities, it certainly can't be a good sign that even the least Phyrexians are now able to join the fight against them.

Bonehoard | Art by Chippy

    Letter of the Week

A lot of the email I'm getting lately is of the "What happens in the next set—do the Mirrans or the Phyrexians win?" variety, or various subtler and trickier versions of same, good-naturedly trying to tease information about Mirrodin Pure / New Phyrexia out of me. Your cheerful craftiness has been noted. I don't mean it's not appreciated—hey, you are my beloved Vorthoi, and I would be right there asking the exact same thing—but I must tell you that I am not permitted to answer many of them this long before "Action" is unveiled. However, I've found a couple of quick letters this week that I can at least gesture toward answering.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Phyrexia: The Strong and the Scattered":
I've noticed that Phyrexia has only have two or three cards in the red mana category. Also, it seems that the Oxidda Mountains are holding up better than any other region of Mirrodin. Why is that? It seems that fire might be their weakness? Please explain. Thank you.
--Jon from Augusta

Jon, you have noticed how Phyrexia has seemed to spread unevenly across the colors. Black-aligned and green-aligned lands and creatures fell to the Phyrexians relatively quickly, as we can see by the large numbers of infect creatures, sacrifice effects, and other Phyrexian-flavored mechanics among those two colors. Blue was soon infiltrated as well, as evidenced by the proliferate mechanic seeping in and spreading poison counters among its studious vedalken and Neurok peoples. As of Mirrodin Besieged, a few white Phyrexians and white-aligned Phyrexian spells have shown up, showing that white mana, too has found a home in the Phyrexian über-system.

Burn the Impure | Art by Nic Klein

Red mana, though, has shown the most resistance. Out of all the colors, the color values of red might be most diametrically opposed to Phyrexia's ideals. Ask a red-aligned goblin or Vulshok shaman what he or she thinks about "universal ascendance into a machine hierarchy of perfection, ruled by the singular vision of a Father of Machines," and instead of an answer you might get a grunt and a spit at best, or at worst, a fire-fueled fight to the death for your insult. It may not be fire in particular that is a weakness of Phyrexia, but the color values surrounding it: the intensely red values of independence, passion, self-determination, and defiance. What happens among the red-aligned elements of this block—both Mirran and Phyrexian—might hold the key to this entire struggle.

Our other letter today comes from Jay. It's also pretty forward-reaching, so again I have to be careful how I answer. But it's perceptive, so I want to at least highlight the question.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Public Displays of Aggression":

An interesting thing has just intruded on my awareness: Mirrodin has Melira's Keepers, but no Melira.

When we met Keeper of Kookus in Visions, we also found Kookus. When we journeyed to Alara and discovered Keeper of Progenitus, we were overawed by Progenitus. Every other Keeper or -keeper in Magic keeps some *thing*, but this one appears to keep some *one*, who is yet unrevealed. Who IS she, and why does she need keepers?

Jay, your eyes observe much. Keep them open. There's more about Melira to come later in this block. Interestingly, Melira's Keepers are green, while many of the creatures of the green-aligned Tangle fell quite readily to Phyrexian influence. Hope from the forests after all?

As a reminder, you can click the email link at the bottom of this article to send in your questions about who wins the war I mean, Magic flavor.

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