That small gap between the concept and the rules text can be both freeing and challenging. It's freeing because it lets us tailor the look of a given card to the consistent look of the world it's in. It's freeing because it lets us build a strong concept for a piece of art without worrying too much about pieces of rules minutiae that don't matter to the visuals. It's freeing because it doesn't lock us into a dry algorithm for deriving an art order from rules text for what should be an artistic expression.
But sometimes it's also challenging. Because sometimes OH MY GOD, WHAT THE HELL IS THIS THING?
[Infect Lure Guy]
G: Target creature blocks CARDNAME this turn if able.
Sketch and art by Igor Kieryluk
Sometimes the cards are weirdos. Sometimes we wish we could just ask an algorithm to tell us what to put in the art description. "Please, O Conceptatron 7000, emit your punch-card enlightenment into our undeserving hands, that we may have a clue what to tell poor Igor Kieryluk what to paint." (You have to butter up these artificial conceptualizers. Their machine egos are fragile, just like the fleshy kind. It's science.)
When we face these oddball jumbles of numbers and rules text, we have to hunker down under the covers with a flashlight and the style guide, and get intuitive. Constraints breed creativity, but if you don't have any of those, turns out the next best thing is a deadline. Art director Jeremy Jarvis will send out his legion of bat-winged deadline gibbons after you if his commissioning window starts to close without the concepts getting written. So you turn off your analysis-brain and you listen to your subconscious and you find a way, because there is no Conceptatron. But there are bat-winged deadline gibbons.
The point of all this, other than to explain the terrifying primates that screech forth at our Art Director's command, is that there is no visual cue for infect. There is no one set of features in the art of a Scars of Mirrodin Phyrexian creature that guarantees that it will have the infect ability. But there are definitely hallmarks of Phyrexian anatomy that recur again and again.
Today we're going to look at some Phyrexians—some with the infect ability, some without. And we're going to look deep into their ocular pits and read the contents of their mind-jellies. We're going to contemplate what it means to be an infect creature and what it looks like to be Phyrexian.
Fetch a towel and some bleach. This might get messy.
Perhaps the easiest and most recognizable feature of Phyrexian identity is the Phyrexian oil itself, that black ichor that drips from claws, eyesockets, syringes, and gums of many Phyrexian creatures. It's the ultimate vector of the Phyrexian contagion, the drop of concentrated essence that can begin the phyresis process. Take a look here—one card that features infect, and one that doesn't:
See also: The lips of Cystbearer (an infect creature), the quicksilver "waters" on Inexorable Tide (not infect), the rats in Ichor Rats (infect creature) and the dripping vat-born creature on Mimic Vat (doesn't explicitly have infect). The presence or absence of the infect ability isn't tied directly to this black ichor; the relationship is looser than that. From a flavor perspective, both the black ichor and the infect ability are correlated with the general category of Phyrexia, rather than being directly correlated with each other.
One of the most jarring portrayals of the black, glistening oil is what I call the "Phyrexian tears" look—the ichor that covers the eyes and drains down the cheeks. We can see it in Scars on Tel-Jilad Fallen (an infect creature), but we've seen it long before the infect ability existed.
This is a concept illustration from the Time Spiral style guide. It shows how mages in the swamps of post-Phyrexian Dominaria still showed some signs of corruption—note that black ichor eye look. You can also see it on Jim Nelson's Demonic Collusion and Alan Pollack's Sudden Spoiling.
Concept art by Jeremy Jarvis
The look is reminiscent of the "mask of Yawgmoth," the symbol of the first Father of Machines (and the Apocalypse expansion symbol). Yawgmoth is long dead, mind you, but the ichor-dripping eye remains as a suggestive visual cue to Phyrexian-ness.
But a creature doesn't need black-bleeding eyeballs to look Phyrexian. In fact, we use the lack of eyes to imply Phyrexian origins, too. The key is in the relatability of the eyes. Eyes help you communicate with a creature, understand where it's coming from, see its soul. To make something seem irredeemably monstrous, you've got to mess up those eyes. Ichored-over or missing eyes can help make a creature unrelatable, unknowable, and therefore freakin' scary.
Many of these are infect creatures. Eyelessness and the black ichor are very useful Phyrexian cues, as we can take a familiar creature (say, a snake or a demon) and easily turn them into Phyrexianized versions of that creature (such as Blight Mamba or Carnifex Demon).
Cysts and Pustules
I know. Gross. But listen, Phyrexia has all these fluids, and it needs to store them somewhere. Maybe your species uses internal sacs and bladders to retain all your secretions, but Phyrexia just isn't that squeamish. Cystbearer is gonna bear some cysts, and isn't ashamed of it, you know?
This kind of gross-out anatomy is not designed to be pleasant—it's designed to elicit a reaction. It goes to work on our fastidious sensibilities and uses them to stir up some emotion. A little of this goes a long way, but it's certainly part of the Phyrexian repertoire. Again, the infect ability doesn't line up perfectly here; the infect creatures Putrefax and Cystbearer share the blooming-with-cysts look, but cards like Contagion Engine and Necrogen Scudder don't specify infect on them. It's more about a general feel that applies to Phyrexia rather to one of its associated abilities.
Strangely enough for a deadly villain, Phyrexia is a relentless student of life. Phyrexia is in the business of taking over worlds as efficiently as possible, and in the service of that goal, it must learn two things: to disable organic beings as efficiently as possible, and to develop creature designs that are as deadly as possible. Both goals involve studying the extant life of the victim-world around them.
You can see these life-inspired, biomechanical designs across a range of Scars creatures such as Wurmcoil Engine (not infect, but certainly deadly), Thrummingbird (not infect, but can interact with -1/-1 counters), Necropede (fully infectious) or Hand of the Praetors (infect-o-rama).
This tendency to mix flesh with metal goes back much farther than Phyrexia's recent spread throughout Mirrodin. Check out the recognizably skeletal shapes on Phyrexian Ghoul, or the wing structures on Phyrexian Debaser, or the witch engines and other beasties skittering around in the art of Reprocess.
I like to think of this piece as the "before" picture of a Phyrexian analyzing and integrating features of organic life:
You should worry about offgassing—and not just from your vinyl shower liner and that collection of damaged dry-erase markers (weren't you meaning to throw those out?). Worry about it from Phyrexians, too, whose constant goal is to expand their civilization from "current size and power" to "current size and power plus one" forever, and who often use poisonous vapors to spread their contagion. You'll see noxious emanations given off by creatures like Tangle Angler, Contagious Nim, and Blistergrub.
As you can see, the relationship of art to infect is a complex, indirect one. Phyrexia has visual cues (ichor, eyelessness, biotech, offgassing) and Phyrexia has associated mechanics (infect, proliferate, sacrificing for gain, life loss). They don't line up one to one; they all just point at the central hub of Phyrexia. Together they create a complete picture, a good fit between flavor and mechanics that tyrannizes neither.
Letter of the Week
Today's letter comes from Travis, although many readers expressed the same sentiment:
Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "You Down with O-T-T?":
Thx for bringing back the O-T-T. Now, how about Sekki, Pronunciation's Guide? Skithiryx (SKI-thir-iks? SKI-thriks?), & indeed all of Phyrexia (FREKS-ee-ah? Fii-REKS-ee-ah?) would appreciate it.
I think it's an idea whose time has come, Travis, so here we go. Sekki, Pronunciation's Guide is a legendary kami who embodies the principle of correct pronunciation. Summon Sekki to be your guide for the odder words you see on Magic cards.
Phyrexia: fie • REX • ee • ah. An important one. When said quickly it does end up "FREX ee ah" a lot of the time, which is fine. Also: phyresis – fie • REE • sis.
Skithiryx: SKIH • thur • ix. Not an easy one. This name certainly produces some pronunciation-hesitation. Let Sekki be your guide here.
Shikari: shih • KAR • ee. It's all about the accent here. It's not "SHI kur ee."
Certarch: SUR • tark. I've edited some of Travis's letter, but further down he guesses that the "Certarch" part of Vedalken Certarch is probably a Tofu (a substance derived from all-natural, real-world materials), but might be a Twinkie (wholly man-made). He's basically right—it's on that line. In the Scars of Mirrodin style guide, the vedalken are broken down into several roles known as "sanctives." Each sanctive is in charge of one method of codifying and analyzing knowledge. Certarchs are those vedalken who test acquired knowledge, building models of the accepted theories and testing their resilience against reality. The "cer-" part does come from the same root as "certify," so I'd call it a Tofu.
Exsanguinate: ex • SANG • gwi • nate. From the Latin, I think meaning "to drain all your opponents for X."
Kuldotha: kuhl • DAW • thuh. A fully Twinkie word—the name for the Great Furnace that surrounds the red lacuna.
Dais: DAY • iss. You can also say DIE-iss. An Okra word for a raised platform.
And allow me to introduce a new subfeature of Sekki, Pronunciation's Guide:
Zurdi, Goblin Pronunciation Guide
Contrasting with the sublime Sekki, Zurdi is a doltish, mixed-up goblin guide from Zendikar. Zurdi comes around and schools me when it turns out that I have been saying something wrong. Instead of being a master of pronunciation, Zurdi is the king of mispronouncing things—so when he says a word the same way as I do, I know I've got my wires crossed. Today's Zurdi wordy:
Ichor: EYE • ker.
... Huh. I found this out just in the last year, while we were working on Scars block. I've always, always said this as "ICK-er"—as if it rhymed with kicker. The black EYE-ker that we just talked about today is not, in fact, black ICK-er. Maybe you knew this—and certainly Sekki did—but I didn't.
When it turns out that Sekki's voice goes unheard for a long time, it's Zurdi who zips in and agrees with you. And you don't want Zurdi's pronunciation to match yours.
See you next week. I've got to get some paperwork done before the deadline gibbons land in my hair.