A Linguistic Look at Besieged

Posted in Savor The Flavor on February 2, 2011

It's time for Okra-Twinkie-Tofu: Mirrodin Besieged Edition!

Just as you are what you devour, Magic cards are nourished by the words they contain, so it's always worth checking on the authenticity of the words therein. We checked in back in October with some of the odder words that make up Scars of Mirrodin. Now that the Prerelease is behind us and the Visual Spoiler is conveniently filled out, it's time to investigate the words and wordcraft contained in ye olde Mirrodin Besieged.

But this time, a twist! I will not didactically heave this lore upon you—no. Instead you'll get the chance to guess about each word's origins before I reveal the answer! We are gamers here, and we enjoy the gaming—and anyway I am not keeping score, and even if I were I would probably only judge you a little. Before we begin, though, let's have a refresher on the rules of Okra-Twinkie-Tofu.

I'll give you a word that's used somewhere on a Mirrodin Besieged card, either in a card name or in flavor text. You'll categorize each word we examine as either Okra, Twinkie, or Tofu. We define these terms as follows:

Okra words are words that are actually real but may seem fake, such as obscure and archaic English words or words borrowed from other languages.

Twinkie words are completely fake and not of this world—fantastic neologisms made up to fit a particular purpose in the setting.

Tofu words are made up of real stuff but may seem bizarre and alien, such as newly-created compound words or alterations of real words.

For each word, make your guess, then click for the answer. In that order, cheatybones! Let's begin.



This isn't an English word, but it's derived from honest-to-goodness, real-world roots—classic Tofu. The combining form "-plasm" means "tissue" or "living substance," and the "crypto-" part means "hidden" or "secret." A Cryptoplasm, then, is a living substance that is hidden or secret. Indeed, this card represents a Mirran agent who infiltrates Phyrexian compounds by magically changing its own shape. In the art, you can see that the Phyrexian-looking figure in the foreground has taken the shape of the fallen Phyrexian in the background—the survivor is the Mirran spy, the Cryptoplasm.



"Shrike" sounds like a cool made-up word, but it's real—Okra all the way. A shrike is a type of songbird that lives in steppes and savannahs. Fun fact: the name for the family of shrikes, Laniidae, is from the Latin word for "butcher," and the birds are commonly called "butcher birds." That's because they catch insects and other small animals and impale them on thorns, barbed wire, or other sharp implements! Phyrexia would definitely approve. The other part of this card's name, "Tine," refers to this white-aligned Phyrexian's metallic beak and talons. "Tine" just means a sharp projection or prong, like the tines of a fork.



Nothing real here—this term is completely made up. "Norn" refers to Elesh Norn, an important figure in the Phyrexian hierarchy. But the term has no roots in English or any other Earth languages—it's all chemicals and filler.



The root "gnatho-" is from the Greek, meaning "jaw." "Saur" is from the Greek for "lizard." The combination of the two results in a big Mirran lizard that loves to snap its jaw down on Phyrexians. Crunchy, crunchy Phyrexians. It's the combination of natural elements into a peculiar form—Tofu!



"Mitotic" is a regular old dictionary word, although not one in regular use by most of us. It refers to mitosis, the process by which cells divide. This spell allows you to cause one of your permanents to divide into a duplicate—as long as you flip it up in one of your top seven cards. At worst, you'll probably get an Island—but maybe you'll get a duplicate Stasis Cell! O-ho! A cell division joke. That's why they pay me the medium bucks.



This archaic spelling of "complete" may seem exotic, but it's all-natural. In English, the adjective "compleat" means "highly skilled and accomplished in all aspects," or "complete and total," as in "the compleat actor" or "the compleat athlete" whose breadth of talent spans all of his or her chosen profession. In Magic, "compleat" can also be a verb—and not a nice one. It's the term for the process of causing someone to become Phyrexian, or the state of being "perfected" by Phyrexia. Phyrexia is not just a civilization of necrotech horrors—it's also a way of thinking, a perspective on organic flesh and on what makes an organism the best it can be. Phyrexians absorb and transform their victims not just to rule the plane, but for a cause—because they see non-Phyrexians as partial, imperfect, and incompleat.



This is Tofu territory—an odd compound word that's made up of fully natural ingredients. Well, "fully natural" might be pushing it; the root "flenser" is firmly rooted in nasty territory. To "flense" means to "strip the blubber or skin from," as you might do to a whale or seal—or in Phyrexia's case, people. "Mite" is more familiar, meaning simply "a very small object" or "a very small creature." Flensermite is a little Phyrexian gremlin with blades for fingers, which it uses to flay organic tissue from its victims. Now you know where you got that point of life, if you attacked with Flensermite at the Prerelease! Gruesome, but linguistically fascinating.



This word is the fakest of fakery, but it's a neat bit of world building. In the style guide, pistus flies are mosquito-like flying insects that feed on the fluids of living beasts. In recent times they've become an unwitting ally of Phyrexia, as they are capable of slurping up and then spreading the Phyrexian contagion to other creatures. A sufficiently hungry swarm of pistus flies can even take down a dragon—and leave enough traces of Phyrexian oil in their wake to leave you a droplet of poison too.



I wouldn't have blamed you for guessing Tofu here—this word sounds like it's been modified from words like "ocular" and "oculocutaneous" (which I'm sure come up all the time for you). But oculus is an English word in its own right. It means simply "eye," and this Phyrexian homunculus certainly has a prominent one. In architecture, an oculus can also mean a circular opening, such as at the top of a dome. The creature design of this Oculus, which you can see in the art, is a shape we've been moving toward using more consistently for the Homunculus creature type; you can also see that "eye for a face" design on such magically-created servant creatures as Bonded Fetch and Sneaky Homunculus. Of course, Phyrexianizing a Homunculus takes all the cute out of it. Well, most of it anyway. Koochie koo.



I rate this one as Tofu, although its origins are roundabout enough that it's close to the Twinkie Zone. The first part, "Galva," comes from "galvanic" or "galvanism," which have to do with chemically-induced electricity. But those terms are themselves derived from Luigi Galvani, the guy who used electric current to make the muscles twitch in the legs of dead frogs. (We don't always use roots derived from real-world persons, but there was precedent in Galvanic Key and Galvanic Arc, and artifact blocks can always use more words that have to do with electricity.) The second part, "-noth," is part of a slight tradition in Magic of big creatures having "-oth" at the end, such as Aboroth, Baloth, Grozoth, or Verdeloth. But that tradition, in turn, is likely derived from words like "mammoth," which has a Russian root, and "behemoth," which surprisingly comes from a completely different source—the plural for the Hebrew word for "beast." Together they form "Galvanoth," a word for a Mirran beastie that roots around looking for nodes of energy, releasing a burst of pyrotechnic magic whenever it finds a pure source.



Many of the creepy Phyrexian "living weapon" artifacts in Mirrodin Besieged are named with compound words. The living weapons are Phyrexian devices that come pre-loaded with tiny Phyrexian "germs," which are immature Phyrexians recruited to fight early in their life cycle. Mortarpod is the combining form "-pod," meaning "one having a foot" from the Greek "podos," plus the word "mortar," for a short cannon used to fire shells at high angles—resulting in a cannon-like weapon that has spidery legs that can move it around. Interestingly, the word "mortar" comes from a Latin term for "bowl," as in "mortar and pestle;" the oldest historical mortar weapons were not much more than shallow iron bowls, similar to the "mortar" bowls used in kitchens and apothecaries. There you have it—an odd term, but cooked up from ordinary ingredients.



"Decimate" is not that uncommon of a word, and is actually already

. But the word's technical definition is less well known (which is why I'm calling it Okra). We commonly use the term to mean "destroy a great number or proportion of," but decimate actually has the same root as "decimal" or "deciliter": "deci-," from the Latin meaning "one tenth." "Decimate" literally means "to kill every tenth man selected by chosen lot." Decimation was a form of military discipline used to punish mutiny by the ancient Roman army; one of every ten men would be chosen by drawing lots, and that man would be killed to punish the rest. The use of the term in Decimator Web is closer to this latter meaning; the card kills your opponent by one-tenth in three different ways, truly "decimating" the opposition. (It takes away one-tenth of the starting life total, bestows one-tenth of the poison counters needed to kill someone, and mills one-tenth of an assumed 60-card library.)

I suppose there are situations where Odyssey'sDecimate could actually decimate your opponent in this sense, too, but if your opponent already had ten artifacts, creatures, enchantments, and lands to choose from, then you probably don't have long to live, despite your Decimate, I'm afraid.

So how did you do? Out of these twelve Mirrodin Besieged terms, how many did you categorize correctly? How many did you disagree with me on, cursing my name in rage with your fist shaking toward that dramatic ceiling camera? Well, life goes on.

    Letter of the Week

Judging by my inbox, there's a whole lot of curiosity and speculation out there—you want to know who's winning this war between the Mirrans and the Phyrexians, how the internal organization of Phyrexia is structured, who the five central Praetors are, and what's up with Karn's fragmented, Phyrexia-influenced mind. All of those questions and more will be answered in good time. Many of them have to wait until the "Action" set is announced once and for all, as either Mirrodin Pure or New Phyrexia. But that is not known yet. For now I can tell you this: each of the five main Phyrexian Praetors is quoted in the flavor text of Mirrodin Besieged, but only four of them were quoted in Scars of Mirrodin flavor text.


Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Phyrexia: The Strong and the Scattered":

We're witnessing the return of Phyrexia, but I haven't seen the Phyrexian mask on any of their cards. Has it been discarded as a symbol? (It would be a shame, it looked really cool)


To answer your question ambiguously, Phaseshifter, the mask isn't back, but it sort of is.

We take that mask to be more emblematic of Yawgmoth, Phyrexia's former leader, than of the whole Phyrexian civilization. So since Yawgmoth is no longer with us, the mask iconography hasn't shown up explicitly in Scars of Mirrodin block. The Phyrexian symbol, on the other hand, represents Phyrexia as a whole, and has shown up plenty: see the art of cards like Blight Mamba, Banishment Decree, Priests of Norn, and Horrifying Revelation—not to mention in the watermark of every Phyrexia-aligned card in the block.

But the mask of Yawgmoth design, with its ichor-streaked eyes and its hollow, wailing jaw, has made a subtler impact on the art of this block. Take a close look at the art of Viridian Emissary. See how its eyes are full of black fluid, and how the ichor runs down its cheeks? That's a common trait to a lot of Phyrexianized humanoids (also seen on Tel-Jilad Fallen as I mentioned in this article), and it's directly inspired by the look of the mask of Yawgmoth. A similar motif played out in the art of the Phyrexia-scarred Time Spiral block. And check out Karn in his Phyrexian throne in the art of Corrupted Conscience—the big silver golem was already kind of grimly mask-faced, but now his darkened eyes and gloomy countenance are more reminiscent of that mask of the previous Father of Machines.

Hope you all had your-chosen-enemy-smashing good times at the Prerelease. Next week we crash headlong into BATTLE.

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