The faction of Phyrexia aligned with white mana is organized around a grand hierarchy of belief known as the Machine Orthodoxy. The Grand Cenobite Elesh Norn, the Orthodoxy's highest-ranking Praetor, commands and guides this faction of Phyrexia, promising them a glorious future under the principles of the Argent Etchings. Everything the Phyrexians practice under the Machine Orthodoxy is designed to turn Mirrodin into a perfect new Phyrexian homeland, a kind of planewide phyresis. They see the native Mirrans as either lost unfortunates or willful sinners, deserving of reclamation and transformation in either case.
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite | Illustration by Igor Kieryluk
Misunderstanding of the Spirit. Phyrexia is a civilization based on physical qualities: flesh and metal. While Phyrexians have something like a spirituality, the vast majority of them don't seem to understand the mind, soul, or spirit the way other sentient beings do. The minds of sentient Phyrexians are certainly capable of abstract thought, but they appear to be largely disconnected from the transcendental. However, despite their physical-oriented nature, Phyrexians have fervently held, well-organized religious systems. The strange contradiction that results is a bizarre, manifest mockery of religion—an engineered religion, a faith of the physical: the Machine Orthodoxy.
Illustration by Raymond Swanland
Sects of the Machine Orthodoxy
There are several sects within Phyrexia's Machine Orthodoxy, each competing to realize their worldview. Three of the largest sects are described here.
The Flesh Singularity: The Sect of Total Unity
One sect of the Orthodoxy is founded on the ideal of the rejection of the selfish ego and the total unification of all things. Their twisted, almost naïve conception of the perfect community is the elimination of all barriers between individuals. The Phyrexian tendency toward literalism takes this to a frightening extreme: Phyrexians of this sect seek to literally connect all beings to one another and to become a single, vast, organic-and-metal organism, the end-state of which they call, among other names, the Flesh Singularity. (The term "flesh" here means both organic and inorganic matter; like most Phyrexians, they don't distinguish between living and dead things as potential materials for their form of life.) When all life is literally attached to all other life—by sutured skin, riveted metal, woven fur, whatever—only then will true, perfect unity be achieved.
Unreality of the Individual. Izathel, the high chancellor of a massive Phyrexian chancery inside the planar core, sees all life as a single, hierarchical organism, with each part serving a crucial role to the whole. The only value of any given part is to the whole organism; therefore, an individual is worse than useless—it's a threat to the unity of the Singularity. Individuals—especially those that aggressively defend their separation from the collective—are to be hunted down and made part of the whole by force. Many Phyrexians of this sect have a strange blind spot to individual behavior, almost as if they don't quite recognize the efficacy or even the existence of discrete, non-Phyrexian organisms. Guided by this observation, some Mirran rebels have had success in perplexing and deceiving a few Phyrexians by acting in radically independent ways, keeping their behavior as unique as possible. These erratic tactics are now discouraged by Mirran leaders, however, as they are now recognized as sinful and highly aberrant by Singularity-Sect Phyrexians and can draw deadly attention.
"The last of the Not-Whole shall be discovered, though our eyeholes wince at their hideousness. Their bodies shall be absorbed and their imperfection shall be purged. The Machine Orthodoxy shall engorge the Not-Whole and their deficient isolation shall be obliterated in the Unity. Only then shall the last wounds in the Circle be healed. Only then shall this world compleat itself."
—Izathel, High Chancellor
Dermatophobia. Phyrexians of the Flesh Singularity sect seem to have a special hatred for, or fear of, skin. To them, the skin (or whatever a creature has as its outer covering) is the ultimate boundary, the wall that divides the self from the outside world, and individuals from one another. Many deaths at the hands of Phyrexians of the Machine Orthodoxy involve brutal, almost ritualized flaying. It's rare for these Phyrexians to leave a victim's skin whole when compleating it; they often replace nearly all of a creature's former hide with glossy, porcelain-like armor or some other material that is less emblematic of discrete individuality.
The Porcelain Legion: The Sect of the Ideal Form
The flesh of many native Phyrexians, particularly those of the Porcelain Legion sect, is often covered with a hard, white, bonelike metal similar in appearance to porcelain. While this substance is inflexible and iron-hard, the visual impression of a force of these Phyrexians is the appearance of an army made of delicate porcelain. Under the protective porcelain lie bone, metal endoskeletal structure, raw sinew, and sometimes sensory apparatuses such as eyes or auditory organs.
Only on core-born Phyrexians does this porcelain metal develop organically. For compleated Phyrexians (former Mirrans), the porcelain substance must be grown in special vats and implanted in the victim's body. The porcelain metal tends to thrive best when embedded in dying or recently-dead flesh, spreading over the fertile tissue like metallic lichen. Extra tissue harvested from Phyrexia's war victims is often used to help grow more of the hard, white metal in the porcelain vats.
Destructive Idealization. Despite the rising power of the Flesh Singularity sect, most Phyrexians of the Machine Orthodoxy are still de facto individuals, able to move and act somewhat independently. However, the agendas of other sects, such as the Porcelain Legion, still make their mark upon them. The ideal of the Porcelain Legion is the idealization of the physical form—and the Phyrexian concept of "idealization" is a ruthless one. To these Phyrexians, a being's ideal form is that which perfectly serves the Phyrexian hierarchy. If the community is an organism, then every part must be designed and crafted to serve its role for the survival of that organism. Much of Phyrexia's power and raw building material, however, comes from the races and creatures it subjugates. Before a newcomer can achieve its ideal form, therefore, it must first be relieved of its old form.
Illustration by Min Yum
The Transformation Process. Take a captured leonin soldier for example. Like a porcelain doll, the leonin will be smashed into its components parts, its organs spread wide and its metallic sinew rearranged. It will be modified for its new purpose—its muscles tightened, its digestion rerouted, its mind scrubbed and readapted to its new objectives. Some parts may be deemed useless to the new Phyrexian's purpose; most will be reused elsewhere. Some additions may be made to enhance its function, sometimes taken from other "newcomers"—extra arms, more teeth, and of course, seed-grafts of the "porcelain" armor plates made of the hard, white, bonelike metal. Then, as the final act of the new being's transformation, the Phyrexian oil is introduced into its body. The oil magically spreads throughout the organism, making changes at an invisible level, completing the conversion to Phyrexia and its journey to its ideal form.
"I don't care what horrors you've seen. I don't care how long you've traveled. There is always worse up ahead. That's the rule, I'm afraid. Today's worst is tomorrow's best."
—Faln, Mirran resistance
The Apostles of Karn: The Sect of the Creator's Destiny
Another sect of the Machine Orthodoxy is the Apostles of Karn, those who are concerned with restoring a centralized leader to Phyrexia. Although the Phyrexian civilization that has grown on Mirrodin was not the same as that led by Yawgmoth, the lack of a focal leader is felt on an instinctual level. This sect believes that Phyrexia is currently like a body without a head, a kingdom without a king, and has adopted the powerful silver golem Karn as their chosen leader. Currently Karn, in his erratic and unstable mental state, is incapable of taking true command over Phyrexia, but the Apostles do all they can to prepare for the day when he'll ascend to the throne.
Whispers of a Broken Mind. Karn flung himself to Mirrodin, the metal world he once created as Argentum, while simultaneously surrendering his planeswalker spark for the sake of the plane of Dominaria. Stranded on Mirrodin with Xantcha's Phyrexian personality matrix, Karn's mind came unhinged, and the influence of Phyrexia festered and grew inside him. Deep within Mirrodin's core, the trace of glistening oil within the silver golem became the seed for a reborn Phyrexian civilization, leaving Karn himself trapped within its widening web. Today the Apostles of Karn and other Phyrexians help to groom and nurture the mind-injured golem, plugging him into a specially constructed Phyrexian throne and harvesting his whispered ravings as scripture. At times, Karn is a full-blown Phyrexian leader, uttering commands to destroy the last vestiges of Mirran life; during these moments, the Apostles record and evangelize his Word with fervent excitement. Other times, Karn is lucid enough to struggle against his Phyrexian corruption; this is when the Apostles act as jailers, preventing his escape and traumatizing him back into submission.
Ambassadors to the Phyrexian Factions. The Apostles of Karn know that when Karn is ready to lead Phyrexia, Phyrexia must be ready for his leadership. They lament the ideological schisms that have divided Phyrexia and work to send ambassadors to negotiate unity among the other factions.
"When the final truths are known, a great and terrible peace shall befall this world. The suns above and the spheres below shall form a shining tower, and the Father of Machines shall rule from its pinnacle. Praise the scraping utterances of the Praetor, the oil-basked truth of the Orthodoxy, and the inevitable destiny of the Father."
—Ktat-Raal, Inquisitor Exarch
Roles and Beings of the Machine Orthodoxy
In Phyrexia, role and physiognomy are inextricably linked. If you are part of Phyrexia, you were created to fill a need, and your physical form was engineered and outfitted to do the job you were made to do. Form and function are stitched together into a seamless whole.
Cenobites: Machine Priests. Phyrexia is filled with countless orders of priests and chancellors. Cenobites are the priests in charge of the inquisition of non-Phyrexian life. Some remain in the Core, deciding the fates of the captured, whereas others can be found on the front lines, their serrated blades ready to inflict dogma on the heretics directly. Cenobites tend to be constructed of more metal than flesh, sometimes bearing religious iconography etched directly onto their oil-streaked "porcelain" metal.
Suture Priest | Illustration by Igor Kieryluk
Suture Priests: Stitchers of the Flesh. The suture priest is a specialized cenobite whose job is the sacred act of binding the individual into the collective. This is accomplished in a ritualized but still quite literal process involving long needles and black, metallic thread. Usually members of the Flesh Singularity sect, suture priests are sometimes also called to modify Phyrexian creatures by altering their flesh components.
The Deep Faithful: Unseen Servitors. Although many Phyrexians are built for face-to-face combat and inquisition, some Phyrexians never leave the core of the plane. A sub-sect of Phyrexians called the Deep Faithful work tirelessly to preserve the infrastructure of the Machine Orthodoxy, carrying prisoners to be compleated, trading limbs or bits of flesh from one convert to another, and tending the porcelain vats. They appear as thin, spidery creatures that scuttle along any surface, apparently ignoring gravity, using their pincers and eyeholes to perform their menial work.
Illustration by Min Yum
Shattered Angels: Phyrexianized Seraphs. Angels are just more rank and file to the Phyrexian machine, but to many Mirrans, there exists no more blasphemous sight than a Phyrexianized angel. Hollow and insensate, with the slack apathy of a broken doll, the so-called null seraphs follow no ideal. Their conscience and warrior zeal excised, they become winged sociopaths capable of unspeakable acts. Some Mirrans consider it especially virtuous to slay null seraphs, freeing the angels' bodies from committing the atrocities that their souls would never have permitted.
Concept art by Richard Whitters
Porcelain Dolls: Low-Ranking Newcomers. The Porcelain Legion is always looking for new recruits. They favor prisoners of war from the Razor Fields, such as leonin, loxodon, and Auriok humans. Reconfigured Mirrans, sometimes called "shattered dolls," are literally broken down and built back up again, made to be loyal servants and soldiers for the very force they had fought before. The Porcelain Legion covers much of the newcomer's body with hard, porcelain-like metal, but the facial features are often left relatively intact to allow the new soldier's former comrades to recognize him or her in battle. These "dolls" rarely attain religious rank within the Machine Orthodoxy, but body parts can be recycled widely; parts of former Mirrans have even made it into the body of the Praetor Elesh Norn.
"Birth is inadequate. Maturity is inadequate. Even this world's false metallic life is inadequate. Perfection is only achieved through the lessons of metal. The merely born cannot reach this state, and in their misery they cry for our improvements."
—Xaldror, Tender of Vats
Tome Lackeys: Undependable Clerical Minions. Short-statured tome lackeys are creatures built to serve as mobile stands for Phyrexian arcane or clerical texts. They are singularly terrible at their job, distractible and hyperactive, possessed of a constant need to squirm and skitter about. They chitter annoyingly while priests try to read from the tomes they carry, often confusing the sermons or lessons being read.
Concept art by Richard Whitters
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. The Machine Orthodoxy faction of Phyrexia is led by a Praetor called Elesh Norn. The Praetor of Unity, preferring the title of Grand Cenobite, coordinates the war efforts of thousands of Phyrexian beings below her. Elesh Norn belongs to no particular sect of the Orthodoxy, but is recognized as the overseer or at least a respected figure under all faiths. Conniving and wise, Elesh Norn maintains an appearance of Phyrexian grace and respectability at all times, but secretly she manipulates Phyrexian dogma and the interpretations of the Argent Etchings to suit her own ends.
Illustration by James Paick
Annexes: Footholds of the Orthodoxy
As Phyrexia's orthodoxy spreads, it doesn't just transform living things to its nature. Phyrexia also establishes Annexes, buildings converted to the purpose of Phyrexian religious practice, incorporating Mirran living spaces and outposts into the Phyrexian superstructure. Annexes are led by chancellors, sentient and usually roughly humanoid Phyrexian priests who have attained high rank in the Machine Orthodoxy. Many of these captured chanceries are organized with radial architecture, with a dais in the middle meant to elevate the position of the chancellor, or sometimes a monument to Karn. Some Annexes lurk within Mirrodin's core, grand cathedrals with nightmarish architecture that serve the deep faithful.
The Argent Etchings: Phyrexian Scripture
Phyrexia did not invade Mirrodin; the Phyrexian civilization on Mirrodin developed from the corruption inside Karn, the silver golem with a Phyrexian heart. Although Phyrexia may retain a dim "memory" of its forms on other worlds, Phyrexian life on Mirrodin has largely had to grow and adapt its own structures and institutions. One such institution is a collection of written religious law and scripture known as the Argent Etchings. The Etchings are scribed on a vast, silver sculpture said to have been fashioned in the shape of a bizarre cardiac organ, perhaps based on Karn's Phyrexian heart or some part of the Praetor Elesh Norn. The etched sculpture contains maxims and laws that are interpreted by religious leaders and Praetors to fit their ends.
Example maxims from the Argent Etchings
"Skin is the prison of the blessed and the stronghold of the heretic."
The Machine Orthodoxy, especially the Flesh Singularity sect, sees the skin as a symbolic barrier that divides individuals from one another. It's the barricade that cleaves beings apart and prevents total unity. So the skin is both a prison from which a potential Phyrexian newcomer must be freed, and the last line of defense that must be torn down before the wicked can be rooted out and destroyed.
Illustration by Brad Rigney
"Becoming is belonging."
Transformation and membership are inextricably linked for Phyrexia, especially for the Porcelain Legion. Before a Mirran "newcomer" can be welcomed into the fold, the old self must be purged, forgotten, destroyed. Even native Phyrexians sometimes undergo radical physical transfiguration, feeling it to be a transcendental experience that gets them closer to their community.
"A hole prevents a sphere from forming."
The absence of a leader distresses some Phyrexian factions. The Apostles of Karn see Phyrexia as a sphere that can't become entirely whole or stable while the hole in leadership exists. They work to install Karn as the new Father of Machines so that Phyrexia may compleat itself.
Phyrexian belief can be excruciatingly literal. Many low-level Phyrexian priests, chancellors, and the Deep Faithful adhere to Phyrexian rules, maxims, and texts to the unvarnished letter. The distinction between symbol and referent is often lost on them, causing behavior that appears gruesome but is motivated by religious law. If scripture says "we must eliminate the self to accomplish unity," they start sewing people together. If a Phyrexian Praetor announces it's time to "harvest the soul of Mirrodin," they harvest bodies without consideration of the consciousnesses they may be attached to, perceiving nothing but the physical. It's a surprisingly self-consistent belief system—but at the same time, when applied, it becomes a cruel, genocidal mandate.
Deep inside the Furnace Layer of the Phyrexian core hides an unlikely collection of rebel outposts: a pocket of Mirran resistance. Resistance fighters keep hostile Phyrexians at bay while surface-raiders smuggle living holdouts to the camps. Some strangely tolerant Phyrexians have turned a blind eye to these refugee outposts, a welcome but likely temporary condition that has allowed these camps to exist so far.
The Razor Fields fell to the Phyrexians quickly, scattering the leonin prides and isolating the loxodon. The last major fortress of the Razor Fields that has yet to fall to Phyrexian integration is the Auriok community of Bladehold. The once-roving civil force known as the Accorders now serve as Bladehold's military, fighting off Phyrexian assaults as best they can.
Illustration by James Ryman
The Razor Circle Passage. The refugees at Bladehold know of an effective but dangerous conduit to the Resistance strongholds in the Furnace Layer. Using a powerful spell, the loxodon artificer Ghalma the Shaper has turned a "razor circle"—a kind of crop circle carved magically in razorgrass—into a tunnel through Mirrodin's crust into the Furnace Layer. Only when the white sun is high overhead does this passage activate, allowing travel down into the refugee outposts. The entrance is in constant danger of discovery by Phyrexia, and the passage needs constant maintenance so that tendrils of mycosynth don't close it up again. But for many in Bladehold and across the Razor Fields, it's the only chance for survival.