Part of the reason is that Phyrexia is plainly awesome. It is one of Magic's premier villains, a mainstay of the storyline that has been menacing planes in its uniquely ruthless, necro-techno-ideological way since the beginning. The stylistic look of Phyrexia has been developed over hundreds of cards and more than a dozen years by some of Magic's most visionary artists, and its phonemes and philosophy have been honed over thousands of pages by devoted novelists and flavor text scribblers. Phyrexia has history, style, and badass appeal, and to argue against it is to argue against a lot of what gives Magic its identity.
But even more awkwardly, favoring the good guys is near-tautological; the good guys are good by definition. Regardless of what some Phyrexia-leaning columnists might tell you this week, Phyrexia is the clear bad guy of this story; this is not one of those morally gray rivalries with prominent atrocities on both sides that make it it's tough to make out who's really in the wrong. No. Phyrexia waves its villain flag proudly. It operates by enslavement and genocide with a side of quasi-religious dogma, and in case that wasn't quite enough for you to revile it, it is also disturbing and horrifying to look at. Phyrexia is a blinking neon marquee of badness, and it is that way by design.
So saying, "Hey, I'm on the side of the good guys here!" isn't mounting much of a position. Picking the Mirrans over Phyrexia is like siding with Conan O'Brien over tetanus. When it's that clear, listing reasons feels a little bit dumb. The more interesting position is the reverse, frankly, where you get to take on the task of figuring out how to defend the civilization of undeadoid murder-bots (dibs on that band name, by the way).
That said, I think there's something deeply noble about the Mirrans in particular, something admirable and true about their story and their trials, that makes them worthy of being the good guys. I think the Mirrans are not just the default vote against the badder-than-bad Phyrexians, but the deserving choice. Today I look not at why the obviously villainous Phyrexians should lose, but why the relatively unheralded Mirrans actually merit victory.
I do have one ultimate reason that puts the Mirrans over the top for me, but no, skin isn't it. But first up: to understand what it means to be Mirran at all, we have to take a quick look at the history of the plane.
The Native Refugees
The Mirrans' home is an artificial plane, a world of metal that its creator Karn once named Argentum. Argentum was a silver golem's dream realm: a nearly uniform, mathematically perfect sphere. But it was nearly devoid of life, and there was no such thing as a Mirran yet.
Later, the guardian-being Memnarch went a little designer-crazy and made sweeping changes to Karn's plane. Argentum became Mirrodin, and if you ask me, the moment of the switchover was not when Memnarch named it that, but when he used his soul traps to bring living things from other planes. He populated the world with elves, goblins, leonin, vedalken, loxodons, humans, and more—turning the plane into his own massive, metallic vivarium. This was now someplace new. This was the birth of what we know as Mirrodin.
Yet there were still no Mirrans. Despite their new lives on Mirrodin, these planar refugees weren't part of this world. Their presence on the plane had even caused their anatomies to become mingled with metal, but they still hadn't lost the connection of heritage with their former worlds. They were borrowed, not born. And when the soul traps were triggered again, when Memnarch was defeated, the Vanishing whisked them away. They were returned to their former worlds, snapped back along those lines of belonging out of the metal plane.
But Mirrodin was not bereft of life. The younger generations stayed, because their identities had blended with the metal world around them. They were truly part of Mirrodin and had no other home to return to. Despite Memnarch's involuntary relocation scheme and draconian population control methods, he had actually constructed a true living world—a plane with a true ecosystem in its own right and beings that belonged there. The refugees from other worlds had, over time and reproduction, become natives. They had become Mirrans, the natural residents of an artificial world.
The Vanishing was the ultimate test of belonging. If any of the living races of current-day Mirrodin didn't belong there, they would have poofed off the world already. Mirrodin truly belongs to the Mirrans now. From their roots scattered among myriad other planes, they have become natives and stewards of this plane. They have a right to live and thrive under its suns.
That's not why I side with them, though.
The Purest Cause
The Mirrans are not in it for superficial ends. They're not warring for the sake of some dictator's dogma, or to fill their coffers with gold, or to drive down the price of oil—in fact, the oil is seriously the last thing they want. They fight not to justify some overwrought statement of principle or to inflict their pet creed on somebody—they fight for their very lives.
Back in Scars of Mirrodin the Phyrexians were showing up a trickle at a time, but as of Mirrodin Besieged it's a full-on mutual slaughter. The time for any childish self-delusions that the Phyrexians are not a global threat is over. The threat to the Mirrans is mortal, and they know it. Those naturalized natives I just talked about? That unique civilization summoned to this world from uncountable vastnesses beyond the sky, that has flourished and established a true home on Mirrodin? All that could vanish. Everything the Mirrans have built could be wiped the frak out in a matter of weeks.
That's part of why I'm on the Mirran side. The Mirrans aren't fighting for pride, or a trophy with their names on it, or the right to enforce some arbitrary, transient law on some underclass. They are fighting for the ultimate cause of all.
But even then I might have sided with the Phyrexians, were it not for one thing.
The Silver Lining
The Mirrans have one ace in the hole, one secret advantage that could yet turn all this around for their side.
Argentum's creator is here.
The former planeswalker Karn is down inside the Phyrexian core. Once a godlike being that created all of Mirrodin, he gave up his spark to heal the Tolarian time rift and wound up on the plane of his own manufacture. The Phyrexians immediately claimed them for their own, and have him secreted away in a sunless chamber. Day after day they worm their way into his mind, and in some flashes of darkness he truly is the new Father of Machines—but there is yet hope. Karn is not wholly corrupted yet. If he could recover or be freed in time, he could strike a blow for the Mirrans. Let us not forget that Karn was the epicenter of the blast that destroyed Yawgmoth. He may not be accustomed to this present generation of Mirran beings, but he would understand that they are part of his world and worthy of his protection. He would fight for them. If he could only be liberated, he could become Legacy Weapon.
If you ask me, the Phyrexians and their Praetors are just here to test the Mirrans. They're a means to an end—they're nothing but a catalyst to turn Karn and the free peoples of Mirrodin into the beings they need to be to defeat the Phyrexians in their latest incarnation. The Phyrexians aren't the true story here—they're just a foil to inspire heroes to rise. They're just a bully to be laid out when Mirrodin's native children gain the courage they need to triumph.
Letter of the Week
Dear Doug Beyer,
As I am quite certain you are aware, every story needs a hero and a villain. Recently we have had the Eldrazi, the Phyrexians, as well as continuing Bolas machinations. That covers the villains pretty soundly, but I'm wondering about the heroes. The last we saw of Garruk, he was churning out zombies. Similarly, we saw Karn being corrupted, and Elspeth covered in ichor. Nissa is focused on elves, and red walkers like Koth or Chandra really aren't going to play the hero role for long. That leaves Ajani, Gideon, Venser, and possibly Jace. That isn't (presently) a force that can hold back the forces arrayed against it.
I am aware that the general demographic of Magic skews to the young male, and they tend to like a bit of darkness, and many like the comic book flare. That isn't a problem, if you have a true hero to take it all on, but I don't see that developed to this point. Moriarty needs his Holmes, and Venom needs his Spiderman. (That last comparison fits the Phyrexians well.) So what I am really wondering is when we will see one or more walkers develop to the point that they are that true hero.
Thank you and best regards,
This is a fine time for this kind of question, when things are looking bad for the heroes in the story, and while we're taking a week to choose sides on the website. I'll tell you this, George—the odds are always going to look stacked toward the villains' side. That's not a feature of Magic in particular, but of fantasy and stories in general; fantasy stories are about overwhelming odds and rising tension and conflict on a grand scale. The way you generate that epic scope is by making one side vastly more powerful than the other—and since you're pulling for the hero, you want the villains to be on the overwhelming side so that the tension is greatest. Certainly heroes win in stories all the time, but they only do it in the last few pages of the book or during the last few minutes of the show—and the rest of the time, those intrepid heroes have their backs to the wall and things are looking increasingly desperate. Right now things are pretty desperate—but hey, it's Act Two!
You're right, though, that Magic's roster of straightforward, gallant planeswalker heroes is a pretty short list. Gideon and Ajani are certainly white hats, and I wouldn't count out Elspeth quite yet. While Chandra's temper is short and her loathing of authority is long, I think her heart is firmly in the right place, and similarly Koth and Venser are decent guys despite a few foibles. And I think Jace always has the potential to go either way—to amass great power for himself, or to strike a great blow against evil, or maybe both.
That list may not seem long or all that hopeful, but that's partly because of that aforementioned intentional stacking of the odds against the heroes—the villains are epic in scope so that the heroes always have their work cut out for them. I also think—hope—that Magic is always going to be full of complex, challenging heroes whose battles are both internal and external, and whose victories never come easy. Striking a blow against our massive-scope bad guys can be the province of clear heroes like Gideon Jura, but good can also come from odder, subtler directions, like say the Veil-cursed nature-curmudeon Garruk or the self-serving machinations of a former Seeker from Esper.
Magic is a five-way star—it's not always centered around one detective or one superhero, and so finding the epicenter of virtue in the story can be like hitting a moving target sometimes. Those Goliath-style villains you mentioned can sometimes draw focus from the heroes, but the good guys are out there, loading stones into their slings.