Compulsive Research – Why New Phyrexia Failed Me

“I tried to like New Phyrexia.” John Dale Beety explains just why New Phyrexia did not click with him and many others. Yet by what Wizards set out to do, New Phyrexia was a resounding success…

I tried to like New Phyrexia.

When the visual spoiler was posted on the official Wizards of the Coast site and I looked it over for the first time, I examined it for Vorthos flavor, not Melvin mechanics. Of course, I noticed the potential power of cards such as Batterskull and Dismember, but I was more focused on the art, the flavor text—in short, the look of the cards and the set as a whole.

I was disappointed. Still, I tried to give the set the benefit of the doubt. I opened a few boosters of New Phyrexia in a draft with friends and got some actual cards in my hands.

Time passed. Magic 2012 hit stores. Now, New Phyrexia doesn’t feel like a disappointment to me.

It feels like a failure.

Ironically, it feels like a failure born of success. Wizards accomplished what it set out to do when making New Phyrexia—as you’ll see, multiple Wizards employees have said as much—but that same success is what makes it impossible for me to enjoy more than a handful of individual cards in the set, and I know that I am not alone among my circle of friends in feeling this way.

The story starts long before New Phyrexia hit stores. In fact, it begins before it was even the third set in its block…

Set Up for Failure

Mark Rosewater April 4, 2011 edition of Making Magic lays out what could have been: originally New Phyrexia was going to be the first set of the block, but the plan changed when his team members wanted to see the fall of Mirrodin, not merely the rise of New Phyrexia. Then, in one fateful meeting with boss Bill Rose, Mark Rosewater told him, “Bill, I think we’re telling the wrong story.”

To create a bridge between fans of Mirrodin (“the bestselling set of all time”) and the Phyrexians (“Magic’s iconic villains”), Mark Rosewater wanted to tell the story of the fall and transition: “Fine, the Phyrexians are going to beat the Mirrans, but why don’t we show that story? In fact, we could build the whole block around the conflict. We could get the players invested in who’s going to win.”

Problem: While “the bad guys win” is a valid ending to a story, it needs to be handled with more care than a typical “good guys win” or even “antihero protagonist we’ve been following wins” ending. Wizards chose to make New Phyrexia the (temporary) ending to their story and put an exclamation point on the Phyrexians winning, devoting an entire set to their victory.

There were any number of alternate storyline patterns to follow, such as “third set Mirrodin Besieged, reveal Phyrexians as winners later” (though a similar pattern had been used in Zendikar block with the Rise of the Eldrazi), “third set New Phyrexia as tragedy of the Mirrans’ fall” (reflected in a few of the Mirran cards of New Phyrexia, such as Remember the Fallen and Darksteel Relic), or “first set New Phyrexia, but telling the story of the Mirrans’ fall.”

Instead, New Phyrexia was being set up as Phyrexia’s victory party—except Wizards felt they couldn’t let everyone in on it too early. That leads to…

The Big Mirrodin Pure Debacle

Another consequence of telling the story Wizards chose is that the name of the third set had to be kept a secret. I completely understand where Bill Rose was going with his suggestion; announcing New Phyrexia before Mirrodin Besieged was released would’ve been the ultimate spoiler.

But what’s the excuse for this timeline?

December 9, 2010 – “Action” announced as either Mirrodin Pure or New Phyrexia.

January 3, 2011 – Magic 2012 announced, with a name.

February 4, 2011 – Official release date for Mirrodin Besieged.

February 15, 2011 – First “Action” previews. Monty Ashley reviews the rules: “‘Action’ will be either Mirrodin Pure or New Phyrexia. Not both. And it’s already decided. We’re not telling you which it is because it’s fun to pick a side without knowing who’s going to win.”

March 5-6, 2011 – Mirrodin Besieged Game Day(s)

March 14, 2011 – Innistrad announced, with a name and Arcana number in questionable taste.

March 15, 2011 – The day after the set two releases later is named, Magic Arcana continues the naming charade with the “speculative packaging” feature. A range of Internet observers note that the Mirrodin Pure packaging is really, really hard to read. Hmm…

March 29, 2011 – Two weeks later, Action finally announced as New Phyrexia, introduced with card of praetor/spokeswoman Lady Gaga—excuse me, that’s Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite.

Problem: In order to do their usual weeks of previews, Wizards had to let the cat out of the bag sometime. The timing was off, though. Waiting until after Mirrodin Besieged was in stores? Totally understandable. After Game Day? I can accept that, even if the tease was becoming annoying. When Innistrad’s naming was followed up with the packaging stunt, though, many more people started getting sore, and when New Phyrexia was announced two weeks later, the “Yay, New Phyrexia!” and “No, my Mirrodin Pure!” crowds were met by others huffing, “About time!”

Worse yet, the Mirrodin Pure supporters felt like they’d been strung along and given false hope—and considering how long Wizards stretched it out, the losing side would’ve felt that way regardless. Wizards had to have thought about how the “Action” stunt had the potential to alienate certain fans; I can’t give them so little credit as to say they ignored it, rather than merely miscalculating it.

So New Phyrexia arrived, and looking at the cards and art, one thing became clear…

This Set Is Wrong

“Violating.” “Transgressive.” “Evil.”

Descriptions of the latest shock video to float around the Internet? Hardly. They’re adjectives applied to New Phyrexia, and not just by random fans, either…these come from Tom LaPille, a Wizards employee writing in his weekly column for the Mothership.

I suppose one could make a case for any good Magic set as being “transgressive,” in the sense that Magic is forever breaking its own rules. But “violating?” That word is loaded with disturbing implications that cross the line into tastelessness. Maybe I’m overreacting, but had I been his editor, “violating” would not have gone through there, or in any of the other places Wizards employees used the term in public.

At least calling the Phyrexians “evil” is just speaking plainly.

Tom LaPille also used the word “griefer” to describe New Phyrexia. In going for “griefer,” Wizards had the right person on the job: lead designer Ken Nagle. Tom LaPille article “Obliterate!” has a juicy quote: “Our vision of New Phyrexia—as created by Aaron Forsythe and Ken Nagle, the two players in R&D with the strongest griefing tendencies—is one of all-upside griefing that leaves your opponent not knowing what they’re supposed to do and feeling a little bit violated.”

It was a cool idea that was taken too far. There is a place in Magic for “griefer cards,” just as there is a place for Timmy cards, Johnny cards, and Spike cards. Pushing the balance heavily toward griefing cards, though, felt alienating to me as someone who doesn’t enjoy the play style.

It is development’s role to refine, curb, or push design’s ideas as needed. Aaron Forsythe wrote in his article “Phyrexian Ken’s Demands,” “Truth be told, development has most of the power when it comes to making Magic cards. If they want something to exist, it generally will. If they want something to not exist, it won’t. If they want something to be better, it gets better. And so on.”

So who was tasked with lead developing New Phyrexia? The other griefer Tom LaPille listed—Aaron Forsythe.

Problem: Designers create all kinds of cards, but inevitably they design the cards they want to see and play. Ken Nagle has a known reputation for preferring a “griefer” style of play. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as it is balanced out by other influences. Worldwake, Ken Nagle’s first set as lead designer, had Mike Turian as lead developer and guiding hand.

New Phyrexia, by contrast, was handed from a griefing-oriented lead designer to a griefing-oriented lead developer. Remember Tom LaPille quote, and in Aaron Forsythe own words: “My style of casual Magic always had me putting the screws to people (and I still do it in Commander).”

The result? Too much of a good thing. One of “Phyrexian Ken’s Demands” (the title came from an e-mail Ken Nagle sent to Aaron Forsythe about his priorities for the set) reads: “3. Mechanical overview summarized as ‘violating’ and ‘win more.’ Likely manifests to fun gameplay experience playing Phyrexians, unfun gameplay experience fighting against Phyrexians.”

A different developer might have said, “Unfun? Wait a minute. Let’s back up.” But as Aaron Forsythe wrote in his article, “Now this was a goal I could get behind!” Lead designer and lead developer were very much in-tune, and the results weren’t pleasant for players like me. I’m not faulting either of them; they did their jobs the best they could. But the combination just didn’t work.

Aaron Forsythe, once more, on the “violating and transgressive” adjectives used by Tom LaPille: “[A]n apt description of what the teams were trying to accomplish… as well as something you don’t want your typical Magic set to feel like.”

I don’t want any set to feel like New Phyrexia. It was unfun for me to be on the receiving end of most New Phyrexia cards, and I didn’t even like inflicting the cards on opponents. After a draft with friends, I knew I wouldn’t enjoy buying my usual booster box, so I skipped it.

Now that covers the mechanics. What about the art?

My (Not So) Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

May 18, 2011. Doug Beyer’s weekly Savor the Flavor talks Magic art: “A lot of people are attracted to fantasy art, and to Magic art in particular, because it idealizes reality. We show aesthetically pleasing people doing awesome things—a lovely escape from the doldrums of real life.”

So what direction does New Phyrexia take? In one of Doug Beyer’s words, “grisly.” In another: “Creepshow.” He breaks down the guiding motifs for the different colors of Phyrexia, each creepier than the one before (well, at least until he gets to red—industry is not in-and-of-itself creepy).

New Phyrexia has a “raw, hard-edged villainy” according to Doug Beyer, and he’s absolutely right. It’s also a set that feels remarkably self-indulgent to me. Body horror and bondage, pushed to places not seen before on multiple cards in a set, are the watchwords of New Phyrexia’s art—after the changeover from Mirrodin to New Phyrexia, the material of choice seems not to be metal but leather.

Not safe, not sane, and definitely not consensual.

Problem: Individually, each illustration comes across as a single artist’s deep, dark fantasy, finally allowed to surface. Put together, they form a triumphal procession of the sickening and the wrong. For all the talk of “transgressive” and “evil” in official Wizards columns, there is no mention of “offensive.” Yet that is exactly how the New Phyrexia cards are perceived by many who have tangential relationships to the game (family member of a player or a similar connection). Praetor’s Grasp has drawn the most criticism in my experience, though other cards such as Phyrexian Unlife have attracted their share of non-fans.

I also have concerns about what New Phyrexia has done and will do to any “acquisitions” push. If I’d been a high schooler when New Phyrexia came out, there’s no way in heck that my mother would have let me play with those cards. She’s seen a handful of them incidentally and found them ugly and disgusting. In one sense, mission accomplished, but in another, how many casual sales did Wizards lose with the deliberate ugliness of New Phyrexia, especially among the younger set whose only source of the game comes through parental pocketbooks? I sincerely hope that an uptick in business from more “mature” market segments made up for it—and that New Phyrexia is indeed an aberration.

Conclusion – Voices from Wizards

Remember what I said about this being a failure born of success?

Mark Rosewater on Mirrodin Pure / New Phyrexia: “I often talk about how I have an idea and I have to convince everyone that it’s good. Sometimes, though, everyone just recognizes a good idea. The block model of Phyrexian vs. Mirran was one of the latter cases. Having two set names is pretty odd, but everyone got on board almost immediately.”

Aaron Forsythe on Phyrexian mana and the feel of the set: “There have been some complaints popping up about this mechanic, ranging from ‘free spells are annoying to play against’ to ‘the color pie is irrevocably damaged’ to ‘life payment and cost reduction are about as unappealing as mechanics can get to the casual player.’ I understand all that stuff, but the feeling we were going for was transgressive and violating. We wanted you to be slightly uncomfortable—on edge, even—when playing with and against New Phyrexia cards.”

Doug Beyer on the artistic challenges of New Phyrexia: “Phyrexia … is intentionally off-putting. It preys on our delicate sensibilities. It takes hold of those same desires for beauty and belief that attract us to fantasy and twists the ever-loving bleep out of them.”

Rosewater, Forsythe, Beyer. Designer (for a while), developer, creative. Check, check, check. All talk about an ugly and corrupted world, one that leaves no doubt about the Phyrexian victory. All write about goals achieved, scribble with pride about their jobs well done.

I can’t disagree with them, either. They put in thousands of hours of hard work on the graphic aspects of New Phyrexia’s art and the always-ugly sausage-making of design and development. They strove to create a set full of “violating” cards and “grisly” artwork.

They succeeded, and that’s why New Phyrexia failed me.

As always, thanks for reading.


@jdbeety on Twitter