There’s a classic article from the archives of Harper’s by Dorothy Thompson called “Who Goes Nazi?” It’s one of the earliest examples of marketing psychographic research I can recall. Like all psychographic research, it’s basically bullshit, not to mention adorably dated and creakily privileged in outlook. That said, it’s a great read, so give it a shot—if nothing else, it’ll provide some context for what I’m about to talk about. It’s hard to read lines like, “he is a sensitive, gifted man who has been humiliated into nihilism” without seeing parallels to our current cultural climate, which is the point of good political writing. The way it outlines the life histories and social patterns of American drawing-room clingers is still applicable to many spheres of cultural and political life—even in Magic.

It’s clear that we’re heading back to New Phyrexia sooner rather than later. Nicol Bolas has an army of peak-physique, infection-proof immortal soldiers; people love those Praetors; and there are, by my count, three different methods of travel to head back there at any given moment. Narratively speaking, when we do, it’s obvious that we’ll lose a member of the Gatewatch or some other major characters—the only question is who. Modeling our criteria on those in Thompson’s article is a good way to predict the answer to that.

I want to pop a quick disclaimer in here: in an uncertain age, in a time where it’s become clear that the denizens of the ash-heap have been building their own Morlock-ass civilizations under cover of irony and anonymity, in a day when swastikas are being unfurled over American streets and “anti-fascist” is a slur, it feels kind of silly—or even offensive—to talk about fictional characters in a card game and whether they’d embrace fascistic ideologies, even if we’re talking about a necromantic-genetic alien civilization rather than National Socialism.

I get that, but I think you can learn a great deal about the mindset of people who identify as fascists/white-nationalists/TrumpTrainers from analyzing culture. I also think it’s interesting that these characters were specifically created to be heroes—and yet, it’s very easy to imagine a situation in which they cast their lot in with evil. That’s essentially the point of Thompson’s essay and why this is still a viable exercise. This, then, is done in a respectful manner, without losing sight of the fact that, to many folks, this is potentially life and death, not a fun thought exercise.

Disclaimer aside, who do we think would be willing to be compleated?


Ajani could potentially be swayed into becoming a perfect protector through the necrotech advancements of the Phyrexians, but he doesn’t have flaws enough to need that technology. His motivation—instilled in him by the loss of his sibling—to protect means he can’t give up self-control and his tendencies toward the natural passions of red and green mean he’s iconoclastic enough to push back against the Phyrexian vision. Verdict: Not a chance.


Gideon, though, I can see. His mono-white nature makes him susceptible to defined, self-obsessed ideologies; and his traumatic past could drive him to seek a harder-edged, more perfect world. He’s martial, governed by a need to protect through striking first, and almost impossible to kill. That said, he dabbled with perfection on Amonkhet and got disillusioned by the brutal world of striving and sacrifice. I wonder if Phyrexian temptation would cause him to push back—or push him all the way into nihilism? Verdict: probable, and good storytelling.


There’s certainly a political interpretation of a character who throws parts of himself down the memory hole, who cauterizes the pain he’s experienced by cutting off his humanity. There’s an analytic side to blue’s identity that could lead itself into Phyrexian compleation, definitely. If, thinks blue, human pain can be reduced by universalizing the human experience through reduction, don’t we have an obligation to do so? That said, I doubt Wizards is eager to turn the closest thing they have to a brand icon into Jin-Gitaxias’ right-hand man. Verdict: Thematically, sure, but objectively, nah.


I don’t think Wizards would want to do a full heel turn with Liliana, honestly. I can see a world where she uses Phyrexian technology to bolster the strength of her zombie armies, but why would she, when she’s almost omnipotent to begin with? There’s something charmingly old-school about Liliana’s arc, and I like her as an embodiment of black mana’s selfishness, not its tendencies toward corruption. Verdict: Already morally compromised, and thus too interesting to turn into a hive-drone.


Wizards seems interested in giving red a touch of rehabilitation recently, changing its outlook from “belligerently stupid” to “passionate,” so I think they’ll avoid turning their red icon into the tool of a monstrous society. There’s also the fact that Chandra fought directly against the draconic regime on Kaladesh, so I don’t think it’s likely that she’ll turn to Phyrexia, especially since Phyrexia is analytic and passionless. Verdict: No, although I want her to team up with Urabrask pretty badly.


Interestingly, Nissa was, at one point, one of the closest analogues Magic had to a nationalist-fascist, treating all non-elves as inferior and praising elvish supremacy in a direct connection between her blood and her home soil. Provocative, but no longer accurate: her image has been fully rehabilitated, and Wizards tries to distance the character from her roots as a supremacist. Verdict: Not going back to that well, apparently, but I would like to see Wizards explore the supremacist aspects of Phyrexia. The Urza’s-era Phyrexia was more death-cultish and Borg-like, whereas New Phyrexia seems to be more bending towards “eradication of the inferior.” That’s shaky territory, but creatively fertile.


Is this even a question? Verdict: Immediately and without equivocation.


Karn modeled a world in his own image—Mirrodin—and watched as it fell to interlopers. I can absolutely see the silver Planeswalker paving the world and starting over again, and doing so with complete control and robotic implacability. As a golem, he’s incapable of being Phyrexianized (or at least has been so far), but I can see him adopting their attitudes. That’s the central tension at the Mirrodin-New Phyrexia war, to me: was Karn’s reality any more natural or moral than that of the Phyrexians? We like Karn, because he’s a thoughtful pacifist and he comes down on turn 3-4 to exile our opponent’s hand, but his alien nature makes him more susceptible to antihumanist thought. Verdict: Unlikely, but ideologically, pretty close already.

Other walkers

Dovin Baan (yes—the “just following orders” Planeswalker), Vraska (nah), Ashiok (no—they’re too motivated by humanity, even as prey), Dack Fayden (voted Least Likely), Freyalise (yes), Ob Nixilis (three-quarters of the way there), Kiora (no), Sorin (stuck in a rock), Ugin (possibly).

Historically, Nazism represented the illusion of social and cultural security in an uncertain time. It simplified the struggles of a technologically and socially changing world into the most base and perverse “us” versus “them” narrative, reducing an entire globe’s worth of complex issues into a need to preserve a myth of a sacred society. Phyrexia represents something less discouraging: it’s an alien villain, motivated only by the rapacious need to control, with a heaping amount of sadism thrown in. Those traits aren’t just unique to Phyrexians, of course—we see a bit of that in our own society.

Thompson’s essay is so interesting because it forces us to confront—if not the Nazi inside each of us—than the insecure cipher inside ourselves that seeks out power and control over our environment and our society. In fiction, that insecurity is borne out in our flawed heroes and complicated villains, that hamartia or fatal flaw, the worm chewing tunnels of corruption just under the rind. That’s what Phyrexians exploit—weakness. That’s what they seek to eradicate through the process of killing off the humanity in the civilizations they conquer. Since planeswalkers are omnipotent and distant from humanity to begin with, they’re halfway there. I expect Wizards will take one all the way in the next year or so, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s handled.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

Don't Miss Out!

Sign up for the Hipsters Newsletter for weekly updates.