Magic: The Gathering’s story is the darkest it’s been in years. The Phyrexians have launched their full-scale invasion of the multiverse, hoping to twist everything into the image of their leader, Elesh Norn. Everywhere from Alara to Zendikar is on the line, numerous planeswalkers having already lost their humanity in the fight against Norn, becoming ‘compleated’ into horrific Phyrexians themselves.
It is tough to see the likes of Jace, Tamiyo, Nissa, and Ajani transformed into oil-dripping beasts serving the glory of Phyrexia. That’s why these twists work so well. But if Wizards wants the last year of storytelling to matter at all, it can’t backtrack on what it’s already been done to our favourite characters.
The first time we saw a compleated planeswalker was in Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, with the reveal that the Phyrexians had finally found a way to corrupt planeswalkers without killing or stripping them of their ability to planeswalk. To add insult to injury, one of the multiverse’s nicest, most supportive characters was the first victim, with Tamiyo tossing aside her friends and family to spread the glory of Phyrexia. Her transformation was especially painful, with cards like Tamiyo’s Compleation showing just how brutal the process was.
It wasn’t long before we saw the next compleation, with Dominaria United’s heartbreaking twist that Ajani Goldmane, another beloved ally to all those that needed help, was in fact a Phyrexian sleeper agent. The reveal of his compleation was slow and horrific, with a gory scene of ripping skin and tearing muscle, followed by his first act as a Phyrexian being the murder of another long-time character, Jaya Ballard.
This year’s Phyrexia: All Will Be One set raised the stakes further, thanks to the compleation of not one, but five planeswalkers. Nahiri, Nissa, Vraska, Lukka, and, most shockingly of all, Jace Beleren – the closest thing Magic has to a mascot character. Jace, who is the only person in the multiverse to know about both Emrakul’s presence in Innistrad’s moon and the true fate of Nicol Bolas, is now in the clutches of Elesh Norn ahead of the final battle in March of the Machine. And that’s completely ignoring the compleation of Nahiri, one of the multiverse’s strongest and most experienced planeswalkers.
Compleated planeswalkers are one of the best narrative hooks Magic has pulled off in years, because it finally gave a real threat to these aloof gods of the multiverse. We’ve had deaths, but they’ve always been sudden punches of shock, rather than the constant, lingering dread of wondering who will be next in line for the horrors of compleation. Friends, allies, and even family were all in danger from a fate much worse than death. Will your favourite character survive? Because mine didn’t. It was upsetting, it was heartbreaking, and it was an incredible moment in the lore that would do a disservice to itself by being reversed.
Unfortunately, some parts of the community have reacted badly to compleation being used on such long-running characters. There’s been discussion about whether it’s fair to players to have their favourites be so brutally transformed into one of the game’s most disturbing villains. For some it’s a step too far, forcing them to completely duck out of Phyrexia, and wish for things to be ‘corrected’ by the end of March of the Machine. While the former is an understandable way to avoid content that could be upsetting or harmful for you, and body horror isn’t palatable for everyone, actively hoping it’s fixed by the end of the next set is a narrow-minded, knee-jerk response to storytelling that shouldn’t be encouraged.
Magic has never shied away from death. In stark contrast to other ‘nerdy’ media that loves to kill off a character and bring them back a week later, those who die in Magic tend to stay dead: Dack Fayden, Domri Rade, Gideon Jura, Venser, and even Urza all haven’t just magically popped back up, because doing so would cheapen the impact of their death in the the first place. Venser kind of turned up again, I suppose, but as a gross Phyrexian Pyramid Zombie thing that almost made you wish he was still dead for his own sake.
Compleation should be treated the same. While compleated individuals aren’t dead, they’re effectively emptied of their humanity and replaced with an unrelenting devotion to Phyrexia. Their mind and body are both completely broken down and reformed – these aren’t the characters we knew and loved, they’re Phyrexians wearing their skin. Much like death, compleation is the narrative endpoint for most characters who undergo it.
As much as I love Ajani and hate what’s happened to him, his compleation was one of the most shocking and emotional moments in MTG history. Bad things should happen to good characters when necessary, and stories should confront you with feelings of loss and grief. None of these characters should be irreplaceable just because you happen to really like them. Their compleations gave the multiverse stakes it hasn’t had in a long time, and consequences like this need time to really sink in.
Unfortunately, it looks like Wizards is going to undo at least some of the chaos Norn has sowed. The introduction of the Phyrexian-repelling material Halo in Streets of New Capenna gave Magic the macguffin it needed to undo everything, and it is heavily hinted that Halo is how Jace resisted Phyrexian programming for so long after his body had been compleated in All Will Be One. We don’t know the precise ‘how’ yet, but with Halo and the Phyresis-immune Melira now involved, there’s a less-than-zero chance that at least a few compleations will be reversed.
I don’t care if March of the Machine kills off these Phyrexian planeswalkers, or lets them stick around as rarely-recurring villains. Maybe even as the new Praetors of Phyrexia after Elesh Norn, keeping them in the wings until a new Phyrexian story ten years from now. All of those would be great ways to end the story the game’s spent over two years telling. Resetting the status quo and turning Ajani back into a supportive cat dad might make me happy for a brief moment, but it would be an insult to Magic’s ability to tell impactful stories in a constantly shifting multiverse of names and places.
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