Scarring is a long-lasting problem in higher animals, and reductionist approaches could aid in developing treatments. Here, we show that copolymerization of collagen I with polyacrylamide produces minimal matrix models of scars (MMMS), in which fractal-fibre bundles segregate heterogeneously to the hydrogel subsurface. Matrix stiffens locally-as in scars-while allowing separate control over adhesive-ligand density. The MMMS elicits scar-like phenotypes from mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs): cells spread and polarize quickly, increasing nucleoskeletal lamin-A yet expressing the 'scar marker' smooth muscle actin (SMA) more slowly. Surprisingly, expression responses to MMMS exhibit less cell-to-cell noise than homogeneously stiff gels. Such differences from bulk-average responses arise because a strong SMA repressor, NKX2.5, slowly exits the nucleus on rigid matrices. NKX2.5 overexpression overrides rigid phenotypes, inhibiting SMA and cell spreading, whereas cytoplasm-localized NKX2.5 mutants degrade in well-spread cells. MSCs thus form a 'mechanical memory' of rigidity by progressively suppressing NKX2.5, thereby elevating SMA in a scar-like state.