In Mark Rosewater’s recent article, he revealed the results of a question he put to the people and players of Magic: the Gathering: which planes did they want to visit the most in an upcoming Standard-legal set? Coming in at number 2, with 819 responses, was Kamigawa.
The plane of Kamigawa is a Japanese-inspired set, similar to how Theros was modelled on ancient Greece and its mythos. In fact, were it not for Kamigawa’s “Japan World,” we likely wouldn’t have Theros’ “Greek World” and Amonkhet’s “Egypt World.” Kamigawa was the set that really explored the idea of “culture as a plane.”
For the uninitiated, Kamigawa is a plane divided between the mortal realm and the realm of the spirits, known as kami, which dwell in the Kakuriyo, or Reikai. The other realm is named the Utsushiyo, and is home to mortal beings. Together, the two form a sphere that makes up the world – think ‘Yin and Yang.’
We first jumped into Kamigawa in October 2004, with Magic’s 33rd expansion: Champions of Kamigawa. Following hot on the heels of Mirrodin’s third set, Fifth Dawn, the natural, mystic world of Kamigawa seemed a welcome change from the robots of Karn’s metal plane.
Unfortunately, it sucked.
Not only did the set fail to save a dying Standard format, many people just didn’t get the flavour. I was there when Affinity was running tables and pushing people away from FNMs.
My brother and I went to the Kamigawa prerelease full of hope, but it was not to be, and Kamigawa block was met with mostly negative reactions from players during its time in Standard.
With so many rare legendary cards, deck building was weirdly hamstrung, and mirror matches were basically a living hell thanks to the old version of the Legend rule, which forced a player to sacrifice their copy of a legendary permanent if their opponent played their own.
The Limited experience was a bit sad too. Triple Champions draft was fun in a “get in your lane” sort of way. The benefits of a parasitic gameplay mechanic makes picking cards easy enough, so new players were well-rewarded for building synergistic decks. However, despite all the fun of Dampen Thought decks, and thanks to the awkwardness of the set’s Limited format, the fun did not last.
After the lull of Triple Champions draft, the addition of Betrayers of Kamigawa introduced some runaway rare bombs, but even with the addition of Saviours of Kamigawa, the format did not improve much.
Unlike the Ravnica block that would follow, the final set of the then standard three-set blocks synergised poorly with cards from the other two sets, leaving players with few satisfying options when drafting.
The set also was also a significant downgrade from the ‘busted’ power levels of Mirrodin and its successor, Ravnica block. As a result, the cards had little impact on the constructed metagame.
Before Mirrodin rotated out of Standard, Affinity was everywhere, and when it left, Pro Tour Honolulu showed us a world full of three colour decks which largely featured Ravnica cards. Cards from Kamigawa featured infrequently, if at all.
And then there was the lore. Kamigawa is a Japanese-themed world which, while exciting to those who are fans of the culture, didn’t appeal to Joe Magic Player of Des Moines, Iowa, who is likely going to struggle to pronounce the words “Eiganjo” or “Reikai” with any confidence. And that matters. If players struggle to relate to the characters and even encounter difficulty when trying to read their names, that’s a huge problem for player engagement and enjoyment.
It’s important to remember here that this is a set which released in 2004. While anime was enjoying a springtime of popularity in the West at the time, we’re still talking about a dial-up internet age. Facebook had only just been created and mobile internet struggled to load a GIF. Many people were less than aware of Japanese culture and thus failed to appreciate the worldbuilding behind Kamigawa.
So, why do we want to go back?
Lots of people hate Kamigawa, and I don’t blame them – it was one of the worst Standard environments ever. With parasitic mechanics and confusing worldbuilding, the set certainly didn’t live up to the hype. While all of these negatives are brazenly apparent, I believe it’s time to go back – and here’s why.
People love Kamigawa for many reasons – it scored second on the poll for starters, and despite its flaws, its lore features magnificent poetry, epic battles, intriguing characters, and mysterious creatures. With the birth of Modern, cards like Through the Breach, Goryo’s Vengeance, and Desperate Ritual all found their homes in established decks. Moreover, the set contained big, literally Epic spells and plenty of Legendary Creatures for avid Commander players.
But not only that, the set created great stories. Using the Splice onto Arcane mechanic to cast a single spell that deals 2 damage, gains you 3 life, mills the opponent for four, gives a creature Haste, gives another creature First Strike, adds 3 red mana, and draws you a card is, rather obviously, great fun. Similarly, casting Neverending Torment and very slowly exiling your opponent’s deck just felt right. The gameplay of Kamigawa was unique, despite its flaws, and let’s not forget how Wizards thought it was a good idea to put Umezawa’s Jitte into an intro deck (it wasn’t).
The other reason people love Kamigawa is that it has ninjas in it! And samurai! And cute little goblins that look like Gorons.
Tell me this little guy didn’t grow up to become Kiki-Jiki.
For all of its shortcomings, the flavour of Kamigawa was evocative and that power persists even today. People were so excited to see new ninjas in Planechase 2, and today we even have a real Ninja Commander in Yuriko, the Tiger’s Shadow.
So, if Kamigawa was so good from a flavour perspective, why not make it the location of a supplemental set, like Conspiracy or Modern Masters, I hear you ask? A Sengoku Jidai-style ‘warring states’ setting with ninjas and intrigue would be a great place to do Conspiracy 3, right?
Kamigawa deserves better. It deserves a second shot. A proper second shot. And, in my opinion, there is no better time to return.
The last few Standard sets have been awesome, and part of the reason for that is that since the release of Kamigawa, the play design at Wizards has been steadily improving. Most of the problems which plagued Kamigawa’s initial release have already been resolved in more recent sets…
Kamigawa has already been fixed
Dominaria brought us a “Legends matter” set that didn’t feel clunky. Khans block fixed the problems with the original Morph design. Ravnica Allegiance didn’t just fix Haunt, it replaced it with a simple mechanic we already loved before the set had even officially released. The creative innovation on display at Wizards today is better than it’s ever been. Yet some issues remain. Here are the 3 biggest issues with Kamigawa from a mechanical perspective.
1. Parasitic mechanics
Parasitic mechanics are the kind that only really work within the context of their own set. This means they synergise very poorly with other cards in the constructed environment, making them poor inclusions in constructed decks pulling from a pool of cards from a variety of sets. Splice onto Arcane is a mechanic that only works on cards with the supertype Arcane, and Arcane cards were only ever printed in Kamigawa.
Kaladesh has a similar problem. The Energy mechanic and the cards that reference it are only seen in that block. These sorts of mechanics can be weak (as in Kamigawa) but can also be so dominant that they push out other strategies, even with the release of new cards. Let’s not forget the dominance of Aetherworks Marvel and Temur Energy in Kaladesh and Aether Revolt Standard. Sets with parasitic mechanics just don’t feel good to play and result in boring gameplay, lacking the universal appeal that mechanics like Kicker have had for years.
Battlebond is a set that was touted as a 2-Headed Giant format, with cards designed with that format in mind. On first glance, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where you’d ever use a 2HG card in any other game of Magic. Yet Battlebond cards see plenty of play in Commander, where they create interesting lines of play that emphasise the political nature of the format.
The divisive nature of the cards from Battlebond – allowing players to literally choose who is friend and who is foe – fit right into the Commander format.
If Battlebond cards were worded “you and your teammate,” they’d see little to no play outside 2HG. By giving you the option of choosing who your allies and foes are, the cards are perfect for livening up political multiplayer games, and ultimately give the cards life outside of the environment they were printed in.
2. Legends matter
This problem has been solved thanks in part to Umezawa’s Jitte and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, two of the most busted cards ever printed. Today, both players can control copies of the same legendary permanent without issue – gone are the days where you could use your Jitte to kill an opponent’s Jitte. The modern Legend rule, which was changed with the release of M14, makes it much easier for players to play with Legendary cards.
Today, the Legend rule only looks at your side of the battlefield, so opposing Jittes don’t kill each other, they battle head to head!
We can see this in today’s Standard format and in the success of Dominaria – for the first time since Kamigawa, we saw uncommon legends, and yet Dominaria was almost unequivocally one of the greatest Limited environments ever.
3. Low power level
Power creep is real. The fall of Savannah Lions from a mighty rare to a lowly common can show you that. And while, yes, we have had a few “meh” sets, like Battle for Zendikar, Rivals of Ixalan, and Born of the Gods, we have generally seen a consistent rise in the power level of Standard cards.
Wizards is a business and they are in the business of selling packs. They want to release expansions that people buy and one of the best ways to do that is to print cards that are powerful. A revisit to Kamigawa would provide us with appropriately strong cards which not only play well but feel powerful to play. Many of the problems which flawed Kamigawa’s first release have arguably been fixed, so let’s just planeswalk over there already!
Kamigawa is widely considered to be one of the worst modern Magic sets, yet by some, it’s also considered to be one of the best. It’s given us parasitic mechanics and Modern staples, flavourful characters and upside down text. But Kamigawa has more to offer.
It’s a beautiful mess and I can’t wait to return and see what the plane looks like now that the Kami War has ended. I’m thinking something like the last season of The Legend of Korra, where people and spirits live side by side…
Thanks for reading. We hope you enjoyed today’s Guest article! Make sure to follow Rob on Twitter if you enjoyed his take on Kamigawa @WhiteRobbit, and make sure to follow us here to keep up to date with everything we do here at Master of Magics!