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Revisiting Kamigawa

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Magic has had its fair share of home run successes throughout its time. Sets such as Ravnica: City of Guilds, Innistrad, and Khans of Tarkir are tremendously popular among fans. But for every contender for best set, block, plane, etc. in the game, there's bound to be a few stinkers, and boy does Magic have plenty of those.

The most famous examples include sets like Homelands, Fallen Empires, and the entirety of the Mercadian Masques block, but it goes deeper than that. Sets like Dragon's Maze and Born of the Gods stand as some of the worst modern day sets of recent memory. Even sets players think well on for their powerhouse cards, such as Legends or Antiquities feature pretty overwhelmingly poor design. For every Moat or Mishra's Workshop there's a Glyph of Life and Rakalite.

For a lot of these sets, they actually excel in the flavor department. Legends really put the Dungeons and Dragons feel of early Magic on full display, The Dark had a genuinely dark atmosphere about it, and many of the tribes in Fallen Empires have become cult favorites. Even Homelands is remembered fondly for having interesting flavor and a decent story that was told through comics that Wizards used to make.

Despite the love, it would be hard to go back to many of these places. Most of the earliest sets took place on Dominaria and saw some kind of call back in the actual set Dominaria just a few years ago. Ulgrotha, the plane that Homelands takes place on, was a more gothic setting - something that Innistrad ended up doing far better and has kinda taken over in its place. Not to mention Homelands itself is arguably the worst set in the history of Magic.

There's also the Mercadian Masques block which, while it had some interesting elements, was very disjointed. Each set took place on a different plane, with only one set actually taking place on Mercadia itself. The other two were on Dominaria or Rath - which is also now Dominaria thanks to the planar overlay that happened in the Planeshift storyline. Not likely we go back.

There's one plane that a number of players keep clamoring to come back: Kamigawa.

Azusa, Lost But Seeking
Umezawa's Jitte
Sakashima the Impostor

The Kamigawa block featured a story that took place in a rich world based off of Japanese mythology and folklore. It took some normal story tropes and turned them on their head as well, featuring a White-aligned villain (Konda, Lord of Eiganjo) and a Black-aligned hero (Toshiro Umezawa). It even featured the most legendary cards we've ever seen in a set or a block, with every rare permanent in the block being a legend.

Many popular cards came out of these sets. Sensei's Divining Top is a Commander staple, Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker has become notorious for ending games in tremendous combo finishes, and Pithing Needle remains one of the best sideboard options in the game. Heck, the Limited environment was quite fun as well, with the Champions and Betrayers draft format being particularly well liked. It still shows up from time to time in Magic Online flashback drafts and is a genuine blast to play.

So why did Kamigawa as a block fail?

Shrapnel Blast
Arcbound Ravager
Disciple of the Vault

It's important to remember first and foremost what Kamigawa followed: the Mirrodin block. Mirrodin, and especially Darksteel after it, brought to the table Affinity, one of the most broken decks in the game's lengthy history. The deck absolutely dominated across the board, with players essentially either playing Affinity or anti-Affinity decks. Many bans were levied against it and to this day the block is considered one of the format's most broken.

Because the power level was so high in Mirrodin block, Wizards of the Coast sought to make a block that was wanted to scale it back a lot. Sound familiar? It's a lot like what they did with the Mercadian Masques block following the insane power level of the Urza block. The difference here is that they didn't go quite as heavy handed and more featured overcosted cards and some dull mechanics. Even if they were dull, it's clear there was some more interesting ideas brought about in the mix. Splice onto Arcane, Epic, and Wisdom (the "cards in hand" mechanic) ended up not being great, but at least they were playing with some neat design space compared to the likes of Nemesis' Fading or Prophecy's land sacrifice mechanic.

What a lot of people remember with Kamigawa is a lot of the less interesting cards. Soulshift, Bushido, and the intensely parasitic nature of the Arcane and Spirit mechanics. They also remember how overcosted the cards were. You don't look at these cards and think, "these seem reasonably designed cards."

Kami of the Palace Fields
Exile Into Darkness
Harbinger of Spring

A lot of the cards in the sets work well within themselves - which is why the draft format is actually considered to be pretty darn good. The problem is that it's hard to make them work outside the block in many cases. There are a number of cards that have seen play in other formats, but most of them are Commander only, with a handful showing up in the likes of Legacy and Modern. The massive number of legendaries didn't help either, as it cheapened the appeal of the mechanic and Limited games and deck-building by the sheer number of them in the format.

To make matters worse, the Japanese folklore and mythology aspects didn't quite land for a lot of people. The sets were released around the time when the anime craze was starting to enter full swing, especially after a number of years with the likes of Toonami and Adult Swim showing classics like Dragon Ball and Cowboy Bebop. Despite the upswing in fans of the genre, a lot of Western Magic players aren't quite as into it or tremendously knowledgeable on Japanese mythology. I've read Wizards employees say it didn't exactly go over the best in Japan either, a place they were clearly trying to cater to with this block.

Compare this to Theros. The Theros block was another pretty underpowered block, with Born of the Gods in particular being considered among the worst sets in the game. The block, aside from some better mechanics that appealed a lot more to casuals, featured a lot of overcosted cards, little to no removal, and some pretty bad mechanics (looking at you Tribute). The difference is that it had enough to appeal to casuals gameplay-wise and story-wise. A large chunk of the game's audience has grown up with some kind of familiarity with, say, Hercules, Achilles, and Atlas who holds the world on his shoulders. It's something people recognize, are familiar with, and enjoy, so it's easier to latch on to.

Now compare this to some of the general aspects of Japanese mythology on display in Kamigawa. We'll use the moonfolk as an example here. Check out the designs for the moonfolk characters:

Meloku the Clouded Mirror
Oboro Breezecaller
Floodbringer

This actually stems from the moon rabbit, a common Asian folktale. This folktale is based on markings on the moon that look like a rabbit, and is referenced quite a bit in stories. My first experience learning of this as an American was watching Dragon Ball as a kid. In an early episode, the character Monster Carrot - a large anthropomorphic rabbit - and his henchmen are sent to the moon and make treats.

It took me years to discover this was an actual piece of folklore and not a part of the actual story. It was even longer before I realized the moonfolk of Kamigawa were based on this myth - something you can see if you note the rabbit ear-like aspects of their design. Now imagine your typical player who goes into a store and buys some packs off the shelf. It's going to fly over their heads and they won't fully understand what's going on with all of the references. This makes it harder to connect with the flavor of the set and makes it less appealing.

Despite all these issues, however, the set still resonated with a number of diehard fans. I consider myself among them and join the chorus of voices calling for a fresh full revisit to the great plane beyond just Tamiyo or the couple new Ninja - the one truly beloved mechanic of the block - cards we've gotten in the last few years. The issue is that Wizards has concerns over how it might go over given how poorly it was received the first time around. Remember: Wizards first and foremost has to sell a product and they have to be able to convince the powers that be that a return would be worth it.

Over the weekend I ran a poll on Twitter asking if players want a return to the plane in a full, Standard legal set outside of a Core Set. 382 people voted on it, with 84.3% of people voting in favor for a return. People commented saying that they largely felt the mechanics would need a serious overhaul. It's important to remember that while many of the people who voted here for yes are probably some of the more vocal members of this movement for a return to Kamigawa, they're also a minority.

Yes I probably could've gotten more votes with the right retweets, but at the end of the day, roughly 400 - hell even 40,000 - is a drop in the bucket with a game that features millions of players. You have to appeal to all of them and if the majority might not be into it, then maybe it's time to go back to the drawing board. So here's a few ideas I have that could get people into it if we returned to Kamigawa:

The Flavor

It's important to note that the actual story of the original Kamigawa block takes place roughly 800 years prior to the current Magic timeline. Things have no doubt changed to some degree, though many aspects of the plane may still be quite the same if characters like Tamiyo and Yuriko are any indication. Enough time has passed that you can show a shift in life on the world while still keep it rooted in its original folklore mythos, ie. something like how the samurai began to move on but still clung to aspects of the bushido code during the transitory periods and beyond. You can also find ways to make it appeal to a general Western audience by finding references and tropes they might more easily understand without going too deeply toward the well of anime and the like.

More importantly this movement to the future allows for a really sweet addition to the mechanical side of things: Sagas.

Mechanics

The Birth of Meletis
Time of Ice
Kiora Bests the Sea God

Sagas have proven to be a tremendous home run between Dominaria and Theros Beyond Death. They're so good, in fact, that I almost wonder when they're going to become evergreen, or at the very least deciduous like vehicles are. For a world like Kamigawa, however, they'd be nothing short of perfect. Not only do you have numerous aspects of the Kami War to pull from, but you also have some Kamigawa elements of the Time Spiral block story and Tamiyo's tales displayed in her scrolls. There's tons of great potential for sweet art pieces here and fresh gameplay.

You could also bring back the minor tribal aspect of the block and use changelings to help fill gaps as far as limited goes. It's not hard to imagine a way you could make them work thematically in a world like Kamigawa without them looking goofy like they do on Lorwyn. Heck, you can even go in pretty hard on legendary creatures again, so long as you do it in a way similar to how Dominaria did it. There it didn't feel too overdone and made good use of the slot. Having something here without being too heavy handed would be welcome.

It would also clearly be a perfect place to bring back Ninjutsu again given the popularity of the mechanic. They could even make new flip cards like Nezumi Graverobber, just as double-faced cards. And just like that, we've already got a number of excellent mechanics that are ripe for use right out of the gate. And that's to say nothing of the mechanics that could be designed still for the set. The biggest problem I could foresee is that it might end up having a lot in common with Dominaria's existence as the plane of history, which they may not wish to have an extra one of.

Balancing Card Power

Last but not least, we'd have to revisit power level. As I mentioned before, the Theros block was generally considered to be a pretty low power block. For all the love it's received over the years as a setting, the actual gameplay was a longtime sticking point. That all changed with the release of Theros Beyond Death. In this set, the power is way higher and it shows in everything from tons of powerhouse Constructed cards and a much more balanced and engaging limited environment. It's a shining example of how you can make a mediocre set or block into a home run.

If we could do it with Theros, why not Kamigawa as well? Take out some of the parasitic mechanics like Arcane and Splice (though Splice with non-Arcane stuff could be interesting design space) or dull mechanics like Bushido and Wisdom. Make sure things are cost reasonably, that the creatures line up well, and so on.

All in all I think we're due for a revisit to Kamigawa. The problematic stuff feels to me like it could be reworked and solved quite easily. With a little effort, I hope Wizards is able to make the dream of many a reality and bring us back to this great world. We have an excuse to go back as well so that we can give Tamiyo a bigger story and put her center stage. I'm hopeful we see a return sooner rather than later.

Kendra Smith

Twitter: @TheMaverickGal

Twitch: twitch.tv/themaverickgirl

YouTube: Kendra Smith

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