I’ll try out a few random one-shot articles where I talk about various design topics, to see if they meet interest, and to break the routine of my fixing cards series (slowing it down, obviously, but also making it more likely that I’ll keep going). These are supposed to be on the short end of the blog entry spectrum, but you know me…
Kamigawa is infamous for being the least liked Magic block since Wizards do systematic research on that topic. According to them, both the mechanics and the setting scored extremely low on the popularity scale.
I believe that not everything about Kamigawa was bad, and that in fact the negative hype led to a downward spiral which took all elements of its design with it. Well-designed mechanics will be despised if development fails to develop cool cards on a good power level with them. (Note how much better devotion was received than chroma.) Cool setting elements will be associated with failed mechanics, especially if they are alien to the average customer. (However, alien elements can become beloved if they are seen on well-designed cards – take myr as an example.)
While Kamigawa did a lot of things wrong – mostly on the mechanical side in my opinion – it also featured many interesting concepts that will probably never be revisited, which makes me sad. In this entry, I will talk about those bad things which dragged the good stuff down with them.
1. The 50/50 split between spirits/arcane and the mundane world
The most fundamental problem comes first. The war between mortals and spirits is the basic story behind the setting, and it is a cool idea, but it was a mistake to represent it by splitting the block in half. Weird-looking spirits doing weird things are cool, but giving them 50% of the block overrepresents them. The issues with this are manifold:
a) Too much weirdness strains the public’s willingness to absorb it and takes away from its uniqueness. That issue can be overcome, as the eldrazi showed us, but this needs extra effort – and actually, there was already some backlash aginst the eldrazi theme, especially with Battle for Zendikar.
b) A lot of weirdness means also a need for a lot of weird mechanics, and that is both difficult and not too much design space (well, at least for somehow reasonable design).
c) While the spirit world is cool, filling half the the block with it took away too much space from tropes which are even cooler, and at the same time easier to relate to. Yes, I’m talking about samurais, and especially ninjas!
d) Putting too much of a theme into a set means that things which care about that theme have to be toned down so that they do not totally dominate limited. This, on the other hand, means that these synergies will be too weak for constructed, which is exactly what happened.
I know the all-out two-sided war over a world is a time-honored fantasy trope, and we seem to get it every second year or so in the Magic storyline (I’m really sick of this, by the way!), but here less would have been more. Konda’s war against the heavens should just have been one conflict among many – there are certainly enough interesting factions on Kamigawa who could be at odds with each other (nezumi, oni and soratami come to mind as possible villains).
2. Making legendary matters a theme
It was Rosewater himself who coined the phrase „if your theme isn’t at common, it isn’t your theme“, and yet Kamigawa happened. No, making every single rare creature legendary was not nearly sufficient for legends to show up often enough in limited, and putting a few at uncommon didn’t make things much better. To the contrary, upping the legend count as massively as Wizards did just took away from the uniqueness of that supertype – not only because of the quantity itself, but also because there necessarily had to be a high number of medicore legendary creatures that way. The whole concept of „legendary tribal“ was silly and doomed from the beginning, and while it wasn’t the biggest mistake the designers made, it was probably the worst, since it should have been glaringly obvious!
3. Factoring the subtype arcane into cards‘ mana costs
This is a straight up consequence of giving the spirit world too much space in the block: Since so many cards cared about the quality arcane, it had to be factored in when costing spells, producing many cards which looked unattractive from the very beginning, and will forever be unattractive out of their original context. The general perception that arcane was just something which made sorceries and instants worse was obviously instrumental in making people hate both the mechanic and the theme it was attached to.
4. General low power level of the cards
Even when accounting for specific reasons I already mentioned, the overall power level of Kamigawa was very low. That was partly because Mirrodin block had been so absurdly powerful, and showcases the danger of power creep excellently: Not only might Wizards have overreacted when cutting back on cards‘ strength in Kamigawa; the public perception of them was even worse than they deserved, since Mirrodin was the standard by which everyone now measured power level.
But there is more: Paying for the mistakes of the previous block does not explain why there were so many abysmal cards at common in those sets. Kamigawa flashback drafts just reminded me how terrible that block was for drafting – a typical Champions of Kamigawa booster seems like it is made up of 50% unplayables! While I can understand the reasons to weaken some types of cards (spirits & arcane), I have no idea why additionally gems like Vigilance, Deathcurse Ogre or Akki Rockspeaker had to be omnipresent, and why 28 out of 63 common creatures had a power of 1 or less! Constituting a terrible limited environment was yet another reason that people hated Kamigawa.
5. Double-mana costs
There seems to be a larger than usual amount of spells which cost two or more of one color of mana, especially at lower costs. That was another factor which made Kamigawa limited awkward, and it also contributed to the low impact that block had on constructed. I suppose that was yet another backlash caused by the previous block, Mirrodin, with its plethora of powerful colorless cards.
6. The handsize matters theme in Saviors of Kamigawa
The worst way to finish an already miserably designed/developed block was certainly to introduce yet another silly, terribly playing mechanic in its third set! Incentives to keep cards in your hand instead of playing them feel bad, and doing so actually is bad most of the time, which in turn means that cards which require you to have a large handsize are bad. Of course, there was the occasional swingy blowout from cards with sweep, but that was neither great gameplay either, nor did it feel especially good to return a large swath of your lands to your hand.
The last impression is arguably more important than the first impression, and Saviors had all the lows of Champions, without the one really cool thing Betrayers had introduced (ninjas!), plus an additional big stinker as its figurehead.
7. Splice onto arcane
While that mechanic certainly has its fans, it just did not work well enough in limited (and no, enabling one „fun“ non-interactive archetype in triple Champions draft does not mean it worked well!) to justify its complexity, its parasitism, the design constraints it put on all arcane spells, and its lack of usefulness in constructed (yeah, I know that some modern storm decks like to splice one Desperate Ritual on another, but that’s about it). Wizards spent a lot more complexity points on splice than it was worth.
8. Samurais sucked
Big time – but why? Although I hold that the fundamental problem of Kamigawa stems from its basic design idea (see above), I believe that it was mostly development who dropped the ball there, again and again. Even in limited, the majority of samurais was mediocre or outright terrible, and constructed level potential was few and far between at best. Adding insult to injury to casual players was that Samurai of the Pale Curtain, the designated bread-and-butter creature of samurai decks, even shut down the samurai equipment Oathkeeper, Takeno’s Daisho! After well over a decade, this still tilts me…
Samurais should have been one of the two easy homerun tropes in that setting, and Wizards managed to blow both of them:
9. Way too few ninjas
The good news is that the ninja mechanic, ninjutsu, was actually really cool, and so were several ninja cards which featured it. The bad news is that Kamigawa block had a total of only eight ninjas (all in Betrayers). I can see that too much ninjutsu might have been an issue, but there was no good reason to not give ninjas more than one associated ability – they are really versatile, after all!
10. Flip cards
The mechanic itself isn’t bad at all, but its visual representation just didn’t work out. That many of the desings were complicated, weird and/or overpowered didn’t help the matter much, although there are a few successful exceptions. However, with a complexity investment like this, the percentage of hits wasn’t high enough.
11. Unplayable dual lands
We already knew from Tempest, where that cycle had been printed for the first time (not counting the even more terrible Ice Age cycle which preceded it), that these lands sucked big time, even in limited. Yet, Wizards saw fit to reprint a cycle of lands which everyone already knew was trash. Noone wants manafixing that is even too bad for limited. If you put a cycle like that in the uncommon slot of a set, you shouldn’t be surprised if that heavily contributes to giving this set a bad reputation.
12. Too many different counters
So, you put ki counters on these creatures, and divinity counters on those, and a training counter here and a devotion counter there, and this one has a +1/+1 counter from Otherworldly Journey… What the…? Once again, a terrible use of complexity points, and I have no idea how all those counter-using creatures got through any playtest sessions.
Those were the major offenders, but while I’m at it, I’ll list a few more specific negative things which aren’t completely covered by the above:
Those weren’t a terrible idea to start with, but also didn’t work out great. For one thing, this isn’t a concept which lends itself to serious constructed decks, so it’s mostly depending on pulling its weight in limited. However, zuberas essentially only worked in triple Champions draft, and they were kind of a fringe strategy even there. Without a dedicated draft approach, they were mediocre at best and utterly unplayable (the white one, as with so many cycles where White gets the lifegain effect) at worst. That this draft approach was mostly an all-in strategy using Devouring Greed was an additional issue. Lastly, in an environment filled to the brim with spirit tribal, adding zubera tribal as kind of a subset didn’t feel very elegant. This was another weird mechanic necessitated by the large number of spirits in this block, and while it isn’t the worst, I think it’s still clearly below what design should aim for.
Again, the concept isn’t necessarily bad, but those were just uncastable, and cheating them onto the battlefield somehow was pointless. A complete cycle of very expensive creatures should not be a disappointment.
16. Star Wars cards
Okay, I need to explain this one: Among the first wave of trading card games following in the wake of Magic’s success was Star Wars. I don’t remember too much of its gameplay, but one bad thing about it stood out: There were several commons which were only useful when you combined them with a card representing one of the movie’s main characters – for example, Luke Skywalker. Obviously, Luke’s card was rare, though… That felt terrible and just like the clumsy moneygrab attempt it was.
Admittedly, it’s not nearly that bad with Kamigawa, and essentially only pertains to Pious Kitsune and Sift through Sands, but it always left a bad taste in my mouth whenever I saw a copy of that unplayable fox cleric, and I still cringe today when I stumble upon it.
17. Random land sacrifice theme
A couple of red cards allowed you to sacrifice lands, caused both players to sacrifice a land, or received a bonus when you lost a land. No one knows why – the theme seems completely isolated and utterly underdeveloped, and half of those cards are nearly 100% unplayable everywhere.
18. Umezawa’s Jitte
Yes, it’s one single card, but whenever a card needs to be banned in modern it probably means that it made block constructed and standard little fun to play. (Also, as a colorless rare from a small set, it even showed up way too often in limited decks.) There are exceptions (like Preordain or Treasure Cruise), but Umezawa’s Jitte most certainly wasn’t one of those.
19. One with Nothing
One with Nothing is again a single card, and it even got played in very narrow exceptional circumstances, but there was a lesson for Wizards to learn: If you feel – for whatever reason – the desire to make an obviously incredibly horrible card, do not put it in a block which is already on an extremely low power level, or players will remember it not as a puzzling curiosity, but merely the low point of an overall terrible block.
(Better yet, do not make such cards in the first place! It’s like spitting in the face of the customer who opens a booster containing this as the rare. While Wizards are in general not really hiding their contempt for us customers as the addicts we are, this was a little too obvious.)
To summarize the most important points: If we should ever return to Kamigawa (which unfortunately seems really unlikely, because the hole Wizards dug themselves into when they used that setting the first time is so deep), a good power level for constructed and good limited play are essential. The legendary theme needs to be largely dropped, and handsize matters should not return at all. Arcane spells should not be overcosted because of their „tribal“ synergies, and splice should not get reprinted. The focus on samurais and ninjas has to be a lot stronger.
Let me end this article with a few things which are worth being brought back (in addition to the great setting), as well as some which I don’t think need to return, but at least weren’t mistakes in the first place:
Spiritcraft – (triggering off spirits and arcane spells) it was fun and played well, at least with those cards which weren’t just too weak.
Soulshift – cool, interesting, unique and potentially powerful.
Ninjas – in higher numbers, obviously! Also, ninjutsu specifically.
Samurais – not necessarily in higher numbers, but with better gameplay. Bushido is a great start.
Snake tribal – I still don’t know what they were thinking when they introduced „naga“ in Khans of Tarkir… Snakes are cool! Also, keeping things tapped for a turn plays okay as a signature mechanic.
Soratami – not all those designs were great, but I don’t think there’s a fundamental problem with this mechanic. Would go well with a companion mechanic like, you know, landfall for example…
Oni – the ogre/demon connection was a cool idea. It’s just that most designs using it sucked.
Rats – More rats tribal! What’s not to like?
Channel – the mechanic itself is a bit broad, but that also means that it has a ton of design space, and restricting it to spirits would make sense. (Also, works well with soulshift, obviously.)
Hondens – were great!
Genjus – I’m not their biggest fan, but they were well-received and could be brought back, maybe with a twist.
Eternal mana – the kind which stays in your pool. I don’t like it personally, but it has fans and shouldn’t be too problematic.
Glasskites – Kira, Great Glass-Spinner might be too strong for a reprint, but semi-shroud in itself has potential. (But please don’t make it semi-hexproof instead!)
Bounce creatures – like Eiganjo Free-Riders. I’m not sure how this mechanic is connected flavorwise to Kamigawa, but it is fine and tends to have a lot of synergy with other mechanics.
Should not return:
Shoals – They were kinda popular, but free spells are always problematic.
Epic spells – some people liked them, but they don’t play that great and have little good design space.
Exiling spells – Scour etc. They weren’t bad, but they were already a rehash from Urza’s Destiny.