Magic: the Gathering’s upcoming expansion, Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, marks the return of one of my favorite planes in all of the multiverse, Kamigawa. It’s hard to believe the original Champions of Kamigawa (2004) turns 18 this year, or that children born in the year of its release are now eligible to vote!
Seeing as Kamigawa is one of my flavorite sets, and was released so long ago, I thought the Neon Dynasty spoiler season to be a perfect time to reflect upon what made Champions of Kamigawa so memorable and iconic.
Kamigawa block brought legendary card typing back to the forefront of gameplay in a way not seen since Magic’s third expansion, Legends (the namesake of the legendary mechanic), first introduced legendary typing back in 1995. Most permanents printed at rare in the Kamigawa block have legendary typing and thus represent specific characters, items and locations from the Kamigawa story. The story is also a particularly good one; on the plane of Kamigawa, a power play pits the mortal and spirit worlds at war with one another. Also, there are Dragons!
Though not the first expansion to draw direct inspiration from the culture, mythos and fantasy of feudal Japan (Portal: Three Kingdoms from 1999 earns that distinction), Champions of Kamigawa is notable for distinct flavor and mechanics some of which include Arcane, splice, bushido, ninjitsu, soulshift and the first design attempt at “flip” cards.
With legendary cards taking on a newfound mechanical importance with regard to gameplay, WotC also took the opportunity to give the “Legend Rule” a much needed tune-up:
The pre-Kamigawa Legend Rule allowed a first resolved legendary permanent to take precedence over other legendary cards with the same name subsequently entering play.
Before the Kamigawa Legend Rule update, if I controlled a legendary Lin Sivvi and my opponent tried to cast their own Lin Sivvi, their copy would enter play and be immediately sacrificed as a state-based effect. The Kamigawa Legend Rule changed this dynamic so that the second copy of a legend entering play “blows up” all copies of the legend regardless of which one had precedence.
Essentially, the update removed a legend’s ability to also function as a Meddling Mage naming itself in mirror matches. It also opened up a window for “clones” to function as Doom Blade for legendary creatures, which was particularly important later down the road (since clones could essentially be used as removal for hexproof legendary creatures like Geist of Saint Traft or Thrun, the Last Troll).
Obviously, we’ve had another subsequent rules change that allows both players to control the same legendary permanent at the same time, but it’s interesting to see the progression of how we got from A to B. Kamigawa was a huge step forward toward improving Legendary cards.
Kamigawa Block also toyed with the idea of legendary instants and sorceries with the “epic” mechanic.
Magic in 2004 looked a lot different than it does in the present. The overwhelming majority of competitively-minded play took place on the tables of IRL events played with cardboard as opposed to Magic Online or MTG Arena. Magic as a game was also coming off of one of its most catastrophic design mistakes of all time: 2003’s Mirrodin Block:
Mirrodin Block pushed the limits of how powerful and synergistic competitive decks and cards could be without alienating a large percentage of the player base. Mirrodin is looked back upon as a block that was extremely powerful and changed Constructed Magic in a dramatic way that could only be pushed back against via multiple bans across multiple formats.
Kamigawa Block, on the other hand, had the unfortunate responsibility of following up one of the all-time powerful blocks and shouldering the burden of having to return the state of play back to a “reasonable Standard.”
Mirrodin was the first block to take place outside of Dominaria and was likely the most broken block up to that point (with the exception of Urza’s Block) with regard to dropping a ton of game-changing cards into the game. The utter dominance of decks built around Mirrodin staples was certainly a difficult act for any new expansion to follow and try to right the ship.
Kamigawa was released into metagames across formats dominated by Mirrodin Block’s wake and influence.
Standard had seen an initial wave of bans that cleared out overpowered spells like Arcbound Ravager and Skullclamp but even in a diminished state, Mirrodin’s powerful artifact lands and affinity spells continued to dominate.
At “Pro Tour Tinker,” powerful Urza’s Saga and Mirrodin spells teamed up to create one of the most absurdly powerful and dominant decks of all time. In Vintage, Mirrodin Block shifted a long established meta away from Four-Color Keeper Control and Psychatog in favor of Workshop Prison and Mana Drain/Goblin Welder artifact decks, i.e. Control Slaver.
And, artifact-based Mana Drain decks:
I bring up Vintage because back in 2004, Vintage was one of the most vibrant and popular formats in the multiverse and the unique moment in time also coincided with the StarCityGames 10-proxy Power 9 circuit which competed with Grand Prixes for large attendance tournaments. It didn’t hurt that Power 9 cards like Moxen and Time Walk only ran between $100 to $200 bucks back then.
Since Vintage was a particularly popular format back in 2004, many of the cards appear to have Vintage applications in mind. None more so than Gifts Ungiven, which allows a player to tutor for four powerful cards and an opponent chooses two to go to hand and two to the graveyard.
Good luck splitting this pile…
Gifts is an incredible spell that I’ve enjoyed playing over the years. The last time I played Modern, I sleeved up a Storm deck with four Desperate Ritual and four Gifts Ungiven, which is a true testament to how awesome Kamigawa was for combo mages.
From the onset, Kamigawa was quickly identified as a strong set for both green and black spellcasters thanks to some exciting new printings. The black spells came out of the gate quite strong particularly because of how well Horobi, Death’s Wail interacted with Affinity’s modular mechanic and combined well with Relic Barrier to create a “build your own Visara the Dreadful.”
One of the biggest surprises in Champions of Kamigawa was a complete lack of tools to deal with the powerful artifacts of Mirrodin Block. It really is a mind-boggling decision to lack quality artifact removal following a block that boasts the strongest artifact synergies of all time.
“I’m supposed to fight Affinity with THIS!?”
Green spells also made a push against the colorless menace:
Champions of Kamigawa provided an excellent skeleton for what would become the formidable ramp-based combo deck, Tooth and Nail.
The deck also benefited from some nice residual green cards from Mirrodin Block:
As well as…
It’s interesting that the green ramp spells created for Kamigawa are essentially what helped put what we now know and love as Urza Tron on the map. Tooth and Nail decks had the perfect combination of great ramp, a huge payoff and some great soft lock combos:
Overall, Kiki-Jiki may be the most iconic and significant card to come from Kamigawa Block and it was a fantastic tool that allowed Tooth and Nail decks to make devastating plays once their trademark spell resolved:
Or, Tooth and Nail could cobble together an infinite-damage combo:
Champions of Kamigawa also added some exciting new nonbasic lands into the mix that continue to be iconic to this day as Commander staples:
Both of these lands had immediately impactful applications across formats. Boseiju, Who Shelters All was a particularly problematic card in Tooth and Nail decks against counterspells. Forbidden Orchard combined with a powerful Exodus rare, Oath of Druids, to establish a long standing Vintage archetype.
In Standard, eventually the last remnants of Mirrodin’s powerbase were banned before many of Betrayers of Kamigawa and Saviors of Kamigawa’s best cards entered the meta.
All three were game-changing when they saw print. Kataki may have been too late to combat Affinity in Standard, but it played a big role in curtailing the dominance of Affinity in Extended. I qualified for my first Pro Tour (2005’s PT Guildpact in Honolulu) in no small part because of my Katakis out of the UW Scepter Chant sideboard.
A series of powerful Legendary Lands also provided an important piece of “mirror breaker” technology in my “draw-go” control decks. I could essentially use these lands to have both players draw a card during my opponent’s end step (and use Minamo to repeat the process) and then force my opponent to discard to maximum hand size then untap with extra cards I could play during my main phase.
Kamigawa had a whole host of lands that provided advantages for having legendary creatures in your deck.
It created a unique dynamic where cards that had “legendary drawback,” such as Isamaru, Hound of Konda, were able to reap the rewards of these lands in combat.
I’d also like to touch upon the importance of Umezawa’s Jitte as a bomb rare. I was lucky enough to open an Umezawa’s Jitte at the Betrayers of Kamigawa prerelease which in Michigan took place in an ice storm all the way up in Birch Run. Never has the power level of a card been so apparent to me in Limited play. Every time I cast the powerful Equipment, my opponent would read it and be like “wow.” Then it would start getting counters and my opponent would realize they were drawing dead and call a judge to ask, “Is this really how Umezawa’s Jitte works?” It was sort of a disconnect that such a card could even be real.
Jitte would go on to become perhaps the most impactful card from all of Kamigawa Block and despite being included in the Rat’s Nest preconstructed deck, still soared to become the most expensive card in Standard. The value of the individual Umezawa’s Jitte card included in the deck easily usurped the MSRP of the product, which led to the first example I can remember of an in-print Magic item being bought out from retail stores.
Bans of Mirrodin Block artifacts, the complete Champions of Kamigawa block and the release of Ravnica: City of Guilds combined to usher in one of the most dynamic metagames of all time.
“Owling Mine,” an Izzet Land Destruction tempo deck, did quite well in the new metagame. It was unique in the sense that it played a full eight copies of Boomerang and Eye of Nowhere to start attacking an opponent’s mana on turn two.
Heartbeat of Spring, a colorshifted Mana Flare, also formed the lynch pin of another green ramp-centric combo deck based around getting a bunch of basics into play, powering them up with Heartbeat, and untapping them repeatedly by transmuting for a bunch of copies of Early Harvest.
Red also got some nice aggressive spells from Kamigawa.
As we shift gears toward the end of the article, I’ve saved what I consider to be the absolute best of Champions of Kamigawa block for the last. When I think about Kamigawa, these are the cards that most immediately come to mind.
The Dragon cycle from Champions of Kamigawa contains some of my favorite cards from all of Magic. In fact, pound-for-pound with flavor factored in, it’s likely my favorite Dragon cycle in the history of the game. Part of what I love so much about it is that the colors least likely to get good Dragons (because of the color pie) got some extremely, unprecedented epic Dragons. White, black and blue are oft noted for having excellent creatures but great Dragons in these colors are few and far between. With the exception of Scourge’s Eternal Dragon, I don’t think I’d ever played a Constructed Dagon in these colors before.
These Dragon’s also had quality synergy with the “Kamigawa Legend Rule,” since you could play a second copy of a legendary Dragon and have both “Legend Rule” each other to unlock their dies trigger. Playing a second Kokusho (or Clone) to dome an opponent for 10 was pretty sweet; same as playing as second Keiga to steal two creatures. I still put the Kamigawa Dragons in my EDH decks whenever I find a use for them because I’ve so many fond memories of them.
Last but far from least…
I’ve got to take a moment to wax poetic about what I consider to be the most significant, iconic and game-changing card from all of Champions block, Sensei’s Divining Top. It was a hard choice to pick just one from a series of sets full of great cards like Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, Forbidden Orchard, Gifts Ungiven, Keiga and Kokusho, but Sensei’s Divining Top earns the clear checkmark here.
While Top was a mainstay during its tenure in Standard, it’s true impact was felt in Extended and Eternal formats where it was able to take full advantage of fetchlands:
It was well known that pairing Brainstorm with fetches was a great way to create a bunch of micro advantages, but Top took that logic and put it on its head, especially when paired with this little doozy:
It’s hard to imagine, but Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top were in Standard together for a few months before the Kamigawa Block rotated from Standard. However, the signature combo absolutely dominated Legacy and Extended for as long as Sensei’s Divining Top avoided a ban. I’m talking dominated formats in a way that makes Delver of Secrets gravitational pull on Legacy look tame.
Also bear in mind that when this combo was unleashed upon Eternal formats that there were few ways to actually break the combo up!
We used Engineered Explosive to sunburst for X=2 but overpaid on X to change Explosives mana value to four or more to avoid being Counterbalanced. It was nice that Trinket Mage tutored for Sensei’s Divining Top and EE, which made it one of the most flexible creatures in the game in formats where Top was legal (Trinket Mage also found artifact lands and Tormod’s Crypt – it was an absolute beast in no small part because it was able to find Sensei’s Top).
I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed playing Magic during Champions of Kamigawa‘s tenure in Standard. It’s a set that was perhaps viewed as a little bit of a disappointment relative to the more powerful Mirrodin Block that preceded it, but still continues to impress me with it’s subtlety and nuance. I also love the Japanese fantasy flavor and storyline. Nowhere else in the multiverse are tribal Foxes or Snakes a part of the ecosystem!
For me, Kamigawa brought so many new and flavorful elements to the forefront of Magic. Looking back, it very much feels like a grab bag of designs that feel new and exciting, yet flavorful and nuanced. I don’t know exactly what I’ll be looking for in Neon Dynasty specifically, but one area where Kamigawa overperformed as a set was to present a lot of new twists that still felt genuinely engaged with what was going on in Magic at the time. I hope Neon Dynasty can show me some elements I’ve always loved about Magic in a way that feels simultaneously novel, dynamic but with a nostalgic awareness for what has come before.