MTG: Kamigawa Revamp, Part 1: First Principles

This is an article that discusses custom set design but does not show any custom designed cards.

I think of the Kamigawa block as flawed in execution but not necessarily in conception.

Kamigawa is a favourite topic amongst amateur Magic designers. There’s a hard nugget of support for the set, a hope to see the whole thing somehow redeemed, to return to Kamigawa and maybe have things be a bit less bad this time. Or maybe people think the set was already great, and the world needed another shot for people to like it. Some people want to hold the set out as suffering for Mirrodin’s sins. There’s a lot of conversation about why Kamigawa was bad, and about perhaps why those reasons mean it justifies returning and revitalisation.

I kind of don’t ever think it’ll happen. If it does happen, it’ll probably happen in a way I don’t find satisfying. Kamigawa is too built up in our minds, now. It’s a thing. It’ll never live up to the hype or the hope.

I used to think there was a fun puzzle to be had in fan-designing Kamigawa returns but over time I’ve come to think that really, it’s not that I want another Kamigawa set – I want the Kamigawa set we had to be less bad. That’s my want. After all, there are some things we know for sure they’re never going to revisit, and going back and making Kamigawa-style decks just don’t have a space to exist anywhere else. They’re just not very good, and that makes me sad.

Mark Rosewater is fond of saying that restrictions breed creativity. So, bearing in mind the difference between the world of Magic Design when Kamigawa was new, fifteen years ago and now, What were its restrictions?

That made me wonder, what does Kamigawa – the whole block – look like compared to a modern set?

I did a bit of math, putting together the total number of each card type in the three Kamigawa sets (Champions, Betrayers, and Saviors), then averaging that out. Then I did the same to Dominaria, and got some fairly comparable values:

Kamigawa

Dominaria

Creature11855%12548%
Sorcery2211%2911%
Instant3114%2911%
Enchantment2110%2811%
Nonbasic Land63%145%
Planeswalker031%
Artifact147%3012%
Totals:216100%258100%

 

If we look at the statistical breakdown, it’s kind of interesting how similar most of the numbers between the two sets are. I actually was kinda surprised, when looking at it, that Kamigawa had more creatures than Dominaria, but part of the reason why is because the creatures of Kamigawa included a lot of total cack. There were some cards that just weren’t good enough for what they were trying to do, but there weren’t a lot of cards that wanted to do something that shouldn’t even be attempted.

One thing you’ll find if you look back on Kamigawa cards is there were lots of odd clauses on things. You know, spells that needed to check two or three traits, rather than just one. There were cards that seem to just be a bit too expensive for what they let you do, or give you a reduced version of what you’d expect. There also were a bunch of cards that were legendary without much lore or value for their drawback – priced and designed as standard cards, but made rare and legendary, and in many cases, cautiously limited. Basically there’s a bunch of legendary cards that are slightly worse than non-legendary versions of the same thing, now.

Since the table doesn’t look that great, here’s the same information (which is all rounded a bit to be tidier) in pie chart form:

The big addition of the Planeswalker type is a thing. Obviously, Kamigawa predated the Planeswalker type, as well as the Tribal type, Sagas, Menace, New World Order, and it came in just barely after Equipment had been a thing, so it got to have one of the worst designed pieces of equipment ever made.

All these thoughts swirl around as I browse through the card file, looking at Kamigawa’s cards, thinking how many cards are not just overpriced by one or two, but sometimes three or four. How many mechanics just made everything too complex, about how the aims of some of the mechanics were wasted, or were poorly implemented. I keep thinking about that original premise: What if Kamigawa had been made as a modern set?

And then I wonder: Why not do that?

This is the project. A remake of Kamigawa. Not a sequel or a new set in Kamigawa. Going back to Kamigawa 1.0, with memories of that standard and the play experience of the time, and try to create the set as it might be made as if it were being made, anew, today. New design technology and the removal of some things that we would only know didn’t work after the fact. This also lets us change the structural demands on Kamigawa – after all, it wasn’t its fault it came between Ravnica and Mirrodin, two very powerful sets!

Redesigning Kamigawa with my own understanding of the modern design sensibility presents another interesting problem. How well have I managed to interpret the living text of player-facing R&D principles? That’s a really interesting challenge to me. It’s like an exotic essay question, trying to repair a thing in deference to the greater confines of existing design technology.

What would we be without rules, though? Here are our rules:

  • I can only use card names and card art from the original Kamigawa. They’re linked together – no reusing art from card A to put on name B, no new cards (with an exception for Planeswalkers).
  • I want to recognise the spirit of the original card and design accordingly.
  • I want to include as many of the cards from the original as possible. The issue isn’t that Kamigawa lacked good cards, it’s that most of those cards were surrounded by bad stuff.
  • I can ditch cards that Shouldn’t Have Been. Looking at you jitte.
  • If one part of an obvious cycle is in, all the cycle is in, but that doesn’t mean I can’t alter cards in a cycle to make them fit better. Pleasant symmetry is important.
  • I want to avoid creating any keywords. We can use new keywords and replace some old ones (fear becoming menace for example). If a mechanic from Kamigawa, like Arcane or Soulshift needs work, it still needs to feel like that mechanic.
  • While I’m not about to develop this set for draft (how in the world would I do that?), I am going to try and build the set by the modern structure Maro outlined in his Nuts And Bolts article.
  • I’m okay with this set having a Battlebond power level, a ‘few bad commons’ style. In no small part because I don’t know how to balance draft, I might as well admit it.

My first decision is that I don’t think I can compact Kamigawa into one set and do it cleanly. Even if I wanted to, I think doing so would require ditching a lot of the cards the set had with potential. On the other hand, it definitely had too many bad cards to be developd as three units, and some of its mechanics were a bit too thin to really work as major themes for a big set.

Breaking it down, the set I’m going to use as my basic template is Dominaria. This set has a lot of common ground with what Kamigawa wanted to do, with its fix on a legendary theme (historic), and it’s about as modern as we can get as far as breakdowns go.

That’s the premise of this idea. Maybe I’ll do a chain of articles about it, or maybe this project stops here. For now, the next step is to look to our further reading:

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