Wizards of the Coast Employees, this article is going to feature custom card designs.
When you want to dismantle a set and fix it, it seems to me you should want to get down as close as possible to the basics of what went into that set. Strip it down, examine the central principles, and see what you can do to fix them. You need to find the things that made the set feel the way it did without, hopefully, carrying forwards the things that made it feel bad. Which means that you want to represent the same general factional struggle and strife, you want things to broadly still have the same boxes they can land in and in Kamigawa that means addressing the big flavour underpinning the whole thing:
The Kami War.
For those who need a catch-up the basics is that Kamigawa was a world made up of two worlds; the realm of mortals, and the realm of kami, which were also interwoven in all things in all life. Every object had a kami, even the objects that had other kami. Every kami was the spirit of a thing, and one day, something happened that made the kami attack everyone else all the time, and a war that seemed pretty much unwinnable kicked off. Whole forests were swallowed by O-Kagachi, the spirit of Kamigawa itself, and there were very impressively written bits of the books.
Conflicts in Magic: The Gathering happen all the time – and indeed, one of the most basic things to start any custom design off with is to kick off with working out who the five factions are, and then why they hate each other. We’ve seen ten pairs at war, five wedges, five shards, and we’ve seen, with Ixalan shard-shard-pair-pair at war with one another.
What Kamigawa has that set it apart is a rare example of a five-coloured faction, with almost no multicolour cards, opposing five mono-coloured factions. Except some tribes that weren’t necessarily part of the war existed across colours (like Samurai) and some were isolated to one colour (like Moonfolk, Rats, and Kitsune). The cross-colour tribes were classes rather than races.
Since you’re representing one weird faction and five very basic factions, it seems best to start with the Kami. The Kami, as represented in Kamigawa, are bad. Bold, I know, but the mechanic is one of those misbegotten draft mechanics that just lurks on the cards from history, found on errant searches for other types of spell. The mechanic, as handled in the game, is one of the all-purpose examples of a parisitic mechanic, where the only cards that it cares about are within that set. Since the keywords Arcane and Splice have been since been retired, it seems pretty bad design to build for them. Even the best rendition of those two mechanics is still going to inherit their big structural problems: They aren’t very good.
Spiritcraft is not an inherently bad mechanic, but it’s tied to Arcane, which is a mechanic I have beef with (and we’ll get into why later). Spiritcraft works out alright as a fundamental mechanic – you invest in permanents that may be a little overcosted, and in exchange your slightly overcosted spells have extra effects. In a lot of ways, Spiritcraft and Splice were doing the exact same thing at the same time, it’s just one of them was good (Spiritcraft) and the other was awful (Splice). Thankfully, there really isn’t a lot of need to change around too many memorable, good Kami cards if Spiritcraft stays around some way. Fixing Arcane needs to be done in a way that doesn’t damage Spiritcraft, and you need to do something with the Kami that makes them stand apart from the other groups.
Okay, so here’s something I kind of don’t have good language for, but which I think is very important and has been bothering me more and more over time. I don’t have a term for it from Wizards, so I just use the term blockness. In this case, the blockness of a card is how much it belongs to the place it’s from. What makes it unique, what makes it necessary to be where it is, and what keeps a card from being printed in other places.
Here’s my basic thinking, by dint of years of living with the way Wizards of the Coast works. Most mechanics don’t come back. They’re not good enough to, not deep enough to be explored a second time. Some mechanics we’ll see a lot, but mostly, a lot of mechanics appear for a time, are created, then disappear forever. Whenever we see a card get printed, then, it can be considered in terms of whether it could ever be printed before or again. What’s more, cards tend to mean that a card very similar to them probably can’t get printed, either – like Krosan Tusker and Shefet Monitor were fifteen years apart, which in the life of a 25 year old game, means basically twice in a lifetime. Even then, the Tusker reflects its time, and the Monitor their own. Krosan Tusker has blockness that marks it as coming from at least after Urza’s Saga, but by comparison, the Monitor has the hallmarks of being both post-Tusker and from Amonkhet specifically. Basically, Monitor has more Blockness, and that marks it as being from Amonkhet.
Most cards from Kamigawa – most of them – have very, very little Blockness. And the ones that do are often cards that feel bad.
The Rats of Takenuma have a clear tone to themselves. They attack your hand and are mostly low-toughness and evasive. Mostly, you couldn’t see them printed in other places – some of them you could – Marrow-Gnawer for example – but some of them are very purely of their time like Skullsnatcher and Okiba-Gang Shinobi. Block mechanics are an easy way to mark a card with blockness, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I think the card in Kamigawa that has some of the best Blockness, and therefore feels the strangest out of place like in Masters 25, was Iwamori of the Open Fist, and he doesn’t need keywords to really be anchored to the block he’s from.
What this means is when you set aside the Kami, and look at the five non-kami tribe groups (a tribe and its human allies in the same area), there’s very little there there. The snakes have some mechanics based on their tribes, but with 21 snakes in total they almost have no actual blockness to them. Hell, many of them are only separated from being core set compatible cards thanks to being Snakes with a class rather than just a type.
(Blockness, by the way, is part of my beef with Golgari cards from Guilds of Ravnica: These cards could be printed anywhere, at any time, and the things that make them ‘Ravnica guild cards’ doesn’t actually mean much. These cards could have been printed anywhere – meaning it feels more like that guild isn’t even there in the set.)
One of the interesting ideas with the Spirits of Kamigawa was they were trying to make you feel like you were playing with a different kind of magic than anything else, which meant they were both allowed to have weird versions of effects but also they wanted to make sure that when you cast a spell of the kami, the kami noticed. They did this with the mechanic named spiritcraft, where cards would react to the casting of spirit or arcane spells, which required them to tag all the kami spells with the subtype Arcane. Since Arcane wasn’t doing enough on its own, the Wizards solution was to introduce a second mechanic called splice, which let you modify the Arcane spells.
I have so much beef with this.
First of all, Arcane is a French word. It’s a word we associate strongly through D&D and other media sources with a very European version of magic. Arcane being the keyword that affects kami is pretty dissonant. Find a Japanese word! We know you had a dictionary!
Second, Splice is a mechanic that’s really fighting for space. It honestly should be part of an izzet-like spellslinger guild (though yes, I know, Izzet want to be tinkerers). The fundamental mana system became a part of the problem for Splice, where you need cheap things to Splice on to, and then you need cards worth splicing. In limited, there was a splice deck that used Dampen Thought to win the game, but the problem was there when you played them in constructed: outside of an infinite loop that won the game through an enormous mana engine, Splice made you pay too much for not enough. There weren’t any splice spells that spliced cheaply enough to tack onto a lot of effects, and not enough splice spells.
One of the most important effects in all of this is that the feeling of Splice was meant to be alien magic, but what made it rewarding was the feeling you were building your own spell. That in turn didn’t feel like handling alien magic as much as it felt a lot more, to me, like a very, well, Vancian, European, D&D kind of magic.
This is an interesting challenge that Wizards have basically pulled it all apart and made whole block bases out of the contents. The build-your-own spells thing plays into the space of Unstable‘s contraptions. The alien-feeling magic got played with in Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch. The two competing cultures fighting in the same space across cultures got played with through the Elementals of Lorwyn, which coincidentally tried to play with the idea of ‘spells for these creatures’ in Tribal and Evoke. There are a lot of potential solutions to representing the Kami, but they all need to work in a way that considers the impact on Splice, and Spiritcraft, and have those consequences deliberate.
Alright, that’s the theoretical framework, what about the practical? The Kami War needs to have alien magic, and I don’t want to include splice while keeping around Spiritcraft. With this in mind, there are four basic solutions I can see, using four different mechanics that happened after Kamigawa.
You could do Kami magic with Devoid, or a Devoid-like mechanic. It’d be a keyword that sat in the text of the spells and permanents, and all of them could react to colourless spells being cast. This was done in Battle for Zendikar block in a way that interacted with morph, emerge, and artifacts, themes in the proceeding and following sets, which means Devoid wasn’t trapped in the space of a single set.
The problem with this is devoid sucks and nobody likes it.
It’s a mechanic that doesn’t do anything but set a characteristic, and it’s very hard for those mechanics to feel good. Players often look at Devoid and ask well what does it do, and then find it just makes the spell colourless, and that makes it feel like a wasted mechanism. It doesn’t even matter if players can parse the cards as good – there are a lot of really strong Devoid cards, stronger than you’d expect for their mana costs under older set design – and even that doesn’t matter, because players just did not like it.
Tribal is a little bit better, because Tribal cards have a nice, smooth mechanical interaction. It’s super obvious – this card is a Spirit card, so Spiritcraft can just care about Spirit cards. If a card let you return Spirit cards from the graveyard, it could let you return a Tribal – Spirit card.
The problem with Tribal is that it sucks and nobody likes it.
That’s not actually the case: Tribal sucks and people dislike it, because they don’t see that tribal is doing the thing that it’s doing. Tribal’s type power lets non-creature cards access creature types, which seems like a minor thing, but under the rules it’s a pretty big thing. This is because not all subtypes are created equal under the rules (particularly basic land types).
Most players don’t get that when you see a type line that shows Tribal Sorcery – Goblin that the tribal part is doing anything – they think that Sorcery – Goblin should work just fine. Which it doesn’t.
Tribal would solve a lot of the problems, but it’s a depreciated mechanic – and I’m going to try and avoid them. While Tribal would be super handy, it’s an ugly solution.
Just give up on the idea of instants and sorceries triggering Spiritcraft. Make spiritcraft an entirely creature-based mechanic.This is the most convenient but it does push Spirit decks into a very specific direction, where they don’t really get to be mixed decks.
I don’t think of this as a solution, though. Spiritcraft isn’t a singular creature-horde strategy. There needs to be some form of spells that can go in the deck, so abandoning ‘spells can trigger Spiritcraft’ seems bad to me.
‘Ugly Naked’ Spiritcraft
Okay, so now let’s get a bit weird. What if Spiritcraft triggered on whenever a Spirit creature enters the battlefield under your control, and then you make every Spirit-marked kami spell include the line, create a 1/1 colourless Spirit creature token, then exile it.
This is ugly. This is really, really ugly. It could do the job, but it would make a range of these spells wordier, and not necessarily make them better. It would also make this range of spells that are designed to trigger Spiritcraft (like, say, Rend Flesh) also trigger other enter-the-battlefield effects. Plus, it’d probably confuse players to see that wording in a lot of places.
Okay, so hear me out.
What if every Kami card was hybrid. All of them. The arcane cards are rethemed as hybrid cards, then all the spiritcraft cards can check for multicoloured cards. This has some grounding in the game already – it’s like Devoid, without the drawback of Devoid. It opens up Spirit cards to fit into more decks, and gives you inherently more play space for the Kami of the Kami war to show up.
Now, the problem of that is that you’re sharply limited in your effects. Hybrid pushes you into a design space where the colours overlap. On the other hand, that is a space where a lot of weird things happen, and the Kami are meant to feel weird, and if the Kami are all (for example) enemy colour hybrids, that makes them seem super-alien compared to the monocoloured tribes without meaning that you have to build an enemy-coloured deck.
This is interesting and worth exploring.
Okay, now this is saucy.
First of all, I already like Evoke. Evoke is a mechanic that I feel is too strong to really get printed much any more, though it did show up in a Commander set recently. It has power triggers coming and going, and it interacts with the graveyard in a way that can make Soulshift a lot more exciting.
My inclination is to definitely do this – because damn I get to make a bunch more evoke cards! All the cards that would be evoke spells become creatures, doing those things as enter or leaves battlefield effects. Are there any really oddball spells? Well, there’s the Shoals, which all want to be cast for free with an exile cost – and they’re also all dangerous spells that I might think shouldn’t exist. I mean Blazing Shoal is banned in Modern and the Green Shoal is of niche use, showing a power range that I’m not happy with.
These are solutions. They are not all the solution.
Whew, we’re at two and a half thousand words here, so I’m going to pause this now. This is a big puzzle and I’m still not sure how I want to solve it.