No longer Standard: Kamigawa block

Hey everybody!
For today’s game day blog, I thought I’d return to Magic the Gathering, and an idea that I had a while ago to do a blog showcasing what I think is an excellent set, but a lot of folks in the meta seem to write off as worthless. Last time, I took a look at the M12 core set, and talked a little about why I thought it was a really great looking set overall. Today, I’m continuing this theme with a look at what feels like the red-headed stepchild of Magic sets: it’s time for Champions of Kamigawa!

Champions of Kamigawa

Champions of Kamigawa was released on 1 October 2004 as the thirty-third expansion for Magic the Gathering. The release came hard on the heels of Mirrodin block, which I’ll get into shortly. With a focus on feudal Japan, the cards heavily tapped into this theme, with all manner of spirits and kami decorating things, while samurai and ninjas popped up throughout the block.

The storyline was about the war between the spirits of the plane of Kamigawa and its mortal inhabitants. These Kami spirits have a particular type of magic referred to as “arcane”, which became a bit of a showcase here, while the regular mortals have cards that are more ordinary within Magic’s history.

Champions of Kamigawa made a number of changes to Magic, which I’ll go through briefly before getting to the new mechanics of the set. Firstly, the block was all about Legends. Legendary Creature was first seen on a card in this set, with every rare card being Legendary to showcase this change. Furthermore, the legend rule was changed – rather than just not being able to play two Legendary cards with the same name, now playing a Legendary card with the same name as one already on the battlefield caused both cards to go to the graveyard, essentially making them a sort of removal for themselves. (It’s important to note that this rule has since been changed again with M14). Defender also became a new evergreen mechanic in this set, replacing “this card cannot attack” on cards.

Let’s talk about new mechanics.

Kamigawa Block

First of all, then, we have Arcane spells, representative of the magic of the Kami spirits. This subtype is found on Instant and Sorcery spells, and while it does nothing by itself, some cards have the rules text “Splice onto Arcane”, followed by a cost of some kind. This allowed players to play an Arcane spell in addition to the card that had the Splice text, but keep that Arcane card in your hand for later use. Sure, your opponent would then know you had that card in your hand, but in theory it could provide a decent deterrent, to say nothing of the fact that you could potentially get multiple uses out of these things. Unfortunately, the mechanic was seen as a little bit clunky, and most often the spells weren’t even worthwhile playing once, let alone multiple times.

It remains something of an ambition of mine to make a spirit/arcane deck and make it work, but as yet, I’ve not managed to get the cards I want…

There are a lot of Spirit creatures in Kamigawa block, and many have the ability Soulshift, usually followed by a number. Soulshift allows you to return target Spirit card with converted mana cost equal to or less than the Soulshift number. This number is invariably one less than the Spirit card going to the graveyard, so they can’t recur themselves.

Again, one to try out with the Spirits deck…

Bushido X is something that I feel should be more flavourful than it ends up being. According to wikipedia, “bushido” evokes the tenets of the way of the samurai, such as compassion, honour and integrity. In the game, the mechanic gives a creature +X/+X whenever it blocks or becomes blocked. I can see the vaguely heroic sort of theme they’re going for there, but the term seems to require more than just a combat pump, you know? It’s still an interesting idea, for sure, and can lead to some interesting tactical choices for your opponent, especially if you have multiple creatures with the mechanic!

Finally, Champions of Kamigawa introduced Flip Cards to the game, which was the first time a card face was so dramatically altered (without counting the new frame design brought out in 8th Edition). These cards are essentially two different cards, one on the top and one on the bottom. When a specific condition is met, the card is flipped 180 degrees and becomes a new permanent. There are quite a few interesting rules things that go on with these flip cards – at least, interesting to geeks like me! First of all, the flip card only ever has the normal characteristics of the top portion (the right side) of the card, unless it is on the battlefield and flipped. So you can’t search for the flipped side of the card, though your opponent can name that side (he just won’t find it). Essentially the bottom portion of a flip card doesn’t exist until the flip condition is met. Once the card has been flipped, that’s it – it can never flip back up the other way. All of the flip cards in the block flip into something Legendary – creatures for Champions and Betrayers, and enchantments for Saviors. Any counters that were on the card before it was flipped will remain on it when the card is flipped, as well, as the card never leaves the battlefield.

Champions of Kamigawa has got some really great theme and flavour, and in fact has some truly all-star cards that see play in decks to this day. Perhaps most notable of all of these is Sensei’s Divining Top, although I should also mention the big dragon spirits, notably Kokusho, the Evening Star. A lot of these cards are still played in Commander, which is of course a bit of a home for all manner of crazy decks and strategies! However, the set does seem to have been otherwise forgotten.

Betrayers of Kamigawa came out on 4 February 2005, and brought along two new mechanics to the Kamigawa party, including the arrival of Ninjas on the scene! Ninjutsu appeared on Creatures with the subtype Ninja, and allowed a player to return an unblocked attacking creature to their hand and pay the associated cost to replace that creature with the Ninja creature instead. Perhaps the best marriage of theme and mechanic yet? At any rate, it’s quite a powerful mechanic, and one that a defending player should be particularly wary of when their opponent has untapped mana. Naturally, Ninjutsu appears most often in blue, so you’d be wary of such untapped mana anyway, but still! Importantly, a card that you Ninjutsu into the game was never declared as an attacker, so anything that cares about such things wouldn’t apply here.

Secondly, we have the exceptionally niche Offering ability. Five Legendary Spirits were printed in the cycle, with the ability that allowed a player to sacrifice a creature of a specific subtype (for example, Snake Offering on Patron of the Orochi), and Flash in the Legendary Spirit by paying the difference in mana costs between it and the sacrificed creature’s cost. So for example, Patron of the Orochi costs six generic mana and two green mana; if you sacrificed Orochi Eggwatcher from Champions, which costs two generic and one green, you could Flash in the big snake dude by just paying four generic and one green. Not a bad trade-off, as you could get a 7/7 for your 1/1 on turn five. There’s an interesting interaction with these Patron cards that’s worth pointing out here, too – Orochi Eggwatcher makes 1/1 Snake tokens, one of which you can sacrifice to bring out Patron of the Orochi. Tokens have no converted mana cost, so you’d have to pay the full cost of the Patron, but it would allow you to flash in a massive 7/7 which is kinda nice!

Betrayers also introduced ki counters, the accumulation of which on a card can lead to specific effects, such as flipping the flip cards printed in this set. However, the set is probably most remembered today for the card Umezawa’s Jitte, the artifact card that keeps gaining charge counters whenever its equipped creature attacks, the removal of said counter giving its equipped creature +2/+2 until end of turn. With all of the counter-abuse available in the game at large, it’s not difficult to create monsters with this thing!

Kamigawa Block

The third set of the block, Saviors of Kamigawa, came out on 3 June 2005. The set features a significant amount of cards that care about the size of your hand, referred to as the Wisdom mechanic (though the mechanic is not keyworded, so never actually appears on cards). Playing into this mechanic has been the ability of the Soratami creature type throughout the entire block. You know Tamiyo, who most recently turned up in Eldritch Moon? Well, her race, the Moonfolk, are native to Kamigawa, although Tamiyo herself didn’t appear until original Innistrad¬†block some years later. Being a race of intellectuals, they have the ability to increase your wisdom by returning land cards to your hand to trigger abilities. It’s kinda cool to have seen this land-return going on for the whole block, but only now really mattering.

Channel is an ability word that appears on several Spirit cards that allows you to essentially treat those creature cards as instants, paying a lower mana cost and gaining a one-time effect rather than paying that card’s higher cost to have the effect on the creature itself. For example, Shinen of Flight’s Wings is a 3/3 Flying Spirit for five (four generic, one blue). You can discard the card and pay its Channel cost (one blue) to give target creature flying until end of turn. This is kinda important for the next new mechanic…

Epic cards are Sorcery cards that are essentially an attempt to create Legendary Sorcery cards. Basically, you cast the spell for its mana cost (between 6 and 10 CMC) and you cannot cast any other spells for the rest of the game. However, at the beginning of your upkeep, you get the effect of this spell again, and continue to do so for each of your upkeep phases for the rest of the game. So for example, Enduring Ideal lets you search for an enchantment card and put it into play. At the beginning of each of your subsequent turns thereafter, you’ll be putting enchantments into play for as long as the game lasts. I think it’s a pretty cool concept, but the abilities of each of these Epic cards are a little underwhelming considering the trade-off you make. In the case of Enduring Ideal, you’d need to make sure you have a lot of good stuff in place already, as you’re pretty much left with what you’ve got out to play the game. Of course, they can’t be too powerful – say you had a card that hit your opponent for direct damage, you’d probably apply too much pressure, given the amount of cards that can interact with that sort of thing. But it’s always interesting to see how these things worked out back in the day!

The last new mechanic is Sweep, an ability word that allowed you to return a number of land cards to your hand and copy an effect for each land card returned in this way. Interesting interaction with the hand-size matters abilities going on in the set, but it has only appeared on four cards in the entire history of Magic, so hardly an impactful mechanic, you know?

Saviors of Kamigawa continues the theme of the block for having one of the all-star artifact cards in the game, this time it’s Pithing Needle, which allows you to turn off the activated abilities of any card when it enters the battlefield, for as long as Pithing Needle is in place. The needle can be particularly powerful for preventing Planeswalkers from using their loyalty abilities, which are activated abilities, as well as a whole host of other things. Heck, you can prevent your opponent attaching Umezawa’s Jitte to a creature by naming it with Pithing Needle!

Interestingly, Saviors of Kamigawa also has a Legendary creature that has been banned for use in Commander due to his power level. Erayo, Soratami Ascendant¬†is a two-cost Moonfolk Monk who, when the fourth spell of a turn has been played, flips into the Legendary Enchantment Erayo’s Essence, which just counters the first spell played by each opponent each turn. Think how crazy easy it can be to flip this guy into a counter-magic machine!

Kamigawa Block

Champions of Kamigawa block has got a lot of interesting cards among its three sets, with theme in abundance and some pretty powerful cards that are still regularly played. With such a huge number of Legendary Creatures in the set, the card type became almost diluted until it was meaningless, though can still now provide a bit of a treasure trove for Commanders. True, these cards are overwhelmingly mono-coloured, but can provide some really interesting decks.

I love the block for its oriental theme, something that we don’t often get a lot of in western culture fantasy, or at least something that we don’t get often where it’s implemented well. Here, the theme is tremendous, and really worthwhile taking the time to investigate. I’ve mentioned a few times how I want to build some decks using these cards, and most recently I’ve been considering how to upgrade my Eldritch Moon prerelease pool from those 40 cards to a proper 60 card blue/white Spirits deck that uses a lot of the fodder here. That’s still a work in progress, anyway!

Something that always saddens me about this block specifically is browsing singles online, and seeing how the huge premium commanded by those cards like Umezawa’s Jitte, Ghostly Prison, Eight and a Half Tails, Kiki-Jiki Mirror Breaker, etc, how it just drops to the majority of the set being less than a couple of pounds/dollars. Despite not playing Magic in the early 2000s, I’ve nevertheless managed to pick up so many Kamigawa cards because they’re just so cheap! For a deck-builder who loves theme over everything else, this block can be a paradise. Add in some Tarkir cards to bulk things out and keep that theme going, and the world’s your lobster!

It seems that a major problem for Champions was the fact that it came hard on the heels of Mirrodin block. A block that made heavy use of artifact cards, and made the horror that is Affinity a thing, Mirrodin allowed players to built incredibly powerful decks that took a lot of beating, and while this is probably best left for a future blog, suffice it to say that it was a particularly dark and difficult time to be a Magic player. Kamigawa didn’t have the same power level and, while being flavourful in and of itself, was very soon overshadowed by the amazing original Ravnica block, which will also be the subject of another blog in the future! Added to this fact, it seems that, while a lot of westerners are familiar with Japan and Japanese culture – not least from the wide consumption of the amazing Studio Ghibli films – Kamigawa block went too deeply into that well, and employed a lot of reference and theme that still felt quite alien to a lot of American and European players.

Kamigawa block itself did have a lot to offer at the time, Mirrodin notwithstanding. There are a number of stories around the internet of folks who were there for Standard and whatnot, definitely worth checking out the reddit Q&A linked in the last paragraph, and also this article from Star City Games, where MTG Hall of Fame-er Masashi Oiso discusses the infamous Gifts Ungiven control deck. While other decks did the rounds, it seems some form of blue control was king. Some interesting history there!

At any rate, that’s my look back at Kamigawa block, three sets that are no longer standard, yet well worth the experience of diving into! How do you feel about the block? Were you playing Magic back when the sets came out? Let me know what you think in the comments!