Why it took so long for Magic: The Gathering to return to Kamigawa

Wizards of the Coast Principal Product Designer Max McCall, who worked on the latest Magic: The Gathering set, Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty. (Images: Wizards of the Coast)
Wizards of the Coast Principal Product Designer Max McCall, who worked on the latest Magic: The Gathering set, Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty. (Images: Wizards of the Coast)

Magic: The Gathering players and fans are set to return to the Japan-inspired plane of Kamigawa when the first Standard set of 2022, Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, is released on tabletop on 18 February.

Set 1,200 years after the last events in the original Kamigawa block which was released between 2004-2005, Kamigawa is now a futuristic science-fiction like world after its occupants (both mortal and kami) discovered electricity.

Yahoo Gaming Southeast Asia interviewed Max McCall, Principal Product Designer from Wizards of the Coast via email to find out more about the background processes that went behind designing and bringing back Kamigawa and many of its icons to the forefront of Magic: The Gathering.

The Kamigawa block was first released in 2004, but it took Wizards of the Coast 18 years to finally return to the plane of Kamigawa, as compared to other planes like Ravnica and Innistrad (which were revisited within a shorter timespan). Is there a reason why it took Wizards so long to get back to the plane of Kamigawa?

Max McCall: I agree, 18 years was too long to go back! But the original Kamigawa block presented a few challenges that we’d have to address when doing the return.

As a set, it appeared powered down in the context of the other releases around it. The mechanics themselves were a little “parasitic”, meaning they need a lot of other cards from only that set to function well.

This includes things like Splice onto Arcane needing a mix of that ability and Arcane typing, and more uncommon creature types like Ninjas and Samurai that just don’t show up in many other sets.

(Image: Wizards of the Coast)
(Image: Wizards of the Coast)

From a worldbuilding perspective, our studio philosophy has evolved around the way we approach cultural inspiration for settings and we wanted to approach those updates with intention. We involved cultural consultants in the process to help guide us on card creation, art, and Japanese representation.

Overall though, lots of folks internally (and externally now!) are also charmed by the plane and I’m so glad we finally got to re-imagine Kamigawa in the modern era.

Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty features a lot of cyberpunk influences, and apparently the first science fiction plane in MTG. Why did Wizards choose to go this surprising route with the plane of Kamigawa, especially considering how the previous Kamigawa block was heavily influenced by feudal Japan?

Max McCall: Our worldbuilding process starts with a creative hook, usually a genre. We were in the process of developing a futuristic setting that included elements of Japanese popular culture.

We wanted a bright, colourful, and somewhat hopeful one, following Innistrad. At first, the pop culture genre inspirations felt different from Kamigawa, but as we built the world, we started to ask ourselves the same questions again and again. “Could this be Kamigawa? If it isn’t Kamigawa, why not?”

Game Design and Worldbuilding discussed the options and agreed that it made the most sense for us, and for the plane of Kamigawa that it and this futuristic world were one and the same. Then, we set out to build the 1,200-year history that passed and explain how we got from the original block to now.

The mechanics introduced in the previous Kamigawa block have always been considered to be relatively weak, especially after the whole Affinity affair with Mirrodin which was released before the Kamigawa block. What is it like this time round, reintroducing Ninjutsu and Channel into this current Standard meta, but having to either re-word or abandon other Kamigawa-flavoured mechanics like Bushido?

Max McCall: Ninjutsu was a popular mechanic and I didn’t feel there was anything intrinsic to it making it weak. It’s largely a matter of just getting the card to the correct rates.

(Image: Wizards of the Coast)
(Image: Wizards of the Coast)

Similarly, Channel is extremely versatile with similarities to other mechanics, like Cycling, that we know we should be able to make an impact in Constructed. Many of the other mechanics we could have chosen to return were either very narrow in cards they interact with or weak in certain match-ups.

(image: Wizards of the Coast)
(image: Wizards of the Coast)

As an example, Bushido requires that your opponent is trying to interact with you in very specific ways. They might not need to block, they might have evasive creatures you can’t block, or they might not have any creatures in their deck at all.

(Image: Wizards of the Coast)
(Image: Wizards of the Coast)

If we were to return it, it could have been a lot of card text that had very little impact on games compared to what we could otherwise be doing with a more modern take on various mechanics.

I’m quite excited to see how our evolution on Sagas and Equipment play out here. I think they offer new twists, and especially in the case of Reconfigure help improve over the traditional game play.

Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty brings back many iconic characters from the Kamigawa block such as Hidetsugu and Kiki-Jiki (albeit its reflection), as well as locations/trees such as Oboro/Otawara and Boseiju. Many of these cards from the previous Kamigawa block have become iconic cards in their own right, so how was the process like designing and bringing back some of these icons?

Spicy red Legendary creatures from the old Kamigawa block. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)
Spicy red Legendary creatures from the previous Kamigawa block (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

Max McCall: The amount of lore within the world of Kamigawa was very inspiring! One of the primary ways we made it feel like a true return to Kamigawa was to include these connections to the past. Working on game design with the team, we looked for every opportunity to make a callback to popular cards whenever a new design was pitched.

The OG Legandary lands from the old Kamigawa block.
The OG Legandary lands from the previous Kamigawa block (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

Sagas allowed us to revive the stories of characters no longer living on the plane: Kiki-Jiki, for example being a popular character, but never having his story really shine. We got to tell that through the chapter abilities before flipping the card to become an updated version of his past card!

Credits: Wizards of the Coast
The new "Kiki-Jiki" (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

For the characters still around, we wanted them to feel similar, but with some new twists. The Legendary Dragon cycle all still have death triggers, but now you have a choice of two abilities.

The new 5 Dragon Spirits (Image: Wizards of the Coast)
The new 5 Dragon Spirits (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

The lands still reference Legendary creatures, but each of them is tied to a splashy Channel ability. Even Hidetsugu, who became a demon at the end of the original story, got to have his updated story told, but the card itself is still slinging damage around like in the old days.

Merged together with the oni. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)
Merged together with the oni (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

I think fans will be excited to explore the references we snuck in the set, including some of the more subtle ones that hint at an old mechanic, card, or character.

The new legendary lands Boseiju, Who Endures, and to an extent Otawara, Soaring City, have attracted a lot of attention online recently because of their additional utility (i.e. their Channel abilities). Recent sets in MTG had some problems with cards that became problematic in many formats (i.e. Oko, Thief of Crowns), and with the powerful potential of these new Legendary lands, is Wizards concerned with the potential power creep of new cards each time a new set is released?

New Legendary lands with Channel abilities. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)
New Legendary lands with Channel abilities (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

Max McCall: In any set, we try to make exciting cards, and there are some concerns over power creep. At the same time, this depends a lot on the metagame, what decks various new cards can slot into, and what the alternatives are.

This cycle of lands is plenty exciting, especially as a first copy, but there are plenty of reasons to still consider various options over these lands. In Standard, you may be better served with Pathways or other dual lands that improve your ability to cast your spells and/or possibly to add more colors to your deck, including during sideboarding.

You may also be better off playing Snow-Covered lands or making sure you have enough basic lands to search out for various effects. In older formats, there are again plenty of dual land options and cards such as Blood Moon that make it a real choice whether or not to play this cycle of cards.

(Image: Wizards of the Coast)
(Image: Wizards of the Coast)

Interestingly, Phyrexian mana shows up again in this set, albeit just for Tamiyo, Compleated Sage. Phyrexian mana has been one of the most powerful mechanics in MTG, so are there some considerations Wizards have to take when reintroducing Phyrexian mana back into Standard sets?

(Image: Wizards of the Coast)
(Image: Wizards of the Coast)

Max McCall: Phyrexian mana is a challenging mechanic for two reasons. First of all, the cost reduction is quite powerful. Paying two life to discount a mana isn’t often much of a challenging decision. More often than not a player is just going to want to spend the life, which doesn’t make it as interesting as other alternative mechanics.

Secondarily, Phyrexian mana potentially challenges the game’s colour pie by giving access to colour-specific effects to other colours without needing to generate mana of those colours.

We tried to take both of these into consideration here. To create a more interesting decision on the option of Phyrexian mana, we had the Compleated Planeswalker enter with less loyalty to better reflect a more meaningful decision.

We also chose to have Tamiyo still require mana be spent for each of her colours so she could do cool stuff in her colour pie without having the Phyrexian mana circumvent the colour pie.

Last, we are beginning to really like some of the new card names, like the new common “You Are Already Dead”. Is there any backstory to how this card specifically got its name?

(Image: Wizards of the Coast)
(Image: Wizards of the Coast)

Max McCall: Card names have a long journey from creation to print. When we’re creating the cards during Game Design, we usually just throw placeholder names on them. These tend to reference cards that do similar effects or are literal to the card itself.

Then during topline concepting for art, the writers put a more “appropriate” name there that will help the artist understand the direction they’ll be illustrating. This name may stay, or it may get one final tweak before being finalised.

“You Are Already Dead” is an example of a placeholder name from the game designers that they found amusing, and then Creative enjoyed the joke as well. The card’s mechanics of “killing something already hit previously” fit the flavor of the joke.

Jay Chan plays a lot of Dota 2 and MTG. He's terrible in Dota 2 and a scrub in MTG, and maybe spends too much money on both games.

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