Thursday, October 9, 2014

kill reviews: kamigawa block

Week after week, I bring you, my devoted readers, nothing but the most relentlessly positive takes on Magic sets from years past. It is in this spirit that I’d like to question the established consensus on Champions of Kamigawa: people think it was bad, and they are wrong.

Last week, Mirrodin did a bunch of stuff I didn’t like. A lot of people took issue with that review, especially since I only talked about one facet of what makes a block good (its impact on Standard), and narrower still, one specific deck in that Standard format (Ravager Affinity). This is justified, because that misery outweighed everything else about the block.

Kamigawa following such a powerful block drew an obvious comparison: Urza block leading into Masques. The brokenness of Urza was likened to Mirrodin. I think this is bogus, because there was more than one busted deck in Urza block. But wronger still is comparing the uninspired, tiring, attrition-based drudgery of Masques to Kamigawa block in any way. Yes, it was less powerful than Mirrodin, but that’s… rather necessary, and good.

Is Kamigawa known to be bad because the Standard environment wasn’t fun? Definitely not, no. Kamigawa-Ravnica is probably my favorite Standard format that’s ever existed, and the source of half of my favorite decks. But all those were almost entirely Ravnica-based, right? No. Greater Gifts, Heartbeat of Spring, and various black and/or white aggro strategies (and Ghost Dad) were, at times, the best decks in the format. So was the limited environment bad? Nope, triple-Champions and CCB were known as some of the deepest and most replayable limited formats ever made. But those are rather tournament-oriented things, was it bad for casual players? Oh, definitely not. Between the legendary Dragons, Kiki-Jiki, and a dozen more fun, splashy legends, Kamigawa block is what made EDH as we know it possible.[1]

[1] Not that I care.

So why was it badly received? There’s a few reasons. The biggest of them is probably the setting. It was their first attempt at a top-down block, with everything in it inspired by Japanese mythology, which was… rather ambitious. Not because it was necessarily more difficult to do than a block designed top-down around anything else, but because the game’s core audience (white Americans) just wasn’t familiar with the source material. I’m certainly not.[2] There’s no way for these people to judge whether or not Kamigawa accomplished its goal of emulating that mythology, unlike with gothic horror or Greek mythology, things much closer to American cultural canon.

[2] I’d love to read about Kamigawa’s treatment of Japanese mythology from an expert on the subject (mythology).

It’s also rather difficult to appreciate a downturn in power level in the moment. Yes, people acknowledged that Mirrodin was too powerful, but when building decks for Mirrodin-Kamigawa, it’s pretty painful to build around cards almost entirely from the last block (like Tooth and Nail, which became dominant in the wake of Affinity). The cards that did end up being powerful from Kamigawa were mostly more subtle than the ones from Mirrodin. It’s not easy to distinguish, when a set comes out, between none of the cards being any good, and them just needing exploration and experimentation before finding out what makes them playable.

The biggest mechanical failing of Kamigawa block was that its major components were either essentially limited-only (splice onto arcane; spiritcraft; bushido) or very difficult to build around (Legendary creatures). The latter, especially, is something that inspires half a dozen different decks, most of which end up being bad, rather than one linear deck.

Sure, it’s a bit overwhelming to look at a new large set and not find any obvious constructed mechanics to throw together into a linear deck (like Threshold, Madness, tribal, Affinity, etc), but having so many different cards to build around leads to a richer experience overall. This is especially true for people that like creating new decks, and innovating on previous ones: there are seemingly endless ways to build around Heartbeat of Spring, Kiki-Jiki, or Gifts Ungiven.[3]

[3] While my praise is dedicated toward Kamigawa in Standard, Kamigawa block constructed was less about innovation and more about playing Gifts Ungiven mirrors over and over. As Ted Knutson noted, that deck ended up more dominant in its block than pre-ban Affinity was in Mirrodin. Eugh.

Not finding a way to make Splice more relevant for constructed was, well, bad. It was a marquee mechanic of the block, and restricting it to only a subset of spells (that were arbitrarily arcane in a block with both arcane and non-arcane spells, with no mechanical difference between the two) meant that it was next to useless as something to build around. And it went on a lot of cards for how not-good it was. The most splicing I can remember people doing in constructed was in Mind’s Desire, which would splice Desperate Ritual onto other copies of Desperate Ritual.

I didn’t draft much of Kamigawa block, so most of my knowledge about it is second-hand information. I do know, though, that it was considered to have fairly balanced archetypes, skill-intensive gameplay, and cards that changed drastically in evaluation from someone’s first draft to their hundredth. It also revolutionized the way draft environments are made.

What are the most important cards ever printed in Magic? Cards from Alpha are obvious. There’s Force of Will and Brainstorm, if you’re a Legacy or control player. Necropotence was the best card for a few years. Survival of the Fittest and Oath of Druids defined different Standard, Extended, Legacy, and Vintage archetypes for ages until their rotations or bannings. The Elder Dragons lent their name to the most popular casual format. But those are all specific to constructed formats. What are the most important limited cards?
No, I don’t mean absurd bombs. Important limited cards. People that played back then will see where I’m going with this: Dampen Thought is one of the most influential Magic cards ever. The “Dampen Thought deck” became a phrase associated with a specific kind of drafting.[4]

[4] For that article, keep in mind that Tom Reeve actually can use punctuation, but StarCityGames kindly removes all the commas to make reading it faster.

These decks are more than just taking the best cards in whatever colors happen to be open. They are about constructing an archetype, based on what cards you know have to be in the packs before you even sit down to the table, then drafting around that. They are about assuming everyone else will take something “normal,” then veering completely outside of the standard drafting spectrum to the point where you could sit next to someone in the same colors as you and not even notice.

This changes drafting immensely. It frees us from pick orders, from traditional signals, from ideas of what a “bomb” is. But even more than that, it changes how draft environments are created in the first place. Modern limited formats (the good ones, at least) are as much about these archetypes as they are about colors’ relative strengths. It started with just one card, whose inclusion as a build-around uncommon might even have been an accident,[5] and after this, build-around cards aren’t just for constructed any more. Beyond cards like Furnace Celebration, entire environments can be planned around these archetypes; Rise of the Eldrazi and Innistrad come to mind, and it’s no coincidence that those are touted as the best draft formats ever made. All of that can be traced back to Dampen Thought.

[5] The importance of Dampen Thought is completely unrelated to the authorial intent of whether it was supposed to be an important limited card. I don’t think it matters.

Yes, there were predecessors, like Lightning Rift incentivizing going all-in on cycling cards. But those are rather straightforward, “draft a lot of this mechanic” type things (and in Rift’s case, was a constructed build-around as well). Part of Dampen Thought’s importance was how hidden it was. No one looked at it the day of release and thought, “yeah, I’ll try this out in a draft.” The fact that it took months before a group of people started experimenting with the archetype adds new depth to a format that can feel stale after that long. It’s like finding a hidden track on your favorite album, except that hidden track happens to be better than any other song on it.

Kamigawa block was full of this diamond-in-the-rough type discovery. The set’s release led to long debates about how good The Terrible Trinket would end up being.[6] Even Umezawa’s Jitte, the card that was seemingly everpresent in Standard for its entire legality, first entered the Magical conversation not as the next Constructed pillar, but the dumb rare that everyone was losing to at the prerelease. It was a while before people thought that if it was so unbeatable in the creature combat-focused world of limited, maybe it had a place in Constructed.

[6] After making you all read about Dampen Thought, now you get to read even more about Sensei’s Divining Top.

I’m sure you have a favorite card. My favorite card is Llanowar Elves, because it’s like a Forest, except that it’s an Elf. You might even have a least-favorite card, something you feel is overpowered, unfun, or the Dimir Machinations you lost $20 to despite how bad it is. As you might imagine, since I literally get paid to have opinions about Magic: the Gathering, I have several least-favorite cards. I’m not sure the order of least-favorite cards #s two through 100, but my #1 least-favorite card, without a doubt, is Sensei’s Divining Top.

This piece of shit has eaten up more time spent “playing” Magic than most entire sets added together. You cannot do anything when your opponent has a Top in play. I don’t mean, “nothing you do will be effective,” because it will. It will be exactly the same as it would have been without a Top. The difference is that your opponent has to tank for 30 seconds before telling you that your spell resolves. Then they shuffle their library and activate it again. Another 30 seconds.

Every goddamned turn.

I am fine with library manipulation being good. I like it when highly skilled players get the opportunity to see more cards in their decks, because they get tested on more decisions, and get to plan things several turns in advance. I love that there’s enough play in Brainstorm that AJ Sacher can write an entire article about casting it (and end up with one of the best articles ever written about Magic, and the single article that changed more of my play decisions with than any other). What I cannot stand is this sort of low-impact busywork that will end up irrelevant because they just shuffle their library every turn anyway.

If I am sitting down to play Magic, there is absolutely no reason that a single card should take more time than all of my actions put together, and that this is somehow allowable by both the rules of Magic and the Geneva Conventions.

I am glad it is banned in Modern, and I was overjoyed it was banned in old Extended, one of my all-time favorite formats. However, this does not go far enough. It should be banned from Legacy, Vintage, EDH, grab bag draft, pack wars, and people literally playing no format whatsoever. It is a card so offensively boring it needs to be removed from Magic.

Due to my personality and style of writing, I have often been accused of hating many things I do not, such as Wizards of the Coast, fun, and having sex. Those things can be alright. What I do genuinely, physically, brutally hate is Sensei’s Divining Top. May it burn in hell.

A Rosewater axiom is that if your theme isn’t at common, it isn’t your theme. He uses Kamigawa as an example of a block that did this wrong: Kamigawa’s theme was ‘legendary,’ and there were no common legends. Therefore, Kamigawa did it badly. This is based on a flawed premise with regard to the block. Kamigawa’s theme was Japanese mythology, just like Theros’s was Greek; its push for legends was no more mistaken than Theros’s emphasis on the gods. That every single rare creature was a legend was just a way of making the world of Kamigawa seem inhabited, and an excuse to make every rare unique and capable of standing on its own. There are definitely some micro-level things to find fault with, but the overall coolness of the legendary creatures is not one of them. Was it wrong to push legends as an aspect of the block, and then support this with other cards that reference the supertype? No, absolutely not. Memorable legends were a key part of pushing the feeling of Japanese mythology.

The previous discussions haven’t divided up the block too much. Partly, this is because as far as the legendary creatures, they’re almost all interchangeable. With the exception of a couple mechanics, any legend in one set could go in one of the other two. Betrayers, as a whole, acted as a Champions expansion pack rather than pushing it in new directions. The one exception, ninjas and their ninjitsu mechanic, were something obviously sandbagged from Champions to give the second set something to do. This mechanic is small and extremely narrowly defined, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It gave ninjas a unique flavor identity, and it plays out well. Getting to reuse comes-into-play creatures was especially cool. I can only remember ever putting into play Ninja of the Deep Hours, but the others seem reasonable.

So that’s my Betrayers review: it was more Champions, with one cool new thing, and Champions was pretty cool. Breathtaking journalism right here. Then there was Saviors.

I’m not sure where I rank Saviors: is it the worst-designed set with a modern frame, or is Avacyn Restored worse? It’s very close. Saviors probably has a worse mechanical identity, overall. Because Betrayers had already done the “more of the same” bit, Saviors had to do something unique in the block. It chose… a “hand size matters” theme! Why? Who knows!

This is the one comparison to Masques block that I feel is appropriate. Emphasizing having more cards in hand than an opponent is reminiscent of Prophecy’s decision to focus on whether lands are tapped, and the card quality wasn’t all that far off, either. Basically, it wanted you to play one card, then not any others, so that your one card in play would be better. If you play too much stuff, you can return it to your hand. When both players are using cards from Saviors (which seems like a rather obvious thing to happen), half of the cards are going to be wildly ineffective because that player does not have more cards in hand.

I connect it to Masques block because this, too, puts an emphasis on not playing one’s spells. Yes, players like drawing cards. I like drawing cards. Why? Because I get to play the cards I draw, therefore doing more stuff. Putting the emphasis on having the cards, rather than playing them, misses the point entirely. It’s like assuming the good part of being rich is being able to swim around in your money like Scrooge McDuck, not because it lets you buy more things.

One of the ability words in Saviors,[7] ‘Sweep,’ emphasizes this theme. It lets you return lands to your hand for some effect, and then your cards that care about hand size turn on. However, when you return lands to your hand, you… can’t tap them for mana to play spells. The only positive aspects of Sweep: it appeared on only four cards; the game usually ended immediately when someone used it; and it seems to be flavorfully inspired by the action of scooping up all one’s lands to concede. Epic, a mechanic created for use only on one cycle, takes the “not casting spells” idea a bit further: you are literally not allowed to play more spells. Fun games.[8]

[7] Saviors was the set that introduced ability words: italicized text with no rules meaning, intended to let people more easily group cards together with the same mechanic. I’m certainly in favor of it; I’m sure that I’ve unintentionally forgotten to cover certain non-keyworded pre-ability word mechanics in these reviews because I forgot the mechanic was in the set. (Retroactively, Threshold was made into an ability word, but it did have rules meaning at the time.)

[8] Okay, Enduring Ideal was a cool deck, at least in theory.

Saviors, as with so many other third sets, is a victim of not having any space left to play around in without doing something completely different. In this way, it’s more a victim of the block format, rather than anything truly bad on its own. Its decision to focus on hand size, though, in a block that was previously united only by Spirits, Legends, and Japanese influence… there’s no letting it off the hook for that. Even for a third set forced to do its own thing, this was a terrible thing to do.

One thing that doesn’t get as much appreciation as it should is the outright weirdness of some parts of Kamigawa block. Namely: the appearance of the Spirits. These guys are almost all terrifyingly freaky, and I love it. They have the uniting feature of being semi-ethereal, with floating things all around them, but the artists really seem allowed to go nuts with making them seem otherworldly. This was back when Rebecca Guay was allowed to make Magic art, and Hana Kami is a perfect marriage of her watercolor style with material that’s actually a bit disturbing upon closer inspection. Look at the pretty face in the flower that’s vomiting petals while it’s surrounded by flower-jellyfish. That’s an uncommon 1/1 for 1, and an important Constructed card in the block’s best deck.

Much like early-to-mid 70s musicians without much sonically uniting them got lumped under “proto-punk” once punk had entered the critical lexicon, Kamigawa was disliked at the time, but important in the lens of what it influenced. It was a top-down block, emphasizing big cool legends and resonant cards, years before Magic would make these things common. It revolutionized what draft archetypes were, years before sets dedicated their limited play to that. It told artists to get as weird and out-there as possible, before… okay, this was something that hasn’t stuck with us at all.

Sure, Saviors was awful, but the rest of Kamigawa block deserves your respect, through a historical lens if nothing else. Next week, Ravnica brings us into the greatest creative era in Magic’s history.

Oh, but one final note: the most important thing Kamigawa did was making a ton of cards that sounded like euphemisms for jerking off.[9]

[9] How about that Dampen Thought now? Hand of Cruelty. Pain’s Reward. Yeah, go unleash that Captive Flame.

Fiddlehead Kami.



Unknown said...

I found the "Finding the Dampen Deck" featuring commas!

Anonymous said...

"It’s like finding a hidden track on your favorite album, except that hidden track happens to be better than any other song on it."

So then Broken by Nine Inch Nails?

Mike said...

I don't think you quite appreciate how bad Champions was for casual play. All of the mechanics in Champions were parasitic (barring Legendary "tribal", which wasn't much of a mechanic if you only opened a couple of packs), so you can't just take some Champions cards, put them in your existing casual decks, and have them do something. The soulshift mechanic led to a lot of horrible-looking creatures (i.e. why does my 4/4 cost 7?) that, again, didn't do much unless you had a bunch of Kamigawa cards. Couple those problems with the bizarre flavor and wordy rules text, and you have yourself a bad set.

Mike said...

Vital Surge. Unchecked Growth. Hand of Cruelty. Stir the Graves. Sowing Salt. Rushing-Tide Zubera. Pithing Needle. Rend Flesh. Blood Rites. Hanabi Blast. Time of Need.


Joyous Respite.

This is too easy.

Unknown said...

From what I understand, it's not that Rebecca Guay has been banished from doing art for Magic, it's just that she's way too busy with her successful fine art gallery career.

thom said...

Give Saviours hand size mechanic some credit. In a set full of Legends you are going to be stuck with cards you cannot cast because you already have one in play. (not that it wasn't terrible)

Erik Bear said...

For a block with kind of a confused story, Kamigawa has some little flavor design notes that I like. For instance, Kumano and his crew are said to have the secret to defeating the kami. That secret? When they deal damage to things, they exile them. You know, so they can't soulshift back in. It's cute.

Unknown said...

thorn: Saviors hand-size matters cards were only played in limited, as far as I can recall. It was pretty rare even to have two copies of a single legend in limited.

Ben K said...
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Ben K said...
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Narf said...

This Ben guy sure does make an interesting claim about the Kami of the Crescent Moon not mattering, given he's literally the actual villain of the entire block plotwise. But I'll forgive him, since he clearly just wants to make a big deal about how bad the sets are by putting other people's words on the table the moment anyone disagrees with the Opinion As It Stands and acting as though it counts as meaningful criticism.

bansal tirkey said...
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