Champions of Kamigawa: Kami Reborn Review (Part 1 of 2)
It’s an integral component of Magic’s long-term success and longevity that while we nominally all play the same game- Magic: the Gathering- we are all actually playing a number of different, albeit similar ones.
Standard Constructed play is quite a bit different from Legacy or Vintage. All of these in turn are leagues apart from Limited and Preconstructed. Then there’s Cube (which resembles Limited in the way that Standard resembles Legacy), Commander, Planechase, Horde Magic, Five-Colour Stairwell, and variations upon variations without number. And of course we cannot forget the “formatless format” of sitting around the kitchen table with some mates and some decks. All of these have their part to play in making Magic the game we recognise. Some players play many of these types of Magic, others just a few, but in a sense they are a all part of a greater whole, a symbiotic community.
Like any organic body, however, it is susceptible to times of illness as well as health, when things aren’t working as they should be and consequences arise. Depending on their popularity, the well-being of the formats above have a direct impact on the health of the game as a whole, and by the end of 2004 the Standard environment was very sick. There was an exodus of players quitting the game in a rate never seen before or since, and the population hemorrhage would take years to recover from. This was no general disorder or unknown ailment; rather, it was one that had a name.
Widely held as one of the most broken Standard formats in the history of the game, Ravager Affinity was everywhere and it was almost unbeatable. Standard devolved into that deck and decks highly tuned to beat it, and even those had a tendency of coming up short. Competitive Magic was in as sorry a state as it had ever been. And then, following that leap over the precipice came a new type of Magic set, one that echoed all the way back to the game’s first-ever expansion set and in an ironic twist represented its own symbiosis-in-disorder theme.
Champions of Kamigawa burst onto the scene amidst the ruins of Standard, and rightly or wrongly has been criticised for bringing with it a weakening of the environment’s power level. But then, Champions was a very different Magic set. For one thing, it broke the routine that Magic had at the time. “Beginning with the Invasion block,” wrote Mark Rosewater in introducing the set, “the Magic design teams started using themes as a tool to build sets around. While the themes varied from year to year, they pretty much had a similar approach. Pick some mechanical aspect of the game and then make the chosen aspect matter.” This had started to feel a little formulaic for the game’s designers, so instead they looked to shatter the mould entirely and do something completely different.
Arabian Nights was released in December of 1993, and was Magic’s first expansion. It took a real-world mythology which gave it its namesake, and made a series of cards that drew on the tropes, themes, and images of the source work, One Thousand and One Nights. Some were even based on actual figures of legend, such as Sindbad, Ali Baba, and Shahrazad. Aside from the odd anomaly (Frankenstein’s Monster). While this would be repeated for 1999’s Portal: Three Kingdoms, it would be another five years before a similar approach was taken with a mainstream Magic set, and this time it would be to feudal Japan.
Champions of Kamigawa envisions a world in harmony, where the inhabitants venerate the kami- lesser deities or spirits- and find peace and happiness in following their ways. Then, abruptly, the mortal world finds that it has provoked the wrath of the spirit world, which materialises and soon begins to make war upon their onetime supplicants- the Humans and Moonfolk as well as the animalistic peoples such as the foxlike Kitsune, snakelike Orochi, and ratlike Nezumi. Fitting, then, that we have selected as our opening deck the Black/Green Kami Reborn. The set’s only multicolour deck, it relies upon two principal mechanics to convey the flavour of the kami.
The first of these is soulshift. Even when a kami is ‘killed,’ being a spirit it is not necessarily dead forever. Rather, they can be returned from the graveyard with the death of another, for what is life but a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth? Spirits with soulshift can pull another Spirit back to your hand once it’s placed in the graveyard, though it must have a converted mana cost equal to or lesser than the Spirit’s soulshift value. The second mechanic is Arcane magic, representing the different form of power wielded by the Spirit world. Some cards will have the splice onto arcane ability, which lets you cast them without losing the card from your hand whenever you cast an arcane spell, giving you the potential for some recurring card advantage.
And then of course, there are the Spirits themselves.
Curses Spat Upon Humankind
True to its flavour-filled form, the Champions of Kamigawa decks are filled with tribal goodness, and Kami Reborn is no exception. Indeed, it might well be one of the most comprehensively tribal decks around given that every last one of its twenty-three creatures is a Spirit. The deck is set up to take full advantage of the new soulshift mechanic, a Spirit-centric ability which allows dying Spirits to return ones already in the graveyard to your hand. Kamigawa’s mechanics have been widely held up as examples of excessive parasitism, a term which in R&D-speak means that it requires you to play with other cards like it for it to be effective. That charge is certainly not without merit, though in the realm of the preconstructed it certainly is little problem.
As shown above, the deck has a fairly balanced mana curve up until the five-and-up-drops, which has been packed to excess. At the start of the curve is the humble Hana Kami, a 1/1 Spirit that you can sacrifice to return an Arcane card from your graveyard to hand. Remember, this deck has a lot of ways to get Spirits back to hand from the graveyard, so self-sacrificing effects aren’t the drawback they usually are here.
Next we have two pairs of Zubera, the Dripping-Tongue and the Ashen-Skin. Zubera have a death-trigger ability that compounds with each Zubera which has already gone to the graveyard in a given turn. The Dripping-Tongue Zubera’s ability is a bit weak- a simple 1/1 Spirit creature token- but the Ashen-Skin’s can wipe out an opponent’s hand if you time it right. Also checking in here is the Soilshaper, which gives your extra land a sense of mission and purpose with every Arcane or Spirit card you play.
In the three-drops we find a Kami of the Hunt, a 2/2 which gets a temporary power/toughness boost whenever you cast an Arcane or Spirit card- like the Soilshaper, there’s a ton of synergy here. The Thief of Hope, on the other hand, has the same trigger, but syphons a life off your opponent instead. Cards like this give you some reach across the board without ever having to enter the red zone, just the ticket for finishing off a wounded opponent when the red zone is congested or you have no profitable attack. In addition, the Thief has soulshift 2 so even its loss will result in some gain.
Next up the ladder we find another pair of pairs in the Burr Grafter and Gibbering Kami. The Grafter is a combat-trick-on-a-stick, which does lose some element of surprise (your opponent obviously will see it coming), but trades this off for the ability to be an attacking body. With its soulshift 3, you’re often not even losing a card for the privilege. The Gibbering Kami is a simple 2/2 flyer, but also has soulshift 3. If you’ve noticed that the soulshift value tends to be one less than the creature’s casting cost, you’re quite right.
Bloating the top of the deck’s mana curve are an assortment of expensive cards that don’t necessarily fill the closer’s role. For example, the Venerable Kumo costs five mana for a 2/3 body with reach. Much of what you’re paying for there is the soulshift 4. The Scuttling Death can be popped to give a creature -1/-1 until end of turn, another very useful death trigger attached to a soulshifting body. The Kami of Lunacy is a glass cannon of a card, a 4/1 flyer that will trade down to anything that can block it. Still, the soulshift 5 will help compensate you for any loss.
Finally, one of the deck’s rare cards appears herei n the form of the legendary Iname, Death Aspect. Iname has a very unusual enters-the-battlefield ability which lets you dump any number of spirit cards directly from your library to the graveyard. This gives you the option of turning your deck into a toolbox of sorts, stocking it so that most anything that you lose which has soulshift brings the right card back to your hand at the right time. It’s not without risk- throw too many away, and it might be some time before you draw another beater. Still, the deck’s recycling theme should keep you reasonably well-stocked.
The Sorrow of All
The noncreature complement of Kami Reborn offers more than the usual variety of support spells. Sure, you have the obligatory pump spells (Kodama’s Might) and requisite mana ramping (Kodama’s Reach) as you might expect in a Green creatutre-heavy deck. And of course you have a solid contingent of Black removal with a pair each of Pull Under (which compares poorly to the modern Dismember) and Swallowing Plague. But with the basics out of the way, here’s where things get interesting.
One of the cycles of cards in Champions is the Honden, legendary enchantments with the Shrine subtype made to represent a particular recurring ability for each Shrine you have in play. The Honden of Life’s Web, for instance, gives you a 1/1 Spirit token for each Shrine you have in play, while the Honden of Night’s Reach forces your opponent to discard a card. As you have one of each, getting both will double your benefit, packing your army with Spirit tokens and making sure your opponent quickly is unable to keep a card longer than the turn in which they drew it.
Then there’s Devouring Greed, a finishing spell if ever there was one. While it requires the sacrifice of Spirits to fuel it (making a great use for those 1/1 tokens you’ve been accumulating with the Honden or Dripping-Tongue Zubera), it can pack a wallop and win a game out of nowhere. The sacrifice is an additional cost, so watch out for countermagic lest your sacrifices all be in vain. Another finishing move of a different sort appears with the Dance of Shadows, which gives all your creatures a slight pwoer bump along with fear. If you’re not playing against an opponent who is sharing your colour(s) or leaning on artifact creatures, this can set up a brutal alpha strike to close out a game with an unblockable attack.
Finally, the deck’s other rare appears as a Long-Forgotten Gohei. The perfect trinket for this sort of deck, it makes all of your Arcane spells cheaper to play- and every instant or sorcery in Kami Reborn carries that distinction. it also gives a very welcome +1/+1 boost to all your creatures.
In short, Kami Reborn is a tightly-synergistic Spirit tribal deck with a solid Arcane subtheme, which work hand-in-glove in this Green’Black construction. It looks great on paper, but to get a full appreciation of how it actually works we’ll need to test it in the field- especially that troubling mana curve. Join us next time when we return with our playtesting results and see if it lived up to its promise.