Magic History: Champions of Kamigawa

Magic Untapped takes a look back at the set Champions of Kamigawa.

Wizards of the Coast's popular and long-standing collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering, has been out since 1993.  That stated, it's nice to look back at older sets to reminisce and see just how much the game has changed over the years.

In this video, we look back at Champions of Kamigawa, the initial set found in Magic: The Gathering's original Kamigawa block.

Check it out:

Video Transcript:

Released in October of 2004, Champions of Kamigawa is the 33rd expansion in Magic: The Gathering history.  With it comes a wholly new storyline inspired by one of the more popular legendary creatures from the set Legends, Tetsuo Umezama, and, as could be suggested by the Umezama name, takes place on the feudal Japan-themed plane of Kamigawa.

The set also introduces new creature types and makes changes to how the game treats “Legendary” cards.

There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes and insider talk to take in with this set, and we’ll get to that in just a bit.  First, let’s we run through a summary of the story, the full version of which can be found in the Scott McGough novel, Outlaw: Champions of Kamigawa.

The story begins with the kitsune, Lady Pear-Ear, delivering the daughter of Konda, the land’s daimyo.  The birth a healthy one, she goes to tell her lord the news.

She finds him in company of Takeno, his general, Hisoka, headmaster of the Minamo Academy, and Meloku, a Soratami ambassador.  The group is huddled around a floating rock that looks like a dragon curled in upon itself.  Kondo tells the others the item is the way to “secure the future.”

Twenty years later, the world of Kamigawa has changed quite a bit since that fateful day, ravaged by kami attacks from the spirit world.  Toshiru Umezawa, a disgraced samurai known as an ochimusha, stumbles upon a group of Soratami in the process of making an underhanded deal with Marrow-Gnawer and his gang of Nezumi.  Once his presence is known to them, he manages to make his escape.

The Soratami, however, track him to his home to slay him for what he had just witnessed.  Again he makes his escape, but sees in some fallen bamboo as he flees the kanji for “moon,” “iceberg,” “unstoppable,” and “disaster.”  Wanting answers for this sight, he ventures to the Sokenzan Mountains to seek council with Hidetsugu, an ogre shaman with whom he shares a Hyozan blood pact.

Once he arrives, he finds the shaman is already in the company of the Brothers Yamazaki, who are in the employment of the bandit warlord, Godo, and Ben-Ben, who represents the goblin tribes known as the Akki.  While the two factions are typically at odds over territory, they are surprisingly working together and are asking Hidetsugu for his blessing for their military campaign.

The ogre grants it and, after the two parties depart, informs Toshiru that a water kami attacked him in search of the ochimusha.  He makes his apprentice, the Budokan monk Kobo, join their pact and sends them into the Jukai Forest to find allies among the local Budoka.  In the meantime, Hidetsugu will gather a number of kami-killers so that they may jointly move against the Soratami and the blue-aligned Kamis which, for one reason or another, are against them.

Almost immediately after their departure from Hidetsugu, Toshiru and Kobo happen upon Ben-Ben and the Yamazaki twins.  After they left the ogre, they had stopped to summon their god, the Myojin of Infinite Rage, for his blessing.  The ritual accidentally interrupted by the pair, the Myojin summons forth a trio of kami to attack them as penalty.  Toshiru and Kobo manage to fight the spirits off and find their way out of the fray to continue their journey.

Meanwhile, princess Michiko, now a 20 year old maiden of the kingdom, has come to the decision that she must do something to end the long-standing war with the kami.  Her close friend, Choryu, convinces her that a solution might be found in the libraries of the Minamo Academy.

As they go to leave, they are confronted by the kitsune Sharp-Ear, brother of Pearl-Ear, who attempts to stop them from departing.  Choryu, gifted in water magic, traps him in a block of unmoving water.  By the time the kitsune manages to free himself, the pair, along with their friend Riko, have already left.

Now in pursuit, Sharp-Ear uses magical trickery to lead the trio to his kitsune village where he and his sister, who had raised Michiko after the death of her mother, reside.  The village, however, doesn’t wind up being the safe haven it should have been thanks to an armi of Akki converging upon it.

The kitsune performing a divination ritual and are shown a mass of snakes.  This gets interpreted as instructions for and her group to venture deep into the Jukai Forest to find the Orochi, a civilization of snake people, who reside there.

About this time, an army headed by Captain Nagao arrives from the capitol in search of the missing princess.  Citing the Akki threat, the troops agree to defend the kitsune village as doing so would also protect the princess.  Unfortunately, things don’t go all too well.

The Akki hordes attack and quickly overwhelm the village and the Eiganjo army.  Sharp-Ear manages to shoot one of the Yamazaki twins through the neck, but Nagao is killed in battle as the raiding forces prove too much to handle.  The surviving villagers flee into the forest with Sharp-Ear and Pearl-Ear deciding to take Michiko and her companions to the Orochi themselves.

Shortly thereafter, Michiko’s group crosses paths with Toshi and Kobo.  An argument erupts, but it is short lived as both groups are ambushed and drugged by the Orochi.

Toshiru is the first to awaken, his Hyozan tattoo burning as a sign that one of his blood brothers has been slain.  And shortly after his rousing, the ochimusha finds his companion’s body strung up in the trees, apparently drowned.  He immediately suspects the water mage, Choryu, as a suspect seeing as he was the only in the two parties who avoided capture by the Orochi.

Speaking of the snake people, they and their god, the Myojin of Life’s Web, have plans to slay Michiko, believing that her death would bring about the end of the kami war.  Toshiru, playing the role of hero, kidnaps her and they flee to an easily-defendable cave.

Back at the capitol, Michiko’s father, the daimyo Konda, has a vision of her location.  He sends out mounted soldiers after her.  It seems it was the idea of the Minamo Headmaster, Hisoka, for Choryu to lure Michiko to the Academy, much against the wishes of his Soratami overlords.

Meanwhile at the Orochi village, the princess’ friends, Choryu and Riko, make their escape, following Toshiru’s trail.  The Orochi follow.

Back in the cave, Toshiru and Michiko receive a visit from the Kami of the Crescent Moon.  The ever-smiling spirit introduces himself as “Mochi” before explaining that it was he who put the Kanji in the bamboo that prompted the ochimusha to visit Hidetsugu.  This kami, apparently, finds joy in being helpful.

Mochi then tells of the events on the day of the princess’ birth 20 years ago, though from the perspective of the kami.  He tells how her father, Konda, used the sympathetic magics of her birth to tear a hole in the barrier between their worlds and steal a precious item from the most powerful of kami.

After Mochi’s tale had finished, Toshiru commits his services to the princess.

Elsewhere, an impossibly large kami partially materializes on the world and, in one bite, swallows whole the divisions of mounted warriors Konda had dispatched previously.

Despite Toshiru’s distrust of Mochi, the smiling kami continues to assist him and Michiko.  He summons forth the source of the ochimusha’s black magic, the Myojin of Night’s Reach.  Her appearance dispels Toshiru’s distrust and, in exchange for becoming more powerful, becomes her acolyte.

The Orochi, now having reached the cave, find themselves on the wrong side of a battle against a powered-up Toshiru.  Using the princess’ tears to strengthen his kanji magic, the ochimusha makes short work of the snake people, using the power of the “silence” kanji to mute the chanting worshippers who were keeping the Myojin of Life’s Web in the material world.

The Orochi repelled, Toshiru now faced Michiko’s friends, Choryu and Riko.  He announces to the pair that he is now her protector before placing a kanji on the water mage’s forehead, teleporting him directly to Hidetsugu so that the ogre can deal with him personally.  Before Riku and Michiko can react, Toshiru fades from sight and enjoys a moment of silence to himself.

But there’ll be no silence here as, as mentioned earlier, there’s so much more to tell about Champions of Kamigawa beyond just the story.

The set, which utilizes a torii gate as its symbol, made a number of changes to the Magic: The Gathering card game.

Most importantly, it changed how the game handled legendary cards.  With the set, Wizards of the Coast ditched the “Legend” creature type, replacing it with the “Legendary” sub-type.

How legendaries were handled also changed.

Previously, only one Legend-type creature of the same name could be in play at the same time.  If a player already controlled a specific Legend, such as the Tempest card Commander Greven il-Vec, for example, and another Greven il-Vec entered play, the newest one would be immediately put into the graveyard.

Now, with Champions of Kamigawa, when a legendary comes into play, if any other legendary permanents of the same name exist on the battlefield (regardless of that permanent’s controller), they all get sent to the graveyard.  In effect, each legendary permanent now serves two purposes: its original as printed as well as the removal of all instances of that permanent already on the battlefield.  So, now, if you play Greven and one of your opponents already has Greven in play, they both go bye-bye.

This would remain Magic: The Gathering’s “Legends Rule” until the release of Magic 2014 in the summer of 2013.

Champion also introduced the evergreen keyword “Defender,” retroactively applying it to all previously-printed wall creatures.  This was done not just to reduce the rulebook baggage around the wall creature type, but also to cleanly allow wall-like restrictions upon non-wall creatures.

Finally, and this is more of an aesthetic change than anything else, Champions of Kamigawa resumed the practice of using colored mana symbols within a card’s text box.  Beginning with Eighth Edition and on through Fifth Dawn, mana symbols within a card’s text box had been monochrome.

Now, that’s not all that Champions of Kamigawa introduced into the game as the set also brought forth three new keywords, Magic’s first subtype for instant and sorceries, and an entirely new type of card altogether.

The first of these new keyword abilities is “bushido,” which increases a creature’s power and toughness when it combats another creature.
The second is “soulshift,” which appears on Spirit creatures and allows them to return another spirit from the graveyard to its owner’s hand as a death trigger.  

Third is “splice,” which allows the text of a spell onto a spell containing the new “arcane” instant and sorcery subtype with the spliced card staying in its caster’s hand.  And while splice and arcane worked rather well in a vacuum, things weren’t so peachy once Champions of Kamigawa entered into the greater world of MTG.

<DTW CHK2 6:54 “We ended up making arcane…but this set.>

Champions of Kamigawa also introduced flip cards, which have a special card frame with the top and bottom halves of the card having text boxes and the artwork in the middle.  As for which half of the card is the active half, it’s all up to which text box is right-side up.  And, once a certain requirement was met, the card would then be rotated 180 degrees, flipping it into a completely different card.  Like with arcane and splice, flip cards would also ultimately prove problematic, causing Wizards of the Coast to change how they made flipping cards in the future.

<DTW CHK2 13:14-33 “One of the things when…the text box.” 14:06-11 “Flip cards also had…which was which.”>

As far as cycles are concerned, Champions of Kamigawa had a good number of them.  Ten, to be exact.

Probably most noteworthy are the legendary spirit dragons, Yosei the Morning Star, Keiga the Tide Star, Kokusho the Evening Star, Ryusei the Falling Star, and Jugan the Rising Star.  Each of these were six-drop 5/5 flyers with abilities that fired off when they were put into the graveyard and each were fairly powerful in their own rights.  By the way, one of these dragons (Ryusei) was also the set’s prerelease card, complete with alternate artwork.

There is also a cycle of legendary lands that each tapped for a color of mana as well as providing a secondary ability such as, for example, Shinka the Bloodsoaked Keep tapping for red while also having an activated ability that grants a legendary creature the first strike ability until the end of the turn.

Each of the story’s Myojin also get cards – one for each of Magic’s colors – which are indestructible by default, but can lose that indestructibility in exchange for a powerful effect.  Myojin of Night’s Reach, a 5/2 for 5BBB, and can cause each opponent to discard their hands is considered by many to be the best of the bunch.

Then there’s the Hondens, which are Magic: The Gathering’s first legendary enchantments.  Each color got one, but they’re actually all designed to be played together.

<DTW CHK3 21:33-22:00 “But each one…did like them.”>

On the tournament scene, Champions of Kamigawa, (and, indeed, the Kamigawa block as a whole) was not well received.  This was due, in part, to the fact that all rare creatures were legendary, which made some games – especially mirror matchess – less than enjoyable.  The set also had the misfortune of being noticeably powered down compared to the extremely overpowered sets of the Mirrodin block that came before it.

Of course, that didn’t stop 2005 MTG World Champion Katsuhiro Mori from including a number of Champions of Kamigawa cards in his winning deck, which included the likes of Yosai, the Morning Star, Kodama of the North Tree, Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers, and Kodama’s Reach.  He defeated Frank Karsten of The Netherlands, taking home $35,000 in prize money for his efforts.

Of course, the cards that Katushiro used in his deck aren’t the only cards of note from the set

First off, there’s Time Stop, a card that literally ends the turn and for which new game rules had to be written to specify exactly how this would work.  There’s also Glimpse of Nature – eventually banned in Modern, it’s a powerful card-drawing engine that works in conjunction with cheap and zero-cost creatures.

The legendary creature Azusa, Lost but Seeking has, over time, become quite popular in EDH and is also a key inclusion in the powerful modern deck, Amulet Titan.  And Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker (another legendary creature) has become the cornerstone for many combo decks that look to use and abuse enter-the-battlefield effects.

The arcane sorcery Lava Spike is a staple burn spell and is included in nearly every competitive decklist for the archetype and another arcane spell, Kodama’s Reach, sees EDH play in nearly any deck that runs green.

Gifts Ungiven, a card-searching spell inspired by the Tempest card Intuition, proved to be so powerful that it’s banned in everything except for Modern, Legacy, and Vintage.  It also inspired a silver-bordered holiday parody card, by the way.

And then there’s Sensei’s Divining Top – a card that, when it was legal, saw widespread tournament play thanks to its deck stacking and card draw versatility.  It was also a key piece in a combo that featured the Coldsnap card Counterbalance, providing a near-lock thanks to the latter’s top-of-deck spell countering ability, and was an important inclusion in Legacy Miracles decks.  Surprisingly, while the artifact is considered rather powerful, it was banned not due to power level, but due to the drastic slowing effect it tends to have on games.  It was banned in Extended in September of 2008, then in Modern in August of 2011.  Finally, in April of 2017, only six weeks before Grand Prix Las Vegas and its Legacy main event, the card was banned in Legacy – comedically making Grand Prix Las Vegas the format’s first “topless” main event.

So, is Champions of Kamigawa one of your favorite Magic: The Gathering sets?  If so, let us know in the comment section here on YouTube.
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Barry White

Barry White is a longtime Magic: The Gathering player, having started in 1994 shortly before the release of 'Fallen Empires.' After graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno, he went on to a 15-year journalism career as a writer, reporter, and videographer for three different ABC affiliate newsrooms.