Hello everyone, and welcome back to Magical Creatures. In this series, I'm analyzing every creature type that's unique to Magic: The Gathering. The last installment dealt with three subtypes from the Mirrodin block: Vedalken, Blinkmoth, and Bringer. And the first piece of this series, in case you missed it, was about setting the criteria to consider when choosing what creatures to discuss. Uniqueness is key, but as you'll see in today's piece, I'm still not about to miss a chance to delve deeper in Magic's lore!
Last week, we finished our double feature on the Mirrodin block. It introduced six creature types unique to Magic, and thus I had to split it into two parts. What now? Today is time to change block again, and move to Kamigawa! Before discussing the new creatures in more detail, let's take a look at this infamous block.
An Ill-Famed Block
If you played back in the days, you may recall the bad reputation of the Kamigawa block. Born between 2004 and 2005, it was the tenth block in the history of Magic, and possibly the least popular. Many players reportedly quit the game for good! How come? The fact is that Champions of Kamigawa (as well as its two expansions Betrayers and Saviors) was considered a failure both regarding its power level and its design.
In terms of power level, there's not much to be said. The Mirrodin block was so packed with overpowered cards that it would have been hard (not to mention reckless) to match. The following block, Ravnica, went back to powerful spells, leaving the block in between a bit overshadowed. And the design? This is where personal taste really starts affecting one's judgment. If you ask me, I didn't hate Kamigawa at all. On the contrary, I liked it better than Ravnica, and considered it close to Mirrodin! Maybe the books by Scott McGough had an influence, but still. As you'll see from the gallery below, however, Kamigawa too contributed some very powerful cards to this game.
A Dive into Japanese Folklore
Kamigawa's focus on Japanese mythology makes it the block most connected to a certain culture since Arabian Nights, and for a long time, it was the only block to be set on the plane of Kamigawa. That is, until the release of Kamigawa: Neon Dinasty in February 2022. The premise behind this block is a typical "what if:" what if the boundary separating the physical world and the world of the kami (or spirits) collapsed? In a setting which is very similar to feudal Japan, of course.
The first consequence of this premise is the kind of creatures to see print. If you look at the creature types used in these expansion sets, it doesn't even look that weird. The five new subtypes were Advisor, Monk, Moonfolk, Samurai, and Zubera. Of these, only Zubera sounds funny, but the rest is easily understandable. Advisor, Monk and Samurai are just classes, not even races. As for Moonfolk, it's a generic term for any people who live on or come from the Moon, right?
If you look at the other creature types, those that were used in this block but had also appeared in previous sets, things look even more normal. You find all the typical creatures, such as Demon, Goblin, Ogre, Rat, Snake, and so on and so forth. So where is the novelty? The Japanese culture?
A Shift in Creature Representation
The fact is that even though a given creature might has the subtype Goblin, the illustration actually shows an Akki. And if another creature has the subtype Snake, the art depicts an Orochi. The same goes with Fox (Kitsune), Rat (Nezumi), and so on. As far as I'm concerned, this was a brilliant move to achieve two goals. First, to (mostly) keep the regular creature types, so as to maintain interactions and tribal synergies with creatures from other blocks. Second, to nonetheless produce a complex pool of cards that looked different. Any card from that block is immediately recognizable from its art, and yet can still smoothly merge with other cards. What more could you want?
Now, since this series focuses on creatures unique to Magic, we'll have to leave things there regarding Nezumi, Orochi, and the like. In fact, most of them are not technically new to the fantasy world, but rather come directly from the Japanese folklore. If we really want to be strict, the only subtype that belongs to our series is Zubera (although it's coming from a Japanese concept, too).
However, I'm willing to include Moonfolk as well. The reason is that even though most cultures have at least some legends about people living on the moon, this is the only one that gained a new subtype for Magic. While Kitsune, Nezumi, Akki, and Orochi were respectively considered foxes, rats, goblins and snakes, Soratami received a brand new creature type. So, without further ado...
As I had anticipated at the end of last week's piece, we were going to see another blue creature, a sort of cousin to Merfolk and Vedalken. Enter the Soratami, a mysterious race of flying, humanoid beings that live in the clouds. Their slim bodies, gray-blue skin, and strong blue alignment all bear a resemblance to the Vedalken. Which doesn't really makes any sense, since they are actually very different races. The only other feature they share is the interest towards magical arts, and the high proportion of Wizards when it comes to their class.
One last thing about their appearance: since the Japanese traditionally see a rabbit's profile on the Moon, Soratami were designed with a very special feature. In case you didn't notice, most of them have long, dangling ears hanging down from their heads. Which means they could have been made Rabbits, if only such creature type was supported in Magic!
25 cards exist with this subtype, and they all come from the same plane. Over a half of them come from the original Kamigawa block, with the rest added in Neon Dynasty. What about their mechanics? The most widespread ability, at least in the original Kamigawa block, is one that requires you to spend some generic mana and return lands to your hand in order to trigger an effect. Even rare creatures, such as Uyo, Silent Prophet and Meloku the Clouded Mirror, share the same activated ability. And most of them fly, too, which makes sense since they dwell on a "palace in the clouds."
Another interesting thing to note is that we even have a Moonfolk planeswalker! Who would have guessed, back in 2004? Planeswalker had yet to be introduced as a card type; that only happened with the Lorwyn block, three years later. Today, however, we have no less than four different cards, all referring to Tamiyo. And you can immediately tell she's a Soratami, although being a Planeswalker, none of these cards bear the Moonfolk creature type.
Zubera and Kamigawa's Limited
The other subtype I wanted to discuss in today's piece is Zubera. And, as anticipated, it's the only creature type that really belongs to this series. So, why did I hint that it also borrowed something from Japanese culture? Well, its name comes from the term "zuberabo," meaning "smooth-face," and thus "faceless." There are many legends in Japan concerning this creature, and they always end badly for those who have the misfortune of crossing their path.
Apart from their origin, what are Zubera creatures in Magic? They are described as the "faceless kami of a human who has been pulled into the spirit world". So, they are basically spirits. And that's why every Zubera ever printed (which is not that many) also bears the subtype Spirit. But there's a reason linked to the game, too. According to Aaron Forsythe, the creative team took this decision "so that they could key off of type when they died."
In fact, the ability shared by the first five Zubera creatures was a triggered ability: when this creature dies, you do something for each Zubera that died this turn. This could be gaining life, drawing cards, making your opponent discard cards, and so on. The typical actions you would expect from each color, right?
And they don't look that powerful... unless you could find a way to trigger them all at the same time! Devouring Rage and Devouring Greed, perhaps? Even if not, they are much scarier than one would think, at least in Limited formats. And this is why they were a thing in Kamigawa drafts!
A Crossover from Japanese Culture into Magic Lore
The most important trend we saw today is doubtless the unique and ambitious project to transpose elements of the Japanese folklore to Magic. While maintaining the old, reassuring, and (game-wise) more coherent creature types, Kamigawa also folded a whole new universe into the game. It did so through names, flavor text, and illustrations. In my opinion, it was a masterpiece of a crossover.
What do you think? Are you a supporter of this plane, or did it leave you indifferent? Were you playing at the time of the first Kamigawa block, or maybe only when Neon Dynasty was released? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!