Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty sees us returning to a Magic: The Gathering plane where the last set was kind of a mess. 2004’s Kamigawa block was criticised from just about every conceivable angle for being not strong enough, having odd mechanics and falling short of the expectations people had of it. That was then - nearly two decades have passed between the release of the original Kamigawa and Neon Dynasty, and some 1,200 years between their settings - and things have changed a lot in the time since.
Neon Dynasty takes the plane of samurai, spirits and dragons, and moves into an age with giant mechs and a world trying to harness the power of the great spirit trees they used to revere. The plane has moved on from being about managing the two realms and is far more focused on being about upgrading, artifacts and interesting new ways of using enchantments.
It means Neon Dynasty is a new way of viewing Kamigawa, but it all follows along with the same kind of designs we've seen in recent MTG releases. This means yet more cards seemingly designed for Commander in the main set, but also some excellent use of cards to show off the history of the plane. It's another set that feels almost unfocused, but it's also one that has the strongest identity to it since last summer's D&D crossover Adventures in the Forgotten Realms.
Mechanics are by far and away where Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty is strongest. First up is Modified, which is a mechanic that rewards players for tinkering with their creatures. This means that any creatures you equip with aura cards, bits of equipment or those you put counters on count as modified.
Modified feels a bit like Historic, a mechanic from Dominaria, in that it isn't a new mechanic as such, but instead a new way of using shorthand to encourage you to do specific things. Modified is more of a nice bonus for doing something you were already going to do, rather than it being something you would build around specifically. That means it’s more flexible, and will likely be seen in more archetypes. Kodama of the West Tree, for example, grants modified creatures trample and also allows you to grab a land from your deck and put it into play when a modified creature you control does combat damage to a player.
Linking into the mechanic is Reconfigure. Reconfigure is a new take on equipment cards; instead of just being artifacts, all equipment cards are actually artifact creatures instead. This means that these cards generally have a higher equip cost, and they cost mana to remove from a creature, but it also means that they're useful even when there are no other creatures on the field. They represent some potentially really powerful interactions when you look at formats with Stoneforge Mystic in, because the mystic allows you to fetch up equipment cards from your deck and even put them into play for a low cost. (We picked a couple of these in our round-up of the best cards in Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty.)
There are three returning mechanics in Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, too. Channel allows you to discard cards for a cost to get some of their effect. It's an entertaining one that works really well in formats where you can easily put cards back in your hands, and is especially good on legendary cards because it keeps extra copies of them from being redundant. You've also got ninjutsu, which lets you swap an unblocked creature with a ninja for a cost, and can be a lot of fun to play with, but mostly in casual formats. That said, Satoru Umezawa is a new card that grants every card in your hand ninjutsu, and that could lead to some very silly stuff when combined with thirteen-mana Eldrazi in formats like Modern.
Neon Dynasty's sagas are one of the coolest instances of lore in Magic: The Gathering that there's ever been.
Finally, Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty sees the return of sagas. Sagas are a card type from Dominaria, and they're kind of a mechanic. Each saga has a few effects, with one triggering when it enters the battlefield and another happening again on each of your upkeeps or when another lore counter gets added. When you've done all of the steps on these cards, you sacrifice them.
Neon Dynasty flips this around a bit by having sagas specifically reference cards from the old Kamigawa set. Often the last step on each of them is that they transform into a creature card referencing those same cards. This has to be one of the coolest instances of lore in Magic: The Gathering that there's ever been, and upgrades sagas in a way that makes them far more attractive. It's great.
Outside of that, the biggest mark against Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty is the feeling that it's Commander-focused again. This has been something that's been true for the last couple of Standard MTG sets, but felt like it had been handled in the first half of last year - so it's a frustrating complaint to be making.
Take Kyodai, Soul of Kamigawa, for example. It’s a four-mana 3/3 dragon with flash and flying. It's also mono-White, but has an ability that costs one of each mana to activate. That last bit means that it's basically not worth including in formats that aren't Commander, so it feels odd to see it shoehorned into the set instead of kept to the side in the Commander decks.
The biggest mark against Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty is the feeling that it's Commander-focused again.
Another perfect example of this is Isshin, Two Heavens As One, which reads: "If a creature attacking causes a triggered ability of a permanent you control to trigger, that ability triggers an additional time." This is an incredible ability to have on a commander - and building a Commander deck around it is sure to be a blast - but in a Standard set it just feels off.
It's not even that Commander cards shouldn't be printed in Standard sets - it's fine to have a smattering of them - but with so many supplemental products out nowadays, it's almost disappointing to feel as though Commander is still the focus. This is especially true given that each MTG release now comes with a couple of Commander decks anyway. If these cards are to be printed, then that's great, but just put them in the decks and maybe make a couple more per set if needed. That's undoubtedly a lot of work, but if a player who wants to play Standard or Modern gets one of these Commander cards in their packs, they're going to feel ripped off.
It's particularly aggravating because Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty otherwise does a good job of balancing cards for other formats. There are a few options in this set, such as Lion Sash, that do feel as though they'll be powerful in Standard, Modern and beyond. Those are the cards that stand at the forefront of what these sets should be about. It's about balance - and, this time around, it feels a bit too heavily weighted in favour of Commander players again. Frankly, we're already pretty spoiled.
Neon Dynasty also once again falls into the trap of having way too many alternate frames. There are anime frames, full-art frames and neon frames. There has to be a point at which we all admit that if there is a special art treatment for every card, or two in some cases, it kind of detracts from the whole thing. It's impossible to parse the multitude of special editions anymore, and it goes way beyond when it was useful, like with Kaladesh and its special inventions, or the expeditions of Battle for Zendikar.
Despite those criticisms, Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty is an exciting Magic: The Gathering set. It's hard not to nerd out when you see they've made cards like Mechatitan Core, which allows you to fuse artifacts together into a giant mech. It also feels as though this is the set that does the most justice to the past iterations of the plane. It feels as though it respects what came before, but also pushes things forwards into the modern day.