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Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty avoids cyberpunk-shaped pitfalls and the ghost of its predecessor

The futuristic card set isn’t trouble-free but showcases Wizards' design team operating at its peak.

Image credit: Magali Villeneuve/Wizards of the Coast

When Wizards of the Coast announced Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty last August, I was worried that Magic: the Gathering’s next major set would come mired in cyberpunk aesthetics. Saddling a single release with updating the Japanese-inspired plane and telling its story would not leave enough space to tackle the literary genre’s major tropes - transhumansim, the logical conclusion of runaway capitalism and a particular strain of Asian anxiety overtaking Western dominance.

I’m also full to nausea with pop culture attempts at producing cyberpunk media. Both Blade Runner 2049 and CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 video game felt as though the crumbling neon backdrops undercut their respective narrative thrust. The live-action Ghost in the Shell film went full-on appropriation mode and hastened my distaste for any big-budget attempts in what has always been a messy, contentious story space.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the spoiler season for Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, along with the short story series by Akemi Dawn Bowman, portrayed a distinct lack of Philip K. Dickian ideas and instead smartly modernised the dramatic tensions of the original Kamigawa sets. It is not without faults - the inexorable push for Collector Boosters continues - but the narrative risks, thoughtful worldbuilding and exceptional art has this set looking like one of the best releases in recent years.

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The original Kamigawa block (an old practice of three inter-linked sets that’s objectively better than the current model) hit the table in 2004 and introduced players to a plane steeped in Japanese mythology - or the facets of that mythology most palatable to a Western audience. The Asians Represents podcast did a wonderful job interrogating the motives and intentions of the design team at the time, both acknowledging their not conflating Japanese culture with that of mainland Asia or Southeast Asia but also criticising the resulting product’s inability to reach beyond superficial stereotypes - samurai, ninja, honour, etc.

Wizards of the Coast seemed aware of the expectations to do better when they announced Neon Dynasty, claiming that cultural consultants would be brought on to the team under lead designer Mark Rosewater. One of those individuals ended up being James Mendez Hodes, someone who hadn’t worked on a Magic: The Gathering set before but had plenty of previous tabletop experience under his belt. A video roundtable released on Jan. 11th showed him sitting down with Emily Teng and other leads to discuss the process of creating a Kamigawa 1,200 years in the future.

The first visit to the plane focused on The Kami War, a conflict that arose broadly due to the impact and melding between the world of humans and that of the spirits. One of the most apparent updates to Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty is that this mixture has become commonplace, which Mendez Hodes said better reflects how East Asian cosmology interprets reality. A diversity of weapon representation beyond katanas, the details on kimonos and how they’re worn and avoiding the use of Okinawan influences given the imperialist relationship between the islands and mainland Japan.

Image credit: Steve Prescott/Wizards of the Coast

“There’s a difference, I think, between the lies that we tell about ourselves and the lies that we tell about other people,” Mendez Hodes said. “We want to focus not on the Western gaze attitude - not the lies that are told by outsiders, but the lies that a culture tells about itself.”

Such an attitude is embodied by Kamigawa’s Living Historians, an order of academics preserving the legends and folklore of the past through oral tradition, song and dance. In this way, the set can evoke the figures and events of that original block without directly bearing the burden of its mistakes. It is also part of the friction at the heart of Neon Dynasty’s story in which the natural mindset of the past must wrestle with the fast spreading technological progress of the present. It is the most high-tech Magic: The Gathering has shown, featuring cities awash in neon-electric signs, piloted mech units patrolling the skies and digital constructs with some level of autonomy.

All of this runs through the more immediate anti-imperial uprising, as a growing faction of disillusioned samurai, neglected urban communities and progressive artisans move to buck yoke of a long-absent emperor - she ends up being a mysterious character fans have pondered over for years. Neon Dynasty’s story reflects a tension many in the real world either remember or are living right now, which serves to strengthen this set’s emotional cohesion.

Old Kamigawa feels like a pastiche of images and words that a team of American designers picked up from films, anime and sanitised folklore. Neon Dynasty feels real and carefully considered, told through groups of people with real wants and needs even if some of them are four-armed snakes or 12-foot tall Oni. Plus, there’s a Rockabilly gangster with a pompadour, which is both inarguably cool but also a parallel to real Japanese history! I've no doubt mine and others' joy at the reveals has much to do with the consultancy team's efforts at steering the creative ship.

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The set also pushed Magic: the Gatherings overarching story into new territory by taking real narrative risks. Fans have long known that the card game would eventually return to the place once known as Mirrodin, now called New Phyrexia and home to the Multiverse’s Biggest Baddies. 2020’s Kaldheim showed one of its Praetors, the alpha hunter Vorinclex, stalking the plane, and Kamigawa is host to one of its own. Additionally, one of the world-hopping planeswalkers fell prey to Phyrexia’s influence, a process known as Compleation, and dealt a truly paradigm-shifting blow to the good guys.

The decision has upset some fans for effectively killing a favourite character, but the decision has people talking about Magic’s story in a way not many other sets accomplish. Previously untouchable names are now ostensibly on the chopping block. Plot armour may not apply in this new phase, and that’s the kind of decisions that elevate the story from fantasy travel guide to something more. We’ve seen Planeswalkers die in the past, mostly due to heroic sacrifice, but loss is a powerful tool that I’m happy to see the lore team at Wizards reaching for.

That said, Neon Dynasty is not without its faults. Several new artistic treatments were announced as part of the set’s rollout and include the expected extended-art frames and treatments alongside woodblock art lands and special alternate art for all ninja and samurai creatures done by Japanese artists. There’s now soft glow treatments, foil etching, four different coloured neon ink treatments for one specific card and Phyrexian alt-text on the Praetor and compleated Planeswalker.

Image credit: Hara Tetsuo/Wizards of the Coast

Most of these can be found in either set boosters and draft boosters with some regularity, but all of it is just fodder for Collector Boosters. These premium-priced packs are meant for collectors and not the average player. Wizards continues to publish convoluted articles explaining what is included in each of the three different boosters and at what percentages, but the truth is that the product is meant to extract as much money on whales (players with high disposable income and a propensity to buy large volume) as individual cards travel through them and onto the secondary singles market.

I’m not expressly against Wizards of the Coast making money, but this tactic confuses average players and dilutes any excitement over new treatments. Pulling the alternate art you want out of a draft or set booster is a long shot, and doling out the cash for a Collector Booster means less money to actually play the game. I’m glad my worst fear of Neon Dynasty tie-in NFTs did not manifest, but the scourge of a separate, expensive product meant simply to entice players with shiny treatments harms Magic: The Gathering. This latest set was not shy about furthering that agenda.

Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty had all the makings of a train wreck but surprised me by both telling an evocative and well-considered story and largely swerving on the appropriative missteps of its antecedent. Its implications for the larger world in which Magic: the Gathering takes place has invigorated fans, and - some frustrating product decisions aside - points to a healthy direction for a card game that has certainly missed the cultural mark in the past. I can’t wait to get absolutely demolished while drafting it.

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