Magic: The Gathering has always been a card game based in fantasy. The earliest sets from the mid ‘90s centered on a hodgepodge of creatures, like ogres and wizards, battling one another as lightning bolts and fireballs exploded around them. As the game moved through the early 2000s, Magic developed its own unique form of the genre. Planeswalkers, who are basically sorcerers who can hop from world to world, visited places like the machine world Mirrodin or the city-world Ravnica, where they met creatures like the myr and the vedalken. This is all to say that Magic has one foot in traditional fantasy and the other foot in its own unique mixture of influences and forces.
Streets of New Capenna
, the latest Magic set from Wizards of the Coast, pushes that core set of fantasy assumptions even further by setting the game on a plane (read: world) divided up between five families of demons who are also organized crime lords. They split everything between them, and they scheme against each other inside of a broad, general alliance that riffs on things like the famous real-world Five Families. This is a far cry from elves, goblins, and even loxodon in terms of what we’re asking to fit into our mental model of what Magic is.
This isn’t shocking, though, since WOTC have taken some big thematic swings recently when it comes to creating strong thematic worlds to make Magic cards out of. Fantasy ancient Egypt (Amonkhet), fantasy pseudo-Norse myth (Kaldheim), and a riff on English fantasy themes (Throne of Eldraine), all of which feel fairly safe and secure as far as settings go, have also been matched with Big Monster World (Ikoria), magic school (Strixhaven), and a straight-up Dungeons & Dragons tie-in set. One of the more extreme jumps, which took Magic out of fantasy and right into the realm of science fiction, was February 2022’s Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, which returned to the Japanese-inspired world of Kamigawa to find it in full-on cyberpunk mode.
I am not laying all of this out to be critical. I think this is all extremely exciting, and it is fascinating to see what a card game with such a storied and specific history feels like it can do when it stretches beyond the bounds it has historically set for itself.
What this does gesture at, however, is a question of identity. How does Streets of New Capenna bring new themes, like demonic gangster families and Roaring Twenties riffs, into coherence with the basic concepts of Magic? What’s gained? What’s lost?
The designers of this set have brilliantly decided to house the five families of the plane into what have traditionally been known as the “shards” of Magic, the three-color combinations that were the focus of design in 2008’s Shards of Alara. These color combinations have a long history in Magic design, and when you see the black-blue-white mana symbols together on a card you have a very clear idea of what kind of deck-digging, hand-spying, creature-bouncing activity you are going to get up to. Streets of New Capenna takes these familiar design precepts and processes them through a new set, grounding these new mechanics and concepts in a familiar set of interactions.
It would be easy to point out the five families, list their names, and tell you that’s what the set is, but I think that you can get that from basically any promotional material, and here I am after something different. When any new Magic set comes out, the primary question is: Why would I play this? There are approximately 10 million other games you could be spending your time with. Why take some time out to learn what Streets of New Capenna has to offer?
One reason to dig into this Magic set is that it approaches the three-color format from a slightly new angle. Rather than encourage players to play Limited formats (meaning games where you play with the cards you open at that moment) by being heavily attached to single families, the Magic designers have doubled down on various forms of “fixing” in the card set for Capenna. For the new player, it means that there are a number of ways to produce three (or more) colors of mana, which is harder than you might think within Magic’s regular game and set design. The creation of the cycle of cards that Masked Vandals is a part of does a lot to make this possible, since these cards are both big beaters and they allow for the expansion of what kinds of resources you can produce. Streets of New Capenna also leans heavily on Treasure tokens, which sacrifice to turn into mana, meaning that players can feel free to experiment in one family or multiple with any given pile of cards.
Using these methods for accessing resources to play cards allows for some really big plays, like smashing down some powerful new Ascendancies or any of the huge number of cool legendary creatures, like Jetmir, the cat demon family head who is getting up to some zany stuff. For most of us, playing Magic is about doing cool stuff and feeling like you’re making good decisions while you’re doing that, and Capenna gives you a huge number of opportunities to feel that way.
Mechanically, then, Streets of New Capenna as a set makes you feel less like someone who is a part of a single crime family and more like a dilettante who makes their way through a whole criminal underworld, dealing with Disciplined Duelists and Pugnacious Pugilists with equal measure. I don’t know if this was intended or not, but it feels good, and across the dozen or so drafts and couple sealed events I have done, it gives me enough flexibility to play with the cards I open and think are most neat.
From the perspective of Constructed formats, meaning ways of playing like Standard and Modern, Streets of New Capenna adds some cool new ammunition, but, so far, has not radically transformed the world. There are a handful of very cool decks that one can play with the cards from the set, but in my experience opening some packs and playing entirely with New Capenna cards might allow you to get the most appreciation for what is going on here.
Overall, I think Streets of New Capenna hits the sweet spot for what a Magic set can be. It is weirdly experimental on the creative side and tries to afford a huge amount of possible play experiences due to some new mechanical design on the game side.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman.