Magic: the Gathering's roaring '20s set has me trying new things for once

Magic: the Gathering has always been about wizards who cross the multiverse, though they usually seemed to end up on standard medieval fantasy worlds. That's changed recently, and I don't just mean with crossovers like the upcoming Warhammer 40,000 set, or limited-edition Street Fighter and Fortnite cards. Earlier this year, Magic went cyberpunk in the Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty expansion, and its brand new set explores a Prohibition-era urban fantasy setting.

Streets of New Capenna is the roaring '20s with demons, merfolk, and cat people, most of whom dress in fur-lined coats and pearls or pinstripe pants and suspenders (fedoras and flat caps are optional). The elves look like flappers, and the buildings look straight out of 1927's Metropolis. The new sea beasts for your blue decks? Sewer Crocodile and Reservoir Kraken.

(Image credit: Wizards of the Coast)

The theme continues with cards representing the five criminal groups vying for control of New Capenna. That's why Wizards of the Coast hilariously promoted it with a fake documentary hosted by Ross Kemp, the British soap star who made a show where he traveled the world infiltrating gangs.

Philip's already broken down how each of the five factions has its own mechanics tied to their theme. Those themes are neat: the Brokers are a firm of shady demon lawyers; the Maestros are classy assassins who also happen to be vampires; the Obscura use divination magic in elaborate blackmail schemes; the Riveteers control construction under orders from a dragon; the Caberetti are glamorous dancehall druids. Those are all cool things to build a deck around, and I got to see some of them in action at a preview event where my Brokers managed to finish off some Riveteers, then got trounced by Cabaretti.

Three's a party

I've always preferred decks built around one or two colors, partly because worrying about drawing the right land is bad enough with two, and partly because I got into Magic thanks to Shandalar, the 1997 Microprose game. In Shandalar you'd start with one color and add more later, usually arriving at three only when you were gearing up to take on the final boss with a deck that was horrendously degenerate. They've felt a bit wrong to me ever since.

But Magic's been encouraging players to experiment with tri-color decks for a while now. You need one to play gold cards like Minsc, Beloved Ranger from Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, or some of the legendary creatures from Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty. Tri-color decks like Naya Enchantments and Temur Midrange sit near the top of the current meta. The Ikoria expansion added triome lands that let you choose between three kinds of mana when tapping them, and Streets of New Capenna adds even more of those.

"Mountains" in New Capenna

(Image credit: Wizards of the Coast)

Land cards have been reimagined for other settings before (Ravnica's urban plains, for instance), and they've obviously had fun doing that for New Capenna. The art for Mountains shows Fritz Lang skyscrapers, other land cards depict hideouts, theaters, and a racetrack for chrome horses owned by colorful racing identities, as the Australian newspaper euphemism for wealthy gangsters goes. 

The new tri-color lands include a warehouse boxing ring for the Riveteers (black/red/green) and a lounge in a John Wick assassin hotel for the Maestros (blue/black/red). Like other land cards that let you choose a different color each turn, they enter the battlefield tapped, so a basic land you can use right away will still be better short-term. What they give you is more freedom to diversify when deckbuilding—finding synergies in a broader pool and making it more likely any given booster pack will have cards worth adding to your current deck.

You don't have to build a tri-color deck for Streets of New Capenna, of course. When Alan played it he went mono-green, just to be obstinate, and had some success against tri-color decks. "I did take a few down," he said, "just by virtue of being able to play all the cards in my deck easily. I did lose to some of those more potent gold cards though when I couldn't overpower my opponents quick enough."

The Maestros gather

(Image credit: Wizards of the Coast)

You can stick to your mono- or dual-colored guns if you want. Streets of New Capenna has plenty of colorless artifacts like the Getaway Car, Brass Knuckles, and Cement Shoes, and only half a dozen of the cards based on each faction actually cost three colors—Brokers Initiate is a pure white card while Brokers Veteran is blue, for instance—but it's finally motivated me go Krzysztof Kieślowski.

Commander's keen

The other thing Streets of New Capenna has me interested in for the first time is the Commander format. I play Arena, which doesn't support this kitchen-table casual format usually played by four, but the paper release of Streets of New Capenna includes prebuilt Commander decks that make convenient on-ramps into the mode.

The format's named for the Commander card that represents your deck's leader and, rather than being shuffled into it, sits to the side and can be played as soon as you can afford to. Everyone starts with 40 life instead of the regular 20, and that's part of what makes it more casual than regular Magic. The other part is that having four decks on the table at once makes it cheerfully unpredictable. 

(Image credit: Wizards of the Coast)

In a two-player game you keep track of everything your opponent plays, the altering math of the next combat phase always held in your mind. Nobody expects you to do that with four players each doing their own thing (the winner is the last standing, so alliances are temporary at best). Once the fighting starts, huge amounts of damage fly back and forth. Suddenly getting slapped for 15 points is nothing unusual, and in my first game I got taken out by an attack that hit me for 33 all at once. (I managed to block, er, 3 of those points.)

Magic has become a mainly online game for a lot of players over the last few years, but in-person play is ramping up again. The cheerful chaos of Commander seems like a natural fit for the kind of friendly games I'd like to play in-person, and while Streets of New Capenna suits the format, the next Magic crossover is explicitly designed for it. It may be based on a more traditional medieval fantasy setting, but Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate looks like it'll include some familiar faces from the Baldur's Gate videogames and that turns it into a tempting proposition. Make Mazzy Fentan a Commander like she deserves, or at least give me a card based on Wilson the recruitable bear, and I'll use whatever deck it takes to play them.

Jody Macgregor
Weekend/AU Editor

Jody's first computer was a Commodore 64, so he remembers having to use a code wheel to play Pool of Radiance. A former music journalist who interviewed everyone from Giorgio Moroder to Trent Reznor, Jody also co-hosted Australia's first radio show about videogames, Zed Games. He's written for Rock Paper Shotgun, The Big Issue, GamesRadar, Zam, Glixel, Five Out of Ten Magazine, and, whose cheques with the bunny logo made for fun conversations at the bank. Jody's first article for PC Gamer was about the audio of Alien Isolation, published in 2015, and since then he's written about why Silent Hill belongs on PC, why Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale is the best fantasy shopkeeper tycoon game, and how weird Lost Ark can get. Jody edited PC Gamer Indie from 2017 to 2018, and he eventually lived up to his promise to play every Warhammer videogame.