#7 - "Name dropping" (A custom card design guide: psychographics)

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The Lion's Lair #7

“Name dropping”

(A custom card design guide: psychographics)

(This article was originally published here.)



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(“Name dropping” by Lagwagon)

This week I'll talk about player psychographics. A lot of words have already been written about this topic by writers much more qualified than me. MaRo and Tom LaPille wrote multiple times about it on the official Magic site, and their articles are conveniently listed at the bottom of the MTGS Wiki page about Psychographic Profiles, so I won't list them again here. I don't pretend to add anything new to this literature, both because it's already exhaustive enough and because I don't have the expertise to do that. Instead, I've noticed that those articles are becoming a little dated, as the most recent ones are from 2009, when Zendikar had just come out (man, almost six years have already passed since Zendikar and it still feels just like yesterday... it makes me feel old...). So what I'm going to do is to make a summary of each profile, to introduce them to those who may never have heard of them or know little about them, then try to identify examples of cards designed for each of them in more recent sets. At least it should be an interesting exercise.

A couple things before we start. The first will be useful to those who participate in the contests. As you should know by now, I use the MCC Rubric as a reference. So where can we find those concepts in there?

Potential – Will different player demographics (Spike/Johnny/Timmy) find a use for this card? Does it stand out as a card to build a deck around?

The first question specifically asks how each of the three player psychographics (that's the official name, even if in the rubric it's reported differently, I may correct it in my next MCC) sees the card. A card that's appealing to more different psychographics will usually score higher here, and to make such a card you must understand who Timmy, Johnny and Spike are, and what they're looking for in a card. The second question is more specific and in my opinion it's already implicitly included in the first, as building a deck around a single card is something most Johnnies and some Spikes are looking to do anyway.

The other thing I want to point out explicitly is that even though I'm going to talk about them at the end for completeness, Vorthos and Melvin are NOT player psychographics. They are aesthetic profiles that in the beginning were considered opposite ends of a single scale, while nowadays have been recognized as two different, separate, and not mutually exclusive scales. The difference between the three psychographics and the two aesthetic profiles is that they are the answers to different questions: the former ask “why do you play Magic?”, while the latter ask “how do you like this aspect of Magic?” (flavor for Vorthos, mechanical structure for Melvin).

Timmy time

Timmy is the first psychographic in the traditional order. Let's immediately ask him the question:

”Why do you play Magic, Timmy?”
”I play because I want to experience something.”

Take note of the underlined verb because that's the only thing that will change when we ask the same question to Johnny and Spike. In fact, that's exactly what separates one psychographic from the others.

So, Timmy wants to experience something. But what exactly does he want to experience? Well, that depends. It's not the same thing for all Timmies, but we can say this for sure: it's a visceral feeling. What that thing is separates the various subgroups of Timmies:

Power Gamers: they want to experience the thrill of having the biggest creatures and casting the spells with the biggest effects, because it makes them feel they're dominating the game. The key word for them is “big”: big creatures, big spells, big effects, big plays... They are the classic stereotype, what we all immediately think of when we hear the name Timmy. Progenitus has been presented as an example of a card that excites this subset of players.

Social Gamers: they want to experience the social aspect of the game. They find fun just in playing Magic with their friends, regardless if they're winning or losing. They are the most interested in multiplayer formats, in fact cards that can affect multiple players at once have been presented as examples of cards for them. Practically any card that says “your opponents” (notice the plural), “all players”, etc... or that works well in multiplayer counts.

Diversity Gamers: they want to experience something different every game. They're looking for variety in their games. Pay attention to this detail: variety is different from variance! They want each game they play to feel different from one another. They are the reason WotC tries to put different themes and approaches in each color pair in a set.

Adrenalin Gamers: they want to experience variance, tension, and suspense. They want to feel the rush of taking risks, even if that means sometimes things can be bad for them. They are those who like coin flips, random effects, and such.

The Griefers: while not originally included in MaRo's classification, they are considered Timmies by Tom LaPille, as they want to experience their opponents' misery. They are the ones who like land destruction, decks full of counterspells, and everything that prevents opponents from doing anything. They want the cards they play to be as annoying as possible to their opponents. The secret in designing cards for them is finding effects that sound much more annoying than they actually are in gameplay. The problem with them is that what they like to play is naturally unfun for their opponents, and I think this is a big part of the reason why things like land destruction and counterspells have been toned down in modern Magic design.
Allow me a personal note here. I'll go out and say it explicitly: this is the only kind of player I personally hate playing against, and I also think they're actually bad for the game. Some years ago, I had a friend who built and kept for a period a deck chock full of almost nothing else than counterspells and removal: what he didn't counter, he killed. It was very frustrating to play against it, so much that I still remember it. Now he's no longer a friend of mine for other reasons, but I certainly don't miss playing against that deck.

But now let's show Timmy a new card and see how he reacts:

”Here's a new card! What's your first thought, Timmy?”
”Would I like to play with this card?”

And to Timmy that means “Would this card make me feel what I enjoy? Would it create the experience I'm looking for? Would it be fun?”. To determine that, the main things that Timmy looks for are a big effect and, for creatures, a high power and toughness. Timmy doesn't care if he has to pay a lot of mana to get that. In fact, the mana cost is one of the last things he considers in a card, if he considers it at all. But it's not that Timmy plays expensive cards because they're expensive, he plays them because they have powerful effects, and cards that have powerful effects just naturally need to cost a lot of mana. Their expensiveness is just a consequence of their power.

Also, Timmy doesn't like drawbacks. “But drawbacks aren't fun, why would I want to play a card that has one?” Thanks for intervening, Timmy, but let me make you notice that if the drawback is very flavorful (classic example: Lord of the Pit) or creates fun gameplay (classic example: Capricious Efreet) you'll play with it anyway. In fact, flavor and resonance are very important for Timmy, as he looks at the card as a whole. Timmy wants to clearly see what a card represents, what it actually is, not just how it works. That's why he likes linear cards and themes, because they're clearer. And if the cards are splashy, that's an added bonus!

So, what cards can we identify in recent sets that are clearly made for Timmies (or a subset of them)? The first that come to my mind is the Primordial cycle from Gatecrash (Luminate Primordial, Diluvian Primordial, Sepulchral Primordial, Molten Primordial, Sylvan Primordial). They are big, splashy, and they each have an ETB ability that works wonderfully in multiplayer, as it triggers “for each opponent”.
In Tarkir block, I can see Timmy being excited for the cycle of Dragons in Fate Reforged (Ojutai, Soul of Winter, Silumgar, the Drifting Death, Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury, Atarka, World Render, Dromoka, the Eternal): big, flying, and with abilities that encourage attacking, and Timmy surely likes attacking. He wants action in his games, not having his creatures attack is boring.
A card with a hidden drawback is Meandering Towershell: a big fatty where Timmy overlooks the drawback because it's flavorful. “Hey, it's a giant turtle! It's slow! What do you expect from it? To have haste?” Thanks again, Timmy! Your interventions are always enlightening,
Sandsteppe Mastodon is another card that Timmy loves playing with in Tarkir block: it's big and can make your other creatures bigger too. It costs seven mana, but Timmy doesn't care, and actually in this case its high mana cost may even be an advantage, as it lets this card arrive to its intended Timmy audience without being touched by Spike, not even by mistake.

In other recent sets, a card like Bearer of the Heavens is surely appealing to Timmy: a big giant that makes the world explode if it dies! Now that's some real action! As is attacking with a monstrous Polis Crusher, or a Forgestoker Dragon that can either kill opposing creatures or let his other fatties get through, which are both enjoyable results.

Johnny be good

”Why do you play Magic, Johnny?”
”I play because I want to express something.”

Most Johnnies share the same thing they want to express: their creativity and cleverness. How they do so defines the subsets of Johnnies:

Combo Players: they are the stereotype of Johnny. They want to express their creativity by finding new card interactions and combinations that no one else has already found. They want to find the hidden connections between the cards, so they focus on the individual cards. They are the ones who most like building a whole deck around a single card.

Offbeat Designers: they don't focus on and build decks around individual cards, but ideas. They want to express their cleverness and ability to find the right answer for any challenge, which to them means building the right deck for their idea. The idea doesn't need to be necessarily concrete, it may just be a “what if...” scenario to make real.

Deck Artists: to them, deckbuilding is an art and so they use it as a mean of self-expression. What they want to express is themselves or a purpose dear to them through their card choices.

Uber Johnnies: they want to express their cleverness by showing they can succeed where others failed or with cards that are considered junk. They want to show that what is considered impossible is actually possible. They are the ones who try to make One with Nothing work.

”And now here's a new card! What's your first thought, Johnny?”
”What can I do with this card?”

As Timmy, Johnny doesn't focus on the mana cost. He focuses on the effect, and what he likes the most are the so-called “engine” cards, that are those that convert one resource into another. Those cards can be expensive, but again, like Timmy, Johnny plays them not because they are expensive, but because they are powerful, and being expensive is just a consequence of that. Johnny also likes narrow cards, because their use can be not so immediate to see, and modular cards, not in the sense of cards with the “modular” keyword from Mirrodin block, but as opposite of linear. He wants to be provided the pieces of the puzzle, but he wants to solve the puzzle by himself. Finally, Johnny likes drawbacks, because they are a challenge in and of themselves. ”Ooh, drawbacks! I'll be the one to break them! And if I can't, at least I'll find a way to neutralize them, mitigate them, or even exploit them... Uhm, exploiting a drawback... now that's an idea! Let's go brewing!” Thanks, Johnny! I was missing your voice after Timmy's interventions...

So, what cards can we identify in recent sets that are clearly made for Johnnies (or a subset of them)? In Tarkir block, I think Johnny can have fun trying to maximize the bonus from Dragon Throne of Tarkir, or copying spells with Howl of the Horde, or trying to get the most out of a Soulflayer. He and Spike both enjoy a card like Dig Through Time, but for different reasons: Johnny uses it to look for combo pieces, while Spike simply to get raw card advantage. But let's not forget the Johnniest (if that's a word) card in a long time: Jeskai Ascendancy. Johnny loves all the shenanigans he can do with it, and I don't think I have to explain them here. If you don't know what this card is capable of doing, you may have missed the last months of tournament Magic.

Let's look at other recent blocks. Johnny is the one to cast Astral Cornucopia for zero to create a loop with Retraction Helix and the aforementioned Jeskai Ascendancy. Timmy and Spike wouldn't have touched those cards. Another card that Johnny likes is Dictate of Kruphix, especially if he can somehow exploit the opponent's draws with cards like Notion Thief, which he also loves. Heroes' Podium is a card that everyone dismisses, but that's an additional reason for Johnny to try to break it, maybe in a deck full of legendary creatures. Prophet of Kruphix does a lot of things that Johnny can exploit. Alms Beast's drawback is meaningless if he makes it unblockable. He will try to break Blood Scrivener somehow. Finally, both Johnny and Spike like Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx: the former for the challenge of maximizing it, and the latter for the huge amounts of mana it can produce.

A sudden Spike

”Why do you play Magic, Spike?”
”I play because I want to prove something.”

Most Spikes share the same thing they want to prove: their ability with the game. As the object of the game is to win, that is what he wants to do. He's the competitive player. Where he puts his attention defines the subsets of Spikes:

Innovators: they are the ones that look at new cards trying to best judge them and find the next broken thing. To do this, they are also the ones the focus the most on Magic strategy and game theory, even if this is a thing that interests other Spikes too, just not as much as these ones.

Tuners: they are the ones that take the decks the innovators create and fine-tune them, maximizing their efficiency. They are very interested in concepts such as mana curves and sideboards.

Analysts: they are the ones that want to analyze and take advantage of the metagame. They do so collecting the most information they can about the environment and choosing their deck depending on the result of their analysis. They are the ones who understand the importance to adapt to ideally each deck in a given metagame, and so they pay a lot of attention to the sideboard.

”Nuts and Bolts” Spikes: they are the ones who focus their attention on perfecting their own gameplay. Many of them prefer to focus on limited formats, but there are some of them focusing on constructed too.

”And now here's a new card! What's your first thought, Spike?”
”Is this card good enough to play? Should I play it?”

Spike is the one psychographic among the three that just can't ignore the mana cost. Actually, it's one of the first things he looks at in a card. If a card costs too much (read, usually more than about six mana), Spike will just ignore it. What Spike is also willing to ignore is flavor, which is important to him only as long as it doesn't get into the way of mechanics and efficiency. Spike likes powerful and synergistic cards, and also cards that can let his superior ability prevail because they require a lot of skill to be played at their best (classic example: Fact or Fiction). Spike also likes cards that give him options, both at the level of single cards (modal spells) and in the interactions with other cards, and cards that manipulate resources. Finally, Spike accepts drawbacks if they allow a card to be more efficient. He understands that if a card is more powerful for the same cost it needs to have a drawback.

So, what cards can we identify in recent sets that are clearly made for Spikes (or a subset of them)? Let's start again looking at the most recent ones: Tarkir block. Spike is looking for efficiency, so he loves cards like Savage Knuckleblade, Siege Rhino, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang. Tasigur, in particular, can be a 4/5 for only one mana, and these are the kind of things Spike loves. Spike also enjoys card that give him raw card advantage, such as Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise, which he will almost always cast for just UU and U respectively. But the cards designed for Spike don't have to be necessarily tournament staples (even if that helps), for example I think that Utter End is a card that Spike likes: a piece of removal as flexible as there can be nowadays (hitting lands too wouldn't be exactly advisable in modern Magic design). He won't love it, because it still costs four mana after all, but he'll like it for sure.

From earlier sets, but still recently, Fleecemane Lion is a very efficient and resistant beater, both qualities that Spike likes. Ash Zealot is also efficient, as is Loxodon Smiter. Underworld Connections can produce some big card advantage, and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx huge amounts of mana. Spike is also more than willing to pay life for mana, so he likes lands like Mana Confluence, fetchlands, and shocklands.

Athos, Aramis and Vorthos

As I already mentioned, Vorthos is NOT a psychographic. With Melvin, he's one of the “appreciation” profiles. If we wanted to talk to him we would have to ask him a different question than the one we asked to Timmy, Johnny, and Spike. We could ask Vorthos what he likes in Magic, or how he perceives a card, but not why he plays. That's a different thing. I want to focus this article on the three psychographics, so I won't spend too many words on Vorthos and Melvin. I just want to note their existence and their difference from Timmy, Johnny, and Spike.

Vorthos looks at the card as a whole, as what it represents. That's why flavor is so important to him (name, art, flavor text), because it can make the card feel coherent and “right” in its entirety. He doesn't focus on the single components of the card, but on the larger picture, and he judges the card based on how it feels. He sees the whole as the sum of the parts.

The classic example of a card made for Vorthos is Form of the Dragon. Except for the damage part, mechanically it doesn't make much sense in red, but that doesn't matter to Vorthos, because the card makes you be the dragon. That visceral feeling is what Vorthos is looking for.

Sideshow Melvin

Melvin is another player profile that, like Vorthos, is all about card appreciation. Melvin looks at the structure of a card (or a set), at how it works. That's why the mechanical components of a card (rules text, mana cost, power and toughness) are so important to him, and that's also why he loves to study the rules of the game. He doesn't focus much on the larger picture, but he looks at the single components of a card and how they work together, and he judges a card based on that. He likes to see all the mechanical intricacies in a card and in its interactions with other cards. He sees the individual parts as pieces of the whole.

The classic example of a card that excites Melvin is Firemaw Kavu. Echo lets him choose whether to make the last ability trigger or not the turn after he play it. You can use the two abilities in different ways: both as removal targeting opposing creature, or you can use the first ability on the Kavu itself to trigger the last ability immediately. And not coincidentally, the two abilities deal amounts of damage equal to the Kavu's base power and toughness. All these intricacies make Melvin love the card.

Finally, let me note that in the beginning, Vorthos and Melvin were considered the two ends of the same scale. Now, they're considered different scales altogether. You can be high in “Vorthosness” and “Melvinness” at the same time. It's not a contradiction. Personally, I have already stated elsewhere that I'm a 100% Melvin, and proud of it. Probably it comes from the same part of me that makes me love science, as the Melvin approach to cards resembles a lot the analytical thinking of experimental sciences. I also have a much smaller Vorthos part, but that is slowing growing. If you're asking instead what psychographics I am, the tests on MaRo's articles identified me as Timmy/Spike (remember that in the case of hybrid psychographic, you list the dominant one first), and I think that while it was definitely true when I first started playing in 2005, now the two parts have exchanged and I've become a Spike/Timmy. Back then I was much more of a Timmy, now I'm much more of a Spike, but I still keep both parts.

Signing out

I know there is nothing new in this article, and I knew there wouldn't have been before I even started to write it. Nonetheless, I hope it's helpful anyway in introducing Timmy, Johnny, and Spike (and separately Vorthos and Melvin) to those who don't know them well. If you want to go deeper, you can check out the references in the wiki page I quoted at the beginning. The main purpose of this article was to summarize in a single one all that has been written about them, so that one that doesn't know them only has to read a single article instead of ten, and to bring more recent examples. I hope I succeeded, if not I apologize. At least I tried.

Until next time,