Punching the Spike
Before I can explain how we design for Spike, let me give you a quick refresher in who Spike is. Spike is one of the three player psychographics that Magic R&D uses to design and develop cards. This, of course, leads to the question what is a player psychographic? A psychographic is a psychological profile that isolates different personality traits and behaviors to help the people using the profile (in this case R&D) better understand what motivates a particular type of player to act a certain way. Learning what different players want out of Magic is important for a number of reasons. First, knowledge of which groups exist helps us understand what elements have to be included in each set. Second, knowing what players want helps us design those things into the cards.
That's what Spike is, now let's talk about who Spike is. Here's the definition I gave in "Timmy, Johnny and Spike revisited":
So why does Spike play? Spikes plays to prove something, primarily to prove how good he is. You see, Spike sees the game as a mental challenge by which he can define and demonstrate his abilities. Spike gets his greatest joy from winning because his motivation is using the game to show what he is capable of. Anything less than success is a failure because that is the yardstick he is judging himself against.
Here's another way to think about Spike. Spike plays Magic because he enjoys the mental test of it. He likes being able to demonstrate what he is capable of. In many ways, Spike's greatest opponent is himself as he likes to set a bar that will be a challenge to meet. Be aware that not every Spike is trying to win every game he plays. Yes, that's a popular goal for Spike but it is only a means to an end. Spike wants to prove that he is capable of achieving the goals he sets for himself. To him, the challenge is what makes the game fun.
As I explained during my Timmy and Johnny Week columns, I believe all players have some essence of each of the psychographics. Every player has a least a little Spike in them. You make a mistake and say to yourself that you're not going to make that mistake again. You put a card in your deck not because it's cool or clever but because you just know it's good and it'll help you win. You come across some moment in the game where you stop to take it all in because you know if you just think about it, you can find the answer you need. These are all Spike moments. That desire to be as good as you could be is a Spike sensibility.
Spike sits down to a Magic game to be the best that he can be. He's not there for the experience or to express something about himself. Spike has an agenda (most often proving his ability to dominate the game) and he is there to prove that he can meet it. Magic is a proving ground and Spike came to measure up.
Before we move on, I want to have a word with the Spikes. You Timmies and Johnnies can just jump ahead to the next section.
Cards for Spike
To understand how to design for a psychographic you have to understand how that psychographic sees cards. For today, that means we explore how Spike looks at cards.
Cream of the Crop
When Timmy looks at a card, he asks himself, "Would I like to play with this?" When Johnny looks at a card, he asks himself, "What can I do with this?" When Spike looks at a card, he asks himself "Should I play this card?" Timmy and Johnny evaluate cards to figure out whether or not they can achieve what they want with it. The cards are more of a means to an end. Spike, on the other hand, is interested in understanding the value of the card unto itself. Is this card a good deal? Does the combination of all its parts make it good enough that it will perform to the level that Spike needs? To use a metaphor, Timmy looks at a car and imagines what fun he will have driving it. Johnny looks at a car and imagines what he can do to it to make it something he can show off. Spike cares about how it drives. If the car in the next lane wants to race, can Spike win?
From a design standpoint, this means that Spike is the player who most cares about mana cost and effect. He wants to understand the value proposition of the card. Previously, I talked about how both Timmy and Johnny can overlook mana cost. Not so much Spike. To understand the value of the card, he has to comprehend how all the pieces work in combination. The one aspect that Spike can overlook (and not all do) is the flavor of the card. If all the mechanical elements line up, he can forego flavor that doesn't mesh quite as well. Why? Because while flavor has a lot of input into overall feel of a card (which is very important for many Timmies, for instance), it tends to have little impact on play value.
I started with this category because it's the one that everyone thinks of when I talk about designing for Spike: make good cards. A lot of players though believe this is where design stops. In fact, there is a school of thought that says that design doesn't need to design cards for Spike; they just happen naturally. Something has to be the best and Spike will just play that. The flaw in this thinking is that like any player there are things that play into what Spike wants out of the game. Just as there are some cards more fun for Timmy or Johnny, there are cards that Spike simply enjoys playing more than others. It is very important that design makes some of these types of cards each set. Note that all of the categories I'm listing below do need to be good enough to play in a competitive environment in order to appeal to Spike. Creating a card that Spike would love to play if he was able to play it, doesn't cut it. Luckily, we have numerous environments to design for allowing us a wide range of cards that are viable.
Diamonds in the Rough
What's more fun for Spike than finding a powerful card? Finding a powerful card that others don't know about. Spikes are all about proving themselves, so design can play into this by consciously making cards that are good but subtly so. This allows Spike a chance of exploration and creates opportunities for discovery. In addition, many Spikes enjoy the metagame aspect of talking about what's good and what's not. Having cards that are not easy to judge helps fan this type of discussion.
So how exactly does R&D make these types of cards? Several ways. The first is inter-set synergy. Some cards are good not because they are good in a vacuum but because they are good in a particular environment. This is especial true for Limited environments where design has very strict control of what resources exist and in what number. A poster child for this type of card is Rats of Rath from Tempest block.
Yes, a two-mana 2/1 that allows you to destroy your own cards. At first blush, this card looks sub-optimal. But as you begin to understand the Tempest Limited environment, you learn two things. One, there is a very strong aggro strategy that involves black, so having a two-mana 2-power guy is a little better than normal. More importantly though, the seemingly useless ability is far from useless. Why? Because of a little mechanic called buyback. The aggro strategy of Tempest Limited is balanced by a control strategy that takes advantage of cards like Capsize. Once a player had enough mana, buyback spells became very powerful, and there were very few answers. But if Capsize is countered because its target goes away (what we called "fizzle" back in the day), the spell will not return to its owner's hand. This makes the Rats' ability very important because it can fizzle buyback spells.
Another means R&D can use to hide a card's strength is to introduce a new ability. Players tend to gauge the power level of a card by comparing it to known cards. When a card does something that isn't easily comparable, it makes such judgments much harder to make. A classic example of this would be the card Tarmogoyf from Future Sight.
The card, at first blush, looks like a goofy Lhurgoyf tweak. (To be fair, it is a goofy Lhurgoyf tweak.) Sure, it can grow quickly if the right number of different card types are in all graveyards, but how hard is that to accomplish? That uncertainty hid the value of the card for a month or two when the set was released. By the way, I should point out that while R&D knew this card was good it ended up proving to be even better than R&D initially thought.
Note that these cards don't always have to appear bad at first. Some of the best examples are cards where the Spikes get to argue about how good something is. A poster child for this type of card just showed up in Zendikar: a little snake known as Lotus Cobra.
Out of the gate there was a lot of excitement for this card. The big debate wasn't "Is it any good?" but "Just how good is it?" Was it merely good or was it awesome? I watched thread after thread and article after article chime in on Lotus Cobra landing all over the spectrum from one of the best two-drops of all time to merely okay. (On that subject, note that it showed up in prominent deck designer Conley Woods's deck at Worlds, which you can learn all about here.)
The key to this category is that a lot of excitement can be generated for Spike if we allow them to have discovery of the power level. True, some of this is done naturally by a trading card game, but a lot can be injected by careful decisions by design and especially by development.
The Play's The Thing
What's even better than a good card to Spike? A card that's good in their hands but not one in the hands of a lesser player. As Spike is always trying to prove himself, he really enjoys cards whose power level require skill on his part. While the last category was one where development has a lot more control (design isn't the one who chooses which cards to push), this category is very much in design's court. The classic example of this type of card is Invasion's Fact or Fiction.
Splitting five cards correctly is very challenging. It depends not just on the value of the five cards in a vacuum but what they mean to the current game state. In addition, understanding what the opponent values, correctly or not, allows for splits that will push the opponent to make a certain choice most often to the advantage of the splitter. Doing this correctly requires a lot of skill. So much so that Fact or Fiction has proven to be a favorite among Spikes.
The biggest reason is that it is allows Spike to prove himself not just in the choice to put it into his deck but in the actual play of the game itself. Each time he plays the card he gets to prove his ability to use the card correctly. So much so that Fact or Fiction splits themselves become fodder for Spike metagame discussions.
The important point here is that design can make cards that Spike enjoys playing not solely because they help him win but because the act of what the card does feeds into why Spike enjoys playing. The card isn't just fun to choose. It's fun to play.
Choose Your Destiny
Another way to play into the Spike mindset is to understand what excites Spike about the game. Spike loves the opportunity to find the right play. Magic is a mental challenge and Spike enjoys being put into situations where he can use his skills to turn the game is his favor. As such, Spike loves having choices. When a card is capable of doing multiple things, it creates more situations where he can pick the proper path. These choices come in several varieties.
First there is the card with modal choices. The poster child for this card is any of the charm cycles we've done.
The charms give the player three different options. Usually these options are not interconnected, meaning the card has a variety of uses. Cards like this are popular with Spike because they allow so much flexibility to respond to the situation at hand.
Another popular choice card is what I'll call the additive choice. This can best be seen in mechanics like kicker, buyback, replicate and entwine.
This choice is one of being able to opt into a more powerful version of the spell later in the game, usually because the player has access to mana. The choice here is choosing whether to use the lesser version early or wait for the more powerful version later.
Another popular choice is the alternate choice. Examples of this would be cycling, evoke or reinforce.
These cards allow you a choice to do something other than the base effect, sometimes a lesser, cheaper version of it. These cards give you an out if the main use of the card isn't handy or playable right now.
Next we have cards that allow you choices when playing the card that affect what the card is. Although an old example, my go-to for this is Primal Clay. I could just as easily use any card with imprint or one that forces you to choose a color when played.
These cards build the choice of what the card is into the playing of the card. This allows Spike to have options of what exactly the card will do. A very popular subset of this for Spikes (and, interestingly enough, Johnnies) are clone cards that allow the player to copy something already in play.
The list of choice cards can go on and on as any card that asks you to make a choice – cards with targets being the biggest subset – has choice built into it. The ones that are most attractive to Spike are the ones that have the most flexibility built into them. Also, the choices need to be interesting ones as a card with two choices where you'd never opt to use one really isn't a choice card to Spike.
Manipulate Is Enough
Another aspect of the game Spike cares about that neither Timmy nor Johnny focus on is the area of management resources. A lot of a trading card game is taking advantage of card interactions. This allows for a lot of small gains that can add up over the course of the game. Timmy and Johnny often find this monotonous (although certain Johnnies are willing to tap into it to power their reindeer games) but to Spike, the gaining of advantage through lots of small choices is what makes the game challenging to them.
What this means to design is that there is an audience for cards that deal with management resource. Because the bulk of this audience is Spikes, it forces design to create these type of cards in environments where Spike is playing, Limited being the easiest place. The largest category of this is what I'll call card advantage where the cards allow Spike to gain "cards" on their opponent over time. Other examples of this type of card are those that turn mana into a repeatable effect or those that allow you to repeatable sacrifice a permanent for continual gain. The cards that turn one resource into another are what we call "engine cards" and are popular with not only Spike but Johnny as well.
The key to these cards is that most of them seem pretty innocuous on the surface. It is only through repetitive play that their power comes out.
And Now For Something Completely Different
This last category is something I talked about in my Johnny column: cards that do something never before done in Magic. Johnny loves these types of cards because they give him access to new tricks. Spikes love these kinds of cards because they tap into their desire to figure things out. Is this new ability something that can be harnessed in tournaments or is it a useless ability? The act of figuring this out is fun for many Spikes and thus is a reason to make sure that every set have at least a few of these types of cards.
Hutt, Hutt, Spike!
The key the ties all of the Spike designs together is that they need to challenge Spike. Spike is drawn to power but he is also drawn to potential. To keep Spike excited, design has to keep him on his toes. We have to make cards that both challenge his ability to deduce power and his ability to use it. If we can successfully do that, we can provide Spike with a game he will want to keep returning to.
That's all I got for today. Join me next week when I talk about what exactly is going on with this whole big set, little set, big set thing in Zendikar block.
Until then, may you unabashedly play to win.