Developing Cards for Spike

Posted in Latest Developments on August 5, 2016

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

Today on Latest Developments, I want to talk about how we make cards for Spikes, and what goes into making the game best for that psychographic.

To start off, let me quote Mark Rosewater's original article on player psychographics:

Although Spike was the first profile R&D was aware of, it was the last to get a name. In fact, "Spike" is the only nickname I didn't come up with. None of R&D did. You see for years, R&D just called them Timmy, Johnny, and "the tournament player." But at some point we explained the three profiles to the Magic brand team. They felt the tournament player needed a name, so they named him. Why "Spike?" The best I've been able to figure out is they felt Spike sounded like a serious, play-to-win-type name.

Spike is the competitive player. Spike plays to win. Spike enjoys winning. To accomplish this, Spike will play whatever the best deck is. Spike will copy decks off the Internet. Spike will borrow other players' decks. To Spike, the thrill of Magic is the adrenalin rush of competition. Spike enjoys the stimulation of outplaying the opponent and the glory of victory.

Spike cares more about the quantity of wins than the quality. For example, Spike plays ten games and wins nine of them. If Spike feels he should have won the tenth, he walks away unhappy.

R&D makes plenty of cards for Spike. Unlike the Timmy and Johnny cards, Spike cards are relatively easy to make. Spike plays what wins, so if R&D makes a card good enough, Spike will play it. Good examples of Spike cards are Call of the Herd, Shadowmage Infiltrator, and Fact or Fiction.

This is what, I believe, many people think of when they think about Spike, but it really isn't how Spike is thought about today. As someone who considers themselves a Spike, I find this original description almost offensive in how much it ties everything to winning. Of course I enjoy winning, but I want to do it honestly and in a competitive sense, rather than just getting the check mark next to my name. While there may have been a time when development operated in that way, we certainly don't anymore.

Spike cards aren't easy to make—in fact, they are some of the hardest. While those mentioned in the quote are examples of cards that we made for Spike, the reason Spike loves them isn't just because they are powerful—they are also fun. They provide interesting gameplay with interesting decisions that let players interact. Where I think some people misunderstand Spike is the idea that they will only be happy if they win. It is true that Spike enjoys winning, but that's not all they get out of the game. It would be pretty bad if it were, since at any given tournament, only half of the players can win a given round, and (generally) only one person can win the whole thing. If that was the only person who had a good time, then people would've turned to some other activity by now. When developing cards for Spike, we are trying to make sure that we can reward mastery, while at the same time providing experiences that are fun on either side of the table. In the goal of finding the best net fun in a match, how you lose is generally more important than how you win.

It is true that Spikes like powerful cards, but that doesn't mean we can just put powerful cards in a set and move on. First off, balance is important. Some Spikes are happy when an environment is dominated by one deck, but most want some variety. For the development team, it also means that we need to make sure both that the powerful cards are fun, and that some number of the most fun cards in the set are powerful. More than that, on a card-by-card basis, we need to make sure that the kinds of decks they promote are also fun, and are part of a diverse environment. This is really not an easy task, but if development is doing their job, it looks as if we didn't do much of anything.

Making Choice Matter

The problem with looking at Spike as just wanting strong cards is that it removes the idea that Spike is looking to do anything but win. Spike wants strong cards that are satisfying and let them win games by making strong decisions in gameplay or deck building. Imagine the following card:

Lava Spikiest
R
Sorcery
CARDNAME can't be countered.
Flip a coin. If you win the flip, CARDNAME deals 30 damage to target player.

Well, we've found a pretty strong card. If we printed it in a set, it would be a tournament card. Until we banned it, I would guess that basically every tournament deck would run four. The card is horribly balanced, though, and beyond just needing to cost a lot more mana, it doesn't actually make anyone feel good. Yes, you feel good when you win, but the Spike we design for doesn't want to win through their opponent getting mana screwed every round in a tournament. I have no doubt that player exists, but I can't design for them. The Spike we are aiming at wants to outsmart their opponent, and win games by making good decisions. They may not be totally realistic to themselves about how many of their good decisions mattered and how many didn't, but they like that moment when they get to make a hard choice and it turns out well. They play Magic to experience mastery feedback loops, and get joy out of competition.

A card like the one above has basically no counterplay. You win or lose the die roll, people likely mulligan until they have one and a land, then they cast it. A quarter of your games will end on turn one when you have no plays, because your opponent cast this spell. And what about the games where they miss their flip? Well, chances are you now get to make the same coin flip and see if you won. And then, if you both miss, you might have a game until someone draws another one, and it happens again. It's hard to brag to your friends after the game about how you won if you had so little agency in what happened. It just wouldn't be a satisfying decision. We try to build cards and environments in such a way that players are presented with some hard decisions and are rewarded for making the best ones. One of the reasons that, over time, we have scaled back on some of the arcane rules required to make Magic cards work is that we wanted games to be decided by strategic decisions, rather than knowing that an opponent asking "May I Lightning Bolt you?" was them actually trying to Time Walk you. Better to have the game-defining decisions be actual decisions rather than remembering to put an opponent's trigger on the stack.

Now, it's not that randomness has no place. If people wanted to play a perfectly balanced game with no variance, they would likely just play chess. Some amount of variance is important for a game like Magic, in making each game play out differently. The trick is finding where to put that variance.

Spike, as a whole, wants games to be skill-intensive to a point. The cynical answer is that people generally want games to be skill-intensive enough that they will beat all players weaker than them, but have enough variance that they can beat players stronger than them. I think a more accurate level for making people happy is that they will win more games than they lose against weaker players, but lose more than they win against stronger players. With how Magic tournaments are paired, you wouldn't want to compare Elo ratings and just give the match to the higher-rated person. Instead, while being a strong player is a huge advantage, things like metagaming, rogue deck building, and other aspects of the game need to matter. Beyond that, having some chance to lose to weaker players is a good incentive to be the strongest player possible, not just the strongest one in the room. The stronger you get in a vacuum, the more you will beat players weaker than you. It leads to there being an almost unlimited amount of reward for a player's mastery, no matter how large of a stage they are playing on.

To prove my point, let's look at a card that also has a large random element, but I would say Spikes are very fond of, as a whole:

This card is powerful. Very powerful. For several years, it was considered to be the best two-drop of all time, if not the best creature of all time. While it has gained some competition over time, it is one of the rare creatures that was strong enough for Standard, Vintage, Legacy, and Modern. One of the things that makes this a very Spikey card is that, when it was released, many weaker players thought the card was horrible. They overestimated how much life they would lose and underestimated how strong a 2-power body on this was. Being able to evaluate this card, and how strong it is, early on is one of the many things Spikes enjoy when not playing the game. They like finding the hidden gems in sets that are much stronger than others would expect, or seeing how to mitigate downsides.

While Dark Confidant is obviously strong enough to win its controller more games than it costs them, there is a good amount of randomness in the card. I know I have lost plenty of "unloseable" games after flipping a Force of Will two turns in a row with the card. The reason that the card is fun is that it provides a lot of power, but asks you to do something in return: build your deck around it, and manipulate your draws.

Imagine the card instead read:

Darkest Confidant
1B
Creature—Human Advisor
At the beginning of your upkeep, draw a card.
2/1

Yeah, it is stronger, but it's not more fun. You are even more likely to win if it sticks around for a few turns, but you didn't have to make any decisions based around the card. You could put it in any deck you wanted to, without even thinking about what the average converted mana cost of the cards you revealed was, or if you should cast a Brainstorm in your upkeep to put a land on top and save yourself a few possible points of damage. This card may lead to you winning more games than Dark Confidant, assuming you are the only one playing it. That's not how things work, though—your opponents get to play the same cards you do. I find it much more satisfying to win by making good play or deck-building decisions around a card like Dark Confidant and figuring out how to maximize the unknown quantities it adds to the game on the board than just getting extra resources from a much stronger card. I think the best Spike cards we design have some cost, either on the battlefield or in deck building, that must be paid to maximize how strong they are. Figuring out how far to go to maximize this is a huge part of the enjoyment.

Balancing Act

One thing that is very true about Mark Rosewater's statement about Spikes is that the cards have to be good for them to see play. We can make a card that has all the fun and interesting decisions in the world, but if it isn't strong enough to see play in Standard, then it's not going to see play in Standard. It's important that development has a pretty good (but not perfect) idea of what Standard will look like, and that we make sure the cards that define the format are fun.

A question we ask ourselves a lot when making Magic sets is "Would this card be fun if it were strong?" That is an important question. There are people who get a huge kick out of playing cards that are somewhat weak, but do something really different. The Great Aurora, for example, is a fun build-around card that saw some play in the Seasons Past deck. I think it is a great card to be a one-of in a niche role; I don't think it is the kind of card we would want to be the thing that defines Standard. Not just because there is a large random element to it, but because of how long it takes to resolve, and what games look like if multiple copies resolve. It's better as a "card Standard is about" than Warp World, but that is another card we wouldn't want to define the format. We are never going to know what the strongest card in Standard is when we finish developing a set. If we did, we would've weakened it. Something is always going to be the strongest, and the more we can make the strong things fun, the more likely it is people are happy with the format.

Collected Company is an example of a card where this gets pushed to the extreme. We knew the card was strong, but we underestimated how strong it would be—or perhaps more accurately, how strong some of the supporting cards around it would be. Not by a huge margin, but more than enough to make it the strongest individual card in the format. The card has huge footprint on Standard right now, and we will have to see what happens at the Pro Tour regarding whether or not people find decks that consistently beat the Bant Company decks. Whenever there is a "top deck" or card, and it is dominant for a long time, people get tired and frustrated of it. People were very tired of Siege Rhino by the time it rotated out of Standard, but a lot of that was how good the rest of the deck was. Yeah, the card was kind of boring, but if it was the big payoff for playing an otherwise-too-weak deck, then that would be cool. As it is, it was just the icing on top of playing a deck that was almost strong enough without the card. In an alternate reality where a few cards in the Abzan deck were a bit weaker and cards in other decks were stronger, Mantis Rider or Savage Knuckleblade might be the cards that people were horribly frustrated with.

Part of making cards for Spike is making cards that are in a narrow enough power band to be impactful and spur new decks to be created, but not so much that they block a lot of stuff out. It's easy to go too far in one direction, but we generally aim a bit low on a lot of cards, and we trust that the amount we are incorrect with ensure that there is enough powerful stuff in Standard without too much being too strong. We're not always going to be right, but I think our record is pretty good, all things considered.

That's it for this week. Make sure to watch Pro Tour Eldritch Moon, going on now and continuing throughout this weekend. Next week, I'll be back talking more about Standard, control, and deck diversity.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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