Johnny Drama

Posted in Latest Developments on August 21, 2009

By Tom LaPille

Tom LaPille makes things. Some of the things he makes are card sets, like Dark Ascension and Born of the Gods. Sometimes he makes stories, too. Sometimes he makes unexpected things, like 16th-century Japanese clothing. He's probably making something right now.

This is Exiled Week on Daily MTG. However, I covered Exiled Week two weeks ago when I introduced From The Vault: Exiled. That week was Johnny Week, so this week I'll be covering Johnny just like I promised.

I can't do a better job of introducing Johnny than Mark Rosewater did, so I'll quote his seminal "Timmy, Johnny, and Spike Revisited."

So why does Johnny play Magic? Because Johnny wants to express something. To Johnny, Magic is an opportunity to show the world something about himself, be it how creative he is or how clever he is or how offbeat he is. As such, Johnny is very focused on the customizability of the game. Deck building isn't an aspect of the game to Johnny; it's the aspect.

One of the strengths of Magic is the ability for players to imbue much of themselves in their decks. When you play Monopoly you don't get emotionally attached to the board. But with Magic, your deck becomes an extension of yourself. When your deck wins, you win. When your deck gets complimented, you get complimented. It is this principle that drives Johnnies.

Two weeks ago, Rosewater talked about designing for Johnny. However, development has a number of tools that it uses to make Johnny happier as well, and I'll share some of them in this column. Each of the three psychographics thrives on different kinds of fun, but it's important to remember that the fundamental fun that all three psychographics have identified can still be fun for anyone, no matter what kind of fun they prefer to have.

Adjusting Mana Costs

Johnny thrives on combining Magic cards and unique and unexpected ways. Magic's core mana mechanic is a huge part of why the game system is balanced and creates fun individual games, but it also can limit players' ability to combine their cards in creative ways. Players often demonstrate their willingness to work around awkward mana requirements by playing decks built around combinations like Seismic Assault and Swans of Bryn Argoll. Getting both and , , or consistently in the same deck takes some doing, but it's clearly worth it to some. Unfortunately, daunting mana requirements like that can dissuade players from trying to build decks around interesting combinations that they find. That gets in the way of a Johnny's potential fun, so we avoid doing it when we can.


Seismic Assault
Swans of Bryn Argoll

There is another tool that we have that relates to mana costs, although we use this other tool as sparingly as possible. Often, designers will create a card that is directed toward Johnny. However, sometimes that card is so potent an engine or so huge a reward that it causes bad things to happen in our Constructed playtesting. When this happens, rather than kill the card entirely, we prefer to just make it expensive enough that it will appeal only to Johnnies. We have found that although this takes some cards away from Spike, it makes Johnny happier for multiple reasons. First, he still gets to play with the crazy text boxes that he wants to play with. Second, he appears more creative compared to the other psychographics because he is the only one playing with those cards. This is a solution that we don't love using, but we do it when we must.

Getting Weird

Mirror of Fate

Another tool in the Magic development toolbox that we use to satisfy Johnnies is to make cards weirder. If we notice that a set doesn't have enough Johnny appeal, we are not afraid to take a perfectly normal card and twist it into something that looks unusable and narrow but will give a few players great joy to play with.

This happened in a memorable way for one particular card in Magic 2010. We were unhappy with the text box for Mirror of Fate very late into development, and it never really settled down for longer than a week or so. In one of our last meetings, lead developer Erik Lauer brought a full-color printout of the card's art and decreed that we were going to make a seriously wacky card. I believed that we were going to make a wacky card, but what I didn't believe was just how wacky he wanted to get. Our first attempts were strange, but they were not wacky enough for Erik. Seeing our frustration, he decreed with a sly smile that part of the card's effect would be exiling your entire library. It didn't take us long from there to get to the Doomsday-esque text we have. We left the meeting scratching our heads at the bizarre card we had made, but we were confident that some enterprising players would figure out what to do with it. Lo and behold, just yesterday on this site über-Johnny Noel deCordova shared with us a way to use it to entertaining effect.

Single Cards

Clever tapestries of interactions in sets is great for Johnny. On the other hand, one good build-around card can keep a Johnny occupied for a very long time. When developers find a card that fits this description, we fight to protect it. When we see an opportunity to make a card a better build-around for Johnny, we take it.


I did not internalize this particular lesson until very recently. Masters Edition 3 is the first Magic set that I was the lead developer for, and I'll be spending an entire article talking about it next week. However, today I will spoil a card early, and that card is Didgeridoo. Lead designer Erik Lauer built a small number of tribal themes into Masters Edition 3, one of which is Minotaurs. Naturally, he included Didgeridoo as a support card for that tribe. In one of my early development passes I discovered that the set contained no Minotaurs that cost more than four mana to "cheat" into play with Didgeridoo. Intending to rectify this, I searched for Minotaurs in early Magic that cost more than four and was bewildered to find that there were none. Furious, I nearly cut Didgeridoo from the set. However, resident Timmy-Johnny Ken Nagle intervened. Before Ken came to Wizards, he played enough Magic that he was able to explore nearly every card in most sets. He told me that Didgeridoo's existence would have prompted him to make a casual Minotaur deck, and cutting it would have cost him five to ten hours of fun. In the last Limited playtest we did, Serious Fun author Kelly Digges opened a Didgeridoo, first-picked it, and drafted exactly the Minotaur deck that Ken told me he would have built. I'm glad that Ken convinced me to keep it.

Alternate Limited Strategies

Johnnies get to shine most brightly in Constructed formats, where there are few restrictions on the cards they play with. However, as developers it's important to us that Limited be fun for everyone as well. We make Limited more fun for Johnny by seeding formats with alternative strategies that can be discovered. Most games of Limited are decided by creatures attacking and blocking, but most does not need to mean all, and even games that are decided by attacking and blocking can be won in strange ways that Johnny enjoys.


Dampen Thought
Tome Scour

One classic alternative strategy that we often build into Limited environments is decking. Decking as a strategy was mainstream by design in straight Ravnica: City of Guilds Limited, but when everyone is able to see and build a strategy it loses some of its appeal to Johnnies because it ceases to be something that is unique to them. Better for Johnny is a card like Dampen Thought in Champions of Kamigawa. It is an uncommon, so it didn't show up as often as Vedalken Entrancer or Lurking Informant did in Ravnica, and the splice-based decks it produced looked nothing like normal Limited decks, often playing seven or fewer creatures in their 40 cards. This is the sort of thing that makes Johnny happiest. Magic 2010's Tome Scour was an attempt to seed a potential milling deck into the limited format; one copy of Tome Scour can't make an entire milling deck work in the same way that one Dampen Thought can, but I have still seen many people draft Tome Scour decks in Magic 2010 Limited. Sometimes those people have even been lucky enough to have picked up a Traumatize or two, and others have been clever enough to add red to their decks for Burning Inquiry backup!

A Little Johnny in All of Us

Those are four tools that we use to improve Johnny's experience. However, the Johnny impulse drives players to things that can be fun for any Magic player, and we have ways of bringing that fun to other players too. Here are two of them.

Engineered Combinations

One way that we can bring Johnny fun to any Magic player is by engineering two or more individually appealing cards so that they combine in fun ways. One of the earliest such combinations was Royal Assassin with Icy Manipulator. Back in the early days of Magic, players loved both of these cards and were more than willing to play either of them on their own. However, in combination they turned into a creature-slaughtering machine. Many Spikes and Timmies found themselves experiencing snatches of Johnny fun as they used the two cards together. The inclusion of both Blinding Mage and Royal Assassin in Magic 2010 is no accident, and it is a nod to that classic combination.


Tunnel Vision

A more recent example that resonates for me comes from triple Ravnica Limited. I enjoyed the change of pace that the blue-black milling deck offered, and I drafted it a lot. I learned while I drafted that format that Junktroller, although it read poorly, was a very good card for those decks. It blocked extremely well, and thanks to the Dimir guild's transmute mechanic it was possible to search up cards that you had put on the bottom of your deck and play them again. Another card that I grew to love was Tunnel Vision. It appeared to me to be a bizarre rare at first, but it became quite potent when I learned to remember what cards were in the draft and likely to be in my opponent's deck. It usually milled my opponent for a bunch of cards, especially after the first game when I had seen most of their deck. However, in combination with Junktroller, Tunnel Vision was a six-mana way to win the game. I'm not a Johnny by nature, but I had a ton of fun every time I pulled off this combination!

Limited Depth

One of the best tools we have that brings Johnny fun to the most hardcore of Spikes is building very deep Limited environments. When there are lots of potential strategies to be drafted in a set, it's very possible for any enterprising player to find an underdrafted one, get a powerful and unexpected deck, then feel smart as his friends marvel at what he found. We have done this for a long time in expansion sets, but Magic 2010 lead developer Erik Lauer made full use of his freedom to make new cards to build hidden strategies into his draft format.

Trumpet Blast

White has the best cheap creatures in Magic 2010, and aggressive white-red decks can get tons of value out of Trumpet Blast when they have many creatures in play. However, Trumpet Blast is nowhere near as powerful in red decks that use other colors because it's hard to get as many cheap creatures. Slower controlling blue-red decks, for example, often have around ten to twelve creatures and have no use for a Trumpet Blast. However, there is also an aggressive blue-red deck in Magic 2010 that is happy to use unimpressive cheap flyers like Zephyr Sprite and Sage Owl along with Trumpet Blasts and Lava Axes to do tons of damage very quickly. I enjoyed watching players discover this deck firsthand during unsanctioned side drafts at U.S. Nationals a few weeks ago. The people I was playing with were among the most diehard Spikes in the world, but they were still having plenty of good Johnny fun while they made unexpected discoveries.

Speaking of Johnny cards, let's look at last week's poll.

Last Week's Poll

Which of the following Magic 2010 cards do you like the most?
Open the Vaults 1914 24.0%
Polymorph 1232 15.5%
Warp World 1163 14.6%
Burning Inquiry 978 12.3%
Alluring Siren 933 11.7%
Hive Mind 891 11.2%
Megrim 575 7.2%
Mirror of Fate 288 3.6%
Total 7974 100.0%

I didn't have anything specific that I wanted to get out of this poll; it's merely a pile of the Johnniest cards in Magic 2010 that I saw in one pass. I saw some complaints in my forums from people who didn't like any of these cards. I'm okay with that; it probably just means that you aren't a Johnny. Part of the exercise for me was seeing which of these cards was most appealing to everyone, so thank you for your feedback.

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