Have you ever lost to a deck chock full of Beasts, Dragons, and/or Elementals? I know I have.
Winning games happens all the time in Magic—not just in tournaments and tours, but at kitchen tables and bedrooms. Aside from very peculiar and particular circumstances, virtually every "casual" game of Magic ends in one person winning. It's been a long time but, if I recall correctly, when I learned to play Magic the point was to beat my buddy and win the game.
If winning in Magic is such a common occurrence and goal, why do "tournament players" and others of the competitive bent—that is, the classic Spike type players—get a bad rap? For Spikes, the question "Isn't Magic about winning?" is a rhetorical one. But if games of Magic are won all the time then it's not winning games that can make it unfun for other players, but the attitude we're bringing to the table when we do it.
The Three Cs of Magic
I was a pretty excitable kid (and, for those of you who know me, I'm a pretty excitable adult as well), and someone shared with me "The Three Cs" of calm, cool, and collected. These principles are solid attitudes to bring to any situation, big or small. But not everything can be approached in the same way. Most sports contend directly against the open nature the Three Cs call for, and Magic can be approached in much the same way as sports: there are assumed strategies (archetypes), playbooks to learn (synergistic interactions and decision trees), players to acquire (specific, individual cards), and levels of professional competition to "ascend" through (casual, Friday Night Magic, large sanctioned events, Pro Tour Qualifiers, Grand Prix, and Pro Tours, culminating in the World Championships). Personally, I know quite a few fellow players who take this approach and even find some modest success. On the other hand I also know many "casual" games that involved such a high level of play skill, bluffing, reading the play, and utilizing creative, novel solutions that I would not place "everything but tournaments" as the lowest rung of the ladder.
Approaching Magic as a sport is a fairly provocative idea that can permeate a style of play. The drive to compete for success can spill over into tone of voice, play expectation, and social behavior. You only need to turn on television shows aimed at preteens to see the "stereotypical jock" personality to see what can happen.
But, like many other fellow players, I don't take that sort of approach. Magic, to me, is more about slinging cards with some friends—new and old—and having a great time: in other words, you could call me a Social Timmy. Magic is a vehicle (albeit one with other awesome benefits) for social entertainment. If I'm not playing multiplayer it's a rare moment for me (testing a deck or trying my hand in a release event), and I wouldn't have it any other way. This is a pretty archetypical Social Timmy approach and it's one that I try to tap into every week. If we're not having fun as a group then I consider the night unsuccessful. So does this mean I don't like to win games and play for the win?
No, I like winning. While my win record column is a little empty in some types of games more than I'd like it to be I do find modest success with some more "casual" formats, like Elder Dragon Highlander.
Yet, on closer examination, I realized that the reason I "win" in EDH isn't because I really like winning or that my deck is particularly creative or innovative (Spike and Johnny traits, respectively): it's because I like wrecking my opponent's plans and use tools to do just that. That is to say, in other words, I'm also a Griefer Timmy.
I showed you my Kresh the Bloodbraided Elder Dragon Highlander deck a few weeks ago (there have been a few changes since then as it's perpetually in a state of flux), and after reviewing the complete deck list I noticed a startling trend in many of my choices: most of the cards are, for lack of a better word, obnoxious. It's fun to play a nice, big dude. It's not fun to have it stolen, get hit with it, then see it sacrificed. It's fun to generate a lot of token creatures. It's not fun to see Pernicious Deed or a cycled Slice and Dice sweep them all away. Umezawa's Jitte, Whispersilk Cloak, and Lightning Greaves are all fun—if you're not playing against them.
My Kresh deck is getting to be known as "that deck" when I pull it out. It's a disdain that is, admittedly, well-earned. Some of my deck's accomplishments include destroying four other players in the span of just two of my turns, locking down many decks in the late game (Volrath's Stronghold and Eternal Witness with a well-stocked graveyard is tough to work around), and stealing wins through sheer, brutal, repeated destruction of others' board positions (recurring Damnation, Pernicious Deed, and Insurrection really put a damper on interactive gaming).
My deck is a Griefer deck, and I grief people in EDH.
That statement rings painfully like a confession (because it is). I've been thinking about it for some time now and I've slowly come to realize that my "most successful" decks don't just drop dudes and awesome spells; they strip away options and force a win through disruption. I have a pet milling deck (with four copies of Glimpse the Unthinkable, of course) that I've been working with for years. The very first deck I worked hard on when I first started playing Magic a lot was a white-blue control deck that would grind a game to a halt. When I hear "EDH?" my hand instinctively reaches for Kresh all too often.
My deck is a Griefer deck, and I grief people in EDH.
I love to have fun but—too often for justification—my fun is coming at the expense of other's fun. I get giddy when I get to use Insurrection to beat face on the board and then mill away dozens of cards using Altar of Dementia. I enjoy getting the "X-for-one" with powerful board-clearing cards. I even smile knowingly when I use Strip Mine to keep a five-color deck off of a color for a little longer. I gain confidence as I restrict and strip away my opponent's capability to deal with me. I like winning, although I'm not out to prove my deck can win—I'm happy seeing how big I can get Kresh to be! But when I methodically restrict my opponent's available options, winning becomes easier.
My deck is a Griefer deck, and I grief people in EDH.
And you know what? I hate it when my resources are restricted, my answers are stripped away, the board is repeatedly wiped by someone else, or I get the target painted on me because my deck does all those things. I generally avoid punishing someone who is getting mana screwed or can't find a creature. But I just as easily focus-fire my deck on someone who looks like they could wreck me, a sort of survival-by-preemptive-strike philosophy that really puts a damper on someone who's trying to just stabilize their position.
And, of course, nothing infuriates me more than when I get kicked while lying down. There isn't anything like the taste of your own medicine to remind you how bitter it can be.
Epic Versus Epidemic
Now don't be quick to write me off completely. I love fun stuff just like the next Timmy—Spearbreaker Behemoth is more exciting to me than Knight of the Reliquary, just like Mind Spring seems better to me than Fact or Fiction—but unconsciously I apply a sport-like mentality to the game. I might be aiming for "Get Kresh to be at least a 21/21 dude, then hit someone with him," but the means I use to do that are more along the lines of "Who's got the best dudes for me to wreck?" Winning the game is a fine goal, since most players build decks to try to win games. However winning at the expense of someone else's fun is what gives winning a bad name, and the attitude brought to play with is what tarnishes how so many of us view Spikes.
Spikes like to prove they can win, and a well-proven way to winning is resource and answer denial. Whether it's in the vein of a Draw-Go style control deck (i.e. Counterspell.dec), land-destroying Ponza decks, or a combo deck that holes up and takes extra turns (Turbo-Fog), taking away from your opponent is often more effective than simply having better stuff.
It's quick, and pretty underhanded, to equate any competitiveness at all with the unfun infliction of "No, you can't do that" in Magic. But taking that perspective to the extreme, big creature decks say "You can't attack" when they drop their biggest dudes and big spell decks say "You can't let it go" when your opponent has something to stop an Insurrection-level spell. Not matter how you slice it, losing isn't the most fun experience you can have.
While cards themselves aren't evil (except for, perhaps, Evil Presence) or out to get you, some cards can be difficult to match up with. Strip Mine is a famously "broken" card that can be a needed utility in deep-card formats like EDH. When I use Strip Mine to take out a Gaea's Cradle, even the Gaea's Cradle player will agree that "Yeah, that was the right thing to do." because Gaea's Cradle can power out some really nasty stuff. The same for the mono-black deck and Cabal Coffers. The same for that mono-blue artifact deck and Tolarian Academy. Strip Mine itself isn't malicious—it can clearly be used to keep a game fair—but can be used very maliciously. It can combo with Crucible of Worlds to take a land out every turn. Add in Exploration to do it twice, or to avoid stunting your own mana development in the process. When there are "broken" cards around, it's always what you came to do with it that matters.
And that's what I'm getting at: the attitude we bring to the table. You can design decks to beat your opponents, crush their odds of success, and work to ensure there isn't a way out, but should every deck be made that way? Sometimes just throwing together a streak of fun cards is all that's really needed. Linear themes are great examples of "take this and run with it" type cards to use: Allies, Slivers, modular, splice onto Arcane, and Thallids are all fairly straightforward ways to take a good/random pile of stuff and turn it into a pretty fun deck. Sometimes it's as simple as taking out Crucible of Worlds from your EDH deck, or changing your general from Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary to Baru, Fist of Krosa, that makes all the difference.
As any Johnny will attest, your deck is an expression of your attitude, whether you want it to be or not. Decks filled with land destruction and board-clearing spells are going to be considered unfun even if you're the cheeriest person bringing chocolate to every game. Your cards are an extension of your voice and can speak louder than anything you could ever actually say—even if you're a very quiet player, everyone else will take notice of you when you put Progenitus onto the battlefield.
Magical Christmas Land
It's not easy to shrug off your natural habits. Some just naturally build decks that often aren't fun to play against. And you know what? That's okay too. Everyone is a little different in terms of play style, preferences, and natural tendencies. But understanding what type of player you are (Timmy, Johnny, or Spike, or some combination thereof) and how you bring that to games can help you understand those who aren't playing the same way. Just as Timmy and Johnny need to give respect to Spike for being just as passionate as they are, Spike needs to meet them partway and respect that winning is part of the game, not the point of the game, for others.
"Magical Christmas Land" is an imaginary place that's often used derisively to describe where exact sequences of cards and plays yield an amazing situation. Using Lotus Cobra and some fetch lands and mana ramping, you can cast a turn-three Violent Ultimatum! By having all four copies of archive trap in hand you can mill away your opponent's entire library after they use a fetch land on their first turn, even if you're on the draw!
Magical Christmas Land is used as a derisive description because the underlying assumption is "It's so random unlikely to happen that you could not effectively win games using that strategy." Spike isn't proving anything in trying to use those strategies—but Johnny would be happy getting any of those situations to happen. Timmy, too, appreciates the idea of a turn-three Ultimatum (or perhaps something like a Verdant Force instead).
Outside of the competitive atmosphere and highly analytic world of tournament Magic, Magical Christmas Land isn't hard to find: we've all seen decks that seem to flounder or do strange things only to suddenly light up like the Rockefeller Tree and show you something quite Magical indeed. You can find it at kitchen tables and bedrooms, at card shops and random games. It's not the point but the way—the winding path that some of us follow that, from time to time, shows us something truly remarkable.
And Now For Something Completely Different
By this point I'm sure many of the players who self-identify as a Spike are tuned out, annoyed with yet another article extolling the virtues of fun and vilifying denial strategies. The fact is that while I feel strongly that denial strategies aren't fun it's also clear that I use them too. It's okay for anyone to like or dislike those things as that's part of what makes Magic different for each of us. All that any non-Spike should ask of a Spike is that, on occasion, you set aside your normal route to victory to grab some things that may not appear to be the optimal choices available and shuffle up something that takes having fun as its top priority—leaving the "must win" focus in your backpack for a game or two—and sling cards without worry.
I promise after we're done you can show us a few powerful tricks that can fit into our deck and get back to smashing at us some more. Quid pro quo, you know.