Johnny Be Good

Posted in Serious Fun on August 4, 2009

By Kelly Digges

Kelly Digges has had many roles at Wizards over the years, including creative text writer, R&D editor, website copyeditor, lead website editor, Serious Fun column author, and design/development team member on multiple sets.

Welcome to Johnny Week!

Let me introduce you to the abstract entity of the hour, if you're not familiar. Johnny is one of the three "psychographics" Mark Rosewater introduced to answer that all-important question: why do we play?

Now, the answer to that question might seem trivially obvious (to have fun, of course!), but there many possible answers falling into three broad answers personified by the three psychographics. Spike plays to prove something—in other words, to win. Timmy plays to experience something—putting us right back at "having fun"—and that makes him the patron saint of Serious Fun, as I argued in The Timmy Manifesto. Johnny plays to express something—to pull off that crazy combo, to follow a theme as far as it can be followed, to do something nobody ever did before. That can make him a ton of fun to play with, but it can also lead to absurd antics when you'd really rather just play Magic.

In his article this week, Mark talked about how the folks who make Magic keep Johnny happy. That is, of course, his beat; we're a little more concerned with the practical. Let's explore what Johnny looks like at the casual / multiplayer table.

Vive la Différence

When I taught my friend Laura how to play Magic, I introduced her to the Timmy / Johnny / Spike terminology, in large part because it's everyday vocabulary in my (perhaps atypical?) group of friends. She immediately understood the difference between Spike on the one hand and Timmy and Johnny on the other—Spike is determined to win at all costs, whereas the other two have other, more intrinsic goals—but it took her a while to understand the difference between Timmy and Johnny. That's understandable; they both, after all, set their own goals and pursue them, not independently of the desire to win, but uncoupled from it.

So what is the difference? Basically, Timmy wants what he wants based on how cool it is in a vacuum, with little or no thought about whether anybody's ever done it before. He takes no special pleasure in being clever; if having Meglonoth on the battlefield is fun, then it really doesn't matter to him that he's doing pretty much the same thing with it that anybody else does. The more it does, the better the story will be, but Timmy's not going to go out of his way to blow your mind.

Fumiko the Lowblood

For Johnny, on the other hand, a big part of the enjoyment is wrapped up in making plays that are startling and unique—not just casting Meglonoth and attacking and blocking with it, but forcing everyone to attack using Fumiko the Lowblood, slamming down Meglonoth with Dramatic Entrance or Elvish Piper, and hitting it with Valor Made Real to burn out multiple players at once. Bet you haven't seen that before!

Dramatic Entrance
Valor Made Real

(You might recall that I suggested doing all of those things in my preview of Meglonoth. I have a pretty substantial Johnny streak, and preview articles in particular bring it out.)

Pro Everything

To illustrate that difference between Timmy and Johnny, let's take a look at Progenitus. Progenitus has enormous Timmy appeal. As a Timmy, I absolutely love its beautiful mana cost, its kill-you-in-two-hits power and toughness, and most of all the fact that, yes, it has protection from that. For Johnny, though, Progenitus has a huge drawback: it's straightforward in practice. Once you have Progenitus on the battlefield, there's no puzzle. Nobody ever asks, "Gee, what should I do with my Progenitus?" You turn it sideways, and nobody tells you you're clever when you do. Even its unique "protection from everything" ability can actually be a downside for Johnny, because it decreases the number of cards Progenitus can interact with (no equipping it, for example).

But that doesn't mean Progenitus doesn't have any Johnny appeal—far from it! The card has one built-in puzzle and several unique qualities that give it some Johnny splash. The obvious built-in puzzle is how you're supposed to get this thing onto the battlefield in the first place. Just casting it, maybe with some acceleration, is the pure Timmy way, and I did exactly that at the Conflux Prerelease. But Johnny would rather get clever. I envision a mostly green deck whose plan A is to use Dramatic Entrance to throw down Progenitus, preferably blocking something. Mosswort Bridge's free-card condition is satisfied by Progenitus alone, and you could hide the Hydra Avatar under it if you have other ways (Nova Chaser, say) to get to 10 power. This, in turn, suggests Mayael's Aria. If you want extra style points for attacking with Progenitus, Rage Reflection lets you kill in one hit.

Mayael's Aria
Rage Reflection

Finding a clever way to do what Progenitus is supposed to do way faster than it's supposed to do it is the Johnny / Timmy way. But you could instead rely on Progenitus's unique qualities to do something the card was never meant to do. For instance, resident Johnny Noel deCordova used Progenitus and Reaper King's status as the only two five-color cards that cost ten mana to help fuel Blazing Shoals and such. You could also go with manipulating the top of your library and using Erratic Explosion or Heed the Mists, and there's got to be something you can do with the (not unique, but relatively unusual) "shuffle in" clause. Now we're talking Johnny's language!

Blazing Shoal
Heed the Mists

Combo Breaker

Johnny is known for playing combo decks, and while that isn't always the case, it's a safe bet that the combo player at your local multiplayer table is a Johnny. Combo in multiplayer and casual is a tricky issue. It's not actually all that hard to come with a combo that kills everyone at the table. A savvy bunch will stop you before you get things rolling, but when people are unprepared, you can take a whole game with one particularly well-deployed setup.

What I can't tell you is what will happen after that. In high-powered, highly competitive groups, the cost of playing combo is self-evident: once they figure out what you're up to, in this game or a subsequent one, everyone at the table will try to kill you.

This, basically, is the Johnny's dilemma in multiplayer. Johnny wants to live the dream—Hive Mind into Warp World, say, so you can Warp World once for each player, adding to your count with Siege-Gang Commander and Rise of the Hobgoblins. But parts of Johnny's plan—Hive Mind, for example, which forms a brutal combo with the Future Sight Pacts—can draw serious hate at the multiplayer table because of what they could do, regardless of Johnny's actual plans.

Hive Mind
Warp World

This sort of combo hate is a lot easier to deflect when Johnny can honestly say that he isn't planning anything terrible. That's not usually true, though. If Johnny's putting together something crazy, it's probably going to make you die. This, in turn, means that when players know what's happening and can stop it, they will. This makes Johnny a very dangerous person to be. Nobody knows whether that Hive Mind heralds Final Fortune for the win or just Odds to make some mayhem, and usually it's not worth waiting to find out.

If you're the one with the unstoppable combo, be mindful of the other people at the table—who are, let's remember, your friends. Usually this sort of thing is funny exactly once. I recommend that you pull it off, explain any weird rules loopholes you're using, win the game, and then set the deck aside, at least for a while. That said, there's really no such thing as "unstoppable" in Magic. If you play at a more cutthroat table, it may be entirely appropriate to keep trying that combo until somebody brings a deck that can beat it, or everyone gangs up to stop you. That's the life of a Johnny / Spike at the multiplayer table.

But there are those Johnnies—I think of them as "goofball Johnnies"—whose combo plans have nothing to do with winning the game. Usually this will take one of two forms: creating a bizarre game state, or confusing the heck out of everyone at the table.

"Wait, You Can Do That?"

Creating a bizarre game state can be a delight, and multiplayer is the perfect place to do it—you'll probably have some time to do it, and there are lots of people there to appreciate it when you do.

What do I mean by "bizarre game state"? Basically, anything that would never come up in the ordinary course of play, but is technically possible in the rules. You can turn planeswalkers into creatures, for example (with Mycosynth Lattice + March of the Machines, or Enchanted Evening + Opalescence). What good does this do? In the immediate sense, not much. Now your planeswalker dies to Terminate, and damage dealt to it removes loyalty counters and kills it if it exceeds its toughness. So why do it? Maybe just the spectacle of it, getting everybody to scratch their heads. Or maybe it has something to do with Quicksilver Elemental or Experiment Kraj ....

There are other examples that I've always aspired to but never actually taken the time to do. Did you know that Neurok Transmuter and March of the Machines can team up to turn a noncreature artifact into a blue permanent with no types at all? If it's only a creature because it's an artifact, and Neurok Transmuter makes it stop being an artifact, then it's just ... blue. This would let it live through Akroma's Vengeance, I guess, but there are easier ways to do that.

Another weird game state I love is the Fetterball, so named because I first figured out you could do it with Faith's Fetters. If you have two Auras with enchant permanent (or enchant enchantment), you can move them around with effects like Aura Graft or Simic Guildmage so that they enchant each other. It's like an Escher painting; two Auras enchanting each other in an endless loop, each still on the battlefield only because of the other. Rather than Faith's Fetters, these days I'd probably do this with Indestructibility for a very resilient Fetterball. You could also actually make use of this by having two Elemental Resonances enchant each other. How does sound?

"Uh ... Does Anybody Have a Calculator?"

The bizarre game state usually doesn't hurt anybody. It may not be the deck's main event; it might just be something Johnny wanted to show you. But then there's confusing the heck out of everyone at the table, which is also a time-honored Johnny tradition in multiplayer. I once ended a multiplayer game by Disenchanting a Portcullis (go on, read it) that was holding something like thirty creatures at bay with a Confusion in the Ranks on the table. We started stacking all the triggers and going through the enormous number of trades, but then suddenly someone announced that it was time to draft, and everyone conceded to me and went to draft. Does that really count as a win?

These kinds of bizarre, chaotic circumstances can make for some great Timmy stories, but they can also be incredibly annoying. If nobody can cast an instant or sorcery or even trigger a targeted ability without having to roll a virtual 27-sided die because of Grip of Chaos, the game turns into a horrible slog, and, as in the example above, it might be easier to just end it. If you're twelve layers down in subgames thanks to Twincast effects and Shahrazad, at the very least, you'll probably start conceding the subgames. This sort of thing also strikes me as funny exactly once—if that.


The Johnny's Dilemma

The upshot of all this is that if you're a Johnny at the multiplayer table, things can be hard for you. You want to enchant Doubling Season with Followed Footsteps (via Opalescence) and create more tokens in three turns than can comfortably be represented on a graphing calculator. We, the rest of the table, would really rather you didn't. Navigating that divide can be tricky. But then, being tricky is what Johnny is all about.

I'm curious whether you've seen this in action. Does your table have a resident Johnny, or are you the Johnny at the table? How does your group handle killer combos and goofball antics? Do you gang up on Johnny's known killer decks, or do you rely on the "don't be a jerk" rule? Let me know!

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