Mark Rosewater has said that the greatest threat to the future of Magic design is complexity creep.  In order to maintain interest among players that grok the game already, the design team must continuously produce new and interesting interactions.  This often demands more complex cards.  If they do not tread lightly, however, essential new players will be intimidated by the overall complexity of the game and avoid it.

In my last entry I talked about psychographics; today, I want to talk about the problem with setting psychographics in stone.  I’d also like to dispute one of the answers from the great designer search 2 multiple choice test.

Johnny vs Spike

To start I’d like to review the definitions of Johnny and Spike.  From Mark Rosewater’s Article, Timmy, Johnny, and Spike (emphasis added by me):

Johnny is the creative gamer to whom Magic is a form of self-expression. Johnny likes to win, but he wants to win with style. It s very important to Johnny that he win on his own terms. As such, it s important to Johnny that he s using his own deck. Playing Magic is an opportunity for Johnny to show off his creativity.

Johnny likes a challenge.  Johnny enjoys winning with cards that no one else wants to use0 . He likes making decks that win in innovative ways. What sets Johnny apart from the other profiles is that Johnny enjoys deckbuilding as much as (or more than) he enjoys playing. Johnny loves the cool interactions of the cards. He loves combo decks.  Johnny is happiest when he s exploring uncharted territory.

Spike is the competitive player. Spike plays to win. Spike enjoys winning.  To accomplish this, Spike will play whatever the best deck is.0  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.

I will take the liberty of adding one point to the definition of Spike and trust that the design team will agree: Spike is more interested in the utility than the novelty of a card.

Keep this in mind going forward, and see if you can identify the design dilemma that these two players create.  In the meantime, allow me to draw an analogy between Magic and a common household item: the lightbulb.


Thomas Edison is generally credited with the invention of the light bulb.  Yes, others had developed ideas and working prototypes before him, but Edison was the first to find the right combination of components to make it commercially viable.  At the time it was a novelty that represented uncharted territory in engineering.  Without the infrastructure of electrical power distribution, however, it was not much better than a candle.  To put this into Magic terms, Edison produced a Johnny device.

Though many improvements have been made over the years, the incandescent bulb is mostly the same today as it was then.  The key difference is that today it is used for its utility, and not its novelty.  As people learned the benefits of household electricity and saw the effectiveness of the bulb, the use of electricity spread and became the new norm.  Today, the light bulb is used because it is generally the best source of light.  Today, it is a Spike device.

This shift from Johnny to Spike is a real world example of what I call psychographic creep.

Spiking Johnny’s Cards

To bring this analogy into Magic terms, I’ll ask you to consider the following creature card:

Potent Necromancer
Creature – Zombie Wizard
When CARDNAME is on the battlefield, skip your draw phase.  If you would discard a card, exile that card instead.
Pay 1 life: remove the top card of your library from the game.  At the beginning of your end step, place all cards removed in this way in your hand.

Now, this card is somewhat complex.  It has alot of abilities, and its value might not seem apparent to the new player.  It certainly makes for potentially quirky interactions.  In 1996, this would have definitely been considered a Johnny card.

But the year is not 1996, and this card is not a Johnny card.  Today’s Magic players have the benefit of hindsight.  Any player that has ever seen Necropotence in play would immediately see its pure utility; many would even point out that it is better than Necropotence, as black has an easier time getting rid of its own creatures than it does its own enchantments. Regardless of – or perhaps because of – its broken nature, the design team should recognize this card (and cards like it) for the Spike card that it is.

Invisible Creep

Based on the last Great Designer Search Test, however, I worry that they would not.  I wrote last year that I believed the answer to question 46 of the GDS2 multiple choice test was wrong.  For your convenience, here was the question:

46) Which of the following cards is least a Johnny card?
a) Clone
b) Devastating Summons
c) Fauna Shaman
d) Mortician Beetle
e) Near-Death Experience

According to the answer key, B was the correct answer.  Based on the psychographic creep I described above, I chose a different answer:

C – Fauna Shaman.

I based my choice on knowledge of the game’s history and nature of the decks that were being played.

Fauna Shaman is a creature-based remake of Survival of the Fittest.  At the time that the test was given, variations of the Survival of the Fittest deck permeated the legacy format.  If Survival of the Fittest had never been printed, one could possibly argue that Fauna Shaman is a Johnny card.  Survival of the Fittest was  printed, though, and its banning in Legacy just a few weeks after the GDS2 test is evidence that the Magic community understands all too well its utility as a Spike card.

Hindsight is 20/20

Yes, at a glance, it would definitely appear that Devastating Summons is a pure Spike card, but Magic has a history and that history must be respected.  At this point in Magic’s history, it will take much more creativity to exploit Devastating Summons in the same way that players already know how to exploit Fauna Shaman.

Of course, if useful Johnny cards become Spike cards once they are grokked, how can R&D keep making Johnny cards?

It is for this reason that I call psychographic creep a subset of complexity creep, and a dangerous one at that. Ideas for old Spike cards can be used again and again, as evidenced by the number of cheap 3 damage spells and counterspells in the game.  Ideas for Johnny cards, on the other hand, can be used only once or twice before they are understood.  In time, those Johnny cards that have a lot of utility become Spike cards (think Survival of the Fittest and Necropotence), and those with little utility sit on the fringes waiting for another card to come along and break them (think Illusions of Grandeur) or a rules change to make them overpowered (Flash) or worthless (Brand).  The need to make new Johnny cards is the backdoor through which complexity creep will sneak into our game.

When Wizards designs new Magic cards, they can’t do so in a bubble.  Many of the Johnny cards of yesteryear are Spike cards today.  If the design team sees Fauna Shaman as anything other than a pure Spike card, then they are ignoring the current play environment and the reason why Survival of the Fittest was added to the recent banned list.