When Magic: The Gathering was released in August of 1993, it was the first of its kind. A game where you collect cards to summon monsters who then fight each other? That’s awesome! As I was into many of the fantasy themes in the first Magic set and I frequented gaming stores in 1993 (and I was 14), I gobbled up boosters and starter decks like a Dragon Broodmother. At first, I loved to summon big creatures and stomp my friend’s weaker decks, but as I delved into the game and began to appreciate its strategic complexity, I became intrigued by the combinations of certain cards to achieve victory. Even though the game was fairly new, I enjoyed hearing about the really great tournament players who were able to construct the perfect deck and defeat any other guy in the room. I started out a Timmy, but I ended up a Johnny. And I looked up to the Spikes.
The gameplay of Magic is deceptively simple. You construct a deck of at least forty cards and shuffle them. You and your opponent take turns drawing cards, playing land cards that provide mana of a specific color (plains provide white mana; forests green). You then use that mana by “tapping” the lands (turning the card sideways, a development that Wizards of the Coast patented in 1997) to cast spells and summon creatures. The creatures can be used to attack your opponent, who is summoning his own creatures, in an attempt to reduce his 20 life to zero. Like many great games, success in Magic is determined by a combination of luck and skill. The skill is constructing the right deck and knowing when to use cards, but there is an element of luck in which cards end up on the top of that shuffled deck.
Perhaps the greatest draw of Magic, and the reason that it’s still played seventeen years later and has spawned dozens of imitators, is that it appeals to a broad spectrum of psychographic profiles. Different types of gamers get different things out of playing Magic. When he first designed it, math professor Richard Garfield probably wasn’t aware how his game would engage so many disparate groups, but now that Magic has been around a while and over 10,000 cards are now in circulation, the research and development team at Wizards found it useful to codify these different profiles, and give them funny names. Doing so helps the team design new cards that might appeal to each type of player and ensures that any one set isn’t purely devoted to one kind of play style.
“The idea of a psychographic profile is that it breaks down psychologically the people most likely to buy the product you are trying to sell. Understanding what motivates them, and in turn what motivates them to buy your product, helps significantly with your ability to sell it to them,” said Mark Rosewater, the head designer of Magic. He has discussed the three psychographic profiles at the Wizards website for years and his insight on the design process is invaluable to many Magic players. “When I started working in Wizards R&D, I tried applying the profiles to our player base. If we understood what psychologically satisfies them, I felt we could design a game that better addressed their needs. Timmy, Johnny and Spike are the three player psychographics that I assembled.”
The first profile that was identified was the professional tournament player, later nicknamed Spike. The idea for the Magic Pro Tour began in 1994 with an invitational tournament at Gen Con, the huge gaming convention begun by the late Gary Gygax. Although the first tournament did not have a cash payout, the format was quickly expanded by Rosewater, a relatively new hire, and Brand Manager Skaff Elias. They hoped that by generating buzz about these great players and the decks that they used, Magic would spread even more than it already was.
From Zak Dolan (the winner of that first event at Gen Con) to Simon Görtzen who won the last Pro Tour event in San Diego this winter, Spikes play the game to win. That’s what is most important. They will spend their time researching and devising the best possible decks, using the best cards that supply the best possible combinations. The competition is their motivation and winning gives them the best feelings.
“Spike plays the game to prove something,” Rosewater said. “He uses the game as a metric to test himself and show what he is capable of.”
Timmy is different; he wants to play big spells and summon big creatures. For a Timmy, winning all of the time isn’t necessarily important. A Timmy could play ten matches and lose all of them but if he was able to play that huge 9/9 flying dragon with first strike in the last match, he might still walk away happy.
“Timmy plays to experience something,” explained Rosewater. “He wants to do things that are fun and exciting. He wants to make memorable moments that he can share with his friends.”
Demographically, the average age of a Timmy skews towards the younger players, but that doesn’t mean that older players don’t sometimes fall under the spell of, well, casting big spells. Having such huge monsters at your command is really fun for some players and they crack open every booster pack of Magic cards hoping that there is a huge rare card on top.
Johnny plays the game for the subtleties. The rules text of any given card can interact with other cards in interesting ways that aren’t always obvious. A Johnny loves to find these cards and construct a deck that perfectly takes advantage of a loophole or a unique combination. In fact, just crafting a deck of 60 cards from the thousands of cards available in Magic is a source of joy for Johnny. He wouldn’t enjoy playing a deck that someone else had compiled and scoffs at the idea of pre-made decks.
“Johnny plays to express something. He uses the game as a way to demonstrate things about himself, most often his intelligence and creativity,” Rosewater said. “These psychographics have proven invaluable as a design tool because understanding what our players need to enjoy the game makes it much easier to include those elements. The tricky thing is that there are three psychographics and each of those has numerous subgroups meaning that there are dozens and dozens of things desired by different types of players.”
It’s very rare for one player to be a pure Timmy or a pure Spike. More often, each player is a hybrid of these profiles, so that you could describe someone as “mostly Johnny, with strong Timmy elements and smattering of Spike when you piss him off.”
Acknowledging these profiles has allowed the research and development team to consider which players might appreciate a given card. But that’s not always the case, as sometimes players will surprise even the most experienced designer. “Most of the time, a designer has a good sense what psychographic profile will like the card when he is designing it. As Magic is a modular game where players can find inventive ways to mix and match things, cards are often used in ways other than what the designer originally intended,” said Rosewater. “So yes, I have made many a Johnny card that ended up being beloved more by Spike than Johnny.”
Overall, Rosewater thinks that most of the 500 or so unique Magic cards printed every year are designed with Spike in mind, but that is mostly because of the tournament format that plays with decks made with random booster packs. “Johnny usually has the least cards designed for him as he needs fewer cards to accomplish his task. An entire deck can often be built around one quirky card,” he said.
The psychographic profiles of Timmy and Spike are not necessarily indicative of how dedicated the player is to the game. “One of the mistakes people often make is assuming that the psychographics line up completely with seriousness of play. It is true that more casual players are Timmies and more competitive players are Spikes but it is not one for one,” said Rosewater. Wizards of the Coast is always trying to appeal to more casual players of Magic and they have introduced new products in recent years to offer new ways to play the game.
“Planechase, for instance, was created for multiplayer play with players that liked having more swing to their games – more up and downs to create exciting moments. Archenemy was created to allow one player to take on a team of multiple players,” Rosewater said. “We have to make different cards for different types of players. We also have to create different play experiences as well. Our recent foray into multiplayer products is part of our constant exploration into giving our audience new ways to play.”
It’s impossible to say which profile buys the most cards or which group gets the most out of playing the game. “All the psychographic profiles support the game. That’s why we spend so much time meeting the needs of each one,” Rosewater said. And that is exactly what has allowed Magic to endure for so long, by appealing to the Spike, Timmy, and Johnny in all of us.
“Who’s the most important psychographic profile? It’s kind of like asking which of my children is my favorite,” said Rosewater. “They are all important because it is the combination of all the psychographic profiles that makes the game what it is. I like to think of Magic as having a well-balanced ecosystem and [Magic] R&D is incentivized to maintain that ecosystem as best we can.”
Patrick Jarrett plays in Magic tournaments.