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Why We Like Magic December 20, 2009

Posted by James in : all, random, theory , trackback

Mark Rosewater describes how different people play Magic for different reasons. He has three main categories of people who play it for different reasons: Timmy, Johnny, and Spike. Timmy wants to “experience something.” Johnny wants to be creative and express himself. Spike wants to play because of the competition. The problem with these categories is that Spike doesn’t good reason to play Magic instead of some other game, such as Poker, Chess, Go Fish, Uno, War, and so on. Spike can be competitive at other games, and Chess would actually reward his skill level more than Magic. Here are some real reasons to want to play Magic instead of the other games out there:

  1. The game looks cool.
  2. The game creates its own story.
  3. It helps to know what you are doing.
  4. There is a random element.
  5. You can make your own deck.

The game looks cool.

The first thing anyone notices about Magic is that it looks cool. (I actually think it looked cooler before with the old art.)  However, the game looks way too complected, so actually sitting down and learning how to play sounds ridiculous to most people.

The game creates its own story.

Magic would be nothing more than arbitrary logical rules if it wasn’t for the fact that it simulates a fantasy world. Monsters fight each other, you cast spells, creatures without flying can’t block the path of a flying creature, and so on. The flavor of the game demands that we can envision a kind of story going on.

The reason that equipment wasn’t introduced until Mirrodin was probably because it made no sense. “How will we make sure a Birds of Paradise can’t use a Leonin Scimitar!?” Eventually Wizards of the Coast decided that equipment could add this kind of absurd element to the game.

Perhaps this kind of absurdity adds a peculiar charm to the game to have a funny mad-libs element. “The [noun] used a Leonin Scimitar.” How about a Birds of Paradise? That answer is absurd, but the story element of the game survives, and we just have to imagine something silly happening.

Magic is also much too complected to someone who doesn’t yet see how the game simulates a fantasy world. Once they see how the world is simulated, the rules make a lot of sense and aren’t too hard to remember.

Notice that most games lack this simulation element. Chess and Poker are very abstract. It’s hard to see how they are telling a story. Even though Chess supposedly simulates a war, I’ve never actually imagined a war when playing.

It helps to know what you are doing.

Good skill and strategy is rewarded. This seems even more true in a draft where everyone has a pretty equal access to cards. Knowing which cards to take to make a good deck helps a lot.

It can help to be skilled when playing in constructed formats, but there is a limited number of “best decks” people have to choose from, and how well you do in a tournament will have a lot to do with which “best deck” you play against. Right now everyone thinks Jund is the best deck, but hopefully there is at least one “best deck” that can beat Jund (and  probably lose against more decks in general.)

If skill was not rewarded, then we would have a game based purely on luck. War is a good example, which is basically just “high card wins.” So, Spike’s main concern about the game is being rewarded for his (or her) skill.

There is a random element.

The random element is what many of us call “luck.” This is an important factor in two ways. One, it gives us hope of beating superior players. It can be disheartening to lose to someone playing Chess over and over.

Two, it allows for exciting surprises. This is necessary for Timmy to get overkill, and for Johnny to get his awesome combo. It is exciting surprises that allows for many of our great stories we tell others.

You can make your own deck.

This is the necessary element to express ourselves and be creative, and this is a huge challenge to Wizards of the Coast. We want to be able to make our own decks, but it can be disillusioning when everyone uses a net deck (one of the few “best decks”) in constructed, or even when Wizards of the Coast seems to tell us which decks to play. For example, Shards of Alara basically forced us to play one of the five shards. That didn’t allow for much creative space, so the whole point of playing a creative game was destroyed. It could become temping to just play Chess when that happens.


Johnny is the only kind of Magic player who fully appreciates Magic for being what it is. Timmy also has reason to appreciate Magic for its creative element because he wants to experience the game in a particular way. Competitive Spike can play Chess or Poker instead.

Note that I have excluded going to foolish extremes just to make a creative deck. It’s disillusioning when people net deck and when we have to play a Shard because trying to express ourselves in that situation is not viable. Everyone wants to be able to win. If Johnny wants to express himself, he wants to be able to do so and win. Timmy will also want to be able to win with over-kill, or he will be disappointed. For this reason it has to be assumed to some extent that both Timmys and Johnnys are also Spikes. They want to be able to play viable cards. They don’t want to be left to scrounge up a terrible deck just to express themselves.

Mark Rosewater recently wrote about what it’s like to design cards specifically for Spike. I am not saying that this can’t be done. I’m just saying that Timmys and Johnnys want good cards as well.

Notice that I didn’t mention that some people like Magic for fame or fortune. This is because fame and fortune can’t prove a game to be fun. Fame and fortune are external to the game, and such benefits could encourage us to play a game we hate, just like a well-paying job could be taken even if it’s a job we hate.


1. Michael Schwartz - December 20, 2009

Poker is a game where you play with 52 restricted cards.

2. Alex - December 20, 2009

I think there is one fundamental thing that should be noted. You point out that if spike were a true “spike”, then instead he/she would just play chess or poker, games which reward skill more than magic. However, as you also note, there is no such thing as a “pure” spike, one that is 100% invested in winning, so saying that “Competitive Spike can play Chess or Poker instead” is not a totally accurate assessment of the spike mindset. Spikes like to win because they think winning is fun, but other things can be fun to.

Along those lines, it should also be noted that what is meant by “fun” is important. One very crucial reason why magic is considered by many to be more “fun” than chess is due to its variability (note: not randomness). Due to the wide variety of cards available to each player, and other variables like what you draw, what decisions you make, what cards you take in draft, what tricks your opponents have etc., every game you play is subject to different parameters, which benefits creativity/innovation as well as skill. This is something that people often can’t find in something like chess, because every game is subject to the same initial conditions and can therefore be more boring (

3. James - December 20, 2009


I agree with what you are saying. It’s basically the Johnny in us that makes Magic in particular a fun game. But my point was that Wizards of the Coast can ruin innovation/creativity to quite a great extent by taking away viable deck options.

4. Alex - December 21, 2009

Yeah I agree with you there. I don’t think Wizards realized how powerful jund would be, although it’s slightly better than what happened with mirrodin because it’s not a linear strategy like Affinity is, it’s mainly based around just playing all the best cards.

5. Recoculous.com: Magic the Gathering Articles » Who is Timmy? - January 10, 2010

[…] My previous article, Why We Enjoy Magic and I mentioned two very important elements for enjoying Magic: (1) We can express ourselves when we create our own deck, and (2) the game simulates a fantasy world. If a player doesn’t enjoy playing Magic for either of these reasons, then it isn’t clear why he or she doesn’t play something else, such as Chess, instead. (I suspect that players who think they are a Spike really do identify with Jonny and/or Timmy as well. […]