Monday, January 4, 2021

Designing for Spike

This is the third article in my series of designing for player psychographics. I encourage you to read my articles about Timmy/Tammy and Johnny/Jenny, as well.

Like the other two psychographics, the popular perception of what a Spike is has drifted away from its useful meanings as a design term. A Spike, to the normal Magic player enfranchised enough to know what the psychographics are in the first place, is a hardcore tournament grinder (see Spike, Tournament Grinder) who is very good at the game and tries to maximize their win percentage, but that's more of a symptom of Spikiness than a motivation. Actual Spikes come in many personality types and skill levels, and the only thing really linking them together is that they make their performance in the game into a matter of pride.

There are ideal, healthy Spikes, many of them very good at the game, who view every loss as a learning experience and every win as imperfect and a chance for critique. They understand that Magic is a game about tiny edges and that they can take pride in their gradual improvement over time.

Then there's the unhealthy Spikes, denizens of the Levine Trench, who view every win as their birthright and worth gloating about and every loss as a mark of their failure of a human being. Magic isn't just about pride – it's about their entire self-worth.

In a sense, you could also categorize the people on Twitter and r/magicarena complaining bitterly about the Arena shuffler being rigged as Spikes. it's so important for this kind of person to win and earn the pride of being good at the game that they will distort their perceptions of reality for it to fit their mental model in order to save themselves the mental trauma.

When designing for Spike, you have to accept that some members of the psychographic you're designing for will never be happy with your designs because they won't be happy until their external performance matches their own perception. Fortunately, they don't make up a significant majority of Spikes, so you can focus on people whose opinion of the game will change based on the quality of your designs.

What Does Spike Want?

Mothership design articles, particularly by MaRo, talk about Spike as wanting to prove something. This is too vague. Spike always wants to prove one thing, and that's themselves.

It's said that if Tammy loses nine games but wins one in a way they love, they'll be happy, and that if Jenny loses nine games but wins one through a convoluted way that's unique to them, they'll be happy, but there's no equivalent for Spike – implying that what Spike really cares about is winning. But I'd say that if Spike loses nine games but wins one through a brilliant play that only a pro Magic player could have pulled off, they'd be very happy indeed.

Spike doesn't just want to win, they want the fact that they won to be contingent on their player skill. This may seem unintuitive given the large amount of variance in Magic compared to other skill-testing games like chess or go, but having a lot of variance has as many benefits for people who value skill than drawbacks, because it creates many situations that have to be solved through innovation and thinking rather than rote memorization. For more information about this, see also James Ernest's essay Strategy Is Luck in the excellent Kobold Guide to Board Game Design.

The "classic" Spike is a creature of brutal optimization who will play any deck and pursue any strategy, no matter how fun it is to play with or against, if it means an increase in their win percentage. This kind of Spike thrives at all because Magic has focused on organized play since the beginning. With many other board games, even deep, strategy-focused ones like Agricola, organized high-level play is a vanishingly slim part of the gameplay, with most players (myself included) preferring to swim about in the shallow end and discover strategies themselves. Organized play allows you to gauge your skill and accomplishments in Magic with more objectivity than just comparing yourself to your friends or to online randos, and winning with actual stakes feels more accomplished than winning a just-for-fun game.

However, not every Spike is a tournament grinder or even thinks that anything-but-cheating is a valid way of playing. While it is true that winning is one of the few objective indicators of skill and so is valuable to almost all Spikes, some Spikes add additional rules that they have to play by, and not following those rules essentially means your wins were pointless. People complaining about netdecking are often proto-Spikes who mentally add the rule "you have to make your deck without referencing anyone else's notes about the format" to the already very lengthy comprehensive rulebook.

This is particularly salient with the vast increase in EDH-exclusive players. In this new environment where EDH is almost synonymous with casual play, we're seeing a new breed of Spike arise who not only wants to win, but wants to win while perfectly within the rules set by their table's social contract. Anyone can annihilate the table with a CEDH deck, they reason, and what really measures their skill as a deckbuilder and pilot is having the ability to beat the other players and have them recount how fun the game was anyway.

In any case, while many Spikes have different definitions of what skillful play and proving themselves means, enough of these definitions overlap that there is meaning in designing for them. 

Designing for Spike

Like the other demographics, there are a number of proven techniques that we can use to create cards for Spike.

Give Players Many Decisions

Every decision in a game of Magic is an opportunity to make the right one. The more decisions Spike gets to make, the more likely they'll see the game as a genuine test of their skills. Thus, a great way to design for Spike is to design cards with a lot of decisions.

One might immediately point to modal cards like Cryptic Command as an example, but these cards often aren't as good at inspiring novel decisions as one might think. Because effects are impossible to balance perfectly, there is usually one decision that is optimal in most circumstances, and playing a modal card frequently becomes rote, especially in Constructed formats where you have an idea of what you want your cards to do when you play them.

The best decision-inspiring cards for Spike change based on context. This is why Cycling is widely hailed by competitive players, including the platonic ideal of Spikes, Ben Stark – when to cast a card and when to cycle it will differ based on the board state, your available mana, the rest of your hand, your deck, your knowledge of your opponent's deck, and so on. The decision is easy to understand but very difficult to execute optimally.

Create Cards With Low Floors and High Ceilings

A lot of my philosophy on designing for Spike was inspired by a quote from a source I've forgotten mentioning that if Dark Confidant said only "at the beginning of your upkeep, draw a card", it would have been a much less appealing card for the psychographic.

Spikes don't like strong cards – they like cards that are strong when they're in the hands of the right player. Conversely, you can prove that you're a good Magic player if you can regularly use these immensely difficult cards to their maximum potential. These cards also have to have real consequences for poor use, possibly even putting you in a worse position than you were in before you cast it.

Perhaps the archetypal low-floor-high-ceiling card is Brainstorm, a contender for the Spikiest card of all time, and its motley crew of followers like Ponder, Preordain, and little cousin Opt. These cards can be immensely powerful, but they require knowledge of when to cast them, which cards to keep and which to ditch, and in the cases of Brainstorm and Ponder, whether it's better to shuffle away the cards you put back and take a chance or to keep what you saw.

It can be scary to design cards with low floors, because for many other less invested players, these cards will be a source of frustration. I certainly don't think that all, or even a majority, of cards should have so much nuance that you can write a 350-page book about them. But there should be enough cards with high enough ceilings that even at the top levels of play, you can still find challenges to be overcome.

Lower Variance

Variance is the confounding factor in a Spike being able to use their success in play as a measure of pride. Random elements in a game that otherwise could judge players on their comparative skill often ruin it for competitive players – see the notoriety of Super Smash Bros. Brawl's tripping mechanic. Obviously it feels awful to lose because of factors outside of your control, but this also applies in reverse – winning because your opponent got stuck on three lands is miserable.

Thus, Spike naturally tries to lower the variance of their deck (the factor they can control) as much as possible. This includes basic groundwork by playing multiple copies of their best cards in a minimum deck size, as well as variance management provided by individual cards. Fortunately, we can make these individual cards.

The best way to help the player manage their variance is to help them control their draws, since the start-of-turn card draw is common among every deck and format. Scry is evergreen, and was for a while a baked-in mechanic in every game via mulligan rule, because it's an amazing tool for draw control – it gives players an interesting decision to make, attaches to any effect or creature at any color for less than a mana, feels satisfying at worst and amazing at best, and only becomes bad for the game at large (3+) scry counts.

Of course, there are many other options for draw control. Simply drawing more cards allows you to eventually see what you want, and they're satisfying, but obviously card draw is not balanced among all of the colors. Tutor effects are usually the nuclear option for variance, but they've proven fairly effective at preventing color screw, and are both strong and fair when priced correctly. In between the two is Collected Company-style "excavating", which has so many variables it's hard to summarize them all in a sentence or two. The options are innumerable.

Besides actually controlling which random effects happen to your players, you can also give them tools to manage the extreme ends of variance when they occur. Mana sink effects not only let you cope with mana flood, they also give you choices earlier in the game as to whether it's better to get a stronger card out of your hand or spend it on a weaker repeatable effect that gives you better value in the end. There's also cards with "cheap" and "strong" versions, like cards with kicker or morph – these are especially great because they challenge Spike to make the right choice while also providing them with a choice to make in the first place.

All this said, Magic is not and cannot be a perfect information game, and giving Spike too many perfect ways to lower variance and risk is a great way to end up with a bored, alienated audience. When playtesting, particularly for Constructed formats, pay attention to games across the board and if it seems like players are able to accomplish what they want too easily and regularly. Even if the first few games are entertaining, being able to do whatever you want every time will quickly lead to displeasure with the set or format.

Make Players Think That A Strategy Was Their Idea

In my article about the three immutable laws of Magic design, I mentioned that a key to good Magic design is subtlety – to design effects and interactions that can't be discerned by immediately looking at them. While this is valuable for every psychographic, being a core component of the game, it's especially important for Spike because they want to think that a strategy was their idea – even if it was yours all along. If your strategies are too obvious, Spike will feel like they didn't do something on their own but instead bought the strategy flat-packed from you and followed a set of assembly instructions.

The first step in creating subtler strategies is to not spell out cards that interact with each other. Enlightened Maniac was an enabler for the large number of emerge cards that were in U/G in Eldritch Moon because the main body was on the 3/2 token and you could sacrifice the main body for a 4-mana discount on your Wretched Gryff. This could have easily been less subtle – giving you the token if you sacrificed it to an emerge creature, or even sacrificing it at all – but by allowing Spike to figure it out, it made them feel accomplished when they collected value by putting Maniac and emerge creatures in their deck together.

The next is to not indicate that a card can get better with the right combo or strategy, and just let the player figure it out on their own. There was a sense during Amonkhet Limited that the Slither Blade deck wasn't a balancing error like the base-red Exert aggro decks, but instead a true invention of the community. My theory why is that the deck was a collection of cards that had no overt synergies – just low-to-the ground aggressive cards in a color that, particularly in a set with cycling, was expected to spin its wheels over and over again. By making the interactions between your cards subtle enough that they're "good in the same deck" rather than "good together", it will take Spike longer to figure it out and make them feel more accomplished that they did.


The fully-actualized person who can feel a sense of internal pride with nothing to measure it against is exceptionally rare. Most people peg their sense of self-esteem to some external factor – whether it's their job, their relationships, or, speaking personally, the success of their tabletop game designs. Magic has cultivated a lot of people who are able to successfully find pride in their ability to navigate the game, and as Magic designers it's our responsibility to help them maintain that feeling.


  1. I don't think high variance is necessarily a turn off for spikes, depending on how its used. The archetypical spike card, for me, is Fact or Fiction. And that's not inspite of the randomness, its because of it. Fact or Fiction is a fun card for spikes because it gives you a chance to outplay your opponent using different pieces every time it's cast.

    1. Spike doesn't want baked-in consistency, but wants to have enough tools that they feel they can control the game's variance to an adequate degree.

      Fact or Fiction is a Spike card because it not only allows them to control their upcoming draws, it gives them a chance to outwit their opponent.