Monday, December 21, 2020

Designing for Johnny and Jenny

This article is the second of my three-part article series about designing for the Magic player psychographics. Check out the one about Timmy and Tammy, as well!

Note: Like in my previous article, I will be using "Jenny" to describe a generic member of the psychographic.

Unlike Tammies, who are very common, and Spikes, who occur here and there, Jennies are essentially nonexistent in most board games. That's because most board games simply don't have enough variety of components and strategies for Jenny to achieve what they want. Worse yet, games with lots of components (Cosmic Encounter, say) usually randomize them, so anything Jenny picks isn't a good expression.

You might think of a Jenny as someone who exclusively plays one type of character in a video game, like someone who only plays grapplers in fighting games or only plays healers in MMOs (bless them). But even then, this is more of a "preference" than an "expression".

The kind of game with the highest population of Jennies, by far, is tabletop role-playing games. Post-Critical Role RPG players, as a whole, don't try to optimize their characters beyond opportunistically taking advantage of things that fit the character, and many modern RPGs like Apocalypse World are more narrative-based than they are mechanics-based. Players create characters because they want to express themselves through that character.

You could think of Jenny, in general, as an RPG player overlaid on Magic's rules. Jenny wants to create decks and play games that are expressions of who they are and what they are about. What's their sense of humor? How do they like to play? What sets them apart from the average Magic player or even average human being?

As designers, we can't give Jenny something directly because the whole point of the psychographic is the desire to create something on their own. Instead, we provide them with the tools they both want and need to express themselves.

What Does Jenny Want?

Jenny wants their Magic behavior to be both an outlet for their creativity and a personal expression. Wanting to play with a quirky deck isn't unique to Jenny, as Tammy enjoys that sort of thing as well, but Jenny wants that deck to, at least in a small part, define them to other people.

Of course, the process is just as important as the result. Jenny wants a big palette of options to express themselves, but with enough constraint that the method of expression becomes a fun challenge. Even though Morophon, the Boundless could theoretically be a tribal commander for any tribe, people continue to ask for specific tribal commanders because the constraints of color and strategy are important to a satisfying deckbuilding experience.

It's perhaps unsurprising that Commander is by far the most successful Jenny format, primarily because of the unspoken rule that Commander decks aren't supposed to be as strong as the constraints of the format would theoretically let them be. With the pressure of having to make something competitive off their back, Jenny feels much freer in expressing themselves through deck construction. The deckbuilding rules of the format are very good for Jenny, as well – 99 singleton cards means lots of opportunities to switch out cards from more well-trod archetypes, and having a commander that's revealed at the start of the game helps coalesce the deck into a more concrete creative statement.

Jenny's stereotype is of a person who loves wacky combos above all else. There are many varieties of expression in Magic beyond combos, but this stereotype rings true because it's much easier to be creative by combining multiple cards than by using one card. To illustrate this example, let's compare the impress-the-judge games Apples to Apples and Snake Oil. Both games are essentially comedy Legos, making players combine what are essentially punchlines to fulfill the judge's setup cards. The difference is in the number of punchline cards used at once. Apples to Apples always makes the players use one red apple card (punchline) to one green apple card (setup), so that means that once players have seen all the red apple cards, the game quickly becomes stale. Snake Oil, on the other hand, has players combine two cards at once. Now there's a huge number of permutations, especially taking into consideration that TOFU NIGHT is a different thing altogether from NIGHT TOFU.

In order to design for Jenny, we have to make cards that act more like Snake Oil than Apples to Apples

Designing for Jenny

Here are some good methods to create a fun game for Jenny.

Ensure Combinations are Meaningful

When I asked on Twitter about what people consider a "Jenny mechanic", many people, including Mark Rosewater, replied with imprint. Imprint is an open-ended mechanic that has many different uses depending on which cards you use alongside it, so of course it's a good means for Jennies to express themselves.

That is, however, not true for Chrome Mox. Nobody would describe Chrome Mox as a Jenny card, despite it having imprint, because although the card you exile is open-ended as usual, it's limited to only a small variety of results. Maybe you exile a five-color card and you can get any kind of mana, or maybe you exile a one-color card and get one kind of mana. Regardless, no matter what card you put into it, you get the same result of a busted card that taps for extra mana on turn 1.

You can have as many combinatorics as you can cram into your set, but unless the combinations are meaningfully different, it's not going to really appeal to Jenny. Open-ended cards should produce new results depending on what other cards you combine with it, and the more results you can get out of it, the better.

As a non-Magic example, when I was working on my impress-the-judge game Stand Back, Citizen!, I cut a card called "Hypno-_____" because it had exactly this issue. In SBC!, you combine "power" cards that have blanks, like "_____ Punch" and "The _____-mobile", with "noun" cards like "Snake", "Crisp Dollar Bill", and "Smaller Superhero". The issue with "Hypno-_____" was regardless of what the noun was – whether it was a hypno-shovel, hypno-nerd, or hypno-moon, they basically all did the same job of hypnotizing someone. There were, in theory, dozens of hypno-objects, but in practice you had only one power. You don't have to have this level of combinatorics in every card you make for a Magic set, but you certainly have to keep it in mind if you're creating a card aimed at Jenny.

Create Cards that Interact Beyond Their Target Environment

Let's look at the opposite case of the previous one with mutate. The mutate mechanic in Ikoria was a very promising mechanic for Jenny. You could slap abilities onto any creature that had previously been printed! Even the non-Human exception was fine, because that provided just enough of a restriction to stop people from totally optimizing with it. However, when the full list of cards was eventually revealed, mutate didn't turn out to be as much of a slam dunk as it was set up to be.

Why? Because all of the mutate creatures only really worked with other mutate creatures. Almost every mutate creature had an effect that only triggered when the creature mutated, meaning you got a worse ETB effect unless you played only creatures with mutate effects together. While I'm sure there were play design reasons for this, the most creative thing you could do with these creatures outside of their Limited environment was mutate a 6/6 onto your flying creature. They didn't interact as well beyond their original environment as they could have, and that – giving the player the chance to find unintended combinations from almost 30 years of Magic – is a key component of designing for Jenny.

The lone exception, and a great example of designing cards to interact beyond their target environment, was Parcelbeast.  By not having the word "mutate" in its other abilities, Parcelbeast invites players to find all sorts of ways to break it. Untap effects like Horseshoe Crab or Gilder Bairn are obvious, as is mutating it into a big vigilance creature like Skysnare Spider, but a strong tap effect on a creature provides as many options for building around it as there are stars in the sky. Because it has so many more options than the other mutate creatures, Parcelbeast becomes a lot more versatile and a lot more appealing to Jenny.

Make Bad Cards

I mentioned this in my article about bad cards, and I'll bring it up here again: Jenny loves bad cards. Now, they don't love run-of-the-mill D- cards, your Demolishes and Summit Prowlers and whatnot. They love awful, terrible cards, cards that you would essentially have no reason to put into your decks, BECAUSE you have no reason to put them into your decks. If a card is bad enough, putting it into your deck and trying to build around it is no longer a suboptimal gameplay decision that costs you equity, it's now a personal statement.

A good bad card should have some kind of promise, even if it is in a perverse way. A card like Scornful Egotist that merely has bad stats for the cost isn't going to appeal to Jenny – it's the cards that have no conceivable use, like Sorrow's Path, that make Jenny perk up their eyebrows and start thinking about all the work they'll have to put into it to make something that could possibly win a game. 

Give Cards Quirky Flavor

One of the most common requests of Magic designers is legendary lords for various off-the-wall tribes, ranging from the unfeasible (Elder) to the niche (Kithkin) to the just plain goofy (Squirrel). These reactions demonstrate the success of Magic's designers appealing to Jennies by giving ordinary cards quirky flavor, in particular quirky creature types.

Not every Jenny wants to express themselves mechanically. There are plenty of people who put together a deck or strategy based on art, theme, or flavor text. In fact, one of Maro's earliest examples of a Jenny is "someone who creates a Wizard of Oz - themed deck". In order to appeal to this kind of player, we have to make cards that go beyond the standard spell trappings and creature types. Savage Punch is a fairly generic fight spell mechanically, but the art of Surrak Dragonclaw punching a bear made it stand out far above other fight spells of its era.

Note that making cards with unique flavor is just the first step – this flavor has to contribute to Vorthos Jenny's ability to tell their own stories with it. Charging Badger is a masterclass in this. The card begs you to make this small, ferocious badger into a massive beast with trample, but how do you do it? Deck the badger out in equipment? Throw Auras on it? Make it extra beefy with +1/+1 counters? All of these tell subtly different tales, and Vorthos Jenny loves to choose which one.

Make One-Off Build-Arounds for Limited

Jenny has a harder time enjoying Limited than the other two psychographics because the format by definition limits their ability to be creative. It's the most results-oriented format, so you feel pressure to build optimally, you only get access to a fraction of the cards in a single set, and if you're playing Draft, you're surrounded by opponents who try to take the cards you might want.

However, there are workarounds. By the same principle that Jenny likes bad cards because it helps them stand out, we can include strategies that aren't optimal, but stand out among all of the more conventional decks in the format. The best way to do this is to make one-off build around cards. Jenny is most likely to enjoy Limited one-offs at common and uncommon because they want to have, if not a guarantee, at least a reasonable chance that they'll be able to do something off the wall.

Let's start with a simple one. Much like how tribal payoffs are a reliable appeal to Tammy, recent sets frequently include cards that become stronger in multiples, like Seven Dwarves and Charmed Stray, because that's the easiest way to make a one-off build-around. These cards are dead simple to understand, and their rates are usually bad enough that the person who wants to draft the deck can snap up all of the cards they need, depending on the booster contents. 

You can also make cards that appeal to both Jenny and Spike by singlehandedly changing the normal Limited strategy. The Epitaph Golem deck in Shadows Over Innistrad was complex to build and pilot, which Spike enjoyed, but it also made the deck stand out in a way that caught Jenny's attention. Far from trying to control the board and sneak in damage like normal, the deck won by emptying your library into your graveyard and looping cards like Rise From The Tides for value. If you played against an Epitaph Golem deck, you would remember it.

Tammy likes having different forms of Limited gameplay, as well, but Jenny doesn't just want the gameplay to be unusual – they want their deck to be unusual even by the standards of the format. Thus, designing individual Limited cards is more likely to work for Jenny than designing set themes as a whole.


Designing for Jenny can seem paradoxical – trying to create something for someone who wants to create something for themselves. Therefore, it's better to think of designing for the psychographic as creating tools for them to use, not a finished product for them to consume. Magic's ease in creating "tools" is part of why Jenny exists there at all, and a big part of what makes the game unique, so designing for Jenny is also designing for Magic's strengths in general.

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