The Diversity Of Magic: Player Types

Ever wonder why every change by anybody in the Magic community produces a torrent of bitching? Jay, returning to his old digs for a while from his stint at Magicthegathering.com, tries to break down the four styles of players in a way that’s not just”Casual/Pro” or”Spike/Johnny/Timmy.”

I wish Magic players spent less time complaining and more time enjoying the game. It’s a good game; if you don’t believe me, look at the sheer amount of wealth it’s generated and the number of years it’s survived.

Tee hee… I love it when an argument is as easy as pointing and yelling”scoreboard!”

Some people might suggest that there is room for improvement in the game of Magic – and I would agree. Where I disagree is the tone most of these suggestions take. The amount of arrogance in the average Magic player that he or she knows what will both ruin and save Magic is astounding. I am also frequently startled that two different players can think the same card or set is”the best ever” and”utter crap” with equal amounts of conviction.

Bad, silly arguments only prove to Wizards of the Coast decision-makers that Magic has an immature and young player base. As good business people, they act accordingly. Frustrated that Magic is being”dumbed-down” and targeting increasingly younger players? Try putting on a marketing hat and figuring out why.

Mostly, I think bad arguments on how to”fix” the game stem from a belief that all Magic players are the same – more specifically, I think a lot of the more blustery nay-sayers believe Magic players are all Just Like Them.

Here’s my own grossly oversimplified taxonomy of Magic players. At least to me, understanding players as I outline them below sheds light on a lot of silly arguments that”Casual/Pro” and”Spike/Johnny/Timmy” don’t. As a result, I thought I would share my armchair marketing assessment. If you disagree with my classification system, I encourage you to think about why, or – at the very least – to walk away understanding that you probably don’t speak for”the Magic community” when you complain.

The 2×2 Matrix

It seems to me that once a Magic player reaches a certain threshold of experience playing the game, he or she falls squarely onto a 2×2 matrix in terms of Constructed play.

Keep two things in mind here: 1) I’m talking about Constructed here, as it applies to both tournament and non-tournament goers, and 2) I’m talking about people who reach a high threshold of experience. I’ve discussed these ideas with Aaron Forsythe, and he rightly points out that a huge population of players don’t play enough to have a holistic grasp of the game. If you like Limited or want to describe the new player, this matrix isn’t for you.

I’ll call one axis on my imaginary matrix”Data/Aesthetics” and the other”Focused/Varied.” Yes, I sound like a nerd. Stay with me if you can, because it gets more interesting after the bad subject headers.

Data/Aesthetics Axis: The Data Player

Those people who are near one end of the Data/Aesthetics axis I’ll call Data Players.

The Data Player sees that Magic at its core is a game of probability. An intuitive sense of how many lands to play in a deck is ridiculous to a Data Player, because it’s a mathematical question. Data Players laugh at you if you play 61 cards, and smirk as you use one or two copies of cards in your deck. Data Players understand how to build a focused deck largely because so many cards in Magic make no sense whatsoever to play.

In addition, Data Players don’t see the point of bringing a deck to a tournament or play session without having tested it. Data Players use spreadsheets to track playtesting matches against various archetypes or friends, and they use the deck with the best winning percentage against the widest variety of decks. If they do otherwise, they are acutely aware of the risk they’re taking by not bringing the statistically”best” deck.

To a Data Player, Magic could just as well be about Disney characters as dragons and elves.

Data/Aesthetics Axis: The Aesthetic Player

On the other end of the Data/Aesthetics axis are people I’ll call Aesthetic Players.

The Aesthetic Player sees Magic as a game of creativity. Aesthetic Players don’t understand the point of copying Pro Tour decks off of the internet because those decks are boring. Aesthetic players laugh at you as you comment on their 61-card deck and smirk when they slap Thorn Elemental into play from their graveyard. Aesthetic Players build”rogue” decks largely because they gravitate towards cards that allow them to do something they haven’t seen done before.

In addition, Aesthetic Players care as much about a card’s name, flavor text, creature type, and art as they care about functionality. Aesthetic Players will slip their signed Krosan Beast into a deck because they love yelling”Squirrel Beast on the table!!!” Aesthetic Players build theme decks, and care passionately about the fantasy genre of the cards.

Aesthetic Players may lose twenty games with a deck before winning one, and that one time their deck”worked” will be worth the effort.

Focused/Varied Axis: The Focused Player

Meanwhile, on one end of the Focused/Varied axis are people I’ll call Focused Players.

The Focused Player cares about exploring card interactions to their fullest. They are happiest once an environment has produced a stable compliment of archetypes and can often predict an opponent’s deck by turn 2. They become more interested the longer an environment remains the same because they dissect the different interactions and they like the details involved in each game. Focused Players want to get their deck juuuuust right, and use the term”metagame” a lot. Tournament-going Focused Players have strong opinions about Banned and Restricted lists. Each time you play them, they are playing the same deck as last time.

In addition, Focused Players are deeply troubled that so many expansions come out each year. They think Wizards is robbing them blind by insisting they buy new cards and the tournament-goers are outraged that Extended has become a”slow Standard” in terms of rotation (the very idea of set rotation irks the Focused Player).

Focused Players are more likely to pursue other gaming interests when new sets are released.

Focused/Varied Axis: The Varied Player

On the other end of the Focused/Varied axis are people I’ll call Varied Players.

The Varied Player cares about the fact that Magic is never the same game twice. They are happiest when a new set has been released and no decks have yet proven their mettle. They want to be the first person to understand how a new mechanic might affect game play. Varied Players use the phrase”break the format” a lot and pore over spoilers when they are leaked. They will often bring an entire box of decks to play and play each one no more than twice.

In addition, Varied Players are deeply troubled when a particular environment looks”stale.” They think that Pro Tour Qualifiers or their local playgroup should embrace more diverse formats, and become annoyed when an environment has settled into predictable decks. Tournament-goers cheer the new Extended rotation.

When predictability reigns, Varied Players are most likely to go pursue other gaming interests that speaks to their short attention span.

Understanding The Matrix

Like most 2×2 matrices, there are probably some good, snappy titles to put in each quadrant. I haven’t really thought about appropriate names, but here’s a preliminary try:

Data/Focused: THE TINKERER

Data/Varied: THE TESTER

Aesthetic/Focused: THE ARTIST

Aesthetic/Varied: THE INNOVATOR

These are stereotypes based on people at the end of each continuum. In my mind, it is a continuum, however. I fall somewhere on the extreme end of Varied and about halfway from the midpoint to Aesthetic… An”Innovator,” if you buy into my way of thinking. I care about deck ideas and creativity, and I love it when an environment changes because decklists leak out of my ears. As you might imagine, I probably got some of the motivation behind Focused and Data Players slightly wrong.

There are some mitigating factors, too; how much money and time a person has to spend on the game can cause players on opposite ends of an axis to behave in similar ways. For example, I think by and large that Varied Players spend more money on the game than Focused Players… But this isn’t true if the Varied Player only has a $50-a-set Magic spending allowance. Similarly,”life stage” (teenagers in high school versus thirty-something married person with a mortgage and two kids) can be a mitigating factor, as can how supported Magic is in a player’s local area.

For the most part, thinking of Magic players this way helps me understand player behavior. Here are some examples of how I think these differences play themselves out:

  • Pro Qualifiers and Pro Tours reward the Data Player; since you often wade through eight or more rounds of Swiss with best two out of three games, it pays to have the most consistent and focused deck.

  • In addition, I think you would find that”Testers” fare a lot better at the beginning of a PTQ season and”Tinkerers” fare better towards the end of a PTQ season. I would guess that good Pro Players are on neither end of the Focused/Varied continuum and high on Data.

  • My experience with casual players is that they run the gamut of types, while favoring the Aesthetic side of things. This makes some sense, since Aesthetic Players haven’t been rewarded by the existing tournament scene. But casual groups do vary quite a bit, which always makes me worry when anyone talks about”catering to the casual player.” I have played in a group of all Focused Players except me (which was very frustrating), and very Varied groups (which frustrated my lone Focused friend).

  • The small population of players who play Apprentice and own no cards probably do so because they are”Innovators.” They can try out lots of ideas and always find a different opponent. What bothers them most about Apprentice, if I am any example, is the lack of card art. Magic Online, while elegant and pretty to look at, ends up being too costly for the same amount of creative play.

  • The most disgruntled Magic player is the Focused Player. Magic isn’t doing a lot to throw this guy a bone – because just when he starts to get excited about his deck, the whole landscape changes. The possible exception are”Artists,” who just scan each set for the perfect card to put into their now-famous”Easter Bunny” theme deck. Type 1 players are probably similar.

  • The most satisfied Magic player is the Data Player. As I’ve already said, organized play rewards and recognizes these players handsomely. In addition, I think the internet Magic sites echo the perspective of the”Tinkerers” and”Testers” since the sites almost universally support organized play.

  • The least understood Magic player is the Aesthetic Player. How many”Auction of the People” submissions did Mark Rosewater receive last year? Four thousand? (Yes, but 3,978 of those were your decks, Jay – The Ferrett) And how many organized events reward and recognize pure creativity and/or themes? Zippo.

  • My guess for the most likely players to leave Magic: The Focused and Varied Player. My guess for who is most likely to return to the game after a hiatus: The Varied Player.

  • Who spends the most on the game? The Varied Player, who will likely buy both boxes and singles with each set release. Who spends the least? The Focused Player, who gets his cards via trades and selectively purchasing singles. The wild card here is, as I said, that Apprentice probably addresses the lion’s share of”Innovator” needs.

What is going to RUIN MAGIC?

To the Data Player, it’s coin-flipping cards and allowing the Magic storyline to dictate mechanics. To the Aesthetic Player, it’s the lack of innovative mechanics and cards. To the Focused Player, it’s too many set releases and an abandonment of Type 1. To the Varied Player, it’s overly powerful cards that quickly unbalance an environment.

What is going to SAVE MAGIC?

To the Data Player, it’s lots of Development to create complex and interesting sets. To the Aesthetic Player, it’s lots of Design to create cool cards that do new things. To the Focused Player, it’s transforming Magic into a balanced, enduring game like chess. To the Varied Player, it’s lots of Development to create complex and interesting sets (yes, I said it twice – must be important, eh?).

I don’t have data to support any of these claims, of course; They’re based entirely on anecdotal observation. If you’re a Data Player, this probably irks you.

Where I think data would most help is understanding the relative numbers of players. I have no idea where the population of Magic players is weighted on the matrix, so it’s hard for me to say whether it’s a good decision to ignore possible revenue opportunities in Type 1 and to pour money into the Pro Tour. Theoretically speaking, these decisions are easy to make if you have a way to accurately measure people’s placement on the matrix (he says glibly).

However, marketing needs data; we players don’t. What we need to understand is that the data we supply to Wizards affects decisions in the game, and that poorly-conceived suggestions are in themselves data.

Whether you agree with my specific taxonomy or not, you hopefully agree that Magic has very different kinds of players with very different motivations. As a result, virtually any decision in Magic is going to produce both cheers and jeers. At any point in time, a group of players will be crying Chicken Little that Magic is about the die while simultaneously a different group of players are sighing with comforted satisfaction. It’s amazing to me how few people get this very basic truth. (Try editing the frickin’ site for a year and it’ll be ground in your consciousness forever – The Ferrett, moving in on Year Two)

Examples of people’s ignorance about what drives the game abound. Recently, Mark Rosewater opened up the”godbook” for Invasion. I’m betting a lot people were surprised at the results. I’m also betting some people considered the information bunk, which speaks to my frustration.

Don’t worry; this isn’t a”can’t we all just get along” diatribe. It is, however, a request to think about why decisions are made in the game. I’m sure there are some complete morons in Wizards, because I’m sure there are morons in every company… But I’m not quite as willing to accept that these morons are running the show. More likely, if you hate a decision, it’s because it was made with a different kind of player in mind. This doesn’t mean you have to like said decision – but it does mean you look pretty foolish beating your chest over there in the corner.

Enjoy the game. It’s a good one.