Graveborn Musings—The Trouble with Timmy

I am a proud Timmy—a Timmy and a Defender of Timmies.[1] It usually seems like Timmies are misunderstood, underestimated and denigrated, but there’s no group I’d rather be associated with than the fun-lovin’ big play makin’ Timmies. Most days I’d write about what makes us Timmies so awesome and how we can be all that we can be, but just this once it is worth looking at some of the dangers that Timmies—especially groups of Timmies—can fall into.

A Man’s Got to Know His Limitations

As casual players, I’m sure you’d all be on board if I was to talk about “the trouble with Spike”: at their worst, Spikes take everything too far and sacrifice the fun of the rest of the table in their desire to win at any cost. If the metagame is a market, then some out-of-control Spikes[2] are the ruthless Gordon Geckos of Magic, carving up metas and ruining games in pursuit of victory for its own sake. Time and again, I’ve seen players with a very high Spike quotient (try to) beat the rest of the table in ways that reduce the overall level of fun, whether they actually win or lose. It doesn’t matter what you do; they’re going to find as many ways to beat you down as they can, whether the rest of the group enjoys it or not. There’s no doubt that the problem of Extreme Spike is a very real phenomenon in casual Magic.

However, we should also be aware of some of the problems that Timmies can cause—especially if, like me, you identify very strongly with that psychographic. The Trouble with Timmy is that, at their worst, some Timmies are so disinterested in winning that they fail to evolve.

Evolution is an essential part of any strategy game. By its very nature, you have to do things differently in each game, and that is especially true for Magic. You get different cards in each hand, your opponents present different threats in different combinations and you need to use different strategies in each game—in some games you might be The Beatdown; in others you’re The Control, and so on. But you also evolve between games by becoming a better player and by adding different cards to your decks. Even though Richard Garfield originally imagined that Magic players would only own a few dozen cards each, he still built in enough variety to ensure that, on the one hand, nobody would have to play the same deck again and again, and on the other hand, nobody would be able keep up with the rest of their group unless they played different decks.

Evolution is one metaphor for the changes that Magic players should go through over time. I also talked about Magic as a market, and that’s a reasonable way to think about it too: just like all businesses ultimately try to make a profit, so we would expect most Magic players to value winning sufficiently that they put some effort into improving their chances of beating their opponents. Of course, everyone values winning differently and has different resources to invest in the game. The Extreme Spike pursues winning with single-minded, reckless abandon and ruins it for everyone else, the Power Gamer outspends their opponents so that they have the best cards (not so good) or more decks than their opponents (better!), and the truly savvy casual player reads Muse Vessel religiously for the best in casual strategy and deckbuilding techniques. But the bottom line is that markets work because everyone shares, to a greater or lesser extent, the same basic motivation. In a market, companies that don’t think about making a profit fail, and in Magic, those few poor souls who never even seem to ask the question, “How can I get better at this game?” will stagnate, sometimes taking the rest of their group with them.

One of my best Magic friends was such a nice guy that everyone, even the Spikes, enjoyed playing with him, but he was terrible at almost every aspect of the game.[3] Despite the fact that he had been playing for almost as long as me, he hardly ever built a new deck, made the ‘right’ play or tried to learn the rules. His occasional victories were truly a testament to the importance of balancing, because his decks and his play certainly weren’t good enough to explain why he was sometimes the last man standing.

Yet he loved the game, and was usually the first one to show up to Shakey’s every week. Some would say that the fact that he enjoyed playing was enough, and the fact that we enjoyed playing with him clinched the deal. But the truth is that we all felt that the games would have been a lot more fun if he’d invested a little more time in the game. And undoubtedly, as a bright, creative guy, he would have got more out of it too.


There Are Two Types of Timmies, My Friend

Players like this represent, to me, The Trouble with Timmy. I love Timmies because we are able to enjoy the whole gaming process, rather than focus entirely on the outcome (i.e. win or lose). That makes us better sports, in my experience, but also makes us on the whole more likely to experiment with fun decks, weird decks and above all new decks. I think you should be able to enjoy a couple of nights of gaming in which you don’t win a single game, because as Brandon said, there are so many other aspects of the gaming experience to enjoy. But one of the things that your opponents enjoy about the game is the challenge; if you aren’t doing anything to challenge your group then you are letting them down.

The Trouble with Timmy may start from a couple of different places. The first is that these Extreme Timmies really are utterly indifferent to winning. Guys like my friend just think of Magic night as a purely social get-together, to which they coincidentally bring cards. That sounds good, but over the long haul, I’ve seen it lead to trouble, so I say that Timmies should be held to the same standards that we demand of Spikes—you should be prepared to adjust your idea of casual or fun play to those of the group. Casual play shouldn’t involve forcing your deck to evolve so rapidly that it becomes a guaranteed turn two kill, but by the same token it shouldn’t involve never tweaking it or bringing a different deck, never improving your knowledge of the rules, and never reading/thinking/talking about multiplayer strategy. Even if you don’t care about winning, you should still care about keeping things fresh for your group.

The second way that this problem starts is when players just don’t think they can win. Perhaps they’ve only been playing for a little while and can’t afford new cards, and just assume they’re going to get beaten by more expensive decks and more experienced players; perhaps they get overwhelmed by the board state and can’t see a clear path to victory.[4] People who are resigned to defeat might just be happy to mess with the board state, or bandwagon with the strongest player in order to survive a little longer (often without realizing that they are actually playing Kingmaker!), or, as we saw last week, take out one player before they die, just so they feel that they had some impact on the game.

Without any hard evidence to back me up (I’m waiting for a research grant to study this phenomenon in more detail, but for some reason the funding keeps getting held up), I think that this kind of fatalism motivates a lot of the trouble that Razjah described in his group, and which I’ve seen in many other groups. How often do we see someone saying, basically, “I don’t think I can win this game so I’m going to do something really stupid before I die”? Pretty often. And how often is that player someone that we would still consider a threat? Pretty much every time. The lesson is that, unlike a duel, there are two pieces of good news for anyone who feels this way:

  1. Everyone who sits down at a multiplayer table has a chance to win that game
  2. There are a ton of things you can do to improve your chances of winning, from the cards you have, to the deck you build, to how well you play the game at the strategic, political and social levels

Just like nobody should think that winning is the be-all, end-all of multiplayer Magic, nobody ever needs to resign themselves to losing.

The third reason behind The Trouble with Timmy is the old stereotype that Timmies are bad at Magic. It may sound silly, but trust me: I’ve been a Timmy since day one, and it took me over a decade to realize that I shouldn’t be embarrassed about it. For that matter, no less an authority than Hip-Hop himself, Aaron Forsythe, claimed in a pre-WotC article that he thought Timmyhood was something that people were supposed to grow out of.[5] In other words, people hear that Timmy sucks so often that they start to believe it. From there it’s easy to see how someone could be reluctant to take the game more seriously for fear of becoming an unfun douchebag. I mean, Timmies know that we have more fun, but we also get told repeatedly that we suck; I’m sure there are Timmies out there who put those two ideas together and decide that if they got better at the game then they’d have less fun with their friends.

Fear not, lonely Timmies: I’m here to tell you that getting better, and even becoming (*cue hushed whispers*) more competitive is not a bad thing. As long as you maintain consideration for your opponents’ gaming experience, you can and should explore as many different elements of the game as you like, evolving continuously along the way.

In fact, I’ve heard there is an entire website devoted to helping Timmies become better at multiplayer…

Keep Being So Casual!

I can’t remember what I was like in the early days; I know I lost a lot of games and built some unbelievably bad decks, and refused to win unless it was on my terms,[6] but I don’t think my decks or my play were actually stagnant. From the earliest days, my friends challenged me to evolve and I challenged them, and our understanding of the game deepened, along with our enjoyment. That is the natural state of the wild Timmy, and stagnation is an unnecessary and usually temporary digression in our evolution.

If you or someone in your group, is experiencing the Trouble with Timmy, then it’s time to move up to the next level. Don’t worry—there are a lot of levels between Can’t Win and Excessively Spikey Douchebag, and trying to improve or trying to win doesn’t make you a bad casual player. In fact, it will probably allow you to get more out of the game and give more to your playgroup at the same time.

Timmies of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your frustratingly inconsistent decks!!

[1] If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you should read Mark Rosewater’s classic articles on the three Magic player psychographics.

[2] It should go without saying, but some people seem to read purely for the purpose of finding something to be offended about, so let me clarify that I am talking about a small—possibly miniscule—percentage of the overall Spike psychographic. As last week’s article implied, everyone needs a little bit of Spike in them, but the ones who are so ridiculously Spikey that they can’t understand why the feelings of other people are important constitute a real threat to casual playgroups. At that point, you cease to be a fully functioning human being and become a sociopath—Magic’s own little version of Hannibal Lecter.

[3] To be fair though, his theme decks were awesome! Even though he left Tokyo several years ago, his Hot Babe deck is still remembered fondly.

[4] This happens to experienced duelists too, as I wrote about in my very first Magic article.

[5] Forsythe’s article describes a continuum with beginners on one end, tournament players on the other, and casual players somewhere in the middle: “We then evolve, over time, into peaceful, loving, Casual Players and stop, or further evolve into the war-like Tournament Players.” Now, this is of course complete and undiluted arse gravy, although I understand he has recanted this, or at least walked it back a little bit. However, because I’m using the evolution metaphor myself, let me make it clear that I do not share this view: casual players can evolve and grow without ever becoming tournament players. Tournament players are not better or more evolved than casual players; they have just evolved for a different environment.

[6] Like an Ice Age era tournament playing WU control, much like Brian Weisman’s deck, only I was determined to win through milling rather than Serra Angel beats. Or a four-color land destruction/prison deck that relied on Jester’s Cap as the primary win condition. I’m not proud of any of those decks, or their pathetic performance records; I just felt the need to re-establish my Timmy(/Johnny) street cred.


About Graveborn Muse

Daryl Bockett has been an avid Magic addict since Legends/Revised. He lives and breathes deckbuilding and casual play. "The more the merrier" is his creed! In those brief moments when he isn't playing, reading or thinking about Magic, he teaches at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. He has a Ph.D. in International Relations, which is basically only useful for helping him to understand the strategic interactions at a multiplayer table.
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6 Responses to Graveborn Musings—The Trouble with Timmy

  1. Pingback: Friday Flashback – November 25, 2011 « CommanderCast

  2. Alex P. says:

    I think it helps to learn that the coolest big plays are the ones that actually accomplish something. For instance, you can have much more actual in-play fun with a big creature if you lay a bit of groundwork to make sure it’ll actually get to stay on the battlefield for a while (or maybe even cheat it out early so that everyone has to stop and take notice).

    In multiplayer, once I’ve made a big awesome play, I tend to adopt a showboaty “villain” stance, challenging the other players to figure out a way to bring me down. Being able to get into that position in the first place takes skill and effort, but it’s deeply satisfying from the Timmy/Johnny side of things, regardless of whether you scape out a win or get brought down in the end.

    • kyzneg says:

      Of course, the flipside to that kind of playstyle is that, at least in the groups I’ve been in, you might as well be hanging a big sign over your head saying “Threat”. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, if it works out well and you and the rest of your playgroup are having a good time, go for it.

      Personally, my experience has seen the other players at tables where someone’s adopted a “try and stop me” attitude accept the challenge with glee and vigor, and I personally am not a fan of that much attention in a multiplayer game. But I will say I’d much rather see that than a turn 1/2 Erayo flip (when it was legal), or the Teferi player sticking a Knowledge Pool, or the 5th straight Time Warp effect.

      In the end, all that really matters is that the people in your group are having fun and enjoying the games. One of the things that I think doesn’t get brought up enough with relation to the forum/blog denizens is that most people don’t do all that much online reading into EDH, and don’t care what writer X thinks about how the game should be played. Focus on what works for your group, and try to make the games as good as possible for the people you’re playing with, and not just in tune with some writer you’ve never met’s vision of the format.

      • Alex P. says:

        It sucks being tagged as “The Threat” when you’re not, but if you’ve legitimately become it, I think it’s usually better to acknowledge that than waste time trying to deflect attention. The stereotypical Timmy will want to play big gorilla / haymaker type cards anyway; I’m just saying he can have improve deckbuilding and strategy without sacrificing that.

        Although — and this is quite the tangent, sorry — truth be told, I don’t think Commander works that well as a “Timmy!” format. Everything’s scaled up, but that makes your big 8/8 just seem kinda mundane, while pushing a lot of fun lower-end beaters into irrelevance. “Big plays” in EDH seem more the territory of Johnny-tastic combos than straight-up big fun cards.

  3. Graveborn Muse says:

    Ah, now that’s a play style I can really get behind! I tend to be slightly more nuanced than that myself, somewhere between your style and Bruce’s “reactive” play, but if I had to choose one or the other I would definitely prefer the role of “showboaty villain”!

  4. Razjah says:

    I don’t think I get “showboaty”. I will acknowledge back breaking plays and watch my group squirm after something like attack with Wurmcoil Engine and Adarkar Valkyrie , Akroma’s Vengeance, use the Valkyrie to bring back my Wurm, profit. Then pile drive someone into the dirt on my next turn if the table can’t stop me.

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