I'll ask a comparable question, to illustrate what is going on: How do you enjoy your coffee?
Carol: Really hot, with some milk (then microwaved again to reheat it), preferably flavored
Bob: Black, strong enough that the spoon stands straight up
Me: I add some cold water to coffee at work, so weak and cool.
Ingrid: I hate coffee - I'll drink tea.
Sig: Espresso, three sugars.
Buster (my Golden Retriever): I like to tear up the coffee bag and spread the grounds in the carpet, then roll on it.
So - who is right? Which is the proper way to enjoy coffee? They all are.
The point is that different people want different things out of Magic. Mark Rosewater has written several articles about different Magic personalities - about Spike, Johnny, Timmy, Vorthos and Melvin - and combinations of the above. These are all different personality type - but people are not one type or the other. All personality traits are not checklists, they are a spectrum - and people move back and forth on that spectrum. For example, take "happy" and "sad." People are not automatically one or the other. Most of the time people are somewhere in the middle - but they move back and forth. The same is true of most personality indicators. Over time, someone might be above or below average for any given pair of traits, but that's usually as changeable as the weather.
The same is true of "spikiness." Mark Rosewater has a couple long articles that define the "Spike" archetype, but the generally accepted shorthand is that Spikes like to win. They tend to play the best decks. More specifically, their choice of decks is motivated by their desire to win the tournament.
That is not universal.
I ran a paper tournament last night. When various players finished matches early, they tended to play other decks and so forth. A couple of the players were play testing Legacy. They were discussing the addition of a certain deck, and testing it against other Legacy decks. I could name the archetypes each player was playing, and their deck lists were pretty well tuned. They probably qualify as spikes.
Another player joined a 3HG game between rounds, and was talking about adding Mirror of Fate to his Leveler deck. He had a very good bargain Warp World deck, and some other very solid stuff. However, it was pretty obvious that his primary motivation was to make an idea work, rather then to win.
Now these two players are not that different. They are both good. They both wanted to win the tournament. They both ended the Swiss at X-1, IIRC. They both build original decks. Still, if I had to choose one of them to represent "Spike," I know which one I would choose.
More importantly, just being a Spike is not a bad thing. Some Personality types do cause problems - but the spike personality does not.
The "personality" that causes the most problems online, in MTGO and everywhere else, is insecure and immature. These are the people that tend to be obnoxious. They lack self esteem, and are unsure of their place in the world. They need an ego boost - something to hang their self respect on.
In some ways, I have just defined being a teenager - which is an often painful and frequently embarrassing medical condition. The good news is that condition is curable by regular doses of time.
These people don't have enough other things in their life to provide a sense of self worth. For many, their only "accomplishment" is winning at Magic. When they are losing, they are not only losing the game, they are, to stretch a metaphor, taking emotional damage. Losing is kicking the props out from under their egos. Losing really pains these people, and they often "act out" in the same way that other juveniles act out - they call people names, throw tantrums, disconnect, flame people, etc. In severe cases, they bully. Most bullying is, after all, a desperate psyche saying "well, maybe I'm useless, but at least I can beat you up." There is probably some "make you miserable, too" mixed in.
Most of these kids eventually find something that establishes their sense of self worth. It may be a job, a significant other, kids, hobbies or some other accomplishment, but something provides a good foundation for their egos, and they turn into actual adults. A few - fortunately a very few - remains complete asses all their lives. These people make everyone else miserable when they are around, but you can usually avoid them. It's why we have a block list on MTGO. In real life, we can just walk away.
Online, immature a$$holes can be a problem. However, immature a$$holes are not necessarily spikes, and spikes are not necessarily a$$holes. Some spikes are actually really nice people, so aren't.
The problem is what Spikes - or maybe prizes - do to a format.
What Spikes Bring
Exactly what "spike" means may be subject to dispute - or another 4k words of discussion - but everyone is reasonably clear on one point: spikes like to win. That's their main motivation. That's why they play. The corollary to that, of course, is that they play the best decks - the decks with the best chance of winning.
Again, no human being is entirely one thing. All people fit somewhere on the non-spike to spike scale. Some are just spikeier than others. For example, I'll talk about some of the people I play against, or have played against, in the past.
Skeeter - is working on her Squirrels deck. Not really a spike.
Bob - picked up Magic when an injury knocked him out of wrestling. He is now in the Hall of Fame. Spike.
John - most memorable decks was probably "One" - in which every card had a converted mana cost of 1. Not really a spike.
Ingrid - L3 judge, hates to lose, been to over a dozen Pro Tours, etc. Sounds spiky - but I remember her playing Mirage Incinerates over Lightning Bolt because her deck's theme was cards with skeletons in the art.
Me - often not very spikey. I play anything, including Tier two decks at PTQs.
Spikiness does not equate to "unfun" to play against. Being nice and being fun to play against do not correlate directly or indirectly with being a spike.
What does correlate well with spikiness is the odds of, when you face them, facing a Tier One deck.
Bazillions of Magic Articles have set forth the rules for winning tournaments. They boil down to three things:
Know the metagame.
Practice a ton.
Play the best deck.
Number three occasionally gets modified to play the best deck, or a deck that beats the metagame. Occasionally, writers will advise that, in a diverse metagame and if you have not practiced sufficiently, then play the deck you know best. However, since Spikes will tend to practice hardest with the best decks, for spike, the deck they know best often is the best deck.
Spikes play Tier One decks, or new tech that may become a Tier One deck. Having more spikes in the metagame means a higher percentage of Tier One decks being played.
The Problem: Concentration of Tier One Decks
Tier One decks may be combo, control, beat down, midrange - but no matter what else they may be, they are winners. That is the definition of a Tier One deck - it wins. Magic is a game of synergistic interactions of cards, and some synergies are simply better than others. For the same reason, some decks are just better than others. The better decks win more often.
Another truism - very very few players like to lose. Very few players continue playing when they lose. When players lose often enough, or at a high enough percentage, then they make changes.
Yes, I know all about the old "nothing forces improvement like getting beaten." True - and for those people who do strive to improve to avoid the beatings, it works. However, an equally valid saying is "get better or get out." A lot of people get out. After all, everyone has a finite amount of time, and we make choices. If someone disagrees, then answer me this: do you run marathons, do differential equations, sing opera, juggle flaming chainsaws and design cathedrals? If not - why not? Are you saying that you didn't have enough time to do it all, or did you just quit?
The earlier statement - nothing forces improvement like losing - has another flaw. For some players, winning a Standard tournament is not their definition off improvement. For some players, the ultimate goal might be to use every card ever printed in a deck, or play lots of games with their favorite cards. (Squirrels - right Skeeter?) Those are valid goals. They are just not compatible with winning against Tier One decks.
Spikes rarely play Tier two decks. They do, play test, and they play test with Tier One decks. The more spikes playing the format, the higher the chance that a player looking for a game or match in the casual room will end up facing a Tier One deck, and lose, and not have fun. If this continues enough, the player who is not looking for match after match against Fae, or 5Color Blood, or [insert name of big net deck here] will look for another venue.
When the concentration of spikes / tier one decks are low, it is reasonably easy to find a fun game.
Some Examples of this Process
One of our local games stores has a reasonably large casual contingent. The players are mainly high school age, with some a bit younger and some a bit older. They play a lot of formats - and a lot of matches that are no real format. People play one of the four decks they own, or their "dragons deck," or whatever. When I go to this store to play, I bring a wide assortment of casual and multiplayer decks.
Two years ago, the players started playing 5color. These were the 250 card paper decks, complete with a few copies of Contract from Below, etc. Games were not played for ante, and decks were at best fair. I played my 275 cards no-search highlander deck, and I won about 55% of my games. No one was all that good, and I counted 25 players playing 5color one night.
A month or so later, I visited the store. Now a couple of the older, spikier players had competitive 5color decks, and they were playing for ante on occasion.
Two months later, maybe just four players had 5color decks still together. Everyone else was playing casual games in other formats.
Six months later, EDH was big. Over two dozen players were playing EDH that night. No one had tuned decks. A month later, a couple spikes had tuned EDH decks that controlled the board or went off on turn five pretty consistently. Two months later, EDH was rare, and most players had torn their decks apart.
I knew a judge that played a couple completely insane EDH deck at big events. His decks consistently comboed by turn six, sometimes on turn four. After a couple games, the rest of the judges would not play with him or his decks. We argued that fast combo kills were not what we were looking for in EDH games. However, that judge was competing in EDH tournaments at his home store. He wanted to win. He was spiky.
Recently, he told me that he wasn't enjoying EDH anymore. He kept facing the same decks every match and attendance was dropping. Right - that's what a format dominated by Tier One decks is all about. He also mentioned that he had been trying to play a wider variety of decks, and to get people to play more casually, but that it didn't work. That's also true - once a format becomes highly competitive, it is really, really difficult to get people to play other decks again. Those first few non-Tier One decks just get hammered, which is what my judge friend is now discovering.
The problem is that anyone who tries to tone down the power level is going to take a beating until / unless everyone else joins him or her. That might happen, but the odds are against it. Here's an analogy - years ago, I played Champions, the super-hero RPG. One class of character was the Martial Artist, who could hold action to block, and deal damage with a block and riposte. One adventure, a half dozen heroes and villains were facing off in a bar. Nearly all were martial artists. All of them held action, waiting for someone to act first. This went on for twelve turns - no one took an action, because then all their opponents would have been able to use their held actions and hammer the actor. After twelve turns, characters all retreated - doing half action moves and holding a half action to block. The situation there - whoever acted first would have lost badly - is exactly the same situation that a player trying to lower the power level of a format faces.
Another applicable quote: "If you leap in front of a speeding freight train and yell 'stop!', the effect on the freight train is purely cosmetic." - Rodney Stevenson
One more example:
Six months or so ago, I started playing 100 Card Singleton. I had one competitive UB control deck I played in the tournament practice room. I also had a handful of fun decks, that I played in casual. I had no problem finding matches in either room. Then the format became dominated by a couple decks, and those decks started showing up in the casual room. Player and game request numbers dropped, and even I stopped playing. Looking at it now - at 10am EST on a Saturday - there are still very few 100 Singleton games being played.
So Your Answer is to be more casual?
I'm not sure there is an answer. Magic has a problem with power creep in every constructed format. The only real solution is set rotation. For example, it has taken two years, but Wizards will finally print an answer to Faeries in Standard in Zendikar. (The "answer" being that the core of the Fae deck will rotate out.)
"Casual" games usually mean that the decks involved are not Tier One. However, even if you eliminate all of the decks from Standard that, for example, have won a major event recently, then the remaining decks are not all going to be equal. Some will be more powerful - meaning that you might just replace the old Tier One with a new Tier One.
Part of the issue is that some players - the spikes - will continue to play the best deck left in the format.
The other part of the problem is that Good / Tier One / Powerful to Junk/ Bad / Crap is a continum. It is like saying here's a Black and white spectrum, shading from white to black. Show me where the line from light to dark grey falls. Maybe you could measure from the ends and mark a point, but you cannot hold a ruler up to the Magic good decks/bad decks spectrum.
What about "Gents' Rules"
On MTGO, players often ask for games against “Gentlemen’s” or “Gents Rules” decks. (At least, they used to.) This is not an official term, but it generally means no counters, no discard, no land destruction, and often no burn to the head. Some players add additional restrictions.
Dom Camus wrote an article on The Ethics of Casual, back in 2005 on another site. It is an interesting – albeit dated – discussion of what constitutes “Casual” play. Here’s his list:
1) Must not destroy lands.
2) Must not prevent opponents from playing the game (no prison decks).
3) Must win gradually, not via a single devastating move.
4) Must not run counters of any kind.
5) Must not run discard.
6) Must not force the opponent to have specific answers.
7) Must not be overpowered (powerful cards are fine, as long as the deck as a whole is reasonable).
8) Must interact well with a variety of possible decks my partners might run.
9) Must run enough answers itself that no class of threat is an instant game loss.
10) Must be reasonably consistent.
A number of players insist on this sort of thing. Sometimes it is players wanting a long, drawn-out creature battle – in effect constructed decks that play like limited. Other times, the players just want to make sure no one can interrupt their slow, fragile combo. You can win a lot of games if you run a combo deck and make sure in advance that your opponent can do nothing to disrupt you. Players who really want to push this ask for "Gent's Rules" games with a starting life total of 100, starting hand size of ten and so forth. However, these games are really not a lot of fun - probably not for either player. Sure, it is cool to see a player put together five Doubling Seasons - the player used some Copy Enchantments - then cast a Jace that came into play with 100+ counters on it, which then milled me to death. Cute - but there is no way to combat that combo with any normal deck. A Zoo deck cannot deal 100 damage (actually, far more than 100 - Doubling Season and Spike Feeder are a combo.) Other options to disrupt the opponent - counters, discard, mass removal, etc. - are banned under "Gent's Rules."
The biggest problem with trying to define a casual format, or to examine whether Spikes are needed, is that Magic is a game that is played for the win. More importantly, winning in Magic means creating and playing a deck that does not let your opponent win before you can kill them. People can build amazing 14 card combos - but if their decks cannot disrupt the opponent, then the only way they can win is to find a modified format that disrupts the opponent for them. For example, they could start with 100 life, 10 card hands, and forbid discard, counters, LD, etc. etc.
Very little real Magic is played that way. Even in the casual room, most decks contain methods of disrupting the opponent. In August, my Wizards status update email contained a relevant Monthly MTGO Factoid: the top five most commonly played cards in the Casual Room: