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Last May, Marvel Entertainment revealed the latest addition to their slew of mobile titles in Marvel Snap. Normally I would not even read past the headlines with stuff like this because, historically, mobile games that are tied to major IPs are usually filled with bare bones gameplay and all of the common pain points associated with the monetization of mobile games. However, this one instantly caught my attention. Not because it was Marvel or because it was a card game, but because it was being developed by Second Dinner.
Second Dinner was formed in early 2019 by former Hearthstone game director Ben Brode in his garage, along with former Hearthstone executive producer Hamilton Chu, inside of Brode’s garage as well. These two legendary game makers from Blizzard were responsible for what many believe to be the glory days of Hearthstone. Being that Hearthstone is one of my favorite games of all time, I have been following what little information has been reported out of Second Dinner since its foundation.
There were reports of big investments into the studio, mass hiring sprees, and a partnership with Marvel, but no one knew what they were working on until now. Marvel Snap is said to be the combination of everything the team at Second Dinner has learned about making fun digital card games combined with the legendary heroes and villains of the Marvel universe. With its launch on iOS and Android on October 18th, along with the release of the PC beta, I finally got to experience Marvel Snap, and I think it comes really close to living up to that billing.
In Marvel Snap you are tasked with building a deck of cards based on the heroes and villains of the Marvel Universe, each with their own power, cost, and unique abilities. Once in a match you will be presented with a battlefield featuring three locations that you can place cards in. You will have a limited number of resources that you can use to pay each card’s costs, with that resource pool increasing with each round. The total amount of power from the cards you have placed on a location gets weighed against that of your opponent, and whoever has the most power there at the end of the sixth and final round captures it. Whoever captures two of the three locations wins the game.
Where things get interesting, however, is that each location is based on an actual location from the Marvel universe and has its own unique effects. These can range from limiting what cards you can and cannot place there to limiting when you can place cards there or providing positive or negative buffs to cards placed there, among many other things. This is combined with the individual card’s unique passive and active effects which can drastically alter the amount of power you are outputting.
One cool interaction that I came across was with the location “Cloning Vats,” which gives you a copy of every card you play there. Combing this effect with Hawkeye, a one-cost card whose ability is that he gains two power if I play a card in the same location next turn, allowed me to continuously pump one-cost Hawkeye’s there each round, all while continuing to trigger his ability and spending the rest of my resources on other locations.
When the last round arrived, I dropped Kazar, a four-cost card that gives all one-cost cards one additional power, giving all of my cloned Hawkeye’s an additional one power each! There are a lot of cool interactions between the cards and locations that I have experienced throughout the first few hours of playing Marvel Snap. It’s not hard to see the influence that someone like Ben Brode has on this team as these cleverly designed mechanics are in large part what made Hearthstone so great.
Finally, there is a reason why this game is called Marvel Snap, and it has to do with the game’s ranking system. In Marvel Snap, every game is a “ranked” game, meaning you will always be progressing your rank with every game you play. Once you hit level ten and gain the “Iron” rank, you get introduced to the Snap mechanic. From Iron rank and onward, at the beginning of each match you will always wager at least one “Power Cube.” Power Cubes are essentially the points that progress you to each new rank. Whoever wins the match will walk away with the Cubes that they wagered along with whatever their opponent put up.
At any point in the game, you or your opponent can “Snap” one another, which will effectively double the number of Cubes on the line. When this happens, you have an opportunity to call their bluff and power on, potentially doubling your rewards, or retreat and only lose the initial Cube you invested in the match. This type of bluffing and psychological warfare was a pleasant surprise for me as I found myself on both sides of lady luck several times. Not to mention the audio-visual feedback you get every time you hit that button is sublime.
I Can Do This All Day
One of the things Ben and his team stressed during the reveal was that this game was intended to be the most refined version of a digital card game we’ve ever seen. There was a lot of work done to ensure that much of the fat that comes with common card game tropes was trimmed off, and it definitely seems that way. In Magic the Gathering, it’s common to have a sixty-card deck, often containing up to four copies of a single card, In Hearthstone, it’s thirty cards with two copies. In Marvel Snap, the maximum deck size is only twelve cards.
This means unlocking cards is more valuable and, theoretically, the rate at which you draw them in a game is somewhat similar in most cases. While I do see the clear benefits here, it’s worth noting that stacking effects of a single card is a common deck building tactic in other games, and that strategy is gone here. For example, maneuvers like that Hawkeye play I mentioned above would be a lot easier to pull off if my deck contained four copies of Hawkeye. That being said, I don’t think they threw the baby out with the bathwater here, and the slimmed down decks mostly accomplish what they set out to achieve.
Another aspect that really trims the fat is the fact that both players take their turns at the same time. What cards your opponent played and where they played them are not revealed until after you do the same, which really cuts down the match time as you do not have to go turn by turn. This, again, sacrifices some of the reactionary play that is core to many-a-card game, but it does make games go by way faster. The average length of each game I played was anywhere from two to three minutes. This is significantly faster than any other card game I played by a pretty large margin, with other games taking anywhere from ten to fifteen minutes or longer, on occasion. The games are so fast that, since it’s a mobile game, you could very easily sneak a game in here and there throughout the day at nearly any point, which is honestly a really convenient thing.
The Art of the Cards
The first thing you will notice upon booting up Marvel Snap is the beautiful artwork. Most of it is ripped out of the various iterations of the comic books, but the way it is presented in the cards is extremely well done. Every hero looks great and has their name printed in their own iconic font, which is a very nice touch. Many heroes have iconic voice lines or hero specific animations when they are played, which is also very well done. You can tell the team cared a great deal about giving each and every hero and villain the artistic representation they deserve.
The looks of the cards are not purely cosmetic, though, as one of the main progression mechanics is tied directly into cosmetics. After each match you are awarded card boosters, not to be confused with “booster packs,” and once you get enough, you can use the in-game credits to upgrade the card’s artwork. Starting with a standard “flat” artwork, they can be upgraded to an uncommon frame break variant where the artwork breaks out of the card frame. Going further, you can upgrade them to the rare 3D effect, which is quite nice, especially on mobile where it uses your phone accelerometer to achieve the effect. Finally, there is the epic quality that give the cards some animation. At least these are the different variants that I was able to achieve in my time with the game since release, although the card collection hints at Legendary, Ultra, and Infinity variants as well. Every time you upgrade a card visual, it increases your collection level, unlocking more cards, credits, and boosters with each rank.
What Did it Cost?
So the cards are beautiful works of comic book artistry, but what do they cost? Like I had mentioned at the top of this review, there is kind of a nasty history when it comes to the monetization of mobile games based on popular IP. Well, at least in the early stages of the game’s life, I’m pleased to say that the model here doesn’t seem to be all that bad. There are no card pack loot boxes, and you can’t spend real money to buy individual cards or anything like that.
Cards are instead acquired as your collection level increases, which, again, is done by upgrading the visuals of the cards you own. Card visuals are upgraded via the combination of two resources. First, you need card boosters, which are handed out at the end of each match for random cards you own, and you also need to spend some in-game credits. This is a huge step up from the gatcha mechanics in other mobile games for two reasons. Firstly, upgrading a card does not increase its performance in any way; it’s purely cosmetic. Secondly, the booster rewards are randomized, but, since there is no real need to target a specific card for upgrade, even if you are awarded with a booster for a card you don’t use, you are still progressing your collection level. The catch is that you can also skip the grind for boosters by upgrading cards in the store directly with in-game credit, which, of course, can also be purchased with the game’s paid currency: gold.
This aspect screams pay to win at first sight, but, thankfully, it is somewhat throttled. Only three select cards featured in the store can be upgraded this way, and you can only buy credits with real money so many times per day in small increments, so you can’t just instantly upgrade everything and boost your collection level with the swipe of a credit card. There are also several ways to earn in-game credits just by playing. Credits are earned as the collection level increases, within the free recruit pass or standard season pass, and also with player rank ups. The standard season pass does offer specific card unlocks as you progress it, but if you make it to level fifty, you will have been awarded enough premium currency to essentially make your money back. You are also gifted 50 credits a couple of times per day if you frequent the store. Paid currency can also be used to unlock variant card art, which looks just as good as the default art, and in some cases even better. Some of these variants are also unlocked for free in the season pass as well.
Dread it, run from it, but monetization of free to play titles still arrives. However, this model, thankfully, seems pretty fair. It’s not going to be easy for whales to get leaps and bounds ahead of free or budget players, and even if they did, the game’s rank-based matchmaking would ensure they are in a league of their own, anyway.
Bring Together a Group of Remarkable People
At first glance I was quite skeptical of Marvel Snap as the game lacks the complexity of a Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering, and it also exists in the shadows of some less-than-ideal mobile games based off popular IP. However, what Ben Brode and the team at Second Dinner were able to achieve with Marvel Snap is quite remarkable.
For starters, they take its more simplistic gameplay, which I initially viewed as a negative, and warped it into an absolute positive by building the entire game around very quick and satisfying matches. The fact that the whole game is played in portrait mode further adds to how easy it is to get a quick match going. I found myself whipping out my phone at nearly every moment where I had 2-3 minutes to spare, be that in a parking lot or a lineup at the grocery store, sometimes even snapping 2–3-minute periods into existence where they probably shouldn’t have been, to the chagrin of my significant other. Best of all, though, they accomplish all of this with a solid progression system and what seems to be a fair monetization system.
This is still a young game. Though, as with all service titles, the launch is just the beginning. As such, even though the core of the game is quite good, there are some glaring holes that I anticipate will be filled as time goes on. For starters, there is only the one single PvP mode with no PvE offering whatsoever. Despite having access to some of the world’s greatest characters, there is no meta story happening within the game, something I would love to see added in future updates. The game is also missing some basic features you would expect to see in a game like this, such as a friend’s list, the ability to invite people to private matches, or some kind of achievement system.
I played the game on both an iPhone 13 Pro as well as the PC beta on Steam, and, although both versions ran flawlessly, the PC beta is essentially just the mobile UI stretched to fit on a 16×9 screen. Although I would have loved to see these things at launch, the team at Second Dinner has been very transparent with their roadmap. In a first for me, they also beta tested the live service elements of Marvel Snap, releasing several mini seasons during the testing period. This is to ensure the team is ready to deliver on their goal of monthly seasonal updates. Judging by the roadmap they released, it seems they have a lot in store for this game.
Overall, Marvel Snap is a very fun way to spend two to three minutes repeatedly throughout the day, and it is a fine example of how to take advantage of the unique aspects of gaming on the go. Its beautiful artwork and respect for the source material has me excited for the future of this game, as well as the next time I’ll have a spare 2-3 minutes. Speaking of which…
DISCLAIMER: This entire review was done without spending any money on the game as an entirely free-to-play player. On top of playing some of the beta, I had completed all twenty levels of the recruit pass and achieved collection level 55. Afterwords, I did decide to spend a bit on the welcome pack as well as the season one pass because, at that point, I personally thought it was worth it.