Want to have the Guardians of the Galaxy in the palm of your hand, leaping into play, guns blazing, and even fighting alongside Yondu once more? How about putting together your ultimate Avengers crew and doing battle across Stark Tower, Central Park and the Daily Bugle? These are the kinds of dream teams and fantastical scenarios that Marvel Snap allows, and its excellent use of the Marvel licence is packed into a punchy portable card game where matches are short, the gameplay is easy to grok and you’re encouraged to check in every day. Spoiling the fanfest a little, however, is the actual process of building out your card collection, which I’ve found to be a long grind that eventually loses its early momentum.
Marvel Snap is wonderfully streamlined: your deck consists of only 12 cards – no duplicates – and games last for six rounds. The board has three locations to contest, but the locations that appear are random and pulled from a large pool, with one revealed each turn over the first three rounds. Players queue up their actions simultaneously each round, deciding how to spend their available energy (which increases as a match progresses) to play cards to the locations of their choice. Once both players have ended their turn, the cards are revealed one at a time, triggering their effects. The end goal is to have more power than your opponent in two of three locations, so there’s an impressive amount of strategy in choosing where to play your cards, not to mention how to take advantage of favourable locations and mitigate difficult ones.
Because each round happens simultaneously, Marvel Snap is a bit like a series of rock, paper, scissors encounters where you’re trying to anticipate what your opponent is likely to do. On top of this, at any point you can choose to “snap” to double the stakes of that match from the next round onwards, and your opponent can snap back at any point to double them again. The stakes themselves are cubes that raise or lower your ranking – so by the end of a game in which no one snaps, the winner gets two cubes, whereas if both players snap, eight cubes are up for grabs. And if your opponent snaps and you feel that winning is incredibly unlikely, you can retreat to lose fewer than you would by playing out a doomed match. Knowing when to snap, when to go all-in and when to retreat is critical in making progress on the ranked ladder (the only mode currently available) and goes hand in hand with a robust understanding of the meta.
And for a game where each individual match takes around three minutes, there are a lot of decisions that have to be made. Each of the half-decent decks I’ve played so far in Marvel Snap have had a lot of non-obvious interactions or strategies to learn, all of which make them satisfying to play optimally. And of course, so much of what you do is based on what your opponent is doing: how they’re utilising the locations and what lines of play they’re likely to take based on what you know about their strategy and win condition. So many games in Marvel Snap come down to the final round, with a win on the table if you can correctly anticipate your opponent’s play. It really can be incredibly engrossing, and like all CCGs, the better you understand all of your options, the more you’ll get out of it.
Marvel Snap has a diverse range of deck archetypes, supported by a host of interesting mechanics and keywords. There are decks built around discarding from your hand, having a large hand size, utilising ongoing effects, destroying your own cards, moving cards between locations, cheating big minions out, locking down locations, playing cards with no abilities, repeating “on reveal” triggers, and so on. The card pool has a little too much disruption for my tastes, which means that there are a number of decks out there that look to shut you out of any attempt to execute your gameplan; locking off locations and/or filling your locations with worthless cards. Not exactly fun.
Mind you, the locations themselves often do a pretty good job of locking you out on their own, and the whole concept of having three random gameplay modifiers each match is very much a mixed blessing. Yes, it means that every game is different and you need to think on your feet – but it also means that there will be combinations of locations so antithetical to your strategy that the best play is to retreat while you’re only losing a single cube. The ability to retreat really is the only reason Marvel Snap is able to build its gameplay around a system with such high variance and not have it ruin the entire game. Even so, you’ll still be the beneficiary of – and fall victim to – absurd high rolls that are based purely on randomised location modifiers, and that’s not really something I want in my card games.
There are more than 50 locations in total, from Baxter Building and the Quantum Realm through to Wakanda, Asgard, Atlantis, Knowhere, and the X-Mansion. Marvel fans will enjoy seeing how deep the cuts go, and how the location’s ability ties into its comic book origins. Ego, for instance, is a super rare location, but when it’s revealed, Ego takes over and plays your cards for you. It’s amazing flavour, but really does turn that match into a coin flip, which – again – is not my cup of tea. Thank goodness for the option to retreat.
Another important aspect of the location system is that there are regular “hot locations” and “featured locations,” both of which mean a particular location will appear significantly more frequently in games during that period. It’s like a mini meta table flip that’s designed to send players scrambling to build decks that take advantage of that location’s ability to get an edge on the competition. It’s a clever idea in theory, but in practice I think it’s actually just unfriendly to more casual players who aren’t necessarily plugged into the ecosystem enough to know how to capitalise on it. Instead, they may just find that their favourite deck is almost worthless for 24 hours.
The times when the locations really shine are when they’re less binary: when you’re able to overcome a bad location or work around significant limitations to still snag a victory, so there’s certainly some upside. They also add yet more Marvel flavour, and it’s not like this game is lacking for Marvel flavour in the first place. In fact, Marvel Snap has to be one of the best uses of the Marvel licence in video games to date. It would still be great without it, but the team at Second Dinner really has done a fantastic job of delivering a game that fans will truly relish.
There are just so many characters in the roster already – both iconic titans and niche picks – and the primary card art for them all is uniformly excellent. The variant art also has some absolutely incredible interpretations, although I must say most of the pixel variants feel pretty flat to me. It’s also a shame that variants are treated as entirely different versions of the same card, as I’m rarely excited to unlock a variant when it means I’m not gaining access to some new character instead.
Marvel Snap’s collection track, which is how you unlock new cards, is built around the art too. You’ll unlock cards as you progress along the track, which is fueled by cosmetically upgrading your cards with resources earned from playing. First they burst out of the frame, then with each additional upgrade they become more elaborate, adding an impression of depth, adding movement in the background and eventually hitting max level, “Infinite.” For me this is largely a means to an end, but the animations and art are still slick enough to still be a fun moment.
Second Dinner’s designers have tried to represent each character’s comic book identity in their gameplay too, so Mystique copies an ability for you, Magneto pulls opposing cards to him, Storm floods a location and Bucky Barnes transforms into the Winter Soldier when destroyed. The animations are a joy as well – Nightcrawler BAMFs into position, Green Goblin flies over to the other side of the location he’s dropped on, Miles Morales flips acrobatically into play, Yondu whistles to slice up an opponent’s card with his arrow, and Ant Man shrinks or grows when you pick him up then returns to normal size when he lands on the board.
I mentioned earlier that cards are unlocked through your collection level, but it’s worth underlining just how different this is from what’s expected of the genre. This, after all, is a collectible card game in the same broad space as Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone… and it has no card packs. There is no way to (quickly) buy your way into a collection. Instead, you need to earn the boosters and credits that can upgrade your cards, which then gives you points that contribute to your progress along the collection track, which has a variety of rewards spaced along it. You can also skip the boosters and just spend credits on fast upgrades in the shop, but even so, there’s a limit to how often you can do this.
The collection track is broken up by card pools, so for the first part of your journey in Marvel Snap, you’ll be unlocking cards in Pool 1. These are foundational cards and, regardless of the order in which you unlock them, you’ll be able to cobble together a reasonable enough starter deck. Crucially, while you’re in Pool 1 you’ll face off against players at a similar position on the collection track, so their card collection will be roughly the same size as yours.
This makes the early game experience really friendly, as you’re playing against people (or bots if there’s no one to match up against) who are also finding their feet and getting a feel for how to build decks. This eventually extends into Pool 2, which is a relatively small collection of cards that cater to narrower game plans. Getting through the first two pools doesn’t take all that long, and everyone who reaches that point will have the exact same collection of 97 cards; the same foundation to work from.
Marvel Snap up until this point is like frolicking in shallow, balmy waters; splashing about amongst itsy bitsy waves under an azure sky. It’s when you dive into Pool 3 that you realise just how vast, and at times unforgiving, the ocean that stretches all the way to the horizon can be. Pool 3 has another 75 cards (as of this review), but no definitive end point in the collection track, and that’s because the “mystery card” unlocks that guaranteed cards in pools 1 and 2 are replaced by “collector’s caches” and then “collector’s reserves,” both of which only have a percentage chance to unlock a new card.
Just like the ocean, the post-Pool 2 collection track feels like it goes forever. In reality, you should have a complete collection by the time you reach a collection level of 3000-3500 (after starting from just under 500), and that’s going to take some serious time. I’m not even close. There’s nothing wrong with long term progression in games per se, but this feels agonisingly slow, and it’s where the randomness of the system really starts to bite. It’s pure luck whether you’ll open the key cards you need to build viable Pool 3 meta decks, and given the Pool 3 meta game is largely built around high synergy combo decks, if you’re missing a crucial part of a combo, the deck’s not going to function.
If you don’t get useful cards as you increase your collection level, you’ll be stuck playing (mostly) Pool 2 strategies against players who may have far more potent collections. And regardless of how lucky you are, while you’re inching your way along the collection track, the new deck opportunities feel few and far between. It’s a shame, because in Marvel Snap’s early going, I was unlocking new cards at a steady rate and regularly making changes to my decks to test things out. Later on, when the meta should theoretically be extremely varied because everyone has different collections, it actually feels like the best strategy is to stick with a strong Pool 2 deck and only switch it out when you get enough Pool 3 cards to build one of the strong combo decks. The shared early game collection actually becomes a limiting factor.
The card acquisition side of things is set to be addressed through “Collector’s Tokens” in an as-yet-undated update, and these will be earnt through the collection track and can then be spent to unlock a specific card from an ever-changing randomised selection in the shop. You won’t be able to simply craft the single card you want, but this will give players some actual agency in building their collection. It can’t come fast enough.
That, mind you, will be one more currency in a game already clogged with them. Credits, gold, season pass points and boosters all interact and overlap in different ways, and while the feeling of overall collection progression slows right down, you are at least always earning currencies, thanks to the six daily missions (or more, if you spend gold), as well as the season missions, both of which contribute to your season pass progress, which in turn unlocks more credits, gold and boosters.
There isn’t a great deal of incentive to spend money in Marvel Snap beyond the paid track of the season pass, which offers acceptable rewards if you’re intending on playing enough to complete it. Spending money on gold, meanwhile, offers very little prospective value given how expensive it is to turn it into credits, new daily missions or card variants, the last of which are just absurdly expensive.
All told, Marvel Snap offers a very different journey to other card games. It’s a slow and steady path that rewards you for dipping in and playing a modest amount each day. There’s no way to effectively pay for power, which means there’s no temptation to drop a hundred bucks or more to quickly get the cards you want, the way there is whenever Hearthstone or Magic releases a new set. And as someone who plays both those games, those costs can really add up. Is this system better? It depends on what kind of player you are, and whether you’re prepared to stick with Pool 2 decks (which, admittedly, do remain pretty effective) while you grind your way through Pool 3.
One last thing to address is that, as of this review going live, Marvel Snap only has one option for playing games: ranked. While your ranking really only represents bragging rights given matchmaking appears to be based more on how high your collection level is, there’s still no doubt that the option to play against friends would be a huge boon, as would an unranked mode where I could feel free to experiment with no stakes, and where games would always go the distance. Both these modes are on Second Dinner’s roadmap and I think they’ll help present Marvel Snap’s personality-packed gameplay in an even more appropriate light.
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Author: Cam Shea