Is Marvel Snap Good?

| 8 min read
#game-design #phone-games

Is Marvel Snap Good?

I had an entirely different article locked and loaded about Marvel Snap, talking about the ways that randomness was being used in specific ways to construct the experience of the game. But, after talking to a friend about it, and about how we both felt the game was interesting, but a little empty, I decided I want to change tacks. The interesting part of the Marvel Snap phenomenon seemed less to be about the design choices, and more about just how many people were talking about its design choices.

If you want to read about the cleverness of Marvel Snap, you can find the commentary here, here, and here. I’m also going to be talking about games like Magic: The Gathering and Storybook Brawl, so I make some assumptions on my part about comfort with concepts like auto-battlers and trading card games.

What Is It?

Marvel Snap, released globally this October, is a head to head card game where players battle by playing cards in one of three lanes. At the end of six rounds, players sum up the power of cards they have in each lane. Whoever has more power in a lane wins the lane, and whoever wins 2 lanes wins the game. The twist of the game comes from the fact that each lane has random powers that change how the game is played, and each card players play introduces new twists, like moving between lanes, pulling other cards from their deck, and such. Players build a deck of 12 cards to take with them into battle. But the real twist of the game as it were, is the betting mechanic. Each game, at any point (until the end) players can choose to double the value of the game (the amount they will rise or fall in the ranks).

The Response

Most of the response to Marvel Snap has been broadly in one of two (very different sized) camps.

  1. People who are absolutely in love with the mechanics and design choices and who feel like the game is an outstanding evolution in the card game space.
  2. People (mostly indie designers) who feel like the design space is pretty restrictive and the game is ultimately boring.

What was interesting to me is how the people who loved the game talk way more about individually fascinating design decisions and less about the sum of what the game was attempting to do. And I also noticed the people critiquing the game seemed less focused on individual choices, and more on whether or not the game had enough "depth". I wanted to take some time to walk through my discomfort with both sides of the arguments. Why I think the gushing praise over the game seems more like a response to its “design-y-ness” and why also I think it’s deeper than what some of its critics might assume.

The Design Space Isn’t Too Restrictive

Broadly the argument here is that the games are so short and there is so much randomness that there can’t actually be that much depth because there isn’t enough strategy there for there to be depth. Some people also argue that the game falls into the same “Battle Pass” progression mechanic tropes that reinforce unhealthy play patterns.

The game has a metric ton of randomness. Each of the cards pushes the randomness by not allowing for much player control and certainty, and the zones double down on this by introducing new elements and avenues for battle. One zone might say “You can’t play cards here”, which could significantly advantage one player whose deck has a bunch of movement cards, or it could turn the entire fight into a two lane brawl.

I’m in the camp that this type of randomness doesn’t necessarily change how skill testing the game is, it just changes what axis skills are being tested on. I’ve put together enough highly mediocre decks and made enough incredibly mediocre plays to recognize that the ability to anticipate what an opponent is playing, and how different cards work together, is an important part of “being good”.

Furthermore, I don’t believe that there’s anything particularly deceptive about the way Marvel Snap encourages players to continue playing. All the upgrades are cosmetic, a base deck, combined with smart doubling/retreating will take you far, and the company has created a track record of being responsive to community complaints in ways that feel sincere and not exploitative. Look, I love me some Transformers Battle Arena, but it’s a free subscription game on Apple Arcade and having cards literally get stronger as you play more makes the game fundamentally un fun to play against someone who’s invested more time than you).

Higher skill players will be able to more efficiently collect cubes than lower skill players. That’s the skill of the game. It cleverly pushes the skill out of an individual match (so players of wildly variant skill levels can have fun) and into the meta structure of your ability to glean expected value from the game.

Ok, but so what?

This gets me to my next point, point one. Most of the effusive comments of the design space around this game seems to focus on how cleverly it solves a variety of problems that have plagued trading card games since time immemorial. It amps up the randomness and so keeps players engaged across a variety of skill levels, it introduces a betting mechanism to reward high skill play, it even fixes mulligans for chrissakes.

As a design object to think about and play with, I can’t argue Marvel Snap is fun to consider and toy with. It’s thoughtful, entertaining, and the amount of decision space you feel when you play the game feels inordinately high for the number of cards in your deck and your hand. From some sort of weird, scientific game design perspective, it feels like a revelation. It does that specific thing that Magic: The Gathering does so well, where the card you play actually evokes the ethos of its idea mechanically.

And I think that’s part of the reason it’s been such a gem among the designer community. It feels like a big box game that’s indie at its heart. It cares all about the sneaky mechanical things that other big box games seemingly don’t want to. But every time I get done with the game, I wonder, what did I just play? It all comes down to the damned doubling mechanic. But to explain it, we’re going to have to take a slight detour.

Let’s Talk about Magic: the Gathering and Storybook Brawl

I want to discuss these two games because they represent opposing ends of the spectrum (that Marvel Snap lands in between) both in terms of interactivity and in terms of the literal longevity of the games.

To start, we have Magic: The Gathering. It’s been around for 30 years and honestly has some of the most bullshit un-fun mechanics I’ve seen possible in a trading card game. Your ability to play cards is directly tied to lands which you have to have in your deck, making 40% of your draws on a given game basically unfun, you have to have an immense amount of knowledge experience to even start playing, and if you want to be competitive you better be ready to make a high initial investment and then also a high continuing investment as the cards rotate out of existence. The cherry on top? Those land things we talked about earlier are some of the most expensive cards because the good ones are rare. And for all of that, it’s not actually significantly more skill-testing than a coin flip. (This is a bit of an exaggeration, but I think an elite player is probably expected to win roughly 65-35). Every new and successful card game that’s come out since Magic launched 30 years ago has tried to fix one or most of its fundamental flaws.

But damn Magic is a fun game. It’s stupidly fun. Unlike other games in the online era, where laddering is a core part of the experience, just playing a single game of Magic can feel like an absolutely meaningful revelation. You are engaged in a battle of ideas from top to bottom, and your ability to survive, and win are directly proportional to your skill and understanding of your deck, the meta, and your ability to think on your feet.

Which takes me to Storybook Brawl. Right up until they were bought by FTXand I decided that it might be best to spend my time elsewhere (seriously, is Storybook Brawl still alive right now? What’s going on there?), I thought it might be one of the cleverest designs I’d seen in years, a really awesome entry into the auto-battler genre.

What Storybook does different from Magic is that it automates the actual playing of the game. Instead of playing with the deck of cards you drafted, the deck plays for you. You get matched up with 7 other players and, over the course of the drafting experience, try to eliminate other players by drafting a more coherent deck than them. Like Marvel Snap the focus has been drawn away from an individual game more towards the general meta structure of the match. You’re not trying to win a given game, you’re trying to be the best in the pool. In a lot of ways Marvel Snap and Storybook Brawl feel like spiritual evolutions of Magic. They both utilize randomness heavily (while adding mitigating factors) to decrease play time without sacrificing the interactivity of the card game concept. But for Storybook Brawl, that randomness still creates a direct relationship between your ability to play the game and your ability to get to a satisfying conclusion to an experience: your ability to draft cards and your ability to win a pool feel innately tied.

Is Marvel Snap Fun?

I will go on record and say I think that Marvel Snap is a better game concept overall than Storybook Brawl and is closer to a mobile successor to Magic: The Gathering. The aesthetic, the interaction design, and the thoughtfulness around how and when randomness gets deployed feels revelatory. But adding up all of those awesome design interventions still doesn't necessarily lead to a satisfying experience. I’m skeptical that all of the current hype has as much to do with beauty of Marvel Snap as a whole as it does with just how neat and interesting all of the ideas contained within the game are.

The example I somewhat regularly run into are games where I’ve gotten to turn 5 with some amount of back and forth. On turn 5 I make a dynamite play and go into the 6th and final round with a commanding lead, and smash the doubling cube. My opponent then makes the smart play to retreat before the end of the game, minimizing their losses and snatching some value back because they’ve seen they’ve clearly lost. This is absolutely right play, and when I'm on the other side, I absolutely do the same thing, but being on the end of this winning experience kind of really sucks.

Now the answer, for most players, will be, ”well, obviously you need to get better so that you double earlier and get more value from the game”. And from a purely “play the game better” perspective, these people are right. But my response, is “so what”? The outcome of my “playing better" isn’t me having a better experience playing that game (winning, executing better in-game strategy), it’s that I get slightly better at arbitraging my board state into a higher ranking. Why is that a compelling reason to keep at it? The betting system, as it stands right now, doesn’t help inform or improve the way I build decks or play the game, if anything, it makes individual in game decisions feel less important.

For all of its cleverness (and there is so much to appreciate) because the meta structure removes so much importance from an individual match, I think Marvel Snap needs to find another place to put complexity and meaning. Otherwise, there’s not a lot of meat on the bones there to keep me coming back.* The doubling system, as it currently stands, turns the deck on deck combat into an efficiency engine to grind for cubes and rewards, and not much a marker of much else. And that’s really disappointing.

It feels possible that there’s a great competitive play experience waiting in the wings to really unlock the experience of the game. But right now, it feels a bit more like a small, sweet abstraction of heavier and more meaningful games that will continue to dominate the genre.

* Typically when I play Marvel Snap it reminds me of how much I want to play Magic: The Gathering, but then I remember how expensive that is, so I play a single game of Snap and go do something else instead.