Written by Josh Bailey
The first year of releases is nearly complete. We have received two scenarios, six heroes, and on September 4th, we will get our first story box: The Rise of Red Skull. There is an incredible level of hype for Red Skull and the announced expansions following it, but before we get too far ahead of ourselves and start theory-crafting for cards we won’t see for another six months. Let’s take a minute to reflect on how far we have come and the current state of the game.
Growth of the Card Pool
There have been two major changes to the release model of Marvel Champions in comparison to the other Living Card Games from Fantasy Flight Games: the self-contained hero/scenario packs and the lack of clearly defined “cycles.” I have been kicking around the idea of diving into what self-contained packs (meaning a pack is all hero or all scenario cards as opposed to a little of both) has changed about the LCG experience for both players and retailers. However, as much I may want to write that article now, I do think the game will need to be out for another year or two before we fully appreciate the changes that come with this particular release model. For now, I believe we can only say that FFG has taken what was previously a slow-but-consistent expansion model and made it slightly more up-and-down. Of course, it’s nowhere near as extreme as that of a collectible model that releases in large sets, like FFG’s Star Wars: Destiny or Wizard’s Magic: The Gathering, but it sits somewhere in between. Compared to other cooperative LCGs, you get roughly the same amount of scenarios and player cards over time as before, just bunched up and released in short bursts. I do not think this is intrinsically good or bad, but it is definitely different from what we have before and many people find “different” to be synonymous with “unpleasant.” If distribution problems both in and out of FFG’s control ever normalize and we get regular monthly releases, without allocation, then I think this will become a less noticeable problem.
The other major change is a lack of cycles. We may find that heroes and villains are released in bunches that are thematically linked, but there have not been any Lord of the Rings or Arkham Horror-style cycles that require you to purchase one or more previous products – other than the Core Set – to get full value out of a later product. I believe this will lessen the barrier to entry for future players and improve the health of the game. I write that sitting here as a player buying into Arkham Horror in its fourth year, holding off on buying six expansion packs because I cannot find one particular expansion from the same cycle. So I do not believe that the current release model has much impact on those of us who purchase everything and have been doing so since the beginning. We will spend roughly the same amount of money on roughly the same amount of cards as before, but we may find that more new people are willing to play one to three years from now. At that means that the community stays healthy, that game nights stay well-attended, and that the game can continue for a long time.
The primary thing that made me skeptical about this game when it was announced a year ago was the potential lack of depth in deck building. Only being allowed a single aspect and having 15 of your cards chosen for you felt like LCG training wheels. Those factors combined with the usually small card pool of LCGs during their first year had me considering waiting to see how it went for a couple years before buying in. Various things made me change my mind, but some of those concerns have been valid over the past year. Deck building has, until fairly recently, just been what couple of cards do you want to cut out from all of those that are available. If I had to describe the early deck-archetypes I would go with “good stuff Leadership,” “good stuff Aggression,” “good stuff Justice,” and “good stuff Protection” because you were mostly just playing as many of the good cards and as few of the bad cards as you could. But recently I have felt that changing and have actually been excited to build towards a certain niche within an aspect. Now you can build Leadership to focus on Avengers Assemble or Rapid Response or, soon, persistent allies with upgrades. Protection can go defenseless with damage prevention or defending all of the time with Unflappable and Electrostatic Armor. Aggression allies are pretty strong and the aspect has enough ways to interact with threat that it’s even viable solo. And Justice ……well I still have a problem with Justice. It doesn’t excite me and I think FFG has done a disservice to Justice with where they have placed it’s hero packs in the overall release calendar. It’s gotten some decent cards but mostly I think I’m still just playing “good stuff Justice.” My Justice decks don’t usually have a particular focus and they all feel the same. I’m not sure how much The Rise of Red Skull is going to remedy that so, for me, Justice is going to continue to be the role-player that I throw together because why not until at least January or February 2021. Oh well, 3 out of 4 ain’t bad.
This is where I think most players feel the impact of delayed releases and the change in release model the most, and it causes a bit of friction. The game started strong and had probably the best offering of scenarios out of the Core Set of any of their cooperative LCGs. Then their first release even improved from there by ambitiously including two scenarios and four modular sets. Yes, Risky Business may be a disappointment to some, but Mutagen Formula is many people’s favorite scenario and the value of four modular sets is really high. And then there’s Wrecking Crew. Look, I appreciate the early shake up of expectations by showing off things the designers can do within a scenario to really differentiate them. Unfortunately, Wrecking Crew combined more tedious setup and game state management -which takes away from one of this game’s strengths – with a strategy that was easy to solve and ultimately a lower difficulty. There was also a lack of variety and customization through modulars and nemesis sets which is another strength of the game usually. When I go back and count available scenarios compared to how many months the game has been out to try and quantify the growth of the game relative to other LCGs, it’s tempting to leave Wrecking Crew out because I never really want to play it. This is a downside of the release model because if you release a bad scenario in Arkham Horror at least there was a different scenario the previous month and there will be a different scenario the next month. Wrecking Crew was the only scenario released within a roughly 8-month window. Now of course we are going to get five new scenarios at once followed up by yet another scenario the month after that, so it seems this problem is about to be behind us even if not all of the new scenarios hit. If anybody had asked me, I would have wanted to schedule the releases as Core Set > Goblin > Cap/Ms. Marvel/Thor/Widow > Wrecking Crew > Red Skull > Strange/Hulk > Kang for a little more balance in releases.
A lot of what I have written in this article up to now may seem a little negative, but somewhere between the spoilers from Red Skull, the spoilers from Ant-Man, and the other upcoming heroes, I started getting really excited for the future of this game. Problems with shallow card pools and scenario variety are to be expected early in the life of an LCG, but I think the release of The Rise of Red Skull is where this game takes off. You have probably heard that sentiment before because many people, myself included just now, have taken whatever shortcomings this game seems to have and put the pressure of alleviating them all onto this release. But I think that’s warranted. This is the first “deluxe expansion” for the game and entry to what looks to be the next level of design for heroes and scenarios. I do not think the campaign aspect of Rise of Red Skull will be revolutionary, nor do I think it has to be. But I think it will be the bridge between the somewhat nuts-and-bolts designs of the early scenarios and heroes and the more ambitious designs that are to come. Each of the five scenarios looks like it has a unique focus and gimmick that makes it stand out from the rest, and one of the two included heroes has already broken what I thought was the most restrictive part of deck building: the single aspect. From here we move on to Kang which, in a single pack, will change the usual two-stage flow of villains to include a third, introduce obligations as a card type outside of nemesis sets, change the feel of multiplayer with players separated into their own stages, and introduce villains as modulars to appear in other scenarios with the “villainous” keyword. On the hero side we will get Ant-Man and Wasp that have forms beyond the single Alter-Ego and Hero forms that even get their own type of card stock material, team-up cards that allow for synergistic pairings of characters, and Scarlet Witch that can interact with encounter cards in entirely new ways. I don’t know of a super-innovative design feature of Quicksilver yet but, from a play-style perspective, he’s probably the upcoming hero I’m excited about the most. And finally, after all of that innovation, we will get another story box in Galaxy’s Most Wanted that seems to have campaign mechanics entirely different from the first.
After Red Skull, the game will likely not be characterized as lacking in options any longer. We will have hopefully reached a critical mass of scenarios and player cards that deck building will be interesting and rewarding and there will always be a scenario or modular you haven’t revisited in a while waiting to be brought back to the table. I’m not even sure I will have fully digested everything in Red Skull before Kang comes out. When I decided to buy into this game and join the community in a major way, I expected it to be two years before the game really found its legs and started being the game that I wanted, but from the looks of things it may accomplish that in just over a year.
Thank you for reading.
P.S. – I hope you’re looking forward to all of the Rise of Red Skull related content coming out from us and other content creators across the community in September as part of #HydraRising!