Marvel Champions: A Card Game for Comic Fans

First off – no, this isn’t the Animal Crossing post I alluded to on Wednesday. I know I’m sort of dragging my feet on that one, but there’s been so much stuff for me to work on lately that I haven’t had time to play it as much as I’d like. Plus. every time I sign in there’s some new element being added – when I hopped on today, Tom Nook told me he was running a workshop on how to customize your DIY projects! That’s a whole new aspect of the game I haven’t had time to mess with yet. Thus, unfortunately, I’m going to have to push that discussion back for a bit longer. In the meantime, my ultra-quick review of Animal Crossing: New Horizons is that it’s fantastic. It’s the best entry in the series so far and if you’ve got a Switch, you should absolutely buy it.

In the meantime, I need a topic for today’s post, and it just so happens that one of my favorite card games announced a major expansion yesterday. The game in question is Marvel Champions, and while I’ll definitely be talking about the aforementioned expansion in the future, I thought I should do a write-up about the core game first.

Marvel Champions is a living card game (or LCG) created by Fantasy Flight Games. What’s a living card game, you ask? Well, it’s pretty similar to a trading card game (TCG) like Magic: The Gathering. Players collect cards and use them to build customized decks. The difference between a TCG and an LCG is that in a TCG, cards are generally collected through the purchase of booster packs containing a set number of randomized cards, whereas in an LCG cards are collected through expansion packs that have predetermined card sets. In other words, if I go out and buy a booster pack of the newest Magic: The Gathering set, I have no idea what cards I’m going to get; if, on the other hand, I buy the Captain America Hero Pack for Marvel Champions, I know exactly what I’ll be getting.

There are pros and cons to each approach. I used to play Magic, and I certainly remember the thrill of opening a new pack and pulling some ultra-rare card. Then again, I also remember the frustration of buying a few packs at once, getting a bunch of duplicates, and feeling like I’d wasted my money. The latter scenario was much more common, but with an LCG like Marvel Champions, I don’t have to worry about it. I’m also something of a completionist; if I’m collecting something, I want to have all of it, which simply isn’t feasible in a TCG without spending copious amounts of money. With an LCG, it’s easy – just buy every expansion once and you’ll have all the cards! I can understand the appeal of TCGs, but for me, LCGs are the better option.

Now that you know what an LCG is, let’s talk about what makes Marvel Champions unique. Most obviously, there’s the IP: this is a game with full access to the hundreds of iconic characters in the Marvel comics universe. That alone lends the game a lot of weight. Between the comics themselves and the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are more Marvel fans than ever looking to live out their heroic fantasies, and a card game that lets you take on the role of one of your favorite characters is a great avenue for that.

Of course, the best branding in the world isn’t going to matter if the gameplay isn’t fun. Luckily, Marvel Champions is a blast to play, as well.

Between one and four players can participate in a round of Marvel Champions, meaning you can play with friends or by yourself. Being able to play solo is a nice option if you happen to, I don’t know, be quarantined for some reason! Each player takes on the role of a popular Marvel superhero, building a deck based on their hero’s abilities. These heroes then face off against a supervillain, attempting to foil that villain’s evil scheme. The game is fully cooperative – the villain has a set of rules they follow on their ‘turn,’ rather than being controlled by a player.

To build a deck, a player must first select their hero. The core set comes with five heroes: Iron Man, Captain Marvel, Black Panther, She-Hulk, and Spider-Man. I love this lineup. It would have been easy to go the ‘MCU Avengers’ route and package the core set with Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor, but the designers had a little more creativity than that. The MCU influence is still felt, certainly – four of those five characters have been major players in the MCU – but it’s a bit less on-the-nose than I’d expected. Plus, they tossed She-Hulk in there! I love She-Hulk!

Each hero comes with an identity card, as well as a set of unique cards that must be used in their deck. These cards are what sets each hero apart, and it’s genuinely impressive how vast the differences in play-style are between different characters.

First, there’s the identity card. This is the card that represents your character, and it’s double-sided. One side represents your ‘hero’ form (Iron Man, for example) while the other side represents your ‘alter-ego’ (Tony Stark). Each side has different stats and abilities, and you can flip between them during the game. You’ll usually want to be in hero mode, as that allows you to attack the villain and thwart their scheme, but sometimes it’s necessary to flip over to your alter-ego so you can heal damage or play specific cards that your hero side doesn’t have access to.

Let’s continue using Iron Man as an example. Iron Man is one of my favorite characters to play as in Marvel Champions because of the interplay between his hero and alter-ego sides. As I said, you usually want to spend your time in hero mode so you can fight against the villain… but Iron Man’s hero side starts the game fairly weak. Its main disadvantage is that it has a pitifully small hand size, meaning you don’t get to draw very many cards when you’re in hero mode. That’s a problem, because in Marvel Champions, you really want to maximize the number of cards in your hand – every card you play has a cost, and the only way to generate resources to pay that cost is to discard other cards. Basically, if you’ve got a card that costs two resources to play, you’re going to have to discard two cards to play it. Therefore, having a maximum hand size of one card (which is what Iron Man has at the beginning of the game) is extremely limiting!

However, if you flip over to your alter-ego, Tony Stark, your hand size goes up significantly. Tony also has an ability that lets him draw extra cards once per round, keeping one and discarding the others. This gives you a chance to draw into a useful upgrade or event. The catch is, you can only flip between your alter-ego and hero sides once per round, so you’ve got to be careful about when you make that switch. Early-game Iron Man is a delicate balancing act where you’re trying to counteract the villain as Iron Man while also spending enough time as Tony Stark to get your best cards into play.

Speaking of, let’s talk about the unique cards that fill out a hero’s deck. Sticking with Iron Man, a lot of his special cards are actually individual pieces of the Iron Man suit: the hover boots, the iconic helmet, the arc reactor, and so on. These all act as upgrades to your identity card – once you play them, they stick around and give you permanent bonuses such as more health or higher damage. Additionally, each time you equip a piece of the suit, Iron Man’s hand size increases by one, gradually mitigating the major drawback of being in hero mode. The more gear you can get out, the less time you need to spend as Tony Stark! Slowly building up your suit throughout a game is extremely satisfying; in the beginning, you’re flipping back and forth every round desperately trying to find and build new upgrades, but by the end you’re taking huge turns where every piece of your armor lets you do some new, cool thing.

The great thing about Marvel Champions is that the play style I just described is specific to Iron Man. If you decide to play She-Hulk instead, you’ll have a very different experience. Many of her unique cards lean into her, uh, Hulk-iness, allowing her to deal massive damage to foes. She’s also got a ton of health, meaning you won’t often need to switch to her alter-ego, Jennifer Walters, to recover. If you don’t like the complexity of Iron Man’s early-game state and just want to beat the villain to a pulp as quickly as possible, you can grab She-Hulk instead! Spider-Man, Captain Marvel, and Black Panther all have their own special twists as well, so you’re sure to find someone you enjoy playing as within the core set.

Ah, but the unique character cards aren’t the only part of deck building! After you choose your hero, you also choose an aspect. There are four different aspects: leadership, aggression, protection, and justice. Each of these aspects provides a bevy of different cards to fill out the rest of your deck. Characters generally have 15 unique character cards, but a deck must be between 40 and 50 cards total; aspect cards (along with ‘basic’ cards that can go in any deck, regardless of aspect) are how you fill out the rest! Each aspect has a different focus – for instance, the leadership aspect has a lot of ally cards that allow you to bring in other characters to help you fight. Want to team up with Hawkeye or the Vision to take down this villain? Choose leadership and you can get them both in your deck. Then again, maybe you’re playing a powerhouse like She-Hulk and you want to pump up your damage per turn even more; in that case, go with the aggression aspect and you’ll find plenty of ways to beef yourself up. Any character can pair with any aspect, and as the card pool continues to grow through new expansions, the deck-building choices will only get more interesting.

Oh, and if this game sounds like a lot of fun to you but you aren’t into deck-building, don’t worry. Each character has a pre-built deck outlined in the learn-to-play booklet, so you can toss that together and get straight to the action! New characters released via expansions also come with pre-built decks included.

Once all the players have got their decks together, it’s time to set up the villain. The goal of the game is always to defeat the villain before they complete their scheme; every round, the villain adds threat tokens to a scheme card, and if the number of threat tokens hits a certain threshold, the villain is victorious. It’s the players’ job to defeat the villain (without getting defeated themselves) before that happens. Players can also use the thwart action to remove threat, buying themselves a bit more time instead of dealing damage. It’s all about knowing when to thwart and when to attack!

Of course, just because the general structure is the same doesn’t mean that the villains are repetitive. The core set features three villains: Rhino, Klaw, and Ultron. Fighting Rhino – who isn’t much of a schemer, but hits like a truck – feels a lot different than fighting Ultron, who distracts you with a constant onslaught of minions. In addition to attacking the players and scheming, the villain also gets a villain deck that deals out dangerous encounters every round. Much like player identities, each individual villain brings a number of unique cards to the villain deck, ensuring that they all feel a bit different.

That’s not all that goes into the villain deck, though. Much like players augment their decks with aspect cards, the villain gets to enhance their deck with modular encounter sets – small, themed card sets that bring a variety of new obstacles to the table. These vary in difficulty and are a great way to spice up a villain you’ve already faced off against a dozen times. Sure, maybe you can trounce Rhino when he’s using the low-difficulty Bomb Scare encounter set, but how will you fare against him when he teams up with M.O.D.O.K. using the Doomsday Chair encounter set? This is the kind of interesting touch that’s going to keep the game fun and fresh for a long, long time – every new modular encounter can be paired with every single villain, so as the card pool grows, the number of combinations is going to get bigger and bigger.

While setup and breakdown of Marvel Champions can be a bit of a hassle (I don’t keep pre-built decks because I enjoy experimenting, so I have to build my hero and villain decks from scratch every time), that’s a small price to pay for the fun you’ll have playing.

The game is already great right out of the box, and it’s only getting better – Fantasy Flight Games has been releasing expansions monthly since Marvel Champions released, and has many more planned for the coming year. So far we’ve gotten three new heroes (Captain America, Ms. Marvel, and Thor) and two new villains (Green Goblin and the Wrecking Crew), all of which add a lot to the game, including new aspect cards and modular encounter sets. In the near future, we’ll be seeing Black Widow, Doctor Strange, and Hulk added to the hero roster, and just yesterday Fantasy Flight Games shed light on the biggest expansion yet – a ‘campaign box’ called The Rise of Red Skull.

This box will add two new heroes (Spider-Woman and Hawkeye), five new villains (Crossbones, Absorbing Man, Taskmaster, Arnim Zola, and Red Skull), and even more new aspect cards and modular encounter sets. On top of all that, it’s adding a totally new way to play – campaign mode. This mode will allow the player to string together multiple sessions to tell a larger story. Decisions made over the course of a campaign can also grant the player access to special new cards specific to campaign mode. I’m a big fan of a different Fantasy Flight LCG, Arkham Horror: The Card Game, that prominently features a campaign mode, and I’m very excited to see it implemented here as well.

If you’re a fan of card games and a fan of Marvel comics, you should check out Marvel Champions. With a great roster of characters and compelling mechanics for each of them, it’s a perfect fit for comic book fans. Plus, with a healthy amount of expansions already released and a bunch of excellent new content on the horizon, it’s a great time to jump in!

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