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Marvel Snap’s best trick is how it teaches you to play

Developer Second Dinner skips right to the good parts in clever ways

A photo of a game of Marvel Snap, featuring the locations Savage Land, Lechuguilla, and Monster Metropolis, and various cards, on an iPhone. Image: Second Dinner/Nuverse
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Marvel Snap removes one of the biggest barriers that keeps me from playing card games — a whole slew of complex rules that I need to learn before I can start playing. It’s not that Marvel Snap isn’t complex — it is. But that complexity gets revealed slowly, thanks to a long but cleverly disguised series of tutorial matches.

At face level, Marvel Snap is a very simple game, which makes it easy to jump in without any prior knowledge: You’ve just got to win at least two out of three locations on the board by making the numbers go up. If you play cards at a location with higher attack numbers than your opponent, you win that location. On top of this simple premise, Second Dinner has snuck in intricacy in clever ways, slowly introducing players to more complex cards and mechanics. I’ve been stunned by how quickly I started feeling like a card-carrying mastermind.

The way Second Dinner does this with Marvel Snap is by using hours of bot games, at least up to level 30, to introduce new mechanics. You start with a pre-built deck that’s relatively small at 12 cards, and you earn more cards by playing. In these early games, it’s easy to win even if you’re only paying attention to power levels, which are the numbers that add up to earn you a win at each of the three locations on the board. Having a space to play with simpler cards and learn how they work through trial and error — without much consequence — is essential, and it feels like you’re skipping the boring steps of learning, because you’re just playing games. And games are quick with just six turns per round, which means you can play a lot of games in the early phases before moving on to human players.

New cards show up on occasion in your opponents’ decks as you’re also making progress unlocking your own. It’s an easy pace to get to know cards and what they do before you play them yourself. There’s a ton of variance within the cards themselves, and the playable locations also expand what’s possible for strategy. At their core, though, each of these cards has a major thing in common, which is that they all have power and energy requirements. Beyond that, cards can have different abilities or special effects listed at the bottom. It’s easy to understand how these cards work; the harder part is learning how to make them work for you to win.

Marvel Snap strips away a lot of the excess in card games and hits right in the area that makes card games fun. Second Dinner put a lot of thought into what to leave behind. Developer Ben Brode, known for his work on Blizzard Entertainment’s wildly successful card game Hearthstone, has discussed the decision to keep Marvel Snap simple. One of those ways was to keep decks small.

“Deckbuilding is one of the hardest things for players to do in card games,” Brode wrote on Twitter. But, he added, a smaller deck typically means less variance. The team removed the option for a “mulligan,” which would let players draw a new hand, to fix that — you’ve got to play with the cards you start with. This makes you think creatively, especially if you’re locked out of a few turns due to energy levels.

“There’s no ‘tempo’ in Snap,” Brode continued. “You don’t ‘lose board control’ by not playing a card early. It might not be the best, but you’re certainly not doomed.”

With Marvel Snap’s small hands and lack of mulligans, the locations on the board are especially important — they create unbiased chaos. It’s luck of the draw, which makes things still feel fair when stacked against your particular deck. There’s not a ton lost if you lose a game, which incentivizes you to mess around with how cards work with each other and with those locations. The worst thing that could happen is you lose a few minutes and maybe some cubes. (Cubes are used to level up, but they don’t kick in until you’ve played the game for a bit.)

I’ve never been this into a card game before, and it’s because I truly learn something from every game — a new way to play a card that I hadn’t considered, or how to use a location to my own advantage, even if those lessons come at a loss. It doesn’t feel awful to lose, knowing that I can easily play quite a few more games without it being a major time commitment. The thing is, though, that it does feel really good to win, especially when you’ve pulled off some strange move that shouldn’t have worked. I can very easily imagine my opponent marveling at how clever my moves were, even if that’s just what’s happening in my own mind.

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