(Metagame Archive) How to Make a Vs. System Expansion in Nine Easy Steps

By Danny Mandel

A couple weeks ago I wrote an article detailing how my next nine articles or so are going to be my take on creating a Vs. System Design Bible. Before I dive in, there are a few notes I should mention . . .

A Note on Purpose
The purpose of this series of articles is three-fold:

1. It should act as a fairly comprehensive tool for Vs. R&D. My hope is that, while every lead designer will have his or her own ideas on how to run the show, he or she will at least find the bible useful as a sort of checklist or guide.

2. It should help you out if you decide to make your own home-brewed Vs. set. Also, it should give you guys insight into the total process of expansion creation and how our minds work (or don’t work), which is one of the main purposes of my design column*.

3. It should give me a ton of material to work with so I don’t have to fill up this space with commentary on robots or the nature of time and memory.

A Note on Layout
Each installment of the series will be divided into three parts. Part One is where I put the design bible proper. Part Two is the Green Lantern Corps Design Diary, where I talk about creating the Green Lantern Corps set with regards to the stuff in Part One. Part Three is where I answer your questions about the whole process. Currently we are in Part Zero, which is somewhere between last week’s article and Part One.

As you might figure, these articles are going to be long. So long, in fact, that if you don’t particularly feel like reading through all the technical stuff in the design bible, I recommend skipping down to the section on Green Lantern Corps, which is filled with funny stories and candy.

A Note on Perspective
Much of the energy, direction, and creativity that goes into making a Vs. expansion comes from outside the R&D team. We’ve got Product Managers, and Associate Product Managers, and the Organized Play team, and the OP Support team (including Tournament Store and Game Support reps), and the Creative Content team, and the Editing team, and so on and so forth . . . I’m pointing this out because while I’m going to touch on some aspects of set creation outside of the R&D department, the design bible is going to be written primarily from R&D’s perspective.

A Note on Misnomers
The title of this series, “How to Make a Vs. System Expansion in Nine Easy Steps,” might not be entirely accurate. You see, I chose the number nine not because this creative process happens to divide easily into that number of parts, but because there are about that many weeks before The Avengers previews begin. (Mark your calendars!) In reality, there are many, many steps involved in creating a Vs. expansion that I’ll be grouping together so as to make this whole process take nine weeks. For example, today’s installment includes parts one and two of the design bible.

Also, I can’t guarantee that the nine steps are, in fact, “easy.”

A Note on Notes
Aren’t notes great? Let’s hear it for notes!

Okay, I’ve put this off long enough . . .  

Vs. System Design Bible

Each section of the design bible is divided into Overview, Questions, and Thoughts. “Overview” is just that. “Questions” are a bunch of questions intended to help R&D move forward through the creation of the expansion. While I’ve included lots of questions, undoubtedly there are more that can and will be added to the design bible over time. “Thoughts” are a closer look at some of the questions. Also, it’s worth pointing out that even though this is called a “Design Bible,” it includes many more aspects of set creation than just card or mechanics design.

Part One: Organizing the Team

This part involves deciding who will be working on this expansion and in what capacity.

Questions on Organizing the Team
Who will be lead designer?
Who will be lead developer?
Who will be working full-time on this project?
Who will be helping out in a limited capacity?

Thoughts on Organizing the Team
Organizing the team is pretty straightforward. The head of Vs. R&D (Mike Hummel) chooses members of R&D to be lead designer and lead developer. Generally, members of other departments can help out by playing in internal leagues and trying out new cards. Also, some non–Vs. Team employees have extensive comic book knowledge and, as such, are a valuable resource when working out team and roster selection.

The lead designer runs the show within the expansion. He or she hands out design assignments to the rest of the team and decides which characters and card submissions make it into the initial master file. A lead designer should have lots of experience designing cards and must be the final arbiter of which cards do or don’t make the cut.

The lead developer runs the development end of the show once the initial master file is created. He or she hands out development assignments to the rest of the team and works with the lead designer to determine the final text of the cards. A lead developer must have tons of play experience and should shoulder the burden of “making the call” on whether or not a card is at an acceptable power level. 

Part Two: Goals

This part is about determining the overall objectives of the expansion. Our objectives are influenced by two things: constraints and context.

Constraints are factors or parameters that affect the choices we can make and, consequently, the goals of an expansion.

Context is how an expansion fits into the bigger picture of the Vs. System. There are two types of context: flavor and mechanical. Flavor context involves things like which teams have been featured recently or which characters have spiked in popularity. Mechanical context involves gameplay-related concepts, such as the state of the metagame or how different strategies (rush, combo, or stall, for example) are doing in an environment.

Once we’ve taken a look at our constraints and context, we’re ready to decide what our goals are.

Questions on Constraints
How many cards are in this set?
How many cards come in a pack?
What is the rarity breakdown in the set and in a pack?
Is there a starter or other collection of cards intended to come out of the expansion?

Thoughts on Constraints
A standard Vs. System expansion is made up of 220 cards, including 55 rares, 55 uncommons, and 110 commons. The number of cards in a set is relevant for obvious reasons, though it’s worth mentioning that the number is vitally important even at the beginning of this process in that it lets us know how many teams we can fit in the set and how much room we have for legacy content.

Usually a pack contains one rare, three uncommons, and ten commons. The main constraint we gather from this breakdown is that Sealed Pack play is largely determined by the common pool in an expansion. While this is not news, it’s worth noting here.

There are two types of starter sets: ones with content solely from an expansion, and ones with new content separate from an expansion. The starters from Marvel Origins, DC Comics Origins, and Web of Spider-Man are examples of the former, and the Batman and Fantastic Four starters are examples of the latter.

A starter that is built entirely from cards within an expansion provides a constraint in that we must make sure the two teams featured in the starter receive enough appropriate content in the expansion. For example, each team should have several “simple” cards.

On the other hand, a starter that has all (or mostly) new content does not provide a constraint with regards to creating an expansion. This is because we get to build it from scratch and fill it out however we want.

Questions on Flavor Context
Which teams and characters haven’t we done yet?
What big events (comics, movies, and so on) are happening around this expansion?
Which teams and characters have we done recently?
Which teams and characters are we going to be featuring in upcoming expansions?

Thoughts on Flavor Context
The purpose of establishing flavor context is to help us determine how to choose the flavor of an expansion. Sometimes the most important question is which characters haven’t yet been added to the Vs. System library. For example, (as of this writing) the Avengers are the largest iconic team in the Marvel Universe we haven’t done. As such, they would be on the short list of teams considered for an expansion.

Another question involves the timing of the expansion with regards to major events in the comics or other industries. For example, it’s no surprise that the Green Lantern Corps expansion was timed to coincide with the Green Lantern Rebirth storyline. DC and Marvel often want to work with us on certain characters or teams they’d like to see highlighted in the Vs. System, so it’s always good to check with them far in advance of creating an expansion.

The next question is about the flavor of sets surrounding this expansion. For example, if we know that the set preceding this one was focused on street-level heroes, we generally have two options: stay on the same path, or depart from it. Thus far, expansions have usually jumped around. For example, from the street-level Spider-Man set, we jumped to the cosmically-oriented Superman set. Then we went gritty again with Marvel Knights before leaping up into the stars with Green Lantern Corps.

This sequence may have more to do with Marvel having more (literally) down-to-earth teams and characters than DC. However, it also brings up an important point, which is flavor cohesion through Modern Age formats. Because each Modern Age format connects the two latest expansions in a given brand, it’s good for those expansions to connect, both in flavor and mechanics. Unfortunately, there are often larger flavor issues (such as the stuff I went over in the above paragraphs) that make perfect flavor matching between sets very challenging. Through the first eight Vs. System expansions (through JLA) flavor cohesion from set to set has been a low priority compared to introducing major teams and characters we haven’t yet done.

Questions on Mechanical Context
What types of teams have we had recently (fast, combo, stall)?
What types of teams are we planning on making in upcoming sets?
What is the current Golden Age format like?
What have recent Modern Age formats been like?
What have the play patterns been like in recent Sealed Pack and Draft formats?

What mechanics and keywords have we introduced recently?
What mechanics and keywords are we planning on releasing in future sets?

Thoughts on Mechanical Context
We establish mechanical context so that we can decide what mechanical goals the expansion should have. One of the more important goals to have going into an expansion’s design is a direction in which to aim the game’s play patterns. For example, if aggressive burn decks currently dominate Golden Age, we might make one of our goals slowing down the format.

Of course, this can be tricky as we are often building expansions far ahead of time and therefore have to estimate what we think the play patterns of a particular environment are likely to be. Also, different formats provide different challenges. Because Golden Age is by nature a huge card pool with an ever-growing number of teams, it can be difficult to foster new play patterns without introducing power creep. (Power creep is the raw inflation of stats and powers on new cards, which runs the risk of obsoleting older cards.) On the other hand, since each expansion we create makes up a full half of a Modern Age format (actually half of two different Modern Age formats) we have immense control over introducing new play patterns. We also have total control over Sealed formats, due to their insular nature. 

Another area of mechanical context to sort out is rules complexity. This is usually directly related to the complexity of the mechanics and especially keyword mechanics in recent expansions. The reason keyword mechanics tend to increase the rules complexity of a set as perceived by a player is because a keyword represents a compression of language. An example of a keyword is “Evasion,” which is a compression of a power that reads, “Stun this character >>> At the start of the recovery phase this turn, recover this character.”

If recent sets have been on the high end in terms of rules complexity, it’s good to take a step back and let players’ brains cool down. Probably the best example of this is the transition from Marvel Knights to Green Lantern Corps. Marvel Knights introduced what is possibly the most complicated batch of new rules in a Vs. System set, with the hidden area and characters with concealed. The next expansion, Green Lantern Corps, is relatively simple keyword-wise, adding willpower (which has no rules function other than acting as a referent for other cards) and concealed—optional (an intuitive add-on to the concealed mechanic).

Questions on Goals
What are the main flavor goals of this expansion?
What goals do we have for this expansion with regards to . . .
            Golden Age?
            Modern Age?
            Sealed Pack?
            New play patterns?
            New mechanics and keywords?      

Thoughts on Goals
At this point, we should have a good grasp of the constraints and context surrounding our expansion. This is where we choose an overall direction for the expansion, including flavor and mechanical goals.

Next Entry
Next week, I’ll talk about IP (Intellectual Property) research, formally locking in the main teams of the set, and each team’s roster selection.

Green Lantern Design Diary

Okay, enough of that theoretical stuff. This is where I get to tell you all about how we actually created the Green Lantern Corps set. For symmetry’s sake, it will be organized into the same parts as the design bible.

Part One: Organizing the Team
As many of you know, Mike Hummel chose me to be the lead designer of the Green Lantern Corps set, which meant I’d be involved in everything GL related (at least as far as R&D is concerned). Dave Humpherys would officially be lead developer (just like he has been for every set since DC Comics Origins). The rest of the team included Mike Hummel, Matt Hyra, Ben Rubin, Justin Gary, Andrew Yip, Darwin Kastle, and Patrick Sullivan. Ben, Justin, Andrew, and Darwin worked full time, while Mike and Matt divided their time with other projects, and Patrick came in during the middle of development.

Over the design/development cycle we would also receive help from outside Vs. System R&D. But I’ll get to that as it comes up.

At this point we had the team organized, so we were ready to move on to determining our broad goals for the GL set.

Part Two: Goals
The Green Lantern set didn’t have any unusual constraints. No starter set, just the (now) usual 220-card pool with as many commons as uncommons and rares put together.

We knew going in that the flavor of the set would be centered on the Green Lantern Corps. This was because when we started this whole Vs. System thing, we discussed the order of the first several expansions (while we have many years worth of expansions planned, their order is not yet locked down), and decided expansion six (or the third DC expansion) would feature the GLs. It was felt that the Green Lanterns were the obvious choice after Batman and Superman (with a Justice League set to appear later, during the holiday season of ’05).

What we didn’t know was whether or not the Green Lantern mythos had enough depth to fill out an entire set. There was some concern that the Green Lanterns just weren’t cool enough to carry the weight of an expansion by themselves. We knew we could do the Corps and the villain team (which would later be tagged the “Emerald Enemies”), and we knew we had the Manhunters as an Army team (with a flexible roster size). The real question was, how cool would the fourth team be? At first, the fourth team was just the Qwardians, who didn’t have enough punch by themselves. But then Kevin Tewart (of “Kevin Tewart and the Max Rebo Band” fame) suggested the Crime Syndicate and their also–evil–Justice League–doppelganger cousins, the Conglomerate, as additional characters. Suddenly we weren’t so anti–Anti-Matter Universe.

While several other teams, such as Speed Force (Flash and his fast friends) or the Emerald Archers (Green Arrow and his, uh, arrow-shooting friends), were discussed as possibilities to strengthen the appeal of the set, in the end, we decided to make it an all Green Lantern, all the time expansion. This suited me just fine, because I’d rather flesh out a team’s mythos and highlight some of its more obscure characters than try to cram as much mainstream content as possible into a set. While it would have been cool to add Flash and Rogue’s Gallery teams, that would have meant we couldn’t do Anti-Matter or the Manhunters. And now, when we finally do a Flash team, we can make sure it gets the respect and thoroughness it deserves.

At that point, we knew that the Green Lanterns would be the driving flavor behind the expansion. While we had a pretty good idea of who the four main teams would be, this wouldn’t get locked down until a bit later when we got stuck with IP research (which mostly includes reading comics and surfing the web). 

Our next order of business was to decide what sort of mechanical goals we had for the GL set. At this point, the Marvel Knights expansion was just getting finished up, and we knew that set was more about speed than stall. This meant we’d want to consider having the GL set be a bit more late-game oriented, which fit in well with some of the ridiculously powerful characters on those teams who pretty much demand high resource point costs.

The Golden Age format was starting to lean toward Curve Sentinels, but not as strongly as it is now. The popular archetypes in Golden Age didn’t really influence our mechanical goals for the GL set. However, we did make a conscious decision to amp up the overall power level of the set (similar to what Marvel Knights did) since it was believed that the Spider-Man and Superman sets didn’t have enough of an impact on Golden Age.

Modern Age formats were something pretty new, and this was before PC 3 (which featured the Spidey and Marvel Knights sets in Marvel Modern Age), so there were no recent play patterns we were looking to shake up.

As I mentioned above, MK introduced the cool but complex hidden area and concealed mechanic. While we didn’t yet know what the main Green Lantern keywords would be, we were positive we wanted them to be extremely simple for players to grasp. There was even some discussion of not including any new keywords.

Marvel Knights ushered in a new era of Sealed play for several reasons. One, more time was spend building the expansion for Sealed Pack and Draft. Two, we doubled the old number of commons so that games would have more variation and would feel less “scripted.” Three, with every expansion we learned more and more about the Sealed play experience, and we were able to use what we learned with Marvel Knights.

Green Lantern Corps would follow in the footsteps of Marvel Knights, though we wanted it to offer a different positive play experience. We knew that the hidden area played a large role in MK Sealed play, and while we knew concealed was going to be a “forever mechanic,” we wanted the focus of the GL set to be something else. Of course, at this point, these were just vague thoughts (we didn’t yet have the willpower mechanic), but ones we’d come back to.

To summarize, at this point we knew what our broad flavor and mechanical goals were. The expansion would be built entirely around the Green Lantern mythos. We wanted keyword mechanics that were easy to understand. We wanted a different Sealed play experience from Marvel Knights. We were considering pushing “stall” and late game strategies. And we were going to aim a little higher power-level wise than we had in the Superman, Man of Steel set.

Next Entry
Next week, I’ll talk about my crash course in Green Lantern history and how we decided which characters to include in the set. (This is where you get to yell at me for not putting in Oliver Queen.) 

Q + A

The purpose of this section is for you guys to send me questions about the design bible, the Green Lantern Corps Design Diary, or anything else you feel like asking (Vs. System–related or not—I’m flexible.) A couple weeks ago I received the following letter from James Kirkland, and while some of the stuff he’s asking will get covered later on in the design bible, I felt it was worth answering his letter in its entirety here. I am going to do the usual insert-my-responses-as-we-go thing.

Hello there,

First, let me offer preliminary congratulations to you on what looks to be an amazing set in DGL. I have been playing Vs. since it first came out (well, technically, since DOR came out, because I’m a bit of a DC fanatic), and I have always thought that DC was getting the shaft. Marvel simply had more powerful characters with “cooler” abilities and DC was not getting the “props” they deserved. From the cards that I have seen, you’ve addressed this in DGL, and for that I cannot thank you enough.

James brings up an interesting point. I’d never really thought of one brand (Marvel or DC) getting better stuff than the other. I generally think of each Vs. expansion as a member of one big family, though I suppose Modern Age formats kind of draw some party lines. I’m interested to hear what everyone thinks about this. Do you weigh the relative power levels of the two brands? What criteria do you use to do so? Do you feel that one of the brands has been getting better stuff? Let me know.

Second, I have a few questions about how card abilities are decided on. Is there an all-powerful reference guide that is consulted when a new card is thought up? Or do you wing it? Or is it a mixture of both? As an avid comic book reader, I have noticed quite a few characters whose abilities seem to inadequately reflect their comic persona. Take Huntress for example:

While Huntress is attacking or defending, characters may not be the target of plot twists your opponents control.

This would be so much better on Batman than it would be on Huntress, but if I get started I could rant on for pages about how I would change things. What I really want to know is what is the reference that is used to build out a character’s abilities? How do you know when characters should have range? How do you know when they should have flight? When should an ability require or produce endurance loss? What does an exhausting effect represent? What does a discard effect represent? Why is the cosmic ability given to those people without cosmic powers? I have a feeling that once some of these questions are answered, card choices will make a lot more sense to me.

Whew. That’s a lot of questions. I’ll start at the top. No, there isn’t all-powerful reference guide when a new card is thought up. I’ll be going over the many issues wrapped up in card design when I get to the appropriate section of the design bible, but generally, we try to match a card’s mechanics with the flavor of the character as filtered through the aspects of the game over which the character’s team has influence.

For example, with Huntress, we wanted to demonstrate her ability to “hunt” her prey without the opponent being able to interfere with plot twists. We felt this fit Huntress’s flavor pretty well, and it went along with the Gotham Knights team’s ability to mess with opponents’ plot twists and powers (with cards like Fizzle or Utility Belt).

As for whether this would be an appropriate power for Batman, well, I agree with you. Not that I think it makes more sense for Batman, just that it would have been acceptable on him as well. The reason for this is that when you reduce Batman and Huntress to their raw powers, they are pretty much the same archetype: dark, vengeful, street-level martial artist.

In this article from way, way back, I talked about how we design characters whose power suites are similar to other characters. Basically, we try to concentrate on other aspects of the character. For example, each of the three Batman cards in the DC Comics Origins set focused on a different piece of the Batman mythos. Batman, World’s Greatest Detective’s power to replace ongoing plot twists represented his ability to solve mysteries; Batman, Caped Crusader’s “double stun” ability represented the whole “I am Darkness, I am the Night, I am Batman!” intimidation thing; and Batman, The Dark Knight’s card draw and growing stats represented that, while at baseline, he’s simply a human, if he has time to prepare, he can defeat anyone. Of course, that’s just our interpretation of Batman’s powers.

Deciding which characters have range is a bit trickier. Originally, we had an unwritten rule that a ranged character had to be able to shoot or throw or project or stretch at least 50 yards away. Since then, we’ve gotten a bit more relaxed on what range can mean. Nowadays, we tend to give range to characters that primarily fight with ranged weapons or tactics. There’s a lot of talk about why Spider-Man doesn’t have range. We felt that even though Spider-Man could web someone up from across the room, he doesn’t really launch ranged attacks from further than that—his primary weapons are his fists. Also, we sometimes choose to represent his webbing through the powers on his cards.

Of course, the version mechanic lets us highlight the same characters in different ways, so while the Gambit from Marvel Origins doesn’t have range, it’s possible a new Gambit will.

In general, our take on flight is pretty simple. If a character flies, it gets flight. There are some weird cases involving characters who don’t usually fly, but have the ability to gain flight or levitate through things like magic. For example, sometimes Dr. Doom has flight, but a lot of the time, he doesn’t. As usual, I like to rely on the version mechanic in cases like this. While most versions of Dr. Doom are ground-bound, I could see a magically levitating Doom at some point. Or one with jet boots, I suppose . . .

The endurance gain/loss question is a bit tougher. Generally, only some teams have access to endurance gain (or loss). On those teams, it’s fair game to give characters stuff that messes with endurance. Keep in mind that in these cases, these kinds of powers are usually more driven by the team as opposed to an individual character. For example, why does Katma Tui have endurance gain? Ultimately, all Green Lanterns have the same power suite—a power ring pretty much trumps anything the character might naturally be able to do. This meant we kind of had carte blanche to do whatever we wanted on an individual character. Therefore, we turned to what the team was supposed to be good at—in this case, endurance gain.

Your questions “What does exhausting a character represent?” and “What does a discard effect represent?” are pretty much explained in that article I mentioned above on top-down design. But here’s an excerpt that should explain our take:

“Here’s a little secret: As long as a card’s game text doesn’t contradict what a character’s power should be like, it’s a player’s natural tendency to fill in the blanks to what’s going on thematically. For example, Magneto, Eric Lehnsherr’s power is to exhaust an opposing character. Does this represent his incapacitating that character by trapping him or her in a metal shell? The power has the restriction that you must control another Brotherhood character for it to work. Mechanically, it has that restriction because we wanted a player to have to “earn it” by playing with some other Brotherhood characters. But perhaps it represents Magneto sending out his minions to distract an enemy before he closes in for the kill.”

The point is, it represents whatever you want it to. For me, Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man’s power represents him webbing up a villain; Dinah Laurel Lance ◊ Black Canary’s power represents her sonic Canary Cry concussing an opponent; and Glorious Godfrey’s power represents him mind-controlling a hero. As for discard, Catwoman, Selina Kyle is effectively stealing a card from an opponent, and Emma Frost is messing with your opponent’s mind.

Your question, “Why is the cosmic ability given to those people without cosmic powers?” addresses the point that while we make every effort to keep the game as flavorful at possible, we can never forget that at its heart, it is a game. We constantly come across situations where better game play is at odds with perfect flavor. In these cases, we have to use our best judgment as to what’s acceptable. If more than half of the cosmic characters had been closer to normal human power level, we probably would have come up with a better name for the keyword. As it were, we felt enough of the cosmic characters were of appropriate power levels that we could keep the cool-sounding name.

Third, what criteria do you use when introducing new characters for previous affiliations? Does it require them to have interacted with the core personalities of the set, or are they thrown in randomly? For example, I love the new Two-Face, Split Personality, but I can’t remember him ever meeting any of Earth’s Green Lanterns or any member of the Corps. Don’t get me wrong, he’s going into my Arkham Inmates deck, but I’m just wondering why he and Hush made it into this expansion.

Great question. In reality, this is a mixed bag. While it’s ideal if we can somehow tie in the legacy content of a set with the main flavor of that set (as we did with The Joker, Emperor Joker** in the Superman set), often we simply have characters that, for whatever reason, didn’t make the cut in the previous set and therefore end up as legacy content. In Two-Face’s case, we felt we really needed to give the Arkham Inmates a powerful 7-drop, and old Harvey was on the short list of characters we felt were cool or powerful enough to warrant a 7-drop. Hush, on the other hand, was included simply because we wanted to add him to the team.

(James has another paragraph here that talks about a mechanic he’s suggesting for the future. I’m going to leave this part out because his mechanic is similar to some stuff we’ve been working on and I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.)

Sorry for the torrent of questions, but I’m very passionate about this game and that makes me care about every aspect of it.

James Kirkland

Thanks for the questions, James. 

Okay, well, my hands are cramping, and I’m beat. Tune in next week for the next installment of the design bible and GL diary.

Send questions or comments to dmandel@metagame.com.

* Along with sending subliminal messages encouraging you to build Skrull decks and make voodoo dolls of Humpherys.

** Emperor Joker got his powers from Mr. Mxyzptlk, a classic Superman villain.


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