(Metagame Archive) How to Make a Vs. System Expansion in Nine Easy Steps- Part 7: Sealed Play Development

By Danny Mandel

I spent the Independence Day weekend at a family reunion sort of thing in New York City. This is important for me to tell you because a) it explains why I didn’t post an article last week, and b) it introduces a story that I feel is appropriate for today’s entry in the Design Bible.

On July 2, we went to a New York Mets game, but that’s not really the story. The real story is about the hour before the Mets game, when they had what was essentially a last chance qualifier for the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, which would take place on Independence Day.

So, I was standing there with my parents and uncle Howie (no, not the Howie Mandel), and the ten competitors were introduced. Several of them were serious eaters—guys who competed in other eating events like “who can eat the most spaghetti” or “who can drink the most mayonnaise.” A few others were amateurs, who I believe simply signed up to compete.

After a ton of build-up, the contest began. Nine out of the ten competitors started shoveling hot dogs into their mouths, most of them using this technique where they separated the hot dogs from the buns, broke the dogs in half to munch them down more quickly, and then followed up with the buns dipped in water or some other liquid, which I guess made them easier to chew.

So, nine out of the ten competitors started shoveling. But this one guy—I forget his name, so let’s call him “Clarence”—this one guy, Clarence, didn’t start shoveling. No, when the announcer screamed, “Go,” Clarence took a leisurely bite of his hot dog. It was a normal bite like he was eating at a cookout. He chewed for a few seconds, nodding his head as if to say, “Mmmm!” Then, he took a second leisurely bite, which he washed down with a nice gulp of water or lemonade or iced tea (I couldn’t see into his cup.). The contest wore on, and while the rest of the competitors raced to fill their faces and bellies, it became clear that Clarence was there to have lunch.

The moral of the story is that not everyone wants the same things out of a game. Some people might enter a hot dog eating contest to win. Some might enter for the thrill of competition, or so they can get their mugs on TV. And some just want a free meal.

The same is true for the Vs. System. Some players are into it for the competition, some like it for the challenge of deckbuilding and guessing the metagame, and some love the flavor of their favorite heroes and villains in action. One of our jobs is to cater to the desires of all kinds of players. This often leads to the creation of cards aimed at specific subsections of the player base, as you’ll see in today’s Design Bible entry: Sealed Play Development.

Before diving in, I should point out that the last entry (Full Design), today’s entry (Sealed Play Development), and the next entry (Constructed Development) are heavily intertwined. For the purposes of the Design Bible, I’m going over them one at a time, but in reality, they’re all mixed together.

Design Bible

Part Seven: Sealed Play Development




In this part, R&D plays Sealed Pack and Draft in order to organize and balance the set for Sealed play.

Questions on Sealed Play Development


How do we assign rarities?

What is the method R&D uses to test Sealed Pack and Draft?

What are the main axes of Sealed play to consider?

What are the set-specific concepts to consider?

Are there enough handholds and/or archetypes?

Are the teams of appropriate power levels?

Are we having fun?


Thoughts on Sealed Play Development



Before we can begin testing Sealed play, we have to do a preliminary rarity pass. This is because, while in Constructed we can assume a player will have equal access to all cards, in Sealed Pack or Draft, a player will have a much higher percentage of common cards.

In general, we try to have an even spread of common characters or team-stamped cards among the main teams. Probably the most important factor in assigning commons is that while it’s totally fine for a common card to see play in Constructed, we generally want to avoid assigning cards to common that we don’t want players to see very often in Sealed play. Some examples of the types of cards that shouldn’t be common are cards with really weird or complicated powers, cards with extremely narrow effects, and cards that are so powerful that they dominate games all by themselves.


Once we’ve assigned rarities, we’re ready to try out the cards. We print up proxy cards on slips of paper, inserting them into card sleeves with real Vs. cards that keep the proxies in place. We do Sealed Pack or Draft “round robins” or tournaments, taking notes as we play, draft, and build on several factors that I’ll outline below. Also, we often include players from outside of R&D, which is valuable, because like most Vs. players, they don’t play games all day every day for a living.

Fundamental Axes

In almost every Vs. System expansion, there are certain fundamental axes in Sealed play. The idea here is that we need to figure out where our expansion is fitting in along each axis. Then, we see if we want to make changes. For example, if there are tons of characters with concealed in an expansion, we need to decide how many tools we want to give players so they can mess with the hidden area.

It’s important to note that there’s not a “right” answer to where a set should fall along one of the axes. In fact, one of our goals is to provide players with a different feel from set to set, and one of our tools is to shake things up.

Here are some of the fundamental axes.

Flight and Range

The more flight there is in a set, the more we want to consider making a larger-than-usual number of cards that take away flight, keep support row characters from getting attacked, or provide reinforcement. On the other hand, if there isn’t enough flight in a set, we should consider making cards that give flight or mess with opposing formations.

If there aren’t enough ranged characters in a set, we might add cards that give out range. However, a set with too many ranged characters works a little differently. Since in general you have to put a character in front of a ranged character in order to protect it, even having a team of ranged guys means you’re still going to leave some characters vulnerable. We tend not to have characters lose range too often, because unlike taking away flight (which only messes with a player’s options), taking away range from a support row character means that character can’t attack at all.


Stat-Pump Effects

The two extremes on this axis are either having absolutely no way to alter a character’s ATK or DEF or having tons of efficient ATK or DEF pumping effects. The former case puts lots of pressure on a character’s individual stats. If I know there’s no way for you to pump stats, my 9/9 will take down your 8/8 every time. On the other hand, if every single plot twist in the set gives a character +5 ATK and +5 DEF, then all bets are off. Of course, the goal here is to find a nice balance somewhere between the two extremes.


The Hidden Area

As I mentioned above, we have to decide how much we’re going to let players mess with hidden characters. If we don’t let players mess with them at all, then hidden characters are virtually untouchable. On the other hand, if we give players too many ways to attack hidden characters or move them to the visible area, being hidden can become more of a liability than anything else.

The Role of Team Affiliations

This is probably the most complicated axis, because it’s really several axes all rolled into one. The issue here boils down to the importance of team affiliations in a particular set.

There are many reasons to play a “pure team” build, such as a preponderance of loyalty or team-stamped powers and plot twists, the need for reinforcement and team attacks (a necessity in off-curve builds), or a pull toward single-team archetypes. On the other hand, a lack of loyalty and team-stamping, a good amount of team-up cards, and multi-team archetypes can give players more creative freedom.

In the DC Origins set, there’s a ton of loyalty and team-stamping, so it’s very hard for players to draft multi-team. On the other hand, in the Marvel Knights set, not only are there tons of team-up cards as well as plot twists that reward multi-team play, but there are also double-loyalty characters that force players into decks with two or more teams.

In general, we want to encourage players to draft or build multi-team decks in order to create more variety in the play experience. However, each set is its own animal, so the exact methods we use can and should vary.


Set-Specific Concepts


In addition to the fundamental axes, we need to consider any set-specific mechanics or concepts. For example, the core mechanic of the Man of Steel set is cosmic counters. We needed to decide how easy it would be for players to add or remove them from characters. In this case, we chose to break it up by team. The Revenge Squad was the best team at removing cosmic counters, while Team Superman was the best at adding them, with the New Gods close behind.



A “handhold” is a card or set of cards that screams out to be played in a certain build or archetype. A good example of a handhold is the X-Statix loner strategy. Several cards all but instruct a player to try out the single character build. But in reality, there are all kinds of handholds.

For example, team affiliation is probably the most often used handhold. When a new set comes out, players tend to check out each team on its own, which also makes sense given that there are internal themes within each team.

Another type of handhold is a single “lynchpin” card that breeds an archetype unto itself. For example, Longshot is the key component in various “vomit” builds that seek to spit out a bunch of Army characters.

The idea of handholds in Sealed play is sort of like one of the above fundamental axes in that we can try to shake up how easy or obvious the handholds are and how they’re implemented in a given set. As I mentioned before, there’s always the default handhold of team affiliation. However, we often try to include subtle (or not so subtle) additional handholds.

Power Levels

One of the primary goals of development (whether in Constructed or Sealed play) is to balance the power level of the cards. This includes individual cards, cards within a team, cards within an archetype, and card synergies and combos.

Ironically, while this is probably the largest component of Sealed play development, it’s also the shortest section to write about, because it involves mostly small changes to cards—stuff like a character getting a slightly smaller DEF or a plot twist getting a discard tacked on as an additional cost.



It might seem like a no-brainer, but one thing we must never lose sight of is whether the set is fun to play. It’s not enough that an archetype or card is balanced; we have to make sure that it’s also fun to play with. Of course, “fun” is subjective. But the point here isn’t to come up with a way to determine what counts as fun. Rather, it’s to make sure that everyone’s paying attention to fun.

Green Lantern Design Diary

Part Seven: Sealed Play Development

Last time, I told a bunch of design stories. Today, it’s time for development stories.

Birthing Chamber

Here’s a card that was considered at all three rarities. Its power level and sleek design made it a solid rare, but its use as an off-curve strategy facilitator made it a candidate for common. In the end, we decided we didn’t want a ton of them floating around in drafts, so we made it uncommon.

Coast City and In Evil Star’s Evil Clutches
We had a ton of flight in the set, so we decided to increase the number of anti-flight cards. Coast City is an example of a nice, simple card. While IESEC is more complicated, it also allows you to do funky things with your resource row. Notice that they’re both commons, just like other anti-flight cards such as Kyle Rayner, Green Lantern of the Universe, Tomar Tu, and the next card I’ll be talking about . . .

Dimming of the Starheart and Yellow Impurity

Willpower is of course the core theme of the Green Lantern set. We knew that we wanted to give players the ability to mess with their opponents’ willpower. The only question was whether to add additional effects. While Dimming of the Starheart takes away flight to help against the rampant flight in the set, we wanted Yellow Impurity to be a solid card in Sealed play that might actually see some Constructed play in Modern Age.



Last time around, I mistakenly said that Manhunter Lantern is the only Manhunter character with willpower. The reason for this (other than my usual absent-mindedness) is that for a good portion of development, Manhunter Lantern was the only Manhunter with willpower. After several drafts, we felt that there weren’t enough commons with willpower, so we did a pass on the file and added the keyword to some characters as appropriate.



Goldy is an example of a card that’s intended to be a lynchpin during Draft. He thrusts a player heavily into the Emerald Enemies, but he pays you back with monstrous stats and a power that fits right in with the EE self-KO resource strategy.


Okay, that’s all I’ve got for stories today. Mostly, I need to keep the wordage down so the editors don’t kill me. (They’re already mad because, every once in a while, I turn my articles in a wee bit late.)

Next time, I’ll go over some Constructed development.


Today, we’ve got several questions from good old Bizarro 98. His words are in italics. Mine are not.

You said that the main purpose of initial design and development is the prevention of concern about breaking entire mechanics, and that sometimes, entire mechanics get thrown out during testing. That reminded me of an earlier article by Dave Smith, where he mentioned that the team theme of the Crime Lords used to be a keyword called “hunter.”

My question is this: do you guys have spare team themes in a big glass case somewhere in your office, just in case one of your set’s core mechanics turns out to be boring or broken? And if so, does the case have a sign that says, “In case of emergency, break glass”? But not in that trading card game kind of way—I’m talking about the more literal way of breaking something that involves actual damage to a physical object.


LOL. Well, yes and no. We do have a big file of cards, mechanics, and themes, but it’s just a general pool of stuff—not an “in case of emergency” kind of thing.

Invariably, we start with more concepts in the initial set than we end up using in the final file. Some of the unused ones get thrown out because they’re unworkable, but the other ones that get squeezed out for space go into the big list of unused cards and mechanics.

While we’ve definitely had times when we’ve reworked a team two or three times, we don’t just pick something from the unused file to fill space. We make sure that the theme fits the flavor of the team.


Also, has there ever been a time when you had a mechanic that matched a team perfectly, but you decided to scrap it or save it for a later reintroduction of that team, because the mechanic was totally unrelated to everything else that was going on in the set?


Not yet. In general, from the start we look at the overall flavor of the set to come up with the core mechanics. Then, we come up with themes for each team, which are often wrapped up in the core mechanics. If a mechanic doesn’t work out, it isn’t because it doesn’t jive with the core concept of the set.

Also, often what a set is about doesn’t preclude team themes. For example, cosmic counters are basically a way to cost a character’s power differently. While the teams in the Superman set are all connected to the cosmic mechanic, they’re also doing their own thing.


Will we ever see commonplace character flaws like “slow,” “weak,” or “incompetent” as keywords in this game? I’ve always thought “stupidity” would be an appropriate keyword to introduce in a Hulk-heavy set, and I’d love to see a character who gets extra ATK when attacking a character with stupidity.


You mean something like this.


Stupid Humpherys

3 Cost

12 ATK, 12 DEF

Slow (This character cannot ready.)

Weak (Whenever this character becomes stunned, KO it.)

Incompetent (This character comes into play exhausted.)

When Stupid Humpherys comes into play, return all characters you control to their owners’ hands. Then discard your hand.


He may be tall, but he sure is crappy.


Send questions or comments to dmandel@metagame.com.


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