(Metagame Archive) R&D Notes: The X-Men Starter Deck

By Patrick Sullivan

Starter deck design and development present a unique challenge to us over here at Vs. System. With our expansion sets, anything goes. We can introduce new keywords, design cards with 30 words of text, make complicated interactions, and use timing nuances to our hearts’ content. Part of making a rewarding game for experienced TCG players is having complex cards and interactions, and we expect that players purchasing our expansion-level content can handle that. In fact, the primary reason for the strategic depth of Vs. System are these sorts of complexities, and the upside of having cards such as these far outweighs the occasional headaches that you, the player base, might suffer.

Starter decks are a much different animal. We have to work under the assumption that there will be people purchasing the starter who have never touched a TCG before, since starters are a great way for new and inexperienced players to get their feet wet with a new game. However, there is some natural tension between this and making the starter game deep enough that our new Vs. player will want to check out what the expansion sets have to offer. Imagine a game of Vs. where the characters have no flight, no range, and no text beyond stats, and where the support row has been removed from the game entirely. This would be a pretty easy game to teach someone, but I doubt it would hold anyone’s interest for more than a few minutes. However, the more you add to the game, the more likely it is that you will lose new players before they even get started. Imagine if, in your first game of Vs., you were subjected to a Teen Titans Go! / Press the Attack / Roy Harper ◊ Arsenal turn. The likely outcome is that you would never touch the game again, because you didn’t understand what was going on, so the whole experience was frustrating. When creating starter deck content, we have to walk a fine line between ease of play and making a fun and rewarding gaming experience.

Another issue arises because new players aren’t the only ones buying these starter decks. Since these decks are tournament legal, competitive players have an interest in finding new, exciting cards. Also, because the starter decks either re-feature a set of teams or coincide with the release of an expansion, casual players want to get any cool new additions to their favorite teams. While we certainly don’t want to release starters full of busted cards, at the same time, we do want to make the players who shelled out a couple of bucks feel like they got their money’s worth. Once again, there is a very fine line between these interests.

Finally, we need to make sure that the teams feel like their expansion counterparts. For pre-existing players, we want the teams to feel cohesive with their established archetypes, and for new players, we want the cards to “make sense” when they add expansion-level content to their starter decks.

In summary, when creating a starter deck, we need to:

1)     Make sure it’s simple enough that a new player can pick up the game easily.

2)     Allow for enough complicated interactions that the new player retains interest in the game.

3)     Ensure that there isn’t so much overpowered content that starter decks result in drastic metagame shifts. We don’t want to force competitive players to purchase four of every deck.

4)     Provide enough cool content that existing players who decide to buy one are satisfied with their purchase.

5)     Have the teams in the starter feel like their expansion counterparts.

With all that said, here’s a look at some of the new X-Men and Brotherhood cards that players both new and old will get a chance to play with shortly.

Toad, Leaping Lackey has a lot of things going on for a variety of Brotherhood archetypes. Lost City / Avalon Space Station decks have often played Toad, Mortimer Toynbee at the 2-drop slot since he’s a very efficient character, and the newest Toad certainly has a high enough power level to be considered. For The New Brotherhood decks, he makes a reasonable backup to Sabretooth, Feral Rage at 4, as his potential to have greater ATK and flight is valuable for that aggressive strategy. With the new emphasis on dealing breakthrough in the X-Men expansion, Toad helps out admirably, dealing lots of breakthrough himself while busting up formations for the traditionally flight-light Brotherhood. Toad does well enough in an aggressive deck that I anticipate he’ll find a home in a variety of Brotherhood decks for some time to come.

Colossus is, well, big. Really big. In fact, Colossus is the first affiliated, baseline, 10 ATK / 10 DEF character with no drawback in the history of the game. While some of the X-Men’s traditional weaknesses at turn 5 have been shored up by Wolverine, The Best at What He Does, X-Men decks are often glutted with recovery effects that make Wolverine’s ability redundant. Playing Colossus on turn 5 is almost always advantageous. He stuns practically every other 5-drop in the game naturally, while being out of reach for all but a select few 5-drops. Vs. is often a game about raw stats and endurance management, and Colossus sets a new standard for 5-drops in both of these categories.

Cerebra is a card that makes starter-level play enjoyable while filling a niche role in Constructed decks. Nothing is worse for new players than getting to turn 7 and missing your 7-drop, if for no other reason than you want to get your big fat foil into play. Cerebra helps find your 7 (not to mention your other drops) by drawing you cards and burning through your early drops. For Constructed, while the X-Men have always had locations to filter through their deck, this is the first one that nets you cards as you do it. For a deck like X-Stall that has plenty of high drops and lots of effects that require a discard, Cerebra does quite a lot for nothing in return. Expect this card to show up a bit in high curve X-Men decks.

Sabretooth, Killer Instinct is another cross-section of starter- and Constructed-level interests. For starter decks, we want to introduce some basic concepts, one of which is that attack order matters. Sabretooth is the type of card that gets across this concept in a simple enough way that it doesn’t slow down the game. New players pick up that they should attack with Sabretooth last, if at all possible. For Constructed, he has a lot of competition with Sabretooth, Feral Rage, Sabretooth, Victor Creed, and Sabretooth, Savage Killer, but for Modern and Silver Age, if you aren’t that interested in attacking the hidden area, this version can do quite a bit more damage. In terms of breakthrough and attacking up the curve, this Sabretooth gets the job done well.

As a final note, none of the characters in the starter deck are Mutant stamped. This was a conscious decision on our part, and we here at R&D debated it for quite a while. The decision was finally made for two reasons. First, we wanted to keep the cards as simple as possible, and our starter decks are already filled with words that have no meaning for starter-level purposes. For example, versions are never mentioned, and team affiliations could easily be removed from cards and replaced with rules in the starter deck regarding team attacking and reinforcement. Adding information on cards that doesn’t need to be there only increases the odds of confusing a new player. Furthermore, having some content that is “expansion only” adds some excitement for a player who goes out and buys a booster for the first time.

Second, we didn’t want our Marvel Modern players to have to go out and buy four starters to compete at the Pro Circuit or in the PCQ season, and adding Mutant traits could have created that result. While we would like our players to purchase the new starter decks, and we feel that there is a reasonable amount of tournament-level content in them, we don’t want to force you to buy them just to stay competitive. Isn’t that sweet of us?

I hope that I’ve given you a bit of insight into starter deck development, so now you know why making a bunch of generic-looking cards isn’t as simple as it looks. Hopefully, these cards look splashy enough that you’ll want to buy a starter to add to your X-Men and Brotherhood decks. If nothing else, pick up a copy, grab a friend who doesn’t play, and give these decks a spin. They’re a blast to play, and you might just introduce someone to a new hobby.


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