(Metagame Archive) How to Make a Vs. System Expansion in Nine Easy Steps, Part 9: Everything Else

By Mike Hummel

In this final article of the series, I’ll attempt to cover all the remaining internal steps that go into releasing a Vs. System set. There’s a lot to review, so I’m going to jump directly to the Design Bible section of the article.

Design Bible Part 9: Finishing Touches

During the final stages of set design, the R&D team works with the editors, the creative text group, the rules team, the product management staff, the pre-press department, the Organized Play group, industry magazines, and the printers to create the final product.

Questions for the finishing touches:

  • How many cards will receive flavor text?
  • Is our card templating correct and is our reminder text clear?
  • What is the alternate art foil card going to be?
  • What art piece is going on a card?
  • Is the file ready for licensor approvals?
  • Have we proofed the grids?
  • What are the OP support items going to be?
  • How did the cards pack out?
  • Are we having fun yet?


A Dash of Flavor

Shortly after Sealed testing, when the file starts to solidify around the cards that will make it into the final set, R&D turns it over to the creative team. The creative team then spends four to six weeks generating flavor text. Typically, the same group that generated the art request file also contributes to flavor text.

The group creates between three and five flavor quotes for each card in the file. These quotes are mix of phrases lifted directly from the comics and original ideas generated by the team. Roughly two weeks before the file goes to editing, the lead designer has a flavor text meeting with the creative group.

The set designer reviews all the quotes and picks the final direction for each card. Not all cards will receive flavor text. The two primary reasons for omitting flavor from a card are lack of space on the card and not having a quote that helps to bring all the other card components together (name, image, and game effect).

I Know What It Says, but What Does It Mean?

After many weeks of Constructed testing, the lead designer and developer work with the internal rules team, led by Paul Ross, on an initial templating pass. This process allows all new cards to use the same mechanical game language as all previously released cards. There are a few parts to this process.

The first step, and usually the easiest, is reviewing the game language for any effect that’s been used on a previous card. Paul and his team scour the file, ensuring that the language is consistent with previously released sets. After that, Paul needs to review any new effect or rules language that is appearing for the first time in the game. This includes all the cards that use any new game mechanics or keywords. The lead designer and Paul’s team need to determine the official language for any new rules and how the final text will appear on cards, the boxtopper insert, and in the Comprehensive Rules.

Finally, Paul has to sign off on any new reminder text. Creating reminder text can actually be more difficult than finalizing the game language for new mechanics. The reminder text has to make sense in basic English, it needs to be short, and it also has to follow the same game rules that the full mechanic uses.

A Rose by Any Other Name

I think this my favorite part of set creation as a lead designer. This is when the lead designer works directly with the art department, the creative team, and the licensor to pick out what the alternate foil card Easter Egg is going to be for the set.

In case you didn’t know, since the very first set, we’ve always included one foil card that was slightly different from its non-foil twin. When the creative team was working on the flavor text for Marvel Origins, Omeed Dariani asked if we could give She-Hulk alternate flavor for her foil version. I took the idea back to the production team, and after some puzzled looks and lengthy questions, we managed to get the card into the set.

For a while, we were happy with just alternate flavor text, but with the Superman set and the inverse-image Bizarro, we really started getting creative. Since then, each lead designer has been trying to create something that’s never been done before. I was pretty happy with the way Emma came out in the X-Men set, and I’m excited to see players’ reactions when they see the cards from Crisis and Galactus.

You Call That Art?

During the final days that R&D has the file before turning it over to editing, the lead designer runs a final art pass and assigns each card in the set to a linked image code. The final art typically trickles in during the last five to six weeks of the process, and when a piece comes in, the designer adds the corresponding code to the file. Usually, there’s a surplus of images and the lead designer has to sort through everything (including unused images from previous sets) and select which pieces will end up on cards in the set.

Simon Says, “Go to Print.”

Before going to print on any Vs. System set, the licensing company (Marvel or DC) has to approve the file. After the lead designer compiles all the file components into a master document (game effects, art codes, names, flavor text, artist names, icons), it’s shipped to editing. The editing team typically spends a week reviewing the file and ensuring that everything is in order before it’s sent to Marvel or DC for final approvals.


After an editing pass and a final review by the lead designer, the set is officially turned over to the product manager (PM) group. They, in turn, pass the file to the pre-press department to create the proof grids that will eventually become printed uncut sheets. Before this happens, the PM group (with help from R&D) creates a layout file for each of the grids. This file determines the order in which the cards appear on the sheet. R&D has significant involvement in this process, as card ordering will have an impact on Draft and Sealed play.

Combining the design file, art images, and layout pattern, the pre-press department generates the first round of grids for the set. These typically appear on six large sheets—one each for common, uncommon, and rare cards, and a duplicate foil set of each. These grids then route through the different internal departments up to three times. This is the last chance that R&D gets to make any changes to the file and correct any errors that were not caught on previous reviews. This process typically takes six to eight weeks after the initial turnover of the file by R&D. During this time, R&D developers continue to test the Constructed environment, and the new design lead begins work on advance art images for the following set.

Pick a Card, Any Card

After the design lead hands off the file to the product manager group, he or she starts prep work on all the advance materials that will release before or at the same time as the Sneak Preview launch. This includes picking out cards from the set to be the promotional Extended Art cards.

With help from the lead developer and Andy Fletcher (who runs the Hobby League program), the design lead picks out cards that the group believes will have the most resonance with players for the different programs. The design lead also works with the Organized Play team to determine which images will be used on support items like the tins, t-shirts, and playmats.

Busting Packs

Before a Sneak Preview event, R&D and the product manager team travel to the printing plant and open up a number of sealed boxes and packs to check for quality control and card count. This is a grueling trip that requires us to get up out of our chairs, go down a flight of stairs, and walk across a hallway.

That’s right—our printers are located right next door. Actually, Graphic Converting is technically in the same building as the Upper Deck main office. It’s owned by a different company, so we have to switch ID badges after crossing a yellow and black tapeline that separates a shared hallway. No, I’m not making this up.

Then the fun starts. They bring us the first couple of cases that come off the line, and we get to bust packs. Lots and lots and lots of packs. The goal here is to report any production errors we might find so they can make on-site corrections to the print line. In reality, we make huge mountains of foil wrappers and yell out whenever someone busts an Enemy of My Enemy (or whatever the card of the day/set happens to be).

In case you’re wondering, we don’t get to keep the cards. They take them and put them back into the card hoppers. I’ve always thought it would be a great idea to offer a pack check as a potential OP prize. If anyone thinks it would be fun to bust a bunch of cases of new product before it releases (Non-Disclosure Agreement required), let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

Happy Fun Time

After all the hard work we put into a set, we’re rewarded with an internal Sneak Preview event. On the Friday afternoon before the Sneak Preview weekend, the OP group hands out five packs, a t-shirt, and a deck tin to everyone in the entertainment department. Everyone builds decks and spends the afternoon trying to put R&D in its place.

That’s a Wrap!

And that is how we make a Vs. System set in nine easy steps. Hopefully, this will give you some insight into what life is like every three months for the Vs. R&D team. Be sure to come back next week to check out our first official Infinite Crisis spoiler as I tag-team writing assignments with set lead designer Justin Gary. Just remember, if you liked a card from the X-Men set, then I designed it, and if you disliked a card in the X-Men set, it was because Humpherys nerfed it.


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