(Metagame Archive) Two Turns Ahead – Grand Designs

By Tim Willoughby

I like to think that my little jaunts into the world of Vs. System every week give me a nice outlet for being creative. Some people play music, or draw pictures, or perhaps sculpt tiny statues of dolphins out of cheese. Me, I write. For the few hours a week that I sit around with Lappy 2, I’m not particularly concerned with the dire, depressing inevitability that is the next bout of bad weather to hit the shores of the grey and damp land that I call home.

On a good day, I can come up with a few pearls of what I hesitate to call wisdom. More likely, pearls of whimsy. I’d rather make other people think a little than do a huge amount of thinking, anyway, so that is just fine. Somehow or other, a fair amount of the time, I satisfy my creative urges by casting myself as the raconteur who relates reports of rare repute. At best, I recite a rough rewording of events as I remember them. If this entertains, informs, or otherwise delights, so much the better.

There are some, though, who go a little bit further. There are real creative types out there, and I’m not convinced that I’m one of them. In this instance, I’m talking about those cantankerous reprobates who work at UDE R&D.

Now, I have no idea exactly how much research, and indeed development, goes into the creation of a Vs. System set. I am guessing quite a lot, though. I have played a lot of card games, and there is something very neat about the rules of Vs. that I have rarely come across elsewhere. What make a TCG, though, are the cards.

I don’t know how long ago any of you last opened a booster of Marvel Origins, but to the best of my recollection, more or less every rare in the entire set has seen some play at a high-level tournament at some time or other, while only a few have power levels so high that they have prompted cause for concern.

In between the release of Origins and the impending Infinite Crisis release, there have been a pretty staggering number of cards created. The variety already existing is staggering, and some of the creativity that has been shown is pretty impressive. Had you told me when the game first came out that a deck whose focus was keeping a single character in play or emptying its hand as fast as possible would be a tournament competitor, I wouldn’t have believed you.  

Designing new cards that are competitive, powerful, and not simply rehashed versions of something that already exists must be pretty tough. I hadn’t really thought about just how tough until the other week, when “The” Ben Seck began his Fan Card Crossover feature.      

For those of you who haven’t gotten involved in the feature, I thoroughly recommend that you take a look. It’s a pretty exciting project. The chance to get your card created for real, to be used by people around the world to smash face, is simply too good to miss.

I for one submitted quite a few potential mechanics for the new League of Assassins 6-drop, Nyssa Raatko. I also pestered The Ben Seck wherever possible and generally tried to learn as much as I could about card design as quickly as possible in the hope that I could somehow get an edge on the competition.

At the time of writing, I don’t know whether or not anything I came up with was good enough to make the next stage of the voting. I’m going to assume not, but just in case, I will save the risk of spoiling any of Ben’s reveals (and my own pride) by not including my nefarious concoctions of game text for Nyssa. They might become available (on request) at a later date, but I’d rather not air my dirty laundry in public. Yes, I am implying that some number of the submissions may have been pants.

When I see other people (who aren’t necessarily game designers) designing cards, typically they fall into one of about three main bunkers as they tee off, assuming that the rules templating works such that the ball is even hit in the first place. Either they will not hit the ball hard enough and will be left with an unremarkable effort, or they go so far over the top with power that it is unlikely that it will ever work. Finally, there is the scenario of the idea that is good but just too complicated. Ultimately, Vs. is still a game, and games should be fun. Having too many Anti-Life Equations running around rapidly stops being fun.

The process of trying to come up with reasonable submissions for Nyssa highlighted a whole raft of other considerations for card design, though. Are submissions flavorful in the right way? Has thought been given to how the card plays in Draft and in Constructed, to where it fits in terms of commonality, and to synergy outside its own team and even its own set? Does it reward the good player, the kitchen table player, the mad-scientist combo player? After all that, is it still fun?

Fun is the one thing that Vs. System always remains, which suggests to me that somebody is doing a very good job. Whether in Sealed Pack or Constructed, cards are typically fairly well-balanced, and even the really powerful ones just seem like the “big drops” on the Vs. rollercoaster. Nobody’s falling out of carts and damaging their spleens here. There is just enough power to keep things exciting.  

The really mind-boggling bit that comes with designing cards is looking for combos. So far, only a single card combination so powerful that it required action from The Powers That Be has slipped out of R&D’s doors, and frankly, I find that pretty impressive. With each additional set that comes out, the number of potential cards that can combine with others increases hugely. I’m not a mathematician, but I would guess that there are between eleventy and twelvety squillion potential combinations of Vs. cards now floating around, and at any moment, any single card could form a naughty little union with another and, much like a Vegas wedding, get out of hand very fast.

R&D keeps our game fun, keeps it interesting, and even spots the troublemakers and rehabilitates them before they make any trouble. Superman? All he ever did was stop the odd threat to world security and run away from green rocks!

Each set has over two hundred cards that somehow come together in a splendid genesis to baffle and entertain me four times a year. I’m not quite sure how it is done, but I must say that I’m very, very happy with the results.

Crisis is coming. I heard a rumor that it was infinite. I’m guessing that this can only have been idle banter, though, as surely R&D hasn’t had time to design a set that’s infinitely big. Imagine how random the drafts would be!

Have fun and be lucky, peeps.
Tim “Should Not be Allowed to Design” Willoughby



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