Since its official launch on Oct. 18, Marvel Snap has quickly become something of a minor phenomenon, climbing the mobile charts while drawing in card game neophytes and genre oldheads alike. There are many reasons for its success. On top of leveraging the ascendant fervor around comic culture, its gameplay is simple enough to onboard newbies, while its growing card pool and interesting novelties allow for a variety of strategies at higher levels. Perhaps most impressive of all, it largely bucks some of the more exploitative elements synonymous with trading card games (TCGs) by ditching the “pay-to-win” model of requiring players to dump money into booster packs for better cards. While its core mechanics are great, it feels like much of the goodwill comes from how it seemingly breaks with the more extortionary tendencies found in many free-to-play mobile titles.
However, while the experience is reasonable up front, those playing since the beta offer a glimpse at what awaits the rest of us in the coming months, and the results are concerning. According to these folks, as well as the disclosed progression rates, the pace of unlocking new cards drops precipitously the further you progress, culminating in a glacial endgame. While this trajectory is the norm for free-to-play mobile games, considering how well everything else works, I can’t help but be disappointed.
For those unfamiliar, Snap is a trading card game set in the world of Marvel superhero comics. The goal of a match is to win two out of three locations by playing cards with higher Power than your opponent. You can place four cards per location, and whoever leads after six turns takes the game.
Of its many strengths, one of the most impressive is its appeal to those traditionally uninterested in card games. A crucial element of its approachability is that the deck size is only 12 cards, making it far easier for beginners to put something together. For comparison, TCG giant Magic: The Gathering has a minimum deck size of 60 cards, while others like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon require between 40 and 60 respectively. Another important element for first-timers is that it gradually introduces new mechanics. When I first got into Magic, I remember feeling intimidated by its thousands of cards and myriad systems, but Snap’s more deliberate introduction avoids that kind of information overload. Still, even as a veteran of the genre, the pace of unlocking new cards has been quick enough that plenty of interesting mechanics and synergies have already become apparent.
As far as playing it goes, the different deck archetypes and unique card abilities bounce off each other in satisfying ways, allowing for impressive combos if played correctly. While the small deck size implies that matches would feel overly similar, it circumvents this problem by introducing unique rules associated with each location. These local effects vary greatly, from mild Power increases to insane boons that, when paired with the correct ability, lead to numbers so large it nearly breaks the game’s math. Sometimes a card’s unique qualities can even circumvent the negative aspects of a spot, meaning crafty play is crucial. These randomized location-based rules are intrinsic to the flow of each match because they ensure players can’t mindlessly carry out their deck’s prescribed combos but must react to the unique criteria of each bout. Using the board to maximize the strengths of my hand has led to some of the most satisfying and wacky moments I’ve experienced in a card game, and is one of the major reasons I’ve been so hooked. Although some locations can be overly intrusive, such as the hilariously annoying Ego who takes over your deck and plays for you, the short match time ensures that even these occasional irritations are short-lived.
The ranking system is also fairly ingenious. To climb the ladder, you must collect Cubes from opponents. A single Cube is on the table at the start of a match, but each player can perform a Snap once a game to double the amount. The wager also doubles naturally on turn six, meaning a total of eight Cubes can be won or lost from a single showdown. You can retreat at any point, forfeiting the current wager but potentially avoiding a more significant loss. It takes ten Cubes to move up a rank, with those at rank 100 or over earning the highest rating of Infinity. The inclusion of this system means ascending is less about pure wins and losses and more about calculating the likelihood of a match’s outcome based on the current board state to maximize the impact of your victories and mitigate your defeats. Or, you know, you can just Snap turn one because it is funny. While other games’ competitive modes can feel frustrating because the amount of points you lose or win for your online ranking can come across as arbitrary, here there is an empowering sense of control over how much is wagered. This system also rewards those skilled at prediction and creates an incentive to become knowledgeable about common deck archetypes so you can plan ahead.
But as mentioned earlier, one of the main reasons Snap has won a lot of respect thus far is that its upfront monetization doesn’t feel as overbearing as what’s found in other trading card or mobile games. By playing matches, you earn Boosters, which can be used in tandem with Credits to upgrade the rarity of your cards. Rarity boosts are only cosmetic, but upgrading them also increases your Collection Level, which is tied to how you acquire new cards. One of the best aspects of its unlock system is that, unlike most other TCGs, you are guaranteed to eventually earn the same tools as everyone else, and there isn’t any fishing for ultra-rare meta-defining cards in booster packs. Based on your Collection Level, you receive new cards from one of three “Pools.” While the order of gaining cards within a Pool is randomized, you will always have all the same ones as everyone else at the end of a Pool. Currently, there are three card sets: Pool One contains 46 cards gained from Collection Level 18-214, Pool Two dishes out 25 cards from levels 222 to 474, and Pool Three has 75 cards starting at level 486. Because the matchmaking only places you against others who’ve collected a similar number of cards, the field generally feels level.
Having played extensively for a little over two weeks and climbing to Collection Level 350, I’ve received enough in-game currency so far from daily and weekly challenges to keep upgrading my cards, and I haven’t run into the dreaded mobile game wall where the only way to proceed is to pump in money. As of now, the only two ways to spend money in the game are through buying Gold, which can be used to gain upgrade materials or cosmetic variants of cards, or by purchasing the $9.99 monthly Battle Pass to gain early access to a new card and additional boons as you complete specific objectives. While I wish I could just pay a flat rate for the game instead of worrying about Battle Passes and currencies, by refusing to lock cards behind paid booster packs, Snap breaks from the exploitive practices that define most TCGs and many mobile games. Or at least, that’s what I believed until I looked up how progression works at later Collection Levels.
While progress in the first two Pools feels fairly generous, the further you get, the more Collection Levels it takes to earn new cards. To be specific, three Reddit users reported that it took them until level 2,842, 2,914, and 2,986 to collect everything. To put these numbers into perspective, at Collector Level 498, you are guaranteed to have unlocked 73 cards, but on average, it takes close to 2,500 additional levels to get the final 73. One Redditor who has been playing since the start of the beta in June wrote it took them about four months of consistent play to get all the cards, even after purchasing multiple Battle Passes.
To break down why progress stalls in the endgame, after level 498, receiving cards at specific thresholds is no longer guaranteed, and every eight levels, you have a 50% chance to gain a new one in a Collector’s Cache. Once you hit level 1,000, your odds drop further, with a 25% chance to get a card every 12 ranks in a Collector’s Reserve. Essentially, you go from earning a card about every 6.82 levels during Collector Level one to 498, to one about every 16 levels until level 994, until it finally takes around 48 ranks. A “pity” system ensures you are eventually guaranteed to get a new card if you go too many levels without one, but this takes a while to activate.
Those who reached this phase have complained that progress feels brutally slow and the degree of randomness involved adds additional frustration. Not only can you go through many Collector’s Caches and Reserves without getting a card drop, but because of the large number of cards in Pool Three, there is a low chance that whatever you receive will be precisely what you want. Pool Three is apparently defined by a handful of exceedingly strong cards, meaning there can be a substantial disparity between players who got lucky and got the good ones earlier in the long grind compared to those who didn’t. The only silver lining here is that Second Dinner, the game’s developer, have promised they plan on adding Collector Tokens which will make it possible to acquire cards directly. While they’ve said these can be earned without paying, it’s unclear how long it will take to hoard enough to make a purchase.
Although it’s not uncommon for mobile games to suck people in with their core loop before encouraging spending by gradually increasing how long it takes to get the good stuff, Marvel Snap’s opening hours had me convinced it was mostly avoiding this trend. And in this case, even if you were to spend to level up your cards faster, it would still likely take months of consistent play to earn everything. I think the artificially elongated late-game might exist because the developers are worried that people will quit once they collect all of the cards, making them less likely to spend on the Battle Pass or elsewhere. However, as long as the meta feels balanced, a larger card pool would make matches more dynamic, fresh, and varied, encouraging people to stick around. On the other hand, the slog through Pool Three seems like the kind of thing that will do the opposite.
Trading card games and mobile titles have historically been some of the worst offenders of predatory monetization, and while not perfect, this one’s early hours felt unobtrusive enough that I could broadly recommend it. Cards unlocked at a brisk pace, enabling new methods of play, while its clever Snap system and emphasis on unique locations kept matches exciting. But with word of its glacially paced back half, I’m worried about what’s on the horizon for myself and many others. Given gaming’s increasing focus on microtransactions, loot boxes, and digital gambling, as well as the sordid state of TCGs, Marvel Snap is undoubtedly a cut above the worst offenders, but only because it’s being compared against a dreadfully low bar. Considering how much fun I’ve been having, I’m holding out hope that big changes for its endgame are on the way, but only time will tell.
Elijah Gonzalez is the games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.