Review: Legendary deckbuilding game

It took a while for me to pick this up, but it always takes a while for me to review anything, anyway.  I certainly don't need a lot of time to figure out how I feel about this game: it is truly awesome!  The price tag is definitely steep at $60, but this is probably the best deckbuilding game I've ever played.  Full disclosure: I only have a passing interest in Marvel comics.  The more hardcore fans will either love it even more than me or hate it for possibly not sticking so well with the lore.  I haven't heard anyone make any such complaint in my group, though.
Right away, I'll admit the packaging is problematic.  The packs of cards are very roughly organized.  It's as though they expect you to unpack it with all your friends.  That's the only justification I can see.  There's also way too much space.  Clearly more expansions are intended, but for now, it's just a bunch of space for cards to slide around the box.  You definitely do not want to hold this box vertically.
Once unpacked though, this is an excellent experience.  This game is only barely harder to teach than Dominion.  However, while Dominion is a bit more subtle in how you win, this one just punches you in the face with an objective.  It looks like a cooperative game at first.  There's this bad guy doing some evil thing and various enemies running loose in the city.  Go bash them!  For the most part (and especially the intro setup they advise), that objective is tremendously easy.  That's when you discover the competitive nature of the game.  Those enemies you defeat and bystanders you rescue are all worth victory points, and the real winner is whoever has the most.  This is why some of the effects usually reserved for beneficial things allow you to be a dick to your opponents.  I have personally witnessed someone's Spider-Man/Wolverine combo deck just get locked out from another player KO'ing (trashing) a key Spider-Man card and my Hulk wounding everyone (he's Hulk, even allies have to give him some room).  I have also created a supremely powerful deck that was able to bash far harder than my opponent, but he focused on more side issues that allowed him to get more points than me.  Of course, if the mastermind wins, everybody loses, maintaining some degree of cooperation.  With recommendations for adjusting the difficulty, Upper Deck has probably accomplished a perfect balance between social and competitive gaming experiences!

I like to describe this game as embodying the best parts of Ascension and Penny Arcade.  Like Ascension, you get a functional equivalent of money to add more cards to your deck and power to hit things.  Like Penny Arcade, there's always an ultimate enemy to destroy and random rewards each time you do.  Ascension's flavor was generic and pretty easy to understand.  Penny Arcade more-or-less demanded you were a fan of their comic to really enjoy it.  Marvel is a pretty universal enough thing for people to understand, but even if you don't follow the comics (like me), it's still flavorful enough on its own for you to follow it.  For example, there are 5 types of abilities you can use: strength, senses, range, covert, and tech.  Specializing in one of them, or even specializing in an overall team like Avengers or X-Men will usually be better than going all over the place.  Then of course there's the abandonment of Dominion's "1 action & buy" restriction.  While restrictions do add options for game design, it's just more fun to be able to use everything (though I'll admit Star Trek did have a nice concept with needing a character to use handheld items).

The flavor definitely doesn't seem to disappoint.  Most of the effects relate to the flavor of the characters themselves, and some on gameplay itself.  I don't know anything about S.H.I.E.L.D., but I'd guess Destroyer is a big thing for them if his effect for fighting him is all your S.H.I.E.L.D. heroes die.  Cyclops is probably the best example of more gameplay flavor.  Most of his cards demand you discard a card to use them (and therefore are more powerful than their cost would otherwise warrant).  One of his bigger cards lets you put it back into your hand if it was discarded for a card effect.  This represents ammo more than anything to me (though it could feel like Cyclops dropping his visor), and later unleashing a torrent of power.  My biggest exposure to Marvel being the Vs. Capcom fighting games, some of these interactions just trigger images in my mind of the super moves going off.  Then there's the intriguing take of trash: KO.  I absolutely love trash effects in deckbuilding games.  This one goes further than the others, because other than Nick Fury promoting his people, all KO effects come from villains.  While you're away fighting the Doombot Legion, that's distracting you from the attack elsewhere as someone back home dies.  Fight a Sentinel, that beast is going to take someone out with it.  Having the flavor show actual casualties in your struggle is a nice touch.  It also makes you feel a little sadistic.  Yeah, removing inefficient cards is a good thing, but this means you're actually happy whenever the villains kill somebody.  It's an awkward situation, but when that's because all the flavor matches, it's a very good one.
Ultimately, this game looks like a perfect addition to any game group, unless that one is heavily in the DC camp (I just learned while writing this that a DC deckbuilding game was released around the same time, so I'll have to check that out).  It's easy to learn and flavorful.  It works for competitive or social groups.  It is expensive, especially when you consider that you'll probably want to also buy whatever expansions come up.  Should you pick it up though, I figure you'll have a great time.  In fact, the only significant flaw I could personally find was the lack of masterminds (there's only 4: Dr. Doom, Loki, Magneto, and Red Skull).  The next expansion doesn't even need a lot more heroes (15 included here), just more enemies.  I definitely plan on getting those, and the only reason I can see to not buy this is the price point.  May your kills be quick, and many.


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