Marvel Champions: Fixing The Imbalance

You can find a video version of this article here!

Overview

I’ve bought and reviewed every Marvel Champions Product so far. I think it’s pretty obvious that I love the game. That doesn’t mean that I think it’s perfect. The more the game evolves, the more balance flaws start to show, and it’s to the point that some of them can no longer be ignored.

Some recent interviews with the game designers have done very little to inspire confidence that certain issues will be addressed. So I’ve taken it upon myself to address them. Now, I’m by no means an authority on the game. The Marvel Champions community is large and full of people far smarter than me.

Everything that follows is things I’ve changed for myself at home. I am simply sharing them with you because I’ve tested them, and can be sure that they work.

Design Flaws

The following sections of this article will address a few design flaws that cause the game to be poorly balanced. There are two things I need to make clear about this. The first is, these flaws are hard to argue against because they are fairly easily provable by simple math, even by me and I’m bad at math.

The second is, the solutions are house rules and homebrewing, and that’s what my own fixes entail. I know some people just wrinkled their noses but I really need you to hear me out. Marvel Champion’s is a co-op game, one advantage of co-ops over competitive games IS homebrewing.

It’s much like modding a video game. No one looks down on Skyrim mods with disdain. It’s a selling point of the game, a beloved feature. It’s not all that different when it comes to non-competitive board games.

In fact, it’s probably even more needed. Video games get patches, board games can get errata, but it doesn’t magically alter the words in your handbook or on your cards and it’s far less frequent. You paid for the game, so don’t hamstring your enjoyment by limiting yourself to rules as written purity.

The fixes I propose in this article are quick, easy, and unobtrusive. I’ll go deeper in future articles where a printer may be required. I also need to note that the vast majority of my experience is solo and two-player games. I can account logically and mathematically for four players, but I simply don’t have the experience to truly say that my fixes work for that player count.

Underpowered Heroes: The Four Card Hand

Action economy will be a familiar term to people who run Pathfinder 1st edition or DnD as a Game Master. The basic principle is, in those games, if there are four players and six monsters, it’s actually a more challenging fight for the players than it would be if they fought a single boss monster like a dragon. That’s because the players win out in the action economy. Each player gets several actions per round each, while the dragon only has its own set of actions.

Marvel Champions follows the same principle shockingly close, intentional or not. At a minimum, the villain gets two actions per player. To activate against them, and give them an encounter card. Not including the fact that threat always grows on the main scheme each round.

Players get to exhaust themselves and up to two card plays, sometimes three if you get lucky. Generally speaking, they have a baseline of three actions. Now, this changes back and forth all game. The players get more actions as they build up, and the villain completely alters it via side schemes, minions, surges, or whatever.

This is what’s called tempo. To win a game like Marvel Champions, you have to strive to maintain an even tempo with the villain. Ideally, you surpass it. Whenever the villain forces you to blow actions dealing with something; be it a minion, side scheme, or need to heal, your tempo takes a hit. Lose too much tempo, and you will lose the game.

The game is also reactive, you have a goal of reducing the villain’s HP, but actually doing that does nothing. Any time you attack the villain but don’t win the game, that’s actually a loss of tempo. You used an action to get no immediate benefit. You have to do it to win, but there’s not an inherent mechanical benefit to lowering the villain’s HP in most cases.

If you go purely by the numbers, the players begin with more actions than the villain. But the villain will always outpace you because you have to spend actions to lower their HP to actually win. So you have to react to the villain’s attacks, schemes, minions, and anything the encounter deck throws at you, so you don’t lose too much tempo, get overwhelmed, and lose the game.

The mathematics largely line up quite well for the game. Until you introduce heroes with a four-card hand which completely botches it. The four card hand was a mistake and instantly bombs the math and action economy. Heroe’s like Hulk and She-Hulk not only have fewer options, they have fewer resources to spend on those options and thus, fewer actions per turn. This means that barring some good luck, they will lose tempo far faster than other heroes.

Even worse, losing tempo in that way isn’t fun. Most balanced games are a constant tug of war between the villain and heroes. You lose tempo due to events that happen during the game. With heroes like Hulk and She-Hulk, you lose tempo just by picking them.

The fix is quite simple. Play Hulk and She-Hulk with five-card hands. I have extensively tested this, and it works well. Hulk’s design problem is a bit deeper than just his hand size, but both of them are more viable, with more options in-game and in deck building and more importantly, more fun to play.

Nothing in their kit breaks with a five-card hand. She-Hulk can nail some extra card draw with Focused Rage (at the cost of HP), and Hulk gets an occasionally lucky play with Limitless Strength, but any perceived power is simply bringing them closer to other heroes, not above them.

Thor is more complicated because Thor is nearly a good hero, especially in multiplayer. This is because Thor can already enhance his hand size with Asgard, has resource generators with God of Thunder, and his innate ability to draw two cards when engaging a minion.

The problem is, Thor requires a lot of setup to hit the same baseline normal heroes already begin at. With some luck, he can actually rule a game, but it’s inconsistent. Again, this is due to tempo and action economy. Asgard is a resource tax and a heavy one at that, God of Thunder requires actions to be placed down. While Thor can get lucky on engaging minions, that’s luck, an unplanned variable.

Defender of the Nine Realms is meant to be a core card for Thor. But as it stands, it can sometimes push the tempo slightly in your favor, but more often than not causes you to lose it. You have to spend actions to play it, then you need to spend actions to contend with the minion you just put into play. For a lot of minions, that takes more than the two cards you drew for pulling it.

You can’t just give Thor a five-card hand. That pushes him from underpowered to broken. His kit was meant to make up for his small hand, it just failed at it. If you give him five cards and then he plays Asgard, it gets out of control.

The solution I found was to treat Asgard as if it had the set-up keyword, meaning you begin the game with it in play. This gives him a five-card hand in hero form and six card hand as Odinson. He will start most games with 7 by tutoring for Mjolnir, but that card is very nearly a tax in itself, so it evens out. Furthermore, this also means that Asgard can be targeted and taken away from him by the villain.

Thor ends up with more card draw and resource generation than the average hero. But no more than heroes such as Spider-Man or Captain America. Defender of the Nine Realms becomes a card you really need to think about playing, based on the situation. Rather than a must play in order for Thor to function at all.

In case you’re wondering Ant-Man’s fine. Yes, he has a four-card hand in giant form, but Ant-Man swaps form frequently. Changing your action economy is part of his design and it was executed well. He is one of the stronger heroes and requires no such change. I can’t speak on Drax until he releases. I have to hope that his design will account for the four-card hand better than early heroes, but I have my doubts.

The Ally Problem

Ally cards are too strong relative to other cards in the game, but especially events. The math is there and it once again hooks into action economy. For example, let’s look at Ironheart compared to, To the Rescue since they are both basic cards.

They both cost two resources. Technically three because the card itself is spent and can’t be used as a resource. To the Rescue removes 2 threat from a scheme. Iron Heart lets you draw a card, this effectively reduces her cost by one. Iron Heart has two hit points, if you don’t block with her, you can get a combination of two thwart or damage with her.

You probably will block with her though because blocking with an ally is worth more than one thwart or attack because it completely negates one of the villain’s entire actions, activating against you to attack. No matter how much the villain is swinging at you, Iron Heart will negate it all with one hitpoint. Except in the rare case where the villain has overkill.

Not only is Iron Heart a superior value for the same cost. She tips the tempo in your favor a great deal more. Spending two resources on an event can be considered one action. Playing Iron Heart is one action, but Iron Heart ADDS actions for you. You can now act with her, without burning resources, be it to attack, thwart or block.

Now, To the Rescue isn’t a great event card. It’s meant to be a backup card for non-justice decks that don’t have many thwarting options. But we can do this all day, I’ll throw up an ally beside an event, and the value is always gonna come out in favor of the ally by a significant margin. Especially when you factor in allies like Nick Fury and Iron Fist.

This means that in most cases, you are actually making any deck you build worse by NOT including as many allies as you possibly can. You always have 15 cards picked out for you with your heroes kit, so this can really stifle creative deckbuilding. Your turns also become, which ally am I going to play this time?

The solution is so simple and elegant I would not be surprised to see it in official errata in the future. A deckbuilding restriction. Three allies per deck NOT INCLUDING signature allies, the ones that come in your heroes kit. Leadership is the exception, allies being the strongest card type makes Leadership the strongest aspect by far. But you also don’t want to gut it.

Leadership decks are allowed five allies NOT INCLUDING signature allies. So, in most cases, Leadership decks will have 6 allies, and other decks will have four.

I have played with these restrictions for a long time, and it makes the entire game more enjoyable. I have to think carefully about what allies to include in my decks and I have to make careful decisions about how to use them in the game, especially with Leadership. This does make the game more challenging, which is probably for the best in any content that was released prior to Galaxy’s Most Wanted. I won’t be touching on that box in this article, that will come later.

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange is obscenely overpowered. He is also my favorite Marvel Character, so it’s been a real bummer that I never want to play him. Doctor Strange trivializes the whole game. Where Hulk and She-Hulk had major disadvantages with action economy and tempo. Doctor Strange tips the whole scale in his favor.

This is mostly due to his Invocation deck. An entire set of cards that sit outside the normal rules. A five-card deck where one is always technically speaking, in his hand, but is untouchable by the villain because it’s not actually in his hand.

The effects of the invocations are overtuned because you also have to exhaust Dr. Strange to use them. The issue is, Doctor Strange largely doesn’t care about exhausting, and has the means to ready himself and cast two powerful Invocations per turn. Plus Master of the Mystic Arts lets you play invocations without exhausting OR discarding them. So, turns where you play two Winds of Watoomb aren’t just possible, but common.

Like Hulk, truly fixing Dr. Strange is beyond the scope of this article’s quick and easy solutions, but there is one thing you can do, and it all ties into the action economy and tempo.

Dr. Strange is broken because of his ability to react to everything the villain does and maintain or even gain tempo. When you can’t draw from your normal deck because you’re out of cards. You shuffle your discard pile into your deck and deal yourself an extra encounter card.

Apply the same exact mechanic to Dr. Strange’s Invocation deck. Every time you have to reshuffle it because it ran out of cards, deal yourself an encounter card. This helps the villain gain tempo, something that is not usually possible with Dr. Strange.

Even with this fix, Dr. Strange is the most powerful Marvel Champion’s hero by a massive margin. But it does help lower him to the point that he can be enjoyable to play, and may even occasionally lose a game. Though it’s still rare, especially at lower player counts.

Bottom Line

None of these solutions are exactly rocket science. Anyone could come up with them, and I’m sure many have. The Marvel Champion’s community is full of thinkers.

I still hope I did a good job, of explaining why these are issues and the logic behind these fixes. These are just simple unobtrusive changes that I’ve made to how I play, and I hoped someone else may find that same value in them.

In the future I’m going to dig deeper into issues that require more effort to address than a simple fix, so look forward to those. I will, of course, be reviewing upcoming Marvel Champion’s products such as Star-Lord and Gamora. Thanks for reading!

You might also enjoy my review of Galaxy’s Most Wanted.