Vs. System Relaunch – A Journey

In 2004, in our newly opened comics and gaming store, we were looking for a game system that we could promote and build a community fan base around. We found a Marvel-based trading card game that looked fun. We tried it out at a convention and it was not only fun, but very strategic, and we committed to buying a case of it for the store to see what it could do. That card-based system was called Vs. System, a new collectible card game from Upper Deck Entertainment, the same company that was the American arm of Yu-gi-oh! at the time. Little did we know that this would be our largest product that would sustain our store over many years.

The very first set.

The very first set.

You see, almost every game store in the world focuses on one collectible card game above all others – Magic: the Gathering. It was the first and oldest Collectible Card Game (CCG), and has mass appeal and popularity. They print new expansions every three months, have a rotating block of cards (which means players have to KEEP buying new cards to remain competitive), and buying and selling of second-hand cards is extremely profitable for stores, especially if you have someone knowledgeable in charge of the sales. Which I was not. Yes, I played in Magic’s Alpha and Beta period, but I had been out for years – and we couldn’t afford to hire someone who was knowledgeable. On top of this, out of the ten comic shops in the local area (yes, ten!), all of them were pushing Magic as their main card game offering. So we took a chance to find a game that could be promoted as competing with Magic, and offer our local gamers a choice.

We started running Organized Play (OP) local tournaments at our store, with about 8 people initially interested in playing. At the peak of our run at the store, we had around 35-45 people coming on tournament nights to play. I became a level 2 judge quickly, and our core competitive players and I started traveling around the country to regional Pro Circuit Qualifiers (PCQs), so that we could earn points and prizes to gain entry into the national tournaments, which happened multiple places too numerous to list throughout the world. We formed a competitive team, and play tested daily.

Like Magic, Vs. soon released expansions on a quarterly basis and the pool of cards for deckbuilding grew. Every new tournament was a chance to see a hidden combination of powers and cards you had not seen before. But we noticed, too, that our new player base was not growing over a couple years. And the rules errata (clarifications to printing on cards to explain how they are intended to work) grew astronomically. There was so much to remember and keep track of, the barrier to entry to start playing the game was monumental. If you missed purchasing the previous sets, you had very little chance of being able to compete on a local, much less national, level.

Our team and store saw the release of 15 sets of the game before I left the store for other opportunities. I loved that the game captured the essence of the heroes and villains it served very faithfully, the game was complicated (it was sort of a badge of honor if you could figure it all out), and it was a hell of a lot of fun to play with your friends.

But that same badge of honor I mentioned was also keeping new people from entering the game. There were so many counters and interactions that needed to be maintained and tracked, it was almost like playing an excel spreadsheet. One deck that I particularly loved consisted of creating a mnemonic device and memorizing the quantities of every card in the deck, using a predictive deck flipping card and being able to statistically keep track of what cards I had seen and be able to name the cards coming up next. The fact you could do it was amazingly cool. Would the average card player do this? Absolutely not. And that was UDE’s fatal flaw to the design of Vs. on its’ first attempt at the game: It was simply too complicated for casual players to pick up and play. It was very expensive, with large card pools and randomized packs to purchase. The game eventually went away in November of 2008, as UDE was no longer seeing a positive return on the investment. (At events where Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments were also being played, we would always smile because we figured they were paying the Vs. bill so we could have our tournaments, as well.)

In 2014, I had heard rumor that UDE was thinking about relaunching the title. The company had been through some massive reorganization internally, and I decided to find out for myself. I hadn’t even planned on attending GenCon, but thanks to their amazing staff, I was able to get processed and into the show to perform the interview I wanted: Jason Brenner, Brand Manager for the new Upper Deck. In the previous few years, they had launched Legendary – another Marvel branded superhero card game. I wanted to know how Vs. would be different this time, and I got very positive answers. As the next year went on, we heard rumblings about how the game would be launched; and leading up to GenCon 2015, it was made official that the game would launch at GenCon on Thursday, with a $10,000.00 prize tournament (called a 10k for short) heralding the relaunch of the system and its’ first national champion. The buzz between our old team of traveling players heated up, and we found out who was going to be able to attend and play. We started discussing preview cards that were popping up online, and how we might like to attempt playtesting. I got preparations ready, as our coverage for this year’s GenCon would be my site’s largest – we livestreamed the show, did interviews for post-production and captured cosplayers. On Friday, I re-interviewed Jason and discussed not only the past year’s journey to launch, but the future of the Organized Play for the new game (watch for that soon). And I snuck in a 10k while the rest of my crew did everything else.

One of the best aspects of the relaunch of the game is that everything you need to play is in one box. A one-time $50 purchase gets you four of every card in the game, meaning you don’t need to spend hundreds of extra dollars on blind, random packs of boosters searching for that ultra-rare card to make your deck one step closer to complete. This seemed like it would be a boon to introduce new people to enter the game. UDE also reworked some of the rules to make it more accessible and fix some of the problems from the original iteration. For an old player, like me, it was actually probably more difficult to reprogram myself with the new rules, but I found that I adapted quickly, and I thought the new format was fun, as did my other two play testers.

Playing CCGs at a competitive level is a mental muscle that I hadn’t done in years. It was both invigorating and terrifying to be given a new card pool and to try to find the best interactions. In the end, with only four hours to playtest; we thought we had found the best main character to use, and the best strategy for the tournament. Michael Thompson, my old teammate and I, entered the tournament Saturday morning. Between traffic and other issues, I almost missed the tournament start time. I hastily made some last minute modifications and filled out my list of cards for official entry.

They sort everyone alphabetically for judge instructions, so once I was seated, I decided to take a quick poll of everyone around me. I explained I was reporting on the reinvention of the game, and wanted to know how many people were new players versus old ones. Out of the eight people around me, six of them were new players. We were informed there were 199 players, which meant 9 rounds of single elimination matches, each with a time limit of 40 minutes. I moved to my first table and did the same poll. This time, five of the players were new. I encountered a deck we (quite frankly) hadn’t considered in our very brief playtesting, running Thanos as a main character. I got a horrible draw. I lost my first match in stellar fashion, frustrating myself. Mike got a good pull, but also still lost to a Thanos deck because he forgot a new mechanic. We quickly formulated a plan on how to deal with any more Thanos decks we might encounter as we spoke between rounds.

The next round, it was a mirror match – someone had obviously come up with the same deck we had conceived. I again got a horrible draw, and while hanging in there for quite a while, eventually succumbed. I was now 0-2. I started to notice that once you had lost momentum, it was difficult – if not impossible, to swing it back in your direction. I had also noticed that if you missed your drop (being able to play a card on the current turn you were on), it also posed a difficult problem, much like the original game.

Mike also lost his round, and we were now both 0-2. We knew that if we lost any more, there was no way to get in the top eight. We both regrouped, and I once again started up my informal poll. Out of the eight people surrounding me, five were new. Upper Deck seemed to be achieving its mission of bringing in new players. I faced my first unusual deck of the day; a Gamora deck that relied on putting its most important character directly in the line of fire. This would be an easy run for me, all I had to do was draw decently. Which, of course, I did not. But I still managed to eke out the win, convinced at this point that our deck balance (ratio of characters to other cards in the deck) was off. Mike decidedly won against his opponent, and things seemed to be headed up. We were both 1-2 now. I did my poll for what would be the final time and found that five out of eight were again new players. I faced a Thanos deck again, and obliterated him, got him to five wounds (one shy of winning), and a string of bad draws once again allowed the momentum to swing the other way, eventually crushing me. At 1-3, I dropped to help Mike’s tiebreakers. (Dropping means the people that beat me would have worse records if there was a tie and could potentially help Mike make a cut if he continued to do well.)

Mike won his, and continued play. I observed the feature matches to see how high level play was going. I also had a chance to speak with Danny Mandel, one of the designers of the system reboot. I asked him about one of the things I was noticing in the tournament, as we had noticed it during playtesting. It seemed that team stamping wasn’t as important in this iteration as it used to be in the old game. It was easier to splash characters from another team into your deck as you liked; and I asked him if that was intentional.

He answered that they had thought about that and decided from a design standpoint that would be far easier to launch the game with a more open format and then restrict it, if it was being abused, than vice versa. This made sense to me. He also mentioned that while he is a designer, he is not the best player in the world, and that watching the way people figure out how to interact different cards with one another still surprises him. In a match between Storm and Star-Lord, he saw an interaction that he hadn’t ever considered. He also said that the whole UDE team had been very supportive in the vision for the relaunch; if there was something that he felt the game needed, Jason and the rest of the staff said “Whatever you need to make it fun.”

Mike finished 5-4 in 53rd place. We both had agreed that the best deck build was the same type as what Sal D’Agostino, the eventual 10k winner, had built; a Star-Lord resource rush deck. But we both agreed that it was fun to have done it, even if we weren’t able to prepare nearly as much as we would have liked. We’ve also agreed to keep playing, testing and thinking about how we might be able to have a better showing in a year from now.

And that’s really the crux of it; the game IS fun. Whether you like Upper Deck, or are hesitant because of how the old regime handled the end days of the previous iteration, the fact is they have made a fun, engaging game that, whether you are playing competitively or simply playing with friends casually, finds a way to make an interesting and engaging play session. You want to do better, find better ways to create combinations and see them executed over the game. It makes you want to play more. And I think that is the best outcome UDE could possibly hope for in order to gain traction with both new and old players.