My problem with card video games is the same one I have with digital recreations of board games: the appeal of executing a mechanic is a large part of why I engage with video games, and that’s precisely why games with cards don’t do it for me.
See, most games with cards in them have already decided the specifics of the move. The intricacies of every action are predetermined. Your job is to make the decision; to decide which cards to play, which to discard and which can enter the deck you bring in.
There's certainly value in having some power to shape the outcome, but you can only do so from a distance. I want to be the one to deliver the punch, to fail a block and eat a hit. I want to do something I can’t already do with a deck of cards bought at the train station.
Or so I thought. Though I’ve long held this belief, and still do to a large extent, I can’t deny that two of my favourite games this year are... card games.
According to my iPhone’s Screen Time, I have a one hour and 11 minutes daily average of Marvel Snap playtime. There’s no way to track overall playtime, but I know I’ve been playing since roughly a week after the game officially launched. You can do the math from there.
Marvel Snap is a card-collecting game, there’s no other way to describe it. You’re meant to grow your collection of cards, which opens up new ways for you to play, which in turn makes you create different decks for different strategies. That’s it, that’s the entire game.
It's a card game that has everything I claim to not like, and yet I’ve finished a battle pass, and achieved a 743 Collection Level (which is high). Right next to Marvel Snap sits a shortcut to Diablo Immortal, a game I am primed to enjoy considerably more.
It’s a franchise I love, and it plays fairly well on my phone. Like Snap, Immortal also has cross-play and cross-progression with PC. Even if the PC version is terrible, I can comfortably jump between the two platforms when I need to, just like I can with Snap.
And yet, only one of the two has been draining my battery every day. I can’t quite explain why I’m more open to trying card games now. There hasn't been some shift in my perspective (that I know of), and I’ve not done some deep thought-altering therapy or anything – even if this year is when I also started playing (and enjoying) Fortnite.
I know I still ignore card games whenever they show up in my recommendations on Steam, so I am not suddenly a CCG hound. It’s not like I’m going to go and play Slay the Spire as soon as I’m done writing this. But I can probably guess why it was Marvel Snap that breached my defences.
Marvel Snap is a fitting name for the game that it is. You can snap in it, which is essentially a form of betting when you know you have the bigger shot at winning. But the word also represents how quickly matches go. Like a satisfying bang or crack, it captures your attention just long enough to be interesting, but knows you’ll go about your day after the rush dissipates.
It’s that mastery of getting you hooked for few brief moments before letting you go that makes Marvel Snap so easy to pick up anytime you have five or so minutes to kill. Neither its gameplay loop nor its out-of-game busywork oversteps these bounds. It’s Hearthstone, all over again.
That trust is what ultimately made it “safe” for me to return to regularly. I know that things won’t get out of hand, they’re just going to keep getting more interesting while remaining in the same pot I already know how to handle – exactly the kind of experience I want with a phone game.
Midnight Suns is the other Marvel game I’ve also fallen in love with. It’s got cards, many of the same heroes, and some general mechanics that would otherwise make it an easy skip.
If it was hard for me to get past the act of, well, not being the perpetrator of an act in a phone game, it’s going to be an even harder pill to swallow in a big-budget PC/console game.
But yet again, I find myself engaged, even beyond my desire to check out Midnight Suns because of 2022’s dire lack of blockbusters. The simple reason is that Midnight Suns is so much more than a card game. It’s effectively a BioWare RPG where you spend a major part of your time making friends, chatting up heroes, and exploring an environment that keeps expanding over time as your knowledge and power grow.
Cards only really come in when you leave your homebase and head out to fight. It’s then that the other major part of the game takes centre stage. Yes, your goal is to collect cards, assemble decks, and pray the hand you’re dealt doesn’t screw you over – all standard tropes.
Midnight Suns’ version, however, doesn’t quite play as you’d expect. Rather than predetermined lanes or a linear timeline, the action instead unfolds in an arena, much like those you know from XCOM. Turn limits are now card plays, and the cards themselves will move and reposition your hero freely.
What makes the flow of combat more interesting than card games is that the agency most of those games don’t give you over the intricacies is intact in this one. You’re not just using a card for its intended effect, you also use the environment itself to find new contexts for said effects.
The way each card moves the hero has a lot of bearing on the next one you play, and the animation/direction can determine whether to knock some goon off the stage, hurl them into a wall, or line them up for something even more spectacular.
For as much dreading as I did about them, each of those two card games managed to hook me in ways I didn’t expect. So yes, card games suck, but maybe I shouldn't be so quick to dismiss them sight unseen.