Marvel Snap (2022)

I’ve played Marvel Snap for about two seasons (Dec / Jan). I was late to check it out, out of laziness and lack of personal interest in turn-based card games. My quick verdict is it deserves all the praise it got, and has unexpectedly filled a “casual” competitive-PVP need that I was ready to give up.1 At the same time, the game certainly has its live-service challenges, and I’m eager to follow how the team will address them in their roadmap.

Design innovations

I look forward to the future design talks from Ben Brode and team that will shed light on their inside perspective. From the outside, I feel the game has the following significant innovations:

Core gameplay

The game’s core game reaches the vaunted heights of “easy to learn, difficult(impossible) to master” through a set of design choices that are mutually reinforcing:

  • Simultaneous turns, and only 6 turns total.
  • Simple Hearthstone-like energy system.
  • Small deck (12) and hand (max 7) size – by default you draw 9 cards in a full 6-turn game, which is 75% of your deck.
  • 3-lanes board, and limited card interactivity / simple win condition: you and your opponents’ cards aren’t dueling each other, there’s no attack/block or health, and very few cards can directly destroy opponents’ cards – it’s just who has more card power in 2 out of 3 lanes.2
  • Each lane has a unique effect per game, from a huge and actively growing list. This RNG introduces a lot of variation which provides a unique puzzle to every game.
  • Card abilities fall into intuitive categories, while end-game complexity comes from cards with memorable unique effects that open up new archetypes.3
  • The signature “snap” mechanic, which introduces a way for players to bet and double-down on the game’s outcome, and adds a Texas Hold’em-like mind-game layer. At first I wasn’t sure whether this was a gimmicky mechanic that was negligible to the game; now I see it as a huge design bet with wide-reaching impact (both positive and negative) on the whole game – more on this later.

The sum of these designs is a core game that is intuitive to learn, has deep replayability, and requires ridiculously low time commitment for a single game (thus very easy to impulsively tap “play” again right after a game – whether you won or lost). It is addictive, with all the pros and cons associated with that word.

Meta loop

On the meta side of things, Marvel Snap also takes some calculated risks, with the results being more divisive in the community:

  • The game ditches the card packs / loot boxes paid acquisition model, and card acquisition is primarily from randomized rewards chests earned through engagement. The notable exception is the card bundled with every $10 season pass, and for the past 2 seasons the 2 cards (Silver Surfer and Zabu) have largely dominated the “meta”. There is also an “end-game” rotating card shop where you can spend “tokens”, an ultra-rare soft currency, to acquire a card that you’ve set your eyes on. (To visualize this: after almost 2-months F2P play I have 5000 tokens, which can afford 5 “Series 3” cards at 1k each, or 1 “Series 4” card at 3k. I can’t afford any of the ultra-rare “Series 5” cards which would cost 6k.)
  • While individual cards have a shards-based upgrade system,4 they do not feature stats progression or individually become more powerful in anyway – what changes is the visual presentation of the card. At the same time, I can’t label this as a purely “cosmetic” progression, since these upgrades also count towards the main progression track (“collection level”), which is where you unlock cards.
  • There’s a purely cosmetic card skins (“variants”) system, and the game has a large variety of styles. As a F2P player I’ve not spent any of my earned currency on skins, but I can see the appeal to the community, in terms of collecting a specific variant of a card, and then upgrading that variant deeply to create a very unique look.
  • Overall the progression and spend depth is very tightly controlled. You can’t buy progression outright – you can buy a limited amount of extra missions per day, so this is a “pay-to-grind-to-win” game. The developers have explicitly stated their design philosophy that players should not expect to own all the cards, and the game is about everyone owning a unique collection. I see this as a razor-sharp double-edged sword: on the one hand, with a steady inflow of new cards (one card added per week), players are guaranteed an never-ending chase and long-term motivation; on the other hand, the frustration of not having a particular card and feeling locked out of the fun can be churn-inducing.

Sampling the vocal minority on Reddit (and also watching some Snap content creators on Youtube), it feels veteran players (who’ve finished the guaranteed early game card pools of Series 1 & 2) all feel frustrated about the card acquisition pace, regardless of whether or how much they’ve monetized. This is the intended experience – only the devs will know whether the metrics support the thinking behind this choice.

Speaking about my own 2-season F2P experience, I can say Marvel Snap has one of the most generous and rewarding loops in the first few weeks of play. You get a deluge of cards,5 fast, which unlocks a lot of basic deck types and gameplay possibilities. Then things slow down considerably, and depending on how much you are grinding per day, you will eventually be soft-currency constrained (you have shards to upgrade cards, but you are out of currency to complete the upgrade). This is the main rate-limiter to the progression. At my current level (early-mid Series 3), I roughly earn enough currency to unlock one reward chest per day from the progression track, which on average means one new card every 2 days. But I often neglect the new card anyway, even if it’s a top tier one, since I likely won’t have all the cards needed to form the community-tested meta decks. This means that if I’m serious about climbing ranked, I’m playing a small sample of meta-worthy “budget” decks that I have access to in my collection state.

Despite this, I still find the ranked climb addictive – I got to Rank 60 (“Platinum”) in my first season, and 70 (“Diamond”) in the current season, after the rather brutal season reset of 30 ranks. This is still a far cry from the Rank 100 (“Infinite”) goal, which I know is do-able F2P – if only I “git gud”. Doing some napkin math – I might have played a thousand games this season, which certainly speaks to the game’s high replayability.


Coming back to the “snap” mechanic specifically, as it has wide-ranging impact both on the meta and the core gameplay.

Talking about the impact on meta first – since it’s more straightforward – the “snap” mechanic adds a novel twist to the traditional MMR-based ranked PVP experience, and goes quite far to break the fatigue with the usual (and stale) “50% expected win-rate”. It does so by simply adding variance to the rewards of a single match, and giving players a great deal of control over that variance (you decide to bet, double-down, or quit). This allows for more risky or RNG-based decks to be viable in ladder-climbing. Indeed, the community quickly came up with a new metric to measure the efficacy of a deck – average cubes (ranked points) won per game – alongside the good old win-rate metric. It is quite possible for one deck to have a lower win-rate but higher average cubes than another deck.

In terms of core gameplay impact, “snap” significantly raises the skill ceiling of the game, as it is a mechanic that directly rewards game knowledge and the ability to read the game state (and predict future states). To fully exploit this mechanic, players need not only mastery of their own deck’s strengths and weaknesses, but also pattern recognition of what their opponent could be playing (based on up-to-date knowledge of the game’s “meta”,6 which basically requires consistent time commitment to the game). To paraphrase Jeff Hoogland, a content creator for the game, “snap” is the most difficult mechanic in the game, and you need to relearn “when to snap” with every new deck you play (while also factoring in what your opponent could be doing).

In addition, “snap” also greatly impacts card-play patterns, as it places greater emphasis on surprising the opponent. If the board state seems already clearly in favor of one player, and only then does that player “snap”, the other player would most likely fold (retreat) and not accept the bet. So to get the rewards for “snapping”, players must snap earlier (when both players feel they have a good chance) or when they feel they can somehow dramatically reverse the tides with an unexpected play. As a very specific example: Shang-Chi is a 4-cost card that destroys all opponent-cards that have 9 (or above) power in a lane (it’s one of the very few “tech” cards that can directly destroy opponent’s cards). It’s turn 4 (you have 4 energy to play cards with), your opponent does have a 9-power card on the board, and you don’t have better cards to play. In a game without the “snap” mechanic, it’s probably optimal to play Shang-Chi this turn so you bank the advantage and don’t waste the energy.7 But in this game, it’s could be optimal to waste the energy and save the card for a great last turn surprise.

Lastly, one downside (to some players) of the “snap” mechanic is it often takes away the big climatic finish of a game, because one player decides to retreat (and avoid possibly losing lots of cubes) rather than play out the turn. This is certainly true – the stats from this Jeff Hoogland video show that for a high-level player, 2 out of 3 games are concluded with a retreat.

Production – lean and mean

Marvel Snap clearly shows that it is made by devs with a lot of experience. As a game just beginning its live-ops lifecycle, feature scope is aggressively managed, with many “table-stakes” features still missing (for example, there is no friends-list, chat or other social features yet).

At the same time, the game already has a number of features that support live-ops longevity, while being low cost to maintain / extend:

  • The in-game locations (the unique RNG modifiers of each lane) is probably quite low cost to develop (it’s reusing existing card mechanics), and the twice per week “featured location” mechanic (a particular location is marked to appear more often) is a simple-yet-effective recurring event to temporarily alter players’ deck choices
  • The card variants / infinity splits system effectively adds unlimited personalization depth to any card, and while a F2P player like me might wholly ignore it (it feels impossibly out of reach to really care about), I would still (begrudgingly) agree that some of the end results look amazing (and desirable)
  • The game also already supports web-based events (i.e. an in-game banner that opens up a browser webpage in-app, showing a live-ops event). I would suspect the publisher Nuverse influenced this, as this setup (while aesthetically limiting) allows for very flexible live-ops development without the need to roll out patches (or even support from the game developer if they are not operating the game directly), and is extremely common in Chinese games

Market performance

Lastly, I wanted to take a quick look at the market performance so far. This part is probably the most speculative, since we are going by 3rd party data (estimates), and for a lot of the data you can argue both the bear and bull case.

One question is “what is the meaningful comp?” for Marvel Snap – what games are we going to compare it to? We can compare it to the top-performing games irrespective of genre, or we can just look at the CCG (collectible-card-games) genre which it clearly fits in. I don’t think there’s one right answer here; I’m quite curious how the Second Dinner team themselves think about this.

As for my personal answer, I’ll go with the latter and mainly focus on direct genre comps. A quick browse on Sensor Tower (source for most of the numbers below, and excludes China Android) shows not a lot of new games that have broken out in this space in recent years; Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links (global release 2017, 87M downloads to date, $758M net revenue lifetime) and Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel (2022, 9M downloads, $103M net revenue) are the breakouts in revenue, while Magic: The Gathering Arena (2021, 7M downloads, $58M net revenue) is helpful to illustrate the size of the audience even for one of the most fabled brands in the genre.

From this narrow genre lens, I’d say Marvel Snap‘s launch is an unqualified success: 15M downloads and $44M net revenue in about 4 months of global release. It also holds up decently (though not as well) in comparison to Hearthstone on mobile. Hearthstone saw a massive bump 1 year after global release (as the game released for tablets first, and then released to phones after a year), and would certainly have a stronger start than Marvel Snap. In any case, Marvel Snap is showing it can absolutely go up against the biggest names in its genre.

But how about from the broader lens of all games, ignoring genre? I’d argue the team should also be proud of themselves. On Sensor Tower, I looked at the top mobile games by revenue for the past 24 months, filtered for games that were released within the last 3 years (i.e. filter out the evergreen games like Honor of Kings or Candy Crush). On this list, the top 3 were Lineage W with a massive $734M net revenue (from only $4M downloads – and majority of that revenue was from South Korea alone); Royal Match with $631M net revenue from 83M downloads; and Cookie Run: Kingdom with $260M from 22M downloads. Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel was #13, while Magic: The Gathering Arena occupied #22. Marvel Snap is currently at #29, and will certainly go up in the rankings. This is an impressive feat for the first game of a new studio, regardless of the pedigree of the talent.8

As a minor point, the concurrency chart for Marvel Snap on Steam shows a steady game with very sticky retention. It’s hard to read too much into this, as this is a tiny fraction of the total player base, but one reasonable hypothesis could be that this is a decent sample of the game’s most hardcore players (who will actually multi-home and play this mobile-first game on PC), and the steady trend line is encouraging.

For the bear case, there is certainly room for concern in the rapidly declining downloads: at ~250k weekly downloads, it’s comparable to Hearthstone‘s weekly downloads 15 months after their phone release. But I’d say there are too many unknowns here to really know what’s going on (what’s intentional / expected, what’s reversible). The game isn’t live in China yet (and probably won’t be, for a couple of years), so the Hearthstone comp isn’t apples to apples. The publisher, Nuverse (part of Bytedance), should have lots of money to fuel UA, but they are an unproven organization (per Sensor Tower, this is already the biggest game they’ve launched, in terms of downloads). And I don’t know what is the actual division of labor between Nuverse and Second Dinner. In any case, revisiting the data in 6 months will give a lot more clarity on the game’s long-term legs.

  1. Mostly due to life circumstances – we came up with the term “gamer soul, adult responsibilities” years ago at Riot to describe this.
  2. The math can still get quite complicated with more advanced cards and combos.
  3. There is a concern about the long-term design maintenance of cards, since these unique cards often introduce exponential levels of effort to balance and constraints to future card-design space – for example, the January season pass card Zabu, which reduces the cost of all 4-cost cards by 2; or Mister Negative, which when played inverts the cost / power of each card in your deck.
  4. With seemingly infinite RNG depth due to the “split” mechanic
  5. As of this writing – you unlock 97 out of the game’s total 200 cards once you are Series-2 complete
  6. What decks / strategies are popular in the community; not to be confused with the design-lingo “meta loop” that usually refers to the game’s long-term systems.
  7. Playing “on curve”, in card game lingo.
  8. If there were a leaderboard for the ex-Riot / ex-Blizzard startups of the past 5 years, Second Dinner has just posted a high score.

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