Op-Ed: Why Banning Thanos may not be the Answer

By: Ian Vincent

RippedThanosThe VS development team has made it clear that something is going to be done about Thanos but have asked for time to consider the options before taking action. This may seem odd to a few of you. Thanos dominated the $10K, with five of the top eight decks and both finalists. Even those playing and winning good money hated Thanos, with the two finalists tearing their’s up after the match. This article sets out an alternative to a ban and why it may be better for the game in the long term.

Before I introduce the alternative, I’m going to talk a bit about why I am so impressed by the new Vs. I’m a deck-builder at heart and will happily spend as many hours working on decks as I do playing. So it’s really important for me to have plenty of potential new decks to explore and plenty of options on how to build each one. New Vs lends itself to two team decks and with ten teams in the game now that’s an impressive 55 two team combinations. Each of which has 8 main characters available. Taking us up to 440 options. On top of that we have cards from all the other teams we can splash into the deck. That’s more than enough options to keep me busy for the couple of months between sets.

Despite this mass of options on decks to explore, it’s actually fairly easy to build a deck. The vast majority only include three different teams. Once you’ve picked a main character and your teams, you’re building from a card pool of around 60 different cards, including generics. That’s a very manageable number for new and casual players. That’s a really important market for growing our player base and appealing to both them and veteran deck builders like myself is a really neat trick. To do this within a model where no deck costs more than $150 is awesome!

Of course there’s more to Vs than just deck building. There’s the small matter of playing games too and I’ve been equally impressed here. The streamlining relative to old Vs is really important. Not having my brain melt trying to figure out which character should stand behind which and not having to ask whether my attacks are legal is so refreshing. Yet the level of decision making is still there. Who to recruit, which attacks to make in what order, whether to use my combat tricks now or save them for later. And we’ve gained a new one. Instead of activated abilities which you might as well use every turn, we have location costs. Which go beyond the now or later plot twist like tension because the later option is likely to be a completely different ability.

This brings me neatly onto why Thanos is such a problem. The discarding of your opponent’s hand by infinity gauntlet, typically on turn 4 and again turn 7, does two things to the decision making process. Firstly it removes the tension on whether to use your plot twists now or save them for later. As they’re going to get discarded soon anyway. So you might as well use them now. Secondly, and more importantly, when you’re trying to recover form infinity gauntlet you only have a couple of cards to play with and your decision making becomes trivial. It stops feeling like you’re playing a game and starts to feel like the game is telling you what to do.

This is why banning Thanos is a completely reasonable way to go. It’s not just a call to ban a card for being the best card in the game. Which would just move the problem on to another card. It’s a call to ban a card because of the negative experiences it creates. Just like Ivy League back in the days of old Vs. Even if the alternatives I suggest is adopted, there would still be an argument for banning this kind of effect.

The alternative considers Thanos deck as a symptom of a wider problem. A problem that’s caused by the incredible job the design team have done maximising what we can do with a modest card pool. Although the majority of decks only have three different teams in them, the winning Thanos list has eight* . To put that into the context of old Vs, after Enemy of my Enemy make it possible to search for characters on any team, decks like Deep Green emerged also had eight teams**. The incredible thing about this comparison is that Deep Green was a silver age deck with access to around 2,000 different cards. The Thanos deck has reached a similar level of complexity, a level that put off a lot Old Vs players, with access to around 200 different cards. The wider problem is that, as the card pool grows, the level of complexity will continue to increase and will put off causal and new players alike.

More established games have a range of formats designed to appeal to different groups. In Old Vs we have Modern Age with only four sets for new players. Silver Age with eight sets hitting the sweet spot and Golden Age for those who wanted to be able to play anything. When you have a large player base and a large number of mayor tournaments that’s fine. But we’re not there yet and as New Vs keeps proving, it’s possible to improve on these old models.

Having a golden age format feels important. As it lets everyone play their favourite team and we have a lot of players who are big fans of a particular Marvel series. But we also want the format to be accessible to as many of our players as possible. Which means keeping the complexity and the cost of decks manageable. One way to do this would be to limit the number of different teams in a golden age deck to four.

A typical deck currently has three different teams, so a limit of four doesn’t effect the way the vast majority of decks are built. The only type of deck this has a big impact on is what I’d call combo-control decks. Where every card is either contributing to the combo that stops your opponent from doing anything (e.g. discarding opponent’s hand, exhausting all their characters or an alternate win condition that doesn’t involve combat) or the card is about keeping you alive whilst you set the combo up. These decks create a negative experience for their opponent by eliminating a major part of the decision making process. My personal view is that deliberately limiting the complexity, and therefore the power level, of this type of deck would make the game more enjoyable for everyone.

There is a minor complication from teams being re-featured. We don’t know whether there are any immediate plans to do this and it will certainly have a major impact on the balance of golden age if they are. If a four team limit is used then I’d want to see each set that a team features in counting separately towards that limit. So you could use any card from two different re-featured teams, build a three team deck focuses around one re-featured team or continue to use four different teams. This would probably mean adding something to the team symbol on the top right of cards, so that it’s obvious which cards are from the second appearance of a team and which are from the first.

Having a modern age format feels important too. Removing older sets gets rid of existing dominant decks, which encourages innovation and helps to keep things keeping things fresh. A modern age format is typically the last four sets or the last year’s worth of cards. For example, next year’s GenCon tournament could include Aliens, which only half featured this year because players had very little time to figure out how to use the new cards, plus all the sets released up to and at the next GenCon.

The real question mark for me is whether a modern age format would also benefit from limiting the number of different teams in a deck to four or whether it would be better to leave it with no restriction. The next set launches in September, so Thanos would not be an issue much longer and you’re already limited in the number of different teams you can run as there will be fewer teams in the format than in golden age. But it’s really hard to design interesting sets where combo-control decks do not become dominant from time-to-time. We can’t invite the kind of players who would spot these things to playtest as it would give them an unfair advantage in major tournaments. So it would be much safer to limit the number of teams in modern age too. But does playing so safe remove an element of fun? Is the potential for breaking the format an important part of the motivation? Would it feel flat if we didn’t push the boundaries enough to risk having to ban cards from time-to-time?

I leave these as questions because I honestly don’t know. I’ve enough experience to be sure that golden age will snap frequently without a major new restriction. So it’s either drop the format entirely, restrict it, or accept the need for frequent bannings. Modern Age is more difficult to assess because I’ve never seen a game where a deck can become so complex with only 200 different cards available. It’s really hard to say how much of this is because of the innovate features of New Vs and how much is a one-off about a single card. I’m glad I don’t get to make this kind of decision. Good luck to those who do!

* Villains, Alpha Force, X-Men, Guardians, Company, Femme Fatal, Defenders, Avengers

** Marvel Knights, Checkmate, Villains, League of Assasins, X-Men, Revenge Squad, Underworld, Spider Friends.