Marvel Snap is undoubtedly one of the best free-to-play mobile games on the market. With over 14 million downloads and counting, it’s clear that the quality, as well as the casual and card game nature of the title, are doing a great job at keeping a sustained interest among players.

However, the beloved card game has started to turn a corner as its popularity has grown. Marvel Snap‘s once-low barrier for entry has gradually risen since launch as its microtransaction model has created an undeniable pay-to-win problem in a game that was initially celebrated for bucking that trend.

Pay up

Marvel Snap is a digital trading card game in the same vein as Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering Arena. The ace up its sleeve, though, was that it was an especially newcomer-friendly card game with a focus on smaller decks and easy-to-grasp interactions. I believe it’s the perfect entry for both digital and physical trading card games … or at least I did before I noticed the underlying issues it has developed over time.

To understand the problem, we have to take a look at the basics of Marvel Snap‘s card acquisition system. The game is based around leveling up four different things: collection level, player ranking, owned cards, and if one has it, the season’s battle pass.

Marvel Snap card list.

Leveling the battle pass and reaching different ranks grants players the game’s two currencies, gold and credits. Gold can be purchased with real money and is used to buy card variants and more credits. Credits are used to upgrade cards, which in turn increases a player’s collection level. Every four levels, players have a chance to receive Gold, credits, player icons, titles, tokens for the token shop that holds a new random card every few hours, boosters that allow the leveling of cards, and cards themselves.

That’s where the issue lies. Like any card game, there are always stronger decks than others, and those higher-tier decks require specific key cards. Unlike physical trading card games, there’s no shop to buy loose cards, making Marvel Snap a game of patience when it comes to unlocking them and playing how one wants.

That problem is compounded by the game’s matchmaking system, which matches players up with those in or close to their rank. Player ranking isn’t equivalent to collection level, so some players will have decks that are stronger, with better synergy, despite being the same “skill level” as their less leveled-up opponent. That problem gets worse when player rankings reset each season.

Marvel Snap's collection level list.

The power imbalance feeds into its battle pass as well, as each typically come with a very powerful, sometimes meta-changing card. This takes the game from a free-to-play experience to something that more closely resembles play-to-win the higher your skill ceiling rises. New players who joined after previous battle passes have concluded will have missed out on a card that can change the way they play entirely.

Of course, there are plenty of cards that can be played that are just as strong as ones in the battle pass, but that would mean playing for months and praying that they’ll be unlocked through the randomized collection level. The slow progression on this scale leads to players — myself included, shamefully — giving up and finally throwing some money toward gold to unlock credits. It’s the only way to keep up with my opponents after a certain point.

Super Skrull in Marvel Snap token shop.

Developer Nuverse attempted to give players another way to unlock cards they desperately want through a Token Shop. With 1,000 to 2,000 tokens, players can unlock different cards that rotate in the shop every few hours. However, these tokens are few and far between at the moment. What’s more, they’re mixed in with Collection Level rewards, which means that cards and credits aren’t unlocked as frequently as they used to be. The update meant to combat those slow progression woes inadvertently makes the problem a little worse, as there are less opportunities to earn credits for free.

With every update, Marvel Snap seems to move farther and farther away from what it was originally praised for. It’s gone from being a newcomer-friendly experience that doesn’t require anyone to spend a dime to another money sink that rewards those who get in early and start spending. While it seems to be keeping its popularity, I fear that it’s only a matter of time before players get tired of emptying their wallets and move on.

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