Marvel Legendary: Secret Wars Volumes 1 & 2 Review


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Posted by Byron on Apr 7, 2016

A running joke about superhero comics is that decades of dramatic reveals and overlapping timelines have rendered them inscrutable to the layman. There's more than a kernel of truth here: a few graphic novels work well as standalones, but most are so embedded in their ongoing narratives as to be totally incomprehensible. I'm so far out of the loop in Marvel comics that Thor 2's post-credits stinger, babbling about Infinity Stones, and even The Avengers' Thanos reveal, left me scratching my head.

Keep that in mind when I say that Secret Wars is the best thing to happen to the Marvel comics storyline. Over the decades, they've heaped up a massive trash heap of alternate universes and aborted storylines, characters and concepts too weird or disruptive to the continuity to survive, and Secret Wars gives these misfit toys a new life by mashing all possible universes together, giving writers and artists free reign to explore their "What if?" fantasies before rebooting the entire multiverse for the next generation of readers.

I can say with more authority that Secret Wars Volumes 1 and 2 is the best thing to happen to the Marvel Legendary Card Game. Combined, they represent a massive expansion, both in terms of card count and new gameplay concepts. The card count totals 700--and since these aren't standalone releases, that is 100% new material, mostly in the form of 30 new Heroes, 12 new Villain Groups, 6 Henchmen, 8 Masterminds, and 16 Schemes. The boxes also devote a total of 40 cards to the new, directly competitive "Mastermind Player" variant. That's not my cup of tea, but it's a small enough percentage of the box that it doesn't matter, while giving players who do want to try the mode enough cards that they don't feel their time is wasted.

The inclusion of the competitive mode seemed to give the designers license to go all out with the (semi)cooperative game. If you've ever complained that Marvel Legendary is too easy, the "Rise of the Living Dead" mechanic alone will give you nightmares. In fact, there's a general shift in focus toward more fully cooperative play, with more challenging baddies and very few "attack" cards in the HQ. The primary exception is the "Cross-Dimensional Rampage" appearing in both sets, which capitalizes on the thematic excuse to have multiple versions of Hulk or Wolverine in the HQ and even the Villain Deck. When one of these effects is triggered, every other player must reveal a matching hero or take a wound. The only thing that can stop a Hulk is another Hulk.

You also have cards that bridge the heroic Marvel and Villains standalone sets. Two new factions dominate both Secret Wars sets: Cabal and Illuminati. The Illuminati are heroes from across the universes who are trying to figure out the cause of the dimensional incursions, and the Cabal are an equally diverse collection of villains scheming to twist the event to their own nefarious purposes. Since both groups are technically united by a common enemy, you can have Doctor Strange and Beast fighting alongside Black Swan and Thanos (yes, there's a Thanos hero deck) against the 1992 Saturday morning cartoon version of the X-Men.

This, of course, opens the floodgates for further cross-pollination between the heroic and Villains product families. Secret Wars also bridges past Legendary expansions by bringing back popular mechanics that were previously one-offs. Returning this way are Wall Crawl, first seen in the Paint the Town Red expansion, which lets you put recruited cards directly on top of your deck, as well as Teleport, first seen in Dark City, which allows you to set aside a card or cards to add to your hand next turn.

In general, the new mechanics are more complex and nuanced than those seen before. Some cards ask you to "Patrol" a certain city space, deck or discard pile, rewarding you based on what you find there. This encourages you to manipulate the Villains in the city and be more choosy regarding who you take out when. Some Cabal "heroes," like Corvus Glaive and Thanos, specialize in KO'ing Bystanders and drawing on their life force, while Maximus manipulates Henchmen like chess pieces and Phoenix Force Cyclops has self-destructive cards and retrieves cards from the KO pile. Illuminati's Black Bolt wants you to collect cards without rules text, and many heroes require unprecedented combos of four or more superpower icons to trigger their effects. Many Villains in Volume 2 have a "Circle of Kung-Fu," which increases (usually doubling) the enemy's fight level unless you reveal a card with a matching cost, which drastically alters the way you approach the Recruit phase.

Mostly, the new Villains are just mean. I already mentioned Rise of the Living Dead, a mechanic from Volume 1 When a Rise of the Living Dead effect is triggered, every player looks at the top card of their Victory pile and, if it also has a Rise of the Living Dead effect, it goes right back into the city. This usually shows up as an Ambush effect, so don't even bother KO'ing a Living Dead enemy unless you are absolutely certain you won't see another one before your next turn. The only way to avoid this effect is to "bury" the Living Dead card under something else in your Victory pile, like a Bystander or another Villain. You also see Rise of the Living Dead in Mastermind Tactics (Zombie Green Goblin) and Henchmen (Ghost Racers), giving you all the ingredients for a truly hellish zombie uprising. A nicer version of this is Fateful Resurrection, a Fight effect that instantly resurrects a Villain if the top card of the Villain Deck is a Scheme Twist or Master Strike. Simpler, but no less mean, is Charge, an Ambush effect that moves the Villain an extra space or more (pushing forward any other cards in the city).

Volume 1 also adds an entirely new, must-have card type: Sidekicks. These are always-available grey cards, like SHIELD Officers, with a cost of 2. When played, Sidekicks let you draw 2 cards (netting you +1 card that turn) and go straight back into the offer. This is perfect for those awkward turns when you can't afford anything in the HQ, or you don't see anything that matches your deck strategy, and the best part is that they take up no space in your deck: they're gone the moment you play them. Sidekicks are so good, they needed to add a fiddly little rule that you can only purchase one per turn.

All this barely scratches the surface of what you'll get in the Secret Wars expansions. There are new Schemes, of course: Schemes that bring in 2 or up to 4 simultaneous Masterminds, Schemes that give each player his own personal City to deal with, and Schemes that make the Mastermind a real, active threat, even one that counts as its own, universe-destroying Mastermind, the God-Emperor Doom. And while I'm sure there some serious Marvel fans bristle at the cross-dimensional weirdness presented in these sets, I for one can't think of anything cooler than The Captain and the Devil, a gladiatorial Captain America who rides a red T-Rex into battle, teamed up with Lady Thor and Dr. Punisher (Soldier Supreme) against King Hyperion and the Guardians of Knowhere.