Collectible Card Games Week: Super Deck!

We’ve been talking a lot about CCGs that were pretty good and CCGs that were great, so let’s back up a little for a moment and talk about Super Deck! When Magic exploded onto the gaming scene there was a desperate scramble by anyone and everyone to come up with a CCG of their own, and one of the first to hit the market afterwards was SD! from Card Sharks, Inc.

Super Deck! was “The Super Hero Trading Card Game” and was designed by Marc Miller, who also designed dozens of wargames (including two that won him presitgious Charles S. Roberts awards) and role-playing games, including the classic Traveller. He was one of the founders of Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) which was a juggernaut of a company. He himself won the 1981 Charles S. Roberts Hall of Fame award. Mr. Miller knows games.

Sadly, Super Deck! is not one of Marc Miller’s shining moments. It’s hard to believe that someone with as much hands-on design experience as he produced this thing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

SD! is a game for two players. Each player has his own deck, and there are two battles being fought, one in which a player is playing the Hero, and one in which he’s playing the Villain. You put down your characters and play cards that add to those characters’ strength and ones that multiply the results. You can also add in partners and sidekicks and locations where the battle is taking place, all of which add to your score. Your opponent will be playing hazards and perils which reduce your points or eliminate your cards. The goal is to be beating your opponent by 10 points in both battles at the same time, at which point you tell him “Last chance!” and he’s got one card play to reduce the score gap. If he can’t, you win.

So far, not too bad, right? Not overly different from a lot of other CCGs, and a lot of fun potential here. On paper it seems okay. So how is this regarded as one of the worst CCGs ever released? I wanted to find out, which involved two steps and nearly ten years.

In 2003 Dave Thiel and I went to a gaming convention in Illinois called “Egyptian Campaign”. One of the events there was an auction, and one of the items up for auction was a bunch of Super Deck! cards. I was intrigued by the possibility of playing this celebrated game, so I won the lot with the high (and opening) bid of twenty-five cents. (I may be misremembering. It may have been a dime.) This completed step one: getting hold of some cards without paying too much for them.

I then held on to these things, often forgetting about them and moving them to Massachusetts, without ever playing the game. Nobody I asked ever took me up on my invitation to play the worst CCG ever. I feared I’d never get a chance to try it out, but when I decided to cover CCGs this week I knew that the time had to come. I made veiled threats at Matt, who had previously joined me for You Can’t Check Me and he reluctantly agreed to this. As we shuffled the cards, his four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, deep into her “why?” phase, asked, “Why are you playing this?” to which we answered, “That’s a very good question.”

We read through the brief rules, grabbed 40 cards each (hoping enough were included to play “in earnest”) and began Super Decking.

The first hero to be played was Mr. Justice:

Here we begin the examination of the problems with Super Deck!. Mr. Justice there has a power of 9, which is pretty impressive. To contrast, here’s a different hero I could have played:

Flygirl has a power of 1 (not -1, that’s a bullet). Clearly the man is more powerful than the little miss here. The subtle difference of why you might opt for her over him? There is none. There’s no cost to put them into play. Neither has any special ability. There are no cards that specifically take out bigger heros but leave smaller ones alone. (In fact, many sidekick cards tell you that the sidekick can’t be stronger than the hero, so that’s an additional reason not to play Flygirl.) If you had both of these cards in your collection you may as well throw Flygirl away; there’s absolutely no reason to play her. Even if you don’t have a Mr. Justice, pretty much any hero is guaranteed to have a value bigger than 1, and you’d play another one anyway. Mr. Justice, despite his questionable methods, is a no-brainer to play, period.

Matt countered with our first villain, She-Bat:

She-Bat only had a power of 6! Oh no, Matt hadn’t figured out the strategy of playing cards with higher numbers! It seemed like this battle would be resolved in no time. Soon the enhancement cards came out. Mr. Justice was aided by a Giant Computer (+6) but menaced by a Giant Octopus (-8). He gained the power of Flight (x6) but that was canceled by a Battleship (which, according to its flavor text, “has, by definition, the largest guns possible and the thickest armor available” — emphasis mine). Even throwing the Giant Octopus into the Time Triangle didn’t help me.

Meanwhile, on She-Bat’s side, she was aided by an Alien Emissary (+4), but foiled because of a Witness (-5) and then she too gained Flight (x6).

“Golly, Dave, that’s a lot of math!” You’re right, it is, but thankfully Super Deck! has your back:

Imagine buying a pack of Super Deck! cards and getting a Handy Math Table as one of them!

In the other battle, my villain, Talonz (Base 6) and his partner, a Pickpocket (+3), were fighting F1 (Base 7) atop the Twin Towers (+1). Scalpel (Base 6) joined him as a sidekick, but F1 defeated them both. Matt called “Last chance!” but I was unable to do anything. Matt had won.

Now that we knew what we were doing, we played again. This time the hero Johnny Angel faced down Shokk while Alfa fought Deathblo. Funny thing about Matt’s heroes in these two games:

Has anyone ever seen F1 and Alfa together at the same time?

That game was over quickly as well, with Matt as the winner. Clearly this was all random, as it didn’t reward my superior playing!

Now, in addition to the complete lack of balance in the heros and villains, there were some oddball things, such as this little wonder:

Since you only play one card per turn, this does…nothing. You give up your turn, your opponent gives up his, and it’s back to you. It serves no purpose whatsoever. (We even tried to think of ways in which is wasn’t useless and came up empty.)

There was also this head-scratcher:

The Time Warp causes the last turn to be replayed, but you can play the same cards again. Huh?

Honestly, it’s a shame the game is so worthless, because there really is a lot of fun potential here. Having heroes and villains deal with Killer Bees, Plutonium, Falling Satellites, and an Alien Plague

is a hoot. Someone had some fun designing this. But the game is so obvious and by-the-numbers (no pun intended) that it pretty much plays itself.

The artwork, as you’ve no doubt noticed, is all over the place, but that’s pretty much standard for all CCGs at this point, including Magic. What’s interesting are some of the contributing artists. Phil Hester has artwork in here, as does Dean Haspiel, Josh Neufeld, and Randy Queen. There are also some cards by a fellow named Brian Bendis — shall we open the bidding at one million dollars, gentlemen? Interestingly, some of the cards feature additional copyrights for AC Comics, so it looks like some of their characters wandered into the game as well.

So. Is SuperDeck! the worst CCG of all time? It’s certainly the worst one I’ve ever played, though I was spared a lot of junk like Hyborean Gates and Towers in Time. It’s pretty clear it was rushed out without much thought or playtesting. It’s a shame that a designer of Marc Miller’s caliber has such a lousy product in his c.v., but I think it’s safe to assume that he wasn’t wasting all his energy on this.

So now I’m left with two problems. First, what do I do with all these cards? And second, how can I redeem this, which was included in my cards?

(Many thanks to Matt for putting up with this nonsense.)

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