Marvel Snap is among the latest free-to-play titles taking the mobile gaming world by storm. It’s not a gambling game, but strategically, it requires you to be comfortable taking risks.
The most common point of comparison for Snap is HearthStone. That’s because it’s the brainchild of Ben Brode, who led Blizzard’s HearthStone team until he left the company in 2018 to found his own studio, Second Dinner. But what’s interesting to me is how much Snap’s strategy has in common with poker strategy.
You’ll find many current and former poker fans playing other card games, like HearthStone and Magic: the Gathering. Because Snap is so new – released on Oct 18, 2022 – many poker players may have yet to discover it.
When they do, they’ll find a lot to love. Of course, you can’t win any money at it. Strategically, though, it scratches very much the same itch.
I want to talk about how poker strategy will help you be a better Snap player. However, a little preamble is required for those who don’t know the game. If you already know how to play Snap, feel free to skip ahead to the good stuff.
Marvel Snap in a Nutshell
Snap is a high-speed game. A single round takes just a few minutes, about as long as a Spin & Go on PokerStars or equivalent lottery sit-and-go elsewhere. In some ways, it’s almost the game PokerStars was trying to make with its ill-fated Power Up experiment, which shut down in 2019.
Cards represent various Marvel superheroes and villains. You build a deck of 12 cards and play them against a randomly-matched opponent over the course of six turns.
Each card has an energy cost and a power score. You get one energy to spend on the first turn, two on the second, and so on, up to six on the final turn.
Cards can be played at any of three locations, each of which can hold up to four cards per side. You control a location by having the highest total power there, and the goal of the game is to be controlling at least two at the end.
Simple enough, right? The catch is that players take their turns simultaneously, so you don’t know what your opponent is playing until you’ve already committed to your move. More importantly, most cards have a unique ability. That might be to boost other cards, move or destroy them, hurt your opponent, or any number of other things. Adding to the confusion, each location also changes the game in some way.
Trying to read your opponent’s mind in Snap is already pretty poker-like. But where the games really overlap is when it comes to Snapping.
Snap borrows a key concept from the ancient game of backgammon, namely the doubling cube. Here, it’s called Snapping and gives the game its name.
The overarching goal of Snap isn’t just to win individual rounds. It’s to ascend in the Season Ranks by collecting Cubes. You win or lose these by playing matches.
In each match, a minimum of one Cube will change hands (except for draws, which are very rare). However, the stakes can escalate to two, four or eight Cubes.
Players can Retreat at any time, equivalent to resigning the game. However, playing to the end of the final turn – what we’ll call showdown, as a nod to poker – doubles the stakes.
Each player can also choose to Snap once in the match. That similarly doubles the stakes at the beginning of the next turn (or at showdown, for a final turn Snap), provided the opponent doesn’t Retreat.
In other words, it’s a lot like Pot-Limit poker, except there’s an automatic bet on the river, and each player can make only one elective bet at some other point in the hand.
Poker Strategy as Applied to Marvel Snap
There are two layers of strategy to Marvel Snap:
- How to play your hand to maximize your chances of winning, and
- When to Snap and when to Retreat to maximize your expected gains and minimize your expected losses.
Obviously, the latter translates quite directly to betting and folding in poker. However, in most forms of poker, you don’t have any control over whether you’ll have the best hand at showdown, and only limited control in draw variants like 2-7 Lowball.
So, we’ll start with Snapping and Retreating, but as you’ll see later, some poker psychology also applies to how you play your cards.
Pot Odds, or the Math of Risk and Reward
One of the first bits of poker math we teach to beginners is how to think in terms of pot odds. That means how many additional chips (or Cubes, in this case) you’re risking versus how much you stand to win. Pot odds tell you what hand odds (that is, chances of winning) you need for it to be profitable to continue.
In Snap, this is pretty straightforward because we’re almost always facing a pot-sized bet. That is, the stakes double each time and can’t increase by other ratios. There are still several different scenarios you can face, and it would take a separate article to break them all down.
However, the easiest calculation is when we’re deciding whether to go to showdown without facing a Snap. Here, we’re choosing whether to surrender one Cube or play on to try to win two.
If we play on, we can also now lose two Cubes. But we had already committed to risking at least one Cube, so the difference is only one more. If we win, we collect two Cubes from the opponent, but also save ourselves the Cube we would lose by Retreating. We have to count that as potential winnings because – as pointed out by reader Savage Yeti Gaming – Snap is unlike poker in that Retreating is not “zero EV,” as we haven’t deducted our stake up front and still “owe” money to the pot.
So, we’re risking one Cube to win a net of three (two we claim from the opponent, and one we save by not Retreating). In poker, we would call this 3-1 pot odds. To find the profitability tipping point, we divide the risk by the sum of the risk and reward: 1 / (1+3) = 1/4, or 25%.
In other words, if you think you’ve got at least a one-quarter chance of winning, you should play the game out. Less than that, and you should Retreat.
If you’re facing a final turn Snap, you’re risking three to win five (four plus your own original stake), meaning you need a 3 / (3+5) = 37.5% win rate. So you need to be a lot more confident in that case.
Knowing You’re Ahead is as Important as Being Ahead
When facing a Snap earlier in the hand, the math is very similar on the surface. If you have better than a one-third chance of winning, it’s usually good to play on when the opponent Snaps.
However, there’s another poker principle to consider here: Implied odds.
In poker, you may not want to call one bet if you expect to face another bet on the next street and know you won’t be able to call that one. In Snap, you know that you’ll have a second Retreat-or-double decision to make on Turn 6. That can work in your favor or against you, depending on how much clarity you’ll have at the end.
If you believe that you’ll know with certainty whether you’re winning, but your opponent will play on regardless, implied odds are working for you. Now you’re still only risking one Cube, but you can win four or eight at the end, depending on whether you Snap back.
However, if you think you’ll still be in the dark and your opponent won’t be, now they benefit from being able to get away cheaply while you’re at the risk of a huge loss.
In these situations, you have to adjust your implied pot odds accordingly.
It’s Better to Win a Small Game Than to Lose a Big One
In poker, beginners often play their big hands too slowly. That is, they don’t bet with something like pocket Aces or a set because they don’t want the opponent to fold. This tends to lead to the opponent drawing into an even better hand.
To those players, we say it’s “better to win a small pot than to lose a big one.” In other words, bet your strong hands rather than giving your opponent a free chance to draw out on you.
It’s the same in Snap. If you have an early advantage, Snap and make the opponent Retreat rather than trying to trick him into losing more Cubes by waiting.
This is especially true when the board clearly favors you. If X-Mansion gives you Infinaut (20 power) and him Nightcrawler (2 power), you’re not fooling anyone by postponing your Snap. Just make them Retreat before they can catch up.
Relatedly, never Snap when your opponent will only continue if he beats you. For instance, if you’re far ahead on Turn 6 but would lose to Shang-Chi, Snapping never gets you more Cubes, but it does cost you a lot when your opponent has that card. In that case, no matter how likely you think you are to win, you should just play the final turn without a Snap.
It’s Better to Flip for a Big Game Than to Lose a Small One
At the same time, novice players in both poker and Snap tend to shy away from high-volatility situations. They’re willing to gamble for small stakes but want certainty when there’s a lot on the line. If that’s your attitude, you may want to find a different game.
Being good at Snap means being willing, at times, to stake eight Cubes on what is effectively the flip of a coin. This is partly related to the pot odds we’ve already discussed. Sometimes you’ll need to play a big game to the end, even knowing you’re quite a bit less than 50% likely to win.
However, it also relates to how you build your deck and play it. Snap contains a lot of cards that a friend of mine dubbed “chaos generators.” Ones like Scarlet Witch, who randomly changes a location into another, or Jubilee, who plays a random card from your deck.
That uncertainty works against you when you’re ahead, but it helps when you’re behind. Poker pros know it generally favors them to embrace coin-flip situations in big pots. Since you’re not always going to be ahead, most good Snap decks include some form of chaos generation to shake things up when behind instead of Retreating.
(This may sound like it contradicts the point about implied odds above. However, knowing that you’re flipping is very different from being doomed and not knowing it. It’s the difference in certainty between your perspective and your opponent’s that counts when it comes to implied odds.)
Think Exactly One Level Ahead
One last poker concept for us to end with is the leveling war. Since moves are simultaneous in Snap, anticipating our opponent – and not allowing them to anticipate us – is critical. However, we can hurt ourselves if we overthink things.
Poker players talk about levels of thinking. These are:
- Level 0: Clueless play. Bad, effectively random moves by a player who doesn’t understand fundamentals.
- Level 1: Good but straightforward play. Betting with good hands, folding bad ones, check-calling with mediocre hands, and bluffing on scary-looking boards.
- Level 2: Reading the opponent. Trying to deduce what they’re holding based on their patterns of play.
- Level 3: Deceiving the opponent. Trying to fool a player who is reading you by making counter-intuitive moves.
There are higher levels, too, if you expect deception from a strong opponent. There’s a pattern throughout: each level beats the next lower one. However, it doesn’t necessarily win against those further down and might even fare badly against them.
For instance, reading the opponent (Level 2) works very well against a player who knows basic strategy (Level 1). However, if they’re playing randomly (Level 0), you’re reading into patterns that aren’t there. Likewise, the counter-intuitive moves you make at Level 3 are a lot like bad Level 0 moves if the opponent isn’t reacting to what you’re doing in the first place.
In Snap, many situations arise that resemble Rock-Paper-Scissors. Maybe you’ll win if you play your Turn 6 card at the same location as the opponent’s but lose at a different location. Or perhaps your power combo is vulnerable to one specific counter, and you must decide between sticking to the plan or trying something worse but less vulnerable to the counter.
What’s essential to winning those games is not how high a level you can think at. It’s identifying the level your opponent is thinking at. If he’s going to play at the obvious location, you play at the obvious location too. If he’s going to trick you, maybe you need to be trickier still. And there’s no need to dodge a counter if your opponent is too naive to play it.