MLB Showdown is a Trading Card Game (TCG) that was printed from 2000 to 2005 that simulates baseball. It is the game on which I have spent the most money in my life, as I spent the majority of my income in high school on the game. For those unaware, a TCG is a game where players buy a pack of cards (commonly called “boosters”) in order to construct a deck to play against other decks. MLB Showdown is an amazing game, one I have very fond memories of, and really is exactly what it seeks to be: a TCG version of a baseball simulator.
To play MLB Showdown, a player needs player cards, strategy cards, and a 20-sided die. All of this can be purchased in a “Starter Deck” which offers some basic player cards. The coolest thing about the components is that the players are on actual baseball cards. Thus, they have a cross-market appeal not only with players of the game, but with baseball card collectors. Wizards of the Coast went to great lengths to make sure that these cards actually look and feel like baseball cards. You can find valuation for the cards in Beckett baseball card books. I can go more into the collectible nature of the cards, but I want to focus on the game itself for the bulk of this article.
The strategy cards are red (offense), blue (defense), or white (utility). They also have a photo on them, always baseball related; most of them feature one or more players. The die provided in the starter sets was always a boring white die with red letters, and few serious players used it. Instead players often have one or multiple 20-sided dice of their choosing.
MLB Showdown, like the game of baseball itself, is broken down into at-bats. Each at-bat consists of two parts, the “pitch” and the “swing.” The player pitching rolls a 20-sided die and adds the “control” number on the pitcher’s card to the roll. If that number is greater than the “On-base” of the hitter’s card, then the swing is rolled on the pitcher’s chart. Otherwise, the swing is rolled on the hitter’s chart. The swing is rolled by the hitter, and the result is read off of the appropriate chart. If the swing is rolled on the pitcher’s chart, the result is weighted toward being an out. If the swing is rolled on the hitter’s chart, the result is weighted toward getting on base.
This process is repeated at-bat after at-bat the entire game. Thus, this game is a lot of luck. What makes the game less about luck is mainly the strategy deck that is used in conjunction with the players. The strategy deck consists of 60 cards, and lets you affect the game in a number of ways. Players draw 3 cards to begin the game and one additional card every ½ inning. Some cards are as simple as add +X to whatever roll or reroll a dice. Some cards let you draw more cards, while others allow you to discard cards from your opponent. Some are even more interesting. One of the most popular cards to play is one call “Dialed-In” which is an offensive card that you play when you have a runner in scoring position. It automatically gives the hitter the advantage, but comes at the cost of discarding 2 additional cards. A high price to pay, but well worth it most times in critical situations because getting the advantage is of vital importance in MLB Showdown.
There are other managerial decisions to make as well that come up naturally in a baseball game. For instance, if you decide to send runners to extra bases after hits, you must determine how hard it is to advance based upon a die roll which factors in runners’ speed and outfield defense. Defenses attempt to turn double plays, which factor into runner speed, this time with infield defense. Pitchers are able to pitch so many innings before coming “tired” and, when a pitcher is tired, you start subtracting from the pitch rolls, which makes the hitter more likely to get the advantage. So timing when the pitchers are yanked from the game is important.
All kinds of decisions make the game so much fun, and I have not even gotten to the biggest decisions, which are made before the game begins, but that’s strategy.
MLB Showdown is a TCG, and that means you can create your own team. This is what makes the game amazing, since you can pick players that fit around the strategy that you want to employ. Each player has a point value, and the entire 25-player team must be no more than 5000 points. Thus, you can’t have a team full of all-stars. I have made decks of all different types over the years. I have made them with tons of speedy base runners, amazing pitchers, power hitters, average hitters, and balanced teams. The team that I believe was perfection made by me and my great friend James Smith is something that we called “Weaver-ball” because Earl Weaver was known for loving pitching and the 3-run home run. Our teams (we both play very similar teams) were based upon this philosophy.
So, after you make the team, you make the strategy deck to fit that team. The marriage of the players and the strategy deck is essential. Our deck played 3 cards in combination on the same at bat that led to adding +6 to the swing, and the pitch was skipped, giving advantage to the hitter. If clean-up hitter Mike Schmidt (yes, there were HOF players made too) was hitting, he got a HR with a 17+ on his chart. You add the +6, now all that is needed is an 11+, which makes a HR a 50% possibility.
So, between making the team, making the strategy deck, playing the strategy deck, and making managerial decisions, there is a whole lot of skill in a game based on a 20-sided die. At the same time, luck does play a major factor in each individual at-bat, as the die is still king. I once lost a tournament game to a kid who did not really know how to play because my dice rolls were so terrible.
I love MLB Showdown. I spent countless hours thinking about this game in High School and College. I traveled as far as Indianapolis, Indiana from Cleveland, Ohio to play in a regional tournament. What MLB Showdown does is mix a baseball simulator (eg. Strat-o-matic) with a TCG (eg. Magic the Gathering) and what you get is a very well-designed, quick, fun game. It feels like a baseball game, mostly because of the tension points, just like baseball. You can look back and say, “Alex Rodriguez choked in the clutch and lost me this game,” or, “Grady Sizemore came through with the big walk off HR in the 9th inning.”
The game is not perfect though, and players of the game found holes and exploited them. For example, in the first 3 years of the game, bench players could be put on your team at 1/5th their point value if you tagged them not to be used until the 5th inning. When the game expanded the rosters to 25, that created a huge problem. Players would then make the best possible offense team, but they sat on the bench until the 5th inning. This made zero thematic sense and really broke the game for a while until they fixed this problem.
Another thing to note is that the player cards from previous years became obsolete. When the 2001 player cards came out, 2000 player cards were not allowed for tournament play. In 2002, the same thing occurred, and the creators made the biggest shift in gameplay between these two seasons. Strategy cards had a little more life to them since some were reprinted and were thus still useable; the rules allowed them to be used for longer than the player cards. While this was neat from a hardcore gamer standpoint, it kicked out casual fans of the game.
MLB Showdown was created from the wave of popularity of TCGs at the turn of the millennium due to Pokemon. The problem was that most people attracted to TCG are not the same people who are attracted to baseball. Also, I talked about the game as one cohesive unit, but really we are talking about many different games. This is exactly what I am though, both a gamer and a hardcore baseball fan. I loved this game much more than Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon, or any other more classic TCG themed game.
I used to think it was so funny, going to GENCON in Indianapolis in order to play baseball among cosplayers dressing up, RPG-lovers dungeon crawling, and strategists hunched over complex Risk boards. Now I look back and see MLB Showdown as vital to my arc of going from a traditional board game player to a Eurogamer. MLB Showdown, I miss you very much, but at least by ending, I stopped spending so much money on you.