Remembering the MLB Showdown card game

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Growing up in the 1990’s, I was an avid card collector. I started out with baseball cards, of course, but my more nerdy, less sports-focused friends would also get me into Magic: the Gathering and Pokémon cards. For those unfamiliar, Magic and Pokémon are collectible cards, but you can also play them as part of a strategy game. You use resources (mana in Magic, energy in Pokémon) to play increasingly better and stronger cards, attempting to topple your opponent while your opponent tries to do the same to you.

In 2000, Wizards of the Coast, the publisher of both Magic and Pokémon cards, released a baseball-themed collectible card game called MLB Showdown. They were baseball cards, but you could also play a strategy game with them unlike, say, the 1991 Bowman set of baseball cards. A convergence of two of my biggest interests? You had better believe I bought the heck out of MLB Showdown cards. Or, rather, my parents bought them for me. The product was officially licensed with Major League Baseball and the union and some players helped promote the game.

Gameplay was similar to other board and card games, but it held true to the baseball theme. There was even an official mat to play on featuring a baseball diamond. You would roll a die and move your cards around the bases accordingly, from home to first to second to third and back home again.

There were two types of cards: player cards and strategy cards. Player cards featured both pitchers and hitters and each was assigned a number. Pitchers got a “control” number while hitters got an “on-base” number. The control or on-base number were used alongside the result of a die roll. On the lower right corner of each card was a chart featuring a range of outcomes from rolling the 20-sided die. A Robin Ventura card I had, for example, gave him an on-base rating of 9 and had the following outcomes:

  • 1: Out (strikeout)
  • 2: Out (ground ball)
  • 3-5: Out (fly ball)
  • 6-9: Walk
  • 10-15: Single
  • — : Single+ (other runners on base attempt to advance an extra base on a single)
  • 16-17: Double
  • — : Triple
  • 18-20: Homer

(Photo credit: My mom. Thanks, mom!)

A Pedro Martínez card had the following outcomes with 5 control:

  • 1-9: Out (strikeout)
  • 10-11: Out (pop-up)
  • 12-14: Out (ground ball)
  • 15-17: Out (fly ball)
  • — : Walk
  • 18-19: Single
  • 20: Double
  • — : Homer

Let’s say the player holding the Martínez card rolled a 9 against the player holding the Ventura card. He would add the 9 to his 5 control for 14. That’s higher than the batter’s 9 rating, so Martínez’s chart would be used. The batting player then rolls the die. Let’s say he rolled a 15. Looking at Martínez’s chart, that’s a fly out, so the Ventura card is taken away (returns to the dugout) and the next batter in the lineup comes to the plate and the process is repeated until there are three outs, then the players “switch sides”. If a batter got a hit, his card would be placed as a runner on the diamond accordingly. Generally, a single would advance other runners one base and doubles would advance other runners two bases while triples and homers always scored other runners on base.

Strategy cards allowed players to interact with die rolls and draw cards. For example, one called Pep Talk instructs, “If you’re losing, count how many runs you’re down by. Draw that many cards.” It had a white fill and was labeled “utility.” Other cards had a red fill and were labeled “offense,” while blue cards were labeled “defense.” I trust your ability to deduce how those cards were used.

(Photo credit: My mom. Thanks, mom!)

MLB Showdown also included realistic events like fatiguing pitchers, runners attempting to steal bases, and outfielders attempting to throw runners trying to take an extra base. You could set your starting rotation and make pitching changes in the middle of the game. The game was surprisingly deep in strategy but contained just enough randomness to keep things fresh and exciting. Sometimes you might roll rather poorly and get shelled with an ace like Martínez; other times, you might roll incredibly well, maybe even tossing a no-hitter. It was a lot of fun, even though 12-year-old me likely wasn’t playing the game with optimal strategy.

Many hobby shops that sold MLB Showdown products hosted leagues where players would regularly compete against each other for prizes. There were regional and national tournaments as well. It was exactly as nerdy as it sounds. Sadly, however, Wizards of the Coast halted production of MLB Showdown in early 2006. By that time, computers and the Internet were ubiquitous, giving everyone easy access to fantasy baseball, which was the clear choice for people needing a baseball fix in their off-hours. MLB Showdown was a niche product to begin with, so the waning interest wasn’t a surprising result. Still, I had a blast collecting the cards and playing the game with my friends back in the day. And looking back on it now, 31-year-old me would totally play this game again.