Learning To Play MLB Showdown

MLB Showdown cards – part of a Collectible Card Game produced between 2000 and 2005 – are not something I truly seek out, but as a lover of baseball cards and of baseball simulation games, MLB Showdown cards are among my favorite things to stumble across. If I find MLB Showdown cards for cheap – like in a dimebox – I will gleefully scarf them up, and won’t give any thought about what to do with them until afterwards.

Like many of you, I’ve wondered how the game is played. I’ve been meaning to learn for a number of years, but I never really get around to it.  A passing thought in a post over on Remember The Astrodome – “Did anyone ever actually try to play MLB Showdown?” – inspired me to get off of my butt and start figuring the game out.  Sometimes all I need is confirmation that someone else will find something of interest and make it worth my time.

I figured I probably had enough cards laying around to form a couple of lineups, so I went looking for instructions online. I found a video that wasn’t as helpful as I thought it would be, but it became clear that 20-sided gaming dice are involved.

While I was pondering how much my preferred local comics/gaming store would charge for dice, a thought bubbled to the surface of my brain, in the same way that the answer provided by Magic 8 Balls just kind of rises up through the blue “whatever” inside.

“Heyyyyyyyy…” I thought, “Didn’t I get a cheap Starter Set a number of years ago?”

I went to a largely disused closet where my tabletop baseball simulations are kept – Statis-Pro Baseball (which I wrote about in 2015), Cadaco All-Star Baseball (which I wrote about in 2013), Donruss Top Of The Order (which I’ll write about someday) – and sure as shootin’, there it was: A 2001 MLB Showdown Two-Player Starter Set.

I don’t remember when/where I got it… I’m pretty sure I found it at a show somewhere, and likely at a price I couldn’t walk away from.  At the time, I probably said “Now I can learn how to play this game”, and as is often the case, that went nowhere without the proper motivation.

So before I go any further, I want to make it clear that what follows is not a detailed tutorial on how to play.  Nobody’s going to be tournament-ready by the end.  I just figured there are plenty of people who own a few of these cards and would like to get a general idea of what it’s about.

Within the relatively small box there is the 20-sided gaming die, a game mat (which also lists the instructions for the “Beginner” version of the game), 15 American League player cards, 15 National League player cards, another pack of cards which come with a “Play a few games under the basic rules before opening” notice.  These cards are the Strategy cards, and I’ll come to those later.

So here’s the game mat (along with some assorted crap from Shlabotnik World Headquarters):

As it turns out, the mat is a helpful learning tool but is not necessary to play the game.  I’ll also mention that folding it back up again was just as frustrating as folding up a gas station road map.

So I played a couple of innings under the basic rules;  what follows is the top of the second inning of the first game I played.  Leading off is Vladimir Guerrero of the National League team – as you can see, his card is a “foil” which means the surface is somewhat shiny and a tiny bit refractor-y, plus the team logo is silver foil.  Vlad is the cleanup batter in the NL lineup, as the team went down in order in the first.  On the mound for the American League is Kevin Appier.

In the basic game, each at bat consists of two rolls of the dice;  the first, by the team in the field, is the “pitch”.  The second roll, by the team at bat, is the “swing”.

As you can see in the photo, the pitcher rolled a 5.  That roll is added to the “Control” Number at the top of Appier’s card to get a value of 7 (5 + 2 = 7).

That number is compared against the “On-Base” number on Vlad’s card, which is 9.

Since the die roll + Appier’s Control number is less than Guerrero’s On-Base number, that means that the batter has the advantage and we use Vlad’s card for what comes next.

…And what comes next is the player at bat rolls the die; this is the “swing”.  The number which comes up in the roll is looked up on the chart on the bottom of Vlad’s card.

As you can see, the higher the roll of the die, the better it is for the batter.  I’ll get into some of the less-obvious results in a little bit, but in this case the batter rolled a 7 and everything from 6 to 13 is a Single.

So we’ve got a runner on first, no outs, and Desi Relaford comes up to bat.

The pitcher rolls a 7;  7 + Appier’s Control # of 2 = 9, and that’s higher than the On-Base number on Relaford’s card (8).  The advantage goes to the pitcher this time.

The batter rolls a 9, we look at the chart on Kevin Appier’s card:

Anything between 9 and 13 is “Out (GB)”, which is a ground-ball out.  One out, and Vlad moves to second.  Under the Expert rules, the player in the field can try to double-up Vlad, I’ll mention that (briefly) towards the end.

Next up, Bubba Trammell.

As you can see, Trammell has an on-base number of 7, so Bubba is less likely to get a “batter’s advantage” than Vlad (9) or Desi (8).

While we’re comparing cards, I’ll show this comparison between the charts on the cards of Vladimir Guerrero, Desi Relaford, Bubba Trammell and Kevin Appier.

Hopefully those of you reading on your phones can see these charts, but you can see how the same die roll can have different results based on who’s batting or if the advantage goes to the pitcher.  For example, a “swing” roll of 16 is a triple for Vlad, a single for Desi, a double for Bubba and a fly-ball out for anyone batting against Kevin.

On an individual level, you can see that you’ll never strike out when the result is off of Vlad’s card, and you’ll never homer when the result is off of Appier’s card.  Similarly, Relaford might get on base a lot, but it’ll mostly be walks and singles with no chance at a double or triple and only a 1-in-20 chance at a homer.

Getting back to our at-bat, the batter rolls an 18.  Bubba Trammel walks, Vladimir Guerrero stays on second, one out and Doug Glanville coming to bat.

The pitcher rolls a 20, and at this point you don’t need to compare any numbers to know that the advantage goes to the pitcher… but just for the sake of this post, 20 + 2 > 7 (Glanville’s On-Base number).

The batter rolls an 8, that’s a Strikeout – Out(SO) – on Appier’s card.

First and second, two outs and the #8 batter, Warren Morris, coming to bat.

The pitcher rolls a 16, so that again is clearly on Appier’s card, but the batter rolls a 20, which is clearly good for the batter.  Appier’s chart shows that 20 = Double, so Vlad Guerrero scores, Bubba Trammell goes to third and Morris is standing on second.  (Quick side note:  It’s interesting that the result would’ve been the same had Morris’ card been used.)

It was at this point in the half-inning that I realized I’d made a mistake in picking out the lineups.

When I set the batting order, I went with 8 batters and the pitcher… but that’s because I had just breezed through the rules printed on the mat, and hadn’t given it any thought.  With the #9 slot coming up in the batting order, what happens when the pitcher bats?  As it turns out, if you play by the NL rules, there is no “pitch” as the result always comes off of the pitcher’s card (Appier).  How boring is that?  At the last minute, I went to my “bench” and picked out the best player, Richard Hidalgo, to be the DH.  The numbers are similar to Vlad’s because 2000 had been a monster year for Hidalgo:  42 doubles, 44 homers, 122 RBI and a .314 average.

The pitcher rolls an 8… 8 + 2 = 10, which is higher than Hidalgo’s On-Base of 9.  The batter rolls a 14, which is a fly-out on Appier’s card, and the inning is over.  One run on 2 hits and a walk, 2 men left on, the National League is leading 1-0.

…So that’s playing by the BASIC rules.

Under the “Advanced” or “Expert” rules, a pitcher is not endlessly effective, but wears down after a certain point.  Let’s take a look at the top of Appier’s card again.

You’ll see he’s listed as a Starter, and as you’d guess, only Starters can start games.  He’s a righty, and that comes into play when you start to work with the strategy cards – I’ll get to that in a minute.  I’ll also come back to the “310 pt.” part.

Right now, let’s look at the “IP 6” part.  This means that Appier is 100% effective through 6 innings pitched.  After he hits 6 innings, he starts to tire out and when rolling for the “pitch”, you subtract 1 point from the dice roll for each inning past the 6th.  For example, if Appier were pitching the ninth, he’d have 3 subtracted from each dice roll, one for the 7th, 8th and 9th innings.

Let’s quickly replay the 2nd inning as if it were the 9th;  we’ll keep the same rolls of the dice, but the outcome will be significantly different.  Vlad’s at bat was on his card to start with, so we still have him getting a single.  For Desi Relaford, the pitcher rolled a 7, which now becomes a 4, and added to Appier’s control number we only have a 6, which is lower than Relaford’s On-Base number of 8, so we have “Batter’s Advantage” and the result comes off the batter’s card.  The batter rolled a 9, so instead of a ground out, we have a walk and runners on first and second.  Trammell’s at-bat is still on Appier’s card and still a walk, so now we’ve got bases loaded. Glanville still strikes out, and Morris still rolls a 20 using the chart on Appier’s card, so he still doubles but now he drives in two runs instead of one.  For Hidalgo’s at bat, 8 – 3 + 2 = 7, which is less than Hidalgo’s 9, so we’re working off of Hidalgo’s card.  The batter’s roll of 14 becomes a single instead of a fly out, Bubba Trammell scores and now instead of one run scored and the inning over, we’ve got three runs in and the leadoff batter coming up with two outs.

Before we move on, I’ll also point out that in the Advanced game the pitcher also loses effectiveness when he gives up too many runs.

Let’s get into the strategy cards now.  For non-gaming collectors they’re an even odder oddball because they have smaller photos and don’t identify the players on the card.  A Randy Johnson collector, if they even knew about this card, might not fully understand what it means:

Players start the game with three Strategy cards and add one at the beginning of each half-inning.  Each card says when to play the card – often “Play before the pitch” – and gives a result.  Since we now know how the game works, the result of “Add +1 to every pitch this inning until a batter reaches base on a hit or a walk” makes sense to us now.

There are also strategy cards which are played after a result.  For example, after Warren Morris’ double and if “the pitcher is tired” – meaning that he’s past his “IP” listing on his card – the player at bat could’ve played this card:

Playing this card will change that double into a homer.

Many of the cards I’ve seen are along the lines of “Add +2 to the swing with runners in scoring position” or “If your starter would be tired next inning and he’s given up 3 or fewer runs, he gets a +1 IP” (and Wizards Of The Coast gets a thumbs-up for properly using “fewer” to refer to something which can be counted.  “Fewer cookies, less punch”.  End of grammar lecture).

Brief mentions of other things on the player cards

I don’t want to get into a full description of all aspects of this game – I’ve gone on long enough as it is – but I figured I’d run through some of the other bits of info on the player cards.

Let’s go back to the top of Vladimir Guerrero’s card:

I’ll start with the position.  If Vlad was listed as “OF”, he could play left, right or center field, but he’s clearly listed as a corner outfielder and can only play in left or right.

The “+1” after the position works with Strategy cards which tell you to make a “Fielding Check”.  You roll the die, add on the fielding of the players involved (i.e. the outfielders) and if the roll + fielding is high enough you can, for example, turn a hit into a fly-out.  Fielders can have different ratings for different positions.  The Doug Glanville card I inserted above has a +2 for center field and a +1 for left or right field.

Catchers have a similar number which is used for catching a runner trying to steal, and is used with the Speed rating on the baserunner’s card and a dice roll to determine if the runner is safe or out.

“470 pt.”… I thought this is one of the more unexpectedly interesting bits of info on the card.  On the surface, it’s easy to understand:  Good players have more points than bad players.  However, the points don’t come up during the game itself, but are used in managing the teams.  The Basic rules tell you to set the batting order from most points to least points, which is a good way to go about it if you don’t feel the need to get into leadoff batters, cleanup hitters and the like.

However, these also factor in to putting your roster together.  The rules say that a 20-player roster should not total up to more than 5000 points (averaging out to 250 points per player). This is only fair, as you have to have some reason to include some true bench players on the roster, and not just fill it with Frank Thomas and Randy Johnson cards.

As for some of the categories on the results charts…

Runners can tag up on a fly ball – Out(FB) – or take an extra base on a hit.  This is another one that uses the combined fielding rating of the outfielders, speed and dice roll to determine “safe” or “out.

Ground-ball outs – Out(GB) – can be converted to double-plays, again, based on combined fielding rating of the infielders, the speed rating of the runner and dice roll.

The batters cards have entries for “Single” and “Single+”.  On a “Single+” result, the batter “steals” second if second base is empty.  In the Expert game, a runners can take an extra base on a Single+ result.

Assorted random bits of info and opinions for anyone who’s interested enough to have gotten this far:

If I were to play the game on an ongoing basis, I’d probably go to my local comic/gaming store and get a pair of different-colored 20-sided dice to replace the one white one which comes with the game. It’s a small die and a little ‘unsatisfying’ for adult hands.  If I were playing the game solo I’d roll two different-colored dice at the same time, with one color being for the “pitch” and one for the “swing”.

…But this doesn’t strike me as a great game to play solo.  Too many of the finer points of the game, like lefty/righty matchups, only factor in when a strategy card is played, and if you’re playing against yourself for funsies you would often have to play a card against your opponent who is, of course, yourself.  I mean, it can be done, but I prefer for these situations to be built into the game play instead of having to be invoked.

From what I understand from poking around different forums and websites, the MLB Showdown rules were tweaked from season to season, and new gameplay elements had been implemented from year to year.

I read somewhere that the formulas used to create the cards were also tweaked as they went along, so if you were playing against anyone who’s a serious player, they wouldn’t allow you to mix player cards from all six years of the game;  you’d have to agree to all use 2001 cards, for example.

One last thought from a collector viewpoint…I wonder how much variation there is in these starter sets, if there’s any variation at all.  Did all of the Starter Sets come with the same 30 players?  I wasn’t able to find a definitive answer for that, but if true it would mean that those cards would be significantly more common than cards which came from booster packs.

So that wraps up my little experiment with playing MLB Showdown.

Now that I’ve learned how the game works, these cards will remain fun oddball cards and I won’t likely use them as gaming cards.  There are too many aspects that I find unrealistic, like how the fielding seems to be handled by the outfield or infield as a whole rather than by individual players, or the whole lefty/righty strategy thing.  I don’t doubt that this could be a fun game to play against someone, but I don’t have any gaming friends so I won’t know for sure.  For my solo game playing I’ll stick with Statis-Pro or Cadaco.

Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll answer them as best I can.  Again, I’m no expert, I’m just a guy who casually enjoys baseball tabletop games and happens to have a copy of the 2001 Starter Set.

13 thoughts on “Learning To Play MLB Showdown

  1. Oh wow this is a great post and thanks for putting the time in for it. It would be interesting to compare a single player’s cards over the run of the game to see how his game performance mirrors his actual MLB performance.

    I also have always thought that it would’ve been interesting to treat this as a Living set where you can build a deck across multiple seasons so I’m a bit disappointed to learn that it doesn’t work that way.

    • Thanks, Nick! I had fun doing it.

      After learning the rules I looked at cards from other years and the cards seem alike in how they would be used… I think you just might end up with certain players being more or less dominant than they should be.

      At any rate, if statistical simulation is the end game, there would be better games to play than this one.

  2. I played MLB Showdown religiously as a kid, and I still dust off the cards every once in a while for an impromptu game. This is an excellent rundown of the rules.

    In the early years, one of the rules was that a player on your bench only cost 1/5th of his designated point value. That quickly changed because people would just load up their bench and pinch-hit for all their weaker hitters at the first opportunity, thus opening up every game for a slugfest. If memory serves, they changed that rule rather quickly, and for good reason.

  3. Thanks for breaking it down. I definitely understand the beginner rules, but not sure I’d be ready to play the advanced rules unless it was with someone with experience. Overall… this is a pretty fun game.

    • It has the potential to get pretty involved. I wouldn’t play a game without, at the very least, a notepad.

      I wonder if anyone ever designed scorecards made specifically for MLB Showdown… (I’d bet five packs of 1988 Donruss that someone has).

  4. Dang, this game looks pretty fun to play! Thanks for the rules breakdown. I’ll have to keep a lookout for some cheap cards.

  5. I find the commentary interesting. I purchased a starter box in 2000 just to check it out. My thought after reading this excellent and thorough post was “…and this game never caught on?” I personally would not have enjoyed playing now that I understand the basics but can see others would have. I may have a stray card or two. I’ll set these aside for you as I come across them.

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  7. Thanks for the great post! I’m going to look for one of these starter sets to play with my family: I collect baseball cards, my brother loves any and all card/board games and our kids are avid soccer card collectors (we live in Europe) so this should be good. Thanks again!

  8. Excellent write-up, can’t believe I just now saw this a year later. There are still a few dedicated players out there and a few Facebook groups and Twitter accounts on it, and even an attempt to make it playable online. There are even some who have made custom sets for the last few seasons.

    While the cards aren’t truly interchangeable by year (there was a major numbers inflation in 2002 and onward), I find a lot of similarities between the 2000 and 2001 sets, enough to where I typically use the two together in my own games.

  9. I just dug out my old cards today… going to share some of them with my buddies and start doing a “virtual league” during the COVID quarantine. I was looking up “the rules” for building a team, I think the “salary cap” 5000 points, but forgot. Anyway… I came across this post and thought I would drop a line! My brother and I used to be really into it and have a BUUUUUNCH of cards. If anyone out there is interested in learning, or perhaps joining in on the fun, just reach out!

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