Master X Master is a new MOBA that oh you've already stopped reading

It's got a Marvel vs. Capcom-style swap system and PvE, but you don't really care.

Look, I get it. You don't really care about another new MOBA, and the fact that I think it's actually pretty cool isn't enough to pull myself out of the hole I've started this article in. Honestly, I'm impressed you're even reading this right now, and kudos to those of you still here. But I understand your almost certainly lingering skepticism, and I would feel the same way if I were in your shoes.

In fact, I did feel the same way until I actually got to sit down at PAX East and play NCSoft's upcoming free-to-play MOBA, Master X Master. I wasn't expecting much, and the ludicrous name didn't inspire much confidence. But what I ended up finding was a high-quality MOBA with a unique tag-in mechanic straight out of Marvel vs. Capcom and a full co-op PvE dungeon crawling mode that looked more like Diablo than Dota.

A few years ago, so many MOBAs where coming out it was hard to do anything but eyeroll at each new announcement. And time and time again (and again, and again, and again) these games shut down as League of Legends and Dota 2 maintained their stranglehold on the genre. But developers have since moved on—class-based shooters being the new flavor of the moment as everyone chases Overwatch's tail—and new MOBA announcements are much rarer than they used to be.

In this regard, MXM is a bit of a breath of fresh air, even if that's partially because it's arguably behind the times. And while LoL and Dota 2 definitely aren't going anywhere, MXM has gone the route of offering something its competitors don't, both in the mechanics of the traditional three-lane MOBA mode and the entirely unique singleplayer PvE. I am less interested in learning the ins and outs of leveling guides and ability ranges, but I always enjoy a good dungeon crawl with friends, and that's enough to somehow get me interested in another new MOBA.

Tag teamwork

MXM seems to be taking a few notes from Marvel vs. Capcom's book, as NCsoft is adding characters from many of its other games to the roster. For example, City of Heroes's iconic Statesman is a playable Master alongside Jinsoyun from Blade & Soul, and characters from Guild Wars 2, WildStar, and Lineage 2 are also available. The majority of the cast is made up of original Masters, but I imagine this peppering of more recognizable characters will be enough to draw some players in. 

MXM's most interesting mechanical twist is how it has repurposed Marvel vs. Capcom's tag-in system. At the start of a match, every player picks a team of two Masters that they can instantly swap between with a flick of the mouse wheel, barring a roughly 15 second cooldown. In the standard 5v5, that means there are 20 characters in a single match, though only 10 in play at any given time. Your two characters don't share a health bar, so you can quickly tag-in to get a boost of life if you are about to die, but doing so means the enemy knows you won't be able to swap back anytime soon. 

Additionally, your two characters share level ups and skill upgrades, but you spend skill points on specific keys your abilities are assigned to rather than the ability itself. Since you are able to pick your abilities and their placement before a match, it becomes important to line up your two characters and make sure they'll synergize well as the match progresses. It's actually a very cool system, and the fast swapping between characters is a big part of its success. It was a lot of fun to set up buffs or turrets with one character and then swap to the other to take advantage of them, and I could already see strategies forming with baiting out an enemy's tag-in to exploit the cooldown.

PV-eh

But let's be real, unique mechanics alone aren't enough for a new MOBA to succeed. The tag-in system is very cool, but MXM is still a lane-pusher that feels like LoL or Dota at its core, albeit with more reliably shorter matches. For me, that's where the PvE mode comes in. I didn't get a chance to play the PvE hands-on, but it could easily be the gateway for a large portion of MXM's playerbase—assuming it's able to find one. 

You still take two Masters into a level—this time with up to three other players instead of four—but instead of pushing lanes, you're fighting AI enemies on your way through a dungeon-crawler style map. It reminded me a lot of Marvel Heroes and looks like a fun challenge on its own, helped by all of MXM's abilities being skillshot-based instead of targetable. The levels can all be scaled for greater difficulty and reward as well, but it isn't quite clear yet just how many levels there will be. Still, NCsoft told me it doesn't see the game as leaning primarily toward one mode or the other, so it's likely it will give a similar update treatment to both.  

The PvE mode also differs from PvP in that character level-ups are progression based as you play more instead of resetting after each match. It's more traditional RPG progression, and is completely separate from the progression within the PvP. The two modes can be played entirely independently of each other—you never have to play one to enjoy the other. That being said, playing either one will give you currency and experience for both, so exclusively playing the PvE won't leave you to starting from scratch if you want to play PvP (MXM has pretty standard account progression and hero unlocks, nearly identical to LoL) and vice versa. 

If you still don't care, I don't blame you, and NCsoft is starting out fighting an uphill battle. I thought Master X Master was a genuinely fun game doing some interesting things that I haven't seen in other MOBAs. But it's still another MOBA, and that's a hard hump to get over, even after I saw firsthand what it had to offer. But if you want to find out for yourself, NCsoft will be running a closed beta ahead of its summer release from April 6-27. You can sign up here, and I've been told that signing up will very likely mean you get access.