Epistemic Status: Alpha tester
Bottom Line: If you are willing to devote the time and attention to a deep strategic game, Artifact will reward you handsomely. I highly recommended those who like such experiences to make the time. If you are not willing to devote the time and attention, you will likely be frustrated and bounce off, and what time and attention you do have to game with is better spent elsewhere.
Artifact is an amazing game. Artifact is gorgeous, immersive and flavorful, hilarious, innovative, exciting, suspenseful, skill testing, strategically complex and rewarding. The execution is bug-free and flawless. It is the most fun I have had playing a game in a long time.
It streams well and is an excellent spectator sport for those who know the game and cards, and will be supported by an inaugural tournament with a one million dollar first prize. It is a Valve game, so you know it will get the level of support and attention it deserves in every aspect.
The economic model is the right one. Rather than addicting players to daily rewards and grinds, Artifact charges money for a game worth playing. You own your cards and will soon be able to buy and sell them. For your initial $20 you get 10 packs, each containing at least one card of the highest rarity and often two or even three. Additional packs are $2. Playing events costs only a single event ticket ($1), and break even if you win three times before your second loss, and turn a large profit if you can get four. I will say more on this later, but the model presented is extraordinarily generous, and those who are comparing it unfavorably to Magic Online should be ashamed of themselves.
The catch is that Artifact is complex. Very complex. Complex enough that I have had multiple Magic professionals try the game only to have them report back that they bounced off the game because they did not understand what was going on. Artifact makes the most of its complexity, and uses its roots in DOTA 2 to justify much of it, but the complexity is still there and complexity is bad. Your first hour is likely to be overwhelming and confusing, as lots of cool things are happening all around you but it’s impossible to fully know why or what they mean, or what is likely to happen next.
Artifact matches up two teams of five heroes each, who do battle across three distinct lanes. This mimics the structure of games like DOTA 2, where there are five heroes on each side and three lanes in which to do battle, which we will call left, center and right.
In addition to lanes and teams of five heroes that return when they die, Artifact also takes its concepts of towers, ancients, creeps, bounties and items directly from DOTA 2. Things that would seem needlessly complex or arbitrary in another context… still feel somewhat that way on occasion, but it helps a lot that they’re carrying the concepts over from another very complex game. This helped me even though I never learned how to play DOTA 2 or any similar game.
The basic jist of Artifact is that players have five powerful heroes that let you do things of their color while they are in the active lane, and that fight hard, and they also summon a variety of other things to fight. If heroes die, they come back with a one turn delay. Players start with 3 mana on turn one in each tower, which increases by one each turn, and use this to pay for stuff. After players are done doing stuff, each unit does damage to the unit opposite it. If there’s nothing there, it damages the enemy tower or ancient. Do 40 damage each to destroy two of the enemies’ three towers to win, or do 40 and then on future turns 80 damage to one of them to kill the ancient, which also is a win.
At the start of the game, each player sends one of their three starting heroes into each of the three lanes at random, and randomly is given three 2/4 (meaning two power and four health) ‘melee creeps.’ Each player starts with a tower in each lane that has 40 health.
The turn order is:
- Players are shown where new ‘creeps’ will enter the battle. By default, each turn each player gets two 2/4 creeps that are each put in a random lane.
- Players simultaneously choose which lane to deploy each newly available hero to. Your fourth hero becomes available on turn two, your fifth on turn three. Any heroes that are killed ‘return to the fountain’ and become available two turns later, and any heroes that return to the fountain without being killed become available the next turn.
- All new units are deployed to each lane. First, the game attempts to place new units in empty spaces across from enemy units. If that can’t be done, then a new pair of open spaces is created (randomly on the left or right side of the existing units) until no more such pairs are needed. If that leaves empty spots on one or both sides of the battle, those slots are filled by a straight arrow (50%), left arrow (25%) or right arrow (25%). Then all new units and all arrows are shuffled and distributed to the lane at random. Or, in English, first you fill in any empty space, then you deploy to the side, and any empty spaces randomly have arrows half the time.
- Players draw two cards and the mana capacity of all towers increases by one.
- Play proceeds to the left lane. The player with initiative can either take an action or pass. Actions include casting a spell, deploying a piece of equipment, deploying an improvement, deploying a creep card or using an activated ability of a unit or improvement. If you play an improvement, you can play it in any lane you like. Anything else must go in or impact the active lane unless it explicitly says otherwise. A new creep must first go in the empty space of your choice. If there are no empty spaces, you can choose to put it on the left or right side. If a card deploys other things rather than itself, the game will choose for you.
- If take an action rather than passing, and you had initiative, you lose it.
- This continues until both players pass.
- Each unit does damage to the unit across from it. Damage persists. If a unit runs out of health it dies. Units that are not opposed damage the enemy tower directly. Armor reduces damage taken from any source, negative armor increases it. There are also a bunch of other abilities.
- If a tower has taken 40 damage, it is destroyed and replaced by the ancient, which has 80 damage. If the ancient has taken 80, it dies. If you destroy two towers or one ancient, game is over and you win.
- Each enemy you kill gives you one gold, or if it is a hero it gives you five gold. At end of turn, you can shop to buy items, which cost 0 mana and are played on your heroes to make them better. You come with a deck of items, and can choose between buying those (in a random order each turn), buying a fully random item, and/or buying a consumable. Gold can be kept for future turns.
There are a lot more details, but that’s Artifact. There are often complex tactical questions that can play out over many turns with a lot of bluffing and uncertainty, and you must divide your resources between the lanes while anticipating how your opponent will do the same. If you invest the wrong amount, you can have more than enough to win a tower without enough to kill the ancient in time to matter, and/or find that you’re a turn behind on the tower that actually matters. Often a lot of power effectively goes to waste in a side fight unlikely to change the outcome, and one player figures this out well in advance of the other.
Initiative on most turns is a liability, as you must commit to and show what you are doing before your opponent. But on key turns, initiative is everything, because your first action kills or stuns their heroes, preventing them from doing anything. Keeping the right color hero alive in the right lane is a frequent focal point. Often games come down to who can have initiative in the key moment, and how much players can afford to give up to make sure they get it.
On the first turn, players face a random set of matchups between heroes. Cards that turn unfavorable or neutral matchups into more favorable ones (e.g. they were going to kill you and live, and now at least you both die, or before you both die and now you win) are usually the most valuable things in the first two turns. If you win those early fights, you get five gold, which you can use to buy an item that threatens to win you the next fight, and meanwhile you’re doing early damage and can cast spells while your enemy sits on the sidelines. Some decks try to do serious damage to towers right at the start, which shifts focus to that.
As the game develops, it becomes more and more about deciding which towers to fight for, and deploying power to those towers, and shifts from building up long term resources to winning fights on the spot, saving your tower or damaging theirs, or unleashing your powerful high-cost spells and not letting them cast or capitalize on their versions. Common endgame scenarios include each player winning one tower and a big fight over the third one, one player going for an ancient and trying to stall in one or both of the other two towers, and a race to take down his ancient before the enemy takes down yours. Sacrificing one tower is often a wise move, either because you can’t reasonably fight back, or because you can strand a lot of resources there, often including multiple heroes, without a practical path to killing the ancient before the game ends.
A key experience is that all the things are happening all over three boards. It is up to you to figure out which of those things are worth fighting for and spending resources to protect or attack. Due to the optionality and randomness of deployment and arrows, and not knowing your opponents’ hand, assuming the game will go a certain way has a habit of backfiring, but I also often have the bad habit of trying to win everything at once when that is not necessary.
A very important rare is Annihilation, which destroys every unit in a lane. When you play against a blue deck, it likely has this card and that forces you to play the entire game differently to avoid an over-commitment, and to not let them have an opening to use it later. Another option is At Any Cost, which does six damage to every unit in the lane.
Another important rare is Time of Triumph. When red decks reach eight mana, they can give all heroes in a lane a huge boost in effectiveness. As the hero Axe puts it, your ancients’ days are numbered.
Green decks have Emissary of the Quorum. This costs eight mana, and is a creep with high health.
A key item is Blink Dagger, which allows heroes to shift between lanes.
You choose your five heroes and the other they will enter the game. Each also adds three copies of its associated card to your deck, which accounts for 15 of your 40 cards. You also build a nine (or more) card item deck.
As a result of these and a few additional similar cards, games where players have access to rare cards feel very different than games where they have access to only common cards. Games of limited, or where players lack key rares, are about figuring out where to fight how hard, lining up key resources and accumulating board advantage. Games with higher level constructed decks force players to worry much more about over-commitment and be on the lookout for sweepers and powerful knockout blows that threaten to render those early battles irrelevant.
Ways to Play
Current options are to play constructed, phantom draft or keeper draft, and do so in social, casual or expert mode. Casual mode is like expert except with no entry fees and no prizes. I generally dislike playing on casual mode, since players won’t take it seriously when there is nothing at stake, so I have only experimented with the expert queues. A new player would presumably start out in casual for a while, to avoid hemorrhaging cash and/or getting consistently crushed while learning the game.
You can also play against the AI. The AI is not good at Artifact, and lacks strategic planning, but it is good enough to allow one to get a sense of whether a deck has been built in a reasonable fashion and get a handle on how it plays. It is also very good for players starting out.
Expert queues in constructed and phantom draft cost one event ticket ($1) to enter. You play until you get five wins or two losses. For three wins you get your ticket back, and the fourth and fifth wins each grant a booster pack ($2). If we value boosters at their retail price, we get an expected value of 0.906 at a 50% win rate, and even a little better than that puts you ahead of the game. The catch, of course, is that packs cannot be efficiently converted into event tickets, and there are transaction costs to using the Steam Marketplace, so even if packs trade at the full $2 you’re going to take a haircut. Keeper drafts require you to bring the packs and allow you to keep what you draft, and cost two event tickets rather than one. I expect the default draft mode to be phantom draft.
Artifact is a complicated structure as it is, so it is understandable that players are limited to a few proven play modes and a single constructed format. Hopefully in the long term this will expand as we get more players, better collections and more sets.
In the future, we have been promised a $1 million dollar first prize tournament, doubtless with more to follow if the game does well. Players who are good enough to consider competing for that should not be distracted by small expenses or grinding opportunities, and focus on improving their play as rapidly as possible.
Graphics, Sound and User Interface
This is a beautiful and supremely well-polished game. I have not yet encountered a bug or glitch of any kind in the beta, and there were almost none even in the alpha. Game play is as smooth as can be and everything just works. Given the complexity of the underlying game, it does a great job showing you what is happening and why.
While the card art is only about on par with other games, the rest of the interface is full of great touches. Each player gets a highly emotive imp that illustrates what is going on, which is mostly great fun, even if it is kind of annoying when it is emphatically pointing out that your tower is about to die (since I assure you I am already aware of that). There is a ton of information on the screen, or on other screens one can scroll to, and it is all easy to navigate and view once you are used to it. The only thing I dislike in this area is that it is currently a bit annoying to see what the associated hero cards are for the enemy heroes, but that will doubtless be fixed soon.
Rather than the quick repetitive one liners of Hearthstone and Eternal, the heroes and many of the crepes have rich personalities and lots to say. There are many lines that depend on the interaction of multiple specific cards, or cards getting to do a particular thing. It actively makes me want to play with a variety of cards and heroes, and unlike every other card game, I never play with the sound off.
Players have come to expect a free to play experience from many of their games. Not only do they expect to not pay, they expect to be paid for playing, in the sense of having a better and more expensive collection after playing than they did before playing.
This is a toxic, no good, very bad thing. I shared some of my thoughts in my write-ups of Eternal. I fully echo and endorse what Richard Garfield said in A Game Player’s Manifesto. Instead of playing games, players are trapped in Skinner boxes, or playing in a way that is effectively working for a tiny effective wage. Huge swaths of games are never seen and experienced, while the most efficient are used over and over, and I believe the economic model of free to play and card creation is to blame.
Artifact returns us to the model of buying packs and then buying, selling and trading cards to get what we want. The game costs $20, packs cost $2, entering expert-level events costs $1. Playing casually is free once you’ve paid the $20, including casual drafting.
So if all you want to do is draft, you can do so endlessly for free, forever, and never have to worry about building a collection.
If you want to build a collection, several things work in your favor that are easy to not fully appreciate.
Packs always contain at least one rare card, but often contain two or even three. This adds up to a substantial discount over time.
Much more importantly, Artifact doesn’t have a fourth rarity. There are no ‘Legendary’ or ‘Mythic’ cards, at all. If you are getting your cards from packs, this cuts the number of packs you need to get a full collection by a factor of three or more. If you are buying singles to get what you need, it cuts the cost of the best cards by that amount or more. We don’t know what the price of top cards is going to be, but there isn’t that much room before opening packs becomes a better solution, and traders start busting open packs to find cards to sell.
Another bonus is that you can liquidate any 20 cards to get an event ticket. Packs contain 12 cards, so if you liquidate the bulk of your surplus commons, you can get back a ticket about once every three packs, cutting the cost by a full sixth. This also should help hold up the market value of commons, preventing the market from becoming flooded.
The market itself is not yet operational, as the game remains in beta. I worry that the lack of a working market is giving players the wrong idea of the game’s economics, but this will be remedied soon. If the market runs well and Valve takes only a reasonable cut, it will considerably reduce the cost of getting the cards you need and allow the bulk of the value to be reclaimed from packs.
Magic Online has long had the issue that packs trade for well below the cost to buy packs from the store. Either a lot of players who don’t know any better must be buying packs from the store anyway, tournaments must be giving out packs faster than the players need cards, or some combination of the two, for this to happen. Artifact also has a tournament system that eats event tickets and spits out packs, which in turn only spit out a fraction of their value in event tickets. So there is definitely at least some risk of there being a flood of packs causing them to drop below store value.
If that does happen, packs get cheaper and so do singles, making the game cheaper to buy, but making event payouts worse. Magic Online charged a much higher amount of money to enter events, with drafts usually at least $8 or so and constructed events at least $5, and constructed leagues now over $10 for five matches, so increasing the rake was a big deal there. At $1 for an average of about four games, even a large rake means that the hourly cost remains low, with casual being backed by Elo-style matchmaking. That makes me far less concerned about the drop in value, provided the marketplace fees remain reasonable. It would still need to be fixed, of course, if it became a large enough effect, but that is also easy enough – just replace the second pack prize with event tickets.
Add all these effects together, and the effective cost of play for Artifact ends up being on the extreme low end of collectible card game costs that aren’t free to play. Free casual phantom drafts are an extreme contrast with Magic Online, as is the far less greedy pack structure.
The catch is that those free to play Skinner boxes are powerful stuff. When one plays Arena, Eternal or Hearthstone one feels like one is making money, being paid to play. You’re not. You can’t sell the cards, so you’re being given a discount on buying the game, and a pathetic hourly rate of discount at that even when you are maximizing your grind. But that is not how it feels.
Artifact is a unique and amazing game, with tons of interesting decisions and exciting games and super rich in flavor, but it asks a lot of its players. One must pay attention and be comfortable with a lot of complexity. When players of different skill levels play, if the decks are similar in power level, the sufficiently superior player will win almost all the time.
The experience is not for everyone. You need to know what experience you are aiming for. Are you here to be competitive and try out for the million bucks against the likes of prohibitive early favorite Stanislav Cifka? Are you here to do a bunch of fun drafts? Are you here for the stories, flavor and lore? All are valid choices.
I would have loved to be an Artifact streamer and competitor, but between my family and various job opportunities, I do not have the time to treat that with the seriousness it deserves, and I can’t pretend that at my age I haven’t lost a step. I likely will stream from time to time when I have the chance, and I will of course throw my hat in the ring when the time comes, but I am under no illusions that I am taking home the million dollars.
Two choices that are not available are the ability to profitably grind out a dollar or two an hour in game assets, or to fully understand the game and/or do well without giving the game the attention it deserves. I encourage players to try out the game, but do so with your eyes open.
At a minimum, if you have the gumption to get through the first hour or two of learning, the basic $20 product, with its free casual phantom drafts, is an amazing bargain. I am a big fan of Artifact.