Computer card games, or CCGs, are all the rage right now. Gwent and Heartstone top the list as most popular, and recently Thronebreaker took it’s shot at glory. Now Valve is entering the ring with Artifact, which is being sold and played exclusively through the Steam platform, which Valve of course also owns.
Having played almost every CCG in recent years, and having spent time as a Magic: The Gathering tournament player in the physical world for a spell, I have seen just about all the tricks that CCGs can offer. So it was quite a surprise that Artifact, well, surprised me.
The game was designed by Richard Garfield, who is well known for creating card games. Teaming up with Valve was a great move, because it gave Garfield access to, of all things, the DOTA setting. Now, you all probably know that DOTA and DOTA 2 are real-time, combat games where teams of players fight over various lanes and attempt to conquer an opponent’s base. It’s pretty exciting, and even just watching people play on TV can be fun. Artifact takes that level of excitement and attempts to bring it to card games. It’s a cool concept, and really does increase the excitement of matches.
The Artifact battlefield is segmented into three sections and you have to battle over all three of those boards using your limited card and mana resources. This pays obvious homage to real-time games like DOTA where you have to battle over and lock down lanes. Put too much emphasis on one lane and you risk falling to an assault in one of the other two.
The win condition is similar as well. To claim victory in a game requires that you either crack two towers (which take damage from your cards if not blocked by your opponent) or that you crack one tower and then kill an exposed entity hiding behind it. Towers have 40 hit points each, and the entity has 80. So its either crack two 40 hit point towers from different lanes, or crack one 40 hit point tower and then the 80 hit point entity that lives there. You must do more damage on a single lane victory (the tower and the entity) but can concentrate your firepower. Normally I had more luck cracking two towers in different lanes.
The gameplay is well-balanced. Cards are made of one of four elements and are mostly divided up into heroes, creepers (basically minions), spells and enhancements. Heroes are the key to everything else. For example, if you have a red hero in play in one lane, then you can summon creatures with the red subtype to aid you there, and cast red spells. If your hero dies, all of the creatures they summoned stay in place, but you can’t summon any more until you get another red hero in place there. Multiple colored heroes can fight in the same lanes, which makes the offence and defense there very powerful, but probably means you are neglecting defenses elsewhere. If you have no heroes in a lane, you can’t play any colored cards, which is most all of them.
Heroes don’t really die when killed. They go back to a place called the fountain for a turn and then can be redeployed. In this way, the game stays fluid, with players able to move heroes around and tap into different abilities as needed and as battlefield conditions change. It also makes building a deck extremely powerful, and quite satisfying, for someone like me who really puts a lot of thought into deck crafting. For example, you might build an army with strong heroes, or one that can summon masses of creatures, or one that is powerful with spell casting, generating gold, assassinating powerful enemy cards or even locking an opponent in place. The choices are nearly endless, and that’s pretty darn cool.
There are also random elements to keep the game interesting, and to break up stalemates between really good players. For example, each time you kill an enemy hero or creature, you earn some gold coins. These coins can be used to buy enhancements or spells from the market each round, but its random what comes up. Pathways of attack are also somewhat random, so your big powerful creature can be randomly redirected to the left or right on any given round. Certain abilities and spells can straighten out those paths, but its just another element to keep you on your toes.
Graphically, the game looks amazing. Yes, the cards are masterpieces as you would expect, but there are a lot of nice touches like the two little opposing gremlins who sit on opposite sides of the battlefield (one roots for you and one for your opponent) and taunt one another. Over the Christmas holidays they each wore little Santa hats which was a cute touch. It just adds a nice graphical element to an already good-looking game.
A lot has been said about the monetization of Artifact, but I found everything to be pretty reasonable, so long as you know what your are getting into going into it. The base game costs $20, and for that you get five booster packs of 20 cards each, so 120 cards to start. Those packs are guaranteed to have rare cars too, so you get a nice starting army for the price. I ended up with a red card for a hero named Axe, who is one of the most valuable in the game. Had I sold him (he was going for about $20) I could have recouped my costs right there. Beyond your starter army you can buy individual cards on the open market. Most sell for $1 or less, or even a few cents. So it wont cost you much to fill out an army of the type that you want to mostly use. Full disclosure, Valve takes 15 percent of all card sales. This does not increase the price, but will decrease your profit if you are selling cards.
You can also earn more cards by playing, and winning, in so-called expert tournaments. You have to buy your way into those tournaments, though you do get five free tickets with the base game. Tickets are about $1 a piece, sold in packs of five, if you need more. However, you may not need to buy more ever, because with enough tournament wins, you get your ticket right back. How that works is that once you win three matches in a tournament, you earn you ticket back. Four wins gets you the ticket and a new pack of cards, and five wins gets you the ticket and two packs of cards. Assuming you practice battling with bots (which is free) or even casual play with friends or just other people not in a tournament, then you can get good before you pay to enter an expert match. That way, you may not ever need to buy more tickets.
So yes, you will likely need to pay more than the base $20 price for the game, but I can’t see someone who becomes a reasonably good player having to pay more than about $50 or so to obtain most every card in the game, perhaps only buying the specific heroes or buffs they really want on the open market. And don’t forget, if you win packs in tournaments and the cards don’t fit into your strategy or are duplicates you don’t need, then you can sell them yourself and use that money to buy what you do need or want.
Artifact really does break the mold, combining the excitement of real-time DOTA-style battling with the cerebral skills of deck-building and deep strategy, fighting a war on three fronts with limited resources. It’s almost assured that Artifact will become a force in eSports gaming, and one that anyone with good grasp of strategic prowess can master.