At first glance, Valve’s new collectible card game “Artifact” looks like little more than a “Hearthstone” knock-off, which is ironic seeing as the game is set in the universe of “Dota 2,”(itself a mod of another of Blizzard’s titles: “Warcraft III”). And yet, like “Dota,” “Artifact” does far more than simply copy the model provided by its inspirational ancestor. Valve’s game brings new mechanics and an exceptional amount of depth to bear on what was already an immensely popular concept, transforming a quick and casual game format into what might just become a bonafide strategy game phenomenon.
“Artifact” takes the traditional tri-lane geography employed by most multiplayer online battlegrounds and converts it into a playing field consisting of three regions that players must manage at once. On each battleground, players wage war on their opponent’s tower, a defensive structure created to protect a magical creature called an Ancient. To win the game, players must either destroy two of their opponent’s towers or knock down one tower and kill the powerful Ancient hidden inside. Each player has a deck of cards containing Heroes, warriors with special abilities that remain on the battlefield round after round, and single-use Spells that can turn the course of battle in an instant. The game hinges on deciding where best to allocate each of these resources. Should you shore up your defenses in a lane that is already under siege? Or abandon it in hopes of crushing your opponent in one where you have a commanding lead? Further complicating matters, players can also construct Improvements that offer enduring advantages on one part of the playing field. All the while, Creeps (disposable cannon fodder who are much weaker than Heroes) will chip away at your towers if left unchecked. Each of these resources cost Mana, which your Ancients generate automatically for you every turn in steadily increasing amounts, forcing players to think about balancing the ratio of cheap cards to costly ones when constructing their decks.
Players take turns deploying heroes, casting spells, and building Improvements from left to right across all three fields of battle and then take a short rest between rounds. During the respite, they can spend gold earned for killing creeps and rival Heroes to purchase Items that will boost their heroes’ stats. This is also the time when additional creeps will randomly spawn across your lanes and Heroes who have previously been killed off will revive to fight again. Finally, the adorable little card imps who flit about the playing field will deliver fresh cards to your hand and the whole thing will begin all over again.
Yet another layer of complexity is added via the color system, which bears a great resemblance to “Magic: The Gathering.” This is unsurprising considering that Richard Garfield, the creator of the OG CCG, worked with Value on “Artifact.” Heroes and spells come in one of four colors, each of which has its own tactical strengths and weaknesses. However, cards can only be played in lanes where there is an active hero of the same color. This makes for an interesting wrinkle as players must debate whether to save up their most powerful cards and risk losing their heroes before they get a chance to play them.
“Artifact” is an immensely deep game with tons of replay value, but one question still looms large over the entire enterprise: how much will it all cost? Collectible card games have long been seen as money pits and the prospect of paying Valve $20 for what might essentially be the privilege of paying them even more money to build a digital card collection understandably has some fans feeling suspicious. After all, they have become accustomed to CCGs being free-to-play, complete with virtual currencies that can be obtained incrementally and used by those who refuse to shell out real money for digital goods, making it possible (if extremely time-consuming) to play them completely for free, provided one has the patience to grind them out.
“Artifact” employs a different philosophy. The $20 that they ask for upfront gets you access to two beginner starter decks and 10 randomized packs of 12 cards each, with one guaranteed rare card per pack. This is hardly enough to create a competitive preconstructed deck, so players who want to build a powerful arsenal will be forced to either purchase additional card packs for $1.99 or pick them up piecemeal on the Steam Marketplace, where the most expensive individual card currently costs more than the game itself does. However, your entry fee also entitles you to free access to “Artifact’s” draft game mode, where you pop open five of those random packs, select cards you want to use to build a deck on the fly, and then compete against other drafters in a miniature tournament. This is by far the most fun play mode; it rewards experimentation and avoids the stagnation that often sets in when one or two decks come to dominate the competitive meta. However, you won’t be allowed to keep the cards you select for your personal collection.
In other words, while there is easily enough content available in the base version of the game to make it worth the initial investment, some might ultimately decide that the cost of building a competitive constructed deck is too steep or find the mechanism of monetization off-putting. It will be interesting to see how the in-game economy evolves in the coming months and whether it will shift the way players make this fundamental calculation. In the meantime, CCG fans looking to sink their teeth into some juicy tactical complexity should consider giving “Artifact” a try.