Artifact feels like Valve’s solution to post-Hearthstone card games

artifact-header

Collectible card games have been around for decades, but they’ve really been running hot ever since Blizzard unleashed Hearthstone four years ago. Since then, we’ve seen Shadowverse, Gwent, The Elder Scrolls: Legends, Duelyst, Faeria – there are a lot of these things, if you haven’t heard. They all put their own spin on rectangles with numbers on ’em, but they also universally take cues from Hearthstone and, just as often, each other, and as a result they regularly run into similar problems, the biggest two being how to balance a competitive system and how to price card packs fairly.

Artifact, Valve’s upcoming Dota-inspired card game, is definitely using some pages from the same books, but it’s also doing enough things differently that it has the potential to solve a lot of those problems.

For starters, it’s not free. We don’t know how much it will cost just yet, but Artifact will have an upfront cost when it releases later this year. Which is going to put some people off, but quite frankly, I expect Artifact to put some people off. I recently had the chance to play it myself, and while I liked its mix of MOBA rules and card game systems, it’s a niche and complex game that won’t appeal to everyone. I get the feeling Valve is going for a dedicated audience rather than the biggest one possible, so opting for a premium price over a freemium model makes sense.

artifact-preview-8

“We’ve experimented a lot with different types of free-to-play games,” Artifact programmer Jeep Barnett said, “and it really depends on what we’re trying to do with that game. With Dota it made sense because the original was free and players expected it. In this case, we find that having an upfront cost is going to better for the game long-term.”

Programmer Bruno Carlucci added that “having an upfront cost gives you a set of things to start with, which then gives you the tools to go and find the things you want,” referring to Artifact’s Steam Market integration. You can buy and sell Artifact cards via a built-in storefront, which is another big departure from modern collectible card games where you build up your own static collection. An open card market could provide a preferable workaround to the RNG of opening card packs, ideally making filling the gaps in your deck or collection easier and cheaper.

“People will be able to build decks for a couple bucks, very easily,” Carlucci said. “And you also retain the value of your deck, so if you spend some money and then you’re like ‘I’m done with this deck,’ you don’t lose that investment. You can sell those cards and buy another deck instead.”

artifact-preview-4

My hope is that being able to trade cards in Artifact, coupled with the cards you start with, will help alleviate the grind that free-to-play card games inevitably come back to. Hearthstone is a free game, sure, but I’ve spent over $100 on it because buying card packs felt necessary to stay competitive. Shadowverse showers you in free packs whenever a new expansion is released, but its crafting system is so stingy that I still feel compelled to spend money. If Artifact can strike a balance where I can quickly, comfortably build a variety of decks using only the cards I get for buying in and whatever I earn just by playing, I’ll gladly pay up front. At least then I know exactly what my money will get me and how much I’ll have to spend.

The pace and price of Artifact’s card economy remains to be seen, but the infrastructure Valve has laid out is promising. The studio also has big plans for improving on the ranked ladder system seen in many card games.

“We don’t want to do a ladder,” Barnett said. “We’re experimenting with different systems that are more tournament-oriented rather than ladder-oriented. The idea is that if you want a competitive experience, you get a more self-enclosed experience. A good inspiration we have is that Dota has these Battle Cups. Every Saturday you get to play in a single elimination tournament, and if you win you’re done. We feel that those experiences are better for people who actually want to try something out, it allows them to explore something. They know how many matches they have to play and win, which is much better than just playing this infinite grind that doesn’t really get you anywhere.”

artifact-preview-3

“We’re experimenting with a lot of things right now, we’ll probably have a better idea later,” Carlucci said. “One of the things about ladders that we’ve noticed is that they tend to optimize for, rather than the most fun deck or the best deck, the deck that can win 51 percent of the time as fast as possible. It not only affects the experience of other users who feel like they’re playing against a deck over and over, it also makes people play with decks they might not want to play with just because it’s the most optimal thing.”

Likewise, Valve wants to diversify Artifact’s competitive experience by offering alternative game modes. “We want to do limited (a mode where you draft a deck from random cards),” Barnett said. “We’re still working on the design of it so it’s hard to promise something very specific. We’ve been testing those internally and they’re really, really fun.”

“That’s one of the things Richard Garfield and Skaff Elias are really excited about, because of course they have this sea of experience from working on Magic: The Gathering,” Carlucci said. “But keep in mind this is a digital card game, so we can do a lot of things we couldn’t do within the limitations of a physical card game.”

artifact-preview-2

“Cards will rotate. That’s a good thing in general, [because] it avoids things like power creep,” Barnett said. Power creep is when new cards replace old ones because they’re just objectively better versions, and if left unchecked, it makes new expansions less and less exciting. “It also makes it more accessible for people that want to jump in a couple years down the line. They don’t have a backlog of cards.”

“This is years down the line, but maybe doing classic formats or formats with certain blocks, maybe those are randomly chosen, maybe we pick specific things that we think are interesting,” Carlucci added.

“One of the most important things, and we learned this from our other games as well, is that we let the community figure those things out,” Barnett said. “Rather than deciding ‘this is how you’re gonna play,’ we’d rather give the community the tools for them to be able to make those formats. So tomorrow, you wanna run a tournament and you say ‘I only want cards that start with the letter ‘C.’ You can build that and you have the tools to make sure that the people playing that tournament follow those rules. The limit is not what we decide, but rather the imagination of the community.”

artifact-preview-7

Barnett’s idea of creating a small tournament where you can only play ‘C’ cards would be a perfect fit for playing Magic with friends on a kitchen table. In a similar vein, Artifact’s three-lane board helps recreate the tiebreakers and rematches that you get in physical card games.

“When you match with someone in the real world, it’s like ‘I win, wanna play another game?’ And then we do,” Barnett said. “It gives you a sense of who’s better overall, not just who’s better because of what happened to happen in that one game. Online, it’s really hard to get a rematch. You just say ‘I played you and lost, so I’ll play somebody else now.’ Having the three lanes is almost like a best-two-out-of-three battle. We get a sense of winning or losing on different lanes within the space of a single game without having to worry about rematching.”

I experienced this best-of-three effect in my second game of Artifact, where I wound up playing totally separate strategies in all three lanes. I saw more of my deck and my opponent’s deck as a result, and we squared off in different and interesting ways, which made my victory more satisfying and feel more definitive. And Artifact not only creates holistic games, it does it quickly: the turn timer is about 45 seconds, and games usually last around 12 minutes according to Valve’s internal testing.

artifact-preview-1

Playing in three lanes at once also makes matchups less repetitive, which has become an especially thorny problem in Hearthstone over the past few months thanks to Warlock and Rogue, whose dominance has totally polarized the Standard meta. Artifact is still a card game so all decks are going to perform better against some decks than others, but even in your worst matchup, you get multiple chances to turn it around. And when you do hit bad matchups, you’ll have more ways to respond thanks to your item deck, a bundle of neutral cards that’s paired with your main deck. As Carlucci puts it, your item deck is basically your side deck, a collection of hand-picked tools to advance your strategy or defend against strategies you’re weak against. Card games are at their best when they give players effective ways to respond to popular strategies, and Artifact’s item decks do just that, which gives it a unique and powerful advantage in building and balancing an enjoyable meta.

If I had to narrow it down to one thing, I’d say Artifact’s biggest strength is that it takes lessons from trading card games like Magic as much as it does collectible card games like Hearthstone. I reckon Elias and Garfield’s involvement has something to do with that. In fact, as Barnett told me, Artifact originally got started because Elias, Garfield and some folks from Valve “wanted to work on a cool electronic card game.” Artifact is still several months away, and I still have plenty of questions about how its ambitious ideas will play out, but it’s encouraging to see Valve not only stand on the shoulders of giants but also ask questions themselves. And after four years of fun but frequently frustrating card games, I think they’re asking the right ones.

Artifact is due for release later this year.

39 Comments

  1. kalirion says:

    I don’t get it. If starting to play is not free AND you still have to pay for cards, do you just get a starter deck for the upfront game cost? And if “Cards will rotate” does that meant that you will no longer be able to play with that starter deck months or a year or two down the line?

    • spindaden says:

      My guess is, like HS, you’ll get some set cards upfront with your purchase. Plus a bunch of card packs that give you a random selection of other cards, you can then earn more basic cards and random card packs through play, and when you want specific cards you can sell your spares and buy the ones you want. The market replaces the enchanting and disenchanting mechanics rather than the other bits. It all sounds fine to me as a casual f2p hs player, but I’ll probably never buy it because it sounds too hardcore and I barely have time for HS anyway.

    • Smarag says:

      Yes you do.

  2. mitrovarr says:

    I dunno why people put up with games like this. Card packs you have to buy are basically lootbox mechanics and pay-to-win all wrapped up together. Combine that with the totally artificial scarcity of a digital environment and the fact the creators are cheeky enough to charge an entry fee on top of that… it’s a game for suckers. I’m sorry, but it is. CCGs always have been, but moving them online just makes it more blatant.

    • DatonKallandor says:

      They literally are loot boxes yes. Luckily governments are starting to wake up and hopefully there’ll be some cracking down on this shit.

    • ChairmanYang says:

      Agreed. I’m willing to deal with an expansion model (ie. You pay $X and get a known set of cards, similar to living card games in the physical card game space) but right now, no electronic games use it, and all of them are fundamentally flawed as a result.

      • Shinard says:

        Hearthstone used to have that, with the adventures. I could pay £15 to get the entire set of cards, play some fun PvE, make two or three fun and functional decks and stay competitive til the next adventure dropped. Now… well, I can play PvE for free. But I’d have to pay £40 to get a relatively small part of the overall set, to make one or two meta decks to stay competitive for half the time.

        Blizzard cutting adventures was a big reason for dropping Hearthstone. I’m not paying 4 times what I was to stay competitive. I’d already spent far too much, so it just wasn’t worth it.

    • Kyle700 says:

      this isnt a loot box. you can resell the item. that’s one of the hallmarks of Valve games, and they are really better off for it.

      • DatonKallandor says:

        The fact that you can resell is literally what makes it gambling. That’s how casinos work. You have an in-house currency that’s not “real” money, which you then exchange for real money. That’s no different than exchanging whatever cards you get out of the loot box for real money on the steam trading house.

        That’s what makes it even worse than non-resellable lootboxes. Hell the fact that many games lootboxes are non-tradeable content is what kept Belgium from ruling on it’s legality so long (because anything that had was trade and resellable already fell under existing gambling laws and was easy to define)

        • Premium User Badge

          Malarious says:

          There’s some fraction of adults who are incapable of regulating their money-spending habits. They’ll waste thousands of dollars, be it on Dota cosmetics or lootboxes. And in doing so, they subsidize that entertainment for the rest of us. Individual Kickstarter backers pledge thousands of dollars to projects and get rewards that are not even remotely close to being worth what they’ve spent, yet I see no one criticize the ludicrously expensive high-end Kickstarter tiers.

          I’m of the belief the government shouldn’t dictate what you do with your money. If you have a serious gambling addiction and are spending money you don’t have, then you need help — but most people don’t, and you should never punish the majority for the failings of a minority.

          • mitrovarr says:

            Blaming people with gambling addictions for falling victim to systems designed from the ground up by experts to make them fall victim hardly seems fair. I don’t really see much difference between such an organization ‘taking advantage’ of someone’s failings in this manner and a mugger ‘taking advantage’ of your failure to learn basic self defense or carry a weapon.

            Anyways, even if you like lootbox gambling, you should still want to see it regulated as gambling. In places with gambling is legal, regulation is good for people who enjoy it – it’s the only thing keeping the house from rampantly lying and cheating.

          • Nolenthar says:

            As per your logic, cocaine manufacture and selling shall be legal, totally unrestrained by governments and we will all be better for it. I mean, why shouldn’t I be able to party with friends because of a few people who can’t control themselves and end up ruining their lives/dying in ditches ?

    • Evan_ says:

      We do it for the games. CCGs are fun, and if you are in for that particular game format, there is no substitute. That’s not changed by the fact that no matter how much they water down the Magic The Gathering business model, it’ll be still egregious, especially by today’s standards.

      I must admit, the only ccg I played for a notable amount of time was trough a tool of questionable legality, and everyone had all the cards. It was much better that way.

  3. Thankmar says:

    Meant as an answer to kalirion: I think its suspicious that this is not entirely clear. And if that storefront is an player-driven auction house and not fixed prices, thats gonna be bad. Also, tournaments will take much more time and dedication. HS’ big thing is that you can do both – a quick play on the commute and srs ladder grind. Dunno if the “smaller but dedicated community” thing will work out. Wouldn’t that be Magic arena already?

  4. woodsey says:

    “I’ve spent over $100 on it because buying card packs felt necessary to stay competitive.”

    It concerns me how often I see comments like this and yet these AREN’T the mythical whales we hear so much about.

    Knowingly spending double the amount of money you would on a full-priced game because of gross design is insane, yet now completely normal.

    • DatonKallandor says:

      Valve likes to pretend there’s no cheaper more fair alternative to the collectible card game and for some reason everyone reporting on it just eats it up and reports that as fact, when it’s simply not true.

      In a proper living model 100 bucks wouldn’t get you a single semi-okay deck and a few dozen copies of cards you already have – it’d get you ALL the cards for more than a years worth of expansions. And that’s with physical card where there’s a manufacturing cost.

      • woodsey says:

        The $100 quote was about Hearthstone.

      • Vandelay says:

        This isn’t exactly true. For an LCG, the base sets will normally set you back about £30. These do not come with enough duplicate cards for a full set, with Fantasy Flight Beng particularly annoying in having different quantities of different cards. Often (such as with the Game of Thrones 2nd Edition and Legends of the Five Rings) the quantity of cards in the base aren’t even enough to build a single full deck, let alone for two players. Instead, a single core set, basically enables you to play a demo game.

        Most of these games allow for 3 copies of cards in a deck, so you are looking at buying 3 core sets, already bringing you up to £90. Expansions are normally released every couple of months at £15, so you aren’t getting a full year’s worth of cards for £/$100.

        That isn’t to say I don’t think the LCG model is infinitely fairer than the model adopted by electronic card games. They also seem to lend themselves to much better balance in the games. Still, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that one is significantly cheaper than the other.

        • goodpoints says:

          FFG’s refusal to put full playsets in their core sets is truly such bullshit and probably the worst part about the LCG model. It also contradicts the whole “no rarity” thing. There are people that buy core sets to sell the cards with incomplete sets though. When I was starting out with ANR, I found someone selling their duplicates from 3 core sets as a lot on ebay, then I bought singlets of the 1-ofs to complete my set. So I was able to get full sets of all the core cards for around the price of buying 2 core sets.

    • ActionFlash says:

      Well it depends on the time period involved. I’ve probably spent US$200 on Hearthstone, but that’s over a period of 3 years of playing it nearly every day. Personally I don’t think that’s a bad money/time ratio.

      As I also now only play Standard rules, I get enough Gold and Dust from rotations to keep getting the new cards without paying any more cash.

      I do wonder how new players get involved though, it would be a lot of cash upfront to catch up or months worth of grinding.

    • goodpoints says:

      I’d say spending $100 on HS puts them in at least Beluga range. Also, if you spend money on packs instead of Arena runs, you’re either a sucker or just bad.

  5. Moorkh says:

    And I STILL don’t get it why anyone would want to play OR create a card game on a computer.
    Playing cards, design-wise just seem like such a crutch, which makes sense in the context of a haptic, analogue game. But surely there must be a way to use a more direct implementation of what the cards are supposed to represent using the possibilities a modern computer affords!

    • ChairmanYang says:

      Cards are actually a great design paradigm. They’re modular, easily-readable bits of special rules that can interact with each other in clearly-defined ways. I’m not sure there’s an electronic-only paradigm that works any better.

    • Nelyeth says:

      You say that, but I don’t see you offering an alternative. Say you want to create a turn-based strategy game in which players summon creatures and play spell to kill each other.

      These creatures and spells have distinctive features, which need to be described somewhere so that both you and your opponent know what’s happening. So you need to make it so that hovering over the creature gives info about it, since that’s clearly the most intuitive way to go about it. So you need something to display those characteristics.

      You also need a battlefield to put those creatures, if you want them to fight each other and get hit by nasty magic. Okay, we’ve got grids, we’ve got lanes, or we’ve got “mono-block” fields, where everything is in the same area. So you need a design to fit those too.

      It’s easy to dismiss cards, since they’ve been around for millenia, but they just perfectly fit the bill for this kind of game. Cards make for intuitive games, and I can’t think of any other design that’d replace them. But if you think you’ve got something, go ahead, I’ll gladly be proven wrong.

    • Thomas Foolery says:

      Duelyst largely does away with the concept of “cards” in terms of its presentation, but the idea of building a “deck” of abilities from which you draw a random assortment each game is a concept that’s simple to grasp and has a broad appeal. It combines a number of elements of play that lots of people like, such as collecting, constructing, and replayability through controlled randomness.

  6. DatonKallandor says:

    Why the hell are journalists and Valve acting like the CCG format’s problems haven’t been solved? Valve isn’t doing anything bold or clever by monetizing the model MORE. They’re being greedy bastards by not going for the actual already existing solution of making it an LCG.

    And for the site that went on a witch hunt over Battlefront 2’s loot boxes, you sure love to push this game which is literally based entirely around loot boxes. Hypocrites.

    • Nelyeth says:

      “And for the site that went on a witch hunt over Battlefront 2’s loot boxes”…

      Did we read the same articles about Battlefield 2? When RPS published those, they were heavily criticized for being too mild, if anything. There’s no other “witch hunt” than the one you just pulled out of your arse.

      Even though they do overall condemn it, RPS has always been on the “tolerant” side of the lootbox controversy. You can disagree with that, but don’t try and spin the tale because your axe needs grinding, please.

    • Abacus says:

      It is an oversimplication to say that Living Card Games are completely consumer friendly. You are paying money for maybea handful of cards that you might actually use.

      You might chalk it up as ‘greedy’ but giving consumers choice in how they acquire cards is anything but greedy. Allowing players to trade cards with no monetary transaction taking place doesn’t seem so bad.

      This and TF2 and Dota 2 don’t really fit the ‘lootbox’ controversy in my opinion, due to the Steam Market basically allowing you to directly obtain items that you want on your own terms and not through a random slot machine.

      • mitrovarr says:

        I’d say they make it much, much worse by assigning things dollar values. You could literally work out what lootboxes cost and how much they pay out on average.

      • malkav11 says:

        I’m not going to pretend that LCGs are perfectly consumer friendly – as you say, there may be things in a given set of cards you wouldn’t buy if they were sold separately, and they may charge more for the set than you are personally interested in paying. But that’s true of almost any product, and there are logistical reasons bundling makes sense for both parties. And fundamentally, you have the power to make the call as to whether a given set is worth it for you because you know exactly what you’re getting for exactly what price. That’s not true in a CCG/TCG model, even with a player aftermarket.

        Also, in the physical LCG space, you do have a couple of options to defray costs – e.g. I picked up all of Warhammer Invasion after it was discontinued for something like $150 because FFG discounted the complete run by 75% to get stock out of their warehouse. That wasn’t super replicable, but generally you can get some sort of discount at least. And if you know you’re only going to use say, X faction’s cards (seems boring to me but what do I know), you could always split with other friends who play other factions. Not necessarily things that will carry over if LCGs ever go digital, but we can hope.

      • DatonKallandor says:

        “It is an oversimplication to say that Living Card Games are completely consumer friendly. You are paying money for maybea handful of cards that you might actually use.”

        In an LCG you are paying a fraction of the price of what good cards cost in a TCG, to get ALL the cards. Look up what an absolute top percentile Destiny deck costs – there’s individual cards in there that are 50+ bucks and it’s no different for other CCGs. For that money you get multiple months worth of packs containing everything, with no gambling or rarity involved in an LCG format.

      • Baines says:

        If Valve implements the ability to buy random-content card packs with real money, Steam Marketplace support makes matters *worse* from a legal perspective.

        (Not that Valve probably much cares, unless/until they face actual legal charges.)

  7. Nelyeth says:

    Curse my lizard brain screaming “I love opening packs and ultra-rare cards make me feel complete!”. I know the CCG model is flawed, I know it’s made to attract all kinds of financially irresponsible aquatic mammals, but damn if this article didn’t make me want to play Artifact.

    I want to give it a pass because it labels itself as a TCG, but there’s no way it’s going to be possible to make competitive decks without paying the Freemium God its tithe, which is a shame, doubly so with the up-front price.

  8. Moraven says:

    “People will be able to build decks for a couple bucks, very easily,” Carlucci said. “And you also retain the value of your deck, so if you spend some money and then you’re like ‘I’m done with this deck,’ you don’t lose that investment. You can sell those cards and buy another deck instead.”

    After Valve gets their transaction cut. Basically profiting off the same item be resold many times over.

    I imagine Blizzard would like to implement some trading/market system, but there comes to much baggage with bots and scams. And their D3 solution (no trading, but you can sell on the market) did not turn out well (more so due to it affecting the game itemization). Dust system is a god compromise and with more recent changes, like a free legendary at expansion and another within your first 10 packs, you can make competitive decks without needing to chip in much.

    And your deck does not retain its full value if you are paying the fee everytime.

  9. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Pay to pay? No thanks. What I do find interesting is the ‘make your own tournament’ idea. I wish more developers of strategic games implemented something akin to it.

  10. Telparion says:

    Basically, illustrations are worse than competition, attribute values look ugly, layout looks ugly or made by young interns, pay2win mechanism is absolute, and there is an entry fee so less twitch streams, less community. The great deck you make is only compared to whales around you.

    I say it’s a wild pack of bad design decisions and it will become free to play in 2 years in an upgraded format.

Comment on this story

HTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>