Card gamers love a good synergy. When Valve teamed up to make a card game with Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering, it had all the markings of one of Valve’s celebrated collaborations. The formula of bringing in external designers to Valve-ify an idea has brought us Portal, Team Fortress 2, and DOTA 2. Now it’s brought us Artifact.
You would’ve been brave to predict the blunder it became.
Artifact is a modern Frankenstein of a card game that takes the ridiculous randomness of Hearthstone, the multiple lanes of Legends, and the turn-based approach of Gwent, the theme and characters of DOTA 2, then wraps it all up in a tone-deaf monetisation scheme that is uniquely Valve.
Spells and units can’t attack across the three lanes, unless specified. Starting from the left lane, players will go tit-for-tat tweaking who attacks who, which units get buffed or bodied, and which heroes get expensive items. When both players finally pass, combat is resolved.
First, the Good News
Gwent players will feel most at home here. Artifact’s scandalous reliance on RNG is mitigated by its quick turns before combat resolves. Players go back and forth, able to react to whatever random event their opponent triggered. Mostly.
Artifact would be a unparalleled pain in the ass if players had to keep track of all its mathematical modifiers. But being all digital and computer-ey, everything is calculated and displayed for you. There’s an easy solution for viewing units that don’t fit into the lane, and you can swipe between lanes.
You can hover your mouse over a unit’s attack or health to see everything currently modifying it. Your little on-screen dragon will even hop onto the board to warn you when you’re about to lose a lane. All of which are nice, quality of life advancements.
After units are randomly placed, it’s like a chess puzzle. You find a solution with your limited means of affecting the board. Except in Artifact, not every round has a solution. When to fight, when to abandon a lane, and baiting the enemy into over-committing are all part of the strategy.
Another system borrowed from Gwent, the first player to pass gains “initiative” and goes first in the next lane. This makes for a nice mind game in which you have to choose between affecting the board, and setting yourself up for the next lane. If you’re already winning a lane, passing just to see if your opponent can solve their dilemma is Artifact’s equivalent of Poker’s check raise.
These are the makings of a pretty good card game. Complicated problems to solve, good mind games, and great graphics with an intuitive UI.
It’s what comes next that makes Artifact so hard to recommend.
Paying the Roll Toll
For all the well-designed elements of Artifact, there are just as many RNG-based frustrations. Your unit positioning and even attack target are decided by chance. With four units entering a lane, that amounts to eight die rolls before you even draw new cards.
Rounds – and games – are occasionally won or lost because heroes that should know better decided to pour their high attack values into a diagonal creep instead of the tower straight ahead.
The Artifact philosophy on randomness is clear: if you stack system after system based on randomness, unfair die rolls will balance out through sheer quantity. A hundred die rolls is fairer than one.
The counterpoint to that is, certain moments are undeniably more important than others. Both players may have played evenly in the lead-up to a pivotal moment, and the localised randomness in that “swing” round has a higher weight than other turns. In the same vein, some matches are more important than others — which makes single elimination tournaments in RNG-focused card games somewhat of a joke.
There’s no Yogg-Saron. That’s a plus. But there’s also some extremely bad RNG. The standout example is Cheating Death, which rolls its result after you’ve interacted with it, not before.
There’s nothing stopping heroes from continuously Cheating Death an entire game, which we’ve seen. It’s not a fun kind of RNG for the attacker or defender, and it also happens to be in the most popular deck.
Many of Artifact‘s die rolls have an outcome that’s objectively good or bad. Take Bounty Hunter for example, which has a 50% chance to do more damage (objectively good in any situation) every round. There’s no interesting decision to make based on Bounty Hunter’s RNG. He just either kills your hero or he doesn’t.
Bottom line: you will occasionally win and lose matches because Artifact’s random number generator decided to be unkind. Some people are okay with that as a concept. But it’s a lot more palatable in a free-to-play game, which Artifact is not.
There’s no way to unlock more cards through playing Artifact. There’s also no ranked mode. All ways to get cards and play competitively involve paying more money. Winning in the “expert” mode will win you tickets to play more expert mode, but going infinite isn’t possible.
That’s because Artifact requires you to win three matches before you lose two, in order to win another “ticket.” That implies at least a 75% winrate (per run) in a matchmaking system that targets winrates of 50%.
This bizarre model has rightly resulted in a flood of negative reviews on Steam.
Part of the problem stems from Artifact’s marketplace. It allows you to buy individual cards from other players — after Valve takes a cut. Artifact’s upfront cost was introduced to stop new accounts being created purely to send free starter cards to someone’s main account, or being sold on the marketplace, affecting prices.
But there’s no good reason to not earn cards through play, and there’s no good reason to deny non-paying players a competitive mode with leagues and ladders. Other games with marketplaces have come up with more elegant solutions. Such as not allowing trades for cards earned through play.
Apologists talk about the unlimited play available in casual mode, as if Artifact deserves a medal for providing this most basic of features. Yes, believe it or not, you can play the game you paid for. But the lack of other features makes it feel like the upfront cost only got you a demo for the real game.
Loyalists will point out that it’s a “trading card game, not a collectible card game,” as if some twist of semantic sorcery would undo the expectations of the market. There’s a certain point you have to look at the rest of the world, cursors hovering over the Thumbs Down button on Steam reviews, and think… “Maybe it’s me.”
No XP or levels, no ladders or rankings, no chat/emotes, no stats, no achievements (in a Valve game!). Even players who pay more aren’t getting the features deemed minimum.
Modern gaming’s love affair with progression systems and psychological manipulation has resulted in feel-good reward fests that are all icing and no cake. We loathe advocating for more. But here, where the player is keenly aware their gameplay leads to no reward, Artifact’s lack of progression seems even more stark.
Is Artifact Good?
Can you separate a game’s design from its business model? In the case of Artifact, that’s a resounding no. Both are broken. In a market of pay-to-play, Artifact is pay-to-pay. Skill matters, but the strongest card is your credit card.
Even with a sane pricing structure, Artifact would have its problems. Despite flashes of design brilliance, it ultimately falls on the wrong side of the RNG line. While its ideology that copious die rolls are safer than a few is somewhat sound, not all RNG is created equal, and we contend that no game purporting to be an esport should ever allow a match to be decided by a coin flip.
CSGO was not too popular on launch, but constant updates improved it enough to grow organically. So we won’t write off the future of Artifact — but the present is grim.
We were hoping for the next big evolution is card game design. As it stands, Artifact’s main positive quality is making us realise how good we had it with Hearthstone, Legends, and Gwent.