Platform: PC

In the old days of CCGs, developers used to believe that complexity was the same as depth. The more rules and phases and keywords they could shove into a new game, the better. The market became saturated with everything from the Star Trek CCG which asked you to fill ships with crew and send them off to planets to complete missions, to Doom Trooper, which had you warring for either Promotion Points or Destiny Points.

All of these games eventually failed. Why? Because games like Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon, and Yu-Gi Oh, with their rulebooks of hundreds of pages and thousands of exceptions, were actually the simplest and easy to understand games on the market. It was this simplicity that made them easy to approach for new players, easing them into the hobby which would eventually cost them hundreds or thousands of dollars to keep up with.

Valve’s new trading card game, Artifact, feels like a holdover from this era of gaming, and for good reason. It was designed by Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic. You’d think that this would have given Artifact all the designer pedigree it needed to succeed but, hot take, Garfield is a bit of an overrated designer.

While it’s true his properties have gone on to become some of the most successful games in history, that’s only after they were streamlined by designers that came after him. Mark Rosewater took the reins of Magic: The Gathering, eliminating many mechanics that Garfield originally conceived of (like interrupts) and making it easier to understand for the casual player. Lukas Litzsinger would eventually take Garfield’s failed Netrunner project and streamline it for a second release by Fantasy Flight games. In fact, few of Garfield’s original designs ever survive intact in what would eventually become their final incarnations.

This brings us to Artifact, a game with so much promise that is unfortunately bogged down by the very same needless complexity that defined the early days of CCGs. As a thought experiment, I went through Artifact’s entire starter set of 310 cards and tried to count the number of unique mechanics, keywords and general rules you’d have to remember in order to memorize them all. I came up with 57. 57 unique mechanics across 310 cards.

That’s too many for a starter set. It’s arguably too many for an entire year’s worth of expansions. Not only is that a lot of mechanics to keep in your head while playing the game, it also dilutes available card synergies, making games more random, and randomness was the very reason people were thinking of dropping games like Hearthstone and MTG Arena to play Artifact in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, Artifact is playable. It can be understood given enough time and effort. The question is whether or not it’s worth that time and effort.

Is learning Artifact fun? That’s a question that’s not so easy to answer.

Rules and randomness

Artifact is a card game that is supposed to simulate a match of DOTA2. As such, the game takes place over three lanes. Each lane is essentially a separate game. Every turn that lane will generate mana, and you use that mana to play spells and creeps from your hand. The only catch is that you share the same hand between all three lanes.

You have five heroes in your deck and you deploy them to your lanes alongside your randomly generated creeps. These heroes each have a color, and their color determines the colors of cards that you can play in that lane.

There are four colors, black, red, blue, and green. It’s supposed to be the case that black is all about trickery, red is about combat, blue is about control, and green is about buffing and healing, but in practice, each color has a little bit of everything. For example, every color but green has some way to deal direct damage.

Heroes have the same attack and health stats that creeps do. Both players take turns playing cards, and when both players pass, all the heroes and creeps attack what is across from them. Anything that takes damage equal to or greater than their health dies. Anything unblocked attacks the opposing “tower,” which is essentially your life points.

Simple enough right?

Well, yeah, it would be if that’s where the system ended. However, this is where the needless complexity comes in. Heroes don’t only have strength and health, they also have armor. Armor reduces the amount of damage they take from any source, whether attacks or cards. Heroes also have equipment slots that you can fill with items permanently, altering their stats and giving them new abilities.

Item complexity

Let’s talk about items.

Killing anything gets you gold. Creeps get you one gold, while heroes get you five. At the end of each turn you go to a store, where you can purchase items. There are three items you can purchase. One is just randomly generated, and is usually quite good. You can pay gold to hold this item, and prevent it from being randomly generated the next turn. Another is drawn from your “item deck,” which consists of at least nine item cards you have chosen to bring with you into the game. Another is a randomly generated consumable item.

Items are cards that can be played at any time, for no cost, and don’t require a hero to play…. at least in theory. In practice, they are usually pieces of equipment that alter hero stats, and give heroes new abilities so a hero is required anyway. Heroes can equip one weapon, one armor, and one accessory. Equipping a new item over an item already in a slot will destroy that item.

And there’s more.

You see you can’t actually choose where your heroes or creeps go. Creeps are randomly generated in each lane. You can choose which lane to place your hero, but their position in that lane is random. They could be put across from the opponent’s huge creep and die immediately, or they could be put across from nothing and deal their damage freely without consequence. This is why playing extra creeps from your hand is recommended.

Unblocked units deal damage to the opponent’s tower right? No. Unblocked units are dealt cards from a “direction deck,” which then determine whether they attack the opponent’s face, or units to the left or right. So who you attack, and who attacks you, is ALSO generated at random.

This is what I mean by needlessly complex; there is so much randomness in every part of Artifact. Most CCGs are fun because they are a practice of controlling and accounting for variance. The issue here is that most of the variance in Artifact is uncontrollable. The game can simply decide that you never do damage to the opponent’s towers while the opponent does a ton of damage to yours unscathed.

It’s possible this will change as the game is refined, but it’s a frustrating aspect of the design as is.

Too much swing

Let me tell you a story about a match I experienced. It seemed, for all intents and purposes, to be even. I was winning in one lane, my foe was winning in another, and the last lane was pretty much even. That is, until the opponent played three copies of Chain Frost, wiping my whole board in each lane.

OOF! Rough deal. But board clear effects are common in CCGs. I’ll just play some more cards to regain tempo and…

This was the first time I realized that Artifact might be too random for its own good. By wiping my board, he wiped my heroes out. These heroes now had to rest a turn before being redeployed. This meant I could play no cards on my next turn, in any of my three lanes. A board clear in Artifact is also a “skip your turn” effect, and skip your turn effects are some of the worst design tabletop gaming has to offer.

This is one of the biggest problems facing Artifact: there are far too many “gotcha” effects. It’s nearly impossible to assess the board state because so many cards can produce such massive swings. You could be winning one second, and find yourself in an insurmountable position at the next. Then you just end up drawing madly hoping to hit cards that swing the game in the opposite direction. It’s just one “gotcha” card after the next, and that doesn’t feel strategic, as much as it feels predetermined by your draw.

In the example I used, you could argue that I could have played around these cards by not deploying all of my heroes. First of all, that’s boring. When counter-play is simply to not play the game, your game isn’t engaging. Second of all, I had no idea that I could even choose to not deploy heroes because the game never told me so.

In fact, Artifact barely tells new players anything.

A poor teacher

There’s another big flaw in Artifact: it has an incredibly short tutorial that tells you very little about the game.

While it does express basic mechanics to you, it doesn’t tell you anything about strategy. It won’t tell you, for example, that you should prioritize the left lane for heroes with fast effects, since play always goes from the left to right. It never tells you that item cards don’t have casting requirements. It doesn’t even tell you the basic minimums for building a deck! You have to figure that out yourself in the deckbuilder.

There are a ton of keywords in Artifact, from piercing damage, to cleaving damage and more. What do all of these do? The game doesn’t tell you. To understand any card’s abilities, you need to first double-click it to zoom in, then click on its ability keywords to figure out what they do. None of this is readily apparent on the battlefield, which leads to your opponent pulling out random effects from out of nowhere that you didn’t even know they could do because you never zoomed in on their cards.

In fact, Artifact’s entire interface is not conducive to learning the game. There’s technically infinite space in each lane, and in each player’s hand. This means that the amount of cards shown on the screen at any given time is not actually the amount of cards an opponent has access to.

You have to remember to scroll through their cards to see them all, but you aren’t even given a decent indication that enough cards have been played to scroll through them. Your stats, like hand size, are shown in the upper left portion of the screen but, once again, the game doesn’t tell you that.

A hefty investment of time and money

This is another way that Artifact feels like a relic from the old days of CCG development. Many of you may remember playing your first few games of Magic: The Gathering. You had no idea what the rules were, no idea what keywords did, you just bought a few packs and put together a deck. That was just how things were back then.

In that environment, it was a perfectly acceptable way to learn a card game. You mostly played your new janky deck against your friends. They were often as confused as you were,  and you bumbled through the game together.

But that’s not how Artifact plays. You still have to cobble a deck together having no idea how to play the game, but you aren’t playing against your novice friends. You are playing against the best card game players in the world, who all have had extensive time in the game’s beta.

You are thrown to the wolves, all of whom have decks that, according to a few popular streamers, take anywhere from $300-$500 to build. Meanwhile, you’re sitting here with your paltry collection of cards made out of a few starter decks and 10 booster packs which, by the way, were over half filled with cards you already owned and had no use for. Guess it’s time to spend a ton of money on a game you don’t know how to play.

That’s Artifact’s main problem. It asks you to put a ton of money up front. Constructed decks cost an arm and a leg to put together. Draft tickets cost money, and some drafts cost packs which then cost more money!

I’ve written about this pricing strategy before, but I didn’t think it would be this bad. Artifact literally asks you to spend hundreds of dollars on a game you know next to nothing about. You need to spend this money just to get a reasonable start without getting stomped. Artifact is a game for whales, a game for people with money burning holes in their pocket, a game for the people who spend their whole week’s paycheck on microtransactions in their favorite mobile game of choice.

Even if you had all the money in the world to spend, Artifact asks something else of you: time. Artifact games are long. Too long. My first game was 45 minutes long, almost as long as an actual DOTA2 match. I can play three matches of MTG and five matches of Hearthstone in that time period.

Playing Artifact is exhausting, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I have tons of board games on my shelf that take two to four hours to play, and one of my best board gaming experiences was a 12 hour game of Twilight Imperium. There is a much loved space for lengthy taxing games.

But that’s not what I come to CCGs for. CCGs have always been about quick snappy matches. I’m a Heroes of the Storm player, so I don’t even come to MOBAs for hour long conflicts. I want my MOBA matches to last 20 minutes tops, and I want my card games to be shorter than that. In this way, Artifact might be too much like DOTA2 for its own good.

Looks better than it plays

Artifact does do some things right. For example, its presentation is top notch. It is genuinely the best looking and sounding digital card game in existence.

The graphics are phenomenal. The card art is all high-definition stills of what could be paintings of the DOTA universe. Playing cards trigger beautiful animations that take up a ton of screen space. Even simple record keeping between steps is given a graphical flourish. The game’s imp mascots carry decks from lane to lane. The shop flies in and opens up after every turn. There are even subtle graphical touches that inform you of the game state. For example, the imps cheer when you clear the board and shudder when your tower is about to take a heavy damage hit.

Then there’s the voice acting. Yes, voice acting in a card game. These aren’t the quick emote lines that Hearthstone has. Rather, every single card in the game has a long monologue associated with it, that expands on the history and lore of the DOTA world. In fact, much of the fun that I got out of artifact was just browsing my collection, listening to each of these voice lines. It’s perhaps the best digital implementation of flavor text I have ever seen.

Unfulfilled potential

The most disappointing aspect of Artifact was that it was a great idea with a lot of potential, but it’s simply overdesigned. The shop is a really cool mechanic. The three lanes are a neat spin on standard “lose your life and die” rules. The heroes create interesting deck building opportunities with their signature cards. Yet all of these potential upsides are counteracted by one simple fact: Artifact matches are not fun to play. They take too long, they tax your money and time, and they feel too random. Artifact badly needed a design pass to trim down all of its excess mechanics into a more solid base.

I’m not saying no one will have fun with Artifact. I’m sure there is a fan base out there who loves extremely complex, long lasting, random CCGs, perhaps the same fan base that loved all those early CCGs I mentioned at the start of the article. Maybe Artifact can survive if those fan bases have enough whales in them to keep throwing money Valve’s way.

But Artifact is just not what I play CCGs for. Heck, Artifact isn’t even what Richard Garfield himself originally developed CCGs to be. He wanted Magic: The Gathering to be something you could play quickly in 10 minutes while you waited for your Dungeons and Dragons group to get together. That’s a far cry from the long, complex, taxing matches that Artifact asks you to play.