Artifact review: Can Valve play their cards right?

Valve /

Valve’s attempt to mix up the digital card game scene with their MOBA-inspired game Artifact shows promise but doesn’t quite deliver just yet.

Title: Artifact
Developer: Valve
Publisher: Valve
Platforms: PC (version reviewed)
Release Date: November 28, 2018

I’m not going to lie, when I first saw the announcement for “Artifact: The Dota Card Game,” I couldn’t help but feel disappointed with the rest of the crowd. While I would never boo at a live event, Valve’s return to video game development just wasn’t what I was hoping for. I wasn’t too crazy about yet another digital collectible card game competing for my attention and wallet. However, Artifact proved just unique enough to stand apart from the competition, both for the better and for the worst.

Despite what some people on the Internet might have said or hoped for, Artifact is not the “killer” card game that could take down behemoths like Blizzard’s Hearthstone. Nor do I get the sense that it was ever meant to be. For one, it only launched on PC and not on any mobile platforms. And at its core, Artifact is very much a “hardcore” digital card game, similar to how many players might consider its inspiration, Dota 2, a “hardcore” game.

There is a relatively steep learning curve since Artifact is essentially like playing three games in one. It also requires some monetary investment even to get started. Artifact is catering to a specific PC gaming audience that is looking for a more nuanced and advanced digital card game than most of the other available games on the market.

Credit: Valve /

Mechanically, Artifact immediately sets itself apart from the competition by integrating gameplay concepts from Valve’s popular MOBA Dota 2. Whereas most multiplayer CCGs focus on a single playing field, Artifact has three “lanes,” similar to how MOBA maps are typically split into three playing lanes. Each player has a tower in each lane that when defeated, exposes that player’s core. To win a match, players must defeat two opposing towers or take down the opponent’s core.

Additionally, unique hero cards are the primary focus of your deck (as heroes are the focus in Dota), with standard creep cards being automatically deployed to lanes. Also similar to Dota, killing enemy units rewards you with gold which you can spend on items in the shop between rounds. Valve cleverly turned so many gameplay elements from Dota into “card game form” for Artifact. At times it even feels like you are overseeing an entire MOBA game during a match.

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The focus on heroes and the multi-lane playing board doesn’t just provide a clever intertwining of genres either. It also adds a number of strategic gameplay elements other card games don’t have. For instance, you can only play Spell and Creep cards in a lane that have a matching color hero. Your hand each turn is shared across lanes. You can use special cards or hero abilities to switch cards between lanes. When heroes die they return to the Fountain and must wait a turn before they can be deployed again.

Credit: Valve /

As you can imagine, there is a lot more to think about when dealing with multiple lanes than with a single playing space. It’s like you are almost playing three games at once. This adds strategic complexity that is not only enjoyable but unique.

The learning curve is a bit higher than other digital cards games like Hearthstone, but I think that is a major selling point of Artifact. Your turns require much more planning. You have to decide when to protect or attack each Tower. You have to think about accruing gold and how to best spend it. Card hand management becomes a much more important aspect due to having to manage three lanes off of one playing hand.

So don’t expect to hop into Artifact, run the tutorial and feel like you have a complete grasp of the game. The in-game tutorial does a serviceable job explaining the basic gameplay loop and the different phases of each round; but, there are still 25 different keywords and 48 unique heroes with their own special cards and abilities. That’s on top of getting a grasp of balancing three lanes at a time.

Credit: Valve /

Even as a card game veteran, it was a bit overwhelming to learn at first. You can easily see what each keyword and ability does mid-match, but it can take many, many rounds before you fully understand everything that is happening. One way Artifact can help to ease this pain is with a better in-match replay system.

During a match, you can view the last card played by each player, but that’s it. There is no way to view the history of all the cards played, which I find a bit mind-boggling considering how much Artifact pushes the idea of no limits. There is no limit to the number of units in a lane, no limit to the number of cards in your hand, no limit to the improvements in a lane, and no limit to the amount of mana you can accrue. But you can’t view a history of all the cards played that turn?

Speaking of many rounds, Artifact matches are not quick by any means. Artifact follows in the footsteps of Dota when it comes to game length, with many games taking upwards of 30 to 40 minutes. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, it is just worth noting that Artifact is definitely more of a time commitment than other similar digital card games.

On the plus side, Artifact matches also feel like they tend to snowball less frequently. While in a Hearthstone match I might lose by my third or fourth turn to an aggressive deck, I rarely felt like things were out of control that early in an Artifact match. This is in part due to how the game spreads out the deployment of hero cards throughout the match. Comeback wins seem much more frequent and doable.

Credit: Valve /

Randomness still definitely plays a role in Artifact matches, as it does in all card games. However, Artifact’s randomness was not just limited to card draw, but to creep and hero placement. You can choose at the start of a round which lane you want to deploy hero cards into, but their placement within that lane is randomized for any spot where they are unblocked by enemy units.

How standard creeps are deployed between rounds to lanes is completely out of your control. I found the RNG of unit placement within lanes to be quite frustrating at first, but there are ways to mitigate and play around the randomness. This RNG is something you should consider when building a deck, as there are cards that enable you to move units as needed. Once I got a better grasp of the game, I never felt like I was losing matches solely because of placement RNG.

Comparing deck building and strategies with other card games, I felt like it was harder to tell the difference in deck archetypes in Artifact. Whereas other card games have more defined aggro, midrange, and control style decks, Artifact decks are not as clear-cut with their archetypes.

There are definitely decks that still technically fit into those archetypes in Artifact. However, with the current selection of cards and the way the phases of a match are set up, these differences are not as noticeable as I would have expected.

Credit: Valve /

Artifact cards offer a variety of different strategies, from ramp-up decks to buff decks to gold-focused decks. Each of the four-color cards in Artifact focuses on different types of play. But the problem with Artifact cards in their current state is the reliance on high stat heroes.  The current meta seems focused on high health and high attack heroes, with spells and abilities that buff you heroes and other units in your lane.

Too many times I felt a match was ultimately decided on who had the stronger heroes from a stat perspective. Heroes in general play such a huge role in Artifact to the point that other cards seem to fall by the wayside. Decks that focus on buffing heroes and other minions seem to be the go-to in competitive play. There is a reason cards like Axe and Drow Ranger are the most expensive cards to buy right now.

The payment model and community-driven marketplace of Artifact is an interesting topic in and of itself. The game costs $20 upfront, which is a large departure from most digital card games which are free to play. However, your purchase also includes two base decks and ten booster packs, totaling 228 cards. Of course, these cards are not all unique, but there are only 280 unique cards available at launch. That puts you well on your way to building your collection.

Artifact Starting Items Bundle
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Artifact follows a payment model more like the physical Magic: The Gathering card game than it does other digital cards games. You are not stuck with only buying random card packs (though you are free to purchase boosters if you like). You can also buy and sell individual cards on the Steam marketplace, all done within the game client itself.

While many players might find this concerning, I would argue this is a much more consumer-friendly model. For example, one might spend $50 on a Hearthstone expansion pre-order bundle, open fifty packs, and get maybe 20-30 cards they actually want to use. You can spend much, much less than that on the Steam marketplace and purchase the individual cards you need to build the Artifact deck you actually want to play.

Artifact also makes buying and selling cards from the in-game client extremely easy and fluid. In fact, nearly every feature of Artifact’s client is designed how one might expect a PC-focused card game should be. Artifact’s built-in quality of life features are all-around excellent and an example other similar games should follow.

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The game includes a deck tracker built into the client, both for yourself and your opponent, accessible with two easy keyboard clicks. You can import and export decks from external sources with Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V. Deck sharing codes aren’t just some random unique string of characters but instead are actual URLs you can visit to view your deck in a browser. You can even copy an opponent’s deck right from the game after your match is over.

Credit: Valve /

In-game chat and emotes are not yet present in Artifact’s current build but are coming soon in an upcoming update, along with some accessibility features. Even the game’s reconnect feature is well implemented. It’s easy to dismiss features like this, but for Valve to include them at launch or soon after is a major plus.

The game’s polish is of the utmost quality, and I would expect nothing less from Valve. Artifact successfully ties in the lore of Dota for fans of the game but doesn’t overdo it for unfamiliar players either.

The card art, the animations, the music, and the voice lines are superb. The animations and sounds when you play a card in-game feel satisfying. The timing of the animations is just the right length so players can visually see and comprehend the effect that card is having on the board. Other card games tend to sometimes rush through these animations, which can add unnecessary confusion for players.

Credit: Valve /

The social features of the game are also a major plus for Artifact players that enjoy playing with friends. It’s easy to group with your friends through Steam, go through a custom deck draft, then play each other in an in-game tournament to determine who drafted the best deck. The in-game tournaments have loads of customization options, from setting single elimination to Swiss-style brackets to setting card bans and deck color limitations.

Of course, you aren’t limited to just playing with just your friends on Steam. You can queue up against other players in both constructed and draft formats. These are also split into casual and expert matchmaking groups, with expert play requiring special event tokens and unopened card packs for Keeper Drafts. The only “offline” mode offered in Artifact includes friendly bot matches. There is no other single-player content.

Artifact Keeper Draft
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However, all of these modes, whether labeled casual or expert, are technically unranked. Artifact does not include any sort of ranking or progression system at all. No daily quests or missions to earn cards or currency. No leveling up your profile to unlock cosmetics like card backs or board themes. No competitive, ranked ladder to fight your way through each season.

At launch, I don’t think this is a deal breaker. Valve takes competitive Dota very seriously, so once they get a handle on balancing out the meta in a few updates, I bet we see a ranked system soon. I have enjoyed having some time to learn the game without the stress of trying to worry too much about falling behind in a ranked system.

While I am a huge sucker for getting hooked on mission and quest rewards in video games, I don’t think they are necessary to create a successful game. I realize this might not be the case for all gamers, but I have actually enjoyed Artifact’s lack of daily quests. Instead of worrying about meeting the quest objectives to grind currency to get the best new cards, I can focus on experimenting with new decks or learning how to draft better. I can just play the game how I want to and spend a buck or two to get some new specific cards whenever I want to.

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My only concern is how long this experimental phase will hold my attention. In the long run, I think Artifact definitely needs to add a progression system of sorts. I would also love to see a single-player adventure mode, something similar to Dota 2’s PvE campaign, Siltbreakerfrom last year.

Artifact is meant to be a continuously updated game, and hopefully, Valve adds more reasons to log in to the game every day. Otherwise, the game is going to definitely see a larger decline in its player base than it already has since its launch.

Even though Artifact was not the game I originally wanted to see come from Valve after a long hiatus from game development, it certainly impressed me. It’s extremely polished and includes intuitive and well-designed quality of life features that set an example for other games to follow. Its mechanics are fresh, challenging, and unique. The game’s economy is not for everyone, but it’s ultimately a much cheaper alternative than relying solely on random card packs.

On the downside is Artifact’s relatively stale meta. The game relies so heavily on hero cards and their stats. I find competitive deck-building options to not be quite as varied as I would have expected. RNG can be a pain but is not a deal-breaker. The lack of progression system and ranking system is a big red flag.

For now, Artifact is proving itself to be a fun and viable digital card game in an already flooded market. How long that will last, though, is yet to be determined.

Valve. . Artifact. 7. <em>Artifact</em> is one of the most polished digital card games available. The game’s multi-lane mechanics bring MOBA elements into card game form, providing challenging strategic gameplay. Valve still has a way to go to prove <em>Artifact’s</em> long-term viability though due to its lack of a progression system and ranked modes.

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