As a Dota 2 and card game fan, I simply couldn’t wait to finally start playing Artifact on 28 November. It has been two weeks since I first booted up the game and I’ve put in several dozen hours. From those first moments, it was clear that Artifact was something different and hands-down the most complex game I have played in recent memory. Being different has its pros and cons, always, and in the case of Artifact, this remains true.
Valve brought out the big guns for Artifact, as the game was created in collaboration with Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: The Gathering. The pedigree behind the game’s development is without question and you can see it in every aspect of gameplay. One thing was abundantly clear the more matches I played: Artifact is polished to the maximum and it has that Valve quality about it that is very hard to quantify, but you simply know it is there.
Apart from the intro cinematic, there isn’t a story you can follow in Artifact. It’s all about the competitive, complex gameplay that the digital card game brings, and trust me, Valve didn’t skimp on this part. In Artifact, there are not one, but three boards you play on all at once called lanes. The basic win condition here is that you either destroy two towers, or a tower and an ancient. The first player to do this wins. An ancient is spawned when a tower goes down, but it has 80 hitpoints instead of a tower’s 40. Dota 2 fans will be quite familiar with many of the names of heroes, creeps and the three-lane concept, but Artifact takes things multiple steps further.
Unlike most other digital card games out there, Artifact allows the player unlimited freedom with hand sizes, units controllable at any given point and much more. It opens up the concept in a big way and allows for deep strategy in each map. This alone is commendable and gives freedom of strategy to the player. Artifact doesn’t tell the player “no, you can’t do this” but instead, pushes the player to experiment with their creativity.
That is, in part, why you should expect to lose hundreds of games. At one point, I thought I had a sure win, but my opponent made a series of moves in the last few turns that left me decimated. Artifact isn’t mastered in a day, or even a couple of weeks, and it will take a lot of time before you start consistently beating opponents.
This is not a bad thing, however, as each loss taught me something new as I knew what to look out for and thought long and hard about how to counter a specific strategy.
You have heroes, creep cards, spells and items. There are also four colours in the game that creeps, heroes and spells are coded with, making things more complex. You have blue, red, green and black. You can only play a card of a certain colour if a hero of that same colour is present in a lane. I can’t tell you how many times this mechanic took me by surprise until I understood the importance of having the correct setup with heroes and cards of the corresponding colour. Then, you also have to take items into account, which are bought during the shopping phase after the play phase turns have ended.
These items can make the world of difference on heroes, from items that give heroes more attack or HP, to items with specific functions, such as being able to move your hero to another lane with the Blink Dagger. One of the most memorable and satisfying moments for me was when my opponent was dominating two lanes. I had two towers on low health, but the midlane was open and his Ancient exposed.
In one turn, I moved three heroes to the mid lane (with two already there) using two Blink Daggers and a Town Portal scroll. This caught my opponent by surprise and I manage to buff my heroes as well as units with a spell card, then bashed the Ancient to bits (88 damage total) in one devastating turn. Basically, I managed to pull out a victory from the jaws of defeat with careful planning and item usage.
In Artifact, these moves are simply so satisfying and the little familiars react to the situation in comedic ways. If you are new to Artifact, expect these devastating losses to happen often, as it takes dozens of hours just to fully understand the mechanics that make this brilliant digital card game tick.
However, we haven’t even started on the most complex game mode that is said to be the esports standard mode for the game, Phantom Draft. In Phantom Draft, you need to draft your deck from card packs with random cards in them, choosing from less-than-ideal options and building a deck you think will work out of them.
Drafting is where your knowledge of the game and its mechanics really gets put to the test, but it is also the mode that you will learn the most from. Sure, you won’t have a perfect deck, but it is those imperfections that taught me about the finer details of the game and how many strategic options there really is in Artifact.
It is always important to remember the basics and I can’t tell you how many times one of these basic rules of the game slipped my mind for one turn and it cost me the match. Opponents sometimes take long to react and this is just the nature of digital card games, but taking your time to think about a strategy that you are building five turns in advance will definitely be to your advantage.
The game is daunting, without a doubt, and that might put a lot of players off the experience. However, for me, it is the level of complexity and freedom of strategy that will keep me playing Artifact for years to come.
Yes, the gameplay is fantastic and from a technical standpoint, Artifact is flawless in my experience. However, we have to talk a bit about the GabeN-sized elephant in the room: Artifact’s monetization. The game costs R289 to play, then Valve sells you card packs for R29 each. Then, you also need to pay to enter expert events by purchasing event tickets, with the lowest option being R72 for five tickets. You get two full decks, 10 card packs and 5 event tickets with your initial purchase.
I was able to build two competitive decks (the B/G Pauper Aggro deck and Kosmic Black deck) for a total of R60 more using the Steam marketplace to get the cards I still lacked. However, there are some very expensive cards that are used in powerful meta decks that people will obviously want. The market is still stabilizing but initially, Axe would have set you back over R300. The card is, at the time of writing, R160, so waiting a bit to purchase Axe would have been a great idea if you didn’t get lucky with your first 10 card packs. Some will consider this pay-to-win, as you will only be able to get the best decks from purchasing more cards or card packs.
Then, there’s also the pay-to-compete aspect. The game requires an event ticket to enter the Expert modes, the only way to earn more card packs from playing. R72 gets you five event tickets, which is the lowest bundle. You can also recycle 20 cards (from your duplicates please) for one event ticket. There is simply no way to earn new cards without playing in Expert events and this is where a big issue comes in. You either have to crush your opponents and get a minimum of three wins before two losses (to get an event ticket back as a reward), or you have to continue purchasing event tickets. Since Artifact is so complex, most players will quickly lose their initial five event tickets, meaning they can’t play expert anymore. However, they can still play several other modes, from practising against a bot to a entering casual matchmaking that also has Phantom and Constructed draft game modes.
Even though it didn’t detract much from my experience, this paywall is something that Valve should change. I, for one, hope that Valve incorporates a way to earn card packs without paying for event tickets, as this is the one big issue with Artifact.
Artifact is the best digital card game out there. Yes, I said it as for me, it is most definitely true. The game has this Valve quality and every match, although it takes a bit longer than most other games, provides excitement from start to finish. Technically, I had zero issues with the game. No disconnects, no crashes and absolutely nothing to report. Artifact looks awesome and the board, as well as the familiars, are quite lovely.
The gameplay is what matters the most for me and Artifact delivers complex, deep and mechanically sound gameplay no matter what deck you choose to play with. It has a tonne of game modes to play around in and learn. For me, it took over 50 hours to understand Artifact’s mechanics and exactly how I should play five different deck combinations. However, the game has thousands of possible combinations that could work well. Therefore, it is just so deep that it will probably keep me playing for years and years.
With all this being said, Artifact does suffer from one issue, it’s monetization system. For me, it wasn’t that bad because I started winning and reclaimed my ticket after an Expert event finished. However, to really compete in Artifact you do need to spend a bit of money or just crush opponents out of the gate. It’s not as pay-to-win as everyone thinks it is, as I explained, but there are elements that could and should be changed for the betterment of wallets everywhere.
This review was based on a digital copy bought by the reviewer
Available On: PC | Reviewed On: PC | Release Date: 28 November 2018 | Price: R289