Artifact Review – Play Your Cards Right

Taking nods from a number of design elements endemic to traditional trading card games and combining those with the flexibility and ease of digitized play fields, Artifact brings a uniquely compelling twist to the TCG formula. The bulk of this comes from Valve’s tentpole franchise of late: Dota 2. Artifact remixes many of the core ideas, focusing on the essentials of MOBAs to bring new layers of tactical complexity to great effect. Establishing a broad number of possibilities allows for near-limitless experimentation and development of new and complex styles of play.

Those unfamiliar with the free-to-play behemoth, Dota 2, and its competitors (League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm, etc.) won’t need much additional context, but a grasp of the basics can go a long way. As with standard MOBAs, you’ll have three lanes that you share with your competitor. Monsters, heroes, creeps, and items all get funneled into one of these passages and are pit against one another. Each of you will vie for control of all three in succession, starting from left to right, marshaling what forces and powers you can to overpower your opponent and topple the tower sitting at the end.

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In essence, the lanes act like as distinct play areas, though you do share a hand across them. Besides that, though what happens in one lane stays there. To win, you’ll either need to claim two of the three lanes, or manage to bring down your foe’s “ancient,” which appears only after you’ve taken a lane.

These basics are sticky to explain, but mercifully, pretty easy to grasp once you see them in action. Artifact offloads a good chunk of its calculations to computers, allowing it to be a lot more complex than a traditional card game. By taking some of that extra grunt work off of you, it broadens the possibility space beyond anything comparable. Because any number of monsters or heroes can be in each lane, it’s possible that you’ll end up with 10 combat rounds or more across three lanes in a turn. That sounds like a lot, but Artifact offers up battle previews, detailing what will happen if you don’t respond. Likewise, the playable cards in your hand will glow a gentle blue, so you can save time and consider the ramifications of the play instead of burning your thoughts attempting to figure out what you even can play on top of what effect it would have.

Play proceeds in a series of rounds, where you’ll pass over each lane and resolve whatever relevant cards in sequence. Between each, though, you’ll have a chance to buy items and equipment to help in the next go around. Each creep you take down yields one gold, whereas an enemy hero yields five. Neither are necessary objectives in themselves, but creeps and heroes guard the towers, so most of the time you’ll need to be chipping away at them anyway, and the extra payout is a useful bonus that will–on occasion–affect which lane you choose to press through and when.

In truth, there’s a litany of micro-decisions like those that Artifact relies on to build itself into a fully fledged and shockingly nuanced trading card game. The fineries of play will take quite some time to master, and not because they are obtuse or particularly convoluted, but because of the tension between where, how, and when you choose to play. It can be to your advantage, for instance, to make one big push through a single lane if you don’t believe you can spread your forces effectively enough to nab two. But, even then, you’ll still need a capable defense to prevent your towers from being overrun.

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All of this is covered in the tutorial, but developing a genuine sense of the game takes quite a while, simply due to the nature of its play. Normally this would be a positive trait, and the fact that learning nuances over time is encouraged is a helps create a satisfying, growth-oriented style of play. But that clashes a bit with Artifact’s pricing structure.

Buying the game gets you a starting deck as well as several booster packs to round out your starting set. But from there, you’ll either need to trade and sell cards on the real-currency marketplace to fill out your decks, or compete incredibly well to win them. Competing would be fine, too, but the number of matches you need to win and the rewards you get from there are scant enough that most new players will need to put in some extra cash.

The fineries of play will take quite some time to master, and not because they are obtuse or particularly convoluted, but because of the tension between where, how, and when you choose to play.

This has been helped somewhat by the post-launch addition of a free draft mode (previously it had been behind a paywall). Here you can play all you want and experiment with whatever cards come up in the draft. Players looking to build their actual decks, though, may be disappointed. I say may because the market’s prices are extremely variable, shifting quickly as the market gets more and more rare cards and the metagame evolves. It isn’t clear, however, at this stage, what developer Valve will be doing in terms of restricting card rarity to keep prices stable down the line–or if there are any such plans at all. It may be that in two weeks’ time, competitive decks are dramatically cheaper to field. As it is, Artifact is dramatically cheaper than high-end Magic or Hearthstone, but it may feel less welcoming to passive fans who want to avoid any significant financial investment.

In aggregate, though, Artifact works far more often than it doesn’t. While the volatility of the market is one thing, play on its own is more challenging and engaging than many of its contemporaries. Play moves remarkably fast, too, shuffling between the lanes and then back to the start sometimes in under a minute. It’s a lot to keep track of, but it’s put together well enough and propped up by enough card playability hints and subtle calculations that it rarely ceases to delight.

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Production and animation help a good chunk with that, too. Play will frequently shift between the board as a whole and the specific play space on which you’re focusing. Between lanes, though, you’ll have a fluttering imp that manages your deck, carrying it seamlessly to the different play areas between rounds. They don’t affect play, only adding to the aesthetic presentation of the game and the visual language of how your deck and hand move across the board to each miniature arena, but they’re a nice touch. Similarly, the crack of a spell or the soft trickle of the stream that runs the length of the board are engrossing touches that bind the field together and give the game an added visual flair.

All-told, Artifact is a capable reimagining of modern trading card games. It plays quite a bit differently than just about any of its contemporaries–digital or not–and while the marketplace is volatile to say the least, there’s little evidence that the pricing is straight-up predatory. Just note, however, that the game is not free-to-play and be prepared to spend some additional bit of money coming in. It would be nice to see some more extensive options for those wanting to play by themselves or in non-competitive settings, but beyond that, Artifact is a great showing.

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