Dota 2 is an incredibly complicated game among incredibly complicated games. It stands to reason that a trading card game based on the popular MOBA would be just as complex. For my part, though, I wish Valve would have learned from its past mistakes.
If you don’t know, Artifact is a digital card game from Valve, makers of Half-Life and Portal, set in the company’s vague Dota 2 universe. It actually does some interesting things with the setting—not the least of which is giving it a real story. Each card has its own flavor text that references various relationships between characters that are barely hinted at in the main game. It actually makes the world seem leagues more interesting than Dota 2 itself ever has.
I just wish the gameplay was equally clear. There is a tutorial in Artifact, in case you were wondering. And it does explain the basics: the board is split into three lanes and you can only play cards in lanes with matching colored “heroes.” There are spell cards, low-level minions (called creeps), and everything costs mana. It’s all very Magic: The Gathering—which makes sense, given it was designed by MTG and Netrunner creator Richard Garfield.
My problems mostly occur between playing the cards. Combat is usually handled automatically. Every creep and hero chooses a target between combat phases, then charges forward when both players decide they’re done playing cards. Except I don’t know why cards choose certain targets. A flood of on-screen arrows indicate who’s attacking what, but don’t give any reason as to why. Neither does the tutorial. I think it’s supposed to represent changing aggro, a concept straight out of Dota 2, but without an explicit explanation I can’t be sure.
Placing heroes is equally confounding. These ultra-powerful cards are the backbone of every player’s deck. And I think the order you place them in a deck determines which lane every hero starts in. Again, it’s not overtly explained. But the bigger problem is when you do get to manually place them in a lane—either because you drew them later during the match, or because one died and respawned.
The lanes have their own intricacies based on randomly spawning melee creeps (basic units that you can’t really control) and cards you place yourself. You can choose to place normal cards the left or right of allies you already have on the board. But I seem to have zero control over where heroes go, besides choosing a lane for them. Is it random? Does it depend on the cards in the lane? Either way, I’d like the game to tell me as much. At least that would be a start.
Three lanes is a lot to keep track of, even if you can only directly influence one at a time. Individual heroes have skills that cool down over time and customizable gear. Besides mana, you also earn gold to buy items between rounds. Even if the tutorial explained everything, it would still be one of the most complicated CCGs I’ve ever played—and I’m a die hard Netrunner fan. The fact that Artifact can’t even meet me halfway on that complexity is infuriating.
It only worsens the game’s much-maligned business model, too. Artifact differs from other digital card games in that you can’t earn cards in-game. You must pay real-world money for booster packs and singles off the Steam Marketplace (where Valve takes a cut of every purchase). That’s in addition to the $20 upfront cost.
That business model seems like an instant turn off for… literally everyone. But I’m more worried about the people who buy in anyway (such as myself). Without a comprehensive understanding of the game, it’d be easy to trade away great cards, or overpay for mediocre ones, without realizing it until it’s too late. It feels like when my little brother traded a “Jace, the Mind Sculptor” to his shitty friend for peanuts when we were kids (it’s a Magic thing).
Otherwise, I really want to like the game. Artifact translates the spirit of Dota 2 into CCG form almost perfectly. Nearly every time I guess what a card specializes in, based on its MOBA counterpart, I’m absolutely right. Valve even went the extra mile by recreating ability animations and sound effects on the 2.5D plane. Not to mention that deep complexity could be very interesting to master in the long run.
But without a decent place to start from, I’m worried Artifact will just be more frustrating than ultimately rewarding. I powered through the painstaking early hours of Dota 2 as a much younger man. I’m not sure I still have the patience (or time) to do it again. Maybe Valve wants to position Artifact as the hardcore digital CCG. I’m here for that! Just get back to me when it’s not the “hard to even start playing” CCG.