The digital card gaming world is rapidly becoming the land of the giants. Blizzard has one of the reigning kings of the genre with Hearthstone. Wizards of the Coast are reminding everyone of their status in this realm by introducing Magic: The Gathering Arena. Pokemon continues to draw in young audiences with the Pokemon Trading Card Game. Even CD Projekt RED has gotten in on the action by taking The Witcher III's Gwent and making it a standalone experience. So it would stand to reason that Valve would want a piece of this pie, as well.
Taking inspirations from many of these card franchises, Valve has entered the arena with Artifact. Like Hearthstone, it's a digital card version that takes direct inspiration from a sister franchise. What World of Warcraft is to Hearthstone, Dota 2 is to Artifact. But the visual aesthetic is not the only common factor that Artifact shares with Valve's MOBA juggernaut. After several hours with the game, it's safe to say that Artifact feels like the MOBA of digital card games, for better or worse.
Towers of doom
Artifact revels in its complexity from the very beginning, throwing players directly into a tutorial battle. Veterans of other card games like Hearthstone, The Elder Scrolls: Legends, and Magic: The Gathering Arena might get thrown for a loop when faced with three boards (or lanes, because the MOBA theme is not subtle) to manage. Players will enter the arena with five different or same-colored hero cards, all of which carry different abilities and can be enhanced by matching colored spell cards. Different colored spell cards will serve different functions, like summoning creeps, sapping enemy attack or health, or attacking the opposing tower directly. If there is no same color hero or no hero at all on the board, a spell cannot be used.
There are a lot of resources to manage, particularly with the matching color mechanic. If heroes die, they're out for a full turn and can be re-deployed along any lane. Success in Artifact involves knowing which lane to place the returning Hero on, keeping in mind current lane states and which spells will be the most effective. Heroes can also be enhanced by gear, which can help them deal more damage or stay alive long enough to take a healing item.
Speaking of which, that's another MOBA-style mechanic to keep in mind in Artifact. Players will receive coins for dispatching heroes and creeps, which allows them to pick up items in the Shopping Phase, which takes place after every turn. Items available during the Shopping Phase are randomized, so players must decide whether to pick up one-time-use potions to recover health, a special gear item with a debilitating effect, or just stay put until the next turn. There are going to be turns where you make no headway and earn zero coins, so it's best to manage funds carefully. This is another element of Artifact that can feel overly complex to the average card player, even with the tutorial's detailed explanations. However, MOBA fans will feel right at home here.
Barrier of entry
Having said that, while Artifact's rules and central ideas take some getting used to for card-gaming veterans, they'll feel almost inaccessible for genre newbies. There are so many resources to manage, numerous boards to manage, and many elements that will feel out of their control. The RNG (random number generator) factor is daunting enough when it feels like there's a good grasp of what the game is about, but when taking an RNG hit to the chest out of the gate, it hurts. And yes, there will be games where one side will put you in a corner with a better opening hand of heroes and creeps. Whether a newcomer will want to persist is ultimately a matter of how quickly they're able to pick up the rules and how much they love the Dota source material. The complex presentation and rules feel like they're going to be a big turn-off to novices.
One other thing to keep in mind about Artifact is that games feel excruciatingly long. Even if one side is more focused on going aggressive, there are a lot of steps involved in winning a game. Victory is attained if two out of three enemy towers are destroyed. One would expect play on a board to stop if its tower is taken out, but no, it simply transforms into an Ancient boasting a massive 80 health. Destroying a single Ancient is the alternate win condition, though I have yet to reach a point where the Ancient is wiped out. Artifact games can go just as long as the average Dota 2 session, so it's not a game for anyone looking to sit down and have a quick five-minute round.
Stepping into the arena
One of the best things I can say about Artifact is that while it may have a high learning curve, Valve certainly provides ample opportunity to learn. There are a handful of game modes, many of them pitting players against bots. Since confidence in real-world scenarios is likely to be an issue, the option to play against bots of varying difficulties is a welcome addition. There are also Featured Events, which introduce special rule sets that can be used with real people or for practice sessions against bots.
As for playing against real world people, the option is there for constructed Global Matchmaking play, as well as various draft modes. There are casual constructed arena runs, which challenges players to put together a five-win run, along with a "Phantom Draft" that operates similarly, but with random cards. After attaining a certain amount of confidence, players can get into Expert Play, where they can run constructed or draft gauntlets for the price of a single ticket (a $4.95 value) and attempt to win card packs. There's even a Keeper Draft that allows players to keep any cards they draft, no matter how terrible they wind up doing. In terms of game modes, it's a novel idea, though not for the faint of heart. Only the hardest of the hardcore end up in the Expert Play menu and a few runs are enough to shatter any and all dreams. But the Keeper Draft is genuinely cool and a unique way to bolster a player's collection.
Stay in your lane
Artifact feels like the MOBA of card games, in more ways than one. There's just as much strategy, just as much variety, just as many resources to manage, and it's just as challenging. There's a certain satisfaction in piecing together combos that can wipe out an entire board, but it isn't easy. A lot of time in Artifact, especially in the early going, will focus on deck-building. After building a deck, the actual games feel more like Dota than any other card game I've played. It becomes more about opening lanes, saving resources, and managing units above everything else.
Dota 2 fans will find a lot to love about Artifact if it stays on this trajectory. Those who don't have any particular attachment to the Dota franchise and want something simpler might want to focus their attention elsewhere.
This review is based on a PC digital code provided by the publisher. Artifact is available now on Steam for $19.99. The game is not rated by the ESRB.
Artifact Card Game
- Unique three-lane premise that utilizes the best of MOBA games
- Variety of hero types and spells are a fun way to learn about the Dota universe
- Detailed tutorial
- Numerous modes that allow for bot play
- Individual cards can be purchased and sold from the Steam Marketplace
- Steam API allows for simple copying and pasting of decks from across the internet
- Rules can be wildly complex for beginners
- Games can run excessively long
- The Dota aesthetic may not be for everyone
- This game can get expensive if you're not good and run out of Tickets
- Suggested deck recipes would be a big help to newcomers
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Artifact review: The MOBA of card games
Well, that sounds like a thing.
I do like card games, but now I have no interest in this game at all.
I’m the MOBA of Shacknews
Move over breakfast arrives
The most informative review I've read so far! Thanks.
This was a fair review, and I think I will give this a shot. I like thinky, complex games and haven’t gotten into a card game since Hearthstone first came out.
Two things I hate in gaming in one package. I'm not bagging on the game or those who like it but its like as if someone made a game that had every feature I hated. Amazing.