The first adjective that comes to mind regarding Artifact is “dense.” A new, digital card game from Magic The Gathering and Android Netrunner designer Richard Garfield and game developer-slash-monolithic PC platform holder Valve, Artifact does not restrain from layering numerous mechanics and variables onto the board at any given time.
It is intimidating, yet rewarding and compelling. If deckbuilding and ruminating on potential moves is your cup of tea, Artifact can provide all that and more, given you don’t mind its real-world-money-centric economy.
Artifact is essentially a tabletop version of Dota 2. The board is divvied up into three lanes, each with its own pool of mana to spend on cards and a tower, which represents a player’s life points. A singular hand carries across all three lanes, and the goal is to either destroy two towers or the opponent’s ancient, which carries twice the health of the towers, but is only exposed after one falls.
The board of Artifact makes use of its digital freedoms by filling it with lively animations and effects for each card played. Two imps carry the decks between lanes and react to different plays: they’ll laugh at an opponent’s tower falling, but tremble when the ancient is in danger. Artifact’s interface is simple and easy to navigate, though spectating is a bit difficult; there’s so much information to display and so many things happening all at once, the board state isn’t as perceptible at a glance like other games.
The centerpiece of each deck is its heroes. Featuring old Dota mainstays like Axe and Drow Ranger, alongside a few new faces like Sorla Khan, each game starts with three heroes (one in each lane) and two more being deployed later, on turns two and three respectively, like the turn and river in Texas hold ‘em.
Each hero has an innate ability and a signature card, a mandatory inclusion that often emphasizes the hero’s traits. As the game progresses, you can spend gold earned from killing enemy creeps or heroes on items to bolster your champions, giving them more health or attack damage, or even their own effects. Heroes are also semi-persistent; they can die, but will respawn after a turn, letting you place them back in the same lane or on a different front.
Heroes also determine what cards you can play, where, and when, depending on what color they are. Cards fall into one of four colors: red, blue, black, or green. It has shades of Magic’s color identities, as each color tends to excel in particular areas. Blue casts spells and locks cards, green ramps up mana and improves its units’ statistics, black hoards gold and deals lots of damage, and red is scrappy, enjoying lots of brawls and duels. They all feel different enough to encourage identity, yet synergistic enough that they can easily meld together into a cohesive deck. A blue-green might focus on controlling the game, whereas a red-green wants to just beef up its heroes and slam them into the enemy.
You can only play a card in a lane if a hero of the same color is alive, so hero placement is about more than just what cards it might fight. Lane assignments can become extremely important, forcing some moments of clever decision-making. Do you want your incoming hero in a losing left lane, where it might die but allow you to exert early pressure this turn? Or a winning lane, where it’s safe but adds less advantage? Black and blue have several cards that can be played across lanes, so having them in your leftmost lane helps ensure you can activate them before your opponent can intervene.
Intervention comes in the form of “initiative,” which determines who goes first in each lane. Players take turns playing cards one at a time in each lane, tapping a coin to “pass” when they’re done, like standing in blackjack. Whoever passes first in a lane will have initiative in the next, so if you want to play a crucial card in the next lane like “Enough Magic,” which skips all card playing and goes right to combat, you might pass playing cards to ensure you maintain initiative. It’s a natural way of forcing you to weigh immediate vs. future reward, so that even a mechanical exchange of cards and effects has tension.
Artifact’s learning curve is daunting at first, though the in-game tutorial is surprisingly effective. It takes you through two guided games with two different decks with different strategies, allowing you to both learn the raw mechanics and get a sense for what kind of game plan you want to build your own deck around.
The deckbuilding possibilities already seem too numerous to quantify with the base set of Artifact. Card descriptions are easy to understand, but often have surprising effects; for example, the “Shop Deed” — a purchasable card from the item shop whose visits punctuate each turn — makes all future cards randomly generated in the Secret Shop slot cost X less, where X is the price of the item. It would seem strange that the card doesn’t just say “all Secret Shop items are now free,” but this specificity allows for creative permutations. If you play two Shop Deeds, now each item costs negative money. The shopkeeper is paying you to take the items, generating tons of free gold.
Dota 2 can be a volatile game, and Artifact is much the same. Each match can swing back and forth on the whim of a single play, and minor moments can snowball into game-winning advantages. In one game, I had been chipping at the opponent’s bulky heroes, scratching at them with my weaker fighters. It seemed futile — but after enough turns, all five of his heroes were low enough that they were vulnerable to one big blast. I played Zeus’ signature card “Thundergod’s Wrath” on the first play of the turn, leaving them helpless and unable to play a single card for two straight turns.
Each match, I feel like I’m in full control of my destiny. It’s easy to trace every loss back to singular points where I could have played better, or done something differently. There are trace elements of randomness, like the arrows; units always attack what’s across from them, but if they are unblocked, they have a chance to attack left or right instead, creating occasional gang-up situations. Ultimately, every game felt fully within my grasp. Artifact can seem inscrutable at first, even mentally taxing, as games often run a great deal longer than most card games. But the mental investment pays off when you overcome odds and barely eke out a win, even better when it happens thanks to your deck’s well-laid plan working out.
Constructed play, where you build and field a deck from your collection, is filled with fine-tuned decks around potent strategies. Some try to achieve victory by dumping all their resources into a single lane, blitzing the ancient in a hail of heroes and monsters. Others veer more towards controlling the board state, which can be difficult when you have three boards to manage rather than one, but there are certainly the tools to do so.
But building a collection and tuning a deck isn’t the only way to play. The draft modes offer a different distraction. Drafts roll out like real-life Magic events do. You open a pack, select two cards you want from it, and then “pass.” Once five packs have gone through the artificial rotation, you build a deck from the heroes and cards you’ve drafted and play other drafters, until you hit five wins or two losses.
Artifact’s draft modes are the game’s highlight. Building a deck forces you to evaluate and adapt on the fly, and unlike Hearthstone’s arena mode, you can draft excess cards. It’s not uncommon at all to simply pick high-value cards early, and then gradually slide into a theme like Red/Green or Black/Blue once you’re deeper into the draft.
Drafting is also likely to be popular because of Artifact’s card economy, which is a make-or-break for folks riding the fence. Artifact card packs can be bought with real money or won through event tickets, and you can also buy or sell individual cards on the Steam Marketplace. Although you can “recycle” cards to get an event ticket, those cards have to come from somewhere. There aren’t any free boosters or cards, no gradually earned in-game currency. You can play the draft mode for free, sans rewards, as much as you want. But unless you’re extremely good at Artifact, chances are you will have to spend more money to get more cards for your personal collection.
This is fine, for some. It’s the way games like Magic The Gathering operate, and individual cards being marketable allows a player to invest in a deck in the here-and-now to get exactly what they need. But since the digital revolution of card games, many players might be used to some level of free progression. Tack on the $20 up-front, which entails a few packs and event tickets, and Artifact can seem like a similar level of investment to games like Magic.
Artifact is deep, innovative, and complex. It’s taxing at times to play, and demands investment, in learning, playing, and fielding a deck. The economy is likely to scare off players who don’t want to buy a game, then pay again for more cards. Artifact is daunting. But if you’re willing to take the time and delve into it, Artifact can be intensely rewarding. It’s not for everyone, but for the deck-building, number-crunching card nerds like me, it’s something you need to see.
Artifact was reviewed on Windows PC using a final “retail” Steam key provided by Valve. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.