A challenging, deep, and surprisingly approachable card game.
Five years after Valve’s last major game, the legendary developer proves it still knows how to make amazing things. As a Dota 2-themed digital card game, Artifact may not be what people were expecting, but it does exactly what Valve is known for: it’s something different and exciting within an established genre, housed in the most detailed and polished package possible.
Artifact sets itself apart from so many other card games that find their roots in Magic: The Gathering – a game that Artifact’s designer, Richard Garfield, created in 1993 – by splitting the playing field into three lanes and having you pick five persistent Heroes for your deck that get stronger and respawn throughout the match. While playing cards and dealing damage might be familiar to Hearthstone or Magic fans, the way Artifact makes you think about that is fundamentally different.
Instead of just trying to kill your opponent, you need to win two of the three lanes by destroying their towers. Players go back and forth in a lane taking a single action until both do nothing and pass, then combat occurs and you move on to the next lane and do it again. It forces you to think hard about every move you make, since just because a card can be used effectively in one lane doesn’t mean it can’t be even better in another.
Fighting the Hard Fight
There’s a beautiful asymmetry to Artifact’s design. Because you have to pick five Heroes from its four colors then split those Heroes between three lanes, neither of those decisions can ever cut evenly and you’re always left with an odd balance of colors and generally lopsided lanes. That imbalance punishes positioning and deck-building mistakes much harder than many card games do, but it also makes every decision more important and impactful.
I loved having to think carefully about what color Hero I might need in a given lane multiple turns down the line.
Each of the four colors has its own unique and interesting playstyle. For example, red Heroes usually have the strongest stats, green cards can help you get more mana to play huge unit cards called Creeps, blue has the best access to powerful AoE spells, and black can generate tons of gold to buy item cards that buff your Heroes mid-match. Each color has more strategic directions it can go too, and there’s plenty of room to find a personal preference here.
Colors can be mixed and matched, but you can only play cards in a lane if you have a Hero of the same color there. That makes adding more colors a balancing act, and picking which lanes to deploy those Heroes to a puzzle in itself. Heroes will generally stay in a lane until they die or you use an item or ability to move them around, and I loved having think carefully about what color Hero I might need in a given lane multiple turns down the line.
While you can make single-color decks, I found them to be far less fun than those containing two or even three colors. I really enjoy playing around the card-color limitations, making sure I had the right color Hero when I needed them. Mixing colors also gives you access to more diverse strategies – if you are building a blue deck around creating a board full of Creeps, you could pair it with green’s Creep-buffing cards, black’s tower-destruction potential, or red’s stronger Heroes to balance blue’s weaker ones.
Sometimes Artifact feels less like you’re trying to fight for a kill and more like you are trying to delay your own death to be just a little after your opponent’s.
Artifact’s three lanes also mean you aren’t locked into the more traditional attacker/defender roles that play out in other card games because you’ll often have to do both at once. You could be aggressively pushing down one lane while trying to frantically defend yourself in another. I really enjoyed that these roles are mixed up because it makes losing games feel less hopeless.
Sometimes the strategy in Artifact feels less like you’re trying to fight for a kill and more like you are just trying to delay your own death a little longer than your opponent delays theirs. Because play always flows from left to right, it doesn’t matter if you will 100% lose a match in the right lane if you can win in the left before that happens. I was constantly fighting to save a tower for just one more turn to buy me the time to win elsewhere, creating consistently tense matches with plenty of opportunities to outthink your opponent.
Complexity Without Confusion
While the multitasking required is initially headache-inducing, it never truly felt overwhelming. There’s a huge amount to keep track of but you’re still only doing one thing at a time, then letting your opponent respond. It distributes decision making into digestible, bite-size chunks while still allowing for an insane amount of strategizing once you’re more comfortable with the basics.
All that thinking can make match times a little long, however. I’ve never found it unreasonable, averaging around the low end of the 20-30 minute range in my experience, but it does make it harder to dip in and out of Artifact for a casual match than it is with something like Hearthstone.
But my most gratifying wins in Artifact were the ones I planned whole rounds in advance.
But my most gratifying wins in Artifact were the ones I planned whole rounds in advance. Surveying all three boards and putting together a plan not for the lane you were fighting in right now, but for a different lane in the next round was always immensely rewarding when it paid off.
A huge part of that is the Initiative system, which allows the player who passed first in a lane to act first in the next. That means if I want to use a card like Intimidation to send one of my opponent’s Heroes to another random lane before they can play any cards with that hero, I’d have to play the lanes before that one extremely passively (potentially letting bad stuff happen) just to make sure I had Initiative to act first.
But having Initiative isn’t always a good thing. Playing first means your opponent gets the first chance to respond, so there’s a whole other level of trying to stall your actions until they’ve showed their hand. I love that the decisions Artifact forces you to make aren’t cut and dry – there isn’t always a “best” thing to do, and it really depends on you to decide if the situation you’re in means you want to go first or second.
Artifact is also one of the few digital card games I’ve played that doesn’t make me miss Magic’s “Instant” cards, which can be played during your opponent’s turn. That’s an easy effect to implement in a physical card game because you can just interrupt your opponent and say “I have this Instant card,” but you can’t do that digitally. Taking out Instants normally means you have fewer moments to meaningfully counter your opponent during a match, but that’s not the case for Artifact.
Hearthstone introduced the half-measure Secret cards to help add interaction on an opponent’s turn, while other games like Hex have you clunkily pass priority every time your opponent does anything in case you want to use a card. Neither method comes close Artifact, which flat-out made me forget about Instant cards altogether. Because you are constantly going back and forth with a single action at a time, every card is basically an Instant. Every card can be a response, or be responded to, without slowing things down or introducing a new card type. It’s brilliant in its elegance.
One occasionally frustrating aspect of Artifact is the unpredictability of some of its effects. For instance, two fairly weak basic Melee Creeps are deployed for both players between rounds, but what lanes they spawn in and where they are placed in that lane is random, and that placement can make a big difference during a given match. Targeting arrows are also distributed randomly, but at least those can be more easily changed or adjusted with the right cards and items.
To be clear, there is an immense amount of skill involved in winning a game of Artifact, and the better player and the better plan will usually win out in the long run. But it’s still frustrating when the difference between taking a tower one turn or the next comes down to a bad Creep spawn pattern or an ill-pointed arrow, and a card like Cheating Death – which gives units in a lane a 50% chance to just not die – is still aggravating in the moment, no matter if it’s balanced or not. Of course, planning for bad outcomes is a vital part of your overall strategy, much in the same way it is in games like Fire Emblem or XCOM, and I never felt like these random effects undermined that since being able to think quickly about how to best take advantage of an unexpected situation is part of the challenge.
A Million Little Details
There is an absurd amount of well voiced dialogue in Artifact, much of which is hidden behind extremely specific interactions.
Amidst all the mindgames of managing three lanes are more tiny details than any one person could ever possibly find (but the internet will likely collectively pick up on fairly quickly). There is an absurd amount of well voiced dialogue in Artifact, much of which is hidden behind extremely specific interactions between Heroes or Creeps. For example, the Satyr Duelist will say different things depending on which allied green Hero is used to play him.
Those interactions are uncountably common, but there are also more subtle ones. Playing the Bronze Legionnaire Creep to block the Hero Legion Commander – canonically his leader – will cause him to apologize to her. And it gets even more intricate than that: if the Rebel Decoy Creep is going to die in combat but swaps with the green Hero Rix, the Decoy will emotionally say “Rix, you saved me!” in way that indicates there’s real history there.
That’s because there is. You could just sling these cards and blow up some towers and not pay attention to any of this, but there is a deep well of Dota 2 lore and story (new and old) hidden just underneath the surface of Artifact. Every single card has a paragraph or more of text than can be viewed in the collection, all of which is fully voiced. Digging into that lore tells the story of the initial Call to Arms card set that Artifact launched with – an unnecessarily detailed tale of three factions at war with a companion comic book online.
Again, you can avoid this entirely if you’d like, but it’s incredibly enjoyable and rewarding to realize that all of these cards and characters are connected by more than just colors. There are real reasons for why certain cards have the abilities they do – like Lodestone Demolition dealing tower damage equal to your enemy’s armor because it’s telling the story of battle where a magnetic bomb was used to pull the heavily armored Bronze Legion through their own fortifications. That added flavor makes every card more than paper thin.
The charming Deck Imps have no impact on gameplay, but they bring so much life and character to Artifact.
The music and art in Artifact are also top notch. The score will shift as towers are destroyed or damage is threatened, as will the adorably expressive Deck Imp sidekick each player has. These charming little creatures have no impact on gameplay, but they bring so much life and character to Artifact. They’ll pull out swords when you equip one on a Hero, frantically gesture at your tower, or even pull out a push broom to sweep up your opponent’s side of the board when you clear all their units.
There are also a ridiculous amount of smaller quality-of-life touches. Combat damage being clearly displayed ahead of time is so important to understanding the outcome of your actions, and loads of tooltips that explain every little thing help make a complex game more manageable to learn. Other stuff, like a built-in deck tracker, seeing how long an opponent has been holding each of their cards when you mouse over them, or revealed cards in there hand being displayed face-up is all helpful frosting on an already well-decorated cake.
The Price of Playing
Artifact models itself more after a physical card game than a digital one when it comes to building your collection. Its $20 price tag comes with 10 $2 card packs, alongside two starter decks and five $1 Event Tickets that let you play its Gauntlet modes – those give you a chance to win your entry ticket back, as well as free card packs if you do well enough. Since Artifact comes with far more than $20 worth of in-game stuff, it’s less a price tag and more of a way to warn everybody that this isn’t a free-to-play game.
There is also a community marketplace where you can buy and sell cards for real money. There’s no free currency here, so you’ll need to either win Gauntlets or shell out cash for new cards, which will be familiar to anyone with experience in physical card games and potentially off-putting to those coming from a free-to-play digital card game background. Thankfully, every pack of 12 cards includes one Rare (the least common of Artifact’s three card rarities) which mitigates having to hunt for hard-to-get cards with impossibly low drop rates.
One massive leg up over pretty much any card game out there, however, is Artifact’s inclusion of a completely free Draft mode. Here, you open card packs and build a deck out of the cards you pick from them, then battling against other drafted decks. Draft is Artifact’s strongest mode, more fun than regular constructed play because of the strategy and unpredictability that comes from building a deck on the fly.
Even if you don’t get to keep the cards you pick and aren’t playing for rewards in the free version of Draft, the fact that you can still play Draft endlessly without spending a dime is a huge deal. It forgoes the feeling of “that person just spent more money on cards than me” as everyone is on a level playing field. It also lets you practice for the two Draft Gauntlets that cost Event Tickets and put rewards on the line, one of which even lets you provide your own packs and keep the cards you pick.
Overall, Artifact’s economy feels totally reasonable to me, especially when there are ways to win cards with real monetary value just by doing well in Gauntlets. The easy to use marketplace has also mellowed out since launch, which is what I was expecting. A red hero called Axe is currently the most expensive card at around $11, and less than 10 cards total in the 310 card Call to Arms set sell for more than $2. The vast majority of cards cost closer to five cents each, and it’s not hard to find fairly good cards for cheap, even if the absolute best are only available at the higher end of the scale.
What qualifies as “expensive” is subjective to each person, but Artifact is fairly affordable compared to other trading card games.
What qualifies as an “expensive” card or deck will almost certainly be subjective to each person based on their disposable income, but Artifact is fairly affordable compared to other trading card games. Recent Artifact tournament competitors have been using decks roughly in the $30 to $60 range, as opposed to most competitive Magic deck, which often cost hundreds. You could currently buy a full set of Call to Arms cards (one of each hero, three of each other card) for less than $200 – that’s still a ton of money, but spending the same amount in Hearthstone would likely still leave you missing some of a set’s most rare cards.
And you don’t need to buy all of the Call to Arms set outright. Artifact’s deck builder lets you plan decks using cards you don’t have, showing in real-time how much it would cost to buy the cards you are missing. That streamlines the marketplace process, and let me buy just the cards I needed at any given time. It’s not hard to sell off unwanted cards (or even Steam trading cards from other games) to buy some of the better or rarer ones I’m missing, ultimately feeling cheaper – or at least more worth my time – than gathering crafting dust for a specific legendary in Hearthstone. And, thankfully, none of this affects Artifact’s excellent Draft mode anyway.
What Comes Next
Despite being one of the most polished and detailed digital card games I’ve played, Artifact does feel like it could have launched into Early Access if Valve wanted to use that label. It’s not that it feels unfinished, but it’s clearly a game that’s left lots of room to grow. As it stands now, it occasionally feels like it’s missing a few expected layers of features outside of its already fantastic in-match experience.
The biggest omission is any sort of progression system. Artifact’s Gauntlet modes are set up to feel more like mini-tournaments (and there is an actual in-game tournament creator for those interested), but that means there’s no rankings of any kind and essentially no stat tracking whatsoever. You can see how many five-win Gauntlets you’ve had, but I desperately want something like a profile page to show me my total games played or won, my most-played colors or Heroes, and as much other data as Valve can share.
Artifact is a ton of fun already, but it’s still missing some of the bigger picture hooks I’ve come to expect from an online competitive game.
It is a bit refreshing for a game not to immediately funnel me toward a ranked ladder as the be-all-end-all reason for playing – I keep coming back to Artifact just because of how fun it is, not to grind – but two weeks after launch, that pull is starting to weaken without those bigger-picture hooks I’ve come to expect from an online competitive game. Alongside stat-tracking and progression, some sort of customization or cosmetic options would cement my obsession with Artifact’s already impressive mechanical core.
That said, I am confident about the future of Artifact. While there haven’t been as many post-launch updates yet, Valve has been listening to the community and has already made significant, sometimes fantastic changes – like a way to turn unneeded cards into Event Tickets or adding the exceptionally generous free Draft mode. Valve even stated publicly that adding progression systems is at the top of its post-launch todo list.