The CCG Thread – Current Events: First Look at Valve’s _Artifact_

Welcome to the *CG thread, where we talk all manner of Card Games – Collectible, Trading, Living, and otherwise! Feel free to chat amongst yourselves about the card games you’re playing or anything card game-related that strikes your fancy.

“In the same way that Half-Life was […] the definitive statement of what a first-person action game was, that’s what Artifact is in terms of trading card games.”

That was Gabe Newell giving a first-look at Artifact, Valve’s entry into the digital CCG sphere. This past week, Valve presented Artifact to a number of games journalists and let them play a short demo with preconstructed decks. He also announced the involvement of Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic and of the modern CCG as a genre. Nominally, Artifact is a Dota card game, in that it is set in the Dota universe, but it wasn’t actually designed as one. Richard Garfield had been working on the game already and brought it to Valve, at which point they realized that it fit into the Dota mold and ran with the theming.

That in mind, Artifact comes as a sort of response to the Digital CCG paradigms, especially the focus on mobile games – Hearthstone is designed for mobile and Eternal, while not mobile-first, still is constrained by what makes sense for mobile. Artifact is very much not focused on mobile, which opens up the design for more visual density and complexity. Richard Garfield has in the past noted his frustration with porting Magic to digital – it is an inherently paper game, and that history of things that “just work” in physical games that become difficult to implement digitally. By designing the game with digital in mind, it both opens up things that can’t be done physically (Garfield notes that the game was originally a “trading object game” rather than cards) and allows digital interface and flow of play to be much smoother and more refined. Artifact is meant to foster an open-endedness of deck building and strategy that Richard Garfield hasn’t seen in the more constrained, narrow, mobile CCGs.

So what is this game all about? Also what’s a Dota and why should I care?

The game takes place on 3 separate boards, also called “lanes.” If you’re familiar with Dota or MOBAs in general, that might mean something to you, but if you’re not: Dota is also played in lanes. Your deck contains 5 Hero cards, which get placed in lanes. Heroes come with a package of 3 cards each, which go in your deck along with the hero (this is where the “trading object game” aspect comes up. When I heard about this, it reminded me of the game Card Hunter that came out a while back, which was a sort of CCG/Tactics RPG hybrid game where equipment that you attached to characters put a set of action cards into that character’s deck.) You then fill out your 40-card minimum deck with other cards, but unlike Hearthstone, you can make decks that are larger than the minimum. Cards and Heroes will have colors – red, green, blue, or black, similar to Magic or Eternal – but instead of requiring different colors of resources, each board has its own colorless resource pool that increases over time and spells of a given color must be cast in a lane where you have a Hero of that color. Heroes can be moved between lanes (if you have a card that lets you), or if a Hero dies, you can “respawn” it next round in a different lane. Get it, because it’s like a MOBA? Speaking of MOBAs, each lane has a tower for each player that you can attack. When you kill a tower, an Ancient (as in Defense Of The) replaces it. If you kill the Ancient or two of your opponent’s towers, you win the game. Also, towers are defended by Creeps (moba moba moba moba) that are generated each round. And some portion of your deck is made up of Items that get allocated to the “Store” which you have to earn over the course of the game by killing Creeps and Heroes to earn gold.

I’m extrapolating from what little information I have, but it seems like turns are played simultaneously – for each lane in order, both players choose to either play a card or pass. If a card is played, you can play Reactions (analogous to Magic’s Instants) to that card. Then, repeat the process until both players pass. Once both players pass, combat happens in that lane and players move on to the next lane.

If that all strikes you as complicated, I agree – Artifact definitely seems like a game that frontloads the complexity and hopes to soften that through the digital interface – a benefit of digital is that complicated rules and procedures can be hidden behind implementation and good UI. Something that’s interesting to me is that the game starts with heroes already placed in lanes and mana already in your resource pool – kind of like if you started the game already on turn 4. This probably helps make the starting turns more interesting than early Magic turns and limits the number of games where someone stumbles on their opening hands (as mentioned in my writeup of Variance)

Ok, but what will all this cost?

Gabe Newell was fairly adamant about this: Artifact is not Free-to-Play. He wasn’t entirely forthcoming on what that means, but the most likely thing is that it follows more of a Magic Online model – you buy packs and trade packs and cards amongst other players (via the Steam marketplace) and then you can win packs in tournaments (with entry fees modulated to ensure that too many cards don’t enter the economy). Newell notes that there is this unintuitive phenomenon where paper games are more liquid in terms of the card economy than digital games are. Having a liquid economy makes switching decks easier, which is friendlier to the player. Newell was very focused on the benefits of the economy model for Artifact rather than a Hearthstone-esque alternate-currency-based model (i.e. “dust”). This is important because in his vision, your cards will hold value. Newell says:

“If anything has a value of zero, any connection to other assets, it drives down all other assets to zero as well. If time is free, an account is free, or cards are free, then anything with a mathematical relationship to those things becomes devalued over time. You don’t want to create a flood of free stuff.”

A short aside: Digital cards generally have a flat value and instant depreciation – when you get a card in Hearthstone, you can’t trade it, only turn it into dust, which is (generally) worth less than the card itself. Paper cards on the other hand, have market fluctuation (and steady depreciation over time, as more cards are opened or the card rotates out of format, though this is speaking overall – some cards will go up in price once they go out of print). Digital games also generally make all cards in a rarity equivalent value-wise – a rare in Hearthstone is always worth 20 dust, an epic always 100 – whereas a paper market sets the price based on demand, with some cards going up in price when a deck featuring it is heavily played, but others going down, or vice versa as the decks that are good or popular shift. Speaking personally, the market model is part of Magic’s appeal because I enjoy taking less popular (cheaper) cards and using them in new, fun (and very occasionally effective) ways, letting me play Magic in a very satisfying way without spending too much money.

When you buy Artifact, you get a couple starter decks. Of this, developer Brandon Reinhart says:

“It isn’t the case that that deck wouldn’t be competitive because it has bad cards. It’s because everyone will know that deck. Those decks won’t have the same metagame advantages you get from doing intentional deck design.”

There is an implication there of a “flat” power curve. This… while not exactly unbelievable, seems to me a little misguided. There are, by necessity, going to be cards that aren’t as “good” as others. Aiming for them all to be the same is both difficult and not productive. Players will find the good cards. Don’t worry about some of your cards being “bad”. Bad cards are part of the learning process, and they lead to the appealing collection-building aspect of CCGs. And as for the “metagame” comments, having a path to incremental improvement is important in the learning/growing process of becoming a skilled player. A focus on tuning against a metagame makes me worried that the game is going to be targeted at the high-intensity tournament scene and metagame tuning, rather than the fun (to me at least) of discovery and innovation.

Newell also talks about how other card games are “pay-to-win” which I find somewhat misguided (though not entirely wrong… to a point) and how rarity corresponds to power and how that’s symptomatic of game designers being greedy, which I find willfully ignorant at best. But the whole “pay-to-win” concept is probably worth a whole post of its own, so I’ll get to that eventually.

Modding also comes up – presumably this will be powered by Steam workshop. Right now they are only opening it up to illustrators, but it sounds like more is planned. This is interesting from a comparison to physical Magic in that it’s analogous to card alterists – people who you can commission paint or draw on Magic cards that you own, ranging from extending the art that’s already on the card to……. anime boobs. So we’ll see how long it takes for Artifact to be swimming in anime boobs, I guess.

Anyway, for the weekly prompt, the obivious question: What do you think? Are you going to play Artifact? Are you going to run as fast as you can from the slightest whisper of mooooobaaaa?

Or, as always, feel free to talk about anything going on with you in the world of *CGs.