Quick, how many fantasy collectible card games (CCGs) can you name beyond Magic: The Gathering? Back in 1994, everyone tried to follow the trend that Magic established and most are barely memorable. Some will probably mention Yu-Gi-Oh!, Pokemon: The Card Game, or Netrunner, by far the most popular competitors overall, but they're not really fantasy-based. Points and kudos if you remember Spellfire, Legend of the Five Rings, or the World of Warcraft card game. The point is Magic: The Gathering has a very long history and it's one of the few games in its genre that's still kicking or even remembered.
Some of these CCGs tried to release a digital version of their physical game, but none really took off. Blizzard Entertainment took a shot at making a completely digital CCG in Hearthstone, which was a huge success for the company. Success breeds competition and Hearthstone has since fended off Gwent, The Elder Scrolls Legends, and even Magic: The Gathering Arena. Now it's time for Valve to throw its own hat into the ring with Artifact, a digital CCG based on its fan-favorite free-to-play game Dota 2.
The big problem with competing in the collectible card game market is the sunk costs. As a player, your chances of jumping from one game to the next become lower the more you play because CCGs are time-consuming and expensive. Physical card game manufacturers had to bet on existing brands like Pokemon, Star Wars, and Star Trek, or alternate genres, like Netrunner. The competition rising in the face of Hearthstone has largely stuck with the same genre—fantasy—against a fanbase Blizzard has been building since 2014.
It's an uphill battle, one developers are only now coming to terms with. You can't just be Hearthstone again; players of Hearthstone aren't moving to other games en masse. Gwent is looking to differentiate itself by leaning hard on a single-player RPG experience with Thronebreaker. The Elder Scrolls Legends is trying to expand to platforms that Hearthstone has ignored, like Xbox One or Nintendo Switch. Hand of the Gods, the game formerly known as Smite Tactics, has a turn-based strategy playing field where its cards are deployed.
I had a chance to play Artifact at PAX West. It's certainly a well-crafted digital card game. It was designed by Richard Garfield, the creator behind the aforementioned Magic: The Gathering and Netrunner. And Dota 2 has a legion of fans behind it, many of whom could be convinced to include a collectible card game in their monthly game budgets.
In practice, Artifact is another digital collectible card game. It took me a few minutes to understand the specific rulesets, but once I had those down it was dead simple to play. Where Artifact really tries to differentiate itself is in the playing field.
Just as Dota 2 is played across three lanes, so too is Artifact. In this case, the three "lanes" are three distinct boards onto which you play your cards. Your object to damage your opponent's towers, which represent their health on each lane. You win by either destroying two towers, or by destroying one tower, which summons a guardian, and then killing that guardian. Each turn has you playing across all three lanes in order; the strategy comes in figuring out where your focus is. Do you let one lane go in order to press the attack on another? You and your opponent are essentially playing three card games at once, though drawing from a single deck.
Like a number of other CCGs, every card in Artifact is sorted by color: red, blue, green, and black. Blue cards focus more on spells, Red cards are about very strong heroes, Black is all strong single-target damage and trickery, and Green cards you play if you want to focus on building a strong army of non-heroes. You need to a hero out on a lane in order to play any spell or creep cards on that lane, and you're limited to playing cards that match the color of that hero. So you need to play the right heroes across all three lanes, while systematically destroying enemy heroes to prevent your opponent from playing any cards at all.
On a single playing field, I'd say the system is pretty rote and straightforward, but on multiple lanes, it's kind of fun. You can throw out feints to trick your opponent to overcommitting too far in one direction. After a game against the AI in order to understand how the game plays, I won my second game against a live player by tricking him into ignoring one lane while I was building up my forces.
I was playing an assigned Green/Black deck and I was dropping my stronger Black heroes on the other two lanes. On my last lane, I played a single Green hero and focused on keeping them alive. In my hand were two Green creep cards whose attack power was half of however much gold I had. Gold is Artifact's currency, used to buy weapons and armor each round to buff your heroes. You gain gold by killing creeps and heroes. I wasn't spending any, because I was waiting.
I hit 50 gold and played two of the specific creep card, each having 25 damage thanks to my gold stores. That easily crushes most creep and heroes cards, while also being far too much damage against a lane's tower, which only has 40 health. On my last turn, I also played a card which healed the entire lane and gave it a null damage shield. It was fun seeing the seconds tick by as my human opponent realized that they wer completely screwed. I won the round easily, all because they were busy worrying about the lanes manned by my stronger Black heroes.
Which is to say that the lane mechanic—working somewhat like multi-board chess—is probably the defining feature of Artifact. I just don't know if it's enough to pull players towards a latecomer in the genre. It has to overcome players' sunk costs in Hearthstone, Gwent, and The Elder Scrolls Legends.
Ultimately, Artifact also has to surpass some of Valve's more interesting infrastructure decisions, like the inability to gain card packs through any other means than payment and a lack of moderation for the game's live chat. Artifact will have no single-player campaign either, something other games have used to onboard new players. Those factors can be seen as barriers to entry; it'll be intriguing to see how Valve overcomes those barriers.
Artifact's beta begins in October on PC and Valve will be monitoring the community to see where the game can improve overall.