(Edit: there are several small details in this analysis that have since been clarified or corrected. After you are finished this, please read the following article for further details.)
There are a lot of reasons to be excited about Valve’s upcoming digital card game Artifact. Valve as a studio has had an insane hit rate when it comes to high quality titles, but has been on a bit of a hiatus in terms of actually releasing games. Artifact is looking to be their first release in about 5 years, and is in a genre that they have never worked in: trading card games. Not only is it exciting that Valve is building a game for a different genre, bringing their no-holds-barred approach to strategic depth, but they are also partnering with Richard Garfield, the creator of the first trading card game, and prolific game designer! Everyone is anxious to see what comes out when you mix these various elements of greatness together.
As of right now Artifact is still in early closed beta with very little public information, but a couple of weeks ago a few videogame journalists got their first look at the game, and from that the community has begun to piece together what is going on. While many of these summaries have been well done journalistically, I feel like much of the content I have seen so far have not really pushed hard enough to capture all the nuance and depth we have seen so far. If you are someone who is just curious about Artifact these stories are great to get a bird’s-eye view of the game, but if you are a hardened card-addict you are going to want some more detailed consolidation. Yes it is sweet that there are heroes, and a store, and spells and stuff, but what do we know about the rules and mechanics that tie everything together? My objective in this article is to aggregate all that information, try to connect-the-dots on how things will actually work, and begin to keep a living document to be updated as more information is released. I hope that by the time open beta drops I can actually just convert this into a starter guide for players.
With that out of the way, let’s (tower) dive in!
Let’s go through the big-picture for the game. I am going to run through this fairly quickly, so if you read any of this and think “Huh, what does that mean? How does that work?” a lot of those will be answered below… unless they can’t really be answered, which will happen a few times.
Artifact is a card game based in the DOTA 2 world. Games are played between 2 players, each with a deck with at least 40 cards as well as 3 towers, each with 40 health. The objective of the game is to kill 2 of your opponent’s towers, or kill 1 tower and the 80 health “Ancient” that spawns after a tower dies. These towers are placed in separate lanes, each of which acts like a different game board. Each player has 5 chosen heroes, 3 of which randomly start in play (one in each lane). These hero cards are based off DOTA 2 characters, and will general have similar abilities to their MOBA counterpart, such as burly stats, powerful spells, or tactically useful abilities. Each hero is assigned to one of 4 factions: red, blue, black and green.
Characters in Artifact have 3 “stats”: attack, armor, and health. Attack and health work exactly how you would expect, but armor not typically a stat used in card games. Armor blocks damage from enemies, where each incoming damage is reduced by the armor value. For example, Axe has 2 armor, meaning if he was hit by a unit with 3 attack he would only take 1 damage. It sounds like it is actually possible for characters to have negative armor, which means that damage dealt would be magnified, which is potentially quite powerful. If a hero with -2 armor was hit be a 3 attack enemy 5 damage would be dealt. It has also been confirmed that it is possible for Towers to gain armor as well.
Players start with 5 cards each, and draw 2 cards every turn. There does not appear to be a "mulligan" or "redraw" system. Mana is tracked separately in each lane, and the game starts with each player having access to 3 mana in each lane. Each round involves both players taking turns using cards until both players decide to stop, at which point combat happens. When you kill units you gain gold, which can be spent at the very end of every turn to buy equipment to pimp out your heroes, as well as consumables like potions.
Artifact appears to use a mana and health system similar to Hearthstone rather than Magic. Assuming normal gameplay, the mana in each lane will scale by 1 each turn, without investing resource cards like “land”. Damage on units is not reset between turns, as happens in Magic. These are obviously fundamentally important elements to the rules engine, which has a big impact on the game mechanics. Unlike either Magic or Hearthstone, Artifact uses what could be called a “collision combat” system, rather than the direct attack used in Hearthstone, or the attacker/blocker system seen in Magic. I will give more details on what we know about combat in the “Combat” section.
Each side has 5 hero cards, which are publicly shared at the start of each game. You must play 5 different Heroes, but they can be all the same color, or any mix of colors that you like. At the start of the game 3 Heroes are chosen from each side to be placed randomly in each of the 3 lanes, along with some “creep” units. One point of terminology to mention: the word “unit” means either creeps or heroes. At one level, these heroes are like the units/minions/creatures you will see in any card game, bashing into other units, and hopefully eventually killing the opponent, but on another level they are way more important. In many respects, heroes are the defining feature of Artifact, and will be instrumental in determining the strategy of your deck, and the way the game plays out.
The first important role that your heroes play (other then combat) is allowing you to play your spells. In order to cast a red spell you need to have a red hero in your lane, while black spells require having a black hero, etc. This means that if you lose all your heroes in a lane then you can’t play any spells! There do not appear to be “multicolor” heroes or spells, or “neutral” spells, but this has not been confirmed by Valve. While there are some cross-lane and global spells, it does seem like managing the heroes in each lane will likely be an important part of the strategy to effectively play your cards, and deny your opponent from deploying their resources optimally.
Clearly allowing you to cast spells is important, but heroes do even more than that! Each hero shuffles in 3 cards into your deck at the start of the game. We don’t have a lot of details about this, and it is unclear whether these cards will each be unique, or if some of these cards might be copies of cards found elsewhere in the game, or even if they count to your 40 card deck size. Still, even if these 15 cards are in addition to the 40 cards you start with, that is over ¼ of your deck that are put there by heroes, meaning a sizable chunk of what your deck “does” is just locked in by the 5 heroes that you choose. You can also imagine that some heroes might come with some ultra-powerful ultimate cards that get shuffled into your deck.
So heroes let you cast spells, and determine a big chunk of your deck. What else do they do? Well, many come with specific sets of abilities. Zeus loves chucking lightning bolts, so his ability helps spread around the damage of your blue spells. Phantom Assassin is all about cutting down enemy heroes, so she gets an attack bonus when she is hitting one. It is unclear how many of these abilities are specific to just one hero, or are found across multiple cards, but it seems like there are a lot of them, so I expect many heroes will have unique abilities.
So heroes participate in combat, let you play spells, put cards in your deck, and have sweet abilities, what else could they possibly do? Well, I still have not mentioned their most important function – playing dress-up! Each hero has 3 equipment slots that allow you to properly accessorize each member of your team, so you can make the appropriate fashion statement to your opponent. Valve knows how much players love cosmetics, so they decided to integrate this as a core functionality to the game. I am very excited to show off my skills in the hero-skin metagame.
Joking aside, equipment slots are about buffing your hero, and don’t actually have an aesthetic impact on the game.
Each hero can hold a weapon, a piece of armor, and a trinket. These items buff the base stats of the hero and can also give bonus abilities. It should be noted that these items stay attached to a hero after they die, so unlike pump effects from other games, items are not setting up for “2-for-1s” in the same way auras and buff spells do in Magic or Hearthstone. There appears to be at least some “equipment destruction” effects in the game, meaning you can get punished for investing hard in fancy items. Most items are purchased in the shop, and I will talk more about buying items when we get to the “shop” section. It looks like most items cost 0-mana to play, which is actually quite powerful. Equipment also appears to be neutral, meaning any equipment can be used on any hero. There is probably some pieces of equipment that are specifically good/bad on any hero, but right now it looks like there are no restrictions on who can use what.
At the start of every turn (after the first one) you get to place one of your heroes in a lane of your choice. Heroes that died earlier in the game can be placed, though there is a 1-turn cooldown for most heroes before they can be redeployed. It doesn’t appear like you get to choose which hero you get to place, but it is unclear what the rules are which hero is placed when. Some green heroes have “rapid deployment” which allows them to be redeployed the turn after they die, but as you might expect they pay for this in the stats department. As I mentioned above, equipment for your heroes is permanent, though it is unclear if buffs from spell effects or abilities are ever permanent. For example, Bristleback as the ability that each time it kills a hero he gains 2 armor. Given how powerful that is, I doubt this is permanent, but I am curious if that is ever the case. On this subject, it was said that heroes do not “level up”, which means the primary axis for scaling heroes in the game is going to be the use of equipment.
As I said, heroes do a lot, and are the most important pieces in the game. I know that my head is already full of ideas around what would make cool heroes, but we will need to wait and see what we actually get. According to Valve we should expect about 50 heroes in the first set.
Artifact is based on DOTA 2 right? Well, we gotta have 3 lanes! While there is a “left” “middle” and “right” lane, there doesn’t seem to be any differences between the lanes. It is probably best to not think of heroes as being “mid-lane heroes” or whatever, since lanes do not have distinguishing features. This is especially important given that most decks will probably not play all 4 colors of hero, meaning that your team composition will often not have a hero that actually fit each of the traditional roles you would expect in a MOBA.
Well, I suppose I should say lanes don’t have any distinguishing features at the beginning of the game. We have been told that there are “attachment” cards, which you connect to one of your lanes. Some examples that have been shared include Assault Ladders, which gives your units extra attack when attacking a tower, or another attachment that gives your tower +2 armor. It appears as if most attachments are largely faction specific, meaning you need a hero of the appropriate color to play them, though I imagine the shop might sell some neutral attachments. You can also play an attachment to any lane assuming you have the correct hero type in the lane you are playing it from. For example, watch this gameplay clip. The opponent plays Trebuchet – a black attachment – from their right lane into the left lane, even though the left lane has no black hero.
I mentioned a number of times that playing colored cards requires a hero of that color, but what happens if you want to cast a blue spell in the left lane and both your blue heroes are placed in the middle and right lane? Some spells can hit one or more lanes other than the one you are casting the spell from, but I don’t believe that is typically the case. One way to reposition a hero is to have it die and then replay it in an upcoming deployment step. This approach isn’t exactly great, since it relies on your enemies to cooperate at least a bit, and feeds them gold. It is also possible to reposition by using items like the Scroll of Town Portal, which (I think) returns your hero to the deployment zone, or use cards like Blink Dagger, which let you move a hero another lane. There are some open questions about how cards like Blink Dagger works, since it currently just says “Active: move hero to another lane”. Does that mean when you play Blink Dagger? Or is this an ability you activate? If it is activated, how often can you activate it? Can you activate it when you are in a lane other than the one with the hero with blink dagger? I’m sure all this is worked out internally, but we have no details on this as far as I know.
Obviously choosing which lane a hero is deployed matters a lot, but even positioning within a lane matters. I will be talking more about combat below, but positioning is going to be extremely important for dictating the outcome of combat, as it will play an important role in deciding whether your heroes hit a creep, a hero or a tower. There are also heroes like Lycan that boost the stats of his neighbors. This is unlike games such as Magic and Eternal, where the positioning on the battlefield is meaningless, and can be rearranged arbitrarily.
Heroes are clearly the most important units on the board, but they are not the only ones. “Creeps” are units that are summoned to the board to do battle, and while they are typically smaller then heroes, they are also an important part of the action. The most common creep in the game appears to be a 2/0/4. At the start of the game 3 of these generic dorks are placed on both sides of the board. The exact rules are not clear, but it sounds like the placement is totally random, meaning it is possible to have all three creeps in one lane, spread out 1 in each lane, or a 2-1-0 split.
New creeps also spawn every round, with 2 new 2/0/4 creeps being placed randomly at the start of every turn past the first. You actually get to see in which lane creeps are going to be placed before committing your hero during the deployment phase, with is obviously useful strategic information. While you get to see in what lane the creeps will spawn, you don’t get to see in what arrangement they are going to show up. For example, if you are placing 1 creep and a hero in one of the lanes that already has one creep, you don’t get to choose if your hero is deployed on the left, right or in the centre. If you spend a moment to think about this, you will quickly realize the dizzying number of possible arrangements after deployment once things get a little complicated. The exact configuration of the creeps and heroes is going to be very important for the outcome of combat, so I am very curious to see how these things are determined.
There are some unit cards you will have access to outside of your heroes and the creeps that spawn every turn. We have seen a small handful of them, but it isn’t clear to me how these are deployed. They appear to be neutral when on the board, and they don’t have a mana or gold cost clearly labelled anywhere on them, but in at least some instances they are created by a spell. We have been told that you cannot give equipment to non-hero units, but that doesn’t mean there is no way to augment them. It isn’t outlandish to imagine that there might be cards that either buff creeps that are currently in play, allow you to spawn mega-creeps moving forward, or permanently debuff your opponent’s creeps.
For me, the nature of non-hero units is a topic I really look forward to learn more about. We have a lot more information about heroes, which makes sense as they are the focal point of the game, both from a mechanical and in terms of branding. Still, there is a lot of interesting design space for non-hero units, and I am extremely curious what is happening in that space.
Artifact has 4 colors of heroes and cards: red, blue, green and black. It may seem like blasphemy that Richard Garfield opted for 4 colors rather than 5, but I trust the man. People familiar with Magic’s 5 colors will likely be a familiar with the idea, but these colors do not overlap entirely with their MTG counterparts. Let’s run through them.
Red: color of tanks and aggression. Their heroes tend to be shorter on abilities, but long on stats. Confirmed red heroes: Axe, Bristleback, and Legion Commander
Black: faction of assassination and greed. These heroes are best at choosing a target and taking it down, whether that is an enemy hero or a tower. Confirmed black heroes: Sorla Khan and Phantom Assassin.
Green: faction of mobility and support. If you want to buff your team, or reposition your heroes then green is the faction for you. Confirmed green heroes: Rix and Lycan.
Blue: faction of magic and disruption. While their heroes may not pack the biggest punch, their spells are their strength, allowing you to control the late game. Confirmed blue heroes: Zeus, Crystal Maiden, and Luna.
If you care about how this compares with Magic’s color pie, there are a few differences I would note. First, white is the color that is missing, with a lot of the traditional white abilities moved into green. In exchange, green had to pass on the “biggest dudes” strength into red, which in turn passed off its strength with direct damage spells to blue. Black seems to be pretty similar mechanically, which makes a lot of sense given the connection to “black magic” and death. Still, there are lots of abilities that haven’t yet been defined to fall under a specific color, so there is a lot of space left to explore. I mentioned above that we have not yet seen any “multicolor” spells or heroes, which would be totally sweet, but might not make an appearance in the base set of the game.
Deciding the composition of your heroes is likely going to be quite the challenge for deckbuilding. If all your heroes are the same color than you will almost always be able to cast the spells you want on time, and will never get yourself in a position where you don’t have the right color of hero to do what you want. On the flip side, decks with only one color of hero might have certain distinct weaknesses. For example, a mono-red deck may be great and fielding a bunch of beefy heroes, but you might not have a lot of tools to interact with what your opponent is doing. Furthermore, you might have to dig further into the hero pool to fill out your roster, meaning that your last hero might be a lot worse than the first. On the flip side, a deck with 3 or more colors will really struggle with playing all the cards they want when they want, but will have access to a wider range of powerful cards. A 3+ color deck will also have a much deeper hero pool, and while there may be less synergy between the different members of your team, you will have a lot of freedom to do what you want.
Parts of a Turn
The structure of turns in Artifact is probably quite different from what many players will be used to. If I had to describe it, it seems like a combination of Magic and Gwent, and seems to be designed to both limit the influence of first-mover/second-mover advantage, while also creating a very active pacing to the game. You start every turn in the left lane, then move to the middle, and finally the right lane. In each of these lanes you have an "action phase" where both players take turns playing cards until both decide to stop, at which point combat happens. Once you are finished in the right lane you then move to the shopping phase and the deployment phase, and then the next turn starts. You can see a summary of this in this flow chart:
Let's first talk about how the "action phase" works. Basically, priority passes back-and-forth between the two players in a given lane until they both decide they don’t want to play any more cards, at which point combat happens, and we then move to the next board or the turn ends. I am going to cover combat in the next section, but we don’t need to know about that for now. Let’s go through some simple examples to show how this system works in practice.
Player 1 – Pass
Player 2 – Pass
-Left combat happens-
Player 1 – Pass
Player 2 – Play card A
Player 1 – Pass
Player 2 – Pass
-Middle combat happens-
Player 1 – Play card B
Player 2 – Pass
Player 1 – Play card C
Player 2 – Play card D
Player 1 – Play card E
Player 2 – Pass
Player 1 – Pass
-Right combat happens-
This is a pretty simple breakdown, but there are actually a lot of complicated rules implications. Let’s compare this to some games you might be familiar with. First off, if you are used to games like Hearthstone, this is going to be a really big change for you, since you are used to being able to just play out your entire turn without needing to plan around what your opponent is doing. You also don’t get to take any actions after combat happens, so play patterns like healing your minion after it bashes into your opponent’s minion before passing the turn is not possible.
If you are coming from Magic, or games with similar rule-sets to Magic, this probably looks somewhat familiar to you. Imagine that both players were taking “their turn” simultaneously. Both players untap and draw at the same time, and from that point they just pass priority back and forth until they both want to move to combat. As of right now it looks like there is no way to react to cards “on the stack”, so instants are not a thing from what I can tell. Obviously it is possible that some version of this does exist in the game, but we haven’t seen any so far. One of the biggest differences you will notice is that there is no second main phase. You will just move on to the next lane after combat.
Anyone who has played Gwent probably grasps this system pretty quickly. For anyone who doesn’t know anything about Gwent, each round consists of players taking turns playing cards until both decide to pass. Once one person decides to pass the other player can continue playing cards until they feel like stopping. One major difference is that in Artifact you always get a chance to respond to what your opponent does last. Passing means “I don’t have anything I want to do right now” not “I’m not going to do anything else this round.”
There are a few points worth clarifying. For example, how do you know who goes first in the next lane? I have watched through some of the limited gameplay videos that we have, and it looks like the last player to pass always goes second in the next lane. In practice, this means the last player to take an action in a lane always goes second in the next lane. In the example above Player 1 goes first in all three lanes. That is not a mistake - this is actually how it works (if I understand correctly). Until Player 1 actually does something, they are just going to continue going first. Now, in this example, Player 2 would go first at the start of the next turn, but the point still stands that you may be able to set up first/second mover advantage it key spots depending on your priorities.
Another point that is worth reiterating is that you get 2 cards at the start of each turn, not each lane. This means that if you are playing one card per lane you are likely going to empty your hand pretty quickly. Also, as I mentioned above, the mana on each lane is separate, and you start with 3 mana in each lane. This might feel a little weird to Magic and Hearthstone players, since you basically start the game on turn 3. This is probably for the purpose of balancing aggressively-stated heroes, as giving them multiple turns to just farm creeps and beat up towers could have been over-powered.
Finally we get to talk about combat! I know I have been teasing it for the whole article, but we finally get to dig into it. Artifact uses a very different combat system then what you might be used to if you are coming from Magic or Hearthstone (or similar games). It actually has the most similarities to Solforge from the games I have played. To describe it simply, units will attack targets directly in front of them, or diagonally left or diagonally right. If there is nothing in any of these positions why will always attack straight forward and hit the enemy tower. I am not totally clear on all the rules on how choosing attack targets works. Some of the sources have said that the targets in combat are chosen randomly, but watching through clips of Artifact gameplay it is clear that the rules are more complicated then that. Let’s just work through some simple board states to see how things work.
First up, I have a Sorla Khan, and my opponent’s side is totally empty, so she is going to bop the tower if combat happens now. This may seem very obvious, but it should be noted that this happens even if she was just deployed. Unlike Magic, Hearthstone, Solforge, and any other combat-centric card game I am aware of, all of Artifact’s units will fully participate in combat the turn they show up. It is like all the units have haste/charge! This really emphasizes the power of overstated heroes like Axe being able to just show up and farm kills. Anyway, back to our example, Sorla Khan will smack the tower for healthy chunk of damage.
Next up, we see a simple lane set-up where Sorla Khan is facing a single creep on the opponent’s side. If the creep is directly ahead of Sorla Khan, or in either of the highlighted positions, she will hit the creep instead of the tower. Obviously in this case the creep will die and deal 2 damage to the Sorla Khan, keeping the tower safe. I should mention that you can see where units are going to attack before combat happens. Obviously in this case Sorla can only hit the creep directly in front of her, but imagine that there was a creep in each of the two highlighted spaces, and not directly in front of her. You will be able to tell if Sorla is going to hit the one on the left or the right, and plan accordingly.
Targeting is very important in combat, and players don’t get full control of how combat will play out. While you can always see who is going to attack what before combat happens, it is possible to interrupt this by various means. Take this example; my Sorla Khan is going to kill the bajesus out of this Zeus, but our opponent was lucky enough to spawn a creep right in front of Sorla Khan. Now her attention is pulled to this creep, so instead of killing the hero like you wanted, she hits this dorky 2/0/4 instead. From what I understand, units will prioritize attacking a unit directly in front of them over a unit to the side. Zeus still has his attention turned on your hero though, and he is still going to hit her for 3. In fact, the damage in this case is only one way!
I said above that units default to attacking directly ahead of them right? Well, there are ways to redirect the attacks to other units. For example, lets take the action of “taunting”. When a unit taunts it means that all enemies that are able to attack it will attack it. This can be used strategically like is shown in the situations below. At first, it looks like Axe is going to maul my Sorla Khan, but then I use a taunt effect on my creep, which turns Axe’s attention away from my hero. There are other ways to control who is attacking what, such as moving units around within a lane, or using effects that redirect the attacks of the units on the board.
(Note: I am only like 80% sure this is how taunt works)
Anyone who plays MOBAs will know that “crowd-control” is an important part of the game. Stunning, freezing, or otherwise disabling your opponents at the correct moment will have a major impact on the outcome of a combat. In Artifact, it seems like these have been grouped together under the heading “disable”. Units that are disabled cannot deal damage in combat, but will still get hit by whoever is hitting them. This is unlike what you see in games like Hearthstone, where a frozen unit cannot attack, but will still deal damage if an enemy minion attacks it. You can see in the following example that my Sorla Khan is saved from certain death when I disable my opponent’s Axe. He is still taking a boatload of damage from my hero, so hopeful I can disable him again next turn and set up a clean kill.
Lastly, let’s talk momentarily about the re-arrangement that can happen after combat. If combat works out such that one of the “tracks” is empty then the two sides squeeze together to seal the gap. In this clip the two creeps second from the right kill each other, meaning that entire “track” is empty, causing the Zeus (blue hero) to move over closer to the Bristleback.
With all of this information, I will admit there is a lot I still don’t understand how combat works. Most of the news releases so far about Artifact have been pretty thin on mechanical detail, so I have pieced together this rules information from the few gameplay videos that have been released. When you actually go through them in detail, though, there are a bunch of board-states that are pretty confusing. If you don’t feel like digging into small nuances with the rules, you can skip to the “Shop” section, but if you like that kinda stuff, take this for example:
The big stupid arrows on the picture are my own addition to emphasize what I find confusing. My biggest question here is why Luna (the blue hero) is just attacking forward. There are legal targets to her left and to her right, but she is just ignoring them. Why? Did she randomly chose to attack forward, or is there some reason she is ignoring the two units in her attacking range? I had originally been under the impression that units will always attack units if there is one in their attack range, but I guess not. The two creeps on each of the sides just seem be acting inconsistently, with the one on the left choosing to kill the creep, while the one on the right is ignoring the Phantom Assassin (the black hero). Was this determined randomly? Or is there is a clear rule-set behind this to determine target priority?
One more confusing board-state before we move on. Once again, you can just skip to the “The Shop” section if you find the details of the rules dry.
Both of these screenshots came from this video. If you pick it up from the time stamp for that link you might notice my first point of confusion, which happens in the right lane. While the players are making their decisions around deployment it looks like Legion Commander (the red hero in right lane) is going to attack the tower. Once deployment actually happens her target switches to Rix. Maybe it is just a nuance of the visuals, and that the arrow’s direction doesn’t mean anything until the deployment happens? It is not like Rix was new to the lane, or that he moved around at all… Anyway, I don’t understand why Legion Commander is aiming down Rix rather than just attacking the tower, and they the two creeps are attacking the tower rather than the heroes. This is a similar question to what I was wondering about above, but I will leave all of this for now.
At the end of the turn you get to the shopping phase, where you can spend gold to buy fancy stuff. Before we get into how the shop works, lets talk about how gold collection works. Every time an enemy creep dies you get 1 gold, and every time an enemy hero dies you get 5 gold. Anything that kills units gives the same amount of gold, meaning that last hits and denies are just not an element in the game, so shooting your own hero to deny gold for your opponent is a really bad idea. As I understand it, killing towers gives no gold. There are probably some other sources of gold in the game. It isn’t hard to imagine an attachment that gave 2 gold/turn, a hero that gave 1 gold/turn as a passive. Black has access to gold-related effects, like the spell “Day at the Track” which doubles your current gold. Still, the primary way to gain gold appears to be killing enemy units.
The shopping phase starts right after combat in the right lane, and before the deployment step (I don’t think you get to see where the creeps are spawning while you are shopping). Your little helpful imp will open up the shop for you, and you will be presented with a screen that looks like this (I added the colored boxes):
It is actually easiest to work from right to left, so let’s start there. The right item is always going to be a consumable such as a potions that restores a unit’s health, scrolls that transport hero from zone to zone, or other useful tools. Every shopping phase you are offered one random consumable in this slot, and you can only buy one per shopping phase. If you are offered something early in the game you can still be offered the same item later. I believe that the pool of possible consumable items offered to each player will be the same, but you should not expect both players to be offered the same item at the same time. Consumables should be good at maintaining tempo advantage because of their immediate impact on the game, but in order to develop lasting advantages over the game I expect value-focused decks are going to avoid spending gold on consumables.
The middle slot offers items from your “item deck”. I really don’t know anything about “item decks”, since we have almost no details about them, but this slot offers you only items the item deck you made before the game started. How big does an item deck have to be? Can you have duplicates/triplicates in an item deck? Can we put consumables in our item deck? I have no idea, but let's ignore that!! Unlike the other two slots, you can buy as many items from this slot as you have money for. This would be particularly useful for any deck that tries to generate tons of gold through cards like Day at the Track, since it allows you to just drop a giant wad of cash all at once.
The final slot is the “Secret Shop” slot. This usually offers some random high-end equipment. It isn’t clear to me if “secret shop” items are totally separate from the items you can put in your item deck. Does the Secret Shop just choose a random piece of equipment in the game that costs 6 or more, or is it pulling from a collection of “Secret Shop-Exclusive” cards? Or maybe a mix of the two? As I said, secret shop items are at least usually on the more expensive end, but I saw at least one clip where a short sword was in the Secret Shop slot, so I am not totally certain how it works, given the contradictory reports.
Players probably won’t be buying Secret Shop items very often until the mid-to-late game, after you have already bought up the best equipment from your item deck. If you somehow find yourself with an absolutely fat stack of cash where you might want to buy multiple Secret Shop items you will not be able to do that, as you are limited to only one-per-round. Like I said with consumables: both players should be randomly offered items from the same pool of possible Secret Shop items, but the items offered to player 1 should have no impact on the items offered player 2. If player 1 buys “Giant Sword of Ass-Kicking” it doesn’t block player 2 from being offered another “Giant Sword of Ass-Kicking” later in the game.
While this overview is useful as a starting place, there are obviously still a lot of questions about how the store works. Let’s review some details before moving on to the next section. First, you can’t sell items back to the shop, and you can’t upgrade items either. There might be some exceptions or special conditions for these things, but as of right now it seems like you cannot get any gold value on your equipment after you equip it. You also cannot pass on used equipment to a different hero either. These changes are a big departure from what you might expect if you are coming from a MOBA or RPG background, but thats the way it is. I mentioned this above, but it seems like all items are neutral (do not require a hero of a specific color) and also cost 0 mana to play. Once again, there could be some exceptions to this in the game, but this is my understanding at the moment.
Now that we have talked about shopping in the game, let's talk about the "big picture" economy of the game. When I talk about the "economy" of card games, I am talking about how much time or money it takes to acquire cards. As of right now we don’t have a detailed breakdown of what the Artifact economy is going to look like, but Valve has made it very clear that the game will not be free-2-play. This is quite interesting, given that “F2P” has generally been the standard in the digital card game space since the release of Hearthstone. While there is no hard rule that digital card games must be F2P, it is clear that many players have high expectations in that regard. I am not looking to get into depth about Artifact’s economy here, since we have very few details. I plan to release another article discussing some of the possibilities of what the economy might look like, but that discussion is going to be more theoretical until we get more concrete answers. What I will say is that the economy of card games is one of the most important factors in determining the success of the game and the health of the community. By not going F2P, Valve is taking a pretty bold approach. While it is entirely possible this will be successful, there are a lot of pros and cons to consider, and I look forward to studying the topic more.
Odds and Ends
There are a few topics I wanted to hit on that don’t really warrant an independent section, so I am going to just blast through a few subjects that are important, but we just don’t have enough information around to devote more than a paragraph or so.
One of the most common questions people have about card games is around the randomness involved. I personally blame Hearthstone’s Ragnaros, Yogg Saron and Babbling Book for having traumatized a whole generation of card gamers with their totally obnoxious RNG. First off, every card game is going to have some level of randomness. You are drawing cards off a friggin’ deck, so obviously you are not signing up for chess. Outside of that, it seems like there are a lot of low-impact random events. The configuration of units in the lane, how the targets for combat are chosen, and the items that show up in the shop, etc. Having a lot of low-stakes random events means that games play out differently, but it isn’t like most games are won-and-lost on a coin flip. It sounds like there are relatively few cards with high-impact RNG effects. If you want to learn more about the game design philosophy around randomness in games you should check out this article I wrote a few months back. It is specifically framed around Eternal, but it works even with relatively limited knowledge about card games, and even includes piece about Dr. Garfield’s approach to randomness in games. Ultimately, from what we have seen so far, the use of RNG in Artifact seems fairly healthy, and will not be as game warping as you see in Hearthstone.
In-Game Tournaments and Limited
Valve has made some bold plans around which game modes will be available on release. First, there will be some kind of in-client tournament system on release according to Valve. That is exceptionally wicked, and although these are probably going to be very simple tournaments at the very start, but this suggests that they are very serious about building an e-sports scene from day 1. They have also promised a 1,000,000 $ prize pool tournament by early next year, which is…. wild.
Beyond that, they have also said they want to implement a limited mode too, including draft and sealed. If you don’t know what “limited” is, it means you are forced to build a deck from a smaller set of cards, usually containing a lot of lower power-level cards. This is a game mode that tests your ability to build decks on the fly, and improvise with sub-optimal tools.
With all that said, I’ve gotta say I will believe it when I see it. These are some bold promises, and getting everything working is going to take a lot of muscle. Valve probably has enough money to colonize the moon if they wanted to, so I’m not going to stop them from throwing cash at this project, but these are some ambitious goals, and I’m excited to see what they come up with.
What happens when you run out of cards?
You.... don’t apparently? It was suggested in some sources that used spells get shuffled back into your deck. This seems strange to me, as I’m worried that games could kinda just go on forever, so I have a lot of questions about what does and does not cycle back into your deck. I’m going to trust the game designers that they know what they are doing and 60-minute games don’t become common, but I am a little sceptical of this reporting.
In DOTA 2, and other MOBAs, equipment is not managed in a way that might seem unintuitive to people who are mainly familiar with RPGs. Items are not really equipped to specific “slots” on your character, such that weapons need to be in “weapon slot” to be active. While there are some rules about what you can have active at one time, you are allowed to have multiple weapons on a hero at once. This is not true in Artifact, where it seems like the slots are bound to specific equipment types. Each hero will be limited to one weapon, one armor, and one "trinket" slot.
Valve has said that Artifact is going to be a game that avoids putting limits on its players. No maximum hand size. No maximum board size. No maximum deck size. This is a quite the divergence from a lot of other digital games, which tend to have hard caps on most things. Obviously limits like board space and hand size don’t come up every game, and having a large deck can be a liability, but it is interesting to know that Artifact is aiming for a “limitless” approach. With that said, there are a few limits that do exists, such 3 copies of a single card, and your deck cannot be less than 40 cards (including the 5 heroes).
There are a lot of combo players out there who are always curious to know if they will have a chance to “go off” in new card games. Is Valve comfortable with letting combos exist in their game? We have no official comment on this yet, but if I had to guess based on the mechanics of the game as we understand them right now, I think it is probably quite possible, given what we know about the game mechanics.
- The 3-lane system keep the power-level of certain kinds of combos in check. Imagine there is some combo deck that throws an infinitely large fireball at the opponent’s tower. Even if this combo is assembled, it might only be able to kill 1 tower, which is obviously great, but doesn’t just win the game since 2 towers need to go down to actually win.
- Combos that require 2 or more types of heroes to pull off are going to be inherently difficult to execute. By splitting up combo pieces into different colors this already offers an important constraint to just pulling off 1 turn kills. Also, even spell-based combos require you to keep your heroes in play, since an opponent’s removal spell on an important hero will break up a lot of combos.
- The turn structure also seems to be built where loops are fairly easy to technically execute. In a game like Hearthstone, players have a hard cap on how long their turn is, so any combo needs to be played out from start to finish within a fairly limited window. In Artifact, as long as you keep playing cards the turn continues.
- I mentioned above that some reports claim that cards are shuffled back into the deck. This needs to be confirmed still, but if true it actually sets up the potential for abuse. Imagine that you draw your entire deck. Then, you play a card that gives extra mana (a ritual effect, or something like Preparation in Hearthstone) plus a draw spell that gives additional value (like draw 2, put a 1/0/1 creep in play). You could easily just cycle through these an arbitrary number of times once you have drawn your entire deck. Obviously this is not trivial to accomplish, but it seems like a possibility.
DOTA 2 Stuff We May/May Not See
As we get to the end here, I wanted to summarize some stuff from DOTA 2 that may or may not be in Artifact. DOTA has over a decade of “stuff” that could be in the game, so we are obviously not going to see everyone’s favorite hero, item or ability in the game. This is also clearly a different genre of game, so not everything that works in a MOBA is going to translate into a TCG. Still, we can run through some “DOTA stuff” that may or may not be in the game.
- I mentioned this above, but last hits/denies is not a thing in Artifact. If an enemy unit dies you get the gold, no matter who ends up killing it.
- Levelling up has also been confirmed to not be in Artifact. Equipment is the only confirmed method to scale your heroes permanently, though it is unclear if and spells or items permanently modify heroes.
- Recipes and upgrading items is not in Artifact, neither is selling items. Artifact is going to be cutting out a lot of the complexity of building items that you see in DOTA 2, which means that most of the time you are just buying exactly what it looks like you are buying.
- Silence is apparently an ability in the game, but it is unclear what it means right now. We have seen the card “Truth to Power”, which 5-cost green spell that silences a unit for one round. That seems quite costly for an effect that only lasts one round, but I guess we will see what it does.
- As of right now there does not appear to be a “buyback” mechanic. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some way to do this, like consumables that give your hero rapid deployment or something.
- Neutral objectives do not appear to be a part of the game. You can’t farm neutral camps or siege Roshan as a way to get ahead in the game. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were involved in the game in some manner, but they are not a fixture like in DOTA 2. Personally, I would be totally shocked if “Aegis of the Immortals” was not involved in some way. Still, at present we have seen no evidence that they are part of the game.
- It is not confirmed or not if stealth is part of the game. This seems like a pretty likely inclusion, especially since there are several obvious ways stealth could work, but you can easily imagine the spells, the consumables and the equipment that might grant stealth.
- We have not yet seen any sign that runes are a component of the game.
- I don’t believe there is any distinction between ranged and melee units, or between magic, physical and true damage. Zeus’s passive ability references “piercing damage”, which probably means it ignores armor. This might be used on some effects that are supposed to represent magic or true damage.
I hope you this has helped organize some of the information about Artifact, and helped you get hyped for the game! There is a lot really cool stuff they are doing in terms of game design, and I am really anxious to see where they take the game moving forward. As I said, I plan to make updates to this guide as more information comes out. If there are any inaccuracies you found in the article, or other thoughts you wanted to share, please let me know by messaging me over discord (Neon#3989) Twitter or through the Reddit thread! Next week I hope to put together some content about “P2P” versus “F2P” models, and speculate about Artifact’s economy.