The media day back in March gave us a massive dump of information, which answered a lot of questions about how Artifact is played. The community has done a great job of parsing and dissecting that reporting to pull out the useful pieces, but there are still a lot of questions that remain. As I was daydreaming about some of these topics, I thought I could write an article on the topic and see what other people thought.
The questions I chose are focused on the in-game experience of Artifact. There are a bunch of obvious questions I left off the list, like “when is open beta?” or “what cards are going to be in the game?” These are clearly very interesting, and I am anxious to learn more about them, but for today I just wanted to focus on in-game related questions only. With that said, let’s jump into things!
I think most people either love lore, or don’t care about it. I am one of the few people who is right in the middle – I am interested when it is well done and accessible, but I can live without it if the lore is shallow. If the storytelling in Artifact is compelling and woven into the game in an organic way I would be really interested to learn all about it! That being said, I think it is going to be hard to meet my expectations for “good lore” given the backdrop of DOTA 2.
Some of the initial reporting on Artifact said that there would be “lore bombs galore” in the game. I am curious what this actually means, since Artifact is somewhat limited in what it can achieve. My definition of “good lore” really hinges on a good storyline. If a game has a coherent plot linking together all the various facets I am always going to be way more engaged than a patchwork of disconnected threads. We know that there is no single-player campaign, so we probably can’t expect some major storyline. DOTA 2’s universe is also not exceptional for developing continuous lore. Most of the world-building content surrounding that game focuses on short backstories of the heroes, as well as some vignettes that link together a couple of characters. While that is all kinda interesting, it comes off as extremely ad hoc and confused to me. There is no major plot as you see in games like Magic the Gathering or Eternal.
I would guess Artifact will follow a similar approach to lore as we see in DOTA 2; bits of trivia, a few special voice lines, and maybe the odd short cut scene through specific menus. In order for me to get excited about the world building this approach is not going to cut it. If Valve does manage to find a way to level up their storytelling it could be really interesting. Maybe my standards are just not fair, and nothing Valve does would satisfy me, but that is honestly fine. Personally, I don’t need good lore content to enjoy a game, as I said. Players who are invested in the world-building content associated with DOTA 2 will probably enjoy what Valve does put together, and that matters a lot more than someone like me who is not invested in the material.
For anyone who wants to learn more about DOTA’s lore, SirActionSlacks’ Loregasm series is quite good. It is sometimes difficult to tell where official cannon ends and fanciful imagination begins, but he certainly does a good job piecing together some complex material. Plus, Slacks is just fun to watch, so he is worth checking out if you don’t know his work.
7. Mods and Custom Game Modes
In GabeN’s Artifact presentation he specified that Artifact would not be mod-able or customizable at first, but would eventually get some tools to this effect. Depending on how this is implemented, I might actually be more excited about making custom game modes rather than the core game! Think of all the sweet stuff you could make!
- “Win this turn” puzzles
- Crazy custom game modes with special rules
- Make your own hero cards based off DOTA 2 heroes not yet in the game
- Make heroes and/or cards based off non-DOTA content
- Custom campaigns
My head is already swimming with ideas on different things that could be done, but unfortunately this will need to wait for a while before it is fully operational. I am already fantasizing about a world where a custom game mode becomes its own game. This would be an interesting continuation of the warped family tree that originally grew out of Warcraft.
6. Activated Items
We haven’t seen many activated items yet, but we have seen at least one that is potentially extremely impactful.
The stats on Blink Dagger are not exactly its selling point, as +2 attack for 7 gold seems pretty pitiful. The key feature of Blink Dagger is the “active” ability that allows you to move the equipped hero to another lane. That seems really powerful! You can use this to save a key hero from danger, defend lanes that are under attack, or set up a kill on one of the enemy towers. What makes this particularly important to me is that moving from lane to lane lets you have access to your hero’s color in multiple lanes. There might be some decks that have only 1 hero of a given color, but leverage effects like Blink Dagger as a mechanism to spread out their influence.
This raises a question though: how do “active” abilities actually work? How often can you use them? If it were just a one-time usage, all those shenanigans I talked about above are probably not practical. Being able to use it as much as you want sounds insanely powerful. I am guess right now that active abilities can be used once per turn, and constitute an action the same way that casting a spell or using an item do. We have not seen very many activated items yet, so I am very curious on what other cards fall under this category, and how they work.
(Edit: some clever Redditors have helped solve this mystery)
5. Keywords/Combat Abilities
This one is honestly pretty dorky, but I really want to know what unit keyword abilities are in the game. Most combat-centric card games I am aware of use unit keywords. These are abilities given to units that grant them some special attribute in how they interact with the game more broadly. Perhaps the most iconic is flying in Magic, where flying units can evade non-flying units in combat. Magic also has lifelink, deathtouch, first strike and like a million others. Heathstone has taunt, divine shield, charge and more. Shadowverse has them, Solforge has them, Eternal has them, etc. There is a very good chance Artifact has them too, and not just because they are popular, but they are great game design tools.
Why are unit keywords so great? First off, by grouping multiple units with the same ability, it helps simplify the game, and make it easier to process as a player. Imagine that Valve wanted to make some characters that counter units with lots of armor. One approach is to have a bunch of different abilities, like one unit that “ignores armor” another that “removes one armor from enemy units when attacking” and another that “removes one armor from an enemy unit when summoned”. This mix of abilities is fairly similar, so instead of using a bunch of idiosyncratic rules, the designers can choose one keyword mechanic, label it “armor piercing” and just apply it to all the relevant cards. New players will only need to learn what “armor piercing” means, rather than a long list of different rules. This doesn’t mean designers are forced to only use mechanics that can be condensed to abilities, but usually a feature that recurs on a number of cards is more manageable when associated with one keyword.
Another advantage of using keywords is the ability to grant or remove this ability using other cards. Take the “armor piercing” ability I mentioned above. You could imagine cards like “Quick Slash: unit gets +2 attack and armor piercing this turn” or “Disarm: target unit loses 2 attack and armor piercing this turn”. You could also imagine cards that “care about” a given ability, like “Blade Flurry: units with armor piercing get +2 attack this turn”. I am sure you can think of a million gameplay and mechanical reasons why keywords are helpful for game designers.
Another advantage of keyword mechanics is the flavor connection. The technical definition of “flying” in Magic would be something like “creatures that cannot be blocked by creatures without flying or reach”, which is really lame. “Flying” on the other hand is rich with imagery and real-world relevance. In the case of “armor piercing” the designers might tie the mechanic to either skilled assassins to demonstrate their combat mastery, or they could tie it to oversized brawlers to show that they are so powerful they ignore the armor on their puny opponents.
So far I think “Rapid Deployment” is the only hero keyword mechanic that we have seen so far. There are a lot of possibilities that I could think of, such as “poisonous”, “lifesteal” or “stealth”. Most heroes we have seen so far have unique abilities as opposed to keyword abilities, which might imply Valve is not looking to use a lot of unit keywords, but it is too early to know for sure.
Valve has said there will be in-client tournaments from launch, which seems extremely ambitious to me. Obviously it will be wicked for them to implement tournament mode immediately, but it makes me wonder what tournaments might look like. Here are a few possibilities on what they mean by “tournaments”:
- 8, 16 or 32-person single elimination queues. By this, I mean there will be a lobby where you can sign up for a “tournament”, paying some amount of resources to get in. Let’s say they are 16-person events. Once 16 people have signed up, the event begins, and you battle through a single elimination bracket for 4 rounds, leaving only 1 undefeated player. The player who gets 1st receives a bunch of prizes, 2nd place gets a lesser reward, and 3rd-4th get their entry refunded. There is obviously a lot of room for customization here, like making these double elimination or Swiss style tournaments, or adjusting the size of your tournaments. To me, this is one of the simplest implementations of “tournament support” Artifact could offer, though it is obviously a very limited sense of the term.
- Event style tournaments. You see these in some other games, where there is some period of time where a special tournament ladder is set up. Players enter for some cost, and have a limited number of games to climb as high on the ladder as possible. Matchmaking would be less restrictive compared to traditional tournaments, and it would allow players to battle at their own pace as opposed to extended single sittings. Once again, this is a pretty weak sense of the word “tournament”, but it still works.
- On the more serious side, you could imagine daily/weekly/monthly tournaments. Lets say there are 3 tournaments per week, each happening at a specific time. You sign up for them at a cost, and the tournament proceeds in either a double elimination bracket or a Swiss bracket with a top 8. These would look like the kinds of events many people expect when you say “tournaments”, but would likely be a lot more difficult to execute logistically. For example, these could be fairly high stakes, so any technical issues would need careful attention from Valve staff. Second, they would take a really long time, making them a big stress on the players. Third, the prizing would need to be substantial to make these events worthwhile, and if any of this prizing were either cash or Steam bucks that might lead to some legal issues. I am not trying to argue that this event style is impossible; I just wanted to point out the hurdles involved in making this a reality.
- A final possibility would be having a mechanism for third party sponsored events in client (companies like Red Bull, or maybe tournament organizers like DreamHack). This would offset some of the legal/logistical challenges for Valve, but would transfer them over to another organization. This would also put more stress on the spectator tools, since these third-party organizations would need to have some mechanism to broadcast and monetize these tournaments.
So, in my estimation, there are some are some set-ups that resemble “soft” tournament arrangements, which would be fairly easy to execute, but would not exactly be satisfying to the hyper-competitive crowd. On the flip side, it is possible that Valve is imagining actual serious tournaments to take place through the platform, but this sounds extremely burdensome on the back-end as a “day one” feature. We will just need to wait and see, but if these are well-implemented tournaments might be one of the most interesting features of Artifact. I have never been a pro gamer, but I am under the impression that many pros are strongly attracted to a vibrant competitive scene, and the in-client tournaments could serve as the backbone for this aspect of the game.
3. Limited and Draft
Valve has said that they plan for draft to be part of Artifact. There are probably some of you out there who don’t know what “draft” or “limited” is, so let’s run through a quick explainer. Many card games offer formats where players are forced to build decks from a limited card pool rather than their entire collection. These are considered “limited” formats. Arena for Hearthstone is a type of limited, if you are familiar with that. Draft is a form of limited where players take turns picking cards from packs. There are several variants to draft, but the most common for Magic is known as booster draft, which you can learn more about here. This may sounds like a really convoluted way to play, but it is actually extremely fun and skill testing. Many of the top Magic players in the world will say that draft is one of the most skill-testing forms of Magic, as it requires players to have a wider range of abilities than what is required for traditional constructed.
I’m totally stoked for Artifact limited, but I’m extremely curious on how it will work, since it will need to be a lot different than traditional forms of draft. My main question is: how will it work with picking heroes? Let’s imagine that you picked hero cards in the draft. What happens if you don’t get enough hero cards? How will your deck function? There would need to be a LOT of heroes in the packs to ensure everyone had enough to get a playable deck. Now let’s imagine that you picked your heroes before the draft starts. What happens if you pick red and blue heroes, but all you see are green and black cards? How about if you draft your heroes at the end of the draft? Well, you might imagine that your hero selection would have a big impact on your strategy. Wouldn’t you want to know what heroes you had while you are drafting?
This may sounds like I think it is impossible to solve these problems. That is actually not true, as there are several workarounds that I can think of, though most would mean you cannot use just normal Artifact packs for draft. For example, imagine heroes are selected one-by-one between batches of cards that you draft. First you pick a hero out of a handful of options, and then you draft a pack of cards. When that pack is done you pick another hero out of a small selection, then draft another pack of cards. This would lead to a situation where players were guaranteed a certain number of heroes, and you were not just forced to pick all your heroes at the beginning or at the end. I can also imagine a number of solutions if Artifact uses a draft format that resembles Hearthstone’s Arena, or Solforge’s draft mode. The items deck could pose similar issues, though the problems are less pressing given that items are not essential to the game mechanics the way heroes are. I’d be interested to hear what other people think is most likely.
2. The Shop
I have a lot of questions about how the shop works. First off, I really want to know how big the item deck is supposed to be. The general consensus of the Reddit seems to be that the item deck is 9 cards, but that hasn’t been confirmed. There are a number of screenshots where a “9/9” can be seen above the item deck slot in the shopping phase, but I think a lot of these pictures have been taken when looking at the same deck. Almost all of the gameplay footage we have seen comes from reporters playing the same green blue deck, so the item deck is obviously going to be the same size across all these games. 9 could also just be the minimum item deck size, meaning a lot of decks would only play 9 item cards, but any deck that aimed to abuse gold-related cards like Day at the Track (which apparently doubles your gold) might want larger item decks so they never run out of stuff to purchase.
I should also note that 9 cards as a deck size seems kinda strange. Like… why not 10? Also, if you want to give each of your heroes 3 pieces of equipment you would need at least 15 cards in the item deck, right? Very curious…
The secret shop is another big mystery to me. I really wonder what the pool of potential items you can see within the secret shop actually looks like. There were some reports that said the secret shop goods were always big-ticket items, but there are some screenshots that contradict this. I am really curious to know what pool of items the secret shop pulls from. For example, you could imagine that the secret shop items are totally separate from the items you can put in your item decks. You could also imagine that the secret shop’s stock is just random items from the pool of card you can put in your own item deck. A few examples of possible arrangements are shown below.
Some people might be surprised that I have the shop-related-questions so highly. We clearly know a lot more about how the shop works than draft for example. I anticipate the mechanics of the shop to have a major impact on the game. Having items that cost 0 mana to use and can be deployed in a lane without meeting color requirements seems insanely powerful! This is in addition to having permanent buffs for your heroes, which is also extremely powerful. Items could end up being one of the most snowbally mechanics in the game. Equipping heroes will give you further lane advantages, which you can convert into even more gold.
1. The Economy
For those of you who have followed my writing from my time writing Eternal content know that I have a special interest in card game economics. In addition to being a fascinating topic from a “fiddling with numbers” perspective, I think the economy of a card game has a massive impact on the overall play experience. The topic has become more and more salient recently, between several high-profile screw-ups around loot boxes, and the increased scrutiny of game studios by gambling regulators.
Some people might read “The Economy” and say “That isn’t part of the gameplay! You said you were going to be focused on the gameplay!!” I actually disagree. My definition of “gameplay” is “things that happen inside the game”. Essentially, everything you experience from the moment you log in to the moment you log off is part of the “gameplay”. For example, deckbuilding is part of the gameplay, and is heavily impacted by the economy. Trading is apparently part of the game, so it will be a important part of the game experience. Rarity and pack structure could have a big impact on draft/limited as well, which is clearly a style of gameplay. The economy is an part of the gameplay in my opnion, and if you are not convinced… well… this is my top 8 so I can do what I want with it!
Valve’s choice of going with a “not F2P” model is incredibly bold, considering that almost every successful card game on the market utilizes some version of a F2P model. I am already working on article to be a deeper dive into this topic, since I have a lot of thoughts even before we have any details about the economy. I will just conclude here to say that I can’t wait to see what plan they actually come up with!
That’s it for today! Thanks for stopping by to see what I have been pondering about. What are your top unanswered questions? Have any theories on any of these topics? Be sure to share your thoughts in the Reddit thread! Also make sure to check out some of the other content on Artifact Academy if you haven’t had a chance to read the Artifact Guide or “Gaming According to Garfield”. Until next time,