Update on Artifact closed Beta: real gameplay screenshots

After month of silence and misterious wispers, Valve finally reveals some gameplay of Artifact. So here is what we know for sure at this point:

  • Each deck contains 40 cards and includes 5 heroes (which is the same as a Dota 2 team). There will be 280+ cards in the base game. There are 44 heroes. You can include three copies of each card in your deck.
  • Your cards and heroes are selected from four possible colours: Red, Green, Black, and Blue. As per Magic, each colour has its own personality which themes what its cards do accordingly.
  • At the beginning of the game your first three heroes will be deployed evenly into the three lanes (which are essentially game boards), along with some randomly spawned melee creeps. After each round, two more creeps will spawn in random lanes on each players’ side.
  • Each lane contains a tower which has 40 health which you must protect. Lose two towers and the game is over. Once a tower is destroyed, it’s replaced by the Ancient, which has 80 health. Destroy an Ancient and you also win the game.
  • Heroes that are killed aren’t gone for good, they just have to sit out an entire round, after which you can choose which lane to redeploy them in. (An exception here is a green hero who has a ‘rapid deployment’ ability and can be sent back into the fray in the next round.)
  • Each lane also has its own Mana pool, which begins at 3 and increases by 1 with each turn—though you can also use Ramp cards to accelerate your Mana pool. Hey, it’s a Richard Garfield game.
  • In order to play a card, you must have a hero of the corresponding colour placed in the lane where you’re spending the mana. However, Mana spent in one lane can be used to cast certain cards in other lanes.
  • Each time you play a card of any sort the initiative passes to your opponent. Once you’ve both finished taking it in turns to play a cards in a particular lane, combat occurs with heroes and creeps attacking whatever is opposite them. If they aren’t facing another unit, they will attack the opposing tower.
  • After combat, the action then switches to the next lane. The idea of player initiative is carried over to the next round, which ends when you’re both done in the third and final lane.
  • As enemy cards are destroyed you will accrue gold. Certain cards can also affect gold generation, such as black’s ‘Day at the Track’ which doubles your gold total. Gold is spent on equipment between rounds during the Shopping Phase.
  • Only heroes can use equipment, and each hero has three slots: weapon, armor, and accessory. If you want to use a different weapon it will overwrite the current one.
  • Equipment varies from cheap simple buffs like a cloak which gives your hero +1 health through to powerful, expensive stuff like the Apotheosis Dagger which adds +8 attack, +4 siege (tower damage that can’t be blocked), and condemns (ie kills) any enemy it hits.
  • Importantly, equipment on characters is persistent. So buffed heroes will keep coming back with their upgraded stats and abilities.

Three tables to play

There’s a lot going on here. If, like me, you’re coming into Artifact from the world of Hearthstone, then it’s going to feel like plunging headfirst into a lake of liquid nitrogen. A niggling part of me wonders if the fact that Valve is staffed entirely by geniuses might mean it risks overestimating the appetite for quite this much complexity. I don’t think Blizzard keeps Hearthstone games so simple and (mostly) short just because that’s the easiest thing to do—it genuinely believes that’s what time-challenged players looking to have fun want. But then Artifact probably isn’t for ‘most players’ in the same way that Dota 2’s insane skill cap isn’t. Newell told us he’s put 10,000 hours into Dota 2. “I’m still convincing myself—although, some people around here may disagree—that I’m becoming a better player.”

That kind of ceiling is what Valve seems to want for Artifact. And let’s face it, that amount of depth, bracing though it may be, is also going to excite a lot of people—particularly those who grew up on Magic or who’ve grown tired of the linear strategies in other digital card games that can make playing the same matchups feel so tiresome. Crucially, Artifact isn’t a collectible card game at all—it’s a trading card game. This is arguably the biggest deal about Artifact: you will be able to swap and sell individual cards on the Steam Market, whereas trading is something Hearthstone has always been staunchly against.

Trade is the essence

The sense from Valve is threefold. 1) Trading will take the sting out of hoping to pull the card you want from a pack, but only getting filler. 2) Each player’s collection will retain value in the same way that binders of Magic cards do in real life. In contrast, if I stopped playing Hearthstone tomorrow, I couldn’t sell my cards. Hell, Blizzard’s small print means I can’t even leave the account to someone in my will. 3) Valve knows how to do trading. It already has the tech to make it safe and secure, and it’s learned a lot of lessons from CS:GO and Dota 2.

I wonder, though, if there’s a risk that a volatile market could bring its own problems. After all, CS:GO has some crazy expensive skins. Valve’s Brandon Reinhart isn’t worried. “If a card has got a [top pro’s] signature on it, and there’s only one of those in existence, and that player won a major tournament, then it might have some value, and that is fine. But as far as the unsigned normal versions of that card, over the years we’ve developed a lot of tools in order to make sure that we’re keeping those prices in a reasonable range.” Reinhart also referred to a point Newell made about the power level of cards not being correlated to their rarity, and noted that common cards are going to cost “pennies”.

Here’s exactly what Newell had to say about the relationship between card rarity and power: “From a really high level perspective, we really want to stay away from pay-to-win. We think that that actually has a pernicious impact on the design of the game and the evolution of the community over time… There are plenty of very common cards that are going to be super powerful. The whole point is to steer away from pay-to-win and that kind of approach. We always want to reward investment. You always want to feel like, as a player, that the more time you spend on it, you’re getting better and you’re enjoying it more. We’ve all played plenty of games where you put in the hundred hours and you really are done.”

On the subject of cost, Artifact is also resolutely not going to be free-to-play. Newell explains why: “If time is free, or an account is free, or cards are free, then anything that has a mathematical relationship to those things ends up becoming devalued over time, whether it’s the player’s time and you just make people grind for thousands of hours for minor, trivial improvements, or the asset values of the cards, or whatever. That’s a consequence. So you don’t want to create that flood of free stuff that destroys the economy and the value of people’s time.” Lest all this be seen as an assault on Hearthstone, it shouldn’t be. Newell recognises Blizzard’s giant is the current benchmark, and says “they do a lot of smart things”. But it’s also clear Valve is heading in a very different direction with Artifact.

What Valve isn’t doing is talking numbers, but from speaking to staff at the event it sounds like there will be some sort of entry edition that will get you a bunch of the cards and other content, much as Overwatch asks you to pay for the base game to get in the door. Beyond that, you can buy and crack packs as normal, which Newell says Valve is determined to make a spectatable event. Whatever money you do pump into packs will be partly used to fund major tournaments in much the same way that sales of The Compendium and Battle Pass inflate The International’s prize pool each year. Speaking of esports, Valve is already lining up a major with a $1m prize pool.

How easy Artifact will be to parse for spectators remains to be seen. After my playtest we were treated to a tournament between some well known card game pros who I’m forbidden to name. Without being familiar with the meta of Valve’s closed beta test, it was hard to follow the ebb and flow without detailed explanations from the developers watching. But their excitement was infectious. The final series featured some crazy games in which the designers were shouting wildly divergent lines of plays at each other, only for the pro to pick something else entirely. It’s that potential for heated strategic debate that I think suggests Artifact could have scope as an esport. If it does happen, my expectation is that viewing in client will be the way to go, so Valve can expose all sorts of cool stats about each deck. Something Hearthstone fans have been begging for since forever.

The most important part: how it looks like?

Here is the rael Artifact gameplay screenshots

And here is some art for the cards:


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