The fall of Artifact (and how to make it a good game)

Artifact, remember that game? It was a game that was supposed to be Valve’s new darling, a game that they spent tons of money on to get right the first time, a game that legendary designed Richard Garflield worked on, a game that would take down the juggernaut that was Hearthstone in its weakest moments. 

It’s also a game that, at time of this writing, has only 53 people playing it, and averaged only 100 people playing it in the last 30 days. That’s pretty abysmal for a collectible trading card game. That’s far less than the 76,000-ish players that routinely play Valve’s actual new darling DOTA Underlords. Hell it’s less than the amount of people playing the original Half-Life right now! Honestly, it’s worse than other card games on Steam. Even Shadowverse which is basically just anime Hearthstone averages over five thousand players.

So what the heck happened? How could a game so anticipated fail so spectacularly?

Here are just a couple reasons.

The Economy

Artifact was, in a word, full of itself on first release. Unlike Hearthstone, MTGA, and every other collectible card game in digital space, Artifact did not launch with a way to earn free packs just by playing. You know, the very thing that allowed CCGs to take off in the digital space, Artifact said it didn’t need it.

So how did you get cards in Artifact? You bought them, just like when you were five begging your mother for packs of Magic cards. Your only option was to spend money, and this was HUGELY intimidating for a lot of players. Yes, you could also win product via drafts but you still had to spend money on those drafts. This presented players with a huge gateway to entry, a flat fee just to get the game and then a further monetary investment

Eventually Artifact did release an update that allowed players to earn cards by winning matches, but that was too little too late. There was still a gateway fee just for starting, and it certainly wasn’t clear that the game was built with drafting more than constructed in mind. Many people say that it should go free to play, allowing pretty much every Steam user to pick it up, toy around and possibly get addicted, but even that would just be putting bandages on the wound.

The Cards

Artifact was designed by Richard Garfield and it shows. It feels a whole lot like Magic in its alpha stages, which is to say it is wholly unbalanced, barely coherent, and includes only a few cards that are worth playing because they are broken beyond belief.

Let’s examine the card list for a while shall we. We will look at green because it has the best balance in the game IMHO. Green has 15 creeps of which 12 are not tied to some sort of hero. In comparison it has 35 spells and improvements, 29 of which are not tied to some sort of hero. Of course, only a few of these would be playable, and that presents us with a problem.

There simply weren’t enough creeps to warrant playing. For those of you who don’t know, creeps are the “creatures” of artifact. They are the basic offense and defense (alongside your heroes of which you could only have five.) With such a heavy weight of spells and improvements over creeps, this means your major line of defense is heroes buffed with equipment. However, heroes are simply vulnerable to direct removal spells. This leaves your hand often oversaturated with conditional spells that you just can’t use without stuff on the board, and not enough stuff to actually put there.

And just in case you think I’m cherry-picking, other colors are even worse. Blue has only four creeps. JUST FOUR! Yes it’s supposed to be the spell slinging class but no other card game in the history of the universe gave one of its classes or colors just four basic units.

One of the most common complaints was that these cards barely had any synergy among them. You couldn’t really build a strategy, you just put the best cards in your deck and hoped you won. Part of this was because hero cards compelled you to put certain cards into your deck and these cards ranged from absolutely useless to game breakingly powerful. Just your initial choice of five heroes creates this sort of deck mish-mash that you then have to build around.

All of this could be solved with a good expansion or two, but Artifact never got there. Why? See the aforementioned problems with the economy. Valve was already having issues getting people to buy and trade cards amongst themselves. Telling their player base that they had to buy even MORE cards for a good experience was not going to go over well.

The General Mechanics

Artifact had a few flaws with its general concept. While managing three separate games may seem like a fun experience for a professional CCG player, it’s wholly overwhelming for a newbie. At times, Artifact would have four times as many people watching it on Twitch than were playing. That’s the thing, it’s fun to watch pros juggle three games, it’s not necessarily fun to have to do so yourself.

Then there was the randomness problem. All CCGs are about managing variance. The very nature of drawing cards from a deck is random. Hearthstone has a ton of cards with random effects.

But randomness was baked into the very turn structure of Artifact. The amount and positioning of neutral creeps you got every turn was random. The direction your creeps and heroes would attack in was random. Many spells were random.

On top of that, there weren’t a whole lot of cards that effected this randomness. So imagine this scenario. You and your opponent are squaring off. You throw down a big hero and he throws down a big hero across from you. You both spend a ton of gold to equip these heroes from the shop with the best you can buy. By all accounts you are an even match but….

Every turn your hero decides, via sheer randomness, to attack the creep standing next to your opponent, which also shows up due to sheer randomness. Your opponent, once again due to sheer randomness, ends up attacking your hero. You then make absolutely no headway against his army while he slaughters you, and since your hero is dead you can’t cast spells now! You played EXACTLY the same and the game just decided who won and who lost. That is not at ALL a fun experience.

Yes, you can mitigate this through positioning. By placing cards directly across from units you can pretty much guarantee that they will face each other. Except many times you simply can’t because the game decided to put a random weak creep there for you. You usually can’t sit on hero plays, so you play your hero as close as you can and at that point it’s up to the game’s RNG to determine whether you get piled on or attack the worst possible targets.

Many pros have suggested removing this randomness while others have said that would be too much of a fundamental overhaul to the game. However, this could have been solved with better card quality. Print more creeps that have rerouting effects. Print ones that shield heroes and force them to attack who you want. Print effects that let you choose where your creeps show up and how they attack. Give the player control over this variance.

Yes, a few of these effects exist right now, but they are rare in a set of 300+ cards! You can’t build a deck around them, and that means that so much of the game is just hoping RNG goes your way. That’s never fun.

One of the major issues I had with Artifact when it first came out was the way it treated board wipes. Board wipes are a major part of any CCG. They allow slower decks to clear the playing field and come from behind.

But killing a hero in Artifact not only cost you a unit, it cost your ability to play spells. Yes, a board wipe wasn’t just a board wipe, it was a “take another turn” card, one of the most powerful effects in any CCG. This was because heroes had to take time to recharge after being killed.

While you CAN play around board wipes by not playing your heroes A) that’s not fun and B) you should never have to be in fear that a single card wipes your board and allows your opponent to take two turns without your input. Once again, that is not fun. It’s not interactive. It’s just an “I win” card

We can go on and on about how the basic mechanics were flubbed, but the fact of the matter is, Artifact was branded as a “different” card game, a card game that mimics MOBAs including the major swings and sudden victories. That’s all well and good, but it feels like no one ever stopped to wonder if it would be, you know, fun.

Can it do anything to come back?

Not without a major overhaul.

Look, Artifact in its current incarnation simply doesn’t work. There’s a core of a good game here, but that’s not enough. If artifact is going to actually survive past this abysmal player count, it’s going to have to re-release itself with a few major changes.

Change #1: Become free-to-play

You heard me. Wanna know one of the biggest differences between Valve’s new auto-battler and Artifact? DOTA Underlords is free-to-play. Every other digital CCG on the market is free to play and frankly Artifact has to be too. None of this “a real card game for real people willing to spend real money” BS. That’s just going to alienate your players.

Change #2: Change your card density

The core of an Artifact game is heroes and creeps attacking each other, so there’s no reason why there should be so few creeps in the card set. All of these neat spells and modifiers should be redone such that their abilities are on the body of a creep. Just make them execute when the creep comes into play. You’ll also have to increase the amount of removal to compensation… speaking of removal

Change #3: Change how board wipes work

Look, you simply cannot have your board wipes also lock the opponent out for a turn. Maybe make some of your creeps and spells neutral so that you can play them even when all your heroes are dead. Maybe let players spend gold on quick resurrection so that they aren’t immediately out of the game. Just do something so that it doesn’t feel like the game is over simply because someone played a single AOE.

Change #4: Either include more ways to choose who your units target or get rid of that randomness all together

Frankly, random spawning creeps that attack random units every turn is just a bad mechanic. It screws up your planned plays (since they can take up slots that you didn’t expect), screws up your board state, and screws up your enjoyment of the game. This is a system that has to be fundamentally rebuilt from the ground up to make it more appealing to new players. Either that, or there needs to be an absolute flood of easy to obtain cards that let you interact with this very randomness.

Change #5: Give players access to a full “basic” set

A major issue with Artifact is that you have to earn basically every card in the game. Other than some basic heroes, there is no “basic set” of cards that you get just for starting the game. This is the set that should include things like solid creeps, targeted removal, and ways to interact with RNG. It’s the set that teaches you the game. As it stands, Artifact cannot be learned and experimented with without dropping a bunch of money on it. Granted, a full set of Artifact cards is way cheaper than a full set of any other card game’s cards, but that’s just because it’s not doing well right now.

Change #6: Bring it to mobile platforms

If you don’t think that Hearthstone’s success has something to do with the fact that you can play it on your phone, you are in a fantasy world. If Artifact is going to strike it big it needs to appeal to as wide an audience as possible and this includes people who play games on phones and tablets.

Throwing money down a hole

Will Valve do any of this? Frankly, it doesn’t look good. It’s not just that Artifact flopped and Valve is likely trigger shy about investing more money into it. It’s that, they don’t have to. They make a lot of money via Steam, enough money to far and away compensate for this loss. CCGs also aren’t big anymore. Artifact was a product of its time, a time when Hearthstone was waning and a bunch of competing CCGs hit the market at the same time.

But then we all got into battle royales, and now we are all into auto-battlers. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to pitch more money at a CCG that failed on launch. Even if Valve can bring people back into the Artifact community, it’s not like it will ever stand a chance at competing with the big boys like Hearthstone and MTGA. Maybe it’s better to just let this one slip into obscurity.

What do you think? How could Valve save Artifact and should they even try? Let us know in the comments.