Dealing with Artifact: the first week

It feels like forever since I wrote about Artifact, the Valve-produced card game set in the world of Dota 2. Since then, the game was kind of this specter that hung over Dota fans, since they didn’t really know what to expect from it. We saw personalities and people we looked up to rumbling behind-the-scenes about it, but we knew that they wouldn’t really be leaking anything.

This led to a bit of a mystery where we didn’t get anything in terms of the gameplay until community-led podcasts and streams were able to trickle out information up until the NDA lifted.

Once that happened, the doors were thrown open onto something that a lot of people weren’t sure if they liked. I was one of them — I have never been a card game guy, but like with other things I’m not into, I can understand the appeal, and sometimes I get small little itches to try something out.

I got Artifact for free because I went to The International. I’ve put in $20 so far in order to “equal out” the money I saved from getting a free copy, because ultimately I think it’s a fun product and an intriguing game. Like with many other people, I find it’s really close to Dota in the sense that it’s tense, requires a lot of thinking ahead, and when losing, you can feel very powerless. The old adage is that Dota 2 is “the highest highs and the lowest lows” in gaming, and I’m not sure if that’s true for Artifact yet.

Artifact board

I’m going to spare you explaining the game — Purge does a better job than I can — but what I will say is that Valve have been interesting to watch during the launch and the leadup to it. They’ve leveraged more of the community to do things like host streams and tournaments, and they’ve also been regular with updates coming from the game’s Twitter. Many of us know Valve as a very silent and secretive company, so seeing developers post about its launch like it was any other big company (think Ubisoft, EA, etc) just felt… weird.

They’ve also had to storm the hardship that comes with selling something that goes against the grain to an audience who might need to do a little thinking to understand why certain choices were made. Artifact is very much a niche product in the sense it has no physical cards, and similar online games have features it does not (yet). The main absence is the progression system that has become ubiquitous in many online games to retain playerbase, like the Daily Quests of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.

I’m kind of in a weird middle ground when it comes to that kind of stuff, because I’m old enough to remember when games didn’t need it, and I get the impression that the designers and proponents of Artifact are, too. That clash of expectation in a demographic shift is always interesting, because you can sometimes see the point of no return, where a company cannot say “this is a product that might not appeal to everyone.”

Some vocal players of Artifact want the comforts of things they already know while being able to seek reward for playing the game itself. To the one camp, the game is not the reward: the game is an avenue towards receiving rewards, like free packs, exclusive experiences (tickets for Expert modes) and the potential of money from selling cards.

Others — who I’ve noticed are the ones with more experience in physical card games — are more familiar with the ride they’re taken on. The interesting thing is when a product is made to gain credibility with this latter audience, but must sacrifice things in order to make it widespread enough to capitalize on the money that casuals can bring.

It becomes a tug of war, where authenticity is the casualty and where either side can feel alienated and leave. The key is that the hardcore are suddenly realizing that their voices and wallets have a lot less weight to them than the masses do; it is up to a company to balance this appropriately.

I feel like I started this blog wanting to write about my experience with the game, but I kind of went off on a tangent about business stuff. Ultimately, that kind of thing is interesting to me because Valve remain so much of an impregnable enigma; they are truly trying to get the best of both worlds while not outright enshrining their values, so you never really know how deep their response will be.

Artifact perfect run before claiming rewards

Last night I spent some time with two friends being “piloted” through a Phantom Draft — we paid one of my tickets, and through screen share, I was guided through picking cards for my deck, and playing against people. My pilots were much more experienced than I am; I went 5-0 (a perfect run), gaining two tickets (profiting one) and two card packs.

Was this unfair? Maybe. But I guess playing-by-committee is something unique to card games, and that can sometimes form the basis of streams and other content.

This was largely a learning experience, because if I were to have played the same deck by myself, I likely would have gone 0-2 and wasted my ticket. Like playing with a high-level Dota player, there are things you don’t even consider at play until you have the experience to notice the opportunity. There’s a lot of efficiencies, card placements and possibilities that purely come with experience.

Playing with someone who has that much of an experience gap is like being a middle-of-the-road Dota player and suddenly having a pro guide your mouse. The two feelings I got at the end were:

  • “Damn, this shows me how deep the game can go, and how much I have to learn. It felt good to have help in out-thinking my opponents, even though I didn’t really do that much.”
  • “Do I want to put in the time and effort and experience to get to the point where I could play like this myself?”

For the most part, I am happy to just play free drafts (with no stakes) without diving in totally to a system. I don’t find myself hooked by the needs to complete the set of cards, or the desire to tinker a constructed deck to perfection. I feel like I need to commit to the game and learning it, but at the same time, I’m perfectly happy to stay in the shallow end where there’s truly nothing at stake.

If I want to figure something out in the next year, it’s the feeling of what’s worth committing to, and how I truly know when I’m enjoying something enough to make it a large part of my life. I don’t know if I just need the right guidance to enjoy something like Artifact more, but for now, I’m happy with how I am.

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