BELLEVUE, Washington—Right as this article goes live, Valve Software is taking the wraps off its next video game, Artifact, in a major way. At this weekend’s PAX West expo in Seattle, lines of eager fans are currently waiting to play the first public demo of Valve’s online trading card game (TCG), and they have good reason to be excited.
I say that not just because of the game’s pedigree—designed in part by the creator of the world’s biggest TCG, Magic: The Gathering, and supercharged by the fantasy world and characters of the Valve smash Dota 2. I say it because Ars already went hands-on with this PAX West demo, thanks to an exclusive invite to Valve’s headquarters ahead of the show. I had a blast. Plus, unlike PAX’s attendees, I had quite the guide sitting over my shoulder: MtG‘s creator and Artifact lead designer Richard Garfield.
With so much access, I took the opportunity to extensively break down the game in its early state ahead of a November 28 launch on Windows, Mac, and Linux (with an iOS and Android version coming in 2019). So if you can’t get to PAX West this weekend, have no fear: my interview with the development team and my narrated look at how the game plays might actually be better than waiting in a PAX Artifact line.
A post-token world
“It’s a card game,” Garfield says as he watches me mouse over card-draw options in the middle of combat. “You should always draw more cards.”
Garfield may be an experienced and thoughtful game designer, but he’s not a gentle instructor. I have to goad him into describing exactly how the game works. In my first moments playing the game (which I’d briefly sampled at an event in March), he urged me to hit the corpse-lined ground running.
“Artifact is an electronic trading card game,” Garfield says when pressed. “You assemble a deck, and you’re competing to be the first to tear down two out of three of your opponents’ towers. Or, if you tear down the same one twice, that’s OK.”
From there, Garfield starts immediately describing Artifact‘s differences from other TCGs, both tabletop and electronic, without breaking down a lot of the genre’s elements, traditions, and quirks. For the uninitiated: in games like Wizards of the Coast’s MtG and Blizzard’s Hearthstone, players are expected to build a deck of cards that have war-like powers, including damage, healing, and armor. The game has some rigid rules, including an expectation that you defend your half of the table while attacking the other half, but gameplay is largely governed by the cards in a player’s deck—whether either side’s cards emphasize offense or defense, quick assaults or drawn-out tactics, and so on.
He points out his game’s major differences from other electronic TCGs: “Any number of creatures in play at the same time,” “any number of cards in your hand,” and three distinct-yet-connected arenas in which to play and deal with cards. As a result, every Artifact match unfurls over a giant virtual table that wouldn’t fit in an average, real-life apartment.
Garfield cannot stress enough how much the possibility of tons of cards drove his dreams to make an electronic TCG. One point of inspiration came from watching a real-life MtG match in which one player had to deal with too many unwieldy components.
“Somebody had like 30 creatures or something ridiculous,” Garfield says. “They had all these tokens. I thought, a computer can handle this better than my tabletop, so why can’t I have that experience playing on a computer?”
He’s careful to praise other electronic TCGs, particularly Hearthstone and CD Projekt Red’s Gwent. Garfield calls them “marvelous” and “fresh.” He also makes no bones about what he misses in those and other electronic games: depth and scope.
“Electronic card games that had been made up to that point tended to be much simpler than paper card games,” Garfield says. “That seemed like a shame, because you have this resource, a computer, which could handle much more complicated things than a tabletop.” This was around 2015, Garfield says, at which point his former Wizards of the Coast colleague Chris Green had been working at Valve. (Green has since left the developer.) Through that existing friendship, Garfield eventually brought a cards-on-computer design document to Valve’s offices.
His early idea had no ties to Dota, or fantasy worlds, or even any existing IP. Instead, it focused more squarely on the reasons MtG‘s digital versions, up to that point, had left Garfield wanting. In particular, he thought MtG‘s system of interruptions didn’t translate well to online play—”you constantly have to be on the alert for what your opponent is doing,” he says. Other gameplay elements were changed for online versions to “make the game simpler.”
“The game I was presenting [to Valve] was more of, let’s take the bounds away,” Garfield says.
“That narrows you”
After mulling over Garfield’s design document and getting excited at the idea of enlisting MtG‘s creator to make a Valve game, a newly formed team didn’t take long to focus this prototype’s design on the Dota universe.
“You have to look at the full spectrum of options that were available to us,” Artifact project lead Brandon Reinhart says. “We could make a new IP, and there’s a lot of cost and risk associated with that. We could use one of our existing IPs, and when we looked at those options, Dota made a lot of sense.”
Both Reinhart and Garfield emphasize that Dota afforded the design team room to invent a lot of ideas while still creating some boundaries. “Dota is an open book,” Reinhart says. “We can add new chapters. And a card game desires to create new chapters. Each set, each expansion, wants to explore the world.”
I pressed Garfield about his thoughts on licensed card games, which he had spoken about in the past—saying that the likes of the Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh TCGs rose above similar fare during a late ’90s and early ’00s boom. “Where [other games] really run into problems is where [a license] is not broad,” he says. “That narrows you. Also, where the person who is in charge of that doesn’t want you to add a bunch of things, because it doesn’t fit with the lore they’ve already got. Dota was very open to adding things, and at the same time, it had enough tools there that you could populate something like the card game we were working on without any problem.”
Thus, the team immediately had access to a range of existing “hero” characters, and as a result, players’ card decks revolve around these heroes who land on the table of play as attacker cards next to simpler, gruntier warriors, known in the Dota world as “creeps.” The majority of your card deck is devoted to “spell” cards, and these are all color-coded, just like the hero cards. Each round of play spans across the table’s three arenas, or “lanes,” and in any given lane, you can only play spell cards if they match a hero’s color in the same lane. (You also have to manage “mana” points, much like in MtG, but Artifact‘s mana is a bit simpler. It refreshes and grows by one point between every round.)
Magic’s “reaction” system was modified, giving players a pool of time to use whenever it’s their turn to play a card or spell in a lane. Turns are taken and alternated via an “initiative” marker, and a second currency, borrowed from Dota, factored in: gold. You can sacrifice your cards as a defensive maneuver to spare your all-important towers from damage, but doing so gives your opponent more gold currency to spend on “equipment” cards. Once these are bought, they go into a player’s hand—and can be played whenever appropriate, without any mana requirements.