We're living in the prime age of CCGs (collectible card games), this fact is hard to argue. Multiple major studios are putting out their takes on the genre, each bringing something new to the table, be it major or minor news. Starting out with the complex schoolyard favourite Magic: The Gathering, we also have Blizzard's Hearthstone, CD Projekt Red's minigame turned major stand-alone experience Gwent, and Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls: Legends - gaming fans are crazy for card battles it would seem. Latest in the wave of CCGs, however, is Valve's new Dota-inspired Artifact, and it's a truly unique experience even for the more experienced players out there.
The main difference from the other genre giants is Artifact's three lanes (yes, that's lanes, as in MOBA lanes; it is a Dota 2-inspired game after all). Instead of the usual board style with multiple phases, Artifact sports three different lanes that are played at the same time, moving with a fast pace from the left to the right side of the screen. To end up the victor the player has to strategically plan for tower destruction on three fronts. These strategies include playing and managing heroes as well as resources for each lane and keeping track of the towers' health on both your and your opponent's side. In a deck you can add up to five heroes in different colours with various abilities that can be deployed to any of the three lanes (all of which respawn after a while when destroyed). Crucially, to play colour-specific minion and ability cards a hero of that colour has to be present on that lane, adding yet another reason to strategise.
All hero cards can be equipped with non-colour specific buffs, ability cards, and armour as well as weapons, making them more powerful to either annihilate enemies and the enemy tower or to save them from certain death before the opponent's attack phase. The colours at play are: red, an expensive colour to play but with high offensive value; blue, which holds a lot of spell-heavy cards; green, which is a typically minion-heavy deck; and black, which is a lot like the red deck but with a stronger focus on buffing and debuffing cards. A full deck holds a minimum of 40 cards, including the hero cards, and you can build your deck with an unlimited card capacity. Want a 100-card powerhouse deck? You can build one, however, with a massive deck, you may run into the issue of having a ton of cards with a high resource cost that will make the plays non-existent until after a few battle phases.
Apart from the 40-card base deck, there are also item cards to keep track of. These items include health boosts, hero buffs, weapons, armour, and lane buffs (such as tower-specific lane add-ons that deploy once every round), and these are free to play at any time on any hero. When you decide which hero gets what buff and which characters should do what, you can decide to skip the round (do make sure to keep an eye on the board though, as you can see how much damage will be dealt by the cards on the battlefield before you start the battle) and once your opponent does the same it's time for a fight. The design of the game has the cards clash into those on the opposite side of the board (or straight to a tower if no hero is blocking the way). After the battle phases on all three lanes have ceased, an in-game shop-like phase starts and cards can be purchased for in-game resources (in this case, that resource is gold coins). After picking the cards you want (and can afford) you get to place your heroes on any of the lanes.
Each game is won by taking down two of the towers in two different lanes that stand at 40 health points at the back of the battlefield, or taking out one of them and then the crystal-like soul of said tower. The second tower phase has double the health value as the regular tower, and we found that it was typically easier taking two towers out instead of going for the very soul of one.
The main aspect that sets Artifact apart from other CCGs is the complexity it offers, and even though it's really detailed it never feels overwhelming nor overly complicated. There's a lot of different cards at play (you're welcome for that wording) but they all feel really fluid and logical, so less experienced players will have an easy enough time getting started while the CCG professionals will have plenty of opportunities to execute some great tactical plays against equally great opponents. There are plenty of game modes to choose from too; Featured brings competitive events for those looking for a different challenge; Solo Play lets players battle it out against a bot, be it for training purposes or lack of want for competitive play; Social Play lets you play people on your friends list for fun; Casual Play is a light-hearted PvP mode; and Expert Play is a more competitive PvP mode where ranks are involved. When playing on Expert there are a few different ways to do things, one of which is a standard mode where both players are equipped with their own decks, two of which present the players with a draft option.
As an old Magic: The Gathering enthusiast we were very familiar with playing draft to get in a tournament, but for those of you who aren't, draft play means you buy a couple of packs, build the best deck you can with those cards while your opponent does the same, and then you battle it out. It's a fairer way to play since the winner isn't necessarily the player that's paid the most money for a sweet deck.
Phantom draft has you playing a deck of 60 free cards you build a deck from before the match (that you can't keep after the game) and after enough wins you can pocket some free card packs. Keeper draft, on the other hand, lets you keep the cards you draft, but instead requires you to have five unopened card packs in your inventory. The idea is the same, though, and you play an opponent with the same pre-conditions as you and if you win enough matches you get some card packs. That being said, to play a ranked match you need to spend tickets, which you get from dismantling cards, so it's not totally free.
The range of options makes Artifact a game for every CCG enthusiast although there are some choices for players who don't want to spend their hard-earned money. That being said though, by paying extra to unlock new cards you're going to boost your options, although there's depth here that should reward diligent players who explore their deck to the fullest. If you want to build your deck there are not many options other than playing Expert Play (or Ranked Play, if you prefer), and the microtransactions are already receiving some backlash. It's hard to argue that the game isn't held back a little by its marketplace integration, but at least you have the option to trade your unwanted cards with other players.
Back to the game itself, Artifact looks absolutely stunning and it definitely feels like a Valve game, despite the fact that the studio is exploring a new genre. We didn't have any issues with the game crashing, loading screens being slow, or visual issues during our hours in-game, and the only major problem we had was the fact that one has to purchase card packs to expand one's deck, although we did find ourselves wanting to grab a couple of packs to see the types of cards we'd end up getting.
Valve's new CCG definitely seems to be one of the better games in the genre and there's plenty of room for it to grow past this point. It'll be interesting to see how they will keep supporting this lovely experience but as of now it's certainly worth a try for everyone who's even remotely interested - and the price of it isn't too bad either.