Digital card games, as a genre, are strange. As virtual recreations of physical cards, they shuffle like cards, they look like cards, they exist in decks like cards, and yet they are wholly liberated from all of the troubles of physical cards. As any Magic: The Gathering player can tell you, physical card games can get hard to manage. Laying out a big board takes up a lot of space, remembering all of the different interactions and static effects on that board can be tough, and the physical manipulation of those cards can get tiresome.
Artifact, the digital card game released by Valve and designed by Magic creator Richard Garfield, sits at the intersection of these virtual capabilities liberated from these material problems. But what no one seems to have considered is that, perhaps, the clunkiness of physical cards could be a good natural limit for keeping complexity low. Artifact is complex. It is too complex. It is not a card game I want to play.
On the surface of things, Artifact looks like other digital or physical deckbuilding games. You create decks with color identities (there are four) that are composed of heroes, creeps, spells, improvements, and items. I am going to try to explain how all of this works for you as briefly as possible, but just know that this explanation is partial. I am not kidding when I say that this game is complex. Here is how it plays:
You have three different lanes. These lanes are each tug of war experiences in which both players are trying to knock down an opposing tower. Winning two lanes wins the game (there is also a mechanic for super duper winning one lane). You play all three of these lanes at once, and it feels like playing three simultaneous games of Magic. However, you only have one hand, and you can only play cards in specific color identities in a lane if you have a hero in that lane. So, for example, if I have a red hero in the middle lane, I can play red spells and creeps in that lane. If I have a red hero and a black hero in the right lane, then I can play red and black spells in that lane.
We go further down the rabbit hole: heroes can die, and when they do, they get a countdown timer before they return to the lanes to be played again. You can give them equipment, and it continues on those heroes after death. These heroes can have continuous or activated abilities that affect the game, and creeps also have these. Improvements allow you to create specific conditions in each lane that differentiate them from one another. Each has its own resource pool, which can vary dependent on cards that are played. Some cards can switch between lanes, and others can be played in one lane and produce effects in others.
I am sure this feels like a scattershot glossolalia of rules and conditions, but that is also what Artifact feels like. The design team behind this game has reckoned with the fact that a digital card game has a much higher ceiling for complexity than a physical card game, and instead of emulating the design parameters of a physical game (like Elder Scrolls Legends or Magic Arena or even Hearthstone to a degree), Artifact is simply concerned with seeing where the hell this design space can take us. I am sure that it is terribly exciting for the people who designed it, but playing this game feels like smashing your own kneecaps with a hammer.
And, you know, I understand part of what is happening here. Artifact is, at some design level, tied into Dota 2 and the design space of the MOBA game genre. A cornerstone of the MOBA genre is creating arbitrary complexity that needs to be overcome as a kind of social and experiential barrier to entry both on a basic gameplay level and on a cultural level. You have to go through the hell of both grinding levels and of reading wikis (or at least having longform conversations) just so you can figure out what the hell you’re supposed to be doing in those games. The people who do get past that barrier are adherents, true fans, and that helps account for the dedication (in its positive and negative forms) that those games draw out.
Artifact feels like someone said “ok, do that, but card games.” As a longtime Magic player, I don’t feel that you need to do that much to create that kind of MOBA-y culture around card games. Magic is notoriously insider-y, and the biggest growth and popularity limited for the game is the fact that you need to know some fairly tricky and labyrinthine rules to even understand how to play the game properly in a competitive setting. Magic tends to play at the limit of complexity of a physical card game, and design changes over the past several years have actively sought to clarify and streamline the complexity to make the on-ramp for new players both clearer and less bumpy. The release of Magic Arena earlier this year was yet another (welcome) step in that direction, cleanly and clearly creating an online environment where arcane card interaction knowledge does not immediately give you a massive advantage. In card games, clarity of interactions and rules is the best way to create an even playing field.
For whatever reason, Artifact isn’t that. If it has learned design lessons from the past decade of card games, it has learned those lessons so that it can invert and warp them into shapes that feed off of (and into) a gameplay environment that feels as much like managing an Excel spreadsheet as it does playing a card game.
That’s fine. I am not out here hollering for a specific mode of card game design, and I love that we live in a world where there are a plurality of games for people with different desires and likes in their card games. I am simply saying that Artifact has emerged into a world where digital card games finally seem to have figured out the sweet spot between mechanical complexity and friendliness for new players, and it has totally ignored any and all of those lessons in favor of a model that, to me at least, seems to be interested in attracting diehard fans of massive complexity and basically no one else. And maybe that works for Valve and the Artifact design team, but it sure as hell doesn’t work for me.
Artifact was designed by Richard Garfield and developed and published by Valve. It’s available for PC.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, is available on Steam.