The first time I heard about Artifact, the DOTA card game, I got super hyped. I don’t even play DOTA, but the sound of a card game made by Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: the Gathering, and Valve, the company that runs the eSports events with the biggest prize pools, seemed promising.
I was lucky enough to get into the closed beta and I’ve been enjoying the game a ton.
I have to say that they have definitely not made it easy to grasp. If I were to rank card games by how easy they are to pick up, I would say Hearthstone is a 9/10, Magic 7/10, and Artifact 3/10. Giving up simplicity is often the trade-off when trying to make a game more skill-intensive. It took me a while to understand everything going on in a game—even just the basic rules—but it was well worth the hassle.
Last weekend, they streamed a special preview tournament, which our own Joel Larsson won! Stanislav Cifka and Lukas Blohon are other Magic players who have been playing the game and doing well, so clearly, our skills can translate to this game.
The NDA is going to be lifted this Saturday, which means that you’ll be seeing lots of games, streams, and various content that people in the closed beta have been preparing. To get you up to speed and ready to absorb all of it, I’ve prepared a guide for Magic players. I’ll be using Magic terms, keywords and jargon to make it easier to understand.
Before getting started, I will try to give you a big picture of the game and then I’ll get into the details.
Whoa, what’s going on here? The easiest way to explain it is to tell you that you’re playing a game of Magic with three battlefields. They are called lanes, a full turn (round) consists of playing through all of them, starting with the left side. You have one hand, but separate mana in each lane, and you get to choose where to cast your cards.
Each battlefield has a life total of 40, where like Magic, the goal is to reduce it to 0. They are called towers. When they are destroyed, this thing called ancient pops up and it has 80 life. You win the game by destroying two towers in different lanes or by destroying a tower and its ancient. Decking does not exist in Artifact—the game just continues even if your deck is empty.
You do so with creatures, which are called units. They have power and toughness like we’re used to, but they also have armor. If a unit has 2 armor, for example, it prevents two of every damage source it would receive.
Mana works differently than Magic, but very similarly to Hearthstone. You start with 3 mana in each lane and it increases by one every round. Lastly, you have gold. A good parallel would be to compare it to energy in Magic. Gold can be spent to buy items, but I’ll get to that later.
When playing a game, most of the game play will be zoomed into the ongoing battlefields like such:
The minimap located in the top left corner is just a way to keep track of what’s going on in the other lanes and highlights the important information so you don’t have to zoom in and out, back and forth.
Heroes dictate your strategy identity. Think of them as your commander. There are currently 44 existing heroes and you must choose 5 of them for your deck. There are four colors in the game: blue, green, black, and red. You can play five blue heroes if you wish, but you can also play all four colors.
Similarly to Magic, the more colors you play, the harder it will be to be able to cast your spells. That’s because you need to have a hero of the color of your spell in the current lane to cast it.
You do get to choose where you deploy your heroes, however. At the start of the game, you will have one hero deployed at random in each lane, then your fourth hero will be deployed on turn 2 (round 2) in the lane of your choice, then your fifth, round 3, also in the lane of your choice.
Okay, so if all of my heroes die, I’m locked out of playing spells for the rest of the game? That’s what I thought at first, but you have what’s called the fountain, which could be compared to the command zone in Magic. Whenever a hero dies, it is sent to the fountain, where it will have to sit for an entire round before being re-deployed. On the minimap, if a hero icon has a check mark, that means they’re ready to be re-deployed at the beginning of the next round. Otherwise, they’ll be marked with a “-1.” What might be non-intuitive for Magic players is that a hero that goes to the fountain actually keeps everything it was equipped or modified with. All in all, the fountain is a mix of the command zone and phasing.
Last but not least, each hero comes with a signature card. It is simply three copies of a card that’s added to your deck with the hero and cannot be removed. Imagine that you have Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy as commander and would be forced to also add Jace’s Ingenuity to your deck.
Creeps share the battlefield with your heroes, just like a creature would. They have power, toughness and sometimes armor. There are two kinds of creeps. The most common are melee creeps. They are 2/4 and free. Wait, free!?
That’s right. Here’s comes the first element of randomness. At the beginning of each round, two of those melee creeps are deployed in either of your three lanes at random. These are not part of your deck—they just appear for both players, every round, for as many rounds as the game has.
The other kind of creeps are exactly the same as creatures in Magic. They have a casting cost and you choose which one to put into your deck. Those also have colors, just like other spells, and therefore can only be played in the same lane as a hero of the same color.
When you cast those creeps, you get to choose where in the lane it’ll be deployed.
Combat works a bit differently in Artifact and honestly it is not trivial to understand. Units deals damage to what’s in front of them, and if there is an empty spot in front of an opponent’s unit, you have to deploy there. If all opposing units have units in front of them, you can deploy to an empty spot and get to hit the tower—but that is not always true.
There is another random factor in the game. When a unit is deployed in an empty spot, there is a 25% chance that it will attack to the left, 25% that it will attack to the right and 50% that it attacks in front, a.k.a. the tower.
Damage, unlike Magic, stays there on a unit until it’s dead. That’s pretty common with virtual card games.
Units don’t have summoning sickness, meaning they’ll get to attack the turn they are played.
All right, now you know the most important things, but you still don’t know how and when to actually go to the combat phase. Enter the most exciting part of the game, and in my opinion the reason why this game is so awesome.
This is a mix of priority, the stack, and phases in Magic. Personally, I hate it when it’s my opponent’s turn and all you can do is wait. I get distracted, start alt+tabbing and trying to do something else to shorten the waiting time. That’s bad—that just means you’re never 100% focused on the game. Of course, it sucks if you’re playing mono-red and your opponent is playing a blue control deck—they end up taking 75%+ of the time in the game.
In Artifact, they have a genius system where players take actions after each other. For example, I cast a creep, you cast a spell, I cast a spell, you cast a creep, I cast nothing, you cast a creep, I cast nothing, you cast nothing. MOVE TO COMBAT.
Whoa. To summarize that, players cast cards one after another, then if both players don’t cast anything, the turn for that lane ends and combat happens. That means there is no stack and you can’t respond to a card, but it’ll be your turn to play a card right after theirs resolves.
Who plays a card first? At the beginning of the game, it is determined at random, but as soon as the first card is played, it’s simple. If you play a card, you lose initiative. As you move through lanes and rounds, the first person to get the initiative is always determined that way.
It’s absolutely beautiful when you get the hang of it, and creates some absurdly complex plays where it might be possible that the right line is not to play any cards in the first two lanes to guarantee having initiative in the third lane and blow out your opponent because you’re the first player to cast something.
Now, you have all the rules needed to get into a game, so let’s get into some of the details.
At this point you should have a good idea of how a game proceeds, but let’s break it down.
A full-turn (round), starts with deployment. At the beginning of the game, this is done automatically with the starting three heroes you chose. Then for the other rounds, that’s when you choose in which lane you’ll deploy your heroes.
Then, you have the draw phase, where you’ll draw two cards. (You start the game with 3 and draw 2, for a total of 5. You could also say you start with 5 and don’t draw first turn—it doesn’t really matter.)
Then, you enter the first lane and starting casting cards. When everyone is done, combat happens. Every units deals damage simultaneously to their target, no matter how many units are in play. Once that is done, you move to the second lane, repeat the process, move to third lane, repeat the process, and end the round.
Here comes a never-seen-before phase that can’t really be compared to any other games.
This is where you get to spend the gold you’ve collected. You collect said gold by killing heroes and creeps. A hero gives you 5 gold and a creep 1 gold.
This box will display when you get to the shopping phase. It shows you multiple cards that can only be bought during this phase. The cost of each is in the bottom right corner.
The left one is part of the secret shop. It’ll show you an item at random among all the items that exist. You see this “Hold 1” button at the top? You can pay 1 gold to have that item from the secret shop remain the same on the next turn. If you don’t do that, it’ll be another random item in the next shopping phase.
The middle is the item deck. These are cards that you choose as part of building your deck and it shows you one at random from the 9 you chose.
The right one is the consumables. There’s a few that exist, and they’ll often do stuff like draw a card, heal units, or affect the board in other ways. Those are shown at random as well within those that exist.
You can buy as many cards as you have gold. Those cards are put into your hand and can be played like any other cards for 0 mana whenever you want.
Your items can only be equipped to heroes. Each hero has a slot for one weapon, one armor, and one accessory.
Without going through all the abilities that exist, just like Magic, Artifact has static abilities and activated abilities. The activated abilities work a bit differently than what we’re used to. Instead of spending mana or tapping to activate them, there is a cooldown.
There is no requirement to start using it, but once you do, you have to wait a number of rounds equal to the number written. In this case, that would be once a round, meaning that you can do it every round. If it was 2, there would be a round you’d have to wait.
Heroes work a bit differently. To start using their activated abilities, you actually have to wait the number of rounds written, then once you do activate it, you activate the cooldown again. Also, the number of rounds they spend in the fountain also counts toward that cooldown. To me, that was the most confusing part of the game—that the hero’s activated abilities work differently than the other cards.
In Magic, we would call these enchantments or artifacts. These are cards that you can play on any lane, from any lane, and they’ll affect the lane you decide to put it on.
Verdant Refuge would give your heroes and creeps in the lane +1 armor as long as it’s there.
Building a Deck
Essentially, the first step is to choose your 5 heroes, then choosing what will be in your hero deck.
The hero deck consists of the 15 signature spells your 5 five heroes bring and 25 other cards you choose: spells, creeps, and improvements.
Then you have your item deck, which is 9 items. That brings the total of a legal deck to a minimum of 49 cards.
Each card can be played in maximum 3 copies, except heroes, which are limited to 1.
My Twitter has been full of people who cannot wait to play the game and I hope this article will make it smoother for you guys to get up to speed once it comes out. The official release date is November 28th, when everyone will be able to buy and play the game on Steam.
But you will be able to see people stream and produce videos as soon as this upcoming weekend since the closed beta non-disclosure agreement drops. Hopefully with this article you’ll be able to watch and understand what’s going on!
Follow me on Twitter and Twitch if you’d like to know more. Don’t worry, I am not quitting Magic—they’re both great games and I will do my best to juggle between them both.