Saturday, December 01, 2018

Initial Thoughts: Artifact

Valve's new digital collectible game, Artifact, launched this past week.  I've had the chance to play a few games, craft a couple decks, and give the market a whirl.  Below are my initial thoughts on what I've experienced and where I would like to see the game improve.

When I first opened Artifact the game dropped me into a tutorial game against a bot.  The tutorial game advanced quickly and taught the basics.  Another tutorial game followed teaching more nuanced mechanics.  The tutorial did a good job of making me feel ready to play against other players.

After the tutorial I was dropped into a menu screen that was a bit confusing.  Having come from playing a good bit of MtG Arena lately it was a little bit of a shock to see so many options.  On top of collection/deck building options there was solo play (against bots), casual play (free modes), tournaments, social play, and a special event called "Call to Arms". 

I opted to jump into the casual constructed best of one queue.  I selected one of the pre-constructed decks given to new players who bought the game and a game was found within seconds.  The game started and after a couple turns it was obvious I was NOT ready to play against other players.  Effects were triggering, cards were being played, and I had no idea what was going on.  After following Artifact for the better part of a year, having watched endless streams, this came as a shock.

Artifact is a beautiful video game.  I emphasize video because Artifact has a lot going on visually.  This is not just a card game in a digital medium.  The board is an actual environment.  There are two animated imps that fly around carrying you and your opponent's deck and prompting you to take actions (or cringing/cheering at the action you just took). 

However, in this visual feast what is happening in the game is easily lost.  That card your opponent just played?  It disappeared and maybe you saw the animation on what it targeted.  It may not even have been a card; it could have been an activated ability or an item effect.  Add onto this confusion with a board that is really three boards (called lanes) and the fact that some actions occur in other lanes than the one you are focused on the player can lose track of what is going on.

This was the major wake up moment for me that Artifact was not just another card game.  As I continued to play and learn how to interpret actions that were occurring the more my thought on the game shifted from card game to strategy game.  After several rounds my mind was settled: Artifact is a strategy game that decided to use cards as a representation of units and actions in the game.

One could argue that Artifact is a card game taking full advantage of running on a digital medium.  There are a lot of random aspects; from random creep cards that spawn each turn with random directions they may attack to many cards with a percentage chance to do something.  These random actions happen seamlessly thanks to the power of a computer.  In a physical game this many random play elements would not work.

My contention will be that Artifact could have represented all components of the game via 3D models.  The game board could have been a top down battlefield map without a "board game" feel.  Units could have been 3D models.  And the game would likely feel exactly the same!  Why it was made as a card game I don't know and I'm not sure if it helps or hurts in the long run.  Thus far I am not convinced that Artifact should be treated as a digital card game or compared to games like MtG Arena.  It is much more comparable to it's source, DOTA2, than MtG Arena.

One thing I can say though is I'd love to see some key UI concepts lifted for MtG Arena and applied to Artifact.  MtG Arena does a masterful job of distilling a complex rules set from paper MtG into an understandable user experience that doesn't require years of MtG experience to understand.  One of the best features when playing MtG Arena is that every card or effect that is triggered does two things very well. 

1) It stays open for long enough for the opposing player to register and allows for the player to acknowledge the action (or respond if applicable)

2) The game displays arrows that show what card/effect targets what.  If there are multiple targets/sources then there are multiple arrows.

While the arrows and stack of actions can grow large and complex it helps newer players navigate a very complex game with little trouble.  In fact; I'd say it makes MtG look like a very simple game.  Over time as a player grows comfortable with MtG Arena they can skip through most of the actions.  Plus there is the option to flip into a full control mode whereby every small action is taken manually which allows for advanced players to execute some of MtG's more complex plays.

Artifact really needs some sort of equivalent.  When a card or effect is played the game should pause, show the player what initiated the action, draw arrows between targets and initiators, and then let players click to allow the game to proceed.  While there is no ability for an opposing player to "interrupt" an action as there is in MtG there is still the need to allow the opposing player to process what just occurred.  Especially as a digital game where the player can't point or indicate what they are doing.  The player is completely reliant on the UI and the current state of Artifact's UI is mixed.

On top of needing to improve the UI to show interactions better the games iconography could use some polish.  As mentioned above; Artifact is very much a video game.  The eye popping visuals, voice acting (every card's lore snippet can be voiced out loud), and 3D board are very well done.  But many times that comes at the expense of being able to quickly ascertain what is what.

The biggest "huh?" of this category are the Improvements cards.  These cards, once played, establish a permanent effect for a single lane on the board.  However, instead of representing the played improvement as a card it is instead converted into a TINY (relative to the rest of the game elements) floating disc with very hard to distinguish symbol.  The disc then fires out, visually, it's effect (if applicable).  As many of these effects happen at the start of the turn in the lane right after the sweeping camera pans over the board they can be easily missed.  And good luck new player if you don't have initiative and your opponent drops a card or triggers an effect right away; you will have a heck of a time trying to figure out that improvement. 

Improvements should be represented as cards in a second row next to the tower in the lane.  Period.  Get rid of the floating discs.

Also of concern is the icons on cards that indicate what card type they are.  With the almost full-art approach of the cards (art takes up majority of what you see of a card) the icon can quickly get lost in the background.  Especially item cards where you are trying to determine what slot they go onto heroes (fortunately the game warns you if you are about to accidentally play one item over another slotted item).  I'll also briefly mention the color of the rarity symbols on some COMMON cards make them look exactly like the RARE color.

Artifact needs to improve the user experience.  Not only for the players playing, but for streaming (which is now a key piece for games of this nature).  As I mentioned I watched a lot of streamers play before the game released.  I am shocked (baffled even) how many core concepts I missed because they simply don't come across on a stream.  Having played now there is so much more that I understand about streams but still have a hard time actually tracking either in game or in a stream.

Underneath the UI is a decent game.  I've enjoyed the matches I have played thus far and Artifact is the first "card game" where I've felt I am not directly reliant on the draw of cards.  The game offers so many other decisions to make that whether you drew the right card to play or not is not as impactful.  This is helped by each lane of the board having its own resource pool (mana) which eliminates the need to draw basic "land" cards. 

One area I was nervous about going into the game was the random elements, but after playing matches the random elements don't sway the game very much.  For cards with percentage base effects I never felt like they were priced (in regards to in game resources) in a manner where they felt broken.  Yes, there are times where Cheating Death (arguably the most disputed "random effect" card) is going to result in a "really!?" moment, but if you look at the cost to play and the set up required to benefit there is no other way I see the card existing.  If the card was changed to a more specific effect it would either be completely useless or so expensive to play that it becomes a fringe card.

The other major random components are the creeps that spawn in the lanes each round and how placement occurs for those creeps as well as heroes.  Players select what lane a hero enters but not what specific spot they enter in.  They could be placed against the opposing players best hero, placed against a creep, or land in an open slot with a free shot at the opposing tower.  This can result in some frustrating moments where a player's hero is put in a no-win situation, but more often than not the placement just changes the way the player will approach their turn.  It really becomes a strategic component for better players to adapt to the environment. 

Also randomly assigned is the direction a creep or hero attacks.  It may be straight ahead or to the left or right.  This means a player could play a strong creep into an open lane only to have it randomly attack left and miss an opportunity to hit the opponent's tower for damage.  Frustrating when it happens, yes, but it is also part of the strategy in each lane and rewards strategies designed to go wide and push out creeps/heroes so they have no other option than a straightforward attack (the random attack direction doesn't apply if there is no other target).

Randomness is part of Artifact and it's neatly woven into the strategy and tactics of the game.  It will bite a player every once and a while, but if player's focus on the right decisions rather than banking on random results they will win out in the long run.

The game being split into three lanes also opens the door for creative planning.  Players have to win two lanes by destroying the tower in each or win a single lane twice by first destroying a tower and then beating a stronger tower (called an ancient).  I have now played in enough games to know there is legitimate opportunity to build decks and play in ways that either prioritize the first lanes or focus on the last lane in some regards. 

Just last night I had a game where I gave up on the last lane knowing that if I could win the first two lanes I could beat win before my opponent won twice in the last lane. That was not my strategy going into the game but my switch to a focus on the first two lanes paid off as I ended up with just enough damage to finish the middle lane and win.  The key moment was on hero re-deployment my opponent chose to double down on the last lane to finish the game while I opted to not defend and risk being able to take the first two lanes.

That game made me feel good.  It made me feel like I outplayed my opponent.  At no point was I waiting to draw the right card.  My opponent made a choice and played towards it.  I took a risk and played towards it.  Looking back at the game I realize what felt like a risk at the time was actually the right play.  With what I had I had a good chance of winning the first two lanes.  My opponent had a guarantee to win the game in the third lane and likely had plans to deal with any defense I threw in.  That win still feels good a day later.

And that is the magic I've found with Artifact at this point.  That game was with a deck I constructed myself from cards I got from packs and a few I bought off the market because I thought they'd be fun to try out.  Playing the game and realizing my choices during the game matter as much as my deck construction is a good place for a game to be at.  I can get past the poor UI experience if the underlying gameplay is rewarding.  Throw in the other game modes I've not tried yet and I think Valve has a solid game on their hands.  It won't be for everyone, but for those that enjoy tense gameplay with rewarding decision making then this is the game.

I feel remiss if I don't mention the monetization model for the game.  The game costs $20 to get in the door and then the competitive modes cost tickets ($1 each) to play in.  The keeper draft modes cost tickets plus the purchase price of packs.  Players can also buy and sell cards on the market (top end cards are going for $20+).  There are free versions of all modes to get players comfortable before committing to spending event tickets.  None of the free versions reward cards or resources and are just for practice purposes.  There is also a special event (and assumed to be more) where players can play with decks they don't own. 

Ultimately the core gamers that stick with Artifact will end up paying to play and I think most will feel validated with the experience they have in the game.  There will be a subset of card game players who don't adapt well to Artifact's more-strategy-game-than-card-game approach and thus will feel jilted by having to pay to play in some modes, but those folks wouldn't likely stick around in a free-2-play model either.  Either you will like Artifact or you won't.  If you do you can play the free modes or you can pay to play wherever you want to be at.  The market will give those that want to the ability to buy the deck they want to play. The market will also give players ways to pull value (in the form of Steam wallet cash) if they are winning more than losing (event ticket modes pay the winners in packs which can result in excess copies of cards to sell on the market).

I need more time in Artifact to determine where it fits in the long-term (I'm still really, really liking MtG Arena), but right now I've found myself enjoying the game and feeling good paying up for some cards I wanted.

Things I want to try next:
1. Draft (casual phantom first; then keeper)
2. Competitive constructed
3. Play more Call to Arms to see how different deck types play out (without having to source the cards)

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Types of gamers

This article title over at PC Gamer caught my eye today:  "Destiny 2's mysterious Black Armory expansion doubles down on putting 'hobby' players first." Specifically the term hobby player.  This prompted me to think of the way I classify gamers as I'd never considered "hobby" as a type of gamer.  Gaming itself is a hobby, but classifying a gamer as a "hobby" gamer?  I am not sure that makes sense.  In my view gamers come in three main types.

Before we get to my three types of gamers I want to get the concept of "hobby" gamer out of the way.  The article never explicitly defines the term but quotes from the Destiny 2 developer help frame the use: "...people who live and breathe their hobby playing a videogame..." and "...a community that wants a hobby more than something that comes and goes over the space of one week..."  Based on that context my take is "hobby" = hardcore.  Now on to my types.

My three types are Casual, Core, and Hardcore gamers.  A quick description of each:

The Casual gamer
  • Plays occasionally; contrary to popular belief they don't make up a large segment of any game's population with the exception of mobile games
  • Plays mainstream games; especially free 2 play
  • Not likely to monetarily invest in games unless it buys their way ahead in the game
The Core gamer

  • Plays daily; makes up the bulk of a game's players
  • Plays mainstream games and willing to dabble in non-mainstream games
  • Likely to monetarily invest in games they like

The Hardcore gamer

  • "Plays" doesn't begin to describe what these gamers are doing; they are "living and breathing" their games day in and day out (hence my association to the hobby term in the article)
  • Plays any game, any time, any where if it piques their interest
  • Invests monetarily in games (likely to pre-order and buy special editions of games)
  • At the same time they are willing to invest in games they are the most likely group to grind out free 2 play games to avoid paying

I don't think there is much discussion to be had around the hardcore gamer type.  They are easy to pick out of a crowd and there is no doubt about who they are when playing an online game.  This is a desirable audience for every game to attract as they become the word of mouth that carries games into popularity or helps stem the tides of negativity when the plebeians rise up against a game.

Of more value is discussing Casual vs Core gamers as I feel they get confused as one and the same.  And more importantly is how often developers miscalculate these gamers and that is exactly what I read-between-the-lines in the PC Gamer article that prompted this post.

From my outside observer point of view; Destiny 2 missed for many Core gamers but the game carried forward a key Hardcore audience from the Destiny 1.  In the article the discussion of satisfying "hobby" gamers is placed against a message of "disappointed about the financial results of past Destiny 2 expansions".  Those messages conflict when you take into consideration that the Hardcore (aka hobby) gamers aren't what drive population in a game.  Core gamers are the key in that regard.

Core gamers are gamers like me.  I used to be hardcore (and then I got married, got a job, and had a kid).  I get confused as still hardcore (duh, I have a gaming blog!) because I can talk to the talk and on release of a new game I may indulge myself a little bit (staying up to 2 am a couple nights in a row isn't that hardcore).  I generally play games daily and am willing to part with money for the experience.

As a Core gamer I am looking for simplicity in my gaming choices; how do I get in and make the most of my time.  Games that deliver on that are likely to attract my attention.  This is why I am enjoying MtG Arena and looking forward to Artifact.  MtG Arena is a generous free 2 play game where I don't have to invest money while Artifact is a mostly pay-to-play game.  Both of them actually end up getting into my wallet for the same amount.  Neither one is out there looking to please the "hobby" gamer.  In fact; they really hit Core gamers pretty spot on.  MtG Arena through the free 2 play generosity and Artifact through the no-shame fact they are charging players to play the game and will allow players to buy to exactly the spot they want to be at.

That is where it feels like Destiny 2 misses.  Just reading the article and hearing about expansions and free seasonal updates and then paying for season passes; my Core gaming mind is gone to other games.  I was almost pulled in when Destiny 2 was free on Battle.net, but it was so confusing to know what I was getting into.  Like; do I need to buy expansions or not?  Do I need the pass?  Was this a Guild Wars 2 type experience where I can buy once and jump back in whenever I want for no cost?  Or was this something else where I was going to have to tap that pass each time?

Ultimately what I am getting at is that as far as types of gamers go Core gamers get confused to one side or the other and in that light its easy to see a developer to miss us.  I probably would have picked up Destiny 2 if the updates/expansions made any sense to me and it was clear how I could play the game with or without paying (again, as a Core gamer I'm not opposed to paying).  But reading an update going towards the "hobby" player makes me turn away.  I don't plan to live and breath any game anytime soon.  I am sure the Hardcore Destiny 2 players have already paid up and will keep paying up but no doubt we'll keep seeing the "disappointed in Destiny 2 financials" as the Core gamers are missed.




Monday, November 19, 2018

Something Something Artifact Something Something Valve

"I've never gone from 100% hype to totally deflated so fast" Uh oh!  Something is afoot in Valve-land with their now-in-public-beta Artifact digital card game.  The NDAs are lifted and people are speaking their mind.  Not about the game play or that some totally broken card/combo, but about Valve's audacity to actually charge players to play the game.  A tough pill to swallow in a universe of "free 2 play" competitors.

As the veil of the NDA came down and Valve released an updated FAQ concerns started to flood in about the "Artifact paywall".  Essentially; everyone is upset that Valve plans to charge players to buy tickets to get into common events.  Specifically is the requirement to buy "tickets" along with the packs to participate in draft modes. 

For those unfamiliar with drafts within card games; players buy a a set number of card packs and then spend turns picking cards (drafting) from those packs to play a game.  In real life paper card games; this means you get to keep the cards you draft (because once the packs are open there is no putting the cards back).  Draft modes where players keep cards are often called "keeper drafts". With digital games there is the ability to have phantom drafts where players do not keep the cards.  Often times these phantom draft modes allow "free 2 play" games to give their "free" players a way to enjoy draft.  Alternately, some games like Magic the Gathering Arena, allow "free" players to acquire free credits that can be redeemed for a draft.

Valve has decided to eschew the "free entry" model for their game modes and are instead charging players a number of tickets to participate in the game modes.  This includes keeper draft modes; players have to pay for tickets and packs.  Valve's reasoning for the tickets is due to the events rewarding tickets and packs (the better you do the more you get).  Also for phantom draft modes the requirement to pay for a ticket (or use one you earned) also helps solve the issues of 100% free drafts where players quit after a poor draft (i.e. they didn't get good cards).

There is no way to play Artifact for free.  Players have to buy the game ($20) and have to buy tickets to play in modes that reward new cards.  There is no method where players can grind for free cards just by playing the game.  Caveat; if you are a really good player you can go "infinite" whereby you always win the events and thus receive more rewards than needed to join another event (and thus after your first purchase you never have to buy into an event again).

This is a distinct difference from the other major players in the digital CCG market.  Specifically both Hearthstone and MtG Arena offer completely free methods to enter their draft modes.  Combined with the feedback from the Artifact beta testers that draft is the best way to experience Artifact it sets the stage for the hype to die.  Essentially lots of folks assumed Artifact was just going to be a free 2 play game.

On one hand I can see where players would assume the game would be free becaus Artifact is based on DOTA2 and DOTA2 is 100% free 2 play.  On the other hand I can point to the fact that Valve has always stated that they intended Artifact to replicate a real life card game where players can buy, trade, and sell cards just like they were real cards.  Thus it should be no surprise that Valve was going to charge an entry fee for events since the rewards (cards) have tangible real world value.

Another concern was that the hero cards in starter decks were also in packs which means they are dead cards with no value (everyone gets the starter decks and thus would never need to trade/buy a copy).  Also Valve clarified they will be taking a 15% cut of market sales which many felt was a high take.

All of this has cascaded in a torrent of "Artifact is doomed" and "Artifact's paywall is stupid" type posts across the Internet. Those sort of posts are my area of expertise as I am usually the pundit screaming the loudest about this sort of thing.  I love me a good doom and gloom post! 

However, all I can do is sit back and wonder what the heck these folks expected.  More importantly I struggle with not giving Valve the benefit of the doubt.  There were many people, myself included, who doubted that a 100% free 2 play DOTA2 would ever work or that a bunch of silly community-created content could drive a robust economy in Team Fortress 2 or that players would drop hundreds of dollars on barely recognizable skins in Counter Strike GO.  Valve has made all of these "different" models work in their major games and for the most part executed them in the face of "that'll never work" punditry. 

The bottom line is that Valve has never looked at the market and said "we're going to do what everyone else is doing".  They have always forged their own path.  Some things have worked; some have not.  Valve has taken a calculation with Artifact that there is an audience out there that wants a close-to-paper recreation of a card game in digital form. 

Personally I am one of those players.  I want to be able to buy, sell, and trade my cards.  I want to know that other players have bought into the game.  I am done putting credit cards into slot machines hoping the magical number overlords deem me worthy of the specific card I need.  I am done with dusting and wildcards.  If there is some stupid low power common card I want; let me buy it for a few pennies.  If there is a high power rare for a top tier deck, let me make the decision to keep hitting the slot machine for it or just take that money and buy it out right from the community (or better yet, let me trade up to it without having to expunge the cards from the community pool). 

All of this to say; KEEP GOING VALVE; I'M WITH YOU!  Contrary to the "I'm canceling my pre-order"; I am taking this opportunity to pre-order Artifact.

Also shortly after all this hub-bub; Valve mic-dropped a beta update invalidating many of the concerns.  In summary; excess cards can be recycled into event tickets.  This means there will be a minimum value for all cards (i.e. at some point it is better to recycle than to sell on the market).  It is a simple and brilliant solution and while it brings in a form of "dusting" it is acceptable for the problem it is solving  (worthless cards and a race to the bottom for card prices in the market).  In addition to the recycling of cards they are prioritizing a couple game modes to help bring more options for draft modes.  Oh and most of these changes are going into the live beta right now vs some dubious "future" release (take that as a lesson MtG Arena devs!).


Monday, October 08, 2018

Magic the Gathering Arena; thoughts

I have played Magic the Gathering (MtG) on and off since the 1990s.  I began around the time the Portal starter sets and Tempest card-set (part of the Rath Cycle).  To this day, the Sliver cards remain some of my favorite.  Post 2002 I shifted from paper to MtG Online (MTGO) as my gaming habits moved from physical games to the digital space. 

About this time my gaming focus became dominated by MMOs and my MtG cards were boxed (digitally and physically).  For years my only interaction with MtG was to wax nostalgic at players in my local game store while I played the new hotness of the moment (Dreamblade, World of Warcraft TCG, The Spoils TCG, etc).  In the late 2000s, MtG: Duels of the Planeswalkers (DotP) made its way onto the PC and it drew me straight in with the promise of a better interface (MtGO was not the best digital representation of the game at the time) and limited decks (i.e. you didn't have to know how to build a deck; you just focused on playing).

DotP was followed by additional versions in 2012 and 2013 and that annual trend of a yearly Duels versions continued in 2014 and 2015.   Each bringing a couple more features and continuing to nudge MtG into the digital realm further and further.  Duels was very much a quick to play version of the game that limited deck building so the focus was on playing the game.

After 2015 a shift was made to Magic Duels which was as close to paper magic as it seemed that Wizards of the Coast (WotC) was willing to get (remember, MtGO has been in existence since 2002!).  It featured its own unique rules (differing it from paper MtG) and there are over a thousand cards, deck construction, in-game purchases of cards, multiplayer modes, and a slew of single-player modes to play decks against the computer.  It seemed like Magic Duels was the go forward strategy for the casual player (specifically mobile gamers) in place of annual DotP releases.  It was the happy middle ground between MtGO and paper. 

Then up comes MtG Arena, a new digital offering that is 1-for-1 with the paper game rules and a plan to have simultaneous releases for new card sets going forward (cards will be limited to sets in the current Standard block as to avoid the idea that Arena is replacing MtGO which supports almost the entire MtG library).  Arena features a slick new user interface, speedy games rules engine, and a slew of bonuses for streamers to stream games via platforms such as Twitch.  Players can buy booster packs, play in sealed/draft events, construct decks the same as they would in paper, and there are discussions of opening the door for non-Standard game types (such as Singleton).

All of this to say; I am playing MtG Arena and I have some thoughts on it from the Open Beta.

The first thing that struck me about MtG Arena was the ease at which a new player can get into a game.  In fact; the game drops the player in a series of tutorial games before they ever see an options menu.  This feels like the right move as once a player is on the main menu they are on to playing competitive games against real players or dropping into a Deck Editing screen for a fairly complex game.  The current Standard block for MtG is no slouch when it comes to variety of mechanics and card interactions (heck there are keywords and card types I wasn't even aware of)!

The second feature that jumped out was how smoothly the game plays.  The games rules engine (being called GRE in the community) is a work of art and is supposedly built to read and interpret card keywords and rules and thus be able to adapt to any new cards added to it without having to program how each individual card should work.  The end result is a very quick to play game that handles one or a hundred token creatures with ease.

With that efficiency comes a problem though.  There is no way for a new player with no MtG experience to have any chance to understand what the heck is going on during some of the more nuanced parts of MtG.  The "stack" is fully and faithfully represented and players will spend time going card by card, effect by effect through it.  In many cases a new player will barely have the time to be able to read the rules text on some of the more common cards before they are overwhelmed with a "stack" of card effects waiting to be resolved.  Throw an Enchantment - Saga or a Planeswalker at them and good night my dear new player.  One of the things DotP did well was to limit some of the more complicated combos making it into the game and thus ensuring a new player didn't have to fret over some of MtG's more nuanced possibilities.

With that said, MtG Arena is clearly aimed at the serious MtG player.  While the game has cleaned up many of the laborious parts of MtG to make it bearable on a stream it has done nothing to eliminate the high complexity that is current state MtG.  MtG has 20+ years of development behind it and every new set digs into that backlog to bring forward bits and pieces.  This what makes much of the current MtG scene so exciting, but is also what can make it really, really hard to get into.  What is good for the veteran is not always good for the new player.  In paper MtG this is mitigated a bit by any number of custom play variants so I am hoping that Arena is able to execute on some more play modes to help step new players into the game (for example; a mode similar to Magic Duels where mythics, rares, uncommons are limited in a deck).

Now for the experienced MtG player; Arena is the dream digital representation of the game.  I cannot emphasize enough how well it handles the "stack" and walks the player through it.  Its not perfect (I would love to have a bulk resolve option for big stacks where no action is being taken), but it is light years ahead of any other digital version I have played (and from what I can remember of MtGO it puts it to shame).  Arena also does a great job of reflecting chains of effects; where they came from, what they are targeting, and if they tie into the stack somewhere. 

Anyone that has read my "Why Artifact has me excited" article will note that I was excited by the Richard Garfield statement about Artifact supporting any number of cards on the digital table at once.  I reaffirm my statement here.  Arena is great at handling any number of cards on the table at once.  I have played games with 30+ token creatures out at one time and it was easy to manage and didn't bog the game down; that is unless you get into effects that add an item to the stack for every card (see next paragraph).

Resolving large quantities of effects/cards in the "stack" can be a problem as there is no bulk option.  Players have complained of being "timed out" and thus forced to concede a game because it was taking too long to make assignments of blockers (which I can see happening with some of the token creature generating decks that are out there). 

Also having an audit log of cards/effects played would be useful as it is easy to click through whatever may have just been played and it can be hard to reverse engineer (just last night I had an opponent down to 1 life and the next turn they popped back to 16 and I have no idea how or where they did it even after exhausting a time out to read through all cards/token creatures they had in play).

Another area I would like to see Arena improve is the portion outside of playing the game.  There is no way to go back and see the last card or pack of cards you opened.  A stray click and it is easy to miss the rare/mythic you just received.  A "most recent cards acquired" log would be A+ awesome.

A big gap seems to be the inability to add or play casually with friends (something Valve is advertising as a differentiator for their upcoming digital card game Artifact).  Currently in the open beta for Arena players can only compete in competitive modes (single game ladder, best of 3 matches, special events, or buy-in sealed/draft formats).  Along these lines you cannot talk with other players or send them messages.  While this cuts down on the need to police such transactions it really kills the social aspect of the game.  I would love to be able to ask some of my opponents on how they built their deck, why they played a card in such a way, or to just pass time.

The deck edit screen also needs a lot of love.  It feels like it was built for a mobile user instead of a PC user.  Simple features such as hovering over a symbol to see what it means or "do you really want to remove this card from your deck?" messages are missing (seriously; whoever designed the Edit Deck screen to remove a card from your deck when clicking it should be shot... I click things because I want to see them!!!!).  This goes back a bit to the new player experience with MtG Arena.  I would be so pissed as a new player if I clicked a card to see it in my deck only to have it be removed and not having the knowledge to add it back. There is also ZERO explanation anywhere of what the symbols mean when trying to filter cards (fine for the experienced, terrible for the rest of us).

The jury is still out on other aspects of the game such as card acquisition rates, cost compared to paper, and the ability to stay "free 2 play" as a player.  It will be interesting to see in the long run how players feel about having their monetary investment in the game go to the wayside as card sets cycle out of Standard.  It is also not clear how a player that takes a break can quickly get back into the game at a later date without an expensive buy in (right now you get 10 starter decks through the New Player Experience).  I am hoping they will provide starter decks for new expansions at a discounted (or free) rate for returning players.

In my view; Arena is a natural progression from Magic Duels.  It takes the final step to put MtG into a modern digital format.  The game plays like a dream, the streaming integration is top notch, and all the cards and deck building capability that Duels/DoTP lacked is present.  The hardest of hardcore will continue with MtGO but for the on again/off again player such as me Arena will be the best option.

I have been playing a mono-white deck that I've pieced together from the few booster packs I've earned and the starter decks.  I also cashed in a few wild cards (MtG Arena's way of allowing you to pick a card instead of playing the booster pack lotto forever).  I'll post the deck if time permits.

I am currently playing open beta under "heartlessgamer" (not that you can add me).

And a quick shout out to my favorite card of the week:



Friday, September 21, 2018

Why Artifact has me interested

Artifact is an upcoming digital card game from Valve.  My initial reaction was that Valve was cashing in on the Hearthstone trend (the same reaction as the audience booing the game during it's original reveal at The International 2017).  While there are similarities it is becoming clearer that Valve is looking to differentiate Artifact from the Hearthstone-a-like crowd.  A quick look at the differentiators:
  • It is NOT free to play; players buy the game and buy the cards and packs
  • Focus on playing with friends and social gameplay; not on "grind" modes
  • Steam Marketplace integration for trading, buying, and selling individual cards
  • Lane-based gameplay (i.e. there are three game boards active at one time)
  • Any number of creatures in play
  • Any number of cards in hand
I want to tackle the "it's not free to play" first because it sets a tone for the rest of the items.  Valve could have made Artifact free 2 play and integrated numerous methods for players to "grind" away at gaining cards all while dangling a cash shop with loot boxes booster packs.  But Valve didn't and its evident that the other differentiators result from that decision.


Integrating with the Steam Marketplace enables the capability to trade and sell individual cards which brings Artifact closer to cardboard TRADING card games (TCGs) that made it's designer, Richard Garfield, famous.  Yes, there is a word in all caps there.  I am firm believer that the trading and collecting of single cards is a key component in the enjoyment of these games; physical or not.


Trading cards is just the first part of a return to more social-oriented gaming that Valve has planned for Artifact.  They are also very talkative about their social gaming approach.  They want to focus on players playing with their friends and not beholden to "game modes" in which players feel forced into the most efficient method to "grind" for cards.  This is why the ability to trade/sell/buy individual cards is key.  If players are going to play with their friends then they need to know they aren't losing out on progress that could be made towards something else.


The last three items on the list do not wrap themselves into the free to play or social aspects, but none the less are important to peaking my interest level in Artifact.


Lane-based gameplay is not new.  In fact; upon seeing Artifact's lanes it immediately made me think of another digital card game Richard Garfield was involved with; SolForge.  SolForge was played across five lanes and enjoyed moderate success after it's Kickstarter campaign (and is still going in an unofficial capacity). 

Artifacts approach to lanes is a step above SolForge's approach.  Where SolForge only offered a single card per lane; Artifact is offering an entirely new gameboard within each lane where any number of cards can be played to "win" in that lane.  This appears to create three games within one which means every match of Artifact will feel like three separate games.  This will really up the strategic level; especially as more cards are released with mechanics that influence other lanes.


Lastly I just wanted to touch base on the idea that "any number of cards/creatures" bullet points.  YES!  Finally; a digital card game that takes advantage of the ability for a computer to manage any number of cards for the player while still keeping the game organized.  In physical card games sprawl can be a real issue (as anyone having played a Magic the Gathering squirrel token deck can attest to).  In the digital space sprawl can be managed via a clean user interface and good mechanics that keep players moving along each turn.

Artifact is shaping up to be a Valve classic and like DOTA2 before it; Valve is taking a tried and true genre and giving it the Valve polish and common sense we've all come to expect.
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