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What is Artifact? - Differences Between Artifact and Existing Card Games

May 17th, 2018 | Mowen

What is Artifact?

Artifact is the Valve Trading Card Game that’s currently in development. Artifact’s mechanics and characters are inspired by DotA 2, which has led Artifact to diverge from other card games in a lot of significant ways. This is the crux of my article - Artifact is going to be an innovative addition to the Card Game genre and the mechanics look very promising.

To preface, I play a lot of Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone, and since these are two of the most popular card games I will be noting differences and similarities between these games and Artifact, in hopes that it helps other gamers better understand the mechanics.

Artifact Gameplay - What’s New?

As we all know Valve is a company that break conventions and redefines genres. That’s why a Valve card game is such a big deal. In order to understand what Artifact is, let’s dive straight into the new gameplay mechanics that differentiate Artifact from its competitors.


The biggest difference players will feel between Artifact and other card games is the 3 lanes, based on lanes in DotA 2 and other MOBAs. In essence, there are 3 different boards (or “lanes”), with a card game being played on each. Every lane has its own health pool - represented by a tower, mana pool, and units. Artifact is about picking your fights, and using your cards in order to win multiple lanes.

If there’s 3 lanes, then what is Artifact’s primary objective? It’s actually quite simple, despite the sometimes overwhelming lane management. Once a tower is destroyed, the Ancient is revealed and may be dealt damage. The Ancient has twice as much health as a tower, and may only be attacked through a lane where the tower is destroyed. In order to win, you must either destroy 2 towers, or 1 tower and the Ancient. This is the objective of the game.

This system forces players to multi-task and balance their lane presence across multiple lanes. If you put too many resources into winning one lane, you will lose the other two. If you completely ignore one lane, your opponent will rush down your Ancient. It’s an interesting juggling act that will create a plethora of strategies and variation.

Turns and Rounds

Turns progress sequentially from Lane 1(Left Lane), to Lane 2 (Middle Lane), to Lane 3 (Right Lane). We go over the phases of the game in another article because it’s a tad complicated, and I want to get straight to telling you another exciting change in Artifact - you and your opponent play cards and turns simultaneously. This means you can react to the cards they play and vice versa. There is a lot of back and forth, which brings the more advanced tactics of Magic: The Gathering, but without as much delay and thumb twiddling. We get to have reactionary gameplay, rather than watching in distress while our opponent pulls all their stops like in Hearthstone and other digital card games.

Card Positioning in Artifact

The position of your cards in the lane matters a lot in Artifact. Many card abilities and spell effects only apply to units adjacent to the target. A couple of things to note for Hearthstone players: the amount of units you can have on the field is unlimited, and when a unit dies they do not “slide” to be next to each other. There are defined “slots” for each unit on the field, and if one of your units dies that slot remains open. The amount of slots depends on which player has the greater number of units, since a unit must be placed opposing an enemy unit if possible.

Units can only exchange damage with their adjacent enemies. They will always attack a card that is directly in front of them, but if there is no card directly in front of them they will either attack the enemy tower or an adjacent enemy.

Colors and Mana - How Artifact Blends Hearthstone and MTG

The card color mechanic will be quite familiar to Magic: The Gathering players. Simply put, every card in your deck has one of 4 colors associated with it: Black, Blue, Green, or Red. In order to play a card in a lane, you must have a hero with a matching color present in that lane. Think of it as the hero casting the spell, rather than the player - which is a nice nod to its DotA roots and keeps Valve’s card game flavorful.

Example: If Lycan, a green hero, is the only hero in your left lane, you can only play green cards in the left lane. If Zeus, a blue hero, is the only hero in your middle lane, you can only play blue cards in the middle lane. If Rix, a green hero, and Luna a blue hero, are in your right lane, you may play both green and blue cards in the right lane.

The way you gain and spend mana will be most familiar to HS players. You start with 3 mana in round 1, and gain 1 mana for each subsequent round. Once again, each lane has its own mana pool.

What Artifact is doing is something beautiful - blending the colors of MTG with the fixed mana growth of HS. It adds complexity to deck building, but gets rid of the the bane of MTG players existence - “mana screw”. Artifact players will have to consider their balance of hero colors, spell colors, and spell costs when building their decks.

New Artifact Card Types

There are 6 currently known card types in Artifact, but I’m only going to go over the 3 that are most unique compared to existing card games. This will give you an overview of what’s in Artifact’s deck-building toolkit. I’ll be going over the other 3 in a future article though, so don’t worry your pretty little head.


DotA 2 heroes (and some new additions!) have made an appearance in Artifact, each with unique abilities. There are 5 heroes per deck, just like a DotA team. In round 1 the first 3 heroes in your deck will be placed in each lane. If your hero dies, it goes to the Fountain and must spend a round on the bench before being redeployed. At the beginning of each new round, you can deploy a number of heroes based on the round number.

When you deploy your heroes you can choose which lane to place them in, but not what exact slot in that lane. Hero deployment will be an important strategic decision for protecting your tower, while avoiding hero deaths - which give the enemy player gold. However, you cannot see where the opponent is placing their heroes until after you have placed yours so there’s some prediction involved in hero placement.

Hero cards also bring 3 “premier cards” with them that are unique and tied to that hero. You can tell if a card is tied to a certain hero if it has a hero icon in the bottom right of the card art. If the hero is in your deck, its premier cards come with it! You can’t pick and choose, those cards require that hero to play, so if you really want those cards you have to have that hero in your deck. Valve’s card game is sure to create some interesting choices when deck building.


Much like a MOBA game, creeps will come marching into your lane every once in a while (precisely, at the beginning of each round). 2 creeps will be deployed into random lanes, at random positions, though they will always oppose an enemy unit in the lane it is assigned if it is possible. You might be tempted to react with “What is this Artifact? Random spawns??” I’m tempted to do so myself, but creeps will fill out your lanes and influence the board state while not taking the inordinate amount of time 2 players might take to finalize their decisions (while both are trying to predict the other). I see this as the main benefit. Creep spawns add small power adjustments to the lanes each round to keep you on your toes, but it’s not unbalanced since creeps do so much less damage than heroes.

There are also cards that summon allied units to the board, whose lane placement and position will be in your control.

Items and Equipment

Artifact takes a rather different approach to equipment cards, mimicking items in the MOBA genre which persist through hero deaths. Each hero has 3 equipment slots, one for attack, armor, and health. There are also consumable items that can be used more similarly to spells, and do not attach to your hero. In order to buy items, you must obtain gold by killing enemy heroes and units, rather than paying mana to play them. I know those past few sentences sure sounded like a MOBA instead of a card game, but I promise we’re still talking about Artifact.

Game footage from Eurogamer's video

Your item shop consists of 3 sections. The left-most section is a random item from the shop - which means you can buy item cards you don't actually own! The middle section will be a random item from your item deck, which is separate from your main deck, and the right-most section will have a random consumable item.

The 3 card types I didn’t go over are Allies (summoned units), Spells (which are well... spells, they do stuff, and things) and Improvements (lasting battlefield effects, think Enchantments in MTG).

Artifact’s Payment Model and Card Trading

Artifact Will Be a Single Payment Game

This may come as a surprise to those who are familiar with the multitudes of free to play digital card games, but Valve’s card game will not be free to play. They have not explicitly stated the cost or what all will come with your initial purchase, but we can assume you will get a large amount of starter cards and earn other cards in various ways since the developers have mentioned opening card packs. It’s also not clear at this point if or how DLC or expansions will be introduced, but at least for launch it seems it will be Single Payment.

Trading and Marketplace

When asked “What is Artifact?” you’ll happily be able to reply “Artifact is a Trading Card Game” - in every sense of the word. Unlike strictly Collectible Card Games, you will be able to trade and sell your cards in a marketplace, rather than watch them gather dust (or turn them into dust!). This is a huge deal, because it means you will be able to cash out into your steam wallet if you get tired of the game or sell your deck and buy a new one if you want to change things up. This also means if you’re the kind of player with less time on your hands, or you’re looking for a few cards to round out your deck, you can just buy the cards you want.

Artifact is Combating Pay-to-Win

Obviously, a concern with this model is that the game will be Pay to Win. To me, this is a crucial point to address when explaining what Artifact is and why it will be different from other card games.

In an interview with the designer, Richard Garfield, Garfield likens Artifact’s skill vs equipment to golf. He says that sure, having a better golf club will give you an advantage, but not a huge one. It has been stated frequently that the bulk of the card power will be concentrated in common cards. Rarer cards should have more flair or spice for a specific type of playstyle, but not be required in order to succeed. If you’re not convinced by Valve’s reassurances, I don’t blame you, but the devs seem very aware of this potential issue and are making it a priority to combat it. Seeing how Valve has handled P2W in their other games, I think Valve’s card game will fair just as well.

What Next?

Consider this an Artifact primer. By now you should know what Artifact is, but there are more advanced details to most of these mechanics. I hope this article was helpful to you and has made you as excited as I am to get my hands on Artifact and play it for myself. If you want to know more about how Artifact works the below articles should whet your appetite:

Follow up Articles:

(Last Updated: January 15th, 2020)

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