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When NOT to play cards in Artifact

January 29th, 2019 | jscaliseok


Today, we’re switching gears. Rather than discussing how to play and utilize certain cards, we’re going to be discussing the importance of holding them back in your hand. It can be easy to identify certain windows for spells or creeps (such as dropping Time of Triumph to push for the final tower) but knowing when to hold back can be just as important to winning a game.

Though this theme comes up less in Artifact for certain decks or archetypes, knowing how and when to keep cards in your hand is vital to winning in more competitive environments. Remember, not playing a card is a decision that can have the same weight as playing one.

Patience, Young Grasshopper

One of the trickiest aspects to hurdle when playing any card game is not giving into your first impulse. This is a key lesson, and one that is hard to learn or stay on top of while getting a hang of the nuances that separate winning and losing.

Artifact is a game of curves, which means decks need to have strong cards that can be played at all different parts of the game. As mana goes up each turn, even the fastest or more aggressive decks can pack in some big finishers or end-game theatrics.

However, just because you can play something doesn’t mean you should.

A lot of the time there will be set lines of play or certain cards you must run out in order to keep pace in the game, but that is not always the case.

Before you make any play in Artifact, even the ones that seem extremely obvious, you should always take a moment to sit back and analyze the board state. While doing so, think about what your opponent could play, how they could respond to your card, as well as what they want to do next.

Are they setting up for the active lane? Do they have a big finisher coming? Is there are a card you want to force out of their hand? All of those questions are important and should become before you play something onto the board. What that does is allow you to take an extra beat to make sure you really want to play your card.

Those mental gymnastics may seem like overkill in certain situations (such as when the game first starts) but getting in the habit of pausing before putting something onto the board or casting a spell helps you not play it.

That may not come into play a lot of the time, but it will help in the situations where you have to take a line you don't first see.

To AOE or Not to AOE

Of course, you don’t queue up Artifact to not play cards. You’re always going to play cards. However, it is recognizing the best time for those cards that matters.

To examine that, we're going to break down a classic example in Annihilation. The clear spell is one of the most powerful effects in the game, but using it is not always cut and dry. Sometimes you will run into a situation where your opponent floods a lane early and you need to cast it on six, but many scenarios are much more nuanced.

A lot of the time, rather than just dropping Annihilation to survive, you use it when it can either push you ahead or when your opponent over-commits.

It is easy to fall into the trap where you see that your opponent has a lot of units and you pull the trigger without thinking. You cleared the board, and that was the goal, right? Maybe, but what if your opponent then uses Blink Dagger to push a hero back into that lane before you can properly respond? Would it have been better to wait for them to use their dagger first?

Waiting on AOE is one of the most classic examples of what we're talking about today, and there are several layers to it. The decision to wait a turn may seem like a simple decision, but there are many lessons built into it that can be widely applied to the game as a whole.

Pressure, Pushing Down on You

The core of knowing how and when to not play cards comes down to how much pressure you’re under. This is something that is not easy to analyze, but it boils to one question: how likely is your opponent to destroy a tower/win the game?

Answering that takes a bit of foresight because you need to know what your opponent could possibly have in their hand. This often comes with knowing the meta, but once you understand the cards you’re up against you should be able to plan for what’s coming.

If you have a strong AOE or kill spell, you typically want to use it as late as you possibly can. Sometimes that’s turn six when you’re about to die, and sometimes that’s turn twelve when your opponent is low on cards and they run out their last option.

That balance is not just about waiting until the last possible second (though it can be) it is just about catching enough creeps in the blast to make it worthwhile. Annihilation is insanely strong, and it gets stronger with each unit it kills. Being able to wait an extra turn or two can go a long way towards ruining your opponent’s plan, but you can only wait for as much time as you are afforded.

If you think you're close to losing, or if you suspect your opponent might have a way to pressure you out of the game, pull the trigger. If you think you can afford to wait another turn, it is often right to do so. That not only increases your spells' power, but it also gives you more information and helps you make a more informed decision in the future.

Pressure, while pertinent to kill spells, can also affect the way you run out finishers. [[Time of Triumph] can be game ending, but only in situations where you aren’t going to lose immediately after you play it. Sometimes getting up blockers or standing in the way of powerful heroes is better than trying to go for the big swing. Racing to your big creeps or strong swing spells only matters when you have the time to do so.

It is about recognizing what matters based on the game at hand. Many people tend towards their most powerful card in a vacuum, but powerful cards are not always the direct line of play. Sometimes a two mana creep shutting down a hero attack before your opponent Assassinate's your only hero in the lane is better than going all in on buffs or a big item.

The Importance of Extra Information

Not playing a card in Artifact never means holding off for good. Rather, it means doing something in lieu of something else. You always want to make use of your mana, but how you do that is extremely important.

For instance, there are many cards that have value as reactive plays. Spring the Trap is a prime example of that because, though it can be played as an aggressive card, its true value comes from being able to suddenly put power into a lane that your opponent thought was abandoned or lost.

A couple surprise centaurs go a long way against what your opponent might have, but it is hard to know what lane to play them in until your opponent actually does something you can play to.

This brings up another key part of not playing a card, which is passing. Though passing could well get its own article (in fact, it probably will) it matters here because of the way it interacts with holding back.

If you have initiative in a lane and are not sure where to put the centaurs (but they are your best play) passing is often right unless your opponent can immediately kill your hero. Though many people try to use their cards first, it is extremely unlikely that your opponent will have nothing to do with seven or more mana available. Knowing that, you can wait until they make their move. Once they do, that will provide you with the information you need to run out the spell.

That is not the only way you can use the card, but it is a prime example of this article’s focus. Sometimes it’s right to hold back to get more value from a card, and sometimes it is right to hold back to gain more information.

Sequencing Abilities

Though not strictly cards, abilities also follow the above rules. There are some extremely strong abilities in the game (including Blink Dagger’s and Tidehunter’s) and knowing how and when to time them is vital.

I often see people using abilities as soon as they can. That is often the correct play in a game with so much removal, but, as with the Spring the Trap example, holding back a turn or two can allow you to gain more information. Not only that, but keeping up an unused ability can force your opponent to react to it and go off their normal plays.

Looking at Blink Dagger, as soon as you use it all of the mystery’s gone. A lot of the power of the card is that the opponent does not know where you’re going. It forces them to split their focus out across the two potential lanes you can move to, and that can lead them to take a suboptimal play. If you slam a big card and then jump, that gets taken away.

By allowing your opponent to play first, you know if you need to use your Blink Dagger and where you should move to.

That line can change depending on things like initiative, but it is another example where holding off on doing something helps rather than hurts you.


Often, it is what you don’t do that matters. Though playing cards is always the way you pace a game of Artifact, holding back at key times, waiting a few rounds, or simply thinking about other lines of play before pulling the trigger can make all the difference. Never assume that you need to play something just because it feels right. Rather, think about everything around the play and then make your decision.
(Last Updated: January 15th, 2020)

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