Artifact, the new digital card game from Valve, is a vastly different experience from the CCGs you are used to. Combining the complexity of Magic: The Gathering with the laning and hero concepts of Dota 2, Artifact is a deep and tactically rich game that will require some getting used to. We have been hands-on with the game and can now reveal exactly how to play Artifact.
Artifact deck building
The first vital component of Artifact is your deck of cards. A deck contains five hero characters - representative of the five heroes who would make up a team in Dota 2 - and a collection of spell and ability cards.
Cards are split into four suits, identified by colour: red, black, green, and blue. Red cards relate to tanky/bruiser heroes and abilities; black are assassin-like in nature; green are support; and blue represent casters and spells. A deck is made up of a combination of any two of these suits.
An Artifact deck can be made up of as many or as few cards as you wish. Because cards are shuffled back into your deck after playing them and not eliminated from play, you cannot run out of cards like in games such as Hearthstone. This means that small decks have advantages as you will be able to replay cards with more frequency than if they were part of a large deck. However, decks built with higher volumes of cards will offer broader possibilities, at the expense of having less control over the draw.
Artifact hero cards
Artifact’s hero cards are broadly similar to other card game characters - they have attack and health stats that dictate how much damage they can deal and absorb. Buffed characters may also possess an armour stat.
Heroes typically have a passive ability. For example, Sorla Khan has the Warmonger passive that deals an extra four damage when she attacks a tower. There are a few heroes who do not have a passive, such as Axe, due to their main health and damage stats being so high.
The most important feature of a hero card is its item slots. Every hero can equip three items: one attack, one armour, and one health item. Items provide heroes with passive buffs and new active abilities that can help turn the tide of battle.
With a deck built, it is time to start playing. Artifact plays out across three boards, each representing one of Dota 2’s lanes: top, middle, and bottom. Don’t worry if you have not played Dota 2 and don’t know the significance of lanes for a MOBA as, in Artifact, all it means is that you will be playing across three boards instead of one.
Each lane is split horizontally across the middle, separating it into zones for you and your opponent. In the board segment of your lane there is space for you to place up to seven character cards. On the very top and bottom edges of the board are towers. The bottom tower belongs to you and the top one to your opponent. The enemy tower is your objective: destroy two towers and the game is over.
Towers have 40 health points, and when destroyed are replaced with an Ancient; an 80hp structure that, if destroyed, also signals the end of the game. That means there are two ways to achieve victory in Artifact: either destroy two out of three of your opponent's towers, or destroy one tower in a single lane and then kill the Ancient.
You play through lanes in sequence. When a new turn begins you play actions on top lane, then move to middle, then bottom, and conclude the turn with a buying phase. Then the cycle repeats again.
Creeps are iconic in Dota 2. These small NPC creatures march up lanes and automatically attack enemy towers, and that is largely what they do in Artifact, too. At the start of a turn creep cards will automatically spawn in your lanes. It appears that their number and position are decided at random, with anywhere between one and three creeps being placed into the game each turn. These creeps will then support the heroes you have in lanes, attacking either enemy creeps and heroes, or your opponent’s tower.
Attacking the enemy in Artifact is very different to how it works in other card games. Rather than choosing a card and dictating which target it strikes, Artifact cards attack automatically. Both your heroes and creeps will randomly select a target and attack every turn.
The strategy in attacking comes via your card positioning. As previously mentioned in the lanes section, Artifact’s lane boards have space for seven cards. A card is able to attack directly in front of it, or diagonally one space to the left or right. This means, for example, if you have a hero on the far left of the board, it is impossible for it to attack an enemy on the far right.
While you have no control over the placement of creeps, you can dictate where in a lane your heroes spawn, so ensuring they are played into tactically advantageous slots is vital. Heroes cannot move from the slot they were placed in by default, but special items and spells do allow them to switch positions.
If your opponent has no creeps or heroes in a lane, all your characters will automatically attack the tower.
Artifact spells and mana
While you cannot control the basic attacks of heroes and creeps, you can control the casting of spells and abilities. Drawn from your deck, these cards inflict deadly damage upon your opponent and provide potentially game-changing buffs for your own heroes.
There are some limitations for casting spells. A spell card can only be played in a lane where there is a hero present that belongs to the same card suit as the spell. So, for instance, if you are intending to play a blue spell card, it can only be played in a lane where you have a blue hero. This reflects that it is not you, the player, who is casting the spell, but your hero on the battlefield.
As with games like Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone, casting spells and ability cards costs mana. Also like those games, mana builds as the game progresses. The key difference with Artifact, though, is that you have three unique mana pools - one for each lane. These can all be different values. For example, your top and bottom lanes may have five mana, while your middle lane could have seven thanks to a buff provided by a hero.
Spells and abilities range in complexity. Some are simple single-target attacks while others affect multiple targets or even enemies in entirely different lanes. Firestorm, for example, is a spell that deals two damage to all cards in a lane, but requires a turn to pass before it activates. It is a powerful spell, but that activation timer means your opponent has a whole turn to plan a counter-spell or evasive move.
Artifact kills and gold
In total, you have four different targets in Artifact: heroes, creeps, towers, and Ancients. Destroying towers and Ancients are your key objectives, but defeating enemy heroes and creeps is a major part of the game. The fewer heroes and creeps present in a lane, the easier it is to focus on attacking the opponent’s tower. Removing heroes and creeps obviously reduces the threat your opponent poses to you, but each kill also rewards you with gold.
Creep kills reward one gold piece, while killing a hero rewards five gold pieces. This currency is then used in the buying phase.
Killed creeps are removed from play, but are randomly replaced by more creeps as turns progress. Killed heroes are resurrected on the next turn, so if you have lost a hero you will not have to wait long until you can bring them back into the fight.
Artifact items and buying phase
After you have completed actions in all three lanes, a turn of Artifact concludes with the buying phase. This is where you can purchase items that can then be equipped to your heroes.
You have a seperate item deck that can hold a total of nine item cards. These can be consumables, such as the Healing Salve that cures a hero for six health points, or piece of equipment, such as the Short Sword that buffs a hero's attack by +2.
Equipment items fall into one of three categories - attack, armour, and health - and heroes can have one of each equipped. All equipment items offer a passive buff but some have more complex active abilities. For example, Blink Dagger allows you to teleport a hero from one lane to another, and Horn of the Alpha summons a Thunderhide Pack of minions. In addition, some items demand trade-offs - Ristul Emblem upgrades a hero’s health by +4 but reduces armour by -2.
By now you should understand the basic premise of an Artifact turn: you perform actions in sequence on top, middle, and bottom lane, then complete the buying phase, and then conclude the turn. But there are small phases that make up each one of these turns.
For example, when playing in top lane, you and your opponent are not restricted to a single action each. Imagine a scenario in which you decide that, on this turn, there are no cards that you wish to play in top lane. You end your action, and control swaps to your opponent. They then play a card that endangers your position. Instead of the top lane phase being over, though, control swaps back to you. You can now play a card to counter your opponent, provided you have a card you wish to play and enough mana remaining to cast it. After making your move, you pass control back to your opponent, who can now play a card to counter your new move, or end their action without playing. The top lane phase only ends when both players agree that they no longer wish to make a move, or it is impossible for either to perform one. The action then swaps to middle lane and the whole process plays out again.
To further complicate things, each lane phase is split into further segments. Certain abilities will activate before the main action phase, and auto-attacks from your heroes and creeps will occur at the very end of the phase. Understanding which abilities will activate when is paramount to a successful attack.
Completing one turn is just the start, of course. You must continue to play these four-step turns until you or your opponent achieve victory by either destroying two towers or an Ancient.
And that is how to play Artifact. This is by no means a complete guide to all the game’s nuances: we have only played Artifact for a few hours so this is purely the basic steps to completing the core actions. But, as you will already have noticed, this is a game on the complexity levels of Magic: The Gathering, rather than the friendly and accessible Hearthstone. We will update this guide after we have further opportunity to play more, but hopefully you should now have a good understanding of how to play Artifact.