Why Fan Formats Matter, and 5 Ideas for Artifact Formats - Neon - November 2, 2018

 
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Back in March, we were told that Artifact would have tools to support fan-made formats. This was recently re-affirmed on playartifact.com. While Valve didn’t offer much in the way of details or commitments, a thriving fan format scene could be a key ingredient in Artifact’s success. Why do fan formats matter? And what might they look like? Let’s take a look. 

History of Fan Formats

To understand why fan formats are so interesting, it is useful to go back to other games and look for examples. While there have been thousands of different fan formats developed for Magic: the Gathering, there are a few that have broken through to the mainstream. I feel there is a lot we can learn from each of these.

Let’s start off by talking about Pauper. Card games have always been an expensive hobby, which has meant there is always demand for formats that are cheap. Pauper is a format where you can only play with common cards, meaning decks are going to be dirt cheap. Recently, Pauper has been really growing in popularity, and while that has put some pressure on the price of cards, most decks are still well below $100. Obviously, one of the key ingredients is an interesting underlying format, but the combination of cheap prices and compelling gameplay is the perfect recipe for success.

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Next, I actually want to step outside of Magic’s fan made formats and instead look at Hearthstone. Hearthstone is still in the middle of its dual-class Arena, which is a variant of Arena where you are functionally two classes at once. This format is crazy! Almost every game you will see player make plays they “shouldn’t be able to do”. While I don’t think competitive dual-class Arena sounds like a good idea, it is incredibly fun format if you are bored of standard. Dual-class Arena also offers a compelling opportunity to flex your muscles as a deckbuilder. No longer are you playing the same old fare you are used to, you need to solve entirely different deckbuilding problems than ever before! This combination of challenging deckbuilding and just crazy shit happening makes for a very different game experience.

Finally, let’s talk about the most successful fan format of all time – Commander. Commander is a Magic format where you build a singleton deck around a legendary card that acts as your “Commander” or “General” (if you want to learn more about the rules, check them out here). Commander is typically played in groups, and will include a heavy dose of negotiation, politics, and deal-making. What started as a late-night casual game for judges after Magic events has grown into one of the most popular formats, with a Wizards-recognized ban list, and regular product releases. There are a lot of lessons we can learn from Commander, but one of the most important is games that allow for larger groups to play. 1 v 1 formats are best for competition, but if you are just looking to have fun, bigger groups are way better.

So, let’s review: Some of the features that define popular fan formats include budget-friendly decks, crazy gameplay that feels different from a “standard” format, new deckbuilding challenges, and of course, multiplayer gaming. Let’s take these lessons, and apply them to new formats that are compatible with Artifact.

#5 – Pauper/Prince

Pauper seems like an obvious potential format for Artifact. This has become extremely popular within the Magic community, so why not try it out for Artifact? Seems like the most obvious way to keep the budget in control, right? Well, I’m not sure that is a great idea. One of the reasons that Pauper works in Magic is because there are just so many cards. There are 25 years of commons to choose from, leading to a diverse metagame. When Artifact is released, it will likely have less than 1% of the commons you see in Magic. I could be wrong, but Artifact’s Pauper format is probably going to be pretty boring on day 1.

While Pauper sounds pretty bland, “Prince” might be a much better idea. Prince is a format where rares are banned, but both commons and uncommons are legal. I know, the name sucks, but apparently that is what it is called. Maybe we can come up with new one? Prince will have a lot more depth than Pauper given the expanded card pool. Not only that, Prince will still be cheap! While a couple highly competitive uncommons will like cross into the $2-$3 range, I expect a top-tier Prince deck would maybe cost $10-$20.

#4 – Two-Headed-Ogre

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 Developing team formats is actually quite tricky. When choosing fan formats, I wanted to limit myself to systems that would not be too onerous to program. If you gave me an afternoon I could come with some way to run 4-player free-for-all Artifact, but most of my ideas would be a ton of work to code. This is one of the biggest reasons team formats are not typically available in digital card games, but are so common in paper games – in the paper game you don’t need to do the coding! I wanted to choose some team format that did not require an insane amount of work to implement.

Not only that, one of the challenges with team card games is that they generally feel like a 1 v. 1 game. For example, lets take the “1-lane per player” team Artifact format that you hear people discuss occasionally. While it sounds neat, the format would feel very similar to playing normal 1 v. 1 but with three-person teams. There is nothing wrong with playing that way, but if you are going to develop a new format I feel like it should actually feel different in some concrete way.

There are a few possibilities, but the one that I came up with that seems most feasible would be a format I call “Two-Headed-Ogre”. Each side is a team of two, and each player on the team would have 3 heroes and a 30-card deck, all of which are one color. Each player would have their own mana pool on each tower, meaning that a team with a blue deck and a red deck would feel like the blue player and the red player had independent roles. The initiative system would work the same, except that it would be shared between members of the same team. While this wouldn’t be trivial to build into the game, and there are questions on how gold and items would be allocated, it doesn’t seem impossible! It was also “feel” different from regular Artifact, which I feel is important. I know that I would love to try a format like this, working with friends on different strategies, deckbuilding challenges, and combos.

#3 – Pick/Ban

For those who are coming from a DOTA background, you are likely extremely familiar with the pick/ban system used in competitive play (also known as “Captain’s mode”, as I understand). For those who don’t come from a DOTA (or League) background, you might not be familiar, so I’ll quickly explain. The hero composition of your team is an extremely important, so before the game even starts there is a whole process in which heroes are banned and picked by both teams. Banned heroes can be picked by neither team, and once a hero is chosen by one team it cannot be picked by the other. The purpose is to block teams from having access to any hero that might be overpowered, give an opportunity to break up powerful synergies, and reward teams with a deeper hero pool and better understanding of the game.

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Artifact with a pick/ban mode sounds interesting, though it would be much different than DOTA. For starters, your heroes are your team in DOTA. After you select the heroes the game starts. In Artifact you also need an entire deck. Let’s imagine the pick/ban mode worked the exact same as DOTA. You would probably need to have at least another 5 – 10 minutes to build your deck afterwards. This is a little awkward, but is totally workable. What becomes really interesting is building a deck based on your opponent’s heroes. For example, if I am playing blue-black against my red-green opponent, how do I adjust the composition of my deck? Do I build blue-black aggro or blue-black control? How much is the archetype determined by the heroes versus by the deck? There is also some really interesting leveling that is happening, as I might think you are going to do A, so I do B to counter A, but you instead do C since you predicted that I might do B to counter A. There are some devious mind-games that are possible.

There is part of me that wants to go even further. Can we add in a pick/ban for main deck cards as well? There is a chance that most deck distill down to fundamental “cores”, where there are just 25 cards you use every time you are playing a 3 Green 2 Blue line up, and you just shuffle around a couple slots depending on what you are up against. If you want to ensure that isn’t the case you can also add a pick/ban phase for main deck cards as well. Doing two entirely separate pick/ban cycles might be a bit much, but maybe there is a way to mix them together? One way or another, a pick/ban mode would give you very different gameplay with novel deckbuilding challenges.  

#2 – Artifact Auction

Artifact Auction would be a format using a bidding system to “buy” the cards that go into your deck. There are actually a few different ways an Artifact Auction format, but let’s do an easy one, using a draft-like format. Each draft consists of 4 players, and each is given 100 points. 20 packs worth of cards would be shuffled up, and one card would be flipped up. Players would have a chance to bid on each card as it came up. The mechanics for the auction would need to be snappy, since opening 20 packs with 12 cards each would give us 240 separate auctions. If the average auction took just 10 seconds the entire auction would take 40 minutes! There are a lot of mechanisms that could be used to speed things up, like a short timer, or auctioning off batches of commons at once. Once the auction is done, the players would have a few minutes to build their decks, and then they would battle each other.

This is just one implementation, but you could adjust this for constructed. Let’s say the top 40 competitive cards are auctioned off between 4 or 8 players. Everything outside the top 40 would be fair game, but cards won in the auction would be exclusive to the auction winner.  While there would need to be a bit of effort put into the tech and smoothing out the rules, I think this would be super interesting.

Personally, I think bidding is a sweet game mechanic. It rewards knowledge of the metagame, creative deckbuilding, strategic risk taking, and reading your opponents. Particularly, it really rewards players who can identify underrated cards or strategies. In addition, formats like this would work well for groups of friends. I can imagine that doing the auction with people you know could be a lot of fun, as you bait one another into overbidding, or try to steal away important card from one-another. Also, given the fact that all the tech necessary to allow the game mode to function is not inside the game makes it fairly easy. In fact, I imagine someone could set up a website to run Artifact Auction now, and plays could just import decklists into the game. If you we wanted to bring in some more exotic tech you could include game resources like gold, tower HP, mana, cards in hand, as part of the auction as well.

Shout out to Joel Larson who mentioned a similar idea on the BTS podcast.

#1 – Lightweight

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The final format I wanted to suggest is something I call “lightweight”. Essentially, this would be a format where the most “heavyweight” cards for each color are banned (let’s say 3 cards for the purpose of this conversation). What does the format look when cards like Axe, Drow Ranger and Annihilation are removed from the card pool? There are a lot of reasons that Lightweight is a fascinating format. First, this would provide an alternate deckbuilding challenge. What does a red deck look like without Axe, Legion Commander, and Time of Triumph? With some strategic bans, I feel like you could totally shake up the format. This is also accomplished without fancy tech, making the format very easy to implement.

Not only would the format look different than normal constructed, but you could keep it as constantly changing. What if the ban list changed every month or two? For Green, Drow Ranger would probably be perma-banned, but every month you might have a different mix of Omniknight, Cheating Death, Mist of Avernus, and Unearthed Secrets getting benched. I know that I would love a metagame that constantly changed! This could even be tied to community voting.

This format would also be cheap. While the bans wouldn’t be solely tied to rarity or price, the most expensive cards would usually be on the ban list. I think we all know that Axe and Drow Ranger will be some of the most expensive cards on day one, so if we ban them, the cost of Lightweight decks would plummet. They would probably not be as cheap as Prince/Pauper formats, but still quite reasonable.

A final plus would be Lightweight’s effect on the overall economy. Let’s say two of the blue cards that are banned are At Any Cost and Annihilation. Now blue decks might need to play Earthshaker to get a sufficient number of sweepers, which typically doesn’t see much competitive play as I understand it. If a format like Lightweight becomes popular then the price of Annihilation and At Any Cost might go down a little, while the price of Earthshaker would go up. This is good, as it spreads out the demand for each individual card, making “standard” slightly more affordable. 

Wrap-up 

These are just some of the many formats possible! I haven’t even touched on all the possibilities with custom campaigns, or game modes that change how your cards work. I really hope we see “Turbo Artifact”, which is the exact same as normal Artifact, but with shorter turn timers. I am very curious what tools Valve releases for developing fan formats, as much depends on how much agency they give us. There is some concern about queue splitting as well, as supporting too many different formats might mean wait times are a bit longer, but I feel like there are some work arounds.

Thanks for joining me today! Did you like my format ideas? Any sweet fan formats you thought of? Be sure to share your thoughts on Twitter, Reddit or in the A+Space Discord! I always love to hear your thoughts on all my content.

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