Artifact’s Top 4 Game Design Innovations- Neon - October 19, 2018
There are a lot of reasons to be excited about Artifact’s game design. While it is always neat to see new card games, Artifact offers some neat game mechanics. I thought now would be a good time to review some of the things going on underneath the hood that differentiate Artifact from other card games. There are actually a lot of subtle improvements and twists that Valve has implemented, but I wanted to point out four that stood out above the rest as truly innovative.
#4 More “Knobs” on Cards
Despite what you might think if reading Twitch chat, balancing cards is hard. As a game designer you are on the hook for every ability, stat point, mana cost on every card in the game. One of the greatest challenges in balance is working with round numbers. Hearthstone’s Fiery War Axe is a great example of this.
Hearthstone uses a class system, meaning that many cards are exclusive to one class. Fiery War Axe was one of the best Warrior class cards, and saw play in virtually every Warrior deck for the entire history of the game. Eventually, Hearthstone’s balance team decided that Fiery War Axe had overstayed its welcome, so they nerfed it to a 3-cost card. Since then, Fiery War Axe has seen barely any competitive play. So, War Axe is too good at 2-cost, but is unplayable at 3-cost. Is it supposed to cost 2.5 or something? Essentially, the balance team ran into a problem of not having enough “knobs” to adjust on the card, meaning there is no way to adjust the numbers to get a properly balanced card.
It is possible to introduce new knobs with text like “gain 1 life” or “give a random unit in your hand +1/+1”, but this tends to be inelegant. Lots of fidgety text like this make the game feel clunky and awkward. While there might some additional rider you could use to better balance Fiery War Axe, it will not be as satisfying to play as it was in its original form.
Artifact’s game mechanics allow for much more freedom when tuning the power level of every card. This is most pronounced for heroes. Let’s take a look at Omniknight.
Ok, so let’s just count up the naturally occurring qualities that can be adjusted on Omniknight to balance him.
1) His attack
2) His health
3) His armor (he has none, but it could be added)
4) The amount his active ability heals for
5) The cooldown on his active ability
6) The cost of his signature card
7) The amount that his signature card regenerates
8) The range of targets his signature card works on
That is so many possibilities! If Valve wanted to add or remove a bit of power from Omniknight, it would be quite easy, meaning there is a lot more control to get him in just the right power level. This doesn’t necessarily mean the power level on every single card will be perfectly balanced, but at least they will be “balanceable”. While I know a good deal of you will not be particular familiar with Gwent, but one of the structural problems in the previous iterations of the game was the lack of “knobs”, which made balance and releasing expansions difficult. You can hear Swim go off on this subject a bit in a recent video. The fact Artifact has many more tools to balance bodes well for both competitive health, and future design space.
#3 Starting on 3 Mana
To explain this one, I am going to pick up on a hot-button issue from Hearthstone. Anyone who has played basically any Hearthstone will probably recognize Mana Wyrm, a card that has been included in every aggressive Mage deck since beta. A 1/3 body for 1 is already decent, but this guy gets +1 attack for every spell that is played, meaning it can often grow to a spooky threat even a couple turns into the game. On October 15th Hearthstone’s design team announced that they would be changing Mana Wyrm’s cost to 2, which was a controversial move given that Mage isn’t great right now. One player that seemed particularly annoyed was Xixo, who shot off a bunch of tweets on the subject. I think these are extremely useful in our conversation. His main complaint seemed to be that Hearthstone was more fun when there were more playable 1-cost cards.
On the flip side he acknowledged that Mana Wyrm did have a great win rate when it was in your opening hand. Still, he felt that the only reason this was so high was because there are so few other good 1-mana plays.
I do not have an opinion on this topic, but if I were to guess how a Hearthstone developer might respond to this it might be something like the following:
“While Mage is not particularly strong right now, we feel that Mana Wyrm limits our design space. As long as Mana Wyrm exists it is difficult to release good cheap spells for Mage without breaking things. Mana Wyrm also consistently warps games. It is frustrating to lose to a 1-mana card, as it feels like the game is lost from the very beginning. This might look strange for now, but it will help with diversity and fun in the long run.”
Why do I bring all of this up? Mana Wyrm is a great example of a card that is fun and interesting, but is really hard to balance as a 1-cost card. The ceiling on the card is nutty. Everything can revolve around the Mana Wyrm as early as turn one. This is not unique to Hearthstone though. In Magic, Delver of Secrets has played this role at some point in every format it has been legal. Other examples include Champion of the Parish and Deathrite Shaman at various points. In Eternal, Alessi had a similar feel before she got multiple cards nerfed. Pushed 1-cost threats can warp the game around themselves, and while this can lead to interesting, decision-intensive games from the very start, others are one-sided bloodbaths. When these cards are good they tend to be the best thing in the entire format, which puts the developers in an awkward position. You either need to totally neuter the cards by starving them of any support, or you need to give enough cheap removal to keep these cards under control, while somehow stopping players from pairing this cheap interaction with the cheap threats. While there are times that a reasonable balance is achieved, it is a deeply sketchy zone.
What causes this? Why does this problem with 1-drops come up in game after game? Well, a lot of it has to do with the number “1”. On turn one you have access to one mana, and on turn two you have access to two mana, or put another way, you have access to twice as much mana as the previous turn. This means that on turn two you can play two copies of your busted 1-drop, or you can play a 2-drop that protects your 1-drop, or you can play some cheap removal spell to clear the way for your 1-drop, etc. Decks built to maximize these 1-drops tend to go hard into cheap spells to complement or protect their 1-drop of choice. Opponents are then faced with a difficult deckbuilding choice; do I pack my deck with cheap removal spells to deal with powerful 1-drops, thereby diluting my win rate against slower decks? Or do I just accept the loses against the “nut draws” of these tempo-oriented decks? Neither option feels good. Not only that, but the best busted 1-drop draws are completely degenerate, where the victim is just forced to watch as they are eaten alive, praying to top deck cheap removal before it is too late. These pushed 1-drops are so much fun to play with, but can be absolutely miserable to play against.
While this problem is quite difficult, Artifact may have found a way to avoid it – just start on 3 mana! Now the math works totally different! The ideal turn one play is a 3-drop. What is the soonest you can play two 3-drops in the same turn (on the same lane, assuming no mana manipulation)? Turn four! Also, if you play a 3-drop on turn 2, you are only left with 1-mana, which is worth a lot less than 1-mana in Magic or Hearthstone. Overall, this has a way of smoothing out the power-level of decks, making it a lot harder to have “busted” draws fueled by cheap cards that put your opponent under immense pressure from the first turn.
While I like to think this “1-drop problem” is the reason this is happening, there are a couple other things too. Having the game start at 3 mana is probably important for managing the power level of heroes. If you started the game at 1 mana this would amplify the power of well-statted heroes, while creating an issue with expensive cards invalidating heroes later on. Obviously, they wouldn’t use the same hero stats in a game that started on 1 mana, but I can imagine this would be a balance nightmare no matter what set of stats you might use. In some ways this also ties back to the previous point, as it gives the game designers more flexibility to tune and balance, as this radically shakes up the meaning of different mana costs.
Speaking of heroes…
#2 Heroes Promote Interaction
What makes games fun? Interaction and decisions. I make a decision, which forces you to make a decision, and hopefully the person who makes the best decisions wins. I want to emphasize that interaction is important in make in-game decisions interesting. If you are making decisions without interaction you are no longer playing a two-player game, but instead playing something closer to “competitive solitaire”. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to play solitaire, it gets boring, because you will just make choices on rails, as you no longer need to strategize based on what your opponent is doing. Something that is frustrating about playing against control and combo decks is they often avoid playing cards that are susceptible to interaction. If only there were some kind of card that you were forced to play that encourage interaction, maybe a card that was necessary for the function of the deck…
I’m obviously talking about hero cards. Heroes are a great point of interaction. I am not going to list off all the things they do in the game, because heroes are obviously so central to Artifact’s mechanics. Every hero on the board is a focal point of interaction. I can point my cards at your heroes, while you can point your cards at my heroes. Are you playing a degenerate combo deck? Well, you are going to have trouble going off when your heroes are dead. Control deck? Pretty hard to cast a sweeper when your Zeus is silenced. Every turn of the game you are forced to make decisions for where your heroes will go and what they should do, while predicting where your opponent’s heroes will go and what they will do. This will continually promote real strategic thinking.
In addition, heroes provide a clear goal. What am I supposed to do in the left lane? Well, if your opponent has a hero there, maybe you should try and kill it. If your hero is in trouble, maybe you should save it. This might sound obvious, but having focal points that guide decision making is a quite important as boards become more complicated. One specific match that I will always remember watching in Magic was the GW Devotion mirror in the finals of Grand Prix Miami, which was totally silly. There was just infinite stuff on board, and neither player could really “do” anything. Like, what strategy are you supposed to have when the board looks like this?
Unless you really understand all the cards in play, it is really hard to figure out what “matters”. Heroes always matter, and you have a goal related to every hero on the board. “I want to kill the opponent’s black hero in lane two to block my opponent from playing Coup de Grace.” “I want to blink Axe into lane 3 to set up a duel.” “I want to not kill my opponent’s Lycan in lane 1, so he won’t be redeployed into another lane.” Having these goals makes the game strategically compelling, and accomplishing them feels good. Obviously, Artifact is not the first card game to use tools and mechanics to enhance goal setting and decision making, but it is one of the most interesting applications in my opinion.
#1 Initiative as a Resource
The initiative system in Artifact is incredibly neat. If you have watched game coverage carefully, or played on Table Top Simulator, you will quickly realize that Artifact’s initiative system is packed with strategy. After just a couple of games, you go from being barely aware of it to fixated on preserving, managing, and using initiative. Initiative adds strategic meaning to every decision. Sometimes it will be right to skip taking “obvious” plays like drawing cards or activating abilities solely for the purpose of preserving initiative. As someone who is not yet in the beta, I am still working on wrapping my brain around the concept entirely, but it is clear that this feature of the game greatly shifts our conventional approach to card gaming. Let’s just take a card like Arcane Assault as an example.
At its surface, this looks like an expensive “cantrip”. “Cantrip” is a term that comes from Magic the Gathering, and refers to a card that replaces itself, but gives a small effect (fun fact: the word originally comes from performance magic, where a cantrip is a quick small trick). By that metric, Arcane Assault is really bad, as paying 4 for a card that just replaces itself really stinks. In this case though, Arcane Assault gives you initiative, which is extremely important in some cases! Let’s say you are playing a control deck with Annihilation. Your opponent is holding initiative, so they can block you from playing Annihilation on lane 2. If you sense this is the case, you can play out all the cards you want on lane 1, and finish it up with an Arcane Assault! Nice try buddy! Where things become super interesting is where the opponent then counters your initiative card with their own initiative card! And that is just for a simple, overpriced cantrip! Hipfire lets you blast off multiple burn spells in a row to take down bigger game without your opponent having a chance to respond. There are honestly so many sweet applications.
Outside of the use of the “get initiative” cards, initiative adds so much more meaning to the game. Initiative changes the meaning of some many simple game actions, like activating abilities or drawing extra cards. Not only that, but it adds strategic depth without adding much in the way of complexity, which is a sign of an exceptional mechanic. I expect I will write on this subject more fully at some point in the future, but for now I think it is incredibly neat, and I look forward to actually playing with it.
That’s it for today! I feel like there are tons of wonderful game design innovations to nerd about for those who are into game design. Artifact is a fascinating game in many ways! Thank you so much for joining me, and if you liked this be sure to check out other articles like what I wrote on Artifact’s economy, or the analysis I did of Richard Garfield’s approach to game design. I love to talk about game design, so be sure to check me out on Twitter, or comment on the Reddit post if you have any thoughts.