Valve’s Trading Card Experiment Sends Mixed Messages To Low-Budget Players

In the past year-or-so of being too poor to play most video games I’ve ended up pivoting much more towards free-to-play games, and being a fan of strategy I’ve naturally turned to playing card games more than I used to. While my interest is currently only with two games – Eternal and Gwent (and to a lesser extent, Hearthstone) – I’ve largely refrained from spending money on any of them, opting for cheap one-time Starter bundles for low prices and slowly grinding out the pieces to build my collection instead. With Valve’s Artifact arriving this year, promising a much different system of card acquisition, I was both immediately interested and concerned about what it might mean for the future of the genre.

If you have zero interest in paying real money for online jpegs, card games already have a large financial barrier of entry to you. It’s no secret that having a more expansive and specific collection vastly improves your chances on the ranked ladder, and while you can build decks based on a limited card pool, a lot of top-tier decks (and, as a result, a considerable number of netdecks) are optimised to rely on key, high-rarity cards to act as massive game-shifting plays. Uncommon and rare cards frequently act as the bread-and-butter of a deck, and its the hardest-to-acquire cards that can often mean winning or losing in certain matchups. Although you can spend a lot of your hard-earned in-game resources to complete whatever deck you have planned, the problem is that there are many ways these resources can then become wasted. For example, Hearthstone‘s rapidly expanding card pool means they have to cycle out older expansions in order to keep the meta game moving, and while they offer temporary refunds for cards in the evergreen set that rotate out during this, they don’t offer refunds for every expansion cycling out, so if your limited card pool relies on a lot of older cards, you’re shit out of luck once the set rotation arrives.

Because there is no actual physical value to any of these card collections, unlike physical games like Magic, the financial benefit is one-way. You can’t sell off your collection when you decide to quit; all that money you spent buying fake booster packs from Blizzard go straight into their Scrooge McDuck money vault and you’ll never see it again. This means that financial advantages are much more pronounced online than in physical games, and being able to contribute to the diving pile more frequently is a much rarer, more privileged position to hold. There have been some attempts to alleviate this problem, mostly by making it easier to actually collect cards and packs – both Gwent and Eternal take an approach of inundating players with frequent packs or free cards, and Gwent‘s system of limiting of Golds and Silvers to 4 and 6 respectively puts a hard cap on how expensive decks are to craft – but your money will still go much further much faster than the free-to-play grind ever will.

In order to collect a full set of base Hearthstone cards (ie. the evergreen set), at 5 cards a pack of 4 commons and 1 rare, ignoring premiums, would take somewhere around 350 to 400 packs. Assuming you’re starting from nothing and with a 40-gold daily quest every day, the minimum amount of time to grind this out via free-to-play would be 18 wins a day for a year, adding up to 45 non-stop days of winning games accumulatively. Alternatively, you can just fork out £60 for 60 packs and do the same instantly for around £400. Of course, nobody should ever be collecting full sets of cards considering the amount of filler, but understanding the ceiling for a game’s full collection lets us understand what a usable one might cost – having a single decent meta deck would probably cost around £20 of packs. With legendaries in this particular example dropping between 1 in 20 to 1 in 40, and the general high power level of the good ones – keep in mind some of them are downright terrible – acquiring them is already a slow process, and a single opportunity per month of playing to maybe get a playable legendary is a rough prospect.

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Artifact‘s recent announcement that it focuses on being a trading card game, rather than a collectible one, has given it a lot of praise from disgruntled players of other games. Whereas almost all digital card games currently are fixed-collection systems where if you gain a card you either keep it forever or can “dust” it to make other cards, the Artifact system would leverage Valve’s Steam Marketplace system so that players can buy, sell and trade cards directly from each other. This would directly solve the issue of random card drops online, albeit at a possible real-world cost. In addition, Artifact is a retail game rather than a free-to-play one, meaning that it’s asking for a player investment up-front before they even start playing the game.

While, yes, Artifact won’t be a free-to-play game, it will still have that audience of budget players that don’t have the resources to support a constant flow of disposable income into the game. At first, the idea of a MtG-like trade network of acquiring cards sounds pretty decent, especially if the game also freely hands out packs to players, but the inclusion of the Steam Marketplace raises all kinds of problems. While the majority of items on the marketplace go for pennies (£0.03, even), the disparity between these and the cost of rarer items can range from minimal to, in some edge cases, completely absurd, and Valve certainly have no interest in regulating their own free-market experiment. The incredibly fickle nature of this market also means what was valuable last month might be worth considerably less the next, making free-to-play trading a much less consistent process. While we’ve yet to see a game tackle non-cosmetic items on this market system, just looking at the price of popular game cosmetics like for CS:GO or Battlegrounds should give us a good indication of what the price of an average card would be. And, like other card games, money that goes into Steam stays in Steam – they even refund games as Steam-only currency.

With 280 cards, 44 of which are one-copy hero cards, Artifact appears to follow the standard for other card games (for comparison, the first half of Magic‘s 2017 Ixalan expansion contained 279 cards, with 63 rares and 15 mythic rares). With the heroes being the build-around cards they’ll almost certainly be the most expensive to buy and likely the rare cards of the set, and with the game including other hero-specific cards – for example, Zeus can cast his ultimate from DotA 2 as 4-to-all global damage card – it might be difficult to develop a playable deck on a budget if you’re screwed on pack pulls and are only receiving worthless cards for heroes you don’t own. Players might be more reliant on packs for rares than the market anyway – its not that uncommon to see players attempt to price gouge or monopolise markets for single items, making it more difficult for everyone to work with the system.

Artifact‘s opening price tag at least promises that the game might come with a decent pre-existing collection, a la starter boxes, but its the long run of the game that is more concerning to think about. For all we know Valve could hand card packs out in abundance, but the stated emphasis on “bargain hunting” and the trading network points heavily in the other direction. More importantly, as the first digital game to implement this system, Valve are also setting a standard for other digital trading card games. If they are unable to keep a reasonable hold on their own marketplace, or make budget playing impossible with it, the games that follow in its wake may well only imitate its unfriendly system. This isn’t the first time Valve has set a precedent, and their previous system of lootboxes eventually caved in on itself after a long history of imitation of exactly what Valve was doing. If Artifact sets a successful precedent in the card game market, the poorer players might not be sticking around for long.