Earlier this year I wrote an article expressing concern for the way Artifact was potentially monetising itself, using the limited information known about the game at the time and extrapolating some assumed policies from that. The idea of a game that lived and died on the Steam marketplace sounded like a disaster waiting to happen (and still does), eschewing the free-to-play slow drip of resources common to digital card games in favour of an entirely monetised space much more reminiscent of physical card games or Magic the Gathering: Online. With Artifact releasing very soon and all the information about it now in the open, the game has revealed itself to be not only fairly barebones but also straight up greedy, looking more like a fleecing simulator than an actual card game.
On the £16 payment to play the game you’re given two starter packs, ten booster packs and five “event tickets”. The game immediately draws suspicion just handing over these starting items with some disclaimer text; “Once you’ve claimed your items you will be ineligible for an automatic refund of Artifact via Steam”. Obviously this is in place to prevent people opening the boosters, selling all the cards on the marketplace and refunding, but this message appears before any of the in-game menus are available, meaning that a player’s refund rights are forfeited before it’s possible to even make a decision about it.
There are two major modes in the game, Casual and Expert. In Casual you can play game modes for free, but playing in this category nets you absolutely nothing in terms of progressive rewards – you’re just there for the sake of playing, Valve phrasing it as “a way to practice before venturing into a more competitive mode”. The only mode to spit out rewards is Expert, which all require you to pay to enter; Both Constructed and Phantom Draft are 1 ticket (about a quid), and Keeper Draft is 2 tickets and 5 packs (around £9-£10 (!!)). If this sounds familiar it’s because Artifact‘s monetisation system is lifted almost wholesale from MtG: Online down to the fact that both use event tickets and packs for entries. However, it needs to be noted that MtG: Online serves a wildly different audience to pretty much every other digital card game to the point that Magic the Gathering: Arena was created solely to cater to the conventional market, so seeing Artifact trying to copy it is a strange and confusing decision.
If you want to play Artifact on a budget, you’re basically shit out of luck. Since you can’t get rewards in free game modes the only way to earn more cards for your collection is through paid events and paying for packs. So, on top of paying £16 just for entry (which you can’t refund), you’re expected to invest even more in order to continue playing it like an actual card game. In addition, unlike other digital card games with premium formats, like MtG: Arena, Hearthstone or Eternal (all of which have free currency as an alternative), you cannot ‘go infinite’ in Artifact – that is, you can’t get good enough in one game mode in order to play it as much as you want. Going infinite doesn’t necessarily mean earning a return on the investment every time, but rather that even performing poorly can be overcome because the rewards for playing multiple times accumulate; a few good runs add up to counteract the bad ones. In Artifact, you either get your tickets back or you don’t – getting under three wins in any game mode rewards you with absolutely nothing, making it extremely difficult for new players to benefit off them.
A fair amount of people are going to argue that you could potentially offset the cost of paying for everything in Artifact by utilising the card-selling marketplace, but this misses an important point; you have to pay money to do this in the first place. The ten packs given for free can only yield so many duplicates or rares and you can’t guarantee that any of them will be worth anything. To add insult to injury, the cards featured in the game’s starter packs (some of which are only usable in single copies) are not excluded from its booster packs, meaning you could open a pack and get literal dead weight cards, not able to be sold off because everyone already has it. As I was writing this Valve put out a statement saying that they would implement a way to convert cards into event tickets, but at what rate this can be done is yet to be seen.
That last point will probably become a recurring thing – Valve backpedalling their strategy in order to align more closely to the existing digital card game space. The game currently demands a level of financial investment that absolutely no other card game does, for a product with barely any actual reason to actually invest it in the first place. Constructed is fairly unpopular amongst high-level players – in a deleted tweet, card game streamer Savjz states that “I have played every ccg and tcg and frankly constructed artifact is pretty bad […] Draft is the salvation, the bright spot”. Elsewhere another streamer, Swim, stated that despite enjoying the game and planning to stream it often, in regards to monetisation “they can’t release it like this”. The combination of factors means that streamers are opting overwhelmingly to play Phantom Draft, as the unpopularity of Constructed means that Keeper Draft, being both absurdly expensive and used primarily for collection building, is also pointless.
For as much as it experiments with gameplay, Artifact feels like three steps backwards – aggressive pricing on a game with just a single set on offer and barely any game modes feels like pure arrogance no matter how good the game itself is. It’s not that the two models can’t co-exist with each other – they already do – but this recent attempt feels like it’s trying to force its way into a niche that was already filled. In a company driven by fickle management decisions and a seeming lack of long-term planning, if Artifact can’t immediately find its footing or drives too many people away it might just end up like all of Valve’s other half-hearted ventures, quickly forgotten and slowly pushed into obsolescence.