A new digital card game that encourages players to spend money to build their collections has been categorized as an outrage by detractors. Though its proponents believe the negative outcry to be an overreaction, Artifact — a card game based on the world of Dota developed by Valve and Richard Garfield, designer of the renowned card game Magic: The Gathering — was assailed with thousands of negative reviews on Steam following its Nov. 28 launch, with critics taking aim at the game’s monetization structure.
The outrage stems from the fact that many users believe players need to spend a significant amount of money, beyond the game’s $20 purchase price, to be properly competitive. Price-tracking site ArtifactGoldfish places some of the game’s highest-level decks at $60 to $80 apiece. Detractors claim to not enjoy a “pay-to-win” monetization method, where users feel compelled to buy more after already buying into the game if they want to be successful.
In the 24 hours following the game’s launch, it accumulated more than 1,500 negative reviews while also racking up 2,600 positives and gaining a user base of 60,000 players, according to PC Gamer.
Upon purchase, users are granted two 40-card decks, 10 additional card packs and five event tickets, which allow users to enter competitions to earn prizes in the form of new card packs and event tickets — but to earn those prizes, the player must perform well across several matches. You could “go infinite” — winning competitions and accumulating the accompanying event tickets and card packs, thus never needing to buy a single pack — but the odds are demanding enough that the majority of players won’t be able to.
Players seeking to improve their decks beyond their initial construction will likely need to purchase additional packs, priced at $1.99 apiece, or purchase cards from other players in a marketplace operated by Valve, which takes a 15 percent cut of every transaction. Additional event tickets are sold in bundles of five for $4.95.
Over the weekend, the Artifact Twitter account announced that 6,056,282 cards had been traded on the Steam marketplace since launch. As Dota analyst Kevin “Purge” Godec noted, if you assume a minimum split of $0.02 to Valve on each trade, that’s $121,125.64 profit in less than a week.
Other popular digital card games such as Hearthstone have developed free-to-play models that reward invested play time with booster packs, without players having to spend cash. They also have the ability for players to make additional purchases. Artifact is more comparable to Magic in its seller’s market; Magic has cards that cost pennies and others that cost thousands. Artifact’s most expensive card — Axe, a hero card — has evened out around $15 to $17 this week, falling from a $40 price around the game’s launch date.
Valve has already addressed two concerns raised by players: The draft mode was locked behind purchasable event tickets, and players were opening packs with cards that come in everyone’s starter set (and thus are worth nothing on the market). The company implemented a free draft mode with no rewards and a system where 20 cards can be recycled to create one event ticket.
Still, unless you are good enough at Artifact’s draft mode to continuously maintain a high win ratio, you’ll probably have to invest beyond the $20 entry fee to get the decks you want.
But while the downside is the apparent necessity of some level of buy-in, rather than a free-to-play system, the upside is the freedom that system allows. Players can simply purchase the cards they want and have a deck, rather than roll the dice for cards they want via booster packs. Pro Magic player and current Artifact competitor Joel Larsson said he prefers being able to buy all the tools he needs from the outset.
“Artifact just gives you more options,” Larsson said via voice chat following the release. “If you’re sure what you want to play and know how much money you want to spend, you can just buy a deck and then you have that. And then maybe you just have to grind the rest of the collection, right? Well, in Hearthstone, that’s not possible.”
Artifact prices are still evening out, but the cost of a “Tier One” competitive deck seems to be fairly low compared with the investment required for Magic. Larsson said he’s spent about $120 on the game so far, which got him the entire launch set. Compared with the $500 to $600 he says he spent on his Magic deck for this current format, that’s a contrast.
Artifact community members seem to think prices will continue to go down in the long run. New cards and new top-tier decks will start to affect prices, while the constant influx of new cards on the market from opened booster packs means current gems — such as Axe — could be devalued over time due to increased supply or decreased viability.
“Right now card prices are sky high due to players hoarding valuable cards,” wrote Sean “Swim” Huguenard, a competitive Artifact player and streamer, in an email. “But some crash will happen within the next couple of weeks, and this will definitely make the cost of the game a lot lower.”
The counterpoint to the crash is that it could be a bad experience for some players who spent early. There could also be a potentially infinite number of cards in rotation, leading to a huge devaluation of cards over time. That’s good for those trying to budget but rough for early adopters. Valve did not return a request for comment on whether there was a set scarcity of rare cards in circulation.
Larsson said that a lot of the negativity surrounding the pricing model is unwarranted and that Valve has been quick to address many of these issues, specifically citing the addition of the free draft mode.
“I don’t know, maybe I am biased because I’m coming from Magic and some insane culture of what prices are,” he said. “And also, a company that always listens but never does anything about what they hear. So here [Valve is] like, ‘Oh there’s been some complaints about draft,’ and they just added that, instantly.' ”
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