Enlarge / It's a beta! A beta that will take your money.Valve Software

Valve's next video game, a card-battling computer game called Artifact, will be a tricky one to review for a few reasons. For one, it inevitably comes with the baggage of being "Valve's next video game." Whatever Artifact is, it isn't one of the company's innovative first-person shooters.

But the bigger issue, for a review's sake, applies to any modern card game: cards, cards, cards. The genre's fun and strategy depends on hundreds of these things. Exactly how many are there? How do they interact with each other? And how do players get their hands on more of them?

We can start answering those questions with the Artifact beta, into which Valve sneaked us ahead of the closed-beta period (that period is supposed to start on Monday the 19th for anyone who claimed a beta key at various expos like PAX West). With only one day of play under our belts, we cannot come close to "reviewing" what's on offer thus far.

But we sure as heck can show you what is inside the beta—and it's more than a beta. For all intents and purposes, this is the game's final client in terms of tutorial, modes on offer, and (most importantly) its willingness to take your real-world money.

  • It's time for the Artifact tutorial! You're going down, "Bot." Valve Software
  • Each match begins with a sweeping look at a full Artifact play board, and then the game zooms into one of its three lanes, where you'll actually play and activate your cards. But you can zoom out at any time…
  • … and get a look at the bigger picture.
  • We'll add captions when the tooltips aren't self-explanatory.
  • More on this "two out of three" stuff in a bit.
  • Every match starts with each player drawing five cards from their primary deck, made up of "spells," "creeps," and "improvements."
  • We have a red hero in this lane, so we can play a red card. Like this "creep."
  • We move to lane two, and our opponent has initiative, so it has played a card to open. (Initiative is randomly assigned at a match's start, but can be swiped by playing certain cards.)
  • These preview conditions change on the fly during a round so that, when you play a tide-turning card, red Xs will change accordingly.
  • Playing cards requires mana, and the tutorial will cover that in a second.
  • Now to the third lane.
  • We'll have to wait for the next round for more mana. (Notice that your mana points are distinct in each lane; spending mana in one lane doesn't affect the available mana in the others.)
  • Between rounds, a Secret Shop interface appears. Part of the game's deckbuilding experience is to choose which items you'll have access to in a given match.
  • It's very easy to double-check cards in the game and review terms via tooltips.
  • Every match has same opening structure: three heroes appear, one per lane, in round one. A fourth goes wherever you want it in round two, and a fifth in round three. (You get to pick exactly which heroes come out for which rounds in your deckbuilding process.)
  • There are exceptions to that above tooltip. Those include a buff called "rapid deployment," which speeds up a hero's return after death.
  • As of press time, 25 coins is the most expensive equipment price in the Secret Shop.
  • This is how you undo a card action instead of applying it. Turns out, I don't want to use "New Orders" in this lane, and changing my mind is easy enough. (Other cards activate instantly.)
  • From another match: Valve gives you freedom to do some stupid things in Artifact, like harming yourself or buffing your foes. It will always warn you beforehand, at least.
  • Losing track of certain cards' "active abilities" can be really easy, but they glow brightly, which helps as a reminder when the game's board gets crowded.
  • This lets you swap the creep in question with any other ally in that lane, and the ability recharges every round. Keep that creep alive, and you can really dance with it.
  • An "improvement" can be installed in a given lane to be accessed no matter which heroes are alive.
  • You can see an example of an improvement with that card preview on the top-right.
  • Artifact boards can get crowwwwded.
  • Remember that "take down two towers" rule for winning? One of those victory-condition towers can be the 80-point "Ancient" that appears when you destroy a standard 40-point tower.
  • Just driving that point home. Once one tower is down, any of your remaining towers (or the Ancient) counts as a full-match defeat if it goes down.
  • What's more, a general, non-tutorial match includes plenty of helpful tooltips.

Let's start with the tutorial, which asks players to click through two simplified matches against a dumbed-down bot. You may have seen our coverage of Artifact earlier this year, which includes a baseline explanation (and videos) of how the game works. But this is arguably a better beat-by-beat refresher of basic systems and rules that govern gameplay. We've captured most of the important bits in the above gallery, so click through that to get a refresher on how the game works.

We've already covered the Dota 2-ness of Artifact at length, especially its use of "hero" cards and tri-lane structure (which are both similar to and distinct from other digital card games, but they are decidedly different from the popular likes of Magic: The Gathering). Worth noting for Dota 2 diehards: heroes are now split into four color categories (red, blue, green, black) instead of the three categories in the original Dota 2 game (red/strength, blue/intelligence, green/agility). But the Dota 2 flavor is otherwise quite rich with this one. In addition to heroes being lifted wholesale from the source game, Artifact's creeps, spells, and equipment borrow heavily from the source MOBA game.

You'll want to run through the tutorial, in part, to unlock Artifact's starter set of cards, which comes with a purchase of the game. Meaning, this is not a free-to-play game. Your $20 includes a base pack of two fully formed decks (which you can remix as you see fit), a set of 10 random card packs (which are each guaranteed to have certain valuable or "rare" pickups), and five "tickets." You'll use tickets to enter specific competitive game modes, shown in the below gallery, and victories in these modes net more tickets and card packs, depending on exactly how well you do. Failures in those modes, on the other hand, mean you lose the ticket outright.

Should you want more card packs or tickets, Valve will sell them to you. $1.99 nets you a card pack, which includes nine random cards and one "hero" set—which includes a hero card and any other cards that come with said hero. To review: every Artifact card deck requires five hero cards, and these, as seen in the tutorial, determine which kinds of cards you can play in a given lane. All hero cards come with at least one hero-exclusive card, which is always shuffled into your deck should you equip that hero.

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