One notion I’ve expressed before and will continue to support is that Artifact, its many issues notwithstanding, has a great engine. By that I mean that the game is well designed in its core — from its game mechanics to most of its individual card design.
When it comes to the latter, Garfield and co have created a slew of cards with interesting, skill-testing and dynamic mechanics. This article aims to highlight this writer’s personal top.
The appraisal process
What makes for a good card design doesn’t have a universal answer. Different people will like different mechanics and effects and there is no objective truth. There are a couple of principles, however, that you’ll always want to see in a card if it is to have an outstanding design.
- The card can’t be overpowered or underpowered — Having the best design doesn’t mean making the best card. In fact, these are often contradicting, because the best card in the game at any point of time is the one that is the strongest, which in of itself is an issue. You want cards to stand out in terms of their design gestalt, not their raw power. If something is too strong — or too weak — it’s not well designed.
- A card can’t be good at all times in the game — A well designed card needs to have a moment where it truly shines, but also moments where it loses its effectiveness. If a card performs equally well at all times in the game, it essentially has no drawback, so there’s never a reason not to play it.
- A card can’t fit all decks or archetypes, doing the same thing — Auto-include cards are often synonymous with being too strong. If you can use a card in aggro, midrange and control decks alike and have it perform the same function everywhere, than it’s almost always badly designed.
- A card needs to make you think when, how and why do you play it — A well-designed card will require a strategic thought process. Do I play it now or later? If I do, how should I follow up? What will it cost me to play the card and how do I make the most out of it?
We won’t look at hero or signature cards in this article. Those we’ll examine in the second part. The picks will be in alphabetical order. They are also not the only 10 good designs in Artifact by far. Now, on to the list.
Honorable mention: The Improvement card type
This one is an honorable mention not because it’s not good enough, but because it’s a bit of a cheat. It concerns a whole type of Artifact cards — the improvements.
Non-unit cards that stay on the board and give a continuous effect are certainly nothing new. But Artifact has succeeded in weaving them into its three-lane mechanic flawlessly. All improvement cards can be played cross-lane (“upstream” or “downstream”, as the jargon goes), which opens a lot more possible plays.
Improvements’ cross-lane nature allow for better resource utilization during individual lane turns. Being able to play these cards on another lane means you can more freely spend the mana on a lane you don’t want to play anything on, either because you’re winning or losing it too hard. If you’re planning to abandon a lane, you won’t want to invest resources in it, but you can still use the hero that’s there to reinforce the lanes you’ll actually be fighting for.
A lot of improvements also have upkeep effects, which further incentivizes the strategic cross-lane placement. March of the Machines and Mist of Avernus are but two examples of how you can play them from one lane to buff up another before the action in the second one even begins.
“Aghanim’s Sanctum makes you understand Artifact on a different level,” Joel “Heffaklumplen” Larsson once told me in an interview and changed this writer’s opinion of the card. Seen as potentially too strong by many, myself included, Aghanim’s Sanctum deserves a second chance of not being misunderstood. Why? Because it opens up strategies, Larsson says.
“If you have double the mana in one lane doesn’t necessarily make that better, because you just run out of cards faster and Aghanim’s Sanctum will become useless faster. But then, Aghanim’s Sanctum means you make these strategies that revolve around winning one lane super hard and then using that to your advantage. If you have Zeus with Thundergod’s Wrath, it becomes way more useful with Aghanim’s Sanctum but it also becomes better to win the Sanctum the lane.”
There were a lot of blue cards I considered for this slot. Either of Diabolic Revelations, Arcane Assault and Dimensional Portal could’ve been here.
Why I like Compel is because I’m a sucker for simple but elegant design. Compel’s two components have it fit right there. First, it messes up with preordained combat direction, which is a very, very blue thing. What’s more, this effect can be used both defensively (redirect a target away from your heroes) or offensively (command your non-blue heroes to attack and kill something). Compel also cycles itself with a card draw, so you’re never behind even if your combat machinations don’t go your way.
Emissary of the Quorum
Of all the late-game finishers, Emissary of the Quorum is the only one that checks many of boxes for good design. The card is strong but not overpowered. It’s good only in certain scenarios, namely when it can benefit multiple units. It fits several archetypes, but only if you build around it. You need to have ramp cards like Stars Align in midrange decks and enough removal and combo potential in control/combo decks.
Because of the latter, you need to carefully consider when and how you play Emissary. Ramping it out early can win you the game, but a simple Slay can cause massive damage just as well. Waiting until you get the right board for, on the other hand, takes time in which your opponents can react. And what really is the perfect time for Emissary? When is it better to play that, instead of Time of Triumph?
There are a lot of cards that are the embodiment of their colors philosophy. Many red cards certainly do that fine, boosting stats or applying armor and smashing defenses. But no card glows more red than Enough Magic!
Enough Magic! walks the fine line between denying your opponent plays and not being too strong. The card is on the power level that Gust should’ve been from the start. It’s symmetrical and fair. Its value changes depending on when during the action phase you play it and the potential ramifications of the ensuing combat phase. Simple, elegant, flavorful: everything a good design should be.
It’s easy to be a fan of the new Jasper Daggers, simply because of the new keyword it introduced.
Before Jasper Daggers was redesigned, there were no options outside of the green color to counteract the powerful silence and stun mechanics. Aphotic Shield was one of the options, but it comes with the obligatory Abaddon inclusion, and Cleansing Rite is just a bad card that does too little for too much.
Jasper Daggers hits the sweet spot of being well-prices at 5 gold with an effect to match. The on-equip Purge is the main reason why you’ll play this, but there’s a case to be made for just equipping it for the +2 Attack. Sometimes, killing a unit now is better than waiting to Purge a debuff that might never come. Which is why Jasper Daggers is all around a damn fine card to have.
Of all the creeps in Artifact, Mercenary Exiles is perhaps the most skill-intensive and decision-demanding one. What the card does is eat your gold reserves to boost its attack. It’s a form of investment in a single card that gracefully mimics the essence of every card game: pay a resource to gain some value.
The fact that you need to fight and kill to get gold to then fuel a separate deck of cards makes Mercenary Exiles especially cool. On every turn, you have to evaluate how much do you need a strong minion versus buying an item. Is it better to wait till you get more gold, play Mercenary Exiles then and immediately buff it for lots? How likely is it that it gets killed and wastes your investment? And what does it need to kill to make the gold expense worth it?
These are hard questions to answer and every time a card imposes such dilemmas, it’s a good card.
If Mercenary Exiles ate mana instead of gold, it probably wouldn’t rank as high on this list, because it would’ve been a more boring card. But as long as gold itself is an interesting mechanic, the good cards that play with it will qualify for quality design.
Payday is one such card and it’s on this list because it enables a whole new archetype to play with. Payday tells you that if you put it in your deck, you better have a specific strategy in mind. The card enables the high-cost items that you won’t see in standard decks otherwise and synergizes with spells like Track and Iron Fog Goldmine. It also poses the question “when’s the best time to double my gold”, which is once again a question with no single right answer.
Tyler Estate Censor
Tyler Estate Censor gathered a lot of fans during the WePlay Artifact tournament, and it’s a good card for several reasons.
First, it’s a black card with a black effect, but very non-black stats (2/8 is something you might rather find on a green creep), which makes it stand out from the lot.
Stats aside, though, Tyler Estate Censor is a very timing-sensitive card. The key to a good Censor turn is knowing the power turns of your opponent and then playing it to deny them. A Censor on Mana 4 can deny a Gust or Aghanim’s Sanctum deploy. Late game Censor on Mana 6 can critically delay a sweeping Annihilation or At Any Cost.
This might sound like Censor is good at all stages of the game (which is something we said shouldn’t happen in good design), that’s far from the truth. The longer the game goes, the less valuable Censor’s 2/8 body becomes. What’s more, if you play it to deny an 8-mana Time of Triumph, for example, it means you’re not playing your own big cards. Tyler Estate Censor is also lane-sensitive, because his effect is not global. If you deny a spell on the left lane, the opponent can still play it on the other two, provided they have the color necessary.
Tyler Estate Censor is far from the best, or strongest, or most impactful card but it makes a convincing case for being among the best designed.
If this was a ranked list, The Oath would be my personal No. 1, because there’s no single more skill-intensive card than this black improvement.
The Oath follows every rule of good design and then some. First, it’s an improvement, so you can play it cross-lane to surprise opponents. It provides a powerful boost, but imposes a very harsh disadvantage at the same time. It embodies the black color perfectly in an aggressive, almost masochistic way.
What’s also good about The Oath (and the final, 10th card we’ll talk about) is that it also changes how your opponents approach The Oath’s lane. With the improvement in play, even the neutral creeps become a serious threat, but this comes at the cost of never being able to play creeps or spells. The enemy therefore has to decide whether it tries to match your firepower while your hand is incapacitated or remove the improvement and allow you to play cards again. At the same time, you will also have to decide what to do in the other two lanes and how to deploy your heroes, knowing of The Oath’s limitations.
Everything an advanced player might want from a card is present in The Oath.
On one hand, Unearthed Secrets is a card that shouldn’t be praised for its design, because it doesn’t really do what green’s supposed to do. It wants you to take tower hits (which is something black wouldn’t care about) to generate card advantage (a blue mechanic). One can argue that being a full on utility card qualifies it as green, but that’s actually beside the point here.
What makes Unearthed Secrets as well designed card is the see-saw dynamic of its effect. If you’re losing a lane, it’s netting you benefits. The moment you get ahead, it’s a lull card until you start taking tower damage again.
Another upside to the card is how it allows you to recover from unfortunate lane spawns. Unearthed Secrets costs only 3-mana, so it’s available right from turn 1. This way, if your opponents gets a good roll and spawns more creeps than you on a lane — or you see which lane you’ll eventually lose — you can play Unearthed Secrets there to at least get something in return. And, once again, since it’s an improvement, you can do it from any lane, any time.