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Photo by: RobAJG | Twitter

Robert “RobAJG” Gonzales has been slinging cards in Magic: The Gathering for 25 years. “It’s the love of my life,” he says, “though we’re not seeing eye to eye about everything. We’re seeing other people now.”

He jokes, but seeing other people has been the best for RobAJG, who’s now venturing into the world of esports. Putting the hood (sometimes literally) of a host, caster and analyst, RobAJG is now working several Valve titles. He played a major part to making WePlay’s Agility Artifact tournament a success, and synced well with some of Dota 2’s biggest personalities during WePlay’s Valentine Madness event.

On one cold Kiev morning, RobAJG sat down with me to talk Artifact (and it’s tumultuous days), Magic (…and it’s tumultuous days, also…), working as talent and more.

This is part 1 of an hour-long interview. Tune in to part 2 tomorrow.

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How are you enjoying Kiev and the WePlay Valentine Dota 2 event? Is it still super cold?

Last time I was here, it was definitely much colder. The city of Kiev is very wonderful, the people have been very nice and open everywhere I go. It’s always felt warm. Temperature wise, it’s getting a bit warmer, but it’s still Kiev in the winter [laughs] but it’s not atrocious. Compared to where I live now, it’s only 10-12 degrees difference.

Sometimes, the people here at WePlay look at me a bit crazy, because I don’t wear a jacket all the time.

I want to start our main conversation here: You’ve been a MTG player for two decades and change as far as I know. Why did you then choose to enter esports through Artifact, and not, say, MTG Arena?

I’ve been playing Magic for a long time, and at some point I was burnt on travelling so much. I have a family, so when my son was born about three years ago, I was like, “OK, I have to take a step back from Magic. I have a lot of fun, but I don’t make anywhere close to the money I make at my regular job.”

It’s one of those things of becoming an adult [laughs], saying, “You know, you had your fun, you’ve seen the world, you’ve had high placings, but it’s time to take a step back and spend more time with your family.” And that’s what I did.

Artifact is not the main thing I can really be doing right now if I want to not live on the street.

Last summer, one of my friends who’s a huge Dota player sent me a message about a new game called Artifact coming out. He told me it’s going to be an online game, which is good for me, as I don’t have to leave the house and he told me it’s going to be released at PAX West. Well, I’ve never been to PAX West my entire life, and I was told the only way to get into the beta was to get keys from PAX.

I wanted to do content, but I figured the lines would be pretty long. I rented a really expensive camera to do video. I bought a ticket out of the blue and got on the plan.

But when I got there, the lines were anywhere between 4 to 6 hours to get to the Artifact booth. When I got there with my camera, they had closed to line. So, I went to the media entrance and said I wanted to do coverage. I spoke to one of the execs in Valve and they let me in and for the next three days, I spent my entire day in the Artifact booth, getting to know everybody, making connections.

Up to that point, I had no idea who these people were. I had no idea who SUNSfan, Lumi and Slacks were. That’s how the Artifact experience started.

robajg slacks
RobAJG casting WePlay Agility with SirActionSlacks. Photo by: WePlay

Is the family part why you took a content creation job with Team Liquid (Draw2), but didn’t opt for going pro, despite your long history of MTG Pro Tour appearances?

I had to decide how I wanted to spend my time. I needed a situation where I could use my expertise but still make it a job. I am looking to do things that are not only fun, but where I can use the skills I’m born with to pay the bills.

I love Artifact, and I still do things in it, but that’s not the main thing I can really be doing right now if I want to not live on the street. I’m never gonna give up on Artifact; it’s an incredibly deep game, but it has issues with how it was rolled out and how a lot of people view these outside forces.

I just like working with Valve, it’s opened my eyes.

It’s nice, because the people I talk to about Artifact are still excited about it, but we’re all realists. We understand that there are issues. We are in it for the long run, and hopefully Valve are too. [laughs]

But it’s how it is, man. I’ve been playing Magic for 20 years, there have been ups and downs, there have been people telling me it’s going to die. That’s not new for me. I think Artifact has such deep gameplay, that if we fix some of the other stuff, we’ll be perfectly fine.

Given the current states of MTG Arena and Artifact and the discrepancy in their popularity, is there any internal dissonance that makes you regret your decision? If you could go back, would you, say, push your MTG Arena presence more? Maybe get an invite to the Mythic Invitational?

No. I’m pretty good with the people at Wizards of the Coast, I’ve been around with them forever. I still play Arena, I’m still a Magic player. The difference is that to make top 8 of Mythic, you have to just do that. For me, the career path of a pro is not my career path. My career path is to be a talent, a caster, an analyst.

The idea of going back to playing, focusing on the Arena side to try to get good with Wizards is not even plausible. I just like working with Valve, it’s opened my eyes and been a challenge. Once you’ve played a game as long as I have, sometimes you need fresh blood. Artifact obviously has the feel of Magic, but Dota 2 is a whole different animal. It’s an amazing challenge for me to adapt these skills to apply them to Dota and casting and hosting.

RobAJG hosting the WePlay Valentine Madness. Photo by: WePlay

I want to continue on Artifact topic for a while, but I don’t want to go the “why it failed and how it can be fixed” route, a topic that’s been rehashed to death — and still going on for some reason. Instead, I want to tackle this from a different angle.

Valve’s have been very silent on their game as a whole. Granted, they were more active in communicating closer to launch, but now it’s been two months since they’ve said a word. The only reassurance they’ve given is the “long haul” thing.

Some argue, that it’s better to only talk when there’s something to say. Others — that active communication is needed to keep the hope alive. Where do you stand on the communication topic?

They don’t need to have daily communications but even a once-a-month state of the game would be better than letting people fester with these crazy ideas.

Valve just do things their own way. They don’t have to answer to anybody. They don’t have external pressure to do anything beyond how they want to do it. Normally, if a business doesn’t talk to its community when their game is having so much negative publicity, they would be crucified. The company would be done. 

That is why so many people were turned off: they expected Auto Chess, something that had a real foothold in Dota and they didn’t get that.

But Valve is just a different company, that’s how they operate. On one hand, you’d think a company would speak to you after two months. But on the other, people are not surprised this is the Valve way.

I don’t know how large their [Artifact] team is. I think it’s possible they are all focused on the game and solutions. It’s a full time job to keep this under wraps and not have it leak out.

You mentioned that lack of communication is just Valve’s way, but they can actually afford to do this with Dota 2 and CS:GO, can’t they? Both games are basically mods that Valve adopted and which already had large communities. All Valve needed to do is just pick them up and keep doing a good job, and not invent something from the ground up, which is the case here. 

This is why I think people are more angry at Valve about lack of Artifact updates: because Valve hadn’t realized that this is not a game like Dota or CS:GO and they should perhaps reconsider their communication traditions. What do you think about that?

That’s as spot on as it gets. Let’s take, for example, Auto Chess. You have a mod, it’s way more closely based on Dota and it appeals to the same people. It’s free to play, you have the animations, the characters, so many of the things people like in Dota, but it takes away the learning curve. You can basically use the same ideas you have in card games to play Auto Chess.

It’s what I think people imagined Artifact would be. There’s this huge community in Auto Chess because it directly appeals to Dota players. And Artifact doesn’t do that, not even a little bit. The only thing that it shares is characters, that’s it. The laning is not the same, you have a tower with however many hit points with the Ancient underneath.

Photo by: WePlay

And the win condition is weird too. Killing two towers is not intuitive.

Yeah, why do we have to kill two towers? How do you win a game of Dota by just killing towers and not the Ancient? It becomes way more apparent after playing and doing this research for Dota that Artifact is just not a Dota game. It’s a game with Dota graphics.

That is why so many people were turned off: they expected Auto Chess, something that had a real foothold in Dota, and they didn’t get that.

As a Magic player, when I saw Artifact, I felt it was great, because I didn’t have to know anything about Dota. I just needed to know card games. TCG players also don’t mind dealing with some of the things that other people dislike, like paying for cards — we’ve done it our whole life. We’re willing to have cards that are actively bad, or deal with the first set being unbalanced.

But Dota players go, “What the f*** are you talking about? Everything needs to be playable, everything needs to be free, it needs to be Dota but with cards.” And now I look at it and think, “Yeah, it needs to be Auto Chess.” [laughs]

Valve never went the cosmetics round. What? That’s such a big miss, not to do it.

Auto Chess checked all the boxes. Dota? Check. In-game characters? Check. Items? Check. It’s not a head’s up competition. There’s no laning but there doesn’t have to be. Then it has this battle royale feel, which is very big right now, and I can imagine Auto Chess being something like that in the future with like double the players they have now and then shortening some of the timers.

There’s a lot to be said about the success of Auto Chess vs. the failure of Artifact. I’m sure Valve are thinking of ways to promote Auto Chess. This is what scares me: tomorrow, they could literally pull the plug on Artifact. Say, “It’s done, here’s a refund. We’re going to put $1 million Auto Chess tournament.”

And no one would blink an eye. There would be one person who’d be like, “Oh, man, I can’t believe you’d do that…” Everyone would understand. It says a lot to me that they want to fix Artifact, but there’s always the fear that they don’t have to do that. They could just scrap the $1M tournament.

I had a talk recently with a friend of mine on the $10k invite tournaments that were going on in the beta and here’s an interesting point that was brought up: Do you think these prize pools were a dangerous tool to employ? Wouldn’t a pro player who’s already making money from the game before it’s even released be more likely to praise it and ignore some issues that could potentially be harmful and have a skewed feedback or impression of the game?

The big thing about that is that people make it sounds like that in the beta, people weren’t critical and that everyone in the beta was like, “Oh, Artifact is amazing, there’s nothing wrong with it.”

That’s just not the case. In the beta, most people did enjoy it and when we told people on Twitter it’s the best card game we’ve played that was not a lie. But internally, we also talked about unbalanced cards or how we thought ladder should work.

We were constantly giving feedback but when the game launched, there were plenty of things missing that we had in beta. We had access to free drafts, right? And on launch, there were no free drafts. OK, what happened? There was no ladder…

Photo by: RobAJG | Twitter

Was there ladder in the beta?

There wasn’t like a ladder-ladder but there was a leaderboard, how people were doing in drafts and gauntlet. So people would go out and grind as they wanted to make top 15 in the internal beta ladder, so we figured that there would for sure be some kind of iteration of that.

We figured there would be talk about the $1M tournament from the beginning and giving people ideas how to qualify and that just didn’t happen. All of this stuff… they didn’t ask us either. They never asked us, “Hey, what do you think if Artifact cost this amount.” We did give feedback as to how prizes would work in Gauntlet.

I was always a proponent of doing it like it is now, but with bigger prizes, because we know how hard it would be to go 5-0 consistently. So there was this idea that there would be prizes with packs, but also with cosmetics. But that they never went down that road. What? There are so many of us, who love foils. That’s just such a miss, to not do it.

If they felt rushed, they should’ve pushed the date back. Even if you open the beta with the $20 deal and brought these people in to see how they’d react to it… And if they’d reacted as, “Oh my god, this is the worst thing ever”, then before going to actual launch you could make it free to play maybe.

But I am not a multi-million game designer, I’m just a player talking about video games. Valve have reached out to some people to ask them for their feedback, to WePlay, so I know they’re out there trying to find solutions.

If they felt rushed, they should’ve pushed the date back.

If you would indulge me in discussing another one of my theories, one think I still strongly believe in, even in the face of dire player count, is that Artifact esports can, ironically, have more success than Artifact the game. The reason why I think it is is that playing Artifact is stressful: there are a lot of micro decision you have to make and if you miss one, you lose the game. Few people want to go through this.

As an esport, however, this makes the game more exciting. You start appreciating the skill of a player more. It’s kind of like BroodWar in a way. Coupled with a good production, you can make quite the show. What do you think?

That’s absolutely correct. I’ve told people many times that when you sit to play a game of Artifact, you want to be good at it. That’s all you can be doing. You have to be laser focused, even listening to music sometime takes your focus away. It’s so hard on your brain when you play these long tournaments, you start feeling fatigue, feel pressure that one small mistake can bury you.

And here’s the thing in esports: you can see what the different between good production and good energy and decent production with decent energy. I’m biased but I think t he WePlay Agility was done in such a way as to highlight where there were exciting things and made you feel at home. There are exciting times, like with RNG, that you don’t really want to happen to you playing, but as an esport, it can work really well. But you have to have these people who are excited, who are cheering. You have to have the storylines behind it, otherwise it’s just a basic cracker.

Artifact will never be the most popular game in the world, it’s just too hard. One of the things I talked with Valve about it that you have to have some sort of mode that’s casual.

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