In the fourth episode of “Learning Artifact”, I touched on the basic economy of the game covered by the mana and gold resources. This is what a player uses to play cards and purchase items so a novice player could think that’s where the Artifact’s economy starts and ends. But as in any other card game, Artifact too has more complicated parts to its economy. Below, we’ll take a look at the first of two “advanced” resources: Life.
Life as resource
The goal of every Artifact game is to destroy two enemy towers. Since each tower comes equipped with its own health value, the game essentially becomes a race for life point. To outlast their opponent, a player needs to mind and manage their life points. Therefore, life becomes part of the game’s economy and as such can be treated and used as a resource to gain advantages.
In card games, “life” is also synonymous with “time”. Time as in how many more turns can you live and how many more combat phases can you survive. When you’re playing a slow opponent, you have more time, and as a result you can “spend” life more freely. When you’re playing a fast opponent, you are on a faster clock, can’t spend life as freely and the resource becomes more valuable.
But how do you actually “spend” life if all cards cost either mana or gold? And what are these advantages that you can get?
Consider the following example situations.
Jack is playing a (B)lack/(R)ed aggro deck (or BR Aggro). Jill is playing a Bl(U)e/(B)lack control deck (or UB Control). The decks make for a classic match in card games: aggro vs. control, offense vs. defense, proactiveness vs. reactiveness. These archetypes are diametrically opposite and as such threat the resource of life in contrasting ways. The BR Aggro has little regard for his own life and it’s only concerned about burning down the control. The UB Control is just the opposite: it doesn’t care when it will kill the aggro, it only needs to survive until the aggro is no longer a direct threat to his life. Already, the two players are treating the same resource (life) of which they’re given equal amount at the start of the game differently.
That’s fine, but what about that “spending” of life after all, you ask? Let’s hop to the left lane, where Jack is ready to put on the pressure.
— Jill’s tower is at 25 life and so far, she’s taking 6 damage from Legion Commander. It’s not ideal but it’s not life threatening either, so Jill passes initiative.
— Jack plays a Bronze Legionnaire on an empty combat slot. He’s now threatening 10 damage. Jill is starting to worry, since that’s close to half her tower’s remaining hit points. Jill is patient though, holds her Slay and passes initiative again.
— Jack smells blood in the water and commits to his board even more. He plays Hellbear Crippler, now threatening 13 damage. Jill will be at only 12 in that lane and the next combat phase should finish the tower.
— Jill considers the Slay again but sees a potential play next turn, smiles to herself and passes. Jack, now out of mana, also passes. Combat triggers, Jill takes 13 damage and is at 12.
The games states are now like this:
Jack: 8/0/1 Sorla Khan (blocked by Lich), 6/1/5 Legion Commander, 4/2/2 Bronze Legionnaire and 3/0/3 Hellbear Crippler.
Jill: 5/0/1 Lich (blocking Sorla), 12hp tower and 13 damage incoming next combat
* * *
Time for another round.
— Trying to save her tower, Jill deploys her Zeus in that lane. It lands in front of Legion Commander and unlocks blue spells. She’s now taking 7 damage and will be at 5. Crisis averted for now.
— Jack has initiative, however, and a cheeky Grazing Shot kills the Lich, opening 12 more damage from Sorla for a total of 19 damage. Jill’s dead if she doesn’t do something.
— Jill takes initiative and now her risky life-sacrificing play from last turn makes sense. Jill plays At Any Cost. Everything but her Zeus perishes. Jack has completely lost presence in that lane. Two creeps are forever dead, Jack is locked out of Sorla’s tower pressure for a turn and has one less source of red. Jill’s tower, on the other hand, is not only safe, but she can now start putting pressure herself, facing no heroes and no creeps.
This is an example of a player sacrificing — or spending — life points to gain an edge. Jill knew she couldn’t die that turn so she made an investment of 13 life points, so she could win the lane the next turn. If Jack’s two heroes were creeps, for example (just for the sake of simplifying the math), Jill would’ve netted a four-for-one card advantage.
By expending life this way, Jill also saved key cards in hand. Imagine if she put more value on her life points and used Slay on the Bronze Legionnaire. She would’ve taken only 9 damage, yes, but what happens next turn? What does she do if an Ogre Conscript comes down and she can’t kill it with At Any Cost?
Have in mind that this decision of Jill’s won’t always be as good, even if board and tower states are similar. As we established, the value of life changes with the match-up and the threats potentially available.
Imagine if Jack was playing a UR Aggro instead of BR Aggro against the same UB Control from Jill. Overall, it’s the same strategy for both decks and somehow the game has reached an almost identical lane state from the example. Jack is pushing for 13 damage, leaving Jill at 12. Jill has had the same options: play Slay on Jack’s creep to mitigate damage or wait for a greedy At Any Cost.
What changes the value of Jill’s life points is Jill knowing that the UR Aggro has other ways to kill her than just the combat phase. Jill knows UR Aggro decks run 3x Lightning Strike so suddenly being at 12 is no longer safe for her. Two Lightning Strikes in the face and she’s dead before combat ever triggers. In this case, Jill is likely to Slay the Bronze Legionnaire, take damage down to 16 to stay out of double Lightning Strike lethal. Even if she won’t get the same card advantage, staying alive is more important, so she decides not to gamble.
Examples #1 and #1.5 could sound complicated at first, but even novice players should not worry about that too much. Learning how valuable your life is at any point in the match always comes naturally, especially when you put a lot of games on a single deck.
Where it does get complicated is when the opposing deck archetypes are similar and when you insert Artifact’s lane mechanic into the equation.
Let’s start with the latter. If in other card games, players are only concerned about a single life total (like that of their hero in Hearthstone), Artifact players need to manage three different life pools, one for each lane. This will lead to a situation where players will have to use a singular cards-in-hand-pool to deal with three individual situations with individual board states and life values and, therefore, individual “time clocks”.
Players cannot realistically win the board and life races in all three lanes — at least not in balanced matches. As a result, they’ll have to take their life resource management to an upper tier of strategic planning. This means that if the 40hp vs. 40hp race in a single lane is managing life on a micro level, the 2 towers vs. 2 towers race (you need to kill 2 towers to win) is managing life on a macro level. The macro level has its own quirks, such as the linearity of lane combats (left triggers first, then mid, then right), the 80hp ancient that replaces the 40hp dead tower, etc.
Let’s look at another example.
* * *
Joel and Ole are playing the Gauntlet. Joel has drafted a (B)lack/(G)reen aggro deck with double Sorla Khan and Disciple of Nevermore. Ole has drafted a standard (R)ed/(G)reen midrange deck, with double Ursa and just general high-stats units.
Take a look at the screenshot above. What do we see?
— Ole’s RG Midrange has done what it’s supposed to do: beat the weaker BG Aggro units to submission and is now winning the left and right lane
— Ole is doing 19 damage to Joel’s 26hp tower. Joel’s board is currently empty and if he doesn’t do something, this tower is dead — if not that very same turn, then the next.
— Debbi, Abaddon, Roseleaf Rejuvenator, a melee creep and Assault Ladders, Joel is at least winning the mid lane so hard, it’s not even funny. Ole’s tower there is at 6hp and Joel is doing 30 damage. Yikes.
— That’s just one lane out of three, however, and Ole is winning the right one, too. Joel’s tower is at 15 and without any cards played, Ole is doing 13 damage there. This could be game over very soon. Joel needs to design a plan.
Does this sound familiar? If yes, it’s because it actually happened, in a game between Joel Larsson and Ole “Naiman” Batyrbekov in the Artifact Preview Tournament.
It’s a time where Joel has to manage his life on a micro and macro level at the same time. He needs to evaluate how far is he dying in each of his losing lanes (left and right) — which translates as “how fast is he losing the 2 towers vs. 2 towers macro race” — against how fast is he racing the lane he’s winning (mid).
This is how the next turns unfold.
— Joel knows that fighting head to head with Ole won’t end well. He’s been doing it all game, but his units are just weaker than Ole’s. If he tries to match Ole’s power on two lanes, there’s a good chance he loses. As a result, forgoes the idea of using his Sorla Khans to fight for lane presence.
— During the deployment phase, Joel sees there’s a neutral creep coming, and there’s a good 50/50 chance it blocks either the 10/3/4 Keefe or the 7/0/8 Ursa, absorbing some massive damage. This encourages Joel’s gamble.
— Joel’s plan is now the following: Yes, right is almost certainly dead this turn, but if the creep blocks a red hero, Ole won’t likely burn all 26hp. It’s a very risky play but it’s Joel’s best chance. What Joel hopes to happen is his left tower lives this turn, he takes the 40hp mid down and does his best to defend right, even if it means his two towers survive with minimal hp. Next turn, Joel will lose left (1/2 towers dead), but he will take down mid’s ancient before he gets to lose right.
This is where you can see the difference between the micro and macro level of life management. After this turn, Ole is still technically winning two lanes. Joel’s left lane is at 8hp with 21 damage incoming. Joel’s right lane is at 11hp with 20 hp coming. Ole needs to do 19 damage between two lanes to win.
Yet, Joel is winning the macro game. He’s already taken down one tower (ahead in the macro race) and even though he needs to do 80 damage in a single turn, mid lanes comes before right lane. The linearity of the lane mechanic is further helping his macro life management. So what happens?
— Joel takes it like a man in the left lane and sacrifices his tower.
— Joel is already doing 76 damage because of his double Sorla Khan commitment from the previous turn. Just 4 damage is needed and Disciple of Nevermore is happy to provide it. The mid ancient tower falls. Ole never gets the chance to celebrate how hard he won right lane.
* * *
Like the situations with Jack and Jill, take note that even small changes to the game states would make for very different life resource management decisions. If the mid and right lanes were exchanged, Joel wouldn’t have gone for the Ancient Tower rush, because right lane comes last and he’d lose left, mid, and then the game. If he didn’t have these Rebel Decoy’s to absorb damage in the right lane, he would’ve lost that lane, then left next turn, and then the game again. If he had a few hit points fewer in left or right, he wouldn’t have made the mid lane push, nor if he knew that the RG Midrange could play some defensive improvements cross lane, like a couple of Steel Reinforcements, for example.
Joel and Jill made these life investments because they made sense in these exact board states and match-up situations. Any other time, they would be the wrong decisions, even if the health values and board states were close to identical.
In conclusion, learn how to use your life resource and when. Do it, and it will win you games that would be lost otherwise.