By David ‘Panda’ Nolskog – 02/10/2018
When an eighteen year old player from Cheltenham – an English town whose claim to fame is a four day horse jump racing festival – broke into Gwents’s tournament scene, few knew what to expect from Frederick ‘Freddybabes’ Bird. What followed was an impressive display at Lifecoach’s GwentSlam #1 tournament, securing a championship in his first ever tournament appearance. Freddybabes followed it up with more consistent performances, winning the $25,000 Open #2 and the $100,000 Challenger #2 back to back, cementing himself early on as one of the game’s greats. Although undoubtedly one of the scenes most skilled players, his laidback, almost carefree attitude has seen him opting out of the grind of the Pro Ladder system recently, focusing instead on streaming.
Although Freddybabes lacks a natural propensity to commit to the ladder grinds between seasons, his tournament performances throughout the games short history have been unmatched by any other player. Literally. He’s the only player to have won more than one tournament, and after joining Complexity in January, the only player to represent a true esports powerhouse in the scene. With Artifact’s release on the horizon, I sit down with him to discuss his thoughts on Artifact; it’s core gameplay mechanics, the closed beta experience, and it’s future as an esports title.
ImpetuousPanda: What do you think are Artifact’s key selling points? How does it differ from the CCGs you’ve played and what potential do you think it has in the online CCG market?
Fred “Freddybabes” Bird: I think Artifact borrows a lot of aspects from a lot of different CCGs that already exist, it’s all thrown into one and it works really great. It’s similar to Hearthstone or Magic when it comes to the health total, the mana curve, the small creeps and the combat phase. You’ve got some stuff from Gwent as well with the turn mechanics, the passing and the initiative concept. You end up playing very complex and fun games, you have to split your resources between lanes, think in the short and long term, and manage your mana and health totals while also taking into account initiative and card advantage to decide when to play and when to pass, even if you have a play available.
It’s hard to say what it’s maximum potential will be without knowing if there will be a mobile version and what Valve’s long term plans are, but for me the game is pretty much, on paper, the perfect card game. I’m hesitant to say that because who knows what will happen in the future and I might not like it, but it’s fantastic. In terms of design and balance the game flows really well, you can definitely tell that Richard Garfield has a major part in its development. I think it may have some minor drawbacks like the game length, it’s a little long at times, and we’ll have to see how the economy ends up working but those will probably be the two major points of contention. Other than that I think the game is pretty much flawless; there’s so much to unpack, to discover, and to master.
P: In the short time you’ve been a part of the closed beta testing, have you formed an opinion on the meta? What formats do people prefer to play?
Like you said, I’ve only been playing the closed beta for about a month so I think I missed a lot of the evolving metagame, I can’t really say for certain what colors were favored at what time and the most popular decklists or color combinations throughout the past few months. In constructed, blue is probably considered the strongest color by most players, and black is also considered very good, they both have a lot of great removal. I can say that the limited format is more popular than constructed, though. There’s a lot of skill in building your deck and the draft process as well, not just necessarily in getting luck with the right cards but knowing what to pick and when.
As for the limited format, you can play pretty much anything. If you’re offered good cards for a certain color, you can take that color. Blue has some really strong spells for limited, and heroes like Kanna are also pretty much autopicks if you see them. I’m sure as time goes on people continue to discover the meta and find out what works and what doesn’t. It’s funny because when I first started playing I didn’t notice Legion Commander, but now I consider it pretty much auto-include; that might end up happening with a lot of different cards.
P: Do you believe a specific CCG background will benefit players more or less?
I feel Gwent as a background is going to be pretty helpful, there are a lot of similarities between it and Artifact when it comes to resource management, passing, and a lot of the bluffing aspects. In the end I think all card games will bring something to the table, and most pro CCGs players will be able to “get” the game quickly, but like I said Gwent might be a little more favored. For example, a hearthstone player might be more used to always playing his cards on curve since the board control is so important in Hearthstone. It’s not really the case in Artifact, your tower is much less vulnerable than say your hero in Hearthstone, and a lot of times it’s correct to give up some control and not play a card; either because you think that card will be more impactful later, you want to maintain initiative, or because you purposely want one of your heroes to die to use the hero redeployment to your advantage later on.
P: Valve has been hosting in-house tournaments on weekends for the closed beta testers, and I heard you managed to get a top 8 placement in the most recent tournament. How was that experience?
The draft format is pretty fun in a tournament setting, if you’re good at drafting you can gain a huge edge over people right off the start, even before actually starting to play your games. It’s kind of a tricky thing for me to even describe how you draft well in a consistent manner, and there’s also definitely luck involved a lot of the time.For the format, we essentially draft three different decks. Twice during the swiss phase, playing three games in a row with the first and then three in a row with the second. My first deck was pretty crazy good, I ended up going 3-0 with it. I had double Kanna and crazy synergy with a lot of units. The second draft in the swiss phase wasn’t as strong but I was able to get two wins. I ended up losing to Joel Larsson but it was still was enough for top 8. My draft for the quarter final on Day 2 was pretty underwhelming and I got completely rekt by Lumi, so I was definitely a little disappointed. I think there’s definitely a little bit of luck involved, but the best drafter and player will have a double advantage in a way so it isn’t major.
P: What concepts are the hardest to master in Artifact? Do you believe Artifact has a higher skill ceiling and complexity compared to other CCGs?
On the surface, there’s a lot of similarities with other CCGs in terms of how you go about “solving” the game. You start by analyzing the different cards, and trying to find out what cards are playable, which ones aren’t, and then trying to figure out how it all fits together and within the current meta. But on top of all that you have the concept of initiative and how to manage your resources between lanes, and I think that adds a lot more complexity to Artifact. It adds another layer where you really have to think several turns ahead all of the time, and you have to take into account what your opponent is going to play to decide if you want to initiate plays or react to them. With initiative, you can shut down a whole lane and essentially take your opponent out of a lane for a whole round. If you’re only focusing on playing your cards, you’re going to lose 100% of the time. You need to be focusing on what your opponent is playing as well, preparing and reacting to it properly and setting yourself up to “win” the next few exchanges.
P: If you could go back to the first day you tried out Artifact, what would you do differently from the get-go? Any quick tips you’d give yourself to improve more quickly?
I think a mistake a lot of new players will make is misjudging the hero cards at the start. When I first started playing I looked at all the stats on the heros and thought ‘Oh this hero must be way better, he has more health and attack’ but you really have to pay a lot of attention to the signature cards the hero includes in your deck. Each hero auto-includes three signature cards into your deck, and with a forty card deck I think three cards can be very impactful. If a hero has a good signature card, that pretty much just carries the hero even if it has mediocre stats. I’d even say the cards are probably more important than the heroes themselves. I started off thinking “Oh I’ll just play my 6/8 or whatever and see what card I get with it’ but now I’ve definitely changed my mind on that aspect of the game.
P: What hero and color combinations do you think are most powerful? What about your favorites?
For the most powerful standalone hero I’d probably say Phantom Assassin. She has really good stats and abilities, trades well with all the heroes and her card is really strong later in the game as well. You have a really strong early and late game whenever you play Phantom Assassin. You could probably also make an argument for Kanna, but I think she’s a bit more counterable in a lot of ways. As for favorite hero, I’d probably say Lich. I think he’s a really cool card, he’s able to sacrifice a minion to get some card draw and his signature card is also quite strong and interesting. I really like the theme.
I think in constructed Blue-Green is probably the strongest color combination. An unrevealed green hero synergizes really well with all the little minions you can spawn with a lot of the blue spells and it can snowball pretty quickly in the late game. In terms of favourite I’d probably say Red-Black, it’s quite fun to play. It puts out a lot of early pressure with it’s heroes and gold generation in the early game and in the late game you have cards like time of triumph and the removal from Axe and Phantom Assassin to close games out. If you’re playing Red-Black, you’re going to have some early game, some late game, and as long as you make some value trades you should be doing pretty well. I think it’s more of a balanced deck compared to something a little more combo-y like Blue-Green for example.
P: Do you have any opinions on any overrated or underrated cards?
I’m not entirely sure on what the general consensus is on a lot of the cards right now from the closed beta testers but there are a few cards I think might be getting looked over. I think there’s a lot of space for a lot of the black aggro cards, like The Oath and Disciple of Nevermore, those cards can be really useful. Not even just in an aggro focused deck in constructed but also in limited, those cards can snowball a lane after your opponent leaves it and they put your opponent on a clock. Red Mist Pillager is another great example of a card that really ramps up quickly if your opponent doesn’t have an answer. As for overrated, I think Payday isn’t really all that great. I’m not sure if people think it’s good or not, but after playing with it a lot and then removing it from most of my decks I think I won’t be playing it much anymore. It slows you down a lot, not being able to buy items early game and win trades early on is too big of a sacrifice I think, even if it has a really big payoff.
P: As GWENT’s most successful player on the tournament circuit, how do you think Artifact should approach the esports side of things? What formats do you think should be used? What’s your ideal qualification process?
I think the scene is really good for the current few who are at the top of the game. If you’re a top player, you’re able to make a living playing Gwent full-time. There are a pretty consistent amount of tournaments per year and the prize pools are very fair, and there’s also a big reliability factor that you’ll be able to reach those tournaments if you’re a good player and put in the time. That being said, there is a major grind if you want to be a top player in Gwent’s current esports circuit, which makes it reliable but a little bit exhausting. I think some balance between a ladder system and qualification tournaments would be ideal for deciding what players get to qualify for the major tournaments in Artifact’s esports circuit. Perhaps even having a ranking system that doesn’t reset ever could be quite interesting, sort of a like an Elo system in Chess.
I’ve heard Valve isn’t really planning on having a ladder system similar to Hearthstone or Gwent so we’ll have to see what they end up implementing. If they got the route of a lot of qualification tournaments that would also be fine, as long as they make sure not to make the tournaments to grind-y either. If they have 256 player swiss tournaments they can get quite exhausting and the chances you end up winning them consistently might be a bit low, even for the top players. I think it’ll be hard for Valve to find the proper balance between the reliability of having a qualification system that is able to find the best players in the game at any time without requiring an insane amount of grind like in other games.
In terms of the ideal format, I haven’t played too much constructed but I’m sure that it would be enjoyable to watch and play at highest level. As for limited, I think it’s definitely a lot of fun to play in. There is a bit of a luck aspect and it may not be what we want for the absolute highest level of play though. I don’t see a reason for not having both formats supported though, I think they’re both interesting and they could find a place in competitive Artifact.
P: As a player for Complexity, have you discussed the possibility of switching over to Artifact competitively? Will Complexity have an Artifact team?
Complexity will definitely have an Artifact team. As for me focusing on Artifact competitively or not, I think it’s still a little early for me to say.
Complexity are going to have a roster of players and streamers for Artifact and I’m still considering the option of switching from Gwent competitively and playing Artifact. It’s still a little up in the air and will depend greatly on Complexity’s roster plans going forward, as well as the release of Artifact and Gwent’s homecoming revamp. There’s also the consideration of competing in both games, but that may be a tiny bit difficult to pull off. At the very least, I think I can say for certain that I will definitely be streaming Artifact once the full games releases in late November.
P: Let’s talk economy. GWENT is widely recognized as one of the most generous CCGs in the market, and that certainly brings a lot of F2P players in. What’s your opinion on Artifact’s card economy strategy?
I’m not entirely sure on the exact figures, I think it’ll depend greatly on how Valve chooses to set the card distribution per opened pack and how frequent the rare drops are. The game may end up being a little costly if some of the most sought after rares are hard to obtain by just buying pack. I’d estimate a completely optimized competitive deck may end up costing $200 , I’d imagine that’s the general figure Valve would aim for. It’s pure speculation really, there’s not much to base off at the moment. I imagine some decks would also rely on more rare cards than other so there will be varying price-points for different meta decks, and this may also influence the meta itself as more players might play a cheaper deck compared to a more expensive deck that performs similarly.
P: Going into Artifact as an established professional CCG player, how competitive do you think Artifact’s esports scene will be considering many top players from multiple CCGs have been very vocal about focusing on Artifact on it’s release?
I mean common sense would say it would be quite competitive and difficult. Gwent hasn’t reached anywhere near the popularity of Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone, so I think there will definitely more competition than there is in Gwent. Then again, I’m not sure that generally equates to it being that much stronger because in Gwent the top players are basically playing perfectly most of the time so there’s a huge level of competition among the few players at the very top of their games.
In the early days of Artifact I imagine players won’t be playing perfectly though, even among the professional players, but as time goes on I’m sure the scene itself will become more established. It’ll definitely be a challenge to find success in Artifact, the game itself will naturally draw in a ton of the top players, and the enormous prize pools Valve will probably have for the game will also be a major factor. My goal in any game that I play is to be as good as I can be, as long as I’m enjoying it and have the drive to play. If I’m enjoying the game enough, then I’ll definitely consider putting in a lot of time “studying” the game and definitely hope to make some tournament appearances over the next year.