By David ‘Panda’ Nolskog – 05/10/2018
Those who are familiar with the Magic: The Gathering pro scene have probably heard of Ondřej Stráský’s miraculous turnaround story in the past few months. Just as the 2017-2018 Pro Tour Season was coming to an end, the czech announced there was a high chance he’d retire following a year of fairly disappoint results, although I imagine Artifact’s imminent release also swayed him towards sleeving his cards for good. With one last Grand Prix being held in his very own city, Prague, he decided he’d give it one last shot.
What followed was a dominant display, as if his threat of retirement jinxed it all and cursed him to perform at an extraordinary level. He started off with a 3rd place finish at GP Prague and then a last minute decision to compete in the very last GP of the the season, GP Stockholm, where he ended up winning it all in the final against the hometown hero Joel Larsson. Aside from getting back into his stride with professional MTG, Ondřej Stráský has spent the past six months testing Artifact in it’s closed beta phase, and he’s probably gotten very good at it. I had the chance to sit down with him and discuss his thoughts on the game, why having StanCifka as a roommate is probably a pretty good thing, and what Valve should do differently from Wizards of the Coast when implementing their esports circuit.
ImpetuousPanda: First of all, congrats on winning the latest Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix in Stockholm! You ended up defeating Joel Larsson in the finals, and you may just face him again this weekend during Artifact’s Closed Beta Draft tournament. How do you feel going into it?
Ondřej Stráský: We’ve been preparing pretty hard the past few days. Most people won’t know this but I’m actually roomates with StanCifka, we’re both czech and live in Prague so the preparation has been pretty good. He also has a background in MTG before Hearthstone so we knew each other from before. We also have one more roomate and he’s also a pretty good CCG player in general so we basically have an Artifact House going on right now, it’s helping a lot being able to discuss Artifact 24/7 and improve together alongside great players.
We’ve been playing non-stop for quite a while now, I really hope we’ve figured it all out for the weekend! I do really hope it goes well, at least for one of us!
P: You recently discussed the possibility of retiring, but then had two top placements in your last two MTG GPs. Have you changed your mind or is Artifact going to be your main focus going forward?
I think for right now Artifact will definitely be my main focus. I’ll definitely still play the next few “Pro Tours” in the MTG circuit simply because I’ve already qualified for them thanks to my recent tournament finishes, so why not? In terms of continuing to play MTG on a daily basis and testing different decks and strategies, I’ll probably put that on hold for the time being and only prepare right before big tournaments, that way I can really focus on Artifact. From a competitive standpoint, I think there’s a big opportunity if you get into a game like Artifact early, I’ve been in the beta for 6-7 months now and I’ve been playing A LOT of Artifact.
We’ll see how it goes, I can still jump back into MTG at any time thanks to my last two GPs since the new season just started. My 3rd and 1st placement basically made it so that I don’t have to grind so many individual tournaments for pro points in the next few months, opening a lot of time for me to grind Artifact and look for a chance to make it big. It’s actually funny because like you said I was thinking about retiring from professional MTG, I haven’t had good results the past year and I was pretty unmotivated. But then GP Prague and GP Stockholm completely turned it around, and now I have the safety of direct qualification to the Pro Tour without having to scramble all over the world flying to smaller tournaments to try and get pro points for it.
P: What do you think are Artifact’s key selling points?
I think Artifact’s biggest selling point is that Valve is the company behind it. They’re an absolutely massive company and you know they’re going to deliver a polished product and create a great esports scene. Having been part of the beta for so long, you can already tell they work very hard on the game and I think it’s going to show in full release. In MTG there have always been issues with how Pro Players are paid and how reasonable it is to make a living playing MTG, the system is kind of a mess. I think it’s very similar with Hearthstone, so as a competitive player Valve backing the company is definitely the biggest selling point.
For more casual players, I think the game is just really really good. It’s kind of overwhelming at first, when I first started I thought ‘Oh this is too much to deal with, I’m not enjoying myself at all”. There were just so any things to learn and master. But the more I play, the more I learn even after 6 months and I really enjoy the game. If you’re a new player and it seems overwhelming at first, definitely stick with it for a week or two and it’ll click.
P: How does it differ from MTG and why do you think it will be successful? Having played Artifact and other CCGs, how do you rate it’s potential in the CCG market?
As for how it compares to MTG, well there are no lands, which has been pointed out as MTG’s most controversial issue so that’s a relief. Compared to other CCGs I feel there isn’t that much RNG either, there are certainly a few instances but it’s mostly insignificant and I think the better player is always going to win very often. The game is so complicated, there’s a lot of room to make mistakes and I’d say playing a perfect game of Artifact is almost impossible.
I think of all the card games that have released in the past few years, Artifact has the biggest potential to top the CCG market and maybe even beat out Hearthstone, but that would be a few years down the line with some sort of mobile release. The Open Beta is going to happen soon and I think the hype is very real. A lot of streamers and pro players have been making content and it seems like everyone is very excited to get into the game and play immediately.
P: How has the closed beta meta evolved over the past few months that you’ve been playing Artifact? Has there been an evolution in the different colors or decks that dominated? Any examples?
It’s kind of a hard question because we haven’t really played that much constructed in the past few months, Gauntlet has just been easier to jump into in the current state of the beta. As for the evolution of colors, I think Valve did an incredible job of balancing the different colors. Every single day I think ‘Oh this color is great’, and then the next day I do the same for a completely different color. For example Red has amazing heroes but then most of their cards are kind of underwhelming in a sense, I think it’s really well balanced. I think the meta is going to flow a lot once the game releases, it’s going to evolve constantly and I doubt it will stay stagnant for very long at all. We’ve had a couple of constructed tournaments in the closed beta and my roomate StanCifka won all of them and with different decks everytime, so it’s not like a single deck dominated for a very long time. I think his decks were very well tuned compared to the competition and it wasn’t a surprise to see him win so many of the tournaments.
P: StanCifka has been mentioned as one of the strongest players in this closed beta period? Who are some of the strongest players you’ve faced? Do you believe a specific CCG background will benefit players more?
I think Lifecoach and SuperJJ are definitely up there, I think they’re really good. Some of the players who have played the most definitely seem to have an edge, “Hyped” is definitely up there. I think Joel Larsson is also a great player, and there’s a swedish guy nicknamed “melo” who also seems to be a very strong player.
I don’t know if it’s better to have experience from a specific CCG, I doubt it matters as much, but some CCG experience is definitely going to be very valuable. There’s so much to deal with already in Artifact, and being able to identify what cards are good or bad right away makes a major difference when you start off. Having general skills like deckbuilding and resource management is also massive, as well as being familiar with concepts like tempo, card advantage, etc. These are all skills you can bring from pretty much any other CCG, so if you don’t have any background in CCGs at all I think you’ll be a little behind at the start, especially considering how complex Artifact is anyway.
P: Experience with the last draft tournaments? What are your go to rules when drafting?
I only played in about half of the closed beta tournaments because I was pretty busy competing in Magic: The Gathering as well so I haven’t gone all-in with Artifact just yet. I think they were really well organized, Valve is doing a good job of testing different formats and finding out how to make tournaments in Artifact the smoothest experience possible.
In terms of how to draft, it’s a pretty tough question. I think the really strong heroes have a huge impact on how your draft goes, so you should be cautious about commiting to one lane early on in the pack. There are also some very impactful cards for each color you should really watch out for and try and pick up, like Time of Triumph, Annihilation or Emissary of the Quorum. I mean it’s similar to most other drafts, just try and have a solid game plan, consistent cards and a few win conditions. Sometimes you need to pick up a basic hero, and I think the red and black heroes are pretty ok, you don’t feel too bad playing them. Blue probably has the worst basic hero, and green is so-so. So It’s always going to be safer to commit to say red and black early on if you have to, because you know if you don’t get the hero to go with your cards you can always pick up the basic hero at the end.
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?
I think Artifact is really complex, Initiative is definitely one of the toughest skills to learn and master. Coming from other card games where board control or tempo is so important, you always kind of feel bad in Artifact for not playing cards or misusing mana, but it’s definitely the correct play in many cases because you can hold initiative and make a huge play later on. For those that are normally looking for optimal value it makes the game tough, because you have to pass up on the opportunity on value many times throughout a game and they’re very difficult decisions.
I think deciding when to kill a hero is also a very important skill to master. In most cases it will always be correct, because you get the bounty for killing it and you slow down your opponent since they won’t be able to play a spell next turn in that lane. But there are cases where it’s correct not to kill it or not overcommit to killing it, because then they have more options to deploy their hero somewhere else and change their strategy. When I first started playing I though “Ok, any chance I get to kill a hero, I’ll do it” but now I definitely think differently, I think it’s not that intuitive. Sometimes I let enemy heroes live, or I make plays to heal them or buff them myself so they survive combat trades and that way they’re stuck in that lane.
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?
If you’re a new player, my biggest tip is just to enjoy the game. You’re going to stress out a lot at the start, there are a ton of decisions to make and it’s a game that really requires a lot of focus. You’re probably going to make a ton of mistakes and miss out on a ton of stuff, but it’s completely okay. It even happens to me and I’ve been playing the game for over half a year, so I really suggest people don’t stress over the small mistakes at all. It can be overwhelming but you should definitely stick with it and I’m sure everyone will fall in love with the game once they get used to it.
P: Strongest hero? Favorite? What about color combinations, which would you highlight?
I think Axe is definitely the most powerful, I think that’s not even debatable at this point. As for favorite hero I’d probably say Zeus , I think the animation surrounding his card is amazing as well so I love it. I like Green a lot in general, I love the beefy creatures, and I think my favored combination in limited would probably be Green/Black, you have really beefy creatures and also great removal so it works out great. I don’t really think there’s a strongest color combination, all the different combinations have their strengths and weaknesses. As long as you have some decent hero options and you draft good cards, you can flow your way through any color combination and make it work perfectly. Like I said before, I think Valve did a great job balancing Artifact because no color ever feels like it’s above the rest for the most part, at least not in limited which is what I’ve been playing a lot of.
P: What are your opinions on any overrated/underrated cards?
This is a hard question to answer because we don’t have the opportunity to discuss the game that often with other people. I’ve obviously discussed it a lot with StanCifka and my other roommate but we mostly have the same opinion on most cards. I think we underrated Intimidation in limited as the start, but now we think it’s actually pretty great. Green doesn’t really have removal, unless you go Green/Black it can be a tough one to find removal so Intimidation can help with that in draft. As for overrated card, I think Lich was a little overrated in general. I think he’s still very strong, but initially we had him as probably the best black hero in draft and now I probably consider him a little worse. Don’t get me wrong, he’s definitely a good hero to have, but not really the best of the best.
P: As a successful MTG player, how do you think Artifact should approach the esports side of things?
There are a lot of different topics to discuss if you want to make esports successful within Artifact. As for the competitive format Artifact should implement, I think constructed is the way to go. I think draft is a lot of fun to play, but I don’t think it’s as fun to watch and I believe that’s a huge mistake that Magic is making with their pro circuit formats. Valve should definitely be the company behind the production of the events, although I agree third party organizers should be welcome as well and they can host their own slightly smaller tournaments maybe.
For the qualification process, I’m not a huge fan of grinding a ladder so I wouldn’t want to see that happen. For example when I tried out Gwent, the Pro Ladder system was way too frustrating for me because you had to play hundreds of games a month and it just wasn’t worth it. I think tournament qualifiers are the way to go, it makes more sense since it’s the same format as the tournament itself and most of the time you’re going to get the best players through multiple tournaments as you would through a ladder qualification system.
I think MTG’s system is good in theory but it’s just not implemented very well. As a MTG pro you have a lot of job security but the prize pools kind of pale in comparison to other esports for example, so you end up losing out. If Valve is able to host huge events, create a reliable qualification system and give professional players the job security they need through prize pools and a proper circuit I think the esports division of Artifact will definitely be absolutely massive. For a lot of MTG players, there just isn’t enough money to make a living off of it. A lot of pros have to work on sponsorships, and write articles, etc and can’t focus solely on playing the game and competing. The most economically successful MTG player, PVDDR, has made about $500,000 over his career, and the very first Artifact tournament valve is hosting already has a $1,000,000 prize pool…just for the winner. It’s a huge difference from MTG’s prize pools.
P: Let’s talk economy. Paper MTG is considered to be quite expensive considering you constantly have to keep up with new sets. What’s your opinion on Artifact’s marketplace strategy? Do you think there will be similarities between MTG and Artifact when it comes to buying and trading cards?
I don’t really have to much of an idea yet on what it will look like. As an MTG player I never really thought to much about the cost of cards, I just saw it as an expense that I had to cover to continue competing and enjoying MTG. I think if a tier 1 metadeck in Artifact costs about $100 to craft I think that would be acceptable, maybe we’ll see something in a similar price range. I’m not sure how they’ll implement in-game rewards or if they will be any, but I imagine there may be a system sort of like MTG:Online, where you pay real life currency to enter a tournament and then get rewards based on how well you do in it.
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