To start up our conversation, could you please tell a bit about yourself?
For casting, I'm most well-known for Elder Scrolls Legends. I've done some smaller community tournaments. Also, I stream and make content for YouTube. I've cast the different stages of Bethesda's Master Series events. Also events at PAX East and PAX West.
I was interested in Artifact the moment Valve announced it. I'm a huge card game nerd. I have been playing card games since I was a toddler.
Turns out the card games have been a huge part of your life.
There's a downside. I love card games and I'm really competitive. However, I've never had a real opportunity to compete. When I was much younger, I grew up very poor. So even though I was playing all card games, I didn't have the money to play them super competitively.
For example, I didn't get to attend a lot of Magic the Gathering events. The unfortunate thing is I've never had a tournament success due to the inaccessibility of my younger years if you will.
As far as digital card games go, by the time those started to hit their stride, specifically, when Hearthstone got big, I've already finished school and started a career. So I just couldn't commit the time required to try to be competitive on the ladder.
That's even what I struggle with Elder Scrolls Legends today. I play well enough to routinely finish in the top 100 of the ladder, but I've never finished in the top 10 because of time constraints.
I'm not that familiar with Elder Scrolls Legends, but I know that it takes a tremendous amount of grind to get enough points to compete in huge events for Hearthstone.
One of the things that appealed to me about Artifact, it seems like Valve has a greater emphasis on tournaments as opposed to a ladder grind. I understand that in order to participate in the tournaments you still need to put in the time to do it, but you don't have to dedicate X number of hours like you do in other games.
That's a big appeal to me.
Once I got into the Beta and started playing Artifact, I felt the game is very, very rewarding and intense. It is not like any other card game I've played. In other card games, you have a linear gameplay – you build a deck to do a thing and try to make your deck do that thing. To some extent, you can do that in Artifact as well.
All of the things that are core in Artifact, like the random element I know a lot of new players like to complain about, are actually the assets of the game.
Card games, naturally, are about variance. There's a reason people like card games and not board games. It is because of the variance. They play out differently every time. The game of chess is still a game of chess. And even though it might play differently, you know everything from start to finish, what the rules are, the board state, etc. Card games, they give you this replay value. This is what the emerging gameplay is.
Artifact is wonderful since it creates a plethora of opportunities and board states. Every game, while still being the same fundamental game, plays out differently.
I've long felt that the skill in card games comes from finding the players who make the best micro-decisions throughout – they can identify the board state and make the right play in the right time. Artifact is a big, big skill tester in adaptability. Yes, you can play to arrows and small things like that. However, because there are all of these little bits of RNG you have to account for, the person who can account the best throughout the course of the game – from start to finish – is definitely rewarded.
I've put in hundreds of hours in Artifact, and I can count on one hand the number of games that truly felt like were not my fault in losses, like RNG losses. I can't really say that about other card games I've played.
Compared to other card games, how far do you think Artifact can go as esports?
That's a tough question. In terms of complexity and rewarding skillful players, Artifact has the best position. However, form a viewer standpoint, the game is going to struggle.
Viewers like quick glances.
If you watch Hearthstone or Elder Scroll Legends, everything you need to know about the game is on the screen all the time. Those games even go further by utilizing some sort of overlay or deck tracker. As a viewer, you come in and see all the card that has been played.
With Artifact, the situation is improving. There's a lot more info on the screen than it used to be in Beta. In the top-left corner, you can see which heroes are going to be deployed, tower states, and other info. However, if I'm a casual viewer and just tuned in, I see a lane, but it doesn't tell me the most important thing – who is winning. The win condition in Artifact is based on more than one tower usually. At glance, it is very difficult to determine who's winning.
The at-a-glance value has the potential to hurt Artifact.
It makes it difficult for viewers, but once you've played the game, it becomes a lot easier to watch and more engaging. Since Artifact's turns are followed by each other, there's no "commercial break". If you watch a game of football, there's a time for a break. The same is with Hearthstone. If I go grab a snack and come back, I can quickly catch up.
With Artifact, because the at-a-glance part is missing, any break is hard to catch up. Potentially, I lose so much info on what just happened.
While the game is more engaging as you actively watch it, and I think that's superb, it also results in the game being hard-to-watch casually, or multitask. When I don't pay attention, it is more difficult to watch. So, it is very difficult to say how Artifact will perform as an esports. The game has everything from a competition standpoint, but watching it, which is a big part of esports, is a different story.
Esports is a business, and you got to have strong viewership and engagement. That's the part that is a wildcard of Artifact.
Have you played Dota? This kind of viewership experience is very much true about Dota as well.
I haven't played a lot of Dota 2 but played Dota when it was a Warcraft map, though. I have less than 10 hours in Dota 2. I've played a decent amount of MOBAs in general, League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm with friends.
While you still have to be more engaged while watching Dota, if you miss a crucial moment, you can still catch up on the big moment because the game is easy-to-clip.
In Artifact, really good, "high-IQ" plays are very subtle sometimes and happen a few turns in advance. Later on for the viewer who might have missed that, it is not as exciting to clip the lost moment in Artifact compared to a crucial teamfight in Dota or other MOBA. So you lose the excitement factor.
While I think Artifact from a design standpoint is very rewarding to play, its gameplay flow takes away high emotion moments.
From my Elder Scrolls Legends background, there were several moments in Masters Series when players needed one card. They top-deck it, and the crowd goes wild. The tables are immediately turned. In Artifact, due to how draws and lanes work, there's a delayed gratification instead of the high-intensity moments. There might be a brief moment, but you have to wait for that gratification moment since the action is split into three lanes. This time difference doesn't create a raw emotional response compared to game-winning top-decks.
Artifact is great when you play it, very rewarding, but from a viewership standpoint, emotions and perception are far more important than something that's really well-designed and elegant. I'm curious to see how that affects things in the long term.
It is possible we got to see new mechanics introduced to create those high-emotion moments.
We are still at the core set. The game is in its infancy, but it is something I've noticed from a casters point of view. You don't have those exciting, wild moments unless somebody runs out of time 🙂
In other card games, there could be this 5-10 seconds moment that brings instant gratification.
Yeah, we could also think about regular sports. You show a highlight of scoring a goal and it fits very nicely into a recap. In other card games, you can also show flashy plays. However, in Artifact, when someone pulls off a combo, for example, Selemene Storm deck. Even then, because of the nature of the game, it takes a few minutes for everything to resolve.
There are no big, flashy, easily-clipped moments.
How's the tournament for you in terms of organization?
Things have been going pretty well. I've certainly been a part of tournaments that went a lot worse. Being the first Artifact tournament independently produced by a third party, it is actually farther ahead of the curve than I was expecting in terms of production value, organization.
I'm not going to pretend they [WePlay Studio] got everything perfect, but they are much further along than I'd expected this early in the game's lifespan. I've been very surprised and pleased with how things have been going.
Have you any feedback for the organizers?
In terms of feedback, it is going to be the same stuff I've seen on Reddit or in Twitch chat, which is some of the highlights aren't necessarily matching the talking point, but that's hard to get the first time around. It is hard to match it up. That's definitely a thing you could work out in the future.
A couple of technical issues, but those arise in every production I've been a part of. That's normal. Honestly, every time I've given them feedback, they've been very quick to adapt. Even if something wasn't right day one, on day two, they've already made adjustments. It has been impressive.
I really have to give credit to WePlay! employees; they've done a good job.
What are your predictions for top 3?
Lifecoach is a very strong player. It won't surprise me if he ends up there. Maybe StanCifka (LuckBox). Now that we've hit the point where players can update their decks, he could do a couple of tweaks. He is a fantastic player. Also, Hyped. He just played very, very well. He has the potential.
The cleanest play so far, based on just group stages, was Hoej.
Hoej executed his game plan pretty flawlessly. So the top three right now is Lifecoach, Stan, and Hoej. And there are a few players that are very close. If I had to name top 5, I would add Hyped and Lumi because of his experience piloting powerful decks.
You strike me as a very reserved, calm, and intelligent person. Are you like that by nature, or it is something you've developed over time by playing poker maybe?
I've been just calm and quiet my entire life. I've learned how to count by playing cards. I was exposed to that by my grandparents. So it is hard for me to estimate if one influenced the other. I'm very calm and not expressive.
In some feedback from my cast, people have been joking that I have no emotions, but that's normal for me. I've heard this my entire life. I'm very analytical. I teach at a local university. Back home, I teach computer science. My delivery and expressiveness are paired with that as well. I have been like that my entire life, as long as I can remember.
I do love poker, though.
It looks like a result of everything coming together.
It is hard for me to tell if it is nature or nurture because they have been both a part of me as long as I can remember. In my personal life, I often get feedback where people tell me that I look angry or miserable when I'm entirely fine.
It has always been a thing for me. I try to be more expressive and smile, but that's something that does not necessarily come naturally.
You've said you have been playing card games since you were a toddler?
I learned how to count by playing euchre with my grandparents. They also taught me poker at a very young age. I was very young when Magic the Gathering came out. Around that time the game called Marvel Overpower came out. I'm a big comics nerd, so I was playing Overpower.
Once I got into card games, I was playing any of the physical ones I could get my hands on.
I played a lot of older ones that people may not recognize, like Wyvern, Rage, and also Pokemon when it came out. A lot of people forget Harry Potter had a card game. Star Wars had a couple as well. There were the Decipher one and other different games based on the prequels.
Lord of the Rings was the first time I was exposed to helping with playtesting and development. Back then for physical card games, if you wanted to help test new sets, they would mail you card cutouts. You would put them into sleeves, play, and send them back.
So I was part of the team that did that for Decipher for the Lord of the Rings card game. In my teens and early 20s, I was working at a local gaming shop. It got to a point where I was running all the gaming side. Any card and board games that came out – I would have to test them, market them, and so on and so forth. As digital card games started to rise, I was clearly interested in them. I played SolForge and was an early backer for it. Like most people, I've played Hearthstone.
I think there's no digital card game I haven't tried.
When Artifact was announced, I was already in. Valve game – they are pretty rare and come out once a handful of years. Card and strategy games – I love all that stuff.
So even though I had no details about mechanics or how it works, I was interested. When PAX West happened, I was in the area. I went to test the demo of the game. I talked to Bruno and other Valve employees.
Struck up a conversation, said "I really enjoy it and interested what kind of content creation opportunities are there? And so on and so forth."
As a result, they invited me into the beta. I've played Closed Beta since PAX West. Not as long as other players, but still a decent amount of time. I was waiting for the NDA to lift before I could really start focusing more on it.
That's how I found my way here.
How are food and weather in Kiev? Also, I know you've had a tour around the city.
Kiev cake is a wonder. Very, very good. I'm from Michigan, so coming here was as if I never left home. The city is very, very cool. As somebody who has grown up in the States, from a country and region standpoint, we are very young compared to the rest of the world. Unless you visit the East Coast, cities like Boston, we don't have a lot of historical landmarks and architecture.
Coming here and seeing things that are centuries old mixed with the modern design – beautiful cathedrals mixed with modern skyscrapers – with light at night is cool. The juxtaposition has been very, very cool for me. I've never experienced anything like that.
I suggest you visit Belgium or the Netherlands. They are far better at mixing old and new.
I would love to visit the Netherlands, Belgium at some point. Prague is another place I'm looking forward to. There are places in Europe I would love to go to.
Okay, thank you for making this interview possible. I'm looking forward to seeing you again in Kiev as a part of cast crew in January!
You're very, very welcome. Thank you for finding me! Yeah, I would love to do that.
Be sure to check KeenGamer for more interviews from the event. I've also interviewed SUNSfan, Swim, and Panda and Mogwai as well as key people behind WePlay!. Check out my interview with the co-founder of WePlay!.