Blast From the Packs: 2020-21 Upper Deck Artifacts Hockey

The number one thing to understand about the sports card collecting hobby at this moment in time is that it’s very difficult to find packs and boxes on the shelves at your normal big-box retail spots, such as Walmart and Target. Anecdotal evidence from across the Internet suggests that stores across the country are haunted by the specter of the sweaty manchild collector. This ghoul either knows the trading card merchandiser in the area personally, or has just gotten good enough at stalking that they know when the merchandiser arrives each week to stock new product, then pounces within minutes of the stuff hitting the shelves to buy it all, every last hanger pack.

Why would anyone do this? Well, it’s free money. Look around online and you’ll see most “retail” product being sold (and bought) for two, three, four, sometimes even six or seven times retail, in the case of most NBA sets. If you’ve got a *ahem* lifestyle that grants you the free time and the lack of shame necessarily to prowl a Walmart checkout lane early in the morning and drop a few hundred dollars on cards before anyone else even has a chance, why wouldn’t you?

If it sounds like I’m bitter, it’s because I am. I wouldn’t ever join this legion of money-hungry miscreants (which, if online commenters are to be believed, includes some card shop owners who turn retail packs and boxes into profits in their own stores), but unless the retailers implement some sort of measures to keep people from sweeping out the shelves each week, it’s only going to discourage more casual collectors like me and young would-be collectors who, unlike 12-year-old me, will never get a chance to browse packs while their parents shop for groceries or whatever other lame adult stuff they’re looking for.

That said, occasionally, the non-sweaty among us get lucky and find a spare blaster box or pack left over from the scrum. In my experience where I live, it’s usually hockey that’s left over. Any time I’m in a Target (not that often these days) or a Walmart (even less often), I check the card display to see what’s what, and I’m almost always met with the same sight: emptied out hangers and barren displays. I usually have to check the shelf tags to see what was even there in the first place.

Yesterday I was at Target for some new bed pillows and I swung by the card shelves. They were, as usual, completely empty … save for this lone blaster box of 2020-21 Upper Deck Artifacts.

Released in late January, this is both the latest NHL Upper Deck issue and the most premium of the current season’s sets to be released. Artifacts is all about parallels, autographs, game-worn jerseys and sticks and patches … the whole point of the set is that there’s a lot of stuff going on besides the 220-card base set. And hey, I got the box for the retail price of $20, rather than the $30 or $40 I might have to pay on eBay, so why not give it a shot?

Folks, I do my best not to let a disappointing pack or box paint my impression of a whole set, but wow was this little box a dud on the fun side for me. I got one (1) non-base card, which feels like kind of an impressive feat, given how many inserts and special parallels there are. I know it’s only seven packs, but a site I was looking at claimed that each blaster is supposed to have two of the lowest-tier sapphire blue parallels in it, plus whatever else your luck dictates. So getting just one and no other special cards is extra deflating. I’ll talk more about the specifics about why this is lame in the ratings section below.

That said, let’s take a quick look at how this box rates on the Andrew Taylor Recommends ratings (four evenly weighted categories rated out of five points, averaged for a final rating):

Design: 2 of 5 – I just reviewed a set — the 2020 Topps Finest WWE — that uses a uniform background for its cards with the person featured on the card cut out or isolated from the photo’s background. In that set, the design was interesting enough and the photography varied enough — plus there was a little chromatic variation in the sublimated parts of the background — that it worked pretty well. In this set, there’s a uniform background that looks like partially dehydrated earth (like an ancient Roman road or something, maybe) with scroll-y, antiquity-esque design elements along the edges, some in silver foil.

The problem is the background is utterly static and unchanging, and it’s not even very attractive to begin with. I get what they were going for, making it look like an actual artifact, but it just falls flat.

In order of appearance in the above slideshow:

  1. Three of the standard base cards, with nothing really calling out for further comment. Same beige/sand color, same vertical orientation. The fonts aren’t bad, I guess.
  2. Here’s a base card back, which uses a face crop of the same photo from the front, and features some yearly stats and some flavor text. In a way I almost think the back is better compared to other card backs than the front is compared to other card fronts.
  3. Here’s the lone non-base card I unwrapped, a lowest-possible-tier sapphire blue foil variant of the “veterans” set (I’ll talk more about how the base set breaks down in a minute). Same boring background, just blue foil and a limited print run.
  4. I also included one of the rookie cards from the base set so you can see a slightly different design. It’s slightly more attractive, I guess. To be clear, I did not pull this card.

Card feel: 2 of 5 – The thickness and overall feel of these cards is no different than the base Upper Deck hockey cards I opened from a couple of seasons ago. I said that those cards felt about as solid as base cards in a base set can feel, and I stand by that, but I think given that Artifacts is supposed to be a bit of a more premium set, I think it’s fair to grade on a bit of a curve. I’ve been opening up other packs of cards recently from non-base sets, not even ones that would qualify as premium per se, that have better overall sturdiness and feel in the hand than these. All that said, I still would have given these a 3 if I hadn’t had so much corner and edge damage on the cards I unwrapped. Here’s a close-up of the back corner of that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (arguably the highest profile player I received) card from the slideshow:

It came out of the pack like that, with the top layer of the card peeled back to reveal the white cardboard underneath. Another card had significant — though hard to photograph — damage in the form of a dent to the top front edge. Plenty of others had soft corners where the foil layer smooshed into the cardboard underneath, making a rounded shape. It wasn’t every card, but I haven’t seen this many cards with this much corner and edge damage fresh out of packs since that box of first-season Skybox NBA I opened a while back. That was a set made by a first-time manufacturer about 30 years ago. I’m not sure there’s any excuse for these.

Photography: 3 of 5 – Most of the photography I saw in this set is close-up, in focus, and attractive. The design cuts out most of the photo, so it’s hard to have a full appreciation of the skill being deployed on most of the photos, but these are just fine. Nothing to complain about, and nothing to call much attention to.

Fun factor: 1.71 of 5 – There’s just no escaping it: This was a very boring box of cards to open. If I’d gotten a dual-relic Connor McDavid signature card or something I imagine I’d be feeling a bit differently, but between the total lack of inserts and chase cards and the lack of any rookies or even any truly high-profile stars or legends (yes, this set has a whole section of its checklist dedicated to legends), it was a snooze.

And after I’d opened these and already felt pretty gipped, I read further about how this set’s base set is structured. There are 220 cards total, but they’re organized into tiers. The first 100 cards are “veterans.” Every single one of my cards, all 35 of them, came from this category.

The next tier is “stars,” which starts at card no. 101 with reigning league MVP Leon Draisatl and features 45 top stars in the league today. Each of those “base” cards is limited to 499 copies.

The tier after that is “legends,” cards 146-160, and though I’d quibble with some of the “legends” they chose to include in this fairly short list (I’m a huge Red Wings fan, but Henrik Zetterberg? Longtime Flyers forward John LeClair, who I would usually use as my third-line center on NHL 99?), these are also at least somewhat special, and also numbered to 499 copies for the base lineup.

The final “base” tier is “rookies,” which features 20 current players including hobby golden boy Alexis Lafreniere and then another 40 “rookie redemption” cards, which you have to go online to claim and have mailed to you (I have read about this a few times and still don’t fully understand what this is or why it exists). These cards are numbered to 999 copies, which is barely in SSP or super short print territory.

Going further, each of these tiers also has several rarer parallels with different colored foils or featuring autographs and so on. So really, I completely whiffed on any card outside the first and most common 100 of this set. I got zero players in these seven five-card packs who even qualify as a “star” in the NHL currently.

Again, I try not to judge a whole set based on my bad luck with a single pack or box of packs, but in all honesty, an experience like this one does not make me want to look for another box to try again. And even if one of those packs had been a 5 because I got some great autograph or something, it doesn’t change the fact that most of these packs were duds. I was just thinking the other day that I don’t mind as much that modern card packs only have five or six cards in them, because checklists are shorter, inserts are more plentiful, and bench-warmers take up far fewer of the slots in any given pack than those old sets where 13 of 15 cards in a pack would often be backups or utility players. That said, even with only 100 cards in that “veterans” lineup, I’m not very excited about having the cards of any of the players I got. None of them are bench-warmers, but none of them are standouts, either.

Overall: 2.17 of 5 – All in all, I wouldn’t recommend this set to anyone unless you’re able to get it for exactly the retail price of $20 for a blaster box or below. You might get lucky and snag one of the season’s first real premium relic autograph cards, but the lackluster design and a few quality control issues, plus the strange structuring of the base set make it seem likely that more often than not, you’re going to be seeing a lot of sandy beige veterans base cards coming out of your packs.

2 thoughts on “Blast From the Packs: 2020-21 Upper Deck Artifacts Hockey

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