So a few things that I've learned as I go along here:
My preference is as natural as possible, but there's nothing wrong with artificial. If the best someone can afford is one or two live plants and choc the rest full of artificial, then I think that's a better option that leaving it bare, I know the fauna appreciates the hiding spaces more. When I bought my Saffron, my 10g that I was preparing for him was no longer viable and so I put him in a bare bottom tank with artificial plants (there's some pictures on here somewhere) and he's still lively and active, it's better than the cup he was living in.
So along with that, he does like his resting places near the surface. When I'm sitting next to the tank, he's always doing something. Occasionally he'll stop and rest at the bottom of the tank next to me but he's usually showing off. I have a camera set up on his tank only that I check on my phone and I sometimes catch him resting near the surface. He has his filter, his betta hammock and IAL that I support near the surface. He rotates through these but lately he's gotten to sleeping on the betta hammock (night vision on the camera is a great thing). My Mishi had a thing about suction cups and would always rest on them (with the exception of the cabomba) despite anything else in the tank. You can never tell what they like, you can just provide.
As for substrate, unless you're looking to go high tech and maximize, there's nothing wrong with inert substrates, just pick what you like. You can always supplement with root tabs and fertilizers and still have healthy plants (if you have a green thumb).