Keyforge is hailed as a game where “every deck is as unique as the person who wields it”.
To that I say… have you met people?
Keyforge comes straight from the mind of Richard Garfield, creator of Magic, and Fantasy Flight Games, publishers of card games that aren’t really like Keyforge at all. The premise is simple: most competitive card games have an effective entry cost, where you can’t expect to do much at even small tournaments unless you spend a certain amount of money building your deck. Keyforge attempts to do away with that scheme, selling full-fledged decks for $10 a pop and—most importantly—making them unalterable. The deck you buy is the deck you play with. Every deck is procedurally generated by a system that’s supposed to make them relatively balanced against each other, maximizing player agency and minimizing cost in the competitive scene.
Let’s cut to the main question: Does it work? Did they succeed?
The answer: Yes…?
Better answer: It mostly seems like it, though we’re early in the game’s run and that could change for better or worse.
By and large, as far as I can tell, not many decks stomp hard or get stomped hard. Given the breadth of the card pool, it makes sense. The number of potential deck combinations is bonkers, and mathematically only a tiny percentage of decks will roll over everyone (except similarly powerful decks) without the player needing to be better than her opponent. Likewise, rare is the deck that’s hopelessly outmatched by almost everybody. There will be small advantages for some decks over others, but it seems that you’re as likely to find those advantages because one deck matches up well against another as you are because one is simply stronger.
More importantly, to the designers’ credit, they’re implementing methods of curtailing the power of those oddly mighty decks on the competitive scene. First is the deck-switch method. Players play each other, then switch decks and play again. If the match is tied, if they each would prefer to play the same deck for a tiebreaker, they bid chains for the right to use it. This is a very useful way of keeping competition balanced, but may suffer from game length (more on that later).
Another method uses the game’s chain system. Normally, the chain system is similar to the overload mechanic in Hearthstone—play a card that’s very strong, but suffer consequences on later turns, in the form of reduced card draw. Competitively, however, chains are also used to handicap decks that overwhelm all the others.
On a small-time level, if a deck wins a local competition (going 3-0, for example), that deck is tracked and given a chain for its next competition. If it wins again, it gets another chain, because it’s clearly too strong for the available competition. If it doesn’t, the chain goes away, because maybe it’s only slightly stronger.
At larger competitions—and this is through the grapevine, nothing solid is written and posted—decks that keep winning will have chains added during the tournament. At a glance, this may seem unfair, like success is being punished. However, if a serious, large-scale competition didn’t have this in play, one of two things one happen. First, the slim percentage of powerful decks would run everyone else over, making serious competition feel like it requires either a lucky draw or buying the deck from whoever has it, killing the entire goal of making Keyforge a minimally pay-to-win game. Alternately, if decks were tracked and chained going into the tournament, it would incentivize players to never take place in trackable events and instead test decks on their own, which would hurt community events and participation.
In the long run, Keyforge’s viability will depend on the competitive scene’s foundations, which makes these questions of paramount importance. Let’s set that aside, now, and briefly talk about the game itself.
The system of play, where you choose one of your three houses and are free to play or use any cards from that house on that turn—but you can only use cards of that house, barring some special effect—will offer a welcome sense of freedom for some and a weird sense of limitation for others. Players who are comfortable using and manipulating outside energy sources in CCGs (mana in Magic, mana crystals in Hearthstone, wind stones in Force of Will, etc.) may find it awkward figuring out how to play efficiently with this system. The simplicity will be a major draw to some, though, and given time most players who are used to maximizing efficiency will adapt to Keyforge’s mechanics.
The games tend to run longer than other games, though. Things speed up once you’re comfortable with the game, but the mechanics combined with the fact you’re less likely to be familiar with what your opponent is playing compared to a Magic tournament (where the same relatively small subset of cards keeps showing up) slows down the proceedings. A best-of-three finishing in fifty or sixty minutes is less likely than in other CCGs, which is unfortunate since the aforementioned best-of-three style has the best odds of creating a strong competitive format. The game is young, though, so game speed may increase more and more with time, rendering this issue moot.
Finally—and this isn’t about the function of the game itself, but man, did it irritate the hell out of me—Keyforge is advertised as a game that doesn’t require anything besides a $10 deck to play and compete. Technically, that’s true. However, where cards on the battlefield in Magic have two states—tapped or untapped—that’s not the case in Keyforge. Tokens are necessary for a number of things, including stuns on creatures (stuns can add up, so keeping it tapped isn’t enough), embers (I’m not calling them ‘aembers’, bite me Garfield), and keys. You need something to represent these things. Unless you buy the starter set, the game doesn’t provide any of them. You can use whatever you want, be it coins, dice, whatever, but that still requires having those things available. Someone new to the game isn’t going to know that and is unlikely to be appropriately prepared, making the whole “buy a deck and play” not exactly how it works.
All that being said, if the biggest complaint I have is about peripherals, the game can’t be that bad. The biggest concern about Keyforge as a gaming experience is if long games (30+ min.) are the norm or outliers. In addition to the previously mentioned issues, because Keyforge is a game where the deck cycles its discard pile, you see the same cards again and again, which can become tiresome when the game just won’t end. But if the game matures and game times shorten to twenty minutes or so, I think that problem will be largely alleviated. Then it’s just a matter of whether or not they can sort out the competitive scene.
Short version, Keyforge needs work in some spots, but it’s better than I expected.