Two Minds about KeyForge
This month on Two Minds About…, Brock Poulsen and Dan Thurot are talking about a title from Fantasy Flight Games that’s different with every purchase. No, not Discover: Lands Unknown. We suffered through that one already. This time it’s KeyForge.
Brock: Once in a generation, a game comes along that changes everything. A game so groundbreaking and revolutionary that its light eclipses all competitors, like the sun blinding us to the stars.
Dan: Wow, we’re starting with some real serious business.
Brock: That game was Magic: The Gathering.
I mean, you aren’t wrong.
Brock: Recently, my eight-year-old son (Myron, of Mathfinder fame) competed in a Pinewood derby with his fellow Cub Scouts. My worry, in helping him build his car, was that other scouts were getting more help. No doubt these other kids had parents who were polishing axle nails and optimizing center of gravity, while I was being the responsible dad who lets his child carve odd shapes and weights willy-nilly. But in validating Myron’s efforts, granting him control over his little wooden racer, was I setting him up for failure? Was he going to compete against a lineup of super sleek, optimized speed machines?
Though I’ve never competed in a Magic: The Gathering competitive scene, I imagine there’s a similar dilemma. Should I build a deck that’s fun, with interesting cards that have crazy effects? Or do I want to win?
Dan: My main memory of Magic: The Gathering comes from this one time on a band trip. I was finally cozying up to my high school crush when one of my buddies asked to see my Magic deck. Thinking it would shoo him off, I relented. Then, as things were getting more interesting over on my bench, he popped up from the seat ahead of us and went, “Hey Dan! Sweet lynx!” It wasn’t even that great of a lynx.
Two things ended in that moment: my high school Magic career and the possibility of a band trip NCMO.
Brock: Very cool Lynx, Dan. I mean that.
Keyforge feels like it took a look at that conflict — the “Pinewood Dilemma” as I call it — and put its foot down. “Every deck,” it says, pulling a giant lever on a randomizing machine, “will seem like it was designed by an eight-year-old.”
Dan: Go on.
Brock: Keyforge puts every player on equally strange and squishy ground. My first deck would be great if it had a few more Mars minions, but instead the computer loaded it with lasers. Because lasers.
But that’s the beauty, or maybe the trouble; we all have decks that are the slow car. The tiny little deviants inside Fantasy Flight’s random game-o-matic machine crashed a bunch of crazy stuff together, gave it a completely wild name, and called it a finished deck.
Dan: Sometimes an offensively-titled deck. Although not as often as I was hoping, actually. I really wanted to become a Twitter sensation.
Speaking of procedurally-generated offense, I’ll start with my main concern, because I feel like it’s pretty much everybody’s concern: I’m not 100% sure it works. I mean, it works. Every deck functions as a deck. But not every deck functions equally well.
Just as an example, one of my four decks has a card that utilizes artifacts. Great, right? If I was putting together a deck on my own, I’d load it up with ten artifacts. “More artifacts, please,” I would say to the man at the game store, handing across thirty thousand in Monopoly bills. But this deck does not have ten artifacts. I think it has two.
My point is this: when one of your selling points is that you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on random blister packs just to begin putting together a competitive deck, I’m still not sure random pre-made decks are the solution. Because out of my four random decks, I kind of don’t love how any of them combo with themselves.
Brock: Replacing random boosters with random complete decks ends up being essentially a lateral move. Only now instead of buying 10 cards you can’t use, it’s 37.
Dan: On the flipside, I suspect KeyForge is a masterwork of design. Take any other card game — and I mean any other game — and this model wouldn’t work. But the way the game has been designed from the ground up to operate within the constraints of random pre-built decks is honestly pretty incredible.
Consider the way cards are played. You don’t gather and spend resources. Instead, each deck features three “houses.” On your turn, you declare a house and, well, that’s it. You can play any card from your hand that fits that house, attack with any units from that house, use any abilities from that house…
It’s a big deal! In one moment, it solves two big problems. The first is Magic’s age-old mana problem, where you’d find yourself with a hand full of cool cards but no lands to buy them with. And the second is the complexity of having an economy in a game front-loaded with random cards — because you don’t have to worry about establishing an economy before you can buy stuff. As long as you’re holding cards, you can use them.
Not that there isn’t an economy at all, of course. KeyForge is at heart a game of aggressive economy.
Brock: Indeed! In the very simplest of terms, Keyforge has players competing to collect aember — though Fantasy Flight makes it look fancier by spelling it “æmber.” Six aember forges a key, and three keys wins.
There are no dwindling health points to worry about. You don’t have to fear the line of nasty baddies across from you, at least not for the usual reasons. Every minion can use their activation to Reap, harvesting aember from, I can only assume, the aether. As more aember gets injected into the game’s economy, there are more opportunities to steal if from one another, more desperate lunges to deny your opponent the six required to forge their next key, which will both eliminate the aember and bring them one step closer to victory.
It’s a tight system, requiring an eye on your own supply as well as careful monitoring of the other side of the table. It’s also a clever twist on the typical format of smashing lines of monsters into each other, hoping to win the battle of attrition.
Dan: I love how it refocuses the entire genre away from the format established all those years ago by Magic: The Gathering. Instead of trying to destroy your opponent’s summoner/planeswalker/base, you’re trying to be the first to build a doomsday weapon. And it shows. Delaying tactics are common, choosing whether to reap or attack feels like a real decision… at times it’s even subtle.
Brock: It’s true! There’s a good feeling of fighting to tip the balance in your favor. Sure, you could activate all your bruisers and clear the opposite field of soldiers, but will it get you any closer to a key? Each turn requires an evaluation of not just what’s in your hand, but what house you already have on the field. You’re managing the field and your hand, and it’s rare that you’ll have an easy decision with either.
But ultimately, you make a good point; the system works, but that’s not the same as working well. Good card games have a sense of care. Something like Summoner Wars is fun because every deck feels crafted. Something silly like Smash Up works with a similar wacky combination premise, but benefits from being shorter and significantly less ambitious than Keyforge. Plus you’re not stuck with any one combination.
So what’s our conclusion here? And, ultimately, does it matter what we decide, with Keyforge tournaments going on all over the country, power-gamers sitting at folding tables with dyed upper lips from thoroughly drinking the Kool-Aid?
Dan: Oh, I dunno. I like it a lot more than I thought I would. It’s better than Discover: Lands Unknown by a vast quantity, and I hope other designers and publishers tinker with this whole “randomized game” concept. Before I start the next paragraph, I should say that I don’t think KeyForge needs to be a Magic-killer. It provides a niche for people who don’t have the time and money to fiddle with blister packs. That’s a good thing. I wish it all the success in the world.
That said, Magic is an incredibly versatile game. You can play with decks you built or decks you bought. You can draft. There are variants. Even though Magic strikes me as a very tired design — it’s been awake since 1993, please let it take a nap — it already supports occasional play alongside its more compulsive spend-nine-hundred-dollars side. So I’m saying this as a note of melancholy more than a prophecy, but I suspect the best any collectible-ish card game can accomplish is a brief interregnum before Magic returns to dominate store tournament hours.
Maybe not. I hope not. KeyForge is cool, and I’d love to see it stick around long enough to expand and flex. But that would be my guess.
What are your final thoughts, Brock?
Brock: More variety is a welcome sight, and Keyforge does deliver in some entertaining ways. It’s a far sight better than its cousin Discover: Lands Unknown, and is at the least a good omen for future games that decide to turn over the designer reins to a robot.
I feel like I harped on the downsides a bit, but I do think it’s impressively successful. Its idiosyncrasies give it a goofy charm, and — as evidenced by my son’s seventh place finish out of eight racers — I have a soft spot for things that seem like they were designed by eight-year-olds.
Dan: Just don’t buy the first starter set. You only get two random decks. And no rulebook.
Brock: Yeah, don’t do that.