KEYFORGE: The Little Card Game That Could

KEYFORGE: The Little Card Game That Could

March 12, 2019 0 By Jay "Mouse" Vales

A while ago, I reported on a new game developed by Magic The Gathering creator Richard Garfield called KeyForge: Call of the Archons. To date, it is the best selling game published by Fantasy Flight and its companion app has registered almost 700,000 decks as of this writing. 

But can such a game ever compete in this card game filled world?

It seems to be doing well. Fantasy Flight just announced Keyforge’s first expansion: Age of Ascension and they have announced that current and future decks will still be tournament legal even after the new expansion comes out and will continue to be relevant as long as the game is still active.

But a card game is only as strong as its current iteration. The question remains can Keyforge continue to rein in the audience and grow it as time moves on? Let’s breakdown the pros and cons of the game:


The game has a very low barrier of entry. 

$20 for 2 tournament-level decks

Keyforge is a “unique card game”. It puts the responsibility of building the decks to the publisher itself and that’s a very high bar with the quality of game the audience wants. Still, it only takes $10 US for anyone to have a completely tournament-legal deck no questions asked. To start any collectible card game (even Fantasy Flight’s Living Card Game line), one would have to first buy a starter pack which is around $20-$30, then purchase enough expansion packs to gather enough relevant cards to build a deck that’s even worth playing in a tournament environment. A player will have to spend at least $100 to get there…even if one does their research and “net deck” (buying individual cards to build a champion level deck posted after a sanctioned tournament). It takes a significant amount of research, time, and money to have something they can be proud of. With Keyforge’s strict deck format, a new player doesn’t have to spend the money to be relevant; this makes it easy for new players to try it.

The discrepancy between the best deck and the worst deck is narrow. 

Because Keyforge is a unique game, the company controls how strong or weak the decks are. With other card games, essentially a “starter deck” is considered the weakest deck while the “strongest” deck would be a tournament winning deck.

But there’s another factor as well…how good the “pilot” is. Can a new player with a strong deck beat an experienced player with a weak deck? If the discrepancy between the strongest deck and the weakest deck is narrowed, then it stands to say that a stronger player can be more at an even playing field with a weaker player. Of course this has to be hammered out in the ring of battle, but it gives everyone more of a chance in any given tournament. Far too often, we see players in other card games spend massive amounts of money to build a deck only to squash players that are just trying to have fun. And that’s just no fun.

Organized play and broken decks are easy to accommodate. 

The biggest issue with keeping a game alive is making sure that the community is strong and easy for new players to approach. Magic: The Gathering does this real well with their sealed format: players will buy a starter deck and X amount of expansion packs, then players will create decks based on the limited pool of cards (however they organize it, there are many ways) which “technically” puts everyone on the same playing level.  Keyforge makes it easier by just telling people to buy a deck and that’s it. The only thing the organizer has to do is make sure the brackets are organized. There’s no “build time”, tournaments start immediately and run pretty smoothly. 

But what if…and really IF a deck gets away from the algorithm and manages to be overpowered, what happens then? Keyforge has a chain system that, in game gives hand draw penalties to use certain cards in the game, but it’s also a balancing mechanism for decks that appear to be overpowered. In addition, if a deck is truly overpowered, the deck can “ascend”, which means it’s won so many times that it’s not qualified to compete in any more tournaments.  That’s a pretty high honor, considering the decks are bought without you knowing what’s in the deck in the first place. 


The luck of the draw

The “uniqueness” of the game translates into a “spin the wheel” when buying a new deck. It restricts the players from the freedom of what card games have established over the last 25 years and this may be the game’s biggest flaw. Instead of searching for the best deck combination, players may be tempted to continue to buy decks in order to find the right combinations they are looking for…especially for more experienced players that know what they want.  

For many people, this translates as a hard no. It may be that players have a hard time trusting that a company can create unique enough decks for everyone to be on the same playing level or they think that the search for the best deck is just another translation of players buying expansion packs on other card games. Whatever it is, there’s a number of card game aficionados that stay far from this game for this very reason.

Not competitive enough

Many card game players are ultra competitive. They look for the best combinations and want to use that in their particular deck. Because there’s a small discrepancy between the best and worst deck, players can be led to think that ALL Keyforge decks are mediocre at best. There is no “best of the best”, it’s just “best of what you got” and for many, that can be really frustrating.

The card game culture has been so engrained that players expect to change their decks, have customized decks for any and all situations, and have the freedom to continue to improve. This is not so in Keyforge. Keyforge forces players into a box and expects them to work around it.

It’s still a new game. 

Keyforge came out in November 2018, just a few months ago. Many games are veritable flashes in the pan and just die out before it really gets any steam. Some games get drowned out because a newer, hotter game has hit the market and becomes all the rage. Others are just fads that are popular now, but somehow are boring or out of style in a few months or years. It can be easily argued that this game is a fad…its unique mechanics and approach to the card game industry is so stylized that it will die out as soon as someone finds a way to make it “better”. I believe there are a lot of people that are just waiting it out to see if this thing has any legs. It remains to be seen whether Keyforge will have the same longevity as Magic: The Gathering.

Of course there’s always the argument of “there’s too many card games out there”. People can simply be…saturated with the game of their choice that they just don’t have enough space for another one. That’s completely fair.

But only time will tell if Keyforge will stand the test of time. There’s certainly a lot going for it, but also has some heavy negatives as well.