When Magic: The Gathering was released in 1993, few could have predicted the absolute phenomenon it would become, even though it was almost immediately successful.

As the first Collectible Card Game, it revolutionised and rejuvenated gaming in many ways, though not all of the innovations and trends it brought to the table were necessarily positive.

One of the key weaknesses of Magic – which has only worsened with the rise of the internet – is that players can search for the ideal combinations of cards and purchase these individually in order to build a competitive or, in some cases and in the right hands, unstoppable deck (known as netdecking). Though this trend can be negated somewhat by utilising different formats or rules for deck construction, it takes away from the spirit of the game, as well as being frustrating and unfair on newer or more inexperienced players.

The designer of Magic: The Gathering, Richard Garfield, has sought to remove the pay-to-win element from his latest game, Keyforge. Essentially a Collectible Card Game without deck construction or a traditional booster pack format, there are some incredible innovations in the core of Keyforge’s design. One such innovation is that of the procedurally generated decks; no two decks in Keyforge are alike, being constructed by what must be an incredibly clever algorithm. Each deck purchased is entirely unique in its construction; though each wave is composed of a few hundred cards, each card in a deck has that deck’s name (which, again, is randomly generated) printed on the front and back of the card.

Each deck is composed of thirty six cards, along with a deck list/Archon (Archons being the characters that players are representing in the game’s world) card naming the three houses that the deck is comprised of.

There are seven houses (essentially the game’s name for ‘races’ or ‘classes’) in each wave of Keyforge (these have been mixed up a little in the most recently released waves, with two houses removed for now and two new ones added).

Unlike Magic: The Gathering (and many other Collectible Card Games), cards don’t have a ‘cost’ to play; instead, players nominate one of their houses to play cards from each turn – they can play or activate as many cards as they want/can from that house for the duration of the turn.

The aim of the game is to forge three keys before your opponent; keys are forged with Aember (pronounced ‘amber’), which can be produced in a number of different ways. There are four different types of card: Actions, Artifacts, Creatures and Upgrades.

Actions tend to be single use cards that move to the discard pile once used. Artifacts are somewhat like actions, but remain in play to be used multiple times. Creatures can battle, produce (or, in the game’s terminology, ‘reap’) Aember or use actions listed on their cards. Upgrades are attached to creatures in order to enhance them.

Considering the randomly generated nature of the decks, there seems to be a remarkable balance in each of the ones I’ve tried. I’m incredibly impressed with the construction of the decks I’ve had and have yet to be disappointed with one.

One of the most appealing aspects of Keyforge is knowing that the cost of entry is so low; a single deck generally costs around £6-7 and there’s little else needed as long as you’re playing with someone already familiar with the rules (and you’ll need some counters of some sort, but what long term gamer doesn’t have stuff like that around?). Even starter sets, with their included sets of counters and play mats, can be purchased pretty cheaply and contain two decks, as well as enough components for two players (and, importantly, it feels like a complete experience with just one starter set).

With booster packs and deck construction removed from the equation entirely, it’s only if players want to experiment with other decks or enter tournaments that further decks are required.

There’s a wonderful visual design to Keyforge, with a great mix of houses, distinct not only visually but mechanically too. The green and purple, 50s sci-fi aesthetic of the Mars house is probably my favourite – but each house’s style is particularly appealing in its own way. The game’s setting, concerning warring Archons battling it out in a place where realities collide (The Crucible) is a decent enough explanation for the variety of included houses, but it’s something you’ll rarely concern yourself with when playing.

Despite quite a few concepts and keywords to learn, the gameplay is pretty straightforward – though the rules included in the starter sets are a little lacking when it comes the way that some abilities are worded on the cards.

Games usually last around half an hour to forty five minutes and – as mentioned – somehow each deck I’ve played against seems competitive in its own way and has held up against the deck I’ve used. Thanks to Christmas, I now have a few more decks to try too. Thank you Santa!

Keyforge’s random deck construction has caused quite a stir in the tabletop gaming world, but I’m pleased to report that the game absolutely stands up beyond what could have ended up being a gimmick. If the battling and intricate play of Collectible Card Games is of interest, but the cost and time needed to remain competitive is too intimidating – and I wouldn’t blame you for feeling that way – Keyforge may well be the game for you.

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3 Comments »

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