In 1993, Richard Garfield set the games industry on fire with Magic: The Gathering, the game that birthed the trading card game craze. While Magic: The Gathering has remained a staple for 25 years and is a terrific game, its greatest flaw has always been the real-world economics. Building a Magic card collection can be expensive, and chasing the highly-sought cards to optimize decks even more so.
In 2018, Garfield developed and Fantasy Flight Games published Keyforge: Rise of the Archons. With Keyforge, Garfield once again pioneered a nascent games genre, the “unique deck game.” The game proved a critical hit and Fantasy Flight has followed up with the first set, Keyforge: Age of Ascension. Based on our time with the game, Garfield has managed to create the magic of, er, Magic without the economic curse that has dogged it.
In Keyforge, you collect decks. Each deck is random and unique and is meant to be played as a unit. You can’t customize your deck by trading one card out for another. Playing a deck from Age of Ascension is my first experience with Keyforge. Now I see what I’ve been missing out on. The goal of the game is to forge three keys, which are made from aember that can be collected by various means. This makes it a less adversarial game than a lot of other two-player card games. You’re still going head to head with your opponent, but your goal isn’t to reduce their life total. There are no life totals. If you think you can produce aether at a fast enough pace to race your opponent, you can choose to pay them no attention. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’ll leave you alone in turn. After my first game, it became clear that matching tempo with my opponent isn’t a winning strategy. Focusing on removing creatures from the board doesn’t get you any closer to forging a key on its own. By being less adversarial, Keyforge opens a lot of different avenues of play to explore.
Each deck is comprised of cards from three of seven factions called "Houses." The game doesn’t have a resource management system, but limits the cards a player can play, discard, or activate to a single House per turn. It’s a fascinating system as playing out cards in one turn often means you're left with cards from a different House in your hand. That leaves you with a choice about whether to press your advantage by activating the cards on the board or playing more cards from your hand.
Each of these Houses plays in its own way. Logos specialize in card draw engines. Sanctum controls the battlefield with armored creatures. Shadows has lots of elusive creatures and can steal aember from an opponent. With seven Houses in all, it's easy to see how different three-House combinations can produce decks that play in different ways. Sometimes it can feel a bit like you’re playing three different decks at once instead of one deck meant to work together. But the more experience you get with the game the plainer the less obvious synergies become. Using Logos or Mars cards to archive cards from other Houses for a single explosive turn is a fun long-term strategy.
Fantasy Flight also gave the game a top-notch presentation. The visuals feel inspired by the World of Warcraft school of fantasy artwork, but each House feels different than the others. The artwork is strong and distinct enough that you often won’t have to look for the House’s emblem on the card to know which House it belongs to.
The best thing about Keyforge may be the lack of pressure. I own a couple of Keyforge decks, and it feels like I can hang onto those decks forever and bust them out whenever I run into someone else who plays. There’s strategy enough here to reward honing your skills, but no deck maintenance necessary. You buy more decks to increase the variety of decks at your disposal. With the game’s 7 x 3 Houses deck design, there’s plenty of variety to explore.
Keyforge is a fun game with tons of potential. Fantasy Flight will further expand on that with its next expansion, which adds new Houses to the mix. With a low barrier to entry and rewarding play experience, Keyforge is a game anyone who enjoys card-duelers should check out. Keyforge: Age of Ascension is a great place to start.