Keyforge is an ever-growing card game that has been slowly earning its place since late 2018. It comes from the mind of Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield, but instead of demanding you to keep up with over two decades of different gameplay additions, overpriced cards and complex deck construction, it simplifies everything in one small package. In a very literal way, too: you can simply pick up a deck and start playing. It's easily one of the best trading, collectible and expandable card games that aren't Magic: The Gathering. But how does it actually work, and how do you play?
Keyforge is what publisher Fantasy Flight has dubbed the first ‘unique deck game’. Its decks are created using an algorithm from a pool of hundreds of cards in each set, with the promise that no two players’ decks are alike in the world. In a change from collectible card games like MTG (get started quickly in that game with our beginner's guide to Magic: The Gathering), the decks are also fixed - you can’t add, remove or change any of the cards in the pack you buy, so there's no need to build a deck. (Although if you're looking for an easy way to learn how to build a Magic: The Gathering deck, we've got you covered.) This also means you don’t have to buy boosters in search of specific cards - the deck you have is the deck you have. The game’s rules are simple and standardised from the get-go, whilst the randomness is in charge of adding flavour to each 15 to 45-minute match.
If it's not clear yet, you should play Keyforge. But while it's an accessible game that's relatively easy to get started with, it’s best for you to prepare beforehand by learning the standard rules, card types and tips to have in mind.
How do you play Keyforge?
First thing first, Keyforge is significantly different than its trading card game counterparts. It may seem to follow the same spirit as other similar competitive card games, facing two players against each other until one of them manages to destroy their opponent’s cards and rule the battlefield, but that’s not mandatory here.
The key to winning a match is to forge three keys by collecting six Æmber (pronounced ‘amber’), the game’s most important resource. Whoever obtains all three keys first achieves victory. The charm, then, comes from making this task as hard as possible for your adversary - but you can expect the same in return from them.
The first player is randomly selected (a coin never fails!) who then grabs seven cards. After that, both players can have up to six cards per turn, which can be summoned, discarded or used to generate Æmber. First players can also choose to re-shuffle their decks once and take six new cards instead of seven. During their first turn, they cannot play or discard more than one card.
During each turn, players have to announce the house they’re going to select that round, and only cards from that suit can be played or activated. This is crucial, since it can either give you an advantage if you have a decent hand or completely screw up any additional chances to summon a unit from a different house that could greatly benefit you during that turn. The only exception to the rule are Omni cards, which can be used by any house.
Both creatures and artifacts are summoned exhausted by default - meaning they can’t attack the turn they’re played. Artifacts are placed in a low row, whilst creatures are placed on flanks, either the left or the right flank of what’s called the battle line. Upgrades are placed on top of cards, and will be discarded if the creature gets destroyed. Additionally, the number of ‘chains’ that a player has, earned by playing certain cards or using particular actions, reduces the number of cards they draw each turn - a way of balancing more powerful cards.
Once your turn ends, you must draw as many cards as you need to have a total of six in your hand. If your deck has been depleted, you’ll have to re-shuffle it.
Collecting Æmber and forging keys
Æmber is the most important element in Keyforge. These tokens are the only ones that will lead you to victory. You’ll need six Æmber in order to forge a key, with three keys needed to win the match.
Æmber can be gathered from special abilities in your cards, but it mostly comes from the Reap action. All your active units with the Reap action can be exhausted until the next turn to grant you one Æmber in return. Keep in mind that this will only be available for cards that belong to your announced house during that turn.
There are several abilities that can alter how Æmber works in a match. Some cards can steal Æmber from your enemy, increase the base cost of forging keys or even decrease the cost for a massive advantage. Cards that have an Æmber icon will generate the resource when you play them.
Once you have obtained enough Æmber, you have to forge a key. This action takes one turn to be eligible - a perfect window for your opponent to snatch or alter that opportunity in different ways. Only one key can be forged per turn, regardless of how much Æmber you have.
Are Keyforge’s unique decks really all different?
Yes: in Keyforge, every deck is unique from one another. They’re standalone and fixed, too, so you don’t have to worry about looking for additional cards or boosters - and you can’t add or take away cards like the deck construction of Magic: The Gathering.
Each deck comes with 37 cards, one of them being your archon. This is a character with an algorithmically-generated name attached to your set, which displays the houses and the complete list of units. Those with a circle are regular, whilst legendaries are marked with a star.
Since players can’t possibly know what’s inside a deck before they open it, you only discover your deck’s name, houses and card list once you actually open it. In addition, you have the ability to officially register it on Keyforge’s official site and via the Master Vault app for iOS and Android. After creating an account, you can add your deck either by scanning the QR code on the back of your archon’s card or by manually entering the 15 digits code underneath it. The site will automatically digitalise the complete list, and add the deck to your account in a few seconds, letting you track its win/loss ratio, any balances (such as chain adjustment) needed for tournament play and compare it with other decks.
What are the Keyforge houses?
Decks come with three pre-selected houses. These are the categories for your cards, which will gain a more important role during matches. Since they are randomised, along with the cards available for each, there are endless possibilities around combos and synergies to discover and play around with.
From the first Keyforge set, Call of the Archons, until its first expansion Age of Ascension, a total of seven houses were maintained, each with its own peculiarities.
- Brobnar: Mighty warriors that focus on strength before anything else. They’re great at dealing damage and causing a ruckus in the battlefield. It’s essential to strike a balance with your other two houses, since destroying enemy cards constantly will not get you any closer to forging keys. That being said, some Brobnar cards allow you to destroy Æmber owned by your opponent, which is great.
- Dis: This is a curious house. Mainly composed of demons and hideous creatures, these cards are known for limiting and manipulating your opponent’s side of the table. They might take a while to get used to, but prove to be deadly with enough practice.
- Logos: Scholars in the pursuit of knowledge. You’ll find lots of mechanical beings in this house, whilst the main abilities revolve around archiving cards for later use and drawing more than usual. Some of them also carry the ability to destroy the entire board if that’s something that could benefit you.
- Mars: As the name implies, this house introduces an army of aliens that aren’t too keen on other species. That’s why you’ll often see them using buffs for themselves during battle, causing damage, and archiving their opponent’s cards in their own archive by literally abducting them.
- Sanctum: The knights in shiny armor. They can be great protectors, using Taunt to draw aggro to them, whilst also specialising in healing abilities and capturing Æmber. If you get Sanctum in your deck, rest assured that you’ll be able to defend your most powerful cards with them.
- Shadows: Svarr elves join the fray, masters of theft and stealth. You’ll find many cards that allow you to ‘steal’ Æmber from your opponent, a more powerful keyword than just ‘capturing’ Æmber, along with dodging first attacks with the Elusive ability.
- Untamed: Formed mainly by wild beasts, they are great at using Skirmish (allowing them to attack without receiving damage) and also blitz the forging of keys, skipping the extra mandatory turn and letting you forge it automatically. This can be a game-changer, since you’re preventing your opponent from the chance to ruin your plans.
The second and most recent Keyforge expansion, Worlds Collide, added two additional houses:
- Saurian Republic: Probably the oldest house so far, since its members have been around for 65 million years. They are, unexpectedly, a prestigious society of dinosaurs that is split into two main parties. Their cards also introduce the keyword Exalt, placing one Æmber on a creature from the common supply.
- Grand Star Alliance: A democratic house that has been spreading their scientific knowledge across the galaxy. They’ve also been busy recruiting people from other houses, so you’ll see familiar keywords and a plethora of different abilities to use, from the elusive keyword to drawing cards from other houses in a turn as well.
Keyforge's lore will be further expanded in books from publisher Aconyte due out in 2020. The first Keyforge novel, Keyforge: Tales from the Crubicle, is due for release in June 2020 and will act as a first look at the game's universe.
What should you buy first?
First of all, it’s worth mentioning that as well as the Master Vault app you can download a free unofficial mobile app for Android called Tracking Companion. This will allow both you and your opponent to track how much Æmber, keys and tokens you have, though it can be hard to keep track of damage tokens on several cards.
The best option for beginners, especially if you’re teaming up with a friend to start together, is without a doubt the Keyforge: Age of Ascension two-player starter set. This includes two decks and an array of tokens to use. These are small symbols that will help you keep track of stuns, chains, Æmber and so on along with other goodies. Also, there are enough cardboard keys for each player, which are turned upside down once forged.
Age of Ascension is the first expansion for Keyforge and, whilst there’s also a starter set for the base game, it might be harder to find and more expensive than the new editions. A new second expansion was released recently called Worlds Collide, which adds two more houses, mechanics and more. Worlds Collide also has a two-player starter set available. Lastly, a Premium Box edition is available for Worlds Collide, but it’s not mandatory at all, particularity if you’re just starting out - unless you fancy stylish stickers and tuck boxes for sleeved decks, along with tons of other stuff.
If you’re not planning to start out alongside a friend, you can always pick up an individual archon deck from any of the three current editions. Again, there’s no real difference between them, whilst classic cards are always shuffled in new runs as well. After all, the charm of Keyforge resides in being able to pick up any deck and start playing right away.