Tabletop and trading card games had been absent from my life for well over a decade. I remember Yu-Gi-Oh! fondly, clandestine matches taking place in the school’s yard in-between classes. Simpler times in which deck construction was free of any regulations and we didn’t know what “meta” stood for. Despite nostalgia, I could never keep up with Yu-Gi-Oh!’s constant evolution. No-one around me played Magic: The Gathering either. Years later, Keyforge showed up into my life with the easy way into enjoying trading card games I had always wished for.
In case it slipped under your radar, Keyforge is the latest creation from Richard Garfield, the mind behind MTG. It released in late 2018 with the premise of offering unique, self-contained decks that don’t require any boosts or additional packs in order to appeal to the current meta. Its charm comes from offering players the chance to pick up any deck from a store and be all set to play either with friends or in competitive fashion.
During matches, the flow of battle and your objectives are quite different from MTG as well. First, you don’t have to deplete your opponent's health, as the main goal revolves around being the first to forge three keys. The unique decks are much smaller, too, with 37 cards instead of 60. Instead of mana, you’re free to use as many cards as you want from your hand per turn as long as they match your chosen house. Thankfully, since there’s no deck construction, you’re always guaranteed to have enough cards for each house in any deck you get.
I was sold on the idea from the get-go. Not having to worry about additional purchases or rare card scavenger hunts really appealed to me, as someone who isn’t keen on taking part in local tournaments but has always wanted to have a quick and entertaining card game in his backpack at all times.
To further seal the deal, the cost of a deck is more than reasonable, and the best part is that whatever you buy is completely unique. They all come with a distinct archon - algorithmically-generated characters that represent your deck with both unique artwork and name - and cards come randomised from a base pool of hundreds. Quite literally, there aren’t two identical decks out in the world. Even though this randomisation can lead to different results, the algorithm is designed to offer you balanced decks regardless of how many legendary cards they hold within.
The recommendation of Keyforge came from the friend of a friend in an almost cliché way. Both of them had become obsessed with the card game during the span of a couple of weeks, and were already looking to get a new deck. So we went on the hunt during a Saturday afternoon.
At first, I thought the task would be far from easy. I live in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and whilst we do find a decent array of tabletop and trading card games in several shops around the city, I wasn’t sure of how easy it would be to find Keyforge specifically, considering it could be still seen as relatively new in this part of the world.
The most obvious choice was to look for a deck in the same place where my friend’s buddy had gotten theirs, but the shop was out of stock. We didn’t quite leave empty-handed, though, as one of the employers told us that they would not only be restocking soon, but that we hadn’t been the first ones to ask about the game. Even better, there had been so much interest around it that they were planning a local tournament, which happened a few weeks afterwards.
Luckily, we didn’t have to travel far to find decks at a fairly decent price. Chances are that local shops or cafes that host Magic: The Gathering matches will be more than aware about Keyforge, which was exactly our case. We grabbed two decks, a box of Dragon Shield sleeves, and we were ready to play in the nearest coffee shop.
It’s worth mentioning that my deck only had five legendary cards - which, according to the kind man who inspected my set, is a fairly good result - whilst the other one had around nine. On the silver lining, my archon is called “Bridges, the Enchantress of Chaos”, so I think I got the upper hand. All that was left to do was to register my deck (which you can see here) on Keyforge’s official site by scanning a QR code on the back of my archon card.
A few months and several matches after, I’m still amazed at how well the pick-up-and-play factor works. Our trip around town didn’t take long - we were playing it just a couple of hours later. Most importantly, pretty much everyone knew about the game whilst a local competitive scene was already in full swing.
It’s exactly what I was looking for, too. I’m still learning and trying new synergies with Bridges, but I never feel at a disadvantage during matches. The fact that the main goal is set around obtaining amber to forge keys - instead of going full throttle against your opponent's cards - along with an estimated length of 15 to 45 minutes makes matches less frustrating.
The one thing I was missing from just the deck alone was a way to outline and keep track of modifiers or card status that occur during matches. Luckily, there’s the Tracking Companion app for mobile devices, where both you and your adversary can keep track of Æmber, chains and all that jazz. As for damage points and tokens, we used small bags of sugar and salt, so anything goes, really.
Keyforge proved to be an excellent entry point to modern trading card games for me. If you’re looking for an accessible and entertaining option that requires nothing but one initial purchase to get you into the fray, there has never been a better alternative. And if we ever cross paths, know that I’ll be carrying Bridges in my backpack, ready for a match.