Decoding the Decks: How To Size Up Archons In Keyforge
The last few months of exploring the Crucible have been some of my favorite times in all of my years of card gaming. Keyforge has proven to be an astounding product on a number of levels. Most of us are smart enough to filter out the apocalyptic naysayers claiming that Keyforge is pay to win or lacks depth. In almost every conceivable way, our little game has lived up to it’s initial promise of being well balanced, eliminating deckbuilding, and being a blast to play.
My last article sought to provide a basic overview of what good strategic play might look like in Keyforge, and was very well received. It’s been humbling to see it shared in so many places and receive so many views. I received a lot of messages and comments asking for a followup article. Most of them wanted me to talk more about how to apply strategies to individual decks. I was hesitant to write about that, because I think that it’s a complicated subject that might be beyond my pay grade. The unique and algorithmic nature of Keyforge decks makes evaluating them more of an art than a science.
It’s taken me a little time, but I’ve finally arrived at some conclusions I feel comfortable sharing.
The following three points are my own view of evaluating decklists in Keyforge. My goal is to enable you to more effectively analyze decklists, both to better prepare you to face your opponents and to help you determine which of your decks you want to explore more thoroughly.
(You’ll notice that the first two points are more philosophical than practical- I mostly included them to clear up some things floating around that are, in my opinion, misconceptions. My third point, which is where I get into the pragmatic measures of deck evaluation, is where I’m spending the majority of my time.)
Key #1: Nothing is a substitute for playing decks.
I’m deeply sorry if you were expecting something else as my first point, but the fact remains that even if you’ve heard this a hundred times, it’s worth repeating for those players who haven’t- there is absolutely no way to know for certain whether you will be successful with a deck without playtesting it yourself.
In the game’s short history, we’ve already seen a track record of people ignoring this fundamental, and I think there’s a good chance we’ll see more of it with each expansion. People’s tendency to hype certain cards and to judge decks without playing them is most evident in the secondary deck market.
Deck prices in Keyforge have leveled out a lot, but we had some spikes of absolutely nonsensical proportions, especially early in the life of the game. Remember the initial swarming of Horsemen decks? During the first few days after release, the four Horsemen were fetching inflated prices all over the internet after they posted solid results at prerelease events. Nowadays, public opinion has leveled off- once people learned the ins and outs of the game a little better, it turned out that there was nothing inherently dominant about the Horsemen, no matter how flashy they looked on the decklist.
The Horsemen aren’t being singled out here unfairly- they’re merely the most convenient example of a truth that is pervasive across the entire game. The fact is, it is very difficult to know how effective the deck will be unless you play it yourself. No deck, even one sporting Faygin, or Timetraveller, or two sets of Horsemen, is invincible. On the contrary, most players will tell you that our best decks tend to look fairly innocent at first glance. I myself am still quite bad at this- just last week I had a new deck surprise me greatly after I had written it off as not being very good before playing it.
Keep this in mind as you evaluate your lists and read the rest of this article. It is futile to rely on decklists alone to be the final word on whether a given Archon is worth playing. Decks can and will surprise you, and playing a variety of them will make you a much better player. Play your decks!
Key #2: Automatic rating systems are flawed at best, and at their worst can be actively misleading.
Here’s the deal- ADHD and automatic deck-evaluation programs like it have been controversial since the beginning, and I don’t necessarily believe that they’re anywhere near being universally accepted by the player base at large.
This is a relief to me, as it is my firm opinion that deck rating systems are not effective.
I don’t want to rule out the possibility for a future deck rating system to change my mind. I do think there is slim potential for a VERY exhaustive algorithm to come close to being able to evaluate decks accurately. The problem is that this hypothetical algorithm would have to account for an astonishing number of factors that would grow insurmountably more complex with every addition to the cardpool.
So for the moment, let’s keep it simple; you shouldn’t be paying attention to deck ratings, and you absolutely under no circumstances should allow a deck rating to affect whether or not you purchase a deck from someone.
Some apologists for these rating systems have suggested that the purpose of the rating systems is not necessarily to determine whether the deck is good, but rather to guide you as you develop strategies for the deck. The rating systems do this by scoring decks in certain categories. Even if we do choose to overlook the fact that people still use the rating systems to try to sell their decks (and I’d rather not overlook that…), I think that you can do a better job of evaluating decks for the purpose of strategy than the rating systems can.
UPDATE: I had figured this point would spark the most conversation, and when it did, I realized that I may have been too conservative with the length of this article. These rating systems have become a part of the community, and I definitely needed to provide a little bit more clarification as to why I dislike them. Here are a few summarized concerns that I have against rating systems such as SAS and ADHD.
1. The numbers are in my experience, just plain inaccurate. Most of my decks that do the best jobs generating a tons of Aember or locking my opponent down have terrible scores in those categories on the major rating systems. This is because the systems have thin algorithms that do not accurately measure the potency of given cards. One great example is Full Moon, which is a card that’s easily measured by the player. You see it, and you immediately count how many Untamed creatures you have to see if it’s going to be potent. The rating systems do not account fully for that- they may be able to identify your creature count, but they do not consider all of the ins and outs of the card. This is just one of literally hundreds of examples available. Having statistics on your decks is only useful if those statistics are carefully measured, and I haven’t seen a rating system do that yet.
2. People are taking those inaccurate numbers and using them as selling points for their decks on the secondary market. This is borderline unethical. You can’t sell a car with a windshield sticker that says “SUPER FAST!” when your speedometer isn’t accurate to begin with. These numbers have a chance to unfairly influence someone’s purchase.
3. In a game that is so full of wonder, character, and surprise, it just feels like boiling decks down to a set of numbers is contradictory to the heart of the game. A bad score from one of these rating systems might discourage you from playing a deck that you might very well adore. What a shame that would be.
It is futile to rely on a deck rating system. The nature of Keyforge renders them fundamentally flawed. I truly believe that you can evaluate decks better yourself, and that you can do it simply. The practical method for this is my final point…
Key #3: Effective deck evaluation should center around recognizing patterns of high-impact cards.
So now that I’ve waxed poetic about the futility of evaluating a decklist, let’s uh…evaluate some decklists.
My hypocrisy is potent, I know, but bear with me here- knowing how to read a decklist at a glance is very important, especially if you’re playing in a format where you’ll be looking at your opponent’s list before the match. It’s virtually impossible to see all the little internal combos that a deck has going for it just by looking at the list, but there are cards and general patterns that definitely catch the eyes of a seasoned Keyforge player. I wanted to pass some of that on to you and teach you a little bit about how to think about decks as a whole.
With that in mind I’ve compiled a list, organized by category, of cards that can tell you the most about what a deck is trying to do. The list is not exhaustive- in general, I’ve tried to make manageable lists instead of truly complete ones, which means that a lot of rares in each category were omitted for the sake of brevity. This is also by no means an attempt to insinuate that these are the only good cards in the game. I believe that Keyforge has done a fantastic job of insuring that almost every card is capable of making critical plays. I wanted, instead, for this list to be a starting point for how to think of decklists in terms of their synergies.
As for how to practically use this list, my advice is as follows.
- You should know all of these cards and how they are used from memory.
- When you look at deck lists, these are the cards that should jump out at you first.
- When you evaluate new decks, observe which of these categories are featured most heavily and use that information to help you inform your initial plays.
With all that said, here’s my basic list of the most impactful cards in Keyforge, as well as some more information about what general category of card they belong to. I’ve also talked briefly about how these categories can work together in a single list.
Mass Aember Generation
(Most impactful with Draw Acceleration)
Loot the Bodies
In case you forgot, Aember is the point of the game. The above cards are some of the most ubiquitous ways to get a lot of Aember at once, and you would do well to remember them and look out for how they work. Virtuous Works is fundamentally different from Full Moon or Hunting Witch- the former is non-conditional, while the latter two cards need a high volume of creatures to be at their best. Because these cards tend to be oriented around combos, having Draw Acceleration makes them much more consistent. The presence of combo pieces will determine whether you can use these cards to their fullest. Know how these cards work and whether your deck can support what they’re asking you to do.
(Almost always necessary)
Bait and Switch
Too Much To Protect
Doorstep to Heaven
Lash of Broken Dreams
Burn the Stockpile
I can virtually guarantee that, barring a truly wacky game, your opponent will eventually pass the turn over to you while they have more than 6 Aember, and if you do not do something about it, they will get one of the keys they need to win the game. Having ways to, you know, do something about it, is very important. Aember Control is one of the two categories (along with Board Control) that I’m most willing to say a deck needs to be competitive.
Recursion & Tutoring
(Most impactful with Aember Generation, Aember Control, and Hand & House Control)
Witch of the Eye
Help from Future Self
Sound the Horns
Recursion is one of the most dangerous decisions available to card game designers. It essentially broke competitive Netrunner for years and is almost invariably strong. Here, they’ve mostly gotten away with it by virtue of removing deckbuilding. Witch of the Eye would be in every deck if we could construct them ourselves, but mercifully for a game with such strong cards, we can’t. While it’s still very potent, remember that recursion is only good when you have something worth bringing back from the discard pile. Keep in mind what parts of your deck you’ll really want to see more than once when evaluating decks that feature these cards.
Hand & House Control
(Most impactful with Recursion & Tutoring, ramps in power with itself)
Control the Weak
What I mean by “ramps with itself” is that control cards in Keyforge work really well together in unison. Controlling your opponent’s house choice for a turn with Ristringuntus is annoying. Doing it multiple turns in a row while restricting their ability to draw can be game-winning on it’s own. One Succubus is annoying. A guy in my local meta has a deck with four Succubus that is straight up terrifying. So if you have one of these, it’s almost always good to have more to follow it up. Also, this category of card is nearly-exclusively found in the neon pits of House Dis, the uncontested frontrunner on the Crucible’s “Most Annoying Houses to Play Against” list.
(Almost always necessary)
Gateway to Dis
Key to Dis
The Four Horsemen
Save the Pack
There are legions of decks out there that will simply run away with the game if you leave their board unchecked for multiple turns, and you can bet your bottom dollar that your opponents own a couple of these decks and may just decide to trot them out at the next tournament. Woe is you, little Archon if you venture into a high stakes game of Keyforge without a way to wipe a ton of stuff off the Battleline at once, or at the very minimum render them temporarily unusable. These cards are critical, and I’m usually hesitant to play decks that don’t feature one or more of them.
(Most impactful with Combo Pieces and lots of Pips)
Library of Babble
Library of the Damned
It’s frankly comical how saturated Logos is with draw, and how little draw acceleration actually appears in the other houses. Card draw is almost always powerful. It’s exponentially more powerful if your deck has a specific combo it needs to find quickly or if your 36 cards are plump with non-conditional Aember pips. Look for those things when evaluating decks that feature lots of draw. Also, remember- Archiving and Discarding are exceptional at accelerating draw. Sloppy Labwork lets you clear two non-Logos cards from your hand on a Logos turn. It’s preposterously good, and might in fact be my vote for the most generically useful card in the game.
(Most impactful with high Aember Generation)
Key of Darkness
Some of the most critical cards in the game, and perhaps the closest thing I can identify in Keyforge as being a potential design mistake. Closing out a game on your own turn without chance for interruption is very, very strong. Although they’re generally useful tech in most cases, the ability to combo out a lot of Aember at once makes these cards a lot less situational. Their primary utility is in preventing steal effects- the most secure place for your Aember, after all, is in forged keys.
In addition to making a note of the above cards and their categories, here are a few further things to watch for while looking at a decklist.
- Creature Count: Both low counts and high counts can be effective, but you should know how many creatures a deck features and how that number interacts with the other parts of your deck.
- Combo Pieces: Going back to Full Moon, how many Untamed creatures do you have to make it work? If you have Kelifi Dragon, do you have a way to get a lot of Aember on a Brobnar turn? How many Niffles can you bring back with that Troop Call? You should know how well your deck can execute it’s combos.
- Pips: Pips on cards tend not to care about boardstate or conditionals. They just get you Aember, in direct proportion to your rate of draw, which is a very nice thing for your deck to do, don’t you think? You should know how many pips of Aember are waiting to be drawn from your deck.
I just gave you a lot of information at once, and you shouldn’t feel like you have to have it all down immediately. A lot of these things will become more apparent as you play. But knowing these cards, updating these lists as new cards are released, and being aware of how these categories interact will help you evaluate decks with more accuracy and learn how to play them skillfully faster.
Conclusion: A Slow Refinement
As we approach the Age of Ascension, we’ll learn even more about how deep the Keyforge rabbit-hole can go. The ways that we analyze decks, and the relative power level between decks (or even sets!), could potentially look much different years from now. But I believe that the advice that I’ve given here has a decent chance of being relevant for a long time. As long as you familiarize yourself with the most impactful cards in the game, use that knowledge as you look at decklists, and refine that knowledge through play, you’re set. You’ll be able to cultivate a collection of competitive decks that fit your playstyle- and pilot them to their fullest potential.