“How Do KeyForge?”: Universal Strategies For Piloting In The Crucible

I remember when I started with competitive card gaming- for me, my first serious game was Android: Netrunner. When I sat down at a tournament for the first time with my runner deck, naked and blind to my opponent’s plans, I was terrified. I went 0–4 on the day, and drove home humbled and completely enamored.

The evening was spent furiously googling- how do I get better? What kind of deck do I need and how the heck do I use it right? Now, of course, as I’ve played more and more card games, I don’t wait to go 0–4 before researching a bit about the meta and how to think about the game at hand. In fact, I’m usually doing that before constructing my first deck.

Because of the format of the game, Keyforge has proven a bit disruptive to my usual pattern. How on earth does one begin to develop a consistent strategy or talk about game theory when no two decks in Keyforge are the same?

With this in mind since FFG’s announcement, I’ve been paying careful attention to how my test games and first stabs at the game have gone, and I’ve formulated some thoughts for how to think about Keyforge in a general way that can apply to most decks. I thought this might be helpful for new players as we try to wrap our heads around the game, as there have been so many great strategy articles and posts that have helped me grow as card gamer.

Here’s what I’ve found in my time with the game.

KEY #1- Creatures Are Tempo

Three keys. 18 aember. This is what it takes to win a game of Keyforge, and you need to get it before your opponent does.

When card gamers talk about tempo, they’re referring to the general speed and pace of a game. In Keyforge there’s no such thing as a health total or a win condition directly associated with combat. The win condition is entirely based around keys, and aember is how you get them. Therefore, tempo has to be evaluated based on the rate of potential aember generation.

And the most elemental way to generate aember is through reaping.

Card effects (and aember for playing cards) are usually situational, and they usually stay in your discard pile once you play them. But reaping, on the other hand, is forever. Any ready creature can reap. A massive board of creatures left undisturbed is always ready to just close the game out and win unless the opponent has a secure way to outpace it and beat it to Key #3.

This means that every creature you have on the board is directly related to your tempo in one of two ways:

  1. It’s going to fight, in an attempt to slow your opponent.
  2. It’s going to reap, in order to speed you up.

Action abilities on creatures are usually combo pieces or support tech, and those are almost always worth doing, but for the sake of formulating consistent strategies we need to remember that every creature can generally fight or reap with some level of efficiency.

This kind of thinking is quite backwards from many card games, especially as it relates to the themes of the houses. For example, let’s briefly talk about our friends the Brobnar. Tons of combat related abilities and big beefy stats. Ping damage, tons of creatures, heck they’re even literally red and orange. They’re the prototypical aggro house, right?

Surprise- by most metrics, Brobnar is a control faction, full stop. Their primary theme is fighting, which means they excel at keeping your opponent’s board in check, because in this game, that’s what fighting is for. Fighting in this game is by and large a means of keeping your opponent off combos and reducing their ability to call a house and reap multiple aember. It doesn’t accelerate you at all in most cases, and therefore can’t be thought of as aggro.

In this way, I would postulate that almost every deck in Keyforge is best thought of, first and foremost, as a Midrange deck. Midrange decks in other card games are decks that adjust their strategy in response to the boardstate and what the opponent is doing, and almost every deck in Keyforge needs to play that way. The creatures on the board determine each player’s tempo, and how they do that best is usually dependent on whether a player is behind or ahead on aember and what the general board state is, which brings me to my next point.

KEY #2- Calculate Your Sprint

Keyforge, at it’s heart, is a racing game. A runner in a race has to know where the finish line is, and more pertinently, they have to be focused on it.

My point is this- at any given time in a game of Keyforge, you are “x” aember away from your third key, and the cards in your hand and on your board are capable of generating “y” aember. When “y” becomes equal to or greater than “x”, it’s time to consider sprinting to the finish line and closing out the game.

This relationship between “x” and “y” is a concept I’ve been calling Sprint. You need to get in the habit of constantly recalculating these numbers and being aware of your Sprint. Learning when to pivot from building your board state and cultivating your hand to pushing for your third key is crucial to doing well in Keyforge.

This is intentionally oversimplified for clarity. In a real game, this is hardly ever a simple decision, because at all times you need to consider what your opponent’s Sprint looks like too. If their Sprint is faster than yours (and don’t forget that they probably have something in their hand that can accelerate them further), you need to figure out how to slow them down before you start trying to close out the game for yourself.

My current deck is a great example. Necessarily Grim Hadanish is a weird dang deck. It’s an Untamed/Shadows/Dis deck that has only 14 creatures. In my experience, the deck wants to keep my opponent in check while digging aggressively for my 3 Bad Pennys and 2 Seeker Needles, in order to abuse that combo to farm aember with relatively little interruption. A big Untamed turn using Full Moon to get aember from bunch of creatures and then playing Key Charge to forge early is also usually a crucial part of my wins.

Notice something? My deck’s explosive plays all require a good amount of setup, and I don’t really have a ton of creatures to build a massive board state. I have to be very aware of how my aember potential relates to my opponents, or I’ll lose games to misplays. I have to balance my time between slowing down my opponent enough and setting up my big turns, and it’s a fine line to walk.

Awareness of your Sprint is critical, but so is a knowledge of how to build it effectively. Which brings us to my final (sort of) key.

KEY #3- Hand vs. Board (or “How I learned to stop worrying and love my deck”)

If there’s any one statement that approaches a commandment across decades of card games it is this- holy crap, thou shalt not underestimate the power of card draw.

This remains abundantly true in Keyforge. There is a constant tension between using your board and drawing as many cards as you can. In my experience, card draw in Keyforge is as incredibly important as ever. It takes an astonishingly strong board state to justify using what you’ve already played to the detriment of draw. This tension is usually the biggest factor in picking your house each turn, and the only way to make that decision well is to know your deck backwards and forwards.

If your hand has got something like a 3/2/1 faction split, you have a decision to make. It’s not at all uncommon to be in a situation where maybe your 3 card house is okay right now, the 2 cards are really solid, and the 1 card is just clogging up your hand. You’ll have to make some tough gut calls as to which house to declare in that situation. Do I play the 3 cards to draw the most that I can? Do I play the 2 because the boardstate demands it? Do I play the 1 to use some of my board and hope the card I draw gets me a better future turn for my other two factions?

There isn’t a clear answer a lot of the time, and I would argue vehemently that decisions like this are the heart of this game and the element that makes it truly special. The most important factor in determining the best line of play is knowing your deck well.

Situational concerns aside, I think for most players and decks drawing more should be very high on the list of priorities. The house for which you have the most cards in hand is usually the house you should declare, and if you don’t, you need to have a very good reason. The single biggest mistake I see new players make as they learn decks is holding on to cards too long. Chances are good that the card in your hand that is just okay right now is not going to become great in the next few turns. Play the card.

Play the card even if it’s not situationally perfect. If the card is not just imperfect, but could actively harm you or slow your Sprint (Gateway to Dis is a good example- it’s often not worth the chains if you draw it early), consider discarding it! Discarding is the most underrated action in Keyforge. It is almost always a good idea to just discard the situational, harder to use cards that are clogging up your hand if playing them be would detrimental to your boardstate.

Ghostly Hand is a great example- it’s a Shadows action that gets you 2 aember, and if your opponent has exactly 1 aember, you can steal it. In my experience, you just shouldn’t be holding on to this card to try and get the steal effect to fire. You have too little control over the boardstate. Chaos will not cooperate with you. On your Shadows turn, just play Ghostly Hand for the two aember and enjoy drawing another card.

As a side note, cycling through your deck faster becomes even more important if you currently have chains. Take a look at this handy equation.

Smaller Hand Size + Hard To Use Situational Cards Clogging Up Your Hand = Lose The Game

All of this is to say that knowing your deck well is paramount to making the decision of how to play out your turn. Do you have an answer to a problem somewhere in your deck that incentivizes lots of draw right now? Is the best answer in the deck already in your hand and you need to play it? Are you inches away from a game winning turn if you can find another piece or two of your combo? You have to know your deck.

Until you do know your deck better, it’s best to err on the side of drawing lots of cards, which has the handy side effect of letting you see more of your deck in the current game, therefore allowing you to learn it faster. These answers will come with experience, and there’s a lot of joy to be found in mining your deck for them.

Speaking of experience…it’s at the heart of my final thought.

Card Knowledge Still Matters

The decks are found, not built. The decks are unique. So learning more about the cardpool isn’t as important as in other games, right?

Wrong. Knowing the Keyforge cardpool well is just as important as in any other CCG.

Bait & Switch, love it or hate it, is a fantastic example. If your opponent is playing Shadows, you have to be aware that it exists. Your opponent didn’t build the deck, but they sure did choose to keep and play with it, and it stands to reason that the odds it’s packing B&S are higher than you might anticipate. Seeing Shadows should be enough to make you think twice before stacking up a bunch of aember through a huge combo, and this is just one example. Being aware of the power cards in the opponent’s houses will save your bacon.

Card knowledge is also directly supplementary to each of the preceding three keys we discussed.

  1. Card knowledge helps you predict how best to use your creatures and manage your tempo.
  2. Card knowledge lets you make a more educated guess as to how your opponent might be able to modify their Sprint with their current hand and board.
  3. Card knowledge helps you know whether to focus on drawing cards or using your board.

Conclusion: The Joy of Discovery

Keyforge has an incredibly promising future. The designers have talked often about discovery being at the heart of the game, and it is. My hope is that as you discover, these tips will help you analyze decks more accurately, enjoy playing your decks more, and yes, win more games.

See you in the Crucible, Archons. Necessarily Grim Hadanish and I have some aember to hoard.

Helping new players discover the joys of tabletop

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