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Keyforge: Call of the Archons – First Impressions

After a great weekend judging Destiny at Gencon, I’m finally recovering from the “con zombie” status ailment and Pearl Yeti has coerced me into writing a KeyForge article [Editor’s Note: if coercion fails I will order a bullwhip].  I was able to find time to get into a demo on Sunday, so I do have some first-hand impressions to talk about, but first let me cover some information for those who haven’t looked into the game at all.

keyforge spread

KeyForge was a surprise announcement during the in-flight report Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) hosted on Wednesday night and as details started leaking out it quickly became one of the hottest demos and most talked about games at Gencon.  The game was designed by Richard Garfield, who is basically Hall of Fame/Legendary/God Tier status when it comes to card games – generally when he is involved in something people pay attention.  KeyForge is particularly ambitious though.

Unlike basically every other customizable card game that has existed, KeyForge is a collectible “Unique Deck Game” – meaning in each “booster” you are randomly getting a 100% unique, complete constructed deck.  There is no customizing your deck by switching cards in and out, what you get is what you get – which honestly might be a detractor to some.  On the other hand though, a “booster” deck is MSRP at $9.95 and there are no two decks in existence that will be exactly the same.  Don’t like the deck you have?  $10 and you can get an all new one or you could trade your whole deck for someone else’s whole deck. The game is launching with a core set that includes two decks and the tokens to play the game for two players, and the first set of “booster” decks.

Every deck has a unique procedurally generated card back

FFG’s website officially says there are 104 quadrillion possible decks.  Obviously way more than they would ever actually print, but the point is every deck is completely unique.  They do this by using an algorithm that procedurally generates decks – with some tweaking and concessions for balance and to ensure certain cards always appear together.  Then each deck has a unique “Archon” (your character basically) with a procedurally generated unique name, card art, and the symbols of the 3 (out of 7) houses that are included in your deck.  The unique Archon name is printed on the back and front of each card, so it can never get mixed up with any other deck.

Alright, onto gameplay – the goal of the game is to be the first player to forge all three of your keys (KeyForge, get it?).  To forge each key you need to accumulate 6 Æmber, then you cash it in at the start of your turn and get your key.  Easy enough.

The game starts with randomly determining a first player – first player gets a starting hand of 7 cards, second gets a starting hand of 6.  Then during the first player’s first turn, they only get to play/discard a max of 1 card and the second player gets to take a normal first turn.

On a player’s turn, they choose one of their houses, then they can play any number of cards from their hand of the chosen house (with the exception of the first player on their first turn).  There are no resource costs to play cards, your only limit is the number of cards of that house in your hand.  There are four card types: Creatures, Upgrades, Artifacts and Action Cards.

Creatures enter play exhausted (turned 90°) in you “battleline” (the front row on your side).  They have to enter play on either end of your battleline – the flanks.  When a creature leaves play, you shift all your creatures in so that new creatures will always enter on a flank.  Creatures have the ability to fight opposing creatures OR they can “reap”, which means they go collect an Æmber for you.  Either option requires you to “exhaust” (turn 90°) the creature which means it has to be “ready” (upright).  Since they enter play exhausted you can’t do either of these on the turn you play them.

Artifacts also enter play exhausted on a row below your battleline.  Artifacts stay in play and have “actions” on them that you can use on your turn.  You have to be able to exhaust an Artifact to use its action, so you can’t do it the turn you play it.

Upgrades attach to a creature in play and have game text that will modify the attached creature in some way.

Finally Action Cards have one time abilities that you resolve when you play them, then they are discarded.

There is no specific order for the main phase of the turn.  You can play cards, fight, reap, and use actions in any order – the only restriction is that you can only do all those things for the house that you picked at the beginning of your turn.  Once you have completed all the things you wish to, then you go into a “ready” step, where you turn all your cards upright, then you draw back up to 6 cards in your hand, then your turn is over and it’s your opponent’s turn.

A couple other things:

Fighting – each creature has a power number which serves as both the damage they do in combat and their health pool as well as an armor value which blocks the first amount of damage they take each turn up to the Armor value.  You can exhaust a creature to fight any of an opponent’s creatures, then both the attacking and defending creature deal damage to each other equal to their power (minus armor).  Damage is marked with damage tokens and stays in play unless something heals it.  When a creature has damage on it equal to its power it is defeated.

keyforge battleline
The battleline

Æmber collection – reaping with your creatures is the primary way to get Æmber, but there are a lot of card effects and other ways to get it.  There are also a lot of ways to make your opponent lose their Æmber or steal it.  At the end of your turn if you have 6 Æmber, you are supposed to announce “Check!” to your opponent to let them know that unless they do something to prevent it, you will be forging one of your keys at the start of your next turn.

There are a few other things, but that is a good enough high level review of how the game is played.

When I sat down for my demo at Gencon, I was given a Dis/Mars/Sanctum deck to use versus my opponent’s Logos/Mars/Sanctum deck – not that that means much to you, but those are the houses that were included in our decks and we shared 2 out of 3 houses, but I felt like our decks played out quite a bit differently.

My Sanctum creatures had a lot of synergies that focused on their positions on my battleline, with some that granted armor bonuses to each of their neighboring creatures, some that protected their neighboring creatures from attack and some that got bonuses if they were on the flanks of the battleline.

The Mars creatures didn’t have as many tricks, but they had higher power than the Sanctum creatures and low armor for the most part.  I could use the Sanctum creatures to augment and protect my Mars creatures assuming I built my battleline carefully to take advantage of the Sanctum abilities.

Lastly were my Dis cards, the demons, and they basically seemed to specialize in blowing everything up – my stuff and my opponent’s stuff.  If I felt like my board position was slipping, I would have Dis cards that could reset things.

During my demo game, I was able to get out to a pretty significant creature advantage on the battleline, which resulted in me being able to take some turns to reap with a good amount of creatures to get up to my 6 Æmber.  My opponent wasn’t without tricks up his sleeve though, with the help of some of his Logos cards he was able to steal the Æmber I was generating and we ended up having a few back and forth turns where he would get to 6 and get me under 6, then I would have to use my turn to get him under 6 and myself back up to 6 and vice versa.

In the end he ran out of tricks to stop me and I was able to forge my key – the demos only went to the first key forged.

KeyForge surprised me with the depth of strategy considering I was basically using a randomized deck.  There are a lot of synergies with how you play the cards, even from different factions that makes the sequencing of your turns feel strategically deep.  Like I could use my Sanctum knights to give armor bonuses to my Mars aliens so that when I played a demonic Dis action that dealt 3 damage to all creatures on the board my Mars creatures were protected.  There is a lot of little combos that you can work out like that and with the restrictions of one house per turn, planning a few turns ahead can be hugely beneficial.

To fans of sealed and draft play in other games, this game will probably appeal strongly to you.  You are rewarded greatly for finding optimal ways to use the tools you are given and you never quite know what could be coming from the deck across from you, nor do they know what could be coming from your deck.

The genius part of KeyForge, to me, is that the barrier to entry is so incredibly low.  $10 and you have a complete deck ready to go and you’re not necessarily at any disadvantage to any other player. (Minus needed tokens – not sure if there will be accessory products or you have to buy the starter set.  I’m sure third party stuff will be a thing)

It leaves very little reason NOT to try it or at least dabble in it.

If you do want to take KeyForge seriously, you have the option of buying many decks looking for the “best” ones.  So I think there will be appeal to that hardcore gamer type as well.  KeyForge seems set to appeal to gamers across a wide expanse of demographics in a way that we haven’t seen previously collectible card games.

As far as organized play information goes – details are sparse at the moment.  I imagine there will be a “standard” format where you bring a deck and a “sealed” format where you buy a deck.  They have announced that there will be a companion app that sounds like it will be a combination of tournament software and deck tracking.  I didn’t mention it above, but each deck will have its own unique code that can be used with the app to track the deck’s performance – which will be used to track meta data that anyone can access.

Balance-wise, if a deck is found to be too dominant they will have an Organized Play framework to handicap or eventually retire that deck.  Which ties back into the deck tracking app, but again no concrete details on what exactly that will mean yet.

I had a lot of fun playing KeyForge at Gencon and my interested is piqued.  I know I will for sure be buying at least a starter set and maybe a booster or two on release, assuming I can get my hands on them.  I have a feeling this game is going to be wildly popular on release and I don’t know what to expect with FFG’s previous track record with production delays.  If you’re even slightly intrigued by any of this, I whole heartedly recommend you give the game a try.

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Portland Regionals Winner – Ho Dameron: Where’s my money?!

Hi Everyone!

My name is Nick Nelson – most of you probably don’t know me and those that do probably recognize me from Facebook threads where I’m arguing over some sort of ruling to little effect and wasting my life away.  You can also see me occasionally on various discord channels or on TTS as “TheGandork”.

I’m the community leader of the SW Idaho Destiny play group and this weekend we made a bit of a splash at the Portland Regional with our Poe2/Hondo deck, which was designed by yours truly and piloted to a win by our own Jason Reece.  I was also in the top 8 with this deck, but lost out in the quarter finals, and our 3rd team member, Dennis Perlstein, piloted it to a 5-3 record in swiss, just missing out on maybe having a top 8 finish on tiebreakers by 1 win. I’m going to give you a little breakdown of our deck today and your new meta god: Hondo Ohnaka.

Event Planning

When I started planning for Portland, obviously I started looking at the EAW meta, primarily R2P2 and 2-character beatdown – which are really the two “archetypes” at the top of that meta.

It seemed fairly obvious R2P2 decks would pivot to Poe2/Aayla or Poe2/Yoda – but for the most part those changes felt a bit irrelevant since at their core, they’d still be doing R2P2 “type” things.  Lots of survivability, high consistency but relatively low damage output.

2-character beatdown decks got quite a few new variations/characters to play with, but I generally felt if you had game vs Sabine/Ezra, you’d probably have game vs Kallus/Talzin, Zeb/Kanan, Kylo2/dude or any of those other configurations that kind fall into that type.  They got new characters with big numbers on them, but they all still kind of play the same game.  Try to get some damage consistently/un-interactively and then resolve it.

When Legacies “dropped” we had heard about 7th Sister/Tarkin starting to make waves early on and we saw some cool hero vehicle builds.  Then OTK came out of nowhere.  I think I learned of each of these archetypes through Mike and Joe at The Hyperloops and our Legacy journey basically started here.

The only other deck from Legacies I started out fairly high on was a Yoda mill build of some sort – I had cycled through eYoda/2 x Partisans, Rieekan/Yoda/Partisan (hmm…), and moved past that to eYoda/Rose/Partisan.

 

So we grinded out a bunch of games with all of the above various builds and the Friday before the Dallas regionals one deck archetype was standing out consistently above the rest – Hero Vehicles.  I was so ready to play Hero Vehicles.  We’ve seen Hero Vehicles dominate R2P2 in the EAW meta and it’s an even better deck in Legacies.  Fall Back would destroy the 7th Sister/Tarkin deck.  It had the survivability to outlast and then crush all the 2-character beatdown lists.  Yoda Mill couldn’t clear it before vehicles hit critical mass.  It was Hero Vehicles time to shine!  Then Dallas happened.

 

Now Hero Vehicles didn’t really make a big splash at Dallas, but that wasn’t what gave me an epiphany – it was a fairly innocuous little detail in Tyler’s Poe2/Yoda list – he was running Retreat.  It’s a card that I had somehow forgotten about, but it was the perfect meta answer to those long round decks that could wiggle in and give R2P2 archetypes trouble.  It could absolutely destroy a hero vehicle deck single handedly.  And it’s great against 7th Sister/Tarkin.  And OTK.  And Mill.  Retreat basically could counter the whole new emerging meta – and similar cards like Hyperspace Jump or Mind Trick could do the same.

We couldn’t play hero vehicles.

I did see there was a Poe2/Hondo deck in the top 8 at Dallas – couldn’t find a deck list though, but it lead me to look at Hondo.  And thus, my journey began.

With no deck list to work off of, I just jammed a bunch of stuff into the deck and off to TTS I went to try a couple games against Dennis.  Yeah… it took only 1 game and we were both like “ZOMGWTF HONDO HOLY SHEEIT.”  Like it was immediately obvious this guy was the real deal and just a super game altering card.

The specials on Hondo are obviously win-win, but a lot of players (myself included) at first would see that and think “they’ll just pay me and Hondo will do nothing when I need it the most.”  Which isn’t exactly wrong.  But the way Hondo’s special and his 2 disrupt sides can put pressure on your opponent’s health totals and the way they use their money early – it forces your opponent into making a lot of suboptimal plays, often with no good choice.  Do they pay Hondo and not build up their board while the Hondo player gets to expand their board with their new resources?  Or do they not pay Hondo and have a huge chunk of health carved out of a character just so they can spend those resources THEN again be in a position where they might not have the option to pay later on and just eat the damage anyways?

So once we realized the prize that Hondo was, I was able to start putting together a deck list very quickly – we were less than a week away from the Portland Regionals at this point too.

Here is our final list that we played:

Upgrades

The upgrades put themselves together fairly easily.  Canto Bight Pistol was a little piece of tech we borrowed from the Yo Dameron list Tyler piloted in Dallas.  It serves the same role here as a redeploy weapon with a special, plus all base sides means it works decently well on Hondo still after Poe dies.

Cunning is just an absolutely amazing card in our new special heavy meta.  It provides so much utility and there are enough specials in this deck to make use of it even if your opponent isn’t playing any specials.

Poe Dameron’s Blaster is an obvious inclusion, same with Second Chance.  DL-44 while not having a special side, the removal from it’s ability helps supplement a so-so suite of removal cards the deck has access to.

Now Fast Hands – it might be the best upgrade in the deck.  For as good as Hondo is already, Hondo with Fast Hands takes him to yet another level.  Sometimes you can just lock your opponent out of resources with the first action activate Hondo and Fast Hands the 2 disrupt side (remember when Han/Rey did that?).  It’s just unfair.  Hondo’s special while not guaranteeing to hit their resources, can still make them pay you a resource and screw up their turn right from the start as well.

Supports

Planetary Uprising seemed decent as a card to shore up Hondo’s lack of damage sides late game – I think in the future it would make sense to change this to 2 X-8s or Verpine Sniper Rifles when they’re legal.  The deck is a little upgrade late which can cause it to have a shaky start when you don’t see them.  Planetary doesn’t really help with the early game, but still it won us a lot of games throughout the weekend too.

Events

Before I start getting to our removal/mitigation choices – I have to call attention to Vandalize.  THIS is a top 10 card in Legacies, maybe the game.  If you’re in yellow, you should be running 2 x Vandalize.  It’s the first upgrade/support destruction they’ve printed that is too good not to include in every deck that can play it.  There are so many fantastic targets to hit – Force Illusion, Force Speed, Chance Cube, Sith Holocron, C-3PO.  You can use it to take out a 2-cost upgrade after they’ve rolled out as a kind of die removal and that’s worth it most of the time (since you’re also choking their resources.)

As far as picking the removal suite for the deck – man has it gotten hard.  A lot of removal now seems good against some decks, bad against others.  Electroshock needed to be included since it was the only removal that could just be played on most everything in most situations.  Defensive Position is fantastic like usual in some matchups, but in special wide matchups it can leave something to be desired.  Still if you can get 1 die with it, you’re good.  Field Medic is like “after the fact” removal – and since it basically works on everything trying to kill you whether special or damage sides it seemed like an easy include.

Sound the Alarm and Easy Pickings were the hard picks for us here.  In hindsight we would have dropped the Sound the Alarm for the second Easy Pickings – since we faced/were threatened by more special decks than damage decks.  But this could be a meta call.  Going forward though expecting Hondo/specials to be popular – play 2 x Easy Pickings.

Retreat was also underwhelming at Portland – we didn’t see nearly enough long round type decks for it to be relevant.  It could have been cut for more removal as well in hindsight.

Hit and Run is helps you steal tempo back and gives you those surprise kills – good things to have in an aggressive deck.

Well-Connected is just there for insurance purposes – it’s not flashy, but that resource to push out a 3 drop or pay for a removal is invaluable most of the time.

Playing the deck

For mulligan conditions, Fast Hands is generally an “always” keep, then after that it’s basically looking for an upgrade (2 drop preferred) and playable removal.  Fairly standard.

If you win the dice roll, I think the right call is to always take your battlefield and go first.  The logic here is that Hondo is most powerful the first couple rounds of the game when money is tighter AND Hondo is always best when he gets rolled out first in each round.  You want to start putting your opponent in horrible positions as soon as possible – so a first action activation already forcing them to decide whether to spend their resources or lose them is what you want.

The only reason you’d roll out Poe first is if he is about to die and you need to get some value out of his dice.

Hondo obviously gets Cunning and Fast Hands, while Poe gets everything else until he’s dead.

The deck can switch between aggressive play and defensive play to some level during the course of the game – so you really need to pay attention to times when it’s better to “live to fight another day” and shield up/play removal OR times where you need to push and forgo Poe’s special chaining to use his focus or special just to turn sides to more damage.

Matchups

I don’t feel like this deck has any absolutely bad match ups – the meta might find one, but there was no game that I could find in the current known meta where I didn’t think this deck could win going into the game.  Resources are a fundamental part of the game no matter what your deck is and Hondo screwing with resources will make it hard no matter what the opposing game plan is.  I do have an honest worry that Poe/Hondo and/or Yoda/Hondo are going to be the new R2P2 and possibly even worse than that.  It’s too early to call though.  I forgot to mention back up when I was talking about the testing phase – when I started testing Poe/Hondo on TTS the week before, my record was 22-0 against teammates and randoms.  Then it took another 4 rounds into the regional before I finally got my first loss running the deck.  Jason Reece had a similar win percentage as I did throughout testing and the tournament.

Last Question – Yoda or Poe2 with Hondo?

The Artificery crew championed by Agent of Zion played Yoda/Hondo to great success as well.  I’m not sure that one version is strictly better than the other, they’re two sides to a similar coin.  I feel like Yoda is the more defensive version of the deck, while Poe2 is the more aggressive version of the deck.  Yoda is a little more consistent, but needs to set up to get going, Poe2 is a little less consistent but can get the damage rolling heavy.  Both decks are very similar in power level though.

It feels like in the “mirror” whichever deck gets ahead, tends to stay ahead for the most part.  It’s really hard to flip the board state because once you’re behind, Hondo tends to keep you behind.

That’s all I got – thanks for reading!