What does it all mean, really?
ICYMI, we are living in Keyforge Nation. As you read this, someone is probably speaking in hushed, reverent tones about cards like Help From Future Self and the Four Horsemen in much the same way as folks did about Icy Manipulators and Royal Assassins in times gone by. Tournaments are being played and decks are being recorded in an innovative app currently in beta that supports organized play and all kinds of data tracking that will surely guide development. Cards are sold out everywhere, social media feeds are peppered with images of the decks with their surreal titles and colorful, Blizzard-like illustrations. There are already banned decks with offensive "random" names, sure to be the Black Lotuses of this initial release. The aftermarket is already cranking through its wild west, frontier stage. It's crazy, and it's rare to see this kind of commotion about a hobby game release these days.
This isn't a review because I think this game is kind of review-proof. If you have to know what I think about Richard Garfield's first truly viable (in a commercial sense) follow-up to Magic: The Gathering, I'll just say this. It's awesome and right now I love that it feels fresh, on trend, and unpredictable. It does feel like how Magic did in those early days when we were buying starter decks and playing with them, discovering synergies and combos for the first time. The hype is real.
So there's that answer. But Keyforge is a game that I think is asking more questions than it is currently capable of answering. The big one, of course, is if this whole unique deck thing is a gimmick or if it is as disruptive and game-changing as buying a game parceled out in trading card packs was. I remember the assumption that Magic was never going to make it, that it was all a gimmick. But it is still impossible to avoid wondering if Keyforge is going to be a concern next year, two years from now. Or if we will see decks and starters in the 2020 FFG holiday sale.
And then there is an adjunct question to that of longevity. When the second set releases, will it invalidate or unbalance the Rise of the Archons set? Will it introduce new mechanics or houses that overpower or render obsolete even the best decks being played today? Do my decks have a "shelf life"? Will expansions include existing cards alongside new ones, or will the first expansion be completely new? What happens if I decide to sell or trade a deck I've registered into my collection? Will these decks be junk one day, or will future tournament modes support a "vintage" format"?
For the more casual player- such as myself - there is also a question if this game is going to be entirely focused on in-store, ranked play. If that is the case, then I can't help but wonder if those of us who don't give a whit about playing randos in a store for some kind of FFG-issued trinket will be satisfied in the long term with the game. I've had 12 decks for less than a week and already there are at least three that I'm completely bored with, just from playing and teaching assorted friends. Will the random-but-fixed format result in boredom and homogenity, or will the occasional spike in power coming from rare decks keep it fresh- and keep people buying new decks?
And of course, that business about rarer decks offsetting the weaker ones introduces the ever-present specter of balance. Randomly generated decks inevitably means some decks are going to be more equal than others. My three crappy decks feel like they would not be competitive at all- and in fact, they've underperformed against others that I have. That may not be the case with a better player than I who might be able to make lemonade from lemons, but it is clear that some combinations and approaches yield markedly higher success rates. For example, cards that give Aember upon drop are almost always a favorable play. Having lots of creatures is far more impactful than having lots of artifacts or actions. And there are "special" and "maverick" rarities out there as well as decks that seem to have pre-seeded combinations of cards like the aforementioned Horsemen decks. These decks are already selling for big bucks courtesy a speculation market.
I also can't help but wonder if this game has an as yet unannounced digital strategy - it seems virtually custom made for online play. There are no instants or off-turn actions, like Hearthstone. It would totally make sense for players to plunk down $1.99 (rather than $10 IRL) to buy a deck in an online game to play through a tournament bracket- not unlike a ticket to a digital CCG's online drafting arenas. If this happens, I think it could actually kill the physical game. I know that as far as I'm concerned, the day this game goes up on the App Store is the day my cards go on eBay- even if you are able to scan the QR codes to add the decks to a digital collection, which you can already do with the Keyforge app. If I had to make one Keyforge prediction, it would be that this game will be on our phones within the next two years.
Who knows if all of that means anything in the long run. The thing is, none of the questions I'm asking can be answered right now. And I kind of love that. I love how anarchic and unknown it all seems as of today, which is at least part of the design goal here. I really hope the Internet doesn't break this game, that it maintains this bright and infectious sense of mayhem. It's a bold game with a bold marketing schematic that for right now, is hitting paydirt.
To close off this un-review of Keyforge, where I'm throwing up a bunch of questions I'm sure others are asking , I will say this. I think that anyone interested in games beyond mindless collecting, the Kickstarter content mills, and the generally tepid redundancy that characterizes the endless glut of new SKUs out there should play this game. I think it could be important, I think it could be significant. And I was a doubter, I scoffed at it when it was announced and even just a couple of weeks ago I was questioning why I'd want to play this over Magic. But even if it fails spectacularly in the longview, right now it is doing something no other game is doing. It's exciting people and stimulating the hobby ecosystem in a rare way. Maybe that means something beyond the usual churning turnover of flash-in-the-pan releases. Or maybe it doesn't.
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