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KeyForge is a remarkable new card game gunning for both Magic and Hearthstone

Hands on with the “world’s first Unique Card Game”

Fantasy Flight Games

Last week at Gen Con, Fantasy Flight Games unveiled KeyForge: Call of the Archons, which it claims to be the “world’s first Unique Deck Game.” Designed by Richard Garfield, the man behind Magic: The Gathering, it’s set to disrupt the collectible card games (CCG) market with an appeal to Magic and Hearthstone fans alike.

Unlike traditional CCGs, which rely on randomized booster packs to build out competitive decks of cards, KeyForge will be sold by the deck. Each deck will be created through procedural generation, making each one unique.

How unique? Lead designer Brad Andres explained to Polygon that KeyForge’s procedural generation engine is capable of creating 104 quadrillion different decks. For the liberal arts majors in the audience, that’s roughly 32 billion unique decks of cards for every human now living on the planet.

And that’s just using the cards created for the game’s initial release later this year.

Where Magic publishes a very limited number of pre-built decks every year, each box of KeyForge cards on the shelf at your local hobby store will be complete and ready-to-play. Each one will have a different assortment of cards of course, but also its own name and a distinctive card back.

“The game is really couched in the idea of discovery,” Andres told Polygon during an interview at Gen Con. “When you talk about different types of experiences you can have, you can go to Disney World, and it’s a very set experience. There’s a finite number of activities that you partake in, a set number of things you can do. They’re all highly regulated — they’re all highly designed in order to give you a certain type of experience.

“KeyForge is a safari in that you never know what you’re going to get. You’re going out there, and you’re seeing what animals are active that day,” Andres continued. “You’re seeing what there is to see, and you’re seeing a more true-to-life experience. Put another way, KeyForge is trying to capture that feeling of starting a new game of Minecraft and just figuring out what’s in the world around you, digging down and and seeing what’s there, finding a cave and finding all sorts of crazy things.”

A sample KeyForge deck laid out on the table.
The anatomy of a KeyForge deck includes 12 cards from each of three Houses and a unique card representing your Archon, the character that the deck has been built around. It also includes a QR code and a unique alpha-numeric string that will be compatible with an online app.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Every KeyForge deck will include 37 cards, with one representing your Archon, the character around which that particular deck has been formed. In the first two decks that we opened, our Archons were named Painter Rutherford and Fairlie the Cryptic, which Andres explained were names that reflected the capabilities of those particular decks.

Inside each deck were cards from three discrete factions, 12 cards from each. Those powers listed on those 36 cards are key to giving each deck its strengths and weaknesses. Some decks will be naturally more powerful than others, Andres said, and will come pre-packaged with their own specific handicaps for competitive play.

How each hand plays is heavily dependent on which of the factions, called Houses, are included in your particular deck. The decks that I opened included the demonic Dis, the cybernetic Logos and the wild, animalistic Untamed. Cards are further divided into creatures that will fight and die on the battlefield, items that can be used during a single game, upgrades that can be added to other cards, and one-time actions that are discarded after use.

I noticed during my demo that gameplay features no cards that can be played to interrupt your opponent’s turn. Not only does that speed up play considerably, but it closely aligns with the mechanics behind Hearthstone, the wildly popular digital collectible card game from Blizzard Entertainment.

Whether there will be a digital version of the game, neither Andres nor Fantasy Flight itself would say. However, each deck of cards contains a QR code and an alphanumeric string unique to that deck.

Two of the four prototype decks that lead developer Brad Andres brought to Gen Con 2018. Each one features its own unique name and card back.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

Dozens of new card games are released every year, and most of them fail to catch on. For now, Fantasy Flight has its work cut out for it just in establishing a marketplace presence. Whether the brand could become a powerful competitor to Hearthstone is unknown, but the developer is more than capable of creating digital games. Fantasy Flight even has its own internal digital studio, separate and distinct from its parent Asmodee’s digital teams and one with years of experience in the tabletop space.

KeyForge is expected to go on sale in the fourth quarter of 2018. Products will include individual decks for $9.99 as well as a starter set with four complete decks and various player aids for $39.95.

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