Thanks in large part to thecrucibile.online, I am well past 100 games of KeyForge played. After playing so many games with a variety of decks (you can check out the decks I own in the extension below the media player here if you are curious.), I am sitting at a 67% win rate. I’m not claiming to be the best player in the world, but I have picked up a few tips and tricks along the way. The purpose of the KeyForge Tips article(s) is to share insights about the game with the larger KeyForge community. I hope this will be a useful jumping off point for newer players and a conversation starter for the more veteran archons.
The focus of this article is the first decision players make in a game of KeyForge, the mulligan.
In KeyForge, after players draw an opening hand, they choose whether to keep those cards or take a mulligan. A mulligan means shuffling an opening hand back into the deck and redrawing a new hand with one fewer cards. After taking a mulligan, the player has no choice but to keep their second hand.
While this choice may seem trivial, especially in a game where players routinely draw through their entire deck (sometimes more than once), it is a crucial decision point in the game that allows the best players to separate themselves from the pack. While the luck of the draw may even things out in any given game, making better decisions about when to mulligan and when to keep will reward players over the long term.
To Keep or Not to Keep
I won’t bury the lede. If you are having trouble deciding whether to keep a hand or mulligan, you should probably mulligan. When I look at my opening hand, I’m looking for an obviously powerful play. This means I throw away plenty of good but not great hands for something worse. In fact, I probably take a mulligan significantly more often than I keep. That may sound crazy, starting a card down more than half the time, but I believe it’s actually optimal.
Allow me to explain.
There are several key differences between KeyForge and other card games that factor into the decision of when to mulligan. First, in KeyForge, there is virtually no downside to taking a mulligan. In a game like Magic: the Gathering, losing a card on a mulligan is a pretty big deal. In Magic there is no mechanic to refill your hand, so you are playing down a card the entire game. In KeyForge, you recoup your lost card after a single turn. If you are the first player, your disadvantage from your mulligan is erased before your opponent plays a single card. The lack of downside to taking a mulligan should encourage players to set higher standards for what they will keep. So, if you don’t see exactly what you want in your first hand, then toss it back and try again. There’s nothing to lose, but much to gain.
That brings me to my second point. Winning KeyForge games seems to be less about the traditional CCG tactics of eking out incremental value from cards, and more about blowout plays that represent a big swing in the momentum of the game. Typically, the player on the advantage side of more blowouts win the games. I’m talking about plays that drastically alter the board state or æmber count. These effects can come from any number of cards or a combination of cards, but I’m talking generally about cards that remove multiple of your opponent’s creatures like Gateway of Dis, cards that can generate a ton of æmber like Cleansing Wave or Library Access, and, of course, Bait and Switch stealing a handful of æmber.
In Keyforge, where there is virtually no ramp up to the early game, the first big swing can happen as early as the first turns of the game. I’ve played many games, where I start out slow, my opponent bursts out of the gates, and I never catch up. I’ve been on the other side plenty of times as well, where I’m the one jumping out to a lead. This isn’t to say that my opponent will go down without a fight. KeyForge is wonderfully dynamic in the way it swings back and forth. But even when these games that start lopsided become truly competitive, it is much more common for the player who earned a quick first key through an early game advantage to be first over the finish line.
This is a long way to say that the difference between a good hand and a bad hand is small. A great hand, however, is extremely hard to beat – even with a good hand.
Identifying a Great Hand
Tips as the First Player
As the first player, you’ll only get to play one card on your first turn. Before the game begins identify 2-3 cards in your deck that are your best turn one plays. While this is dependent upon the unique construction of any given deck, there are some general ways to identify which of your deck’s cards fit the billing.
Look for the kind of cards that gain value when played early in the game. Many of the best cards to maximize early play value are artifacts, which can then be activated whenever you call that house for the rest of the game or offer passive effects that you will gain maximum benefit from. The best example of a turn one bomb is Customs Office. The reason Customs Office is so good as a turn one play is that you want to get it out before your opponent can get any of their artifacts out of their hand. On the flip side, if it comes up towards the bottom of the deck, it’s usually a dead card. That’s the kind of thing you want to mulligan for. Some other great artifacts are Gauntlets of Command, Commpod, Library of the Damned, etc. The added benefit to artifacts is that they are typically more difficult for opposing decks to deal with than creatures.
Other good turn one plays include creatures with passive abilities. Ideally, you won’t call that house again for another two turns at least, so cards like Ember Imp, Mother, Succubus, and Hunting Witch are great because they demand an immediate response from your opponent, and response may force them off their more optimal line of play. Archive cards like Labwork, Sloppy Labwork, Hidden Stash, and Masterplan can also be fantastic in setting up a stronger turn two play. Finally, cards that gain a lot of æmber on turn one are great in the right kind of deck. Virtuous Works, Treasure Map, and The Terror are fantastic turn one plays in decks trying to race, but not so hot in decks that win with a more controlling strategy.
(If you have questions about what the best turn cards are in your deck, post the link in the comments and I’ll be happy to give you my opinion.)
The second part is more straight forward. Keep hands with four or more cards in the same house. You should probably keep these hands almost 100% of the time. Not only will this likely give you some board presence and/or æmber, but it also means the rest of your deck is a bit more stacked towards the other two houses. Even if you end up discarding two of the four cards, keeping these hands will increase your chances of drawing hands loaded with your other houses throughout the game.
In conclusions, when you are on the play, know what singular cards you are looking for. Keep hands that have your best turn one cards and at least three cards from another house. Also, keep hands with four cards in the same house.
Tips as the second player
The second player has the luxury of playing as many cards as they want on the first turn. Let’s start out with the obvious one: keep hands with four or more cards from the same house. This is for all the same reasons that it is good for the first player. For opposite reasons, mulligan hands with two cards from each house. These are the kind of hands that you end up playing your two cards, your opponent plays four or more and you find yourself in an uphill battle. Additionally, when your mulligan to five cards, you’re still guaranteed to have at least two cards of the same house to play, so there’s really nothing to lose.
The tricky, borderline hands are those with three cards of one house. So here are a few questions you should ask yourself before deciding.
Question One: Can I interact with my opponent in multiple ways? If your opponent plays a creature, an artifact, or just gains æmber, do you have a way to respond? If you have a positive way to interact with multiple potential plays from your opponent, that’s a plus.
Question Two: Can I establish strong board control? If there are at least two permanents (creatures and artifacts) among your three cards that is a plus. If those permanents are likely to stick around due to elusive, high power, or because they are artifacts, then that’s even better.
Question Three: Do you have three cards from two houses? For obvious reasons, have a hand with three cards Brobnar and three cards from Shadows is significantly better than Three Brobnar, two Shadows, and one Mars. In general, I keep hands comprised of three and three, unless extremely limited in your ability to establish a board or interact with an opponent. This may happen, however, if your hand is full of combo cards like Loot the Bodies, Key Charge, Dimension Door, etc. or upgrades
In conclusion, as the second player, keep hands with four or more cards from the same house. Generally, keep hands with three cards from one house and three cards from another. Consider keeping hands with three cards from one house if you have a strong ability to establish a board and/or interact with your opponent in multiple ways.
I hope you found these tips on how to mulligan in KeyForge useful. If you have come to a similar conclusion in your own play, then that’s great. If you have a different opinion, then that’s even better. Please let me know your own thoughts in the comments of this article, and I hope this can be the start of conversations and a better understanding of KeyForge strategy.
Thanks for taking the time to read this article. I’d love to hear any feedback you have. If you found any value in this article, please share it with other KeyForge players you and KeyForge groups.