Welcome to KeyForge Tips volume two. If you missed the first one, where I discuss the mulligan, you can find it here. This time I’m diving into the strategy of discarding in KeyForge. Whether I’m teaching the game to new players or watching people play (You can find some great streamers under the KeyForge category on Twitch) I see players struggle to wrap their head around discarding. The goal of this article is to explore the basic strategy of when to discard to help players gain the most value out of this important action.
The inherent challenge in discussing discarding is that each decision is nuanced by a seemingly endless list of variables. There is no card that you will discard in every situation, and there is no card you will never discard. The other cards in your hand, on the board, and remaining in your deck all factor into making the best decision. The state of the game matters too. On the verge of victory or searching for a silver bullet to claw your way back into a match? Don’t forget about your opponent. What cards are your opponent likely to be holding and what house are they likely to call next? These questions have huge ramifications in some discard decision and little bearing in others. It’s easy to see why players of all skill level struggle with the decision of when to discard.
Most people (absolutely including myself here) simply don’t have the mental bandwidth to play out these decision trees fully. So, we have to come up with shortcuts to clear through the clutter. In the following sections, I’ll lay out the basics, discuss some possible misconceptions that players may have about discarding. Then I’ll share one approach to evaluating when to discard on the fly.
When you declare a house in KeyForge, you can play, activate, and discard cards from that house. Discarding simply means dumping the card into your discard pile rather than play it. There are many times players may opt to discard rather than playing a card. In most cases, players want to discard cards that either do nothing or would be more detrimental to you than your opponent. You may discard an Effervescent Principal when you have more æmbermber than your opponent. You may discard a Gateway to Dis when you have creatures and your opponent does not.
It may seem counter-intuitive. Why discard these admittedly powerful effects, rather than save them for later when they will be really good? The answer lies in the way players draw cards in KeyForge. Rather than drawing a single card each turn like in many other collectible card games. Players in KeyForge refill their hand to six cards at the end of each turn. Each card discarded is the equivalent to one card drawn. Therefore, players are not discarding cards for discarding’s sake. Players are discarding to access to new cards, build stronger hands, and gain an edge over their opponent.
Misconception: KeyForge is all about making the best out of the hand you are dealt.
Reality: KeyForge is as much about crafting the hands you are dealt as it is about playing those cards.
Every card played or discarded equals a card drawn at the end of your turn. If you maximize the value of every card you play but fail to discard efficiently, then a skilled opponent will outpace you by the sheer advantage of cards drawn. Knowing when to discard a card is as important a part of the game as playing cards. However, players tend to preoccupy themselves with the latter skill. Making better decisions about discarding will earn players incremental value through crafting stronger hands throughout the game.
Discarding helps build stronger hands because you will have fewer cards clogging up your hand, increasing the chance of collecting five or even six cards from a single house. This may be misconstrued as luck of the draw, but discarding allows players to make their own luck and increase the odds of drawing good hands.
Misconception: Some cards are just too good to waste.
Reality: Lost opportunity to draw cards is far more devastating.
There is no card in KeyForge that you should never discard. Imagine that you are sitting on eight æmber and two keys. Your opponent has zero æmber and two keys. In this situation, in almost all cases, it makes sense to discard Bait and Switch, arguably the best card in the game. While that is an extreme example, players holding onto great, situational cards far too long is common. By the time the card is played, even if played to great effect, the opportunity cost of in terms of card draws lost outweighs the benefit.
If cards like Key Charge, Cleansing Wave, and Key Hammer gave you 6 chains when you played it, then you rightly would not think they were very good. Yet, I see players consistently holding cards like these in their hand turn after turn, looking for a perfect moment that may never come. While there are exceptions to the rule, in most cases, you will be better served to ditch these cards at your first opportunity to draw something that can make an immediate impact in the game.
Misconception: Discarding is wasting cards.
Reality: Discarding accesses new opportunities.
This particularly relevant for players who are new to card games.
I was paired against my partner at a local tournament. I played Sound the Horns early in the game and she watched with glee as I put nearly half my deck in the discard pile. At first glance, the opportunity cost of my play looks enormous. As a new player, she believed I had wasted the opportunity to play a ton of good cards. However, the reality is that the opportunity cost of putting all of those cards in my discard pile is nonexistent. While I am unable to play those particular cards, I gain the benefit of accessing different cards. Because I didn’t know the order of cards in my deck, the cards at the top of my deck are no more or less valuable than the cards at the bottom. Instead of a cost, there is a subtle benefit to my play. With half of my deck in the discard pile, I now have much better information about the cards I am likely to draw over subsequent turns.
The takeaway of this anecdote is that there are benefits to gain from cards you don’t play. When using the discard action, the benefit is much more apparent: you draw an extra card at the end of your turn. Although you didn’t get to play the card you discarded, you are now presented with a new opportunity and a better hand to play on a future turn. When efficiently cycling using the discard action, you are also more likely to shuffle your discard pile back into. This increases the odds of seeing that card again and perhaps at a much better moment.
(I’m contractually obligated to state that I lost that game against my partner by the way, and she went on to 3-0 her first ever KeyForge tournament.)
When To Hold ‘Em
In this section, I want to establish some guidelines that will help you make better decisions about when to hold a card in your hand and when to discard. While I believe this shortcut approach to evaluating when to discard is a great first step for any player, there are definitely exceptions to each case. However, if you are a new player to KeyForge, you should probably understand these basic ideas before you start strategically breaking them.
Assumption #1: These rules refer to cards in hand from the active house.
Step 1: If the card offers any immediate value, play it.
When you call a house for your turn, it is fairly intuitive that you should play as many cards from your hand as possible that provide value. A card that provides value is any card that is a permanent on the board that you may be able to use later (creature or artifact), any card that gains you æmber, and/or any card that negatively impacts your opponent, such as damaging destroying a creature, decreasing their available æmber, etc. In some cases, this straight forward thinking becomes complicated. Should you play a Bait and Switch to steal only one æmber? Should you play Cleansing Wave to gain only one æmber or Battle Fleet to draw only one card? As a general rule, the answer is yes.
The calculation isn’t whether you can play this card for more value later on. The calculation is whether the potential for gained value (and there is no guarantee a card will gain value) outweighs the value of playing the card now plus the value of any additional cards you would have drawn while the card in question clogs up your hand. In the vast majority of cases, this cost-benefit analysis comes down in favor of playing the card for whatever immediate value you can get.
Therefore, if you have a card in the active house that gives you value, play it. Congratulations, you’re done. If the card in question does not offer immediate value, proceed to step two.
Assumption #2: The rest of these rules refer to cards in hand in the active house that provides no immediate value.
Step Two: Establish that the default is to discard.
This guideline establishes the position that you should discard the card unless there is a very good reason to keep it. At the risk of being extremely repetitive, this default position is important because you are ideally not going to be calling the active house for another two or three turns. That means holding a card from the active house is costing you a minimum of one card drawn and, in most cases, more. Each missed draw is the equivalent of adding a chain to the effect of the card. Because we have established the cost of holding a card is so high, you must have a very good reason to willingly suffer such a significant drawback.
(Shout out to Bouncing Death Quark Podcast, who I first heard equivocate holding cards to gain chains. If you enjoy this content, I highly recommend giving them a listen.)
With the default position established, proceed to step three.
Step Three: Five questions.
I only recommend holding cards in your hand under extreme circumstances. In my experience, this may be as rare as once or twice a game. Still, I’ve found that these decisions have a disproportionate effect on the ultimate outcome of the game. While you will most commonly default to discarding, it is important to test that position by asking yourself a series of five questions about the card(s) in question.
These are the questions I recommend asking yourself before deciding to reject the null hypothesis (the default is to discard) and hold onto a card in your hand.
- Is it a powerful action likely to accrue extreme value?
I’m really only talking about cards that have the potential to swing the game an entire key or more, ie. gaining six plus æmber, destroying six plus æmber, stealing three plus æmber, forging your third key out of turn, or stopping your opponent from forging their third key. However, just that the card has the potential to be a big swing is not enough in and of itself to hold it. You should also be able to visualize a line that will allow the action to achieve that value in the next couple of turns. One common example is holding Bait and Switch while ahead on æmber, but on the verge of forging before the opponent can.
- Is it an important piece of a game-winning combo?
This is specific, but if you are sitting on two keys, then cards like Key Charge and Key Abduction gain extra value if you have a chance of pulling it off. For example, I won’t hold Key Charge in my hand when I have zero æmber, but I will when I’m at five æmber and I know there is still a Dust Pixie and a Regrowth in my deck that either will give me the win if drawn.
- Are you very likely to call the same house next turn and will it gain significant value?
This comes into play with cards like Warsong, Psychic Network, or Cleansing Wave, after dumping a hand full of Brobnar, Mars, or Sanctum creature. Obviously, these cards work best with several readied creatures, and you will likely be inclined to call that house again anyways to use the creatures you just played. While this line of play may seem like a slam dunk, proceed with extreme caution. There are so many ways that your opponent can blow up this play by destroying your creatures, exhausting your creatures, stunning your creatures, or otherwise making you call a different house. When this happens, you are now stuck holding a card in your hand that won’t give you any value and without the opportunity to efficiently discard the card for several turns. For this reason, I only recommend taking this line of play if you are behind and need to risk a big play to catch up, or you have a reason to believe your opponent cannot interrupt your line.
- Is this a scarce and important resource in the deck?
You should be aware of your deck’s strengths and weaknesses going into the game. Some decks have lots of æmber control, but very little actions to destroy opponents creatures. Other decks have the inverse problem. If you know that your deck has lots of ways to clear your opponent’s creatures off the board, then you shouldn’t hesitate to discard effects that aren’t currently useful. However, if you know that your one Gateway to Dis is the lone board clear effect in your deck, then you might think twice about discarding it. That isn’t to say that you never should discard the Gateway, but there are more situations that I’d hold onto it. This is perhaps the most difficult judgment call to make, and it really comes down to knowing the ins and outs of your unique deck. When you come to these decision points, my best advice is to pay attention to the decision you made and evaluate whether or not it paid off after the game. Over time, you should develop a more intuitive feel for when it is worth it to hold onto your scarce resources.
- Do you not want to cycle through your deck?
This is perhaps the biggest edge case of all, but it does come up. In some cases, you simply do not want to shuffle your discard pile back into your deck. This may be because you have a Nepenthe Seed on the board or an Arise! in your hand. In these rare cases, you may actually not want to draw an additional card. It is rare, but something to keep in mind. When it does come up, it is likely to make a big impact on the game.
Answering yes to any one of these five questions does not mean you definitely want to hold onto your card instead of discarding, but it does mean you should strongly consider it. On the flip side, if you answer no to all five questions, you can feel very confident in your decision to discard. Following these guidelines may not lead you to a definitive answer every time. However, I believe it will put you on a path towards asking better questions and ultimately making better decisions for your deck in any given situation.
I hope you found these tips on discarding in KeyForge useful. If you have come to a similar conclusion in your own play, great! If you have a different opinion, even better. Please let me know your own thoughts in the comments of this article, and I hope this can be the start of many conversations about KeyForge strategy.
Thanks for reading. I love feedback. If you found any value in this article, please share it with other KeyForge players you know.
You can also find me at twitch.tv/jakefryd where I stream KeyForge Tuesdays at 3:00 PM CST, and infrequently throughout the week. I focus on analysis and introspective gameplay and try to provide insight into the decisions I’m making in-game. I’m also on Twitter @jakefryd and Instagram, mostly dog pics (sorry not sorry), @frydmanjake.
Good luck, Archons, and happy discarding.