Ah Shadows. The best and the worst of Keyforge balled up into one rootin’, tootin’, stealin’ and lootin’ house of fun.
This house has dominated the top levels of Keyforge, appearing in the very strongest of decks as the house with the highest winrate. Shadows’ dominance was established quite early on into the game, usually only beaten out by the Library Access Nepenthe Seed combo. With the errata of Bait and Switch, it was thought that Shadows might lose traction as a competitive house, but that wasn’t really the case. Age of Ascension was thought to have fixed many of the house’s problems. I think that FFG didn’t go far enough to deal with Shadows because they were afraid of touching the house’s key mechanic: Steal.
Steal is extremely strong as a mechanic. The ability to control your opponent’s aember while simultaneously gaining one allows you to catapult yourself ahead in the game while keeping your opponent behind. In most other houses, FFG would only print one or two cards that either give you 2 aember or make your opponent lose two aember. In Shadows, there are multiple cards that steal an aember and give an additional effect. Stealing 1 aember is always going to be a net 2 aember swing, but these additional effects can be extremely impactful too. The problem with steal in Shadows is that there are so many steal cards and they are all strong.
In Untamed you have Hunting Witch and you have Dust Pixie, both of which can gain large amounts of aember and are of the common rarity. Dust Pixie is designed to be a “chase” card, a card that is a staple of Untamed’s competitive decks. Hunting Witch is similar, but requires more set up and can be more easily interacted with, making it fun for your opponent to play against because you can do something about it before it gets too out of hand. In Sanctum there is Virtuous Works and Glorious Few. Again, both of these cards are capable of extreme aember generation but are limited in the fact that they are both uncommon and come from a house with very little support for the burst aember generation playstyle. Glorious Few even has anti-synergy with the house and can be anticipated easily if you know your opponent’s list. In Call of the Archons Shadows you have a total of 8 cards at the common rarity that steal aember and have additional effects. This is in a house that synergises with steal and aember generation already. It’s not just the steal, it’s the fact that if you try to play around the stealing you just get punished from a different card in the same house. Try to go above 7 aember to forge your key because you know they have 3 Nerve Blasts? Get hit by Too much to Protect. Try to take a turn to build up your board to try to out reap your opponent’s aember generation and steal? Get hit by Lights Out or Poison Wave, both of which give your opponent aember while setting you even further behind.
Don’t get me wrong, I think steal is a very important part of Keyforge. I think that it becomes a problem when you have little to no counterplay. How do I stop my opponent from stealing 3 aember with triple Urchin? I can’t. And aside from a few corner case combos, no other house will give that kind of power to a freshly opened sealed deck. I can’t stop my opponent from playing a Carlo Phantom and then dropping both their Evasion Sigil and their Speed Sigil, or playing all three of their Routine Jobs in a single turn, taking me from check to 0 aember. The actions are so difficult to play against because there’s no setup. It’s this non interactive playstyle that is so strong.
If your opponent plays a Ronnie Wristclocks, you get hit by the steal, and it sucks. You get set back 1 or 2 aember, which as an action would already be insane, but then you also have to deal with this 2 power creature that is just going to sit there and reap if you don’t kill it. Against Shadows you somehow have to hold board control(having to use your creatures as removal instead of reaping), generate twice as much aember as your opponent, and play around cards like Bait and Switch and Too much to Protect.
All this is just made worse by the fact that FFG has statted many of the creatures in other houses that generate very strong passive bonuses at 1-3 power, perfectly in range for almost all of Shadows’ removal. Nice Duskwitch you got there, I guess I’ll play Nerve Blast. Oh dang, you played double Mindwarper? I guess I’ll just play this Poison Wave. Double Succubus? Good thing I have an Urchin (that just has to have elusive) to use for my Pawn Sacrifice.
Now how do you combat Shadows? How do you win through this glut of powerful cards that mess with your aember? Well, you either have to steal your aember back, slow the game down enough so you can reap for more than double the aember they steal consistently, use key cheats like Key Charge or Chota Hazri to power out aember before your opponent can touch it, or combo off in some way to generate huge bursts of value when your opponent is out of Shadows cards. It definitely is possible to play around Shadows, but it can be extremely painful and kind of a crapshoot sometimes, especially when your opponent’s other houses are also strong.
I actually do love playing Shadows. It is extremely satisfying to pull off a double Magda the Rat turn just to sacrifice them after I’ve forged my key. It is just so frustrating to have so many fun strategies and deck archetypes invalidated or suppressed by the power of Shadows as a house. I would love to be able to play a board control deck without knowing that most Shadows/Dis decks are just going to beat mine not because I misplayed or made any mistakes but simply because their common cards are so much better on average than mine. Steal is good for the game, but not in the concentration and power that is available currently.
I would just love steal to be balanced more along the lines of cards like Stealer of Souls, Ritual of Balance, or Cutthroat Research, and give us more tools to combat steal in Worlds Collide.
If you have any suggestions for me or want to get me to write on a specific topic, let me know on twitter or in the reddit comments and I’ll get back to you! I just set up this new blog site with Jekyll and Github servers, so I plan on changing the theme around a bit and modifying the page a little more once I have more time. I’m also trying to set up a program that will display the card image once you mouse over it, but that feature is probably a week or so away. I’ll also be posting these articles to reddit, so if you want to comment I encourage you to do so here