Magic has been more willing to embrace a variety of art styles lately. Secret Lairs are where the product line truly goes buckwild, but the recent influx of “cute” cards and themes, as typified in M21’s dogs and cats, and the archetypes of Jumpstart suggest that mainline Magic is willing to separate itself from war and gore. That’s clearly a marketing technique designed to expand Magic’s audience; as Magic goes digital and hits Netflix, you’ll need to trim some edginess to appeal to the broadest demographics possible—not inherently a bad thing. But it does mean change, and we can see the effects of that impulse in Jumpstart. It’s something that Mark Rosewater has been paying more and more attention to lately, and his polls suggest that we haven’t seen how cute Magic can get.

More than anything though, the most amusing trend in Jumpstart isn’t the clear audience acquisition strategy, but how blatantly reactive it is to what, a year or so ago, was supposed to be a major competitor to Magic: Fantasy Flight’s KeyForge.

The elevator pitch: imagine a game where every player starts on equal footing, because every deck is fully randomized and registered to an app. Players can, for the price of a few cups of coffee, play a complete game, without worrying about updating their decks with expensive new cards. (In practice, of course, many KeyForge decks, much like Magic packs, are underpowered, necessitating another purchase, and another after that, and so on.) The kicker: it’s designed by gaming icon Dr. Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: the Gathering and Netrunner.

Since 2018, KeyForge has released two expansions, with a third (delayed from May) coming out a week before Magic’s Jumpstart. I haven’t picked it up much since the second expansion—the games were discouragingly swingy, and it was similar enough to Magic in mechanics that it just made me want to draft instead.

While we’re on the subject of cute, KeyForge’s aesthetic is what I’d call Blizzard-influenced—all chunky armor and glowing crystals and macro-rhinotic gnomes. Personally—as a fan of body horror, splatterpunk, and bizarro fiction—it’s not my speed. But the aesthetic is digestible and attractive to a broader audience than the Rob Bockmans of the world.

Beyond art style, the appeal of KeyForge is obvious. A deck of KeyForge retails at $10-12, which contains 36 cards and a checklist/avatar card. It’s technically all you need to play, although you’ll also need assorted tokens to represent Æmber and keys and counters. If you have a pad of paper and a pocketful of coins, though, It’s entirely possible to grab a friend and a twenty-dollar bill (or local equivalent) and play a game.

That low cost of entry presents a direct threat to Magic. While you technically could each purchase a Planeswalker deck for $15 or a twenty-dollar stack of bulk from your local games store, you’re getting a sliver of the experience of Magic. When you ask if someone wants to play a game of Magic, there’s nuance in that question—Commander? Standard? Modern? How do you feel about Cyclonic Rift? KeyForge, though, is KeyForge. Show up, shuffle up, and harvest Æmber.

It’s a simple and solid model, emulated in Jumpstart—the price point is similar, with two Jumpstart packs going for approximately $10-$12. The deck lists are semi-randomized, with several themes having different iterations; and the themes, much like KeyForge’s Houses, are numerous enough to provide a panoply of combinations without being overwhelming. I’ve spoke about Magic’s true brilliance—forcing players to identify with certain colors or combinations of colors, thus increasing player engagement—and KeyForge does something similar with its houses.

Nothing embodies the KeyForge concerns like Tinybones. The name is straight out of a game with cards like “Little Rapscal,” “Mega Mogghunter,” and “Philophosaurus”; the aesthetic is pure Warcraft. KeyForge’s Bad Penny, for example, is a pint-sized rogue who lives up to her name by bouncing back to your hand when she would die.

Jason Rainville’s high-contrast purple and green balances out the cool Urborgian tones of the rest of the work, and it pops seamlessly and fluidly. Originally, Rainville’s drafts of the littlest thief had a Bloodborne messenger vibe, with an adorable top hat. The finished Tinybones has more of a Rogue aesthetic than a roguish one; but—judging from social media engagement and preorder price—it’s one that has succeeded with Magic’s target audience, and potentially has, along with Jumpstart, created entirely new audiences.

Tinybones also has me excited to dive into Historic along with the Trinket Thief, with a new spin on 8-Rack:

Historic Tinybones Rack

Creatures (12)
Pack Rat
Tinybones, Trinket Thief
Lurrus, of the Dream-Den
Rankle, Master of Pranks
Fell Specter

Planeswalkers (6)
Davriel, Rogue Shadowmage
Liliana, Waker of the Dead

Spells (19)
Mind Stone
Waste Not
Drill Bit
Lands (23)
Ghost Quarter
Blast Zone
Bojuka Bog
15 Swamp

Mind Stone ramps you to Rankle, Fell Specter, or Liliana, while Lurrus buys back your Mind Stones in the late game. Ghost Quarter is a bit metagame dependent, and can be swapped out for another value land—maybe Zhalfirin Void or more Bojuka Bogs. It would also be possible to splash blue for Thought Erasure and Drown in the Loch.

There’s also an alternate deck that runs out Oona’s Blackguard, Stonecoil Serpent, and other +1/+1 counters creatures. If only Tinybones were legal in Pioneer, as the deck is missing Thoughtseize and Shrieking Affliction. But we stick with what we’ve got, and the combination of Davriel and Tinybones creates a tidy little engine.

Tinybones shows us how Magic is evolving. Jumpstart offers new ways to shuffle up and play without having to plan ahead of time. Whether KeyForge ever posed a threat to Magic—let alone one Wizards of the Coast would go out of their way to mimc—is hard to say. But there are many Magic players who would be happy to play a $15 no-prep version of Magic; Wizards would likely seek to cater to that desire no matter what. Presumably that’s why KeyForge was created in the first place. Does that mean Tinybones is the harbinger of some new paradigm for Magic? Or does the trinket thief merely slot into an old favorite inspired by The Rack?

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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