After 20 Years Of Playing Games, “Slay The Spire” Taught Me What I Was Looking For
“What kind of games do you play?”
I’ve always loved video games. But if you ever asked me what my favorite games were, or if I had a favorite genre, I wouldn’t really know what to say. I’m not really particularly skilled at or well-versed in any particular genre. I play a little of this, a little of that. I’m a “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” kind of situation.
I’m not a sharp-reflex adrenaline junkie that excels at action games and FPSes, but I’ve dabbled.
I’m not a dedicated RPG expert who has conquered 80-hour games with sprawling stories, but I’ve dabbled.
Rhythm games, puzzle games, visual novels…I’ve dabbled, I’ve enjoyed them. But I’m definitely no expert.
For me, the two moods for games are generally “do I feel like playing something exciting?” or “do I feel like playing something to unwind or think strategically?”
When I feel the latter, I try to play some sort of RPG or strategy game. Unfortunately, I don’t really have the best attention span for video games in general. I give up most games in between hours 2 and 15, which isn’t enough to clear most beloved RPG entries.
In hindsight, I always felt really left out of the genre. I loved playing RPGs. I loved the idea of them. They always scratched the itch, so to speak. But the time dedication required would just make me feel left out in the cold. There aren’t a whole lot of RPGs that let you play strategically, express yourself, and make impactful gameplay decisions while also having a short run-time.
After years of lamenting this, I unknowingly fell backwards into the “roguelike deckbuilder.”
Oh God, Please Don’t X Out…! Hear Me Out!
Okay, okay. I will admit, straight-up, that “roguelike deckbuilder” is a confusing, obnoxious, and intimidating genre name. It’s just…a really terrible name, honestly.
The genre definitely doesn’t get off on the right foot when it comes to bringing new fans into the fold.
Let’s just get that out of the way here at the top.
Instead, here’s my attempt at breaking down what the really bad name means.
“Roguelike” is a genre whose name has a long origin story. Long story short, a “roguelike” is basically a game that you play in short runs, randomized each time, over and over again. Sort of like how you start fresh every time you put a coin in an arcade machine. Each time you play, you try to do as well as you can, usually with some sort of “You Win!” finish-line or a high-score board, and the enemies or events are randomly shuffled so that each time is different.
A “deckbuilder” is a genre of strategy game that has you slowly customizing your deck of cards (or inventory of items or spells) over the course of the game, adding and removing cards one at a time in intervals while you play the game. There is then an element of randomness to it, usually the shuffling or drawing of cards from a deck, so that you have to form strategies on the fly each turn instead of relying on the same old moves over and over.
(Playing a TCG like Magic the Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh usually wouldn’t qualify as a “deckbuilder”, because you’re creating the decks before you start the match and then they’re set before the match begins. In a deckbuilder, your deck might start with just 5 cards, and then by the time your run is over, you’re adding more and more until it has about 40 cards during the final battle.)
That sounds pretty boring when written out. But the genre ended up being the unexpected oasis I never knew I needed.
A Fresh, New Kind Of RPG
It was 2018. I was already familiar with roguelike games. I enjoyed watching Let’s Plays and streams of them for years, and I tried a few myself: Spelunky, The Binding of Isaac, Enter The Gungeon, Wizard of Legend, and various others. I liked the idea of playing games in short bursts, and being able to make all these fun, meaningful decisions in the middle of your run.
None of these games were able to really suck me in, though. It wasn’t a fault of their own, they’re amazing games, I just was never able to get into the groove of feeling like I was at the right skill level to progress and make meaningful decisions. This was probably related to the fact that none of these were relaxing RPGs, they were all reflex-based action games. And I’m, er, not really amazing at those.
Was I ever going to find a game that let me play in short bursts AND scratched that RPG combat itch?
While browsing itch.io, I discovered a game called Dicey Dungeons. The creator was working on it, but had it on the store for people to try, test, and support.
I had a blast. A simple, quick, run-based RPG with plenty of character classes, choices to make, randomized areas, and more. My brain was able to wrap around how it worked. How to make good decisions and bad decisions. How to press your luck trying out a new strategy. Thirty or so minutes later, you win or lose and then get back up and try again.
At some point, during 2018, I became familiar with the term “deckbuilder.” I had heard of Slay the Spire and given it a passing glance, but wasn’t wowed by watching snippets of its gameplay. It was definitely a turn-based roguelike, but nothing was drawing me to it. I decided to wait on it, despite excessive praise from critics and players.
Later, in 2019, I played SteamWorld: Quest. It’s a deckbuilder, but not a roguelike. You control a party of RPG characters whose decks you customize and fill out over the course of the game, without any resetting. It’s really fun, and got me to understand how deckbuilder combat works. I heard some critics cite it as a good warm-up for new players to play before trying Slay the Spire.
So, after a little more research and stalling, I figured it was time to bite the bullet and jump head first into the critic’s darling I had been avoiding.
I played Slay the Spire. Then I played some more. And some more, and some more.
And something unusual (for me) happened. I wasn’t bored, or too intimidated. I didn’t quit.
I played run after run after run after run. Making steady progress. Each run took about 30–60 minutes.
I gave myself a goal: beat a run once with each of the three characters. When I finally conquered that, I realized the game unlocks a new difficulty. So I beat that new difficulty once with each character, then the new difficulty after that. There are twenty tiers of difficulty. There was so much to do, so many different strategies, so many different cards and items.
As of writing, I have about eighty hours in Spire. I know that number isn’t unusual for video games, but for me it is unheard of. I don’t play any game for eighty hours. I just never have the dedication for it. I always lose interest.
Isn’t it nice when you finally check something out and it manages to live up to the hype?
Finally “Getting It”
Slay the Spire is a really good indie game. It has a lot of content, the music is nice, the gameplay is balanced, the enemies are interesting, and there are a lot of bosses to defeat and end-goals to conquer.
But the real reason it resonates with me is because it is fairly simple.
Growing up, I have tried various trading card games: Yu-Gi-Oh, Magic the Gathering, Hearthstone, Shadowverse, and various others. But no matter how many times I try these card games, they just seem out of my grasp. I understand the rules, and can play at a casual level, but I can’t figure out the strategies or combos or meta-game. I just feel like I’m blindly playing with the cards I draw that turn, hoping to draw “the good cards” from my deck but never getting them at the right time. Everything usually falls apart when playing against a skilled opponent.
(Plus, most competitive games stress me out. It doesn’t really help me “unwind” like a single-player or co-op game does.)
You don’t need to be a galaxy-brain genius to play Slay the Spire. The reason I couldn’t put it down after the first hour is because it feels like there are simple, beginner-friendly synergies between the cards that jump out to you when you get started.
You start to notice that some cards and abilities raise the Strength of each of your hits, and then you notice some attacks do multiple hits per turn.
You start to notice that some cards inflict Poison, and then other cards do extra damage to Poisoned enemies.
You start to notice that some upgrades reward you for attacking a lot, and some attacks have 0-mana cost, allowing you to use a flurry of cards in a single turn.
It doesn’t take a card game genius to notice how some cards are purposely setting you up to slam dunk with another card. On the other hand, when I play a TCG like Shadowverse, some of the card descriptions are so lengthy, confusing, and specific that it makes my eyes glaze over. Then, inevitably, I try to ignore that those cards even exist.
Slay the Spire teaches you that you can attack, you can block, you can buff yourself, you can weaken the enemy, you can poison the enemy, and you can draw cards. Most things are combinations of these simple concepts.
Then, once you’re a few more hours in, you start to notice that some of the cards seem to set you up for more risky play-styles.
You start to notice that some cards spend your own HP in order to reap rewards.
You start to notice that some cards discard cards from your hand in order to pull off powerful effects.
You start to notice that many events and upgrades ask you to give up something, like max HP or cards from your deck, in order to gain something useful.
And now…you’re knee-deep in it. Will you play safe, and focus on high HP and defensive strategies? Or will you go high-risk, high-reward and sacrifice the things that protect you in order to boost your offense? Everything begins to fall into place. Cards and decisions that seemed so reckless and harmful to use back around hour 2 are starting to seem pretty useful now that you’re at hour 20. And sure, you probably don’t win most runs, but the few times you do, the game lets you feel like a tactical genius for putting together a winning strategy.
Anyway. I’m getting ahead of myself.
Slay the Spire is, well, fun.
Handy New Search Engine Keywords
If you’ve managed to read this far and you’ve never tried a deckbuilder…first of all, you have the patience of a saint, and second of all, I wholeheartedly recommend that you give one a shot.
These games do a great job of compressing the combat and customization of a 50-hour RPG into the span of a quick 1-hour adventure. You battle enemies, make strategic choices, express yourself through the type of deck/character you make, and grow stronger over the course of the quest. They generally ditch the lengthy story cutscenes and traveling around the world map in exchange for getting straight into the battles and treasure chests.
If you find that you don’t have the time or the attention span to sink your teeth into a highly-praised RPG like a Final Fantasy, Divinity, Etrian Odyssey, Persona, Shadowrun, or a competitive TCG like Magic or Hearthstone, then deckbuilders might be the exact thing that can help scratch this itch for you.
There are deckbuilders on Steam, on mobile, and many that are tabletop/board games. There are single-player deckbuilders, competitive deckbuilders, and co-op deckbuilders. As the genre is quickly expanding, developers are trying out all sorts of approaches. Just search for “best deckbuilding games”, and you’ll find plenty of great Top 10 lists and recommendations, usually split into either tabletop or video games.
I’ve always loved video games. But that doesn’t mean I’m always in the mood for some sort of white-knuckle, high-adrenaline dexterity challenge. It also doesn’t mean I want to invest 50 hours into one singular RPG that I might give up before I even get to the fun part.
Games are great, especially when you get to make decisions that express your particular play-style. But unfortunately, most games have a skill barrier, physical dexterity barrier, or time barrier standing between you and getting to make those fun decisions. I realized, watching other people play their favorite genres, that I felt left out from getting to make those decisions you usually only make at high levels of play or at the 50-hour mark.
I was never sure if I would be able to find games that help me unwind, help me express myself through strategy, and help me feel accomplished and challenged.
I wasn’t quite sure if I was ever going to find a game genre that felt like it was for me, that I could really sink my teeth into.
But now that Slay The Spire has come along, I know exactly what kind of games I’m looking for.
And I’m so excited to try them all out.