Slay the Spire and Stolen Strategies

Slay the Spire and Stolen Strategies


Hello, this is The Gemsbok, and today’s topic is Slay the Spire, a game developed by Mega Crit Games and originally released in 2019. The deck- building roguelike Slay the Spire is a well-designed, challenging, engaging game. Each of the game’s characters has a unique set of cards, from which options are randomized and dealt to the player during each run, usually as a choice of one from three at a time. Each run begins with a small standard deck, which the player improves, expands, contracts, and (ideally) eventually uses to conquer 50 to 54 floors of the spire. On succeeding, the player unlocks a slightly harder version of the game for the character that won, up to a maximum of 20 difficulty modifiers (a system called ascension in- game). Deck-building games, like most games with card-based combat, are a subset of the strategy genre. The principal challenge of Slay the Spire, as in its broader strategy siblings, is—as the name of the genre implies—developing and executing an effective strategy. In theory, barring some truly horrendous luck, a person who has robust strategies should be able to beat the game a reasonable proportion of the time, even at high ascension levels. Figuring out which strategies work and which strategies don’t work forms nearly the entire gameplay loop and motivation structure of the game throughout nearly the entire time a player will spend with it. I feel that these facts must be patently obvious to most players of Slay the Spire. Yet I’ve encountered again and again people who give new players some truly objectionable advice, which would never come from someone that understood those precepts. The advice in question runs rampant in the forums across the web dedicated to the game, and even feels implied in the words of the developers within the game’s graphic settings when they say that they “recommend borderless fullscreen for fast alt-tab.” The relevant advice is to use secondary resources—such as watching high-level players in order to ‘learn the game,’ or having a wiki open while playing. I intend to argue here that doing so is tantamount to telling new players to skip the most engaging and valuable content of Slay the Spire. The most important thing for me to clear up right away is that this is not a video about how people just need to ‘get good,’ nor that people should never look up walkthroughs, nor the people who need extra assistance to beat games are failures, nor anything like that. I simply don’t believe any of that, and I need that to be completely clear for the argument that follows to have its fair share of credibility. There are plenty of situations where I think it would be appropriate to use a walkthrough for a game. For instance, if one is playing through an RPG and reaches a moment where they get stuck; they exhaust all apparent paths toward progress; and they are on the verge of simply abandoning the game—then of course that player should consult a walkthrough to see what sliver of unintuitive activity grants access to the rest of the experience. Or, for another example, if one is attempting to achieve 100% completion in a game that involves large numbers of collectibles in sections of the game that are locked off after leaving, then it makes much more sense to follow a walkthrough than to risk starting the entire playthrough from the beginning repeatedly. That latter situation is likely to be a person’s second or third playthrough rather than their first anyway. And there are even plenty of situations where I think it would be appropriate to have a body of community knowledge, such as a wiki, ready-to-hand while playing. Prime examples of this group include games with opaque and extremely broad mechanics, such as Terraria, and games with mechanics or items that are only vaguely explained in-game, such as The Binding of Isaac. This is not a problem for those games because Terraria’s exploration and construction and Isaac’s combat are the primary driving forces for playing them. Learning all of Terraria’s crafting recipes or all of Isaac’s item statistics may be appealing or useful to some players, but those exercises will always be secondary to those games’ core experiences. There are also situations, however, in which I think looking up guides and other external resources defeats the purpose of playing the game in the first place. An excellent example of this would be any puzzle game. Getting stuck, as in the walkthrough example, and feeling that the information given is vague, as in the community resource example, are par for the course in a puzzle game. In fact, I would go so far as to say both of those elements are part of the basic design of the genre. The entirety of the gameplay in a puzzle game is encompassed by seeing something that is not immediately understandable, and then thinking carefully about the situation until one is able to understand it. When one looks up a solution to a puzzle, they have removed that segment of the game from their experience—reducing their participation in the game to a simple matter of mindlessly clicking on some graphics. The game has been transformed from engaging to boring, and may as well be a slow extended cutscene rather than a game. Now, I’ll bridge this over to the strategy genre in the section immediately following this, but I need to provide one final caveat: even this last group could possibly contain games that are better approached with the mentality that resorting to a walkthrough is alright. After all, a game might not be well- designed. It might be a strategy game that doesn’t explain what its mechanics do, or a puzzle game with extraneous and/or deeply misleading features. But Slay the Spire is none of those. Within the sub-genre of deck-building strategy games, its presentation is excellent and its details are clear. In fact, its cards are so well-labeled and its mechanics are so intuitive that I was able to beat the game on my very first run, and beat act four on the very first run that it was an available route, despite having never seen a single other player do either of those things previously. Uh, side note: this gave me the confidence to start climbing the ascension levels right away, which eventually started kicking my butt and forcing me to refine my strategies. So, if Slay the Spire is mechanically clear and comprehensible, then the negative consequences of seeking significant outside help—whatever they may be—are in full effect. But what are those consequences? The player-character begins each round of Slay the Spire at the base of a narrow, foreboding, ever-changing tower, resurrected there by a vengeful condemned ancient named Neow. Neow continually resurrects the game’s protagonists at her place of exile at the bottom of the spire in order to send them up the structure again and again to hopefully, one day—well, slay it. The struggle of the player-character against the continually worsening conditions in the spire—and against its aggressive, selfish denizens—is represented by the playing of a card game. The card game principally involves balancing offense and defense in one’s deck so as to mitigate and overcome the many possible sources of damage and bad luck, ultimately to emerge victorious at the spire’s dark summit. Sounds pretty great, right? It is pretty great! So much care has been taken, especially through community-centric beta tests, to ensure that each character has a set of possible cards which interweave into multiple viable synergies, while each character feels surprisingly distinct mechanically. And the cherry on top is a brooding, moody soundtrack which somehow manages to be both soothing and unnerving simultaneously. I guess what I’m trying to express so far in this section is that it’s a game into which, despite the heavy abstraction of card-based gameplay, one can really immerse oneself. Damage is so hard to avoid in each and every combat that it always feels like there are stakes to every decision, which makes every choice meaningful and most encounters beyond act one reasonably gripping. I’m not personally very fond of the digital painting artstyle used for the character models, but other than that— which I grant is very subjective— I have no big complaints about Slay the Spire whatsoever. I think it’s a strategy game that does everything one should and could to set the player up for success and enjoyment—including starting off simple and easy then gradually scaling the difficulty and complexity as the player’s familiarity with the game, and thus their devised strategy, improves. Now, in order to express the crux of my argument, it’s time to connect the ideas from the previous section directly to the strategy genre. Think once again about the experience of playing any strategy game. One meets the elements and challenges as a new player, and clumsily assembles the elements against the challenges. They may succeed or they may fail, but either way in doing so they learn a bit about how to use those elements more effectively next time. As they gain experience with the game, they develop a strategy that is their own. Their application of the elements becomes more and more refined, allowing them to achieve greater and greater victories under harsher and harsher circumstances. In an ideal situation, they feel that they have mastered the game around the same time that they overcome its greatest challenges. What a wonderful concept, eh? But now bring your focus onto Slay the Spire, and imagine a different course. Halfway through the experience described just now, imagine our earnest new player being encouraged to watch a top level player play the game—to ‘get some tips.’ Remember, it’s not a competitive match played between players; it’s a match played between the player and the game. It would be understandable to hear this advice in a player-versus-player situation, even a card based one such as Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering, because human players can develop, alter, and present new strategies in between every encounter. Not to mention the vastly higher number of cards that a player of one of those titles would need to be aware of. Instead, when this hypothetical player watches a skilled player play Slay the Spire, they receive the winning strategies. In effect, they’ve been given the solutions to the puzzles. Sure, Slay the Spire is a game with a lot of randomization, and even the perfect set of priorities and strategies can’t guarantee a 100% win rate, especially at the highest ascension levels. But once you have the most effective strategy, you’re almost not even playing the game anymore. Just as in the puzzle game example, you’re essentially enacting a slow-moving cutscene. You already know which cards to prioritize, which relics to choose, and which techniques are the most effective. You’re less a strategic player, and more a computer program running an algorithm designed by a strategic player elsewhere in the world. Again like the puzzle game example, what’s really happened to players who seek outside information in Slay the Spire is that they’ve skipped part of the game’s content, because in a strategy title learning how the game is played and developing strategies—is the game. Great strategy games are not necessarily defined by the intricacies of their systems, but rather by the engagement and enjoyment possible when making the mental journey from having a poor strategy to having a strong strategy. Slay the Spire is a game about characters trapped in a harrowing loop, with hazy or absent memories of their past attempts to escape. But, occupying a transcendent space relative to the characters that is not unlike that of Neow, the player can guide the actions of these weary warriors a little better each time. And through attentive, incremental effort, the player can bring rest to Neow, freedom to the characters, and glory and satisfaction to themselves! Or they can read the wiki and wait for the right card drops so they can throw the game in the garbage and move on to something else.