Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Slay The Spire, which is currently in early access on Steam and which will be coming to the Nintendo Switch in the near future, presents itself as a card battler game. You fight monsters, have strange encounters, see shops, and camp, all the while making your way toward the Spire. Each of these events gives you certain tools to build a deck of moves. Attacks, skills, and artifacts begin piling up, and the play of the game is about figuring out optimal sequences in which to use those moves to defeat enemies of progressive difficulty.
However, after getting into one of those “just one more game” overcommitment spirals, the kind you only experience when a game really manages to get its hooks into you, I’ve come to the conclusion that Slay The Spire isn’t really about deck building at all. Instead, it’s about how we produce, remember, and recall knowledge. It’s a game that asks us to reflect on how we manage all the things we can do with what we know.
It’s worth taking a second to discuss the relationships that Slay The Spire sets up between the player, the deck of cards that contain all of their possible actions, and what is actually happening on the screen.
In combat, which is where a player spends 90% of their time, we’re looking from a side view that’s not all that different from a game like Darkest Dungeon. At the bottom of a screen we have a deck, a hand of cards, a discard pile, and we have an “exhausted” pile of cards. Each turn, the player draws a hand of cards, and at the end of their turn they discard the cards they were not able to use during that turn. When the deck runs out of cards, the discard pile is shuffled and becomes the deck, minus cards that were “exhausted” due to special use cases.
The puzzle-y work of Slay The Spire is centered on using your hand as efficiently as possible every turn. You want to use all of your cards, but each card costs a certain amount of energy, and you only have so much of it (generally, you have three energy per turn.) Even if you haven’t played the game, this should be familiar to everyone who has played a card game post- Magic: The Gathering. In these card games, the gain and expenditure of resources provides a certain rhythm of play.
The roguelike influence on Slay The Spire puts it in a slightly different register from Magic, though, because Slay has you building your deck as you play. Each monster encounter you overcome adds a card to your deck, and when you add that card you are choosing from three options. In the fiction of the game, this is literal knowledge; you are learning more sword swipes, more ways to block, and new ways of thinking about the combat tricks that you already know. You’re accumulating knowledge.
Each time you play you are creating a new deck, and that deck has a type. For example, The Ironclad (the game’s default character, of which there are three total), has two broad deck types. One is dependant on building up Block, which prevents damage, and using your Block number to cause damage to enemies. You can get cards that hurt enemies every time you gain Block or deal damage based on the amount of Block you currently have. This becomes an organizing principle for the cards you can choose after fights or in the in-game shop: What cards make my Block deck better? What will enable me to fight the next boss that comes along?
The brilliance of the system in in the discarding, though. When your turn is over, you discard the remaining cards in your hand. Unlike Magic, there’s no saving cards for the opportune moment when you can unleash your sick combo. Instead, by drawing a new hand for the player each turn, the game forces you to become less concerned with your most powerful cards and more worried about your weakest cards.
Drawing a new hand that is full of clunkers that don’t push your game plan forward essentially means that you’re losing a turn, and it becomes a compound problem when your deck begins getting bigger and bigger.
Slay The Spire tells us that more knowledge, more moves, more strategic options is power. And that knowledge comes both in the form of the cards you have (what your character knows) and the form of the strategic options that a player might know. The player’s metagame of curving their deck design toward particular ideas impacts the smaller game, the one about this character who knows several ways of striking at weakness, and yet both of these kinds of knowledges share the same Achilles heel. The more you have access to, the less chance you have of actually finding the things you need. Even worse, as a player, you know what you do and do not need. You know the chances of finding your cards due to how many are left in your deck. And when you don’t find those cards in a battle, the output is usually death.
This also gets played out in curses, wounds, and various other status effects. Spire has traditional Final Fantasy-ish side effects that impact you going forward by forcing you to, for example, take more damage. But there are also curses like Doubt that, once applied to a character, get shuffled into the deck. These, too, are forms of knowledge for that character, a recognition of a potential downfall, and they get drawn into your hand as easily as a Wound that blots out your thoughts or a Burn that rages while you’re trying to contemplate a cleave maneuver.
After enough play sessions, Slay The Spire becomes a game that asks players to reconcile themselves with the fact that both types of knowledge, that of the character and that of the player, might be dangerous. Having ten different ways of slashing enemies might crowd out the knowledge of Blocking that you might need at a given moment.
If the deck becomes a kind of metaphor for the mind, then the game is implicitly arguing that the demands of the monster-infested world are ones that encourage us to specialize and hone in on the things we believe will make us powerful.
And so, on the other side, Spire instructs us that, as players, we have to be tactical about our vulnerability. We need to recognize that developing certain kinds of knowledge like our supreme Block ability is going to come at the cost of being able to burn enemies down with constant attacks. To develop knowledge of one domain means retreating for another. You become weak; you expose your throat. You know that an enemy who ignores your Block ability will be your death.
By flattening player knowledge and character knowledge into deck building and construction, Slay The Spire does the thing that so many roguelikes fail to. Mechanically and conceptually, each play session asks you about where you want to end. You get to pick your ruin, to some degree, by choosing how you want to be strong. That always comes in the form of a knowledge tradeoff, and what you learned last game doesn’t necessarily translate to a new game and a new deck. After all, if you’re a specialist in building up Block, you might not know anything about creating another kind of deck. The character knowledge of the previous game pollutes the character knowledge of the next one.
You find the way you’re going to die by choosing the knowledge that allows you to live.
Only up until a certain point, though. Eventually you slay the spire, I guess, although I’ve not gotten there and probably never will. The clockwork terror of futile life of knowing and failing, living and dying, is so powerful that I’m afraid I won’t be able to transcend it. I mean, maybe I can get the right build, the right set of contingencies, that my ingenuity and deck can get me out of the deadly spiral. The desire to transcend might be missing the point, though.