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Impression: Slay the Spire

Slay the Spire is basically a deck-building roguelike in the vein of Hearthstone’s Dungeon Run with a splash of Dominion. While still in Early Access, damn near everything about the game was compelling enough to grab my attention for 20+ hours immediately after purchasing.


Not a good hand at the moment.

The basic gameplay cadence is to pick one of two classes, and then complete encounters on your way up the Spire. At the start, you have 10 cards in your deck, and three energy to spend each turn. After each turn, cards you played (and any you didn’t) go to the discard pile and you draw 5 more cards. When you run out of cards, the discard pile is shuffled into a new draw pile, repeat ad infinitum.

Your beginning deck is basically filled with 1-energy Attack (deal 6 damage) and Defend (gain 5 block) cards. As you defeat enemies, you get a choice of one of three cards to add to your deck. Some of these are strict upgrades to your basic cards (Deal 5 damage AND gain 5 block), but many of them are completely different mechanically (discard your entire hand, draw that many cards). Adding these new cards to your deck makes it more powerful, but just as with Dominion, a deck with 30+ cards is not as powerful as a deck with 15 cards – you are simply less likely to get the combo pieces you need when you need them.

This is where the brilliance of Slay the Spire comes in. For one thing, it allows you to forgo getting new cards if you wish. Additionally, in shops and certain non-combat encounters, you can choose to remove cards from your deck. This is good both for thinning the lower-impact cards from your deck, and also removing Curse cards (usually just a dead draw) you might have inadvertently picked up. In addition to cards, you can also get one-use potions, and gain Relics, which are typically passive abilities that augment your run in some way.

All of this is on top of a robust buff/debuff system, a dozen or so different enemy types with their own behaviors, a bunch of bosses/elite encounters, some non-combat events, Shops that let you purchase new cards, one-use potions with nice effects, and so on and so forth.

Oh, and have I mentioned that the two available classes have different card pools?

Since purchasing the game last week, I have beaten the final encounter a couple of times with both classes, using (by necessity) several different methods based on which relics I managed to pick up. For example, one relic gives you 3 Block each time you discard a card. Suddenly, Calculated Gamble (Discard your hand, draw that many cards, costs zero) becomes the best defense card in the game, while simultaneously moving you closer to a your win condition cards. Other games required playing and fetching the same two cards as many times as possible. Still other games saw me die to the first elite encounter I faced, three moves into a run.

Roguelikes sometimes dislike rogues, know what I’m sayin’?

In any case, if you were looking for something less RNG than Hearthstone’s Dungeon Run, or enjoy deckbuilding in general, I highly recommend Slay the Spire. It is in Early Access, so technically it could get better or worse, but they would have to essentially gut the entire game at this point to make it not worth the $13 (on sale) I already paid. Buy it, or keep it on your radar once it releases for real.


Instant Gratification vs Fun Investment

All this talk about Magic: the Gathering makes me want to revisit a topic I briefly touched on last week, in the comments here and elsewhere. Namely, the sort of denigration of “instant gratification” and the elevation of investing in “long-term fun,” which is presumably shorthand for “doing a series of boring things for a reward later.”

The choice between instant gratification versus an investment in long-term fun is a false dichotomy. Gaming is an instance in which you can have your cake and eat it too.

One of the examples activities that was used to illustrate how “boring gameplay” can lead to bigger returns in fun was painting figurines in a tabletop game like Warhammer. Simply purchasing already-painted figurines would just not be the same despite having no direct gameplay relevance. I agree. I also agree with the notion that, say, using cheat codes to become immortal, having infinite money, and so on right at the start of the game likely diminishes the overall amount of fun you can derive from it.

But here’s the thing: someone who paints their Warhammer figures probably finds the act of painting them fun.

I used to play a lot of Magic: the Gathering back in high school. The games were nothing serious, just some 3-5 person chaos multiplayer amongst friends. However I would routinely spend about 10 hours crafting decks for every 1 hour a given deck would actually see play. In fact, if any of my decks began to routinely win, I stopped using them and built new ones.¹ And I had fun!

Deck-building was almost better than playing the actual game for me. There is something deeply satisfying in seeing a complicated scheme all fall into place, top-decking the one perfect counter that changes the game right when you need it to. But running all those scenarios through my head, pouring over all my available options, whittling down a pile of 250 cards I wanted to use into a perfectly-tuned 60-card machine was pure entertainment in of itself.

Another example: D&D. I ran a 4-year campaign throughout all of college, and a little beyond. As a DM, I let my players have ample freedom, but I made sure the world they inhabited was scaffolded in lore such that they had a place in it. In other words, I wanted to give them the ability to take the world as serious as they wanted to. Of course, most sessions started and ended with them starting a bar fight rather than the existential pondering I secretly wanted them to do. But it is not much of a stretch to say that I spent 20 hours per week in preparation of one 3-6 hour session. Never once did I consider those 20 hours a chore. I was excited to DM those games because it gave me the opportunity (and justification) to spend all that time world-building.

Now, clearly, what an individual finds fun is going to be subjective, and possibly something that changes over time and circumstance. But my point here is that the sort of activities necessary for long-term enjoyment – figure-painting, deck-building, world-creation – can be fun in of themselves. Not only can, but should. This extends to all in-game activities.

I do not buy the argument that something like Darkfall/EVE’s AFK resource-gathering systems is fun “because it gives you the time to do something else.” An activity doesn’t become fun by adding in a separate fun thing; an activity is either fun in of itself or it isn’t.² An unfun thing can become tolerable when mixed, but that is not a point in the base activity’s favor. Being punched in the face is alright if you give me $1,000, but I would rather just have the $1,000. Is desiring just the money considered “instant gratification,” or is that simply rational?

You can rightly question why I am not currently building Magic decks or constructing D&D campaigns if they are so fun in of themselves. The truth is that without the payout, without the destination at the end of the journey, these (investment) activities are not as fun to me. However, while they might not be as fun – that is, they are less fun than other things I could be doing instead – keep in mind that they still are fun. An actual destination acts as a force multiplier, if you will, to the entertainment of the journey. Contrast that with many of the in-game “investments” we are tasked to complete which make no sense to perform at all without reward, e.g. they are the punch to the face.

The distinction is important, because I feel it is far too easy to for us gamers to fall into the cognitive dissonance trap of “retroactive fun” and Sunk Cost fallacy. “I spent 5 hours farming herbs, it must have all been worth it!” Even if there is no real difference between actual fun and retroactive fun in practice (and isn’t that a depressing thought?), it does matter when comparing games mechanics in the moment.

All things considered, you should desire the mechanics that are both fun now and even more fun later. We simultaneously can and deserve to have both.

¹ A successful deck was a sort of “proof of concept” for me. Could my infinite damage combo reliably work in an actual hostile environment? Coming up with combos was a lot easier than constructing a deck capable of pulling them off, after all. Plus, my goal was never to craft a (P2W) deck that beat my friends 100% of the time; that sort of thing is never fun to play against anyway.

² It’s probably more accurate to say fun is a gradient rather than a binary distinction, one that can shift from one moment to the next. But I still believe that the unfun half of the scale hits zero right near the border.

Hex Followup

Is it just me, or does the word “followup” just look weird after a while?

…anyway. Here are some relevant Q&A straight from the forums regarding the now-funded Hex:

Q: Any chance this might be headed to IOS as well?
A: Our immediate launch plans are PC and Mac, but the tech has built from the ground up for mobile.

Q: I would also like to know about the card rotation plan. Will there be standard and unlimited formats, or will all cards be legal to play forever?
A: Right now we’re planned for a 2 block format, as well as an everything format. That is the current plan. We might revisit it after 2 years of data.

Q: The estimated delivery sep 2013 is that for the full game or the beta stages ?
A: September is the estimated delivery for the beta, which will have all of the PvP content and some of the PvE content.

Q: Will the game require a big internet connection? I’m currently working 6 month a year in a inuit village with Satellite internet connection and wireless modems and I get a 5000 ping in online games like Path of Exile here. Wondering if the game will be playable in those condition (Drop out, Lags, ect).
A: The internet overhead of the game is very, very low. The amount of data that goes back and forth to the server is minimal, and we have a 3 minute reconnect timer, that if you lose connection during a game, you have 3 minutes to log back in and you will be automatically rejoined to that game. Any single player experience just uses save states, so you can actually rejoin almost any time after disconnecting.

Okay… hold up a sec. “Working 6 months a year in a inuit village”? You know what, nevermind.

Q: Weird question i know, but any plans of a post beta wipe, getting packs and such back?
A: We will not do a post-beta wipe. Once we give you something, we won’t take it away in even the most seemingly kind way (eg, by refunding packs.) If you open a super rare awesome card it’s yours until you decide to trade it.

Q: So there is currently no other way to get cards for PVP except through initial pledge and buying $2 each?
A: The only way to get PvP packs is through the KS rewards, at $2 each, or as rewards for playing in drafts/constructed tournaments. We will also have an auction house, and I’d expect that PvP commons can be easily picked up off there at budget prices.

So it’s official: you cannot earn booster packs in PvE content. In other words, the only way anyone is playing Limited/Draft formats is for them to have bought, traded for, or won boosters themselves. Based on other questions, it appears the first set is 350 PvP cards that only come from boosters, and 300 PvE cards that are only earned in PvE and cannot be used in normal PvP games (but there might be “anything goes” formats for fun). Now, it is likely you will be able to sell a particularly nice rare you got in a Draft (that you otherwise lost) to help purchase boosters to try your luck again, but otherwise these games are going to cost you $6 a pop for less than an hour of play.

By the way, the stretch goal for $540,000?

540K – Add Primal Packs

Primal Packs are “god packs” that will drop for lucky players when buying HEX booster packs. It is not a separate item in the HEX Store. Every card in this booster is a Rare or Legendary! In addition, each Primal Pack will contain a Legendary Treasure Chest that will hold some truly incredible items, which you can open or trade in the Auction House. Speaking of which, should you be lucky enough to get one of Primal Packs, they are tradable and can be given or put in the Auction House for others just like any other pack. To maintain balance in a tournament setting, you cannot get a Primal Pack during a draft.

“Yo dawg, I heard you like gamble boxes. So we put gamble boxes in your gamble boxes […]”

If it sounds like I am being unduly harsh, it’s simply because I know the effect these sort of games have on me. Drafting is addicting: you get to see 24 boosters being opened, passed around, and picked apart, plus the 30 minutes of frantic deck-building, plus the very-real pressure of best-out-of-three duels with the prize being enough boosters to join another draft for free. That’s a sex, drugs, and rock & roll combo of endorphins right there.

But you’re going to pay. A lot. Unless you’re good, I suppose, in which case the poor players will be subsidizing your gameplay.

Just screwing around in 1v1 Standard duels is fun and all, but you won’t be getting any new cards; there is no progression without pay. Then again, I suppose that is what the whole PvE side of the game will be about. Will it be enough? You cannot use your PvE cards in PvP. Then again, PvE cards do not “expire” and yet there will be additional PvE sets in the future, presumably along with additional monsters/dungeons/raids, so… yeah. Maybe Cryptozoic will be able to shore up the one weakness Magic Online has.

I suppose we’ll see in September, once the Beta is released.