Roguelike Deckbuilders

I picked up the nearest competitors to Slay the Spire: Monster Hunters and Dream Quest. If you were to put them on a spectrum from “roguelike” to “deckbuilder,” Dream Quest seems clearly the most roguelike, Slay the Spire the most of a deckbuilder. Hearthstone’s dungeon run stands beside them as a mess of randomness that has elements of the two genres without doing much coherent. I am setting it aside for this discussion.

The frustrating thing about these two other games is the need to grind to unlock things. There are unlocks in Slay the Spire, but not just 6 for each class, and they are not necessary to beat the game. Monster Hunters and Dream Quest both have many unlocks, and you need to grind to have a chance at the later maps. A skilled player could sit down to a fresh install of Slay the Spire and beat it. I do not think that is mathematically possible with Dream Quest or Monster Hunters. There are just too many upgrades that you unlock.

Dream Quest was not a lot of fun, so I set it aside after what seemed like a fair test. Bonus points for having poor stick figure graphics that show what West of Loathing is doing the right way.

Monster Hunters is a better game, but it lacks an enjoyable beginning, middle, and end. If you have not completed enough unlocks, you cannot reach the end. If you have enough upgrades to reach the end, the beginning is trivial. It shows growth across runs, but within a run, the first half or so is of trivial difficulty, and you are just seeing how your deckbuilding options fall out. I am interested in seeing how the lategame looks now that I have enough grinding under my belt to get to it. At least the grinding is once overall then once per class, rather than needing to be repeated per class. Most of the upgrades are shared across classes.

Of the four implementations I have tried, I favor Slay the Spire. Please mention if you have seen other variations on this theme or deckbuilding games making use of the options that computers bring.

: Zubon

Local Maximum?

“What got you here won’t get you there.”

I am getting better at Slay the Spire. I can now consistently get to the final boss. But I am pretty consistently losing there, and I am wondering whether my approach is at a local maximum. To borrow a metaphor, ladders only go so far up, and if you want to climb higher, you need to climb down and start over on a new ladder.

It may be that I am genuinely getting better and just need a bit more optimization to cross that line to consistently winning. It is also possible that I am consistently getting to the end by avoiding both good and bad risks, and therefore consistently arriving at the end underpowered. That approach will consistently get you to the end, and then you lose.

The goal is to take the good risks and avoid the bad ones. You need some good risks, assuming there are commensurate rewards. This is part of playing efficiently, learning which trade-offs look scary but are ultimately to your benefit. You need to push hard to find what the real limits are.

That is the goal for winning consistently. If you just want to win at all, dive after any risk you like. If a conservative strategy consistently gets close but does not win, a reckless strategy will occasionally win (and probably lose quickly so you can try again). What I was saying about inconsistent strategies amounts to a local maximum: you can probably win more often than I am by committing early to a strategy that depends on a few cards that may not come up, but you cannot build up a win streak that way. There are people winning consistently with long win streaks; the top of a foothill is not the peak of the mountain.

I just need to figure out how high this ladder goes. I think I have most of the deckbuilding aspect (lots of experience there) and just need to work on the roguelike aspect of picking my path (less experience there). But I could be wrong and heading down a dead end.

: Zubon


I am enjoying Slay the Spire (obsessively) and getting better at it, but I am not yet good. I have only 5 victories, whereas I understand better players can consistently get 5 in a row. So I have some distance to catch up. The basic lessons seem to be “focus on defense,” “keep your deck small,” and “no really, keep your deck small, skip like half your rewards.”

Any recommendations for folks to watch or listen to for tips? I see some suggestions that are extended versions of the above, but at least half the suggestions I have seen would be good for improving your odds if the combo comes together but not consistently. For example, suggested cards to pick with several essential pieces. You cannot reliably get essential pieces in Slay the Spire.

A disappointing thing is that there seem to be few viable approaches for long term success. There are a few “win condition” cards or combos, and you plan around whichever approach becomes viable. Both classes need massive defense, and offense is usually one of two big strength boosters in red and poison or shivs in green. The path is narrower than I had hoped.

: Zubon

Smaller Units of Randomness

Slay the Spire gives the player many small decisions where Hearthstone’s dungeon run uses a few larger decisions. The big swings are more exciting but ultimately lead to more frustration, as losing one big roll ends your run while you can easily recover from a few bad small rolls.

For deckbuilding in either game, the decision you are making at any given time is about the same: pick one of three. The total amount you are deciding is roughly comparable, a couple dozen cards. Hearthstone groups those into big chunks, where Slay the Spire lets you pick cards individually, or skip if you don’t like those options, or collect gold to shop from larger selection pools, or remove or upgrade cards. You get more options and you feel more in control. I cannot tell you how many times I picked a Hearthstone artifact or card pool and then got almost nothing to go with it.

High stakes are exciting! Talent trees that give you 1% bonuses each level are boring! But small decisions are more impactful when the big decisions are mutable. Adding Arthas to my deck is more exciting than upgrading a card in Slay the Spire, but the choice of whether to pick Arthas is usually overdetermined. Maybe his card pool is clearly the best, or I already have a Cloak of Invisibility so picking a taunt pool is clearly bad… What I am getting at is that there is not much deciding going on, so much as recognizing what works well or badly given what was available/decided previously. You make exactly 11 deckbuilding decisions in a Hearthstone dungeon run, of which maybe 2 or 3 have any tension.

The stack of the deck is another source of randomness. In Hearthstone, you get 1 card per round, and you do not expect to see all your cards in a typical game. If you get your dungeon run artifacts in the first few turns, you win. if they are on the bottom of your deck, they don’t matter at all. You lose to A. F. Kay if you draw the wrong cards. In Slay the Spire, you go through your deck several times per fight. There are lower stakes to the randomization, and you can lower it even further by keeping your deck size small. That shifts importance back towards your decisions, not the luck of the draw.

These two build on each other. That small decision to upgrade a Spire card matters a lot when you play that card several times per fight, versus a few times at all in a Hearthstone dungeon run. Picking your Hearthstone artifacts is the big, exciting decision on getting powerful toys, but the second one happens so late in the dungeon that you use it at most twice and often never, due to the stack of the deck. I upgraded a Spire card just before walking into the final boss fight, and then I played it six times.

High variability with high stakes pushes towards “go big or go home.” But the randomness determines which of those happens.

: Zubon

Higher in the Spire

After many dungeon runs in Hearthstone, I decided that I liked this idea of roguelike deckbuilder games and picked up Slay the Spire. It was exactly what I wanted, and I immediately enjoyed a four-hour binge.

A great virtue of Slay the Spire is that it is designed to be what it is. The Hearthstone dungeon run is grafting the idea onto an existing game, which has been done quite well in Blizzard games (tower defense, DOTA) but ultimately bears its full flower in a dedicated game. Hearthstone’s dungeon run starts with much greater resources in terms of art, already developed cards and mechanics, and a minion-based combat mechanic. Hearthstone’s dungeon run is bigger and bolder, flashier, and more random and frustrating. Bringing along the infrastructure of Hearthstone brings along the baggage of Hearthstone.

Slay the Spire almost certainly must have configurations that are impossible. It is a roguelike still in early release. It seems to have less opportunity to stack perverse randomness on top of more perverse randomness. With practice, I have become rather good at the Hearthstone dungeon run, but I would be surprised if I could sustainably win more than a third of the time. I get the sense that Slay the Spire takes the same idea and gives it a much higher skill cap, along with more manageable randomness.

: Zubon

Sequel and Expansion Exhaustion

I started Civ VI, but it failed to grab me. It felt a lot like going back to an old MMO after a few expansions: all the mechanics are slightly different, in a way that either inspires or alienates you. Some of the mechanics have the same name but changed, some are more or less the same thing but were renamed to a new system, and there are a few new things that synergize with all of that. I feel like I would need to relearn a game I have already learned at least five times.

It feels like an uncanny valley. If it were less similar to what I already know, I could start on a clean page. If it were more similar, it would be a new edition of something I already know, off to the races. It is disorientingly somewhere in between, where the familiarity makes it more alien.

I like the notion of breaking new ground. Veteran players do not always like that (see hatred of hexes from the last edition), but if we just wanted a new version of something we have already played 20 times, we could get the latest Madden or FPS. Trying something new does not always work, but I already have several versions of Civ. I wouldn’t need to buy a new one if this were just the same thing, started over without the systems that DLC will put back in.

Also, my first game started surprisingly cramped. Within a 7-10 hex radius, I have at least two other civilizations and three city states (or whatever they are called this time), and the only reason I don’t have more is because I started near an ocean. This is after having less than the standard number of nations on a map, so either the map is smaller than I think or the other continents must be really empty. On the forums, people speak of starting with other nations literally within visual range. The game is 15 months old, but there is perhaps some work needed before it is ready for release.

: Zubon

One Mana Cards

Low cost cards are one of the interesting balance decisions in Hearthstone. The real cost of a card is its mana cost plus any built-in penalties plus the fact that it is a card.

As an example of the first two, Squirming Tentacle is a 2/4 minion with taunt that costs 3 mana, and Vulgar Homunculus is a 2/4 minion with taunt that costs 2 mana and does 2 damage to you when you summon it. There are many ways to have costs, and there is synergy in building decks that avoid costs.

The cost of the card itself is a reason why 1-mana cards are more powerful than you would expect. The mana is less of a cost than the fact that you are using up a card. It is an opportunity cost; those cheap cards are only great in the first few turns or to burn extra mana around your stronger cards. If you have played all your cards by turn 5, drawing a 1-mana card when you have 6 mana available is suboptimal. You get one card per turn, and you have seven spaces for minions on the board.

This means that fast, aggressive (“aggro”) decks will always remain fairly effective, like classic “weenie” decks in Magic the Gathering. There are fairly inexpensive counters to large numbers of cheap cards, but cards that are card-inefficient are likely mana-efficient, or else they are just trash cards you would never use. If I can get a 2/4 minion with a special ability for 3 mana and 1 card, I better do better than a vanilla 1/2 minion for 1 mana and 1 card. The only way to keep cheap cards from being overpowered for their mana value is to make them underpowered for their card value.

The full cost of a card includes the card itself. This adds value back to cards that include a draw, although deck-thinning in that way can be a cost or a benefit depending on the context. In Dominion, cards that provide a card plus an action plus something else are popular because they have no opportunity cost that turn; the card refunds both the card and the action you used to play it. But the “plus something else” is usually pretty small unless the card is expensive, and there is still the opportunity cost that you used up the buy for a turn on that Village, when you could have got a Smithy.

: Zubon

Roguelike Deckbuilding Dungeon Crawls

Does Slay the Spire look like the sort of thing Hearthstone’s dungeon run is trying to do? Both are basically what the title says. Monster Slayers is another that came out last year, which I had not noticed. Guild of Dungeoneering does something similar, although there is limited deckbuilding scope within each dungeon run, and the dungeon opponents are less randomized than is common in roguelikes. (Hand of Fate from that post uses constructed decks, rather than deckbuilding within the dungeon, with a lot of roguelike randomness.)

This could be a new sub-genre.

: Zubon

The Hedgehog and the Fox

Yesterday‘s quote, “luck is where preparation meets opportunity,” is of disputed origin. There are several possible attributions, with an interesting one being a line that Seneca the Younger attributes to Demetrius the Cynic:

“The best wrestler is not he who has learned thoroughly all the tricks and twists of the art, which are seldom met with in actual wrestling, but he who has well and carefully trained himself in one or two of them, and watches keenly for an opportunity of practising them.”

I feel like I could mine that quote for hours.

For reference, consider the hedgehog and the fox. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one important thing. Continue reading The Hedgehog and the Fox