During stressful times, people return to abandoned forms of gratification to cope. This makes Slay the Spire an ideal 2020 companion. My abandoned form of gratification manifested in a sudden craving to flex my strategic supremacy in a deck-building game. MegaCrit’s revolutionary rogue-like title turned out to be the perfect scratch for that regressive itch. Ultimately, though, I was humbled by a seemingly-unassailable foe, an unwelcome reminder of the villain from my youth: Michael. He was the kid in elementary school I could never beat at trading card games.
At the start of each play-through, hopeful spire slayers choose one of four characters. Each comes with their own specific card pool. The characters climb up a randomly generated tower flush with enemies, treasure, and mystery encounters. When combat starts, players draw a selection of cards. Based on the enemy’s intent, they choose how to best spend their limited energy pool. They can block, attack, or activate special abilities. Players improve their decks at the battle’s conclusion by selecting one of three random card options. Ultimately, you want to draft a perfectly synergized deck to reach and defeat the spire’s heart. That essentially amounts to Michael from elementary school under a different name.
Starting Slay the Spire on my Nintendo Switch reminded me why I abandoned deck-building as a form of gratification in the first place. Intrusive flashbacks to playing Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! at the elementary school lunch table pervaded my mind. Slay the Spire’s quirky enemies had the same endless luck as Michael when he pulled from booster packs. Their seemingly unstoppable attacks called back to Michael’s meticulously-crafted decks of cards. With each defeat I pictured Michael’s smug, self-satisfied grin and the Cheetos-dusted fingers that so regularly tormented my childhood. Just before throwing in the towel, I realized Slay the Spire evolved past the collectible card games weaponized against me in elementary school.
The game earns its playtime through an addictive gameplay loop centered around a Sisyphean challenge and a punishing deck-building mechanic. Players must work for their advancement, and in return Slay the Spire will teach them how to reach its peak. By allowing only three available card additions at a time, players have to make the best from the options as opposed to sticking to a predetermined script. Though the game’s teaching methods are as brutal as Michael’s lunch table thrashings, the feeling of climbing just a few floors higher than your last attempt using nothing but your own wile is unmatched. It also means that every frustrating loss is also at your own merit.
The familiar frustration is a welcome reprieve from the anger accompanying a 2020 whose only guiding principle is Murphy’s Law. While endless bitterness and regular failure don’t exactly provide an escape from omnipresent despondency, the game better equips players to manage those feelings. More than that, internalizing the lessons learned from countless climbs up the spire helps prepare for any other kind of persevered endeavor.
The characters’ dramatically different play styles reinforce that strategies that are successful for one person may not be effective for another. The Ironclad, for example, plays like a traditional warrior class with powerful attacks and beefy defensive abilities. Going in guns blazing and applying that strategy to The Silent, however, will leave the more roguish character rotting in the spire’s bottom floors ad infinitum.
Not only does the game brutally teach the merits of playing to one’s individual strengths, it forces players to consider and plan for the specific challenge at hand. The spire is not a stagnant entity. Instead, each run results in a procedurally generated set of paths. The bosses at the end of these paths differ for each play-through. The game rotates through a roster of possible bosses too. Since players can see which boss is waiting at the end of each climb they could potentially plan for the encounter by drafting their cards accordingly. Even within each character, a strategy that works well to overcome one obstacle may not be the best way to overcome another.
After 50 hours of playing, the spire continues to slay me far more frequently than the more desirable alternative. Unlike the frustrating battles against Michael, Slay the Spire never feels unfair. Losses are my own fault. However, when I stare seething at the dead, crumpled form of my character, I’m not greeted with childish gloating. Instead, Slay the Spire reminds me that I’m not a kid anymore. Like everything else in the game, frustration—whether directed toward Michael, the game, or this miserable year—is something that can be overcome.
Featured Image: MegaCrit