I’ve continued to play a ton of Slay the Spire over the last few weeks, though I’ve dropped off a bit. Even when I’m not playing the game I like to think about the game. I’ve been thinking about one card in particular quite a bit recently: Prepared.
In order to talk about this card and why it’s interesting I’ll have to talk a bit about how the game works. Put briefly, each turn you draw five cards, and at the end of the turn you discard your entire hand. During each turn you have a certain amount of energy with which to play cards: You start with three energy and most cards cost one to play. In between battles, you get a choice to take one or none of three cards, and judicious selection of these is key to achieving success as the battles get more and more difficult.
Now that you have some context, Prepared is a card that costs 0 energy to play, draws an extra card, and discards a card. It is commonly regarded to be a bad card. I don’t think it is.
There’s a couple of naive ways of looking at Prepared. The first is just looking at the 0 and the draw a card and saying “ooh, free card draw!” Of course, it actually isn’t free draw, because the card you end up drawing is just the next card in your deck, which you would have drawn anyway if you’d never bothered to take Prepared. The second naive perspective is the reaction to the first, saying essentially “well this does nothing but discard a card, so it’s bad”. The first part of this is true: The second part isn’t.
There’s two assumptions that go into this read. The first assumption is that discarding a card is bad, which it frequently is not. Once you’ve spent all your energy for the turn, extra cards are useless, so until you start generating enough energy that you have some left over after using all the cards in your hand Prepared costs you nothing at all. The second assumption is that discarding a card is not good, which sounds a lot like the first one but I think is subtly distinct: One is the understanding that much of the time there is no penalty for discarding, the other is the understanding that there is frequently utility in discarding. On the more obvious end of this, there are a number of cards and relics which take advantage of discarding in various ways – in describing Prepared as a bad card people often stipulate “except in a discard deck” because of these. However, there are also curses and negative status effect cards that you want to discard before the end of your turn to keep from taking damage or other negative effects, giving it a utility outside of these specialized synergies. If you have 3 energy and most of your cards cost 1, as at the beginning of the game, prepared is almost never bad and is occasionally quite good.
Then there’s even more obscure and surprising uses. I’ve used prepared as nothing but an empty card that costs 0 alongside abilities that activate with every card played. I’ve used it to dump cards which were perfectly fine but also not good enough to justify using them when I could empty my hand and use a relic to draw more cards. I’ve used it to pull an extra card so that next turn I would have 0 cards left in my deck and be able to use an ability that’s only usable under those circumstances.
This is what’s wonderful about Slay the Spire. Everything has a use and everything works together, sometimes in delightful and unexpected ways.
I do think it’s interesting, though, seeing how these concepts of card advantage and deck thinning sometimes fail to transfer from games like Magic and Hearthstone, where most people learn them, to a game that is, on the surface, very similar. Thinning your deck is if anything even more important, since you end up cycling through it multiple times in a combat – however, the utility of cards that only serve to grind through the deck faster is questionable, since by adding them they themselves thicken the deck, which less of a concern in a game with a set deck size. Drawing more cards in Slay the Spire doesn’t control your long-term prospects the way it does in these games either, since you’re going to draw a new hand next turn anyway, but solely offers you a way to burn energy to achieve advantages on the current turn.
In all honesty, Prepared still isn’t a very good card. It’s bad in a lot of decks, and in a lot of others it makes no real difference one way or the other. Still, the specifics of when and how it’s good, and the assumptions that people bring into the game about why it is useful, or fails to be so, are interesting.