Winning ugly is still winning: Peter Whalen's guide to Dream Quest

By Guest Post 27 May 2014 0
I used to read Word Up magazine. I used to read Word Up magazine.

PT's current fixation with Peter Whalen's roguelike card combat game Dream Quest is a great reminder that a fine game need not be pretty. Or even remotely close to that.

If Dream Quest is an unsightly toad of a game then it's one that turns into a prince if you spend more than 20 minutes with it -- a couple of runs through its randomized dungeons are all you need to uncover its delightful complexity. With a world that includes 13 character classes and dozens of different cards to pick and choose from, I asked Whalen if he would give us some pointers on how to conquer it.  

Peter's gone with a bullet point-style that I chose not to edit. Zen koans about Dream Quest. --Owen


  • Be very careful adding cards to your deck.  Adding a bad card is worse than not adding a card at all.

  • Look for synergies.  One good way to do that is to find a card you like and build around it.  Good examples include Strike, Piety, Electrocute, or Sword.

  • Cards that are narrow are cheaper than cards that are more general and often more powerful as well.  Wrath of God, Mimic, and Colossus Smash are all good examples.

  • Don’t waste weak monsters.  Defensive classes can use low level monsters to heal and everyone can use them to reset cooldowns.  Try alternating strong monsters with easy ones to best make use of your cooldown abilities.

  • Respect the bosses. Always have everything up going in and, if you know what the boss does, try to buy cards that are specifically good in that matchup.

  • Your deck is dependent on your run – try not to go in with a specific plan and tailor your strategy to what you see.

The Ooze doesn't want to hurt you -- he's just trying to raise the roof. The Ooze doesn't want to hurt you -- he's just trying to raise the roof.

Getting Started

  • Try the different classes at least once.  They each have very different play styles, so find the one that suits you best.

  • Spend your achievement points on passives first.  They mostly come from the “Kill 5 goblin”-style achievements.  The dragon one is particularly hard to get naturally and has a useful bonus.

  • Don’t ignore health!  Early on, health is one of the best things you can get, whether from the first talent, a level-up reward, or from the Lemonade Stand.

Floor 2 and Beyond

  • First and foremost, make your deck powerful.  You should always be able to answer the question “What’s my plan?”  Whenever you pick up a card, make sure it plays well with the plan.

  • Make sure your deck is versatile.  Entirely defensive or entirely offensive decks have a tough time surviving.  Make sure you can deal multiple elements of damage or convert your damage into piercing.

  • Learn which monsters are easy and hard for your deck type.  Wraiths and ghouls, for example, are easy for defensive decks and very hard for offensive ones, while water elementals or Akami stormcallers are the opposite.


The Samurai hated those drapes. The Samurai hated those drapes.

The Classes

Some specifics for the base classes.  Note that there are a bunch of archetypes I don’t list as well as some hybrid archetypes that play differently – these are just some common ones.


  • First and foremost, look for things to smooth out your deck.  Circle and Protean are very important pickups.  In the same vein, it’s important to get a second base action as early as possible, whether from a level-up or from a shop.

  • There are two primary archetypes – Backstab and Strike.

    • The backstab deck likes lots and lots of action cards of various types, especially free ones (cards that don’t cost actions and draw you a card).  Cards like Swiftness, Alacrity, and Jab are the heart of this deck.  You don’t need too many base actions since you’re spending your gold on Swiftnesses and Alacrities and going through your deck very fast.  Good later cards include Preparation (to double the damage of your finisher) and Dice (a double-strength Backstab).

    • The Strike deck relies on a couple of high level Strike cards to do most of the damage.  It needs lots of base actions, as a rule at least enough to play the highest level of Strike.  Deletes are very important for this deck – you just want to play your Strikes.  Also, Desperate Strike, Mimic, or other cards that copy the Strikes at a lower action cost are phenomenal.  Later upgrades are mostly ways to take advantage of your large base action count – Coup de Grace and Darting Daggers are two examples that directly convert actions into damage.

  • Thieves have a very hard time with physical resistant monsters.  Try to pick up an elemental slash card on the first floor or a Pierce on the second to combat them.  Since you go through your deck very quickly, just one (or possibly two) is often enough.


  • Use Smash liberally.  Knowing which monsters are around and what bonuses there are will let you plan a route that optimizes your cooldowns.

  • Lean heavily on double strike (your level 3 cooldown).  Copying a card is very powerful; early it is mostly used to copy an elemental slash, but late it can copy a powerful equipment or something else even more devastating.  Similarly, it’s important to have something excellent to copy, so you’re often better taking a single expensive card than a couple of cheaper ones.

  • The two primary warrior archetypes are epitomized by Colossus Smash and Slash.

    • Colossus Smash decks try to find particularly powerful cards to use with double strike while avoiding action cards.  On floor 1, lean mostly on health and deletes and let the doubled Colossus Smash carry you through.  On floor 2, Holy Strike, Pierce, and especially Wrath of God are very strong.  Finding utility in attack cards is important to these decks.

    • Slash decks rely on maximizing the Sword by getting as many triggers as possible.  On floor 1, picking up another Sword, Slashes, and some elemental strikes is helpful.  Scimitars and Gauss’ Hourglass are also great.  These decks can also play some action cards, though they’d like as few as possible since action cards can’t trigger the Sword.  The real payoff for these decks comes from the floor 3 Cruel talent, as well as cards that weaken your opponent, causing them to take additional physical damage from each source which makes the sword triggers enormously powerful.

Know when to hold 'em. Know when to hold 'em.


  • Priest decks need a careful balance.  Since you’re likely to go through your deck quickly, you need to have your mana costs balanced against the amount of mana you generate.  Similarly, you need to make sure that your offense and defense are both reasonable – a little more offense can often take pressure off an overtaxed defense.

  • Priests have the most in-combat decisions of any of the base classes, so it’s important to understand your enemy and decide early on in the fight whether you want to make it long or short.

  • Priests archetypes have more of a gradient than other classes, generally based on how mana hungry you want your deck to be.

    • Mana-hungry priests need high level mana cards.  Consider using your first talent to upgrade the Mana 1 that you start with.  Good spells include Haste and Bless early and powerful finishers like Absorb Vis late

    • Mana-light priests generally spend their gold on action cards instead.  Wisdom can power most of your early spells like Heal or Mind Sear.  Early game deck thinners like Inner Strength are great, as are defensive cards like Extract and Curse of Weakness.  These decks tend to play most of their cards each turn (or at least see most of their cards each turn) which allows cumulative effects like Curse of Weakness to be very powerful


  • Wizard decks are usually focused on one or two particular elements.

  • Lightning decks are very mana hungry – Mana Surge is a very high priority and mana management in general is the most important thing here.  Lightning decks can often have only one or two kill spells (Electrocutes) and rely on just building up a huge mana pool to fuel them.

  • Fire decks like having lots of base mana to smooth out draws where you find your powerful spells before your mana cards.  Focus less on making sure that your deck is mana-neutral and more on making sure you can cast one volley of spells which will hopefully be enough.  Mana Swell (or any spell doubler) is fantastic in fire decks since it allows you to deal enormous damage while conserving mana.

  • Frost spells provide excellent support for the other elements and can also form a viable deck on their own.  For a mostly frost deck, consider taking cards like Charm and Bewitch to interrupt the cards that aren’t already being shut down by your freeze.

  • Earth decks are helped by having excellent defenses.  Earth plays very well with frost since poison spells are by far the most damaging if allowed to run their course.  As a result, you can spend more of your gold on other cards and rely on fewer spells.

  • Consider taking Flee as the Wizard.  A good strategy is to fight a high level monster, flee if your opening hand isn’t very strong (or doesn’t just kill them), and then fight a low level monster to reset your cooldown and try again.  Since good wizard hands are so much better than bad wizard hands, you can often defeat someone otherwise far beyond your capabilities this way.  In essence, Flee allows you to take a mulligan if you don’t like your starting hand.

Read Kelsey's review of Dream Quest from May 23rd..
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