The Joker Is Truly Wild in Balatro Deck Builder

Do you like roguelikes? Do you like deck building? How about the ever-popular deck building roguelike? Many deck building roguelikes try to immerse you in a fantasy setting with specific rules, like Slay the Spire, or they try to disguise the card mechanic by hearkening back to Battle Chips like in One Step from Eden. Where Balatro diverges from the norm is that the mechanics of this game use a rule set nearly everyone is familiar with to some degree: a standard 52 card deck and stud poker.

You don’t actually play against a human or CPU opponent in Balatro. Your primary goal is to clear each ante, and each ante consists of a small blind, a large blind, and a boss blind. Each blind sets a chip total you need to reach by playing hands of poker like straights, flushes, or three of a kind, and with each blind the chip total you need increases. This means you need to be developing quick methods of getting better and better hands of poker consistently, so you can clear the game by beating the eighth ante.

When you pick a blind, you have a specific number of hands and discards you can use to match the score goal you need to clear the stage. With the starter deck, you should have four hands you can play, total, with three possible discards. This means that to meet the necessary score for the first small blind, you can play a single full house, if you manage to arrange one with the discards you have available. Or you could play two pairs a couple of times, or any combination therein. The only thing that matters is that you need to match the score goal- if you run out of hands before doing so, your run is over, and it’s back to the main menu for you.

What makes Balatro interesting is that it uses the rules of stud poker, and, at first, you’re just trying to assemble hands worth enough points to pass your first blinds. The structure is simple, but the twist with the formula for Balatro is that every single rule of poker can be broken, and you can build your deck however you like. Powerful joker cards can bend the rules in your favor, causing your cards to count more than once toward scoring, while others may give powerful multipliers to certain played hands or give you a significantly larger hand size to play with.

Of course, if that’s all there were to jokers, there wouldn’t be much to talk about in Balatro. Some joker cards inherently change the rules of the game, like allowing you to make a flush with only four cards of a matching suit instead of the usual five, for example. Finding the correct jokers and building toward specializing in certain kinds of hands can go a long way toward getting huge score values in Balatro.

In between blinds, you can visit the shop to acquire new jokers, tarot cards, planet cards, or the incredibly rare spectral cards. Tarot cards are consumables that allow you to modify your deck in some capacity. For example, they can change the suit of some cards to hearts or diamonds, or maybe they’ll allow you to convert one card into another. Planet cards upgrade the points and multipliers of the card hands you can play, so finding the planets for your preferred hand is always a great way to keep your score scaling through higher and higher chip totals. Spectral cards provide big benefits, like destroying a card in your hand to add a bunch of enhanced face cards to your deck.

Each card can also come in different versions, too. A card made of glass can provide a nice multiplier bonus, but it has a chance to shatter when played. Cards can be turned into wild cards, bonus cards, or come in special editions like foil or polychrome which can make it easier to reach your score goals for each blind. There are a lot of enhancements that can be added to your cards, whether it is adding a seal to them or making them holographic, and nearly all enhanced cards provide a very solid benefit, though some you’ll need to strategize around.

It’s the strategy aspect of Balatro that makes it so addicting. You can have a deck of 120 or more cards with nearly all of them made up of steel polychrome Kings of Hearts if that’s what you want to do. You can also strip your deck down to as few as 20 cards to enable a joker that gives you a multiplier for every card fewer than a standard 52 card deck has within it. You can work toward changing all of your deck into the same suit or even the same card, as previously mentioned- there’s a great amount of flexibility, and many of the jokers work in ways that can be both exponential and unexpected.

There is a significant amount of randomness as to whether or not a specific build for your deck will come together in any one run of Balatro, but when it does, it’s absolutely glorious to see how many chips you rack up by abusing multipliers. It’s really satisfying to see a hand net you 2.163e20 points. It’s also really satisfying to make your score go so high that it crashes the game because you reached the integer limit. There are also new decks you can unlock, each with their own pros and cons, which can change how you approach the game, too.

Balatro actually has some strategic elements, too. Winning a blind normally gives you some money as a reward which you can spend on the shop to acquire new jokers, playing cards, tarot cards, and the like. However, you can skip a blind entirely to get a benefit like a booster pack of powerful spectral cards in exchange for not getting any money from that blind. The most important thing is that whether you play the blind to get paid and visit the shop, or if you skip the blind entirely, you make sure that you’re prepared for the boss blind of each ante.

The boss blinds all have specific modifiers that can make reaching the score goal more difficult. Some completely turn off specific played hands, meaning that if you build your entire deck around playing straights, and the boss blind disables scoring for straights, you have to play some other hand in order to even get points. Some other boss blinds may force you to discard 2 cards every time you play a hand, or they may have you drawing your very first hand face down.

It’s difficult to put into words what makes Balatro so addicting: both the premise and the formula are pretty simple, but a significant amount of playing Balatro is accounting for and controlling luck. In many ways that’s the same as playing any other roguelike, but the dopamine hits hard and fast in Balatro due to how quickly you can blaze through blinds and even antes, get blown out during a boss ante, and then need to start a new run. It’s a game where you can do an entire successful run in under half an hour, and it is perfect to play on something like the Steam Deck or Nintendo Switch due to its pick up and play nature.

Overall, Balatro is an incredibly fun time. If you enjoy building decks and aren’t afraid of failing a few runs, there’s a ton to learn and experience in such a low-cost package. There are many things to unlock in Balatro from jokers to new decks that change up how you play, alongside a whopping total of 8 difficulty levels that compound the challenge to test both your skills and luck.

For a title that only costs $15, there’s hours upon hours of content in Balatro, which is great if you enjoy deck building roguelikes. If you prefer more action for your roguelikes, like Dead Cells or Risk of Rain 2, there’s still plenty of other options out there for you. For everyone else, Balatro is unique enough and succeeds at a lot of the most addictive qualities of deck building roguelikes which makes it an easy recommendation for anyone interested in the genre.

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