Slay The Spire made me fall in love with deck-building

bookofstabbing

A ghost set me on fire. Earlier, I was beating on a parasite that was hiding inside a metal shell. I found a gelatinous cube that had absorbed so much junk it had become sluggish and bloated. I reached inside it, lost a layer of skin on my hand, but retrieved an ice cream. Don’t laugh. It’s a very useful ice cream.

I’m playing roguelike card game Slay The Spire, and I’ve fought through packs of cultists, slavers and thieves, but now I’m on fire and I can’t do a great deal about it. I burn whenever I breathe. It seems unfair but this is partly a hell of my own making.

Slay The Spire had me at ‘hello’. Visually, it’s like Darkest Dungeon by way of Dead Cells and Dark Souls rather than gothic horror, and I could spend a whole day enthusing about its bestiary. In many RPGs you’ll earn some stripes killing rats. Here, the rats are already dead, then flipped upside down, teetering along on green appendages bursting through their flesh. The parasite that they’re hosting is the enemy; the rat is a vehicle.

spireparasite

The reason it’s my favourite card-based game in ages though has nothing to do with the setting or the art. It’s because it’s the first I’ve played in ages that actually makes me care about deck-building.

I swore off Hearthstone the minute I realised how much time I could end up devoting to customising my decks. My enjoyment of card duelling games is in making best use of what comes into my hand rather than trying to engineer the perfect deck so that I can be sure I’ll have the best chance of winning. I want to think on my feet, in the moment, rather than tinkering and planning and preparing before the battle has even begun.

spirecards

Whether you think of that as a love of improvisation, a total lack of engagement with the metagame, or bone-idleness, I have no argument with you. But it’s the way I roll and I didn’t think it’d change because I usually find that creating decks feels like a separate part of the game, tucked away in a different part of the main menu.

Slay the Spire forces you to build as you go, making every card stripped from your deck a very deliberate and difficult choice. You start with the basics, allowed to make some minor modifications by sacrificing cash or health for a bonus card at the beginning of a run, and you earn new abilities by killing enemies. The map is randomly generated each time and it’s a simple series of nodes along paths that sometimes intersect. Some nodes have fights, others have mysterious multiple-choice encounters, treasures, merchants or campsites.

spirecleric

Killing an enemy gets you a new card and maybe a potion and some cash. The card is the important thing. You can pick from one of three and essentially, you’re levelling up, gaining new abilities and adding to your repertoire. I’ve had characters that are all muscle, adding cards that rely on hands that are permanently coiled into fists; all striking, no defense. Others have relied on attrition, cowering behind defenses and letting the little drops of poison administered via a few swift cuts do their work.

The problem is, as you add cards your character becomes a bit vague and while you’ll probably want to keep some low-cost starter cards, you’ll definitely want to ditch some of the chaff as you progress. To do that, you’re going to have to spend cash to have a merchant extract the cards from your deck. And that’s the trick – by making the removal of cards as expensive, if not more so, than the addition of cards, Slay the Spire has me hooked.

spirecultists

Every aspect of my deck involves difficult decisions now and that leads me to experimenting with incredibly small decks that barely leave me with space for a discard pile before cards are recycled back into my hand. That can work and there are relics, which act as modifiers altering the fundamental rules of combat and exploration. Finding a specific relic is a bit like finding a rotten tooth or distended organ in The Binding of Isaac; it can change the way you think about what you really need from your current build.

During my first few runs, I just accrued as much stuff as possible until my character became cumbersome, loaded down with contradictory cards and claptrap. It wasn’t until that ghost set me on fire that I learned the error of my ways.

There are cards that actively hinder you, including curses and wounds. Some are permanent parts of your deck, others last for a single combat. The ghost’s sick burns only lasted for a single combat, but they caused my deck to swell in size, buckling under all that burned flesh. Every time I drew a new hand, it’d be full of blisters and blood. Useless to me.

And then I realised that even without the scorched skin, my hands had become useless anyway. Too many cards with no real purpose and no attempt to create a character.

spireserpent

It’s short-form, each run taking less than an hour in my experience, but Slay The Spire feels like a proper RPG. I guess roguelikes often are short-form RPGs and this is a very good roguelike that happens to involve cards in a very clever way.

Now, with the new knowledge forged in those fires, I strategise and build for the future, however brief it might be. I ain’t afraid of no ghost. But I am afraid of the really angry, giant knight champion who keeps going into a wild fury and pummelling me into dust. I’ll figure it out though because I’m going to stick with this one for a long time.

Slay the Spire is currently in Early Access and is available via Steam for £11.99. It supports Windows, Mac and Linux.

17 Comments

  1. Blowfeld81 says:

    Looking forward to playing this when I visit my family in a few days. Merry online card game time.

    If you enjoy this game, give Monster Slayers a look. It came out mid year and instantly burned 50h of my time. From what you describe, it might be to your liking, as the characters use different pre-defined sets that you build on the go to push yourself further through the dungeon. Add a little rouge like element in there and you have a great game for the price of a cinema ticket.

  2. jtron says:

    This sounds like it’s right up my alley – very similar seeming to the aforementioned Monster Slayers and its inspiration, Dream Quest

    • tasteful says:

      i was a huge dream quest fan and i liked monster slayers altho i mostly credited that to how closely it hewed to dream quest. slay the spire is much more inventive than monster slayers, imo, and has better replay value than either. highly recommend turning the beta on in steam prefs, development is super active and there’s new cards and relics pretty much daily. love this lil game so much

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      platypusfool says:

      Dream Quest was all I could think of reading the article. Sounds like a more fluid version of that which is likely a very good thing indeed.

  3. Faldrath says:

    I’m in the same boat – I much prefer deckbuilding games than the traditional CCGs. I bounced off all versions of Magic, Hearthstone, Duelyst, Eternal, Elder Scrolls… but a game like Ascension had me hooked for months (sadly the PC port is lacking – Android is the place to play it).

    Probably because of analysis paralysis whenever I try to build a full deck in CCGs, but in deckbuilding games the range of choices is much more limited – although, if the game is good, no less interesting.

    Wishlisted!

    • Fnord73 says:

      Elder Scrolls I find fine except on the first days of the month when all the deckbuilders rush by to level 5+. Lots of possibilities for combos.

      • RuySan says:

        I find offensive that Elder Scrolls punishes players that are having an advantage by giving extra cards to the opponent. That put me off the game completely. Eternal is my CCG of the moment.

  4. Cosmo D says:

    Thanks for the rec. Cardplay + dungeon crawling is the best. After having a good romp with Card Quest and Dream Quest, I’m in the mood for more cards and quests.

    Board game shout-outs: Mage Knight, CLANK!

  5. Fade2Gray says:

    This reminds me a bit of what I liked about Dominion.

  6. Gothnak says:

    Added to wishlist, ta!

  7. Cronstintein says:

    Sounds a bit like Dream Quest. And that was fun, so I’ll definitely give this a gander.

  8. trjp says:

    I didn’t realise why I struggled with some CCGs until I read that above

    I really cannot be arsed building decks – it just isn’t the same as – say – speccing-out your gear in an ARPG/MMO because it’s all about bet hedging and/or min-maxing

    I LOVE making tough choices IN a game, not before I play it – that makes more sense now – thanks!

  9. Arathain says:

    See, I don’t like faffing with deck building in Hearthstone either, which is why I play Arena, the limited format. Pick a class from 3, pick one of three cards, repeat until you have 30, play until you win 12 or lose 3. Sadly, it costs 150 gold a run- I’m good enough that I can mostly sustain myself just by doing well enough and picking classes to do dailies, but that’s really tough for newer players.

    Also, I have a terrible weakness for Dream Quest and its ilk, so this is going right on the wishlist.

  10. left1000 says:

    has anyone ever beaten the boss of the third map?
    I can consistently beat the first two bosses but the third one always defeats me, especially so because it seems all the bosses of the third area have two phases, and even if I can beat the first phase I can never beat the second.

    which made the game fun for me for a few hours, but I feel like I’ve now seen just about every card i’ve unlocked and i’m unlocking them slowly because i can’t advance any further….

    • tranchera says:

      I had an absolutely insane run as the Warrior guy, with a lot of strength down cards for the enemies and strength up for myself (and the one neutral card you get from shops that upgrades your whole deck for the rest of combat). Plus a whole bunch of trinkets that gave me energy + the one that randomizes the energy cost on all cards + extra card draw on the first turn, so I could usually whack out a ridiculous combo on the first turn that killed most enemies.

      I don’t feel much drive to play it now besides winning with the Rogue, because the game generally doesn’t have much content at the moment. However I don’t feel bad purchasing because I got 6 good hours of it and (I assume) the content will go up dramatically later on.

    • SuddenSight says:

      I have yet to get that far. I had two runs like Tranchera’s that ended up with some incredible combos.

      One used block cards + body slam + juggernaut + the card that maintains blocks between turns to build up an invincible block wall and smash enemies to death. However, that deck relied on 2 powers (three if you count metalicize) to work well, and I ended up dying to the world 3 boss after missing those powers for the first 3 turns.

      The other deck applied weakness and damage to kill very quickly but had no way to generate block, so I slowly lost health and petered out in area 2.

      This game definitely feels like a more random style of roguelike. The card pool is large, while you can only choose from 3 cards at a time, with no guarantees about future cards. This means that getting a strong combo deck is totally down to chance.

      This is in contrast to Dominion, or most of the “buy a card” style of deckbuilders, where you can see all of the cards and build toward a planned combo from the beginning.

      Personally, I think I would like the game more if it had more deckbuilding. The cards suggest some very neat archetypes, but even by world 3 my decks will only kinda fit that archetype. Plus, after a while I tend to stop picking up cards because I am trying to build to a certain design. I would love it if you could burn a card instead of picking one up, or something along those lines.

  11. Kefren says:

    Sounds fun, even though I dislike most card games. The only two I enjoy are Shadowhand/Regency Solitaire, and Cardhunter. The latter annoyed me because it was free but with microtransactions – I just wanted to buy the whole offline game (e.g. on GOG). It’s a shame that the devs chose a route that means they never got any money off me, despite me completing it twice.

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