Slay the Spire, a dungeon-crawling card game, is one of the best early access titles on Steam right now. The game’s concept — a deck-building game meets a roguelike — is distinctive, and is similar to something like Hearthstone’s non-competitive offerings. But over my 50 hours in Slay the Spire, it’s proven to be more than just an innovative card game, it taught me how to do something that no other card game has done: build a functioning deck.
In Slay the Spire, you select a character and begin climbing a tower. Each path has enemies that must be defeated, and there are random encounters along the way. In combat, you draw cards that cost a certain amount of energy to play depending on their effect.
You use your pool of energy on your cards and then end your turn. Your enemy responds with an action — one that’s been previewed to you the entire time — and then you draw and play again. It’s a fantastic loop with an enjoyable amount of randomness.
But like many card games, that randomness is something you can control if you build correctly. After each battle, you get to pick a card from a group of three and add it to your deck for the rest of the game.
But you can also remove cards from your deck in a few interesting ways. Certain cards like curses offer only negative effects, and are obvious candidates for removal. But what about basic cards that you aren’t using as much as you build your play style? A card that was useful before may just be a dead draw when you pull it out of your deck. Removing it reduces the random effects of getting something you don’t need each time you draw.
You want unique and powerful cards in Slay the Spire, and you want to draw them when you need them. Maybe you want something that deals bonus damage but makes you discard a random card in your hand. Maybe one that lets you draw from your discard pile, or hold onto a card until the next turn. Or maybe, a card that sets up a combo you’ve already been using to be more powerful. And in those decisions, the strategy of Slay the Spire is born.
The game currently has three classes, each with their own cards, relics, and play style. My favorite, the Defect, features a fun system in which cards can create and discharge orbs orbiting the character. Each orb has its own effect.
My favorite play style with the Defect is to just instantly spawn lightning orbs that float around its head. After each turn, these orbs deal damage to a random character on the field, and if I push the orb out of its slot with another orb or card, it deals triple damage.
Whenever I play the Defect, I always try to go for cards that will enhance that play style, giving me more options to power up my lightning orbs or spawn more of them. All the energy that I was spending on basic cards to deal small amounts of damage are now going toward buffing my extremely powerful lightning orbs.
This concept of building toward a goal or play style may sound familiar to many card game players, but try as I might for years, I was never able to wrap my head around it for competitive games like Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone. Instead, I just used basic decks or deck builders online, never fully grasping what to do if I didn’t have the specific card I needed.
But after hours of Slay the Spire, something clicked. The basics are still the same, but Slay the Spire makes you build a brand-new deck every game. Each time I crawl through the tower, something is ever so slightly different than it was before. After being put in situations where certain cards have doomed or saved me, I’ve started to understand the value in truly finding a build.
Creating that deck — something that is unique to you or universally touted as powerful — is key to succeeding in any card game. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll go in, grab the most powerful cards you can find and throw your hands up when you lose.
Slay the Spire ingrained in me that balance is the key to any good deck. Going into each fight, I have my deck’s win condition on my mind. These skill have helped me dive into Hearthstone and Artifactover the past year. And while I haven’t learned all the ropes yet, I look at each card, cost and effect differently than I did before.
Taking tools from one game and bringing them to another is a special feeling in gaming. Slay the Spire took something that I’ve been bad at my entire life — even back to Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh in elementary school — and made it click by taking a familiar idea and twisting it ever so slightly. Each run teaches me something new, and helps me understand the joy felt by card game players that I’ve been missing for more than 20 years.