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Slay the Spire Review

Succeeding in roguelite games comes down to two things: learning how to overcome the odds and never, ever taking anything for granted, no matter how well you are doing. The sooner you learn these two lessons, the better.

I’ve played a lot of roguelite games over the years and going into Slay the Spire with the assumption that I know everything there is to know about them was the first big mistake I made. That’s because Slay the Spire is not just any roguelite. It is a roguelite deckbuilding game that functions as a turn-based strategy game.

In Slay the Spire, you play as one of three (soon to be four) unique characters, each with their own pool of cards. Your objective is to fight your way through four randomly-generated maps and slay the final boss. The path is littered with shops, treasure chests, battles, and unique events that will either grant you some kind of bonus or cripple the rest of your run. Combat is similar to a turn-based RPG, but instead of spells and abilities, you draw and use a wide assortment of cards. The cards are split into attack, defend, spells, and special abilities.

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You start each run with a generic deck comprised of attack, defense, and skill cards. You get a base of three energy points, increasable with certain cards or items both permanently and temporarily, that you can spend on cards. Much like traditional abilities in other games, cards have certain energy or situational requirements, cooldowns, and so on.

After slaying a foe, you get the option to add one of three new cards to your deck, which are randomly drawn from a large pool of possible cards available to that specific character. Rinse and repeat until you build a decent deck, slay the final boss, and start again from scratch. Sounds pretty simple, right?

Well, yes and no. One of the biggest mistakes that I made was treating Slay the Spire like any other roguelite and stubbornly sticking to my old ways and habits, despite struggling so much. Assuming each class had a straightforward, predetermined approach vis a vis deckbuilding without paying close attention to the mechanics and flow of the game was another thing that stumped my progress for at least a dozen hours. It’s safe to say that being a creature of habit will come back to bite you.

I soon came to realize that mastering Slay the Spire isn’t just a matter of learning the game’s systems. I mean, sure, that’s a part of it, but you will need to ditch everything you know about roguelites and start from scratch.

Slay the Spire is one of those games that will cause the worst version of the overconfidence effect. You’ll think you have everything all figured out only for the game to throw a new enemy type at you, and it all quickly falls apart.

One of the enemy types encountered in the second level, a bird-like creature with a decent amount of HP, starts every fight with a buff that minimizes the damage that it takes. The buff decreases in effectiveness as you attack the creature, and hitting it three times in a row cancels it for the rest of the fight. Naturally, my first impulse was to dump all of my attack cards and hope for the best.

Boy was I wrong. These birds come in packs of three, and as you focus on one of them, the others will buff their damage and tank your HP. Therefore, your strategy should be based on debuffing their damage (if you have the right cards), setting up your defenses, and attacking during the off-turns when they’re charging up a buff.

Which brings us to another strength of Slay the Spire: the way it delivers useful information to the player. The enemies pretty much telegraph their moves, so you can build your strategy around them. The game relies to some degree on RNG, but its effects can always be attenuated by thinking ahead and choosing the right card combinations. Thanks to this clever system, you will never feel cheated.

Unlike a game like Magic the Gathering, you’re not building a permanent deck that’s available at the start of every run. Rather, you’re building a collection of cards that are spawned randomly throughout the duration of the run. The game effectively forces players to think flexibly and not stubbornly attempting to recreate a card synergy that worked in a previous run.

This ties in with another difficult lesson that I learned the hard way – always look for opportunities to remove cards from your deck. This sounded very counterintuitive at first, but what I soon found out was that it’s better to focus on skill-based cards and remove basic attack and defense cards, which are only useful in the early game. Then I found out that shopkeepers offer a paid card removal service. You have to do this if you want to have a chance to survive; the more basic cards you have in your deck, the less likely you are to draw good cards during combat.

Wrapping up, this is the gist of Slay the Spire: an interesting roguelite-deckbuilding game that defies all expectations and assumptions that you might have regarding both genres. It’s the very definition of “easy to learn, hard to master.” Getting good at this game comes down to reneging all your past assumptions and thinking outside of the box.

Reviewer BioMarco Giuliani

I write articles about gaming for the enjoyment of strangers on the Internet. If there’s something niche, I’ll probably write a 2000-word piece about it. Lead editor at UnleashTheGamer; I sometimes tweet.