Games based on building your deck as you play aren’t exactly new. MTG has had something similar in Draft Tournaments for a long time, and Dominion is one of the most respected tabletop games on the market. However, they have seen a recent surge in popularity. Hearthstone’s new expansion introduced “Dungeon Run”, a game of building and augmenting your deck between fights. While that mode did prove to be quite popular, it’s actually beginning to be overshadowed by another entry into the deck building genre — rogue-like Steam game Slay the Spire.

What is the Spire?

Making decisions, especially risky ones, is at the heart of Slay the Spire’s challenges.

Slay the Spire is a singleplayer deckbuilder rogue-like. To try and explain that mouthful, you start at the beginning of the dungeon with the same deck of Strikes and Defends every run. From there, everything is random; you’re offered random selections of cards, you choose paths that take you through randomly selected enemies, and you can even step onto “?” spaces which have entirely unpredictable results. The foreboding soundtrack and placid, painted art create a fairly innocuous backdrop to the actual gameplay. As a result, most of the tension comes from wondering what will be in the next room — and whether you’ll get the right draw when you need it.

This isn’t exactly anything new, as the Binding of Isaac does almost the exact same thing in its design. To that end, the distinguishing feature of Slay the Spire is naturally its card-game aspect.

The entire game consists of jumping from fight-to-fight, engaging in turn-based combat through use of the cards in your deck. Most cards either damage your enemy or give you Block, a temporary shield which expires at the beginning of your next turn. Despite the apparent simplicity of its mechanics, though, a lot of complexity goes into deciding the right play. It can take dozens of failed runs before you really start to appreciate the difference that the “best possible play” makes in the long run.

Once you get the hang of it, though, Slay the Spire is incredibly addictive. In part this is due to the novelty of deck building and trying strategies, but it’s important to recognise how great it is that Slay the Spire doesn’t truly feel unfair. It can be frustrating to die at the end of a run, but with the amount of control you have over the size and contents of your deck, it feels more like your own fault than the game’s. The game has RNG, naturally, but it very obviously communicates to you that skill is the main decider in winning.

Polished, but not Perfect

The layout stays the same, but every fight feels different.

That being said, the system isn’t flawless; primarily in how strict the meta can become at higher difficulties. There’s a variety of deck styles, but it’s hard to build for one effectively. Playing more shows you that playing “for fun” instead of “to win” is actually quite hard, as the more outlandish playstyles need specific cards and relics to function. You might get the Ashes relic early and want to play an Exhaust deck, then get extremely few Exhaust options afterwards. Slay the Spire is about adapting and being open to what you’re offered, but unfortunately, that usually means that you’ll be taking deck paths that become quickly familiar if you want to win.

Even if the archetypes are fairly set, though, building a style of deck is still incredibly fun. Thinking about how the pieces you have fit together, and removing cards that you realise don’t fit into your deck, gives you a sense of genuine agency over what you’re creating. It may be a standard Whirlwind deck at heart, but the relics and tech cards you’ve inserted make it your own Whirlwind deck with its own quirks and strengths.

Keep on Slaying

Decks can end up full of strong cards, or stripped down to just the essentials; the player has a lot of control.

The fact that every run is different, along with the fact that new cards are added to your available pool every few runs, gives the game huge replay value. You might want to try every possible deck archetype, or perhaps you want to prove yourself through the leaderboards with an unbroken winstreak. For a game which currently only has three floors and two classes, there’s an impressive 50+ hours available to sink here. Considering its $16 price tag, that’s a great time-value proposition already.

And the replay value is only going to rise with time. The game is Early Access, and while that may be a warning sign for some, rest assured this game has followed through thus far. Balance changes are constantly being implemented, and just last month we had the Ascension mode added to provide a huge time sink for those willing to put in the hours. Plus, with a new character on the horizon, variety will be added for casual and competitive players alike.

The Verdict?

Slay the Spire has seen some incredible rises in success recently. It has Overwhelmingly Positive reviews on Steam, and hovers around the top ~20 games streamed on Twitch at the moment. To say that Slay the Spire is deserving of this popularity is not only praise of it as a game, but recognition of the fact that it is not yet complete.

Slay the Spire is an addictive, challenging, entertaining and fresh experience. Its losses feel like learning experiences, and its victories feel incredibly rewarding. With the future for the game still under construction, there’s room to iron out the occasional feelings of strictness in deck archetypes. If every game out there gave as many hours of gameplay for as low of a price tag as Slay the Spire, all of our wallets would be far better off.