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Review: Slay the Spire – a painfully well done deck builder

THE deck builder to play.

Slay the spire title screen
Image: Jake Vander Ende / KnowTechie

The first time I sat down with Slay the Spire, I looked away from the clock for what felt like maybe 20-30 minutes, but two and a half hours had passed. I just want to put that out there right away so you know what kind of game we’re talking about from the get-go.

Slay the Spire is a single player, deck building roguelike by Seattle studio Mega Crit. If you know what that means and you like those genres, I’m pretty sure you’re currently clicking on the right buttons to go buy it (or you’ve bought it already). If you’re not, you’ll know by the end of this article exactly what’s what.

The ironclad card

Image: Jake Vander Ende / KnowTechie

When you open up a new round of Slay the Spire, you start by picking a character, starting with one immediately but unlocking more options as you play. Each character has their own starting deck, a pool of cards they can acquire through play, and general feel.

The red character, The Ironclad, for example, recovers a small amount of life after every battle and mostly has simple cards dealing in direct damage and defense. Once you’ve picked your character, you start the game with a choice of random start-of-game blessings, and you’re faced with a map.

On the map, you have to pick a route to take, including everything from battles to treasure chests to places to rest, all of which converge at the end-of-map boss fight. Complete the map and beat the boss to clear a floor, clear three floors to successfully complete a playthrough. A full run should take you about an hour or two, but Slay the Spire is definitely the kind of game that will abruptly end your attempts early.

In battle, you use your character’s deck of cards to fight

Slay the spire card deck gameplay

Image: Jake Vander Ende / KnowTechie

By default, each turn you draw five cards from your deck and you have three energy to work with, so you can play three of your single-energy starting cards. Primarily, you can deal damage to monsters, inflict status effects, or put up shielding that blocks damage just for that turn. If you’ve played single player deck builder style games, like SteamWorld Quest, you’ll know how this gameplay feels.

Where Slay the Spire diverges from everything else is the roguelike aspect of the game. After each battle, you are presented with a choice of three cards and you get to pick one to add to your deck for that run. There are lots of cards in this game, so no two runs will ever be the same. Maybe this time you’ll build a shiv deck, centered around generating free, low damage knives that can be buffed to deal bonus damage and enable special card draw mechanics.

Maybe this time you’ll have a run with The Defect, my personal favorite, and it’s just all lightning all the time, summoning lightning that does damage to all enemies and lightning that gets more powerful and frequent when you receive damage. You never really know what you’re going to get and you always have to make the best choices for where you’re at right now, which is what keeps the game engaging and interesting.

I feel like they could have stopped there with Slay the Spire and that game would have been excellent, but there’s more

Slay the spire card deck

Image: Jake Vander Ende / KnowTechie

Each card can be upgraded, which sometimes dramatically changes the card. Maybe a card used to deal 10 damage and once upgraded it deals 14, but maybe a card was discarded forever (from that battle) and can be upgraded to stick around and be playable again. Upgrades are most commonly done at resting points, so you’re also faced with the nerve-wracking decision of, “Do I really need to recover health right now or can I hold off so I can make that one card in my deck much better?”

We aren’t done.

The game also includes relics, which are items that you keep with you permanently and all have (mostly) positive effects. You usually get these from treasure chests, with minor relics coming from chests in the level and major relics being chosen after boss fights, but you might also get questionable relics from spaces on the map labeled with question marks.

These are often events that have multiple choices: If you have a blood vial you can swap all of your basic attack cards with bite cards that replenish health. Of course, you can get this ability without a blood vial and you have to get bitten to do so, reducing your maximum health. Then again, maybe you want to ignore the shady vampire gang altogether.

That’s the unifying design premise in Slay the Spire: Meaningful choice

World of goop

Image: Jake Vander Ende / KnowTechie

Every single element of this game involves making choices where you’re not quite sure what the best option is. All of the information is available to you at any time, including math being done for you automatically, but it’s up to you what to do with it.

Whether that’s the micro decision-making of battle, choosing which path to take on the map, choosing your loot after battles, choosing your relics, deciding when to rest and when to upgrade, deciding what to buy, when to use your limited-use potions, or what relic to get from the map’s boss, Slay the Spire is a veritable onslaught of delicious decision-making.

All of that is great, but there’s also an ongoing investment loop where you unlock new things with every play. You thought you mastered The Defect and its ability to use lightning, frost, and dark abilities? Now you can find plasma cards. What does plasma do? Aw, looks like you have to do just one more play to find out. Slay the Spire sinks its hooks in deep and does not let go.

I have only two complaints about this game and they are both extremely minor

First, the art style was off-putting to me at first. It’s grown on me and I like it now, but I definitely didn’t like it much in my first few runs.

Second, sometimes there are cards you play that require you to pick a card from your deck or discard, but you can’t back out of that choice to see the current playing field of your character, your hand, and the state of the enemies on the field.

There are only a few of these cards in the entire game and it’s not that important, but when the whole game makes all of the right design decisions about showing you what cards do, doing math for you, and reminding you at all times what all of the status effects do, small problems like this stick out ever so slightly.

Still, Slay the Spire is an incredible game and worthy of the highest praise I can possibly give it.

Slay the spire card deck

The first time I saw this horrifyingly strong duo I thought “WTF?” and the second time their visual design didn’t even phase me. (Image: Jake Vander Ende / KnowTechie)

If you have ever been interested in deck builders, turn-based RPGs, roguelikes, or strategic, thoughtful games, you owe it to yourself to check out Slay the Spire. It’s an incredible game, one-of-a-kind, and you won’t be disappointed. I’m done with this review and I have more work to do, but I can’t wait to go back and play more.

Jake reviewed Slay the Spire with a review code from the developers. It is available now on Windows, Mac, and Linux as of earlier this year. PS4 as of last month, and Nintendo Switch as of now. He reviewed the game on Nintendo Switch. It’s one of the few games where he thinks “roguelike” is a fairly accurate descriptor. 

Curious what our scores mean? Find out more in our comprehensive guide to Understanding KnowTechie’s Game Review Scoring.

Editors’ Recommendations:

The Good
Creative, engaging, and brilliantly designed
Devilishly well-balanced
Incredibly easy to get into, difficult to master
The Bad
Negligible aesthetic and design quirks

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Jake is a writer and game designer in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He loves action, exploration, building, filling bars, and turning numbers into bigger numbers. Someday he'll release a video game.

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