SLAY THE SPIRE, by Mega Crit Games, is a turn-based, deck building, roguelike game that is currently available through Steam early access. Think a single player HEARTHSTONE, mixed with the progression system and variance of THE BINDING OF ISAAC. While SLAY THE SPIRE may be in early access, it definitely has enough content to warrant a full release. My current playtime is 57 hours, but my complete ineptitude in the game leaves a lot to be desired. I could easily see myself more than doubling my playtime before feeling fully satisfied.

Mega Crit has shown a strong diligence in developing SLAY THE SPIRE. New content and fixes to old content are regularly patched in — I constantly await playing with these updates. The game clearly has a ton of content to be excited over right now, and it will certainly have much more at the time of the full release. Let’s take a look at how the game works and why you should be excited to play it.

Return Of The Roguelike

SLAY THE SPIRE’s Combat — Cards and Relics

SLAY THE SPIRE’s defining feature is its take on card-based combat. Running out of cards to play is impossible in SLAY THE SPIRE — discarded cards return to the deck when empty. Both of the game’s characters start with a base 10/12 card deck. These consist mainly of strikes and defends. Strikes simply deal six damage each. Defends give players five block, which is a temporary damage shield that expires at the start of a new turn.

New cards are obtained after combat, bought through shops, or acquired through other means. Similar to the aforementioned HEARTHSTONE, each card comes with an associated energy cost. Strikes and defends cost one energy apiece, while other cards can cost anywhere from zero up to the remainder of the current turn’s energy reserves.

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On top of cards, the player can also collect relics. Relics have a plethora of functions: Some allow the player to draw more cards, others apply debuffs to enemies. My favorites give the players access to more precious energy, though usually at a cost. Relics are harder to obtain, usually reserved as rewards for tougher combat encounters.

Now that the basics of combat are out of the way, we’ll move on to the structure of each run.

SLAY THE SPIRE’s Procedurally Generated Map

The game starts simply: only one character, the Ironclad, is unlocked, so selecting him is the only choice the player has. Subsequent to this, the player finds the current act’s procedurally generated map.

An example of SLAY THE SPIRE's procedurally generated map.
An example of SLAY THE SPIRE’s procedurally generated map.

The map depicts various icons which each signify a different type of encounter:

Basic Enemy Encounters

These encounters initiate combat against a weaker enemy. Victory rewards the player with gold, the choice of a new card for their deck, and, occasionally, a potion.

Elite Enemy Encounters

Elite enemy rooms contain harder encounters. These are usually tough to complete with a starting deck. Completion grants all of the previously mentioned rewards as well as the option to take a random relic.

Shops, Treasure Chests, and Campfires

Shops allow the player to spend their hard earned gold on cards, potions, relics, and even removing a card from their deck. Treasure chests award the player with some gold and a relic. Campfires allow the player to either recover some HP or upgrade one of their cards.

Boss Encounters

The boss fight is, unsurprisingly, the final choice on the current act’s map, and completion grants access to the next act’s map. Rewards include a lot of gold, a guaranteed rare card, an occasional potion, and the player’s choice between three relics.

The Guardian, one of SLAY THE SPIRE's earlier boss fights.
The Guardian, one of SLAY THE SPIRE’s earlier boss fights.

Question-Marked Rooms

These rooms are always a gamble. Selecting one can lead to a basic combat encounter or a treasure chest, but they usually lead to a random, text-based event. Said events have a variety of outcomes, but take care, as they typically do not result in a net positive for the player.

SLAY THE SPIRE’s Characters

We’ve now covered the basics of both combat and gameplay, so now it’s time to take a look at SLAY THE SPIRE’s complexities. The best way to do this is by looking at the game’s two characters.

The Ironclad

The first character unlocked, the Ironclad appears to fulfill the fighter/tank archetype. His starting deck contains five strikes, and four defends, as well as one bash. Bash is a two energy attack card that also causes enemies to take more damage for two turns. He also has the relic Burning Blood which restores 6 HP after every combat encounter (no, the relic is not a copy of the One Piece game of the same name). This starting build already presents a number of options: Would you rather play it slow, focusing on defending and healing back to full HP every combat, or would you rather go fully on the offensive to take out enemies as soon as possible?

SLAY THE SPIRE -- the Ironclad's starting deck.
The Ironclad’s starting deck.

New cards can be picked up after nearly every encounter; adding even one can drastically change the type of gameplay. The Ironclad has a pool of dozens of unique cards to possibly obtain, each pushing the deck towards a different win condition. To name a couple: The Ironclad can take cards to build up his strength stat to increase attack damage while also taking attacks that are more potent in conjunction with high strength. In contrast, he can also take a more defensive route by taking cards that highly improve his block stat and cause it not to expire, while throwing in the occasional attack to chip away at the opponent.

Relics, which are not character-specific aside from each character’s starting relic, can also improve a deck’s quality. As an example, the shuriken, which grants one strength for every three attacks played in one turn, synergizes beautifully with a highly aggressive deck. No two runs with the Ironclad ever feel the same; the possibilities feel endless.

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The Silent

Completing one Ironclad run unlocks the Silent. The Silent fits more of a rogue build. Her base deck contains 12 cards as opposed to the Ironclad’s 10. It consists of five strikes, five defends, one survivor, and one neutralize. Survivor is a one energy defensive card that grants eight blocks but discards one card from the player’s hand. Neutralize is a zero energy attack card that does four damage and weakens an enemy’s upcoming attack.

The Silent’s starting relic is the Ring of the Snake. This relic grants the player two extra cards at the start of combat (seven opposed to the Ironclad’s five). Runs as the Silent seems to all start similarly: She is unable to heal and her starting deck contains more defensive cards than the Ironclad’s, so slow, defensive play is usually the only option. Just as before, though, this changes very quickly.

The Silent also has her own pool of unique cards to draw from. Her varying win conditions are completely different from those of the Ironclad. For instance: The Silent can take cards to raise her dexterity (which increases block gained from cards) to build up an incredible block stat while doing some damage on the side.  She can also apply a crazy amount of poison damage to each enemy to whittle them down.

The poison win condition is probably my favorite one in the game. Poison works as such: If the enemy has three poison applied, it takes three damage at the start of its first turn, two at the start of the next, and so on. Through the use of cards that apply poison every turn or multiply current poison stacks, things can quickly turn in the player’s favor.

SLAY THE SPIRE -- The Silent in combat against a poisoned enemy, with poison inducing cards in hand.
The Silent in combat against a poisoned enemy, with poison inducing cards in hand.

What to Expect In The Near Future

The most exciting part of the game is that it is still in early access; the game is brimming with content, but development has not ceased. Mega Crit Games clearly has a passion for SLAY THE SPIRE. The team is very receptive to player feedback, as seen through the game’s bi-weekly updates. Past patches have included new cards, reworks to old cards and relics, and a new game mode. This game mode, ascension mode, presents a fun challenge as each concurrent run is sprinkled with more challenges, such as more frequent elite monster spawns or base monsters doing more damage.

Lastly, did I mention that a third character is in the works? This means dozens of new cards to use and play styles to experiment with. This is purely conjecture, but I have a guess as to what the third character will be. The Ironclad is a warrior, themed around the color red, and the Silent is a green rogue, so I’m expecting the mysterious third character to be a blue mage. I have no idea as to what type of cards a mage would have, but I am very eager to find out.

My Thoughts on SLAY THE SPIRE

I really like SLAY THE SPIRE, in case it isn’t abundantly clear. It is the first roguelike I have been truly addicted to since the aforementioned THE BINDING OF ISAAC. Similar to ISAAC, the player starts from scratch every run. This means constructing a new deck for every playthrough. This mechanic works well for SLAY THE SPIRE. Constantly having to work with new cards leads to experimentation and discovering new successful combinations.

Competitive card games appealed to me since I first played YU-GI-OH as a child. I was never able to immerse myself in them fully, however, as keeping up with the metagame proved itself to be too much of a task. SLAY THE SPIRE allows me to get my fix of card-based gameplay without having to worry about maintaining the best deck. SLAY THE SPIRE is a single player game; I can focus on competing against the game, and the game alone.

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Room for Improvement?

I would use this space to write about my major gripes with the game, but I have none. They’ve all been patched out! My biggest issue was the lack of enemy variety in the third act, but many more encounters have already appeared. My second gripe was with one elite enemy in the third act, the Nemesis.

This enemy was intangible for two out of every three turns, meaning that all damage to it was reduced to one. On top of this, it was capable of dealing massive amounts of damage. The Nemesis has been reworked in the time that I’ve written the first and second draft of this article; now it is intangible every other turn. I am confident that SLAY THE SPIRE will maintain its current quality as any future issues will undoubtedly be patched out.

SLAY THE SPIRE clearly has a massive amount of content for any game, let alone an early access game. Both characters play entirely differently from not only one another but from themselves from run to run. The upcoming third character and other new content excite me as no game has in years.

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