Platform: PC (reviewed), PS4, Nintendo Switch

Normally, I’m not a huge fan of deck-building card games, because their central gameplay format is usually based on fighting other players. I might play around with them a bit since I like collecting the cards and constructing decks, but that’s about the full extent of my enjoyment. The prospect of having to then take my cards and pit them against those of another player doesn’t motivate me, it just stresses me out.

Indie developer Mega Crit Games’ Slay the Spire, which recently celebrated its full 1.0 version launch after a lengthy 14-month early access period, is a different breed of card game. Slay the Spire’s core gameplay premise is entirely single-player in nature, and combines two concepts which I never even considered as a potential pairing: deck-building and roguelike dungeon-crawling.

These two unorthodox elements come together to create a gameplay loop that’s easy to pick up and play, allows for a diverse mixture of strategies, and has a near-infinite amount of replay value.

Choose wisely

Slay the Spire’s basic layout is pretty straightforward, but its roguelike nature means that any number of variables can disrupt your best laid plans. During each new “run,” the player picks one of three starting characters: the Ironclad, the Silent, or the Defect. Each of these three characters not only has their own themed card deck, but also their own unique attributes and powers. The Ironclad, for example, recovers some HP after every battle, while the Defect uses an orb-based channeling/evoking mechanic to bolster the effectiveness of their cards.

Within each of the three character decks, there’s also a lot of potential for different playstyle approaches. Power cards grant ongoing effects which can in turn augment one of that character’s strengths. As another example, depending on which cards the player acquires, the Silent can either turtle up behind block cards and chip away at her foes with poison, or burst enemies down with hard-hitting attack cards and debuffs before they can retaliate.

Players also have to consider how big they want their deck to get. For each new run, the player is given a small collection of core cards, but that small collection can grow quickly. Certain NPC’s and events can remove cards from a player’s deck if they so choose, and that choice can have a big impact on the deck’s long-term viability. Do you go for a massive deck which has plenty of options but lowers your chances of drawing specific cards when you really need them? Or do you run a slimmed down deck of essentials which maximizes your combo potential but can also leave you ill-prepared for certain enemy types?

The randomized nature of the cards you’re awarded throughout each run adds yet another dynamic element since you’re often formulating and adjusting your strategy on the fly. You may start one run wanting to focus on aggressive single-target damage, but then the cards you get lead you towards more of a defensive block-heavy strategy supplemented by area-of-effect attack cards. Needless to say, it helps to have a game plan going in, but you should always expect that game plan to change.

An ever-growing spire

Thanks to the numerous updates it received during its early access period, Slay the Spire already offers a great deal of content in its base form. Along with the dynamic and highly replayable nature of its dungeon maps, deck mechanics, and enemy encounters, the game also comes with community-focused ancillary features. Such features include static ‘daily climbs’ in which you can compare how far you made it in comparison to other players, or the custom mode where you can dream up all sorts of silly run modifiers and share those run seeds with your friends.

Mega Crit Games has also enabled full custom mod support for Slay the Spire, a feature which some fans have already put to good use. The currently available mods range from new playable characters (complete with their own cards and gameplay mechanics) and enemy types to new room designs, run modifiers, items, and much more. You could easily sink 20+ hours into Slay the Spire’s core package, but once you start exploring the game’s modding scene that total playtime number can climb much, much higher.

Roguelike redefined

It was honestly a struggle for me to think of anything bad to say about Slay the Spire, but one thing I will note is that, like most other card games, it’s not for everyone. Taking the time to craft endgame-viable decks requires some patience and commitment, especially since you have to first unlock more advanced cards by gaining XP from failed runs. Also, the more randomized roguelike elements may be a turn-off for players who prefer sticking with a single strategy.

Really though, the above detractors are just splitting hairs. As long as you don’t mind thinking on your feet and working through a highly dynamic gameplay loop, you’ll enjoy what Slay the Spire has to offer, especially if you’re already a card game/roguelike fan.

Slay the Spire’s initial sales pitch may sound a little off-putting, but once you play it for yourself you’ll see why Mega Crit Games’ debut title is already one of the most popular indie games of 2019.