The past decade has been a good one for the digital card game, with a number of major players trying their hand at emulating the success of games like Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh. It’s also been a decent ten years for the roguelike, which thanks to the reception of games like The Binding of Isaac, Nuclear Throne, and Enter the Gungeon, remains one of the indie scene’s biggest offerings. For a game to come out that was best-in-class of either of these two genres would be impressive, but Slay the Spire makes a good case for both.
Slay the Spire’s roguelike roots are pretty easy to pin down. From a lowly starting point with a selection of basic moves, you progress up the spire, fighting increasingly powerful enemies and bosses. Over time, rewards and purchased items makes your selection of moves more potent, but if you die, that run’s progress is lost for good, and you have to start from scratch. It’s a well-established premise, but Slay the Spire delivers on it with confidence, with a broad bestiary and a well-adjusted difficulty curve.
But when it comes to being a card game, things get a little harder to define. Why does this work so well? Your characters’ abilities are expressed as cards in a deck and, while each run begins with a simple collection of attacks and blocks, the joy of Slay the Spire comes not from combat itself, but from gradually building and honing that deck until it becomes an efficient, enemy-dispatching machine.
The three currently-available classes all have their own specialities, but over time, you come to realise that within their traditional character archetypes are hidden a number of different ways to craft your collection. The Ironclad is a resilient soldier, making a damage-buffing strength build an obvious choice, but the right cards can turn him into a masochistic blood mage. The Silent is an assassin who can use poison or many, many daggers to take down their target, but with a few specific buffs creates the Slay the Spire equivalent of a mill deck, churning through hand after hand to let your discarded cards do all the work.
It’s a fascinating combination of genres, mostly because it often feels like it’s not quite working as expected. When I was first getting to grips with Slay the Spire, I drew as many comparisons with Pokémon as I did with Hearthstone - I had a set of moves that I could use over and over again, while working out what would be most effective against my current foe. But as you start to discover more, it becomes clear how iterative a process the game’s deckbuilding really is. While many of the other roguelikes I’ve played over the past decade depend on the ability to acquire maximum power in minimum time, Slay the Spire requires a more clinical approach. No matter how powerful a card might be, it can be useless in the wrong deck, promoting an element of pickiness that feels at home in the carefully constructed world of card games, but at odds with the genre that defines its moment-to-moment experience.
And yet somehow, developer MegaCrit has managed to marry these two opposing ideas. Slay the Spire is a rare game for the way that it doesn’t reward strength at any cost, but instead lets you find strength in absence, in patience. It’s a game that makes you want to turn down your prize over and over again, before finally offering you the one card that will tie your entire deck together, transforming a collection of standalone ideas into a seamless whole far greater than the sum of its parts. In many ways, that process is reflective of the game itself: Slay the Spire brings together two genres that were never intended to sit side-by-side, and creates an experience that not only manages to enhance all of its source material, but has conjured a fascinating sub-genre in its own right.