Why I Love Slay the Spire

March 14, 2019

I had all sorts of grand plans for how I was going to spend my time productively during my paternity leave, which ended today. I would organize my online photos, work on my slides for an upcoming talk, write a bunch of blog posts and, I dunno, maybe spend time with my wife and newborn son. But all of that went out the window (mostly) when I became hooked on Slay the Spire.

Slay the Spire has been out since last year in early access on Steam, but I only recently found out about it when it officially launched in January. At its heart, Slay the Spire is a collectible card game similar to Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone. But rather than going head-to-head with opponents using pre-built decks, Slay the Spire incorporates elements of rogue-likes — permadeath and randomness — starting you with a basic deck which you add cards to as you make your way through levels of increasingly difficult enemies.

A screenshot of Slay the Spire
Taking on the Act 1 boss with The Silent.

There are three characters to choose from, each having their own set of unique cards to build your deck with. The Ironclad is focused on strength-based attacks and skills. The Silent uses blades and poison to stack damage. The Defect summons powerful orbs with passive and active abilities.

Besides your deck, you can also acquire relics, which give you passive or one-time bonuses, potions, which give you single use abilities, and curse cards, which apply negative effects to you when they appear in your hand.

You make your way through a branching path that includes enemy battles, random events, shops, and campfires, where you can choose to rest or upgrade cards. Each of the three acts concludes with a boss encounter that will test the limits of your deck.

Every game is different

Because you're building your deck on-the-fly and randomly acquiring relics and potions, you can almost never re-construct the exact combination that led to success in previous runs. This forces you to try new card combinations in hopes of overcoming the most difficult encounters.

Defeating the "final" Act 3 boss unlocks Ascension mode for your character. There are 20 Ascension levels, which add modifiers to the game that increase the difficulty. These include more frequent Elite enemies, stronger enemies and stronger bosses. Each time you win a run, you unlock another Ascension level, adding yet another layer of difficulty.

Winning the game with all three characters gives you the ability to acquire three keys throughout the game. If you collect all three, you unlock a fourth act that concludes with a seemingly impossible boss, which I have yet to beat.

After over 100 hours of play, I've only been able to reach Ascension 4 on all three characters.

For even more variety, there's a daily challenge that adds random modifiers that change your starting cards or give you unique handicaps to overcome using one of the three characters. These can be incredibly fun and incredibly difficult.

Discovering synergies

After each battle you're given a choice of three cards to add to your deck. While your first inclination might be to always take a card, many times it's to your advantage to not take any of them. In fact, the game gives you the option in shops and random events to remove cards from your deck since the more cards you have in your deck, the less likely you are to have the card you need in your hand when you need it.

The game is filled with counter-intuitive choices like this that lead you to discovering new synergies — combinations of cards that result in more powerful effects than they would appear to on their own. Some of these synergies are immediately obvious, with cards sharing terms like "shiv", "exhaust", "strength", "focus", etc. But others you will discover can quickly scale your damage or defense to unimaginable levels.

When you discover these synergies, it can be immensely satisfying as you cut through even the toughest boss.

Incredibly challenging achievements

A look at the deck and relics used to earn the Minimalist achievement
I finally earned the Minimalist achievement for winning with a deck of 5 or fewer cards.

The achievements in Slay the Spire hint at some of these synergies. At first glance some of them seem impossible. For example:

Many of these require you to find just the right combination of cards that can be cycled indefinitely, which is extremely challenging and requires a good bit of RNG luck. If you are a gaming masochist like me, Slay the Spire's achievements will really give you a run for your money.

The Mike Seal of Approval

Slay the Spire is an incredibly fun, rewarding and addictive game. If you're into CCGs like Magic or Hearthstone, or turn-based strategy games like Into the Breach or Darkest Dungeon, you'll love Slay the Spire.

Slay the Spire is currently available on Steam for PC/Mac and is in development for Switch and mobile devices, at which point I will likely not get anything done for the rest of time.

I'm Mike Aparicio, Principal Design Systems Engineer at Turquoise Health. I'm interested in helping companies large and small improve collaboration between design and engineering through the use of design systems. I specialize in creating custom CSS frameworks that empower engineering teams to get from concept to production quickly, while writing little to no CSS themselves. I write about web design and development, video games, pop culture, and other things I find interesting. I live in the Chicago area with my wife, three sons, and a dog.

You can find me on most places on the Internet as @peruvianidol.

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