Earlier this year a little indie game called One Step From Eden caught firm hold of my attention. There was one reason and one reason only why the game snagged me as it did: the surface similarities to one of my favorite childhood series, Mega Man Battle Network. When I saw those red and blue grids and read about the similarities between spell cards and battle chips, I knew right away that I’d be picking this game up. I grabbed One Step From Eden and dove right in, only to realize that while the game is in some ways reminiscent of the series I so loved as a kid, it is meaningfully different in ways that seem custom designed to make the game more difficult for me specifically.
I am not what one might describe as a fast person. On a good day if I were trying to be generous to myself, I might be described as “meticulous,” “thorough,” or perhaps “careful.” But those are all very nice ways to say that I am a pretty slow guy. I don’t do anything in a hurry and in jobs where the ability to do things quickly mattered (especially doing manual labor quickly), I have never particularly excelled. Even the more cerebral activities to which my skillset is more tailored still aren’t things I do quickly, and I have been known to take my time when thinking through challenging problems or when searching for the right phrasing in a conversation. I say all this to say that when I picked up One Step From Eden, a game which challenges your ability to quickly process information in order to dodge attacks in real time while also asking you to cleverly play the large variety of spell cards at your disposal, I struggled deeply with making any meaningful progress through the game.
As it turns out, One Step From Eden has one other source of inspiration in addition to Mega Man Battle Network, another indie game from which it draws the mission structure, reward structure, and deckbuilding elements. I first heard about this game when my pal Jett over at In Third Person streamed it on his Twitch channel, and then I heard more about its similarities with One Step From Eden from Frostilyte of Frostilyte Writes. The game is called Slay the Spire, and from everything I heard it seemed like this game would literally be more my speed. All of the deckbuilding elements and strategic decisions about how to proceed through a procedurally-generated series of trials but with none of the fast-paced action or need for instantaneous decision making. Slay the Spire promised an experience where I could take my time to think but still be challenged. And having now played through a couple runs of the game, I can share my first impressions for those who – like me – may be looking for a strategic card game that doesn’t also require you to have the reflexes of a bullet hell master.
For those who may be visiting this article without One Step From Eden as a reference point, let’s talk about the basics of Slay the Spire. Slay the Spire is a turn-based card battle game where you make your way through procedurally-generated maps to fight enemies, find treasure, purchase cards, and ultimately make it to The Spire, which marks the end of a run. It is relatively plot-light; while there is a sort of meta-narrative driving the reason for having multiple runs, ultimately the focus here is on the card battles and deck building. If you’re starting your first playthrough on a fresh file of the game (as I did), you’ll first play through as the Ironclad, a “knight” sort of character, but you’ll have the ability to unlock three other character types as you progress the game.
The narrative structure of Slay the Spire takes place in three acts which are, broadly speaking, locations in the setting: “city,” “tower,” etc. Each map is made up of a number of paths which branch off from one another as well as intersecting at various points. Based on which path you choose you’ll have a series of encounters with different possibilities. The most common is a battle against a group of enemies. You can also have battles against what are called elites, powerful enemies who drop useful artifacts if defeated successfully. You may find treasure chests with free cards or artifacts, or encounter merchants who can sell you cards or artifacts for the gold you earn defeating enemies. Rest areas give you an opportunity to recover health or upgrade cards in your deck. There are also unknown locations which generally result in small special events that net you a special card or give you a chance to earn some money.
As you play through the game, you’ll want to choose your path based on the types of encounters you’ll have along the way. Elites are valuable to pursue because of their great drops, but if you have low health you may be inclined to angle for a path with fewer dangerous battles. The allure of treasure or random events is strong due to the possibility of safely getting free stuff, but avoiding battles will prevent you from gathering other multiple useful resources at once. The way the paths branch and reconnect allow you a few different choices for how to move forward, and a key part of your strategy will be plotting your course based on what resources you currently have available – or which ones you desperately need to replenish.
Combat is the most common activity in Slay the Spire, so understanding how it works is key to understanding whether or not the game will ultimately be for you. Battles are turn-based and pit your single hero against a group of one or more enemies. You have a pool of health varying in size from character to character, as well as a pool of energy for playing cards. At the beginning of your turn you’ll draw a hand of five cards to play. Some cards deal damage while others block damage from enemy attacks; still others have specialized effects like drawing cards, inflicting status ailments, or engaging the unique mechanics of the character you are currently playing. When you run out of energy to spend cards, you end your turn and place the remaining cards in your hand into the discard pile. You’ll draw a new hand on the next turn, and no worries if you have no deck left; discards get shuffled again and you’ll go through your deck as many times as you need to in order to finish a match.
During your turn the enemy’s next action is telegraphed to you in some way. If they are attacking, you can see how much damage you’ll need to block. If they plan to inflict a troublesome status on you, an icon will indicate as much. If they’re going to strengthen themselves while blocking some damage, you’ll see the icons for both Buff and Defend showing their strategy. This helps you to know the best approach for your turn and to take measures to mitigate or totally stop whatever the enemy has up their sleeves. When you manage to execute your turn in such a way that leaves the enemy wounded as well as preventing them from damaging you at all, it’s a great feeling. Often though you will have to make hard choices; do you burn your whole turn on defense in hopes that they’ll have less attack power next round? Do you risk a big hit in exchange for dealing lots of damage yourself? Figuring out how to maximize the benefit for yourself each turn is key to mastering Slay the Spire.
In addition to the cards in your hand, there are a couple of other resources available to your character during combat. I’ve mentioned a couple of times in this article that one reward you can receive from certain interactions is an artifact. Artifacts are items which grant passive bonuses to your character; you’ll start with a default artifact suited to the current character’s playstyle but will have plenty of opportunities to pick up more during a run. Artifacts may augment existing abilities or may entire circumvent specific rules (such as an artifact that prevents you from discarding your hand at the end of a turn). There are also potions, which are one-use consumables with a variety of effects. Potions burn out quickly but you also acquire them somewhat frequently, so they can be a key tool in helping you to overcome elites; there’s not much value to a potion you ultimately have to throw away, after all. With the passive bonuses from artifacts and the temporary boons of potions, your cards can reach their full potential and help you overcome particularly challenging foes.
If combat is the main activity in Slay the Spire, deckbuilding is a very close second. Your cards are your weapons and armor to help you overcome foes, so choosing the ones that best suit your strategy and upgrading them appropriately is key to having a successful run. As mentioned before, each character has a bit of a different strategy due to the types of cards that they use. During my first session of play I got the opportunity to try out two characters: the ironclad and the defect (you can think of these characters as the fighter and the mage, respectively). But even within the niche of a specific character, there are strategies you can focus on and ones you can avoid, allowing you to customize that character to the version of their overall approach that works the best for you. This comes over time, though. When you first start playing as a character you’ll have only their most basic cards, the majority of which are simply generic attack and defend cards. To get the good stuff and spice up your deck, you’ll have to earn cards through battle, find them in chests, or buy them at the store.
Finding the cards that best suited me and seeing my combos play out in combat was easily my favorite part of the early hours of Slay the Spire. The ironclad has a pretty straightforward deck where cards tend to either do damage or increase your block value and then have one other effect on top of that. Being able to accomplish two things at once (attack and block, attack and draw, block and draw) made it easy to make the most of each turn. I quickly fell in love with zero cost cards like Anger and Rage. Anger deals damage for no cost and also adds more Anger to your discard pile, enabling you to get more and more free hits in as a match goes on. Rage makes it so that your attack cards also grant block, allowing you to prioritize offense while still mitigating damage against yourself. Another favorite of mine was Double Tap, a card which causes your next attack to be played twice. Combined with a high damage card like Bludgeon, Double Tap was perfect for big finishing blows.
Building a great deck isn’t exclusively about accumulating more and more cards, though. It is also important to upgrade existing cards or even to trim cards out of your deck entirely. After all, the more cards you have in your deck, the less often you’ll get your hands on the most effective weaposs in your arsenal. Maintaining deck size costs money but it can make a big difference if you find that a card isn’t working for you anymore – this can be particularly helpful if you decide to take an artifact that then renders one of your previous cards less useful. Upgrading cards can be brought on by acquisition of specific artifacts and sometimes you may earn a card in its upgraded state, but the most common method of obtaining upgrades is by choosing to smith cards at a rest site. Smithing also gives you more control as other methods of upgrading often affect random cards. Most upgraded cards simply give more of the appropriate resource (damage, block, cards drawn, etc) but some upgrades have other benefits. My favorite is a decrease in cost – this can make cards which were previously too expensive much easier to work into your strategy, or make a card totally free to play. One example from my experience was Body Slam, a card that deals damage equal to your current Block. By reducing the cost from 1 to 0, I could spend all my energy on defending and then get a big hit in by playing Body Slam for free.
During my time with the game I successfully finished a run with the ironclad, and I also tried out a daily challenge with the defect. Daily challenges are runs of Slay the Spire with specialized rules to change up the standard gameplay. In the challenge I attempted, for example, my defect character could also receive cards from the ironclad deck and started with some bonus cards in the deck. The elites I had to deal with during that run also had stat boosts. Once you’ve tried a daily challenge, you unlock the ability to customize your own runs to make the game as easy or as tough as you want it to be. Of course, completing multiple runs contributes to the meta narrative of the game (in other words, there are story reasons to do so), as well as unlocking additional rewards in the forms of new characters to play or new cards to incorporate into your strategy. The game tracks your victorious runs and your defeats, there are a number of achievements to accomplish, and for the competitive sort you can compare your results to those of other players on the leaderboards. There’s a lot to keep you engaged over the course of multiple runs, but at the same time you enjoy the freedom to put the game down for awhile and come back as desired without having to worry about needing a refresher course on some grand plotline.
My experience with Slay the Spire is still pretty limited, but so far I’m enjoying it a lot. It has all the elements about One Step From Eden that I liked while being much more accessible to me as someone who needs to be able to take his time and play games at a slower pace. If you have played any real-life deckbuilders like Marvel’s Legendary or Sentinels of the Multiverse, this game scratches the same itch but without the need for people to play board games with, which is a nice bonus. Fans of fantasy RPGs or strategy games may also have something to like here. It appeals to those drawn to mastery of a system and to the thrill of a mental challenge; if you love the payoff of slowly seeing your carefully-chosen cards create satisfying combinations that help you overcome seemingly impossible enemies, then Slay the Spire is right up your alley. If there’s anything I didn’t cover in my first impressions that you have a question about, let me know in the comments and I will answer to the best of my ability – your question may even be the seed of a future article about the game!