When I was in college I dabbled in that most famous of trading card games, Magic: The Gathering. A bunch of my friends all picked it up at once at the urging of another mutual friend, and I vaguely remember us all going to the local Wal-Mart (no comic book store or game store in our dinky college town) to grab decks together. We each picked based on little more than aesthetics, but as time went on we learned our preferred styles and slowly built up custom decks of our own out of the remnants of booster packs or through trading with one another.
I loved building decks almost as much as I loved playing, and throughout my time of actively playing Magic I made all sorts of different combinations. Zombies, vampires, flying creatures, unblockable creatures, decks built around specific Ravnica guilds – I did all sorts of experiments and while I wouldn’t say I was our best player by a long shot, I think I did excel at theming decks around concepts that helped to make them effective and fun to play.
In my first impressions of Slay the Spire, I described how it reminded me of various deckbuilding tabletop games I had played over the years. And in standard mode, this is very much the case. You start with a basic hand of attack and defense cards and earn more specialized cards over time by defeating enemies. Since those first few runs, I have been experimenting more with some of the custom modes available once you’ve attempted both a standard run and a daily challenge. In this article, I’ll be talking about those modes as well as sharing the ways in which they’ve tapped more into what I love about deckbuilding as part of the TCG experience.
There are three key modes I’ve been experimenting with, so let’s dig into them one at a time. First there’s the Insanity mode, which I first experienced as part of a daily challenge. For those who may not know, the daily challenge is a run with specific rules that is available for a period of 24 hours. The character is predetermined as well as the various settings from custom mode. You can participate in the challenge as many times as you like and your best performance is ranked on a leaderboard which you can quickly reference to see your performance. As part of one of these challenges, I got to experience the Insanity mode for the first time.
In Insanity, you begin the game with a much larger deck than normal. In standard mode your character has twelve cards: five basic attacks (Strike) and five basic defense cards (Defense) as well as two character-specific cards. This twelve card starting deck is begging to be supplemented and/or with additional, more useful cards. Insanity takes the opposite approach, giving your character a starting deck of 50 cards. What stands out even more about this massive deck is that the cards in it are random. You probably won’t have those five basic attack and defense cards. Your favorite cards for the character you are playing may or may not be in the deck. You could have rare cards that are normally hard to find or have way too many copies of a common, relatively unhelpful card. But while it is possible that RNG could throw you under the bus, generally you’re going to have a deck that is at least somewhat viable and which could last you your entire run depending on how you play.
When I play with an Insanity deck active, I tend not to add new cards to my deck and instead focusing my energy on opportunities to remove cards. This means fewer battles with standard enemies in favor of trying to angle towards shops or to unknown events which could potentially give me an opportunity to get rid of cards. Similar to when I would buy premade Magic decks, Insanity challenges me to look at a whole package given to me and learn how to trim the fat in order to emphasize the cards that are most effective.
Once I tried Insanity and realized I could be having some fresh experiences by experimenting with custom modes, the next thing I tried was a format called the Sealed Deck. Sealed Deck presents you with a pack of 30 random cards from which you can create a 10 card starting deck for yourself. As with Insanity, the larger body of cards you can choose from is totally random, but you have more control thanks to your ability to choose the ten you want the most in order to build your deck. Also similar to Insanity, the selection of cards available to you can have repeats, may not have your favorite card, and may not be an even balance between attack versus defense. I had one sealed deck that only had four cards with block out of a set of 30 different choices!
While the 10 card deck you start with is a tad smaller than your starting deck in standard mode, because the cards are hand-picked and also have more powerful effects than the basic cards it all pretty well balances out. The freedom to choose from 30 different cards gives you the opportunity to create a tight focus around a strategy that you want to experiment with. An example in my case was creating a deck for The Silent focused almost exclusively on damage through poison, something that can be tricky to do in standard mode where you’re relying on the shops or enemy card drops to give you new cards. It can be helpful for testing out combinations of cards that you think will go well together but haven’t really had the opportunity to implement together during normal play. Assuming you get the cards you are hoping to test, of course.
The final mode I’ve been experimenting with is simply called Draft, and it is essentially an option that allows you to build your starting deck by receiving fifteen consecutive card rewards right at the beginning of the game. You are presented with three cards and then choose one to add to your deck; you do this fifteen times until you have a starter deck to carry you through your run. You get more cards than you would with Sealed Deck, but rather than being able to choose those cards together from a big set you instead have to pick them individually from smaller sets. This means you may end up having to select a card or two that you really don’t want in your deck at all or that you think doesn’t fit, since you don’t have the option to skip over card rewards while building your deck in this manner.
The Draft format is a fun way to practice choosing card rewards effectively, allowing you to make that judgment call fifteen times in a few minutes. Will you focus exclusively on picking your favorite cards? Will you take a less desirable card on the fifth or sixth pull if it covers a weakness you are beginning to see in your deck (such as having minimal block or limited draw power)? I also appreciate Draft because having a slightly larger deck does help make things a bit easier starting out, even if the process of forming that deck means that your cards may have a bit less synergy.
I’ve been playing these formats pretty regularly since first discovering them for a few different reasons. The first I’ve already alluded to above – each one has a different skill to build or lesson to teach. Insanity is all about learning to use a full deck that has been given to me, and learning how to identify which cards would be helpful to trim when a deck has become bloated. Sealed Deck allows for the testing of different strategies as well as making the most of a small set of cards. The Draft format is a crash-course in choosing the best card rewards, refining your ability to build a deck one piece at a time from a set of three options. I can take these skills back to the standard mode and potentially perform better by having a stronger understanding of how to approach the game.
Beyond that, though, playing Slay the Spire in this way adds some much-needed variety to the gameplay. Sure every run of Slay the Spire is technically going to be different, but the core elements are so similar that it can feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over again if you simply stick to standard runs. For me, I can get burned out on too much of the same gameplay for hours on end. When a game gives me multiple systems to engage, I’m a lot more likely to stick with it and to have a positive experience with it. Slay the Spire doesn’t have a story to keep me engaged and there’s no social mechanic, base management, exploration; Slay the Spire does one thing very well but the time comes when you need a break from that one thing. The custom modes reinvigorated my interest in the game when I hit the point where the only interesting thing left to do was to make the game harder for myself. I fully recommend experimenting with both these and the other available custom mode options during your own time with Slay the Spire.