When I was learning to play Magic: The Gathering back in college, one of my favorite parts of that experience was discovering what types of cards worked best for me. When I started playing I knew nothing about the different card colors or what strategy they represented; I picked a starting deck based only on aesthetic. Once I started to build up a collection of cards, I would test builds based on the stuff I actually had available to me. “I’ve got enough vampires to try a vampire-themed deck” or “I could try out a zombie-themed decks thanks to this combo I have” became the sort of space I operated in while I learned which card types worked the most with the way I enjoyed playing the game. Over time I discovered a preference for blue cards, the element of control. My main decks I ran all featured blue in some way, with my most effective deck being completely blue. But in a way, figuring that out also marked the beginning of my declining interest in Magic. Once I was done discovering things about the game and had made a final decision on what worked best for me, I didn’t feel as motivated to get new cards or to play games as often. It turned out that experimentation was a key part of my joy in the experience.
Right now in Monster Train I am knee-deep in that experimentation phase, wading through the waters of trying out the many versatile combinations available in the game to discover what I enjoy the most and what I consider the most effective. The last time I wrote about the game I had only played two runs, a win and a loss. At the time of writing now, I’ve done eight runs, five victories and three losses. At the end of my most recent run I unlocked my fourth of five clans that you can play as in the game, adding new monsters and strategies to the realm of possibilities that exists for me. From what folks online have told me, the last two clans are some of the most interesting in terms of the abilities they bring to the table and their efficacy in battle. So before I dive into those, I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on the experiences I’ve had so far and see how those experiences are beginning to solidify into a consistent strategy.
You begin Monster Train with two clans, the hellhorned and the awoken. During my time up to this point I have also played with the stygians. Each clan has two unique champions (the “main unit” in your deck that is customizable each run) as well as certain mechanics or strategies unique to the cards in that deck. The hellhorned, for example, are aggressive cards focused on armor and rage, a status which increases attack power. The awoken are more defensive and focus on healing and rejuvenation; when a card with rejuvenate is healed, it activates a beneficial effect like increasing health or attack power or even granting protective spikes that damage enemies when they attack you. Finally, the stygians are spellcasters primarily focused on spell cards. The units themselves may not start out strong but they get more powerful as you cast spells thanks to the incant mechanic, or they interact with spells in other ways by increasing your magic power or giving enemies the spell weakness status. Because you always play with two clans you always have some combination of these strategies to work with.
One key part of understanding what tactics are effective in Monster Train is understanding how the game’s mechanics work. Your deck has two main types of cards: units and spells. Units are monsters you place down to protect floors of your train car; once a unit is placed, they will defend their position until they die, at which point that card is lost until the next battle. Spells are single-use abilities that resolve an effect and then go into your discard pile; when you run out of cards, your spells are shuffled back into your hand and can be used again. Now some cards may work differently or can be upgraded to function differently, but generally these are the circumstances you are dealing with. Because your train floors have limited capacity for units (you can’t just keep spamming monsters endlessly) and units stay out until they die, I have generally found it more effective to invest in a small number of high-quality units and keeping your card count low enough to draw those units reliably rather than relying on a large, diverse pool of units.
Because this is how the game’s mechanics trend in terms of the way cards function, my initial broad strategy has been to maintain a crew of roughly six units (give or take) and then a selection of spells that best support those units and the mechanics that interact best with their cards. This typically involves having a “tank” and an “attacker” on each floor of the train: my front monster will have high health and/or armor but not necessarily impressive attack power while the back monster generally has high hitting power and may have a helpful debuff or effect that they cause when they attack. This approach particularly makes sense for the combination of the awoken and the hellhorned, the two clans I have used the most (because I have the most losses with them in different configurations). Once I have my units setup, I focus on using a small collection of spell cards focused on a particular effect or benefit in order to either buff my forces or damage the enemy and maintain the momentum of battle in my favor.
This is where a lot of the experimentation has come into my playthroughs – the variety of spells and their effects as well as how they interact depending on what clans you have paired has led me to a unique strategy with almost every single run; even so, I’ve found certain combinations that I really like or keep an eye out for. One example is a tactic I’ll refer to as the “endless imp.” There’s a unit upgrade effect called endless that makes it so a monster that dies returns to the top of your discard pile, ready to be drawn and played again right away. Imps are a weak card type with low damage and health that are focused around an effect that takes place when you summon them onto the field; they are most valuable immediately when they are played and then effectively useless afterwards. So to run endless imp, you take an imp with a useful summon effect and you make the imp endless; when that sucker dies, you get it back so you can play it and get the summon benefit again. In the run I streamed, I used this tactic with the scholar imp to endlessly cycle back in a set of powerful spell cards with the consume ability, enabling me to cast them again and again instead of losing them. In another victorious run off stream, I combined the endless imp strategy with a pair of cards that sacrificed imps and gave endless to the welder imp that gives armor to units. The welder imp puts armor on whatever is in the front, meaning my normal endless imp strategy wouldn’t quite work because the useless imp itself would end up getting the armor. The sacrifice cards allowed me to play the imp in the back and then still get rid of it so I could put the imp into my hand and activate it again in the future.
One thing I’ve found influences my approach pretty significantly too is the starting artifact for my run. Whenever you begin playing the game you are given two artifacts to choose from to give you a little boost at the beginning of your run. Artifacts have beneficial passive effects that may power up cards, change how they function, or otherwise give you benefits when you play a certain way. In my most recent victorious run, for example, my starting artifact was the traitor’s quill, which causes spell cards with consume to do 30 damage to the target in front in addition to their normal effects. As I was using stygians (many of whom benefit from regular spellcasting thanks to incant), this led to a playstyle where I built up a larger deck than normal that was filled with a broad selection of consumable cards. What the cards did almost didn’t matter; their intended function became a secondary benefit as their real purpose was to deal damage and buff my units. The endless imp run I described in the previous paragraph where I also had imp-sacrificing cards was another example of a run defined by my starting artifact – I went hard on imps because I got extra energy and got to draw a card the first time I played an imp every turn.
Along with discovering my strengths I’ve also been discovering my weaknesses as well, the aspects of my playstyle that lead to trouble if I don’t watch myself. My core strategy tends to focus on a specific group of units in my deck; sure I have a tank and an attacker for every floor, but this particular combination is my real bread and butter and the other dudes are backups. I’ll have my best crew on the ground floor to keep enemies from ever progressing higher up the train in the first place. So what happens to me is enemy types who mess up my very carefully planned structure can really throw a wrench in my day. Some enemy attacks move units to different positions, pushing my tank back and exposing my squishy attacker. Other foes have effects like sweep where having a tank doesn’t matter – they hit everything on the floor regardless. Once I realized this weakness I’ve started using some money to give additional health to my attackers to at least protect them against sweepers, and if I see an enemy that can change positions I position my team backwards so the enemies force me into the configuration I want.
Another weakness is that I tend to be highly reliant on spells. My tank and attacker core can hold the line decently enough but they really rely on my hammering the foe with some big damage spells or on me constantly buffing them with heals or armor so they can continue to function. This tends to work well for mooks but can lead to some pretty serious trouble against bosses, who have significantly higher health values and only get one turn of being blasted with support spells before they attack a floor endlessly until they die or the units are defeated. In one of my lost runs, I had a very effective strategy that relied on building up high levels of armor and then using battering rams to deal heavy damage (4x the amount of armor on a line of units). This worked great during regular combat, but once I got to the final boss, I was screwed. I could only up my armor one time, and then my units were totally reliant on their normal abilities to try and take him down. My strategy was so reliant on spells that when I couldn’t cast them, the boss wasn’t taking nearly enough damage. This run also struggled because I had focused so much on my first string that my other floors weren’t built up at all. My strategy relied on having someone to give armor to, so without units to buff all I could do was sit and watch as everything fell apart.
As you can likely see, I am having a very good time playing Monster Train. Each run feels distinct thanks to the joy of discovering new combinations of spells, artifacts, and units that leads to a strategy for me to test. I’m finding a groove but I’m also learning the ways in which I have to be careful about the vulnerabilities of my playstyle. And despite how much I have discovered, I still have so much more! I’ve unlocked but not played as the second champion for the hellhorned and I’ve not even touched the newest clan I unlocked, the umbra. I also still need the second stygian champion – ironically because my stygian runs have been the most successful, I’ve got the least amount of EXP with them because I haven’t used them as much. I still have cards and artifacts to discover for every clan I currently have unlocked, too, so even the ones I’ve used the most (the awoken) still have some features that I haven’t experienced yet. All of this gives me plenty to look forward to with Monster Train yet!