Ranking the Clans of Monster Train

Over the past month I’ve been using my Game Pass subscription to experience Monster Train, a roguelike deckbuilder all about reclaiming hell from the angels. You play monsters, cast spells, and make choices about how to modify your deck to give yourself the greatest chance possible to overcome your heavenly foes. I’ve spent the month primarily experimenting with the different clan combinations and seeing how each clan functions with each other, slowly working my way to at least one victory with every combination. Last weekend I managed to do it, clearing out my final few combinations. Earlier this week, I ended my Game Pass subscription and said goodbye to the game – at least for now. So as my farewell to Monster Train, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the game’s five clans and rank them in order of my least favorite to my favorite.

#5: The Umbra

The Umbra are the fourth clan you unlock in Monster Train, and their lore is that they are the most ancient beings in hell. Miners called morsels excavate minerals that can then be fed to your other units to give them stat bonuses. Many Umbra units also have a gorge ability, which activates on the act of eating a morsel. The combination of eating and gorging causes these units to build up and become more powerful over time. Their spells are focused primarily on generating morsels and the space to hold them, manipulating the size of your train floor or using the extra size you’ve given it in order to grant other benefits like increasing energy production. Ideally, you want one powerful unit on each floor benefiting from morsel consumption and reliable access to morsel generation, keeping every floor well stocked with food to keep your gorgers activating their useful abilities.

At its best, the Umbra is all about watching the numbers go up as you consume morsel after morsel and stack huge buffs. There’s an artifact that allows you to gorge twice every time you eat and when you’ve got something like the Penumbra champion getting +15 attack power every time they gorge, their stats can become ridiculous. Throw the trample ability onto that and the massive amounts of damage blow through units to hit the units behind them. It’s satisfying to watch a massive behemoth absolutely devastate a line of foes. The floor manipulation also makes for some fun strategies. One build I ran allowed the Penumbra to proc their summon ability two times, and the ability gave the floor additional capacity. Once the floor became massive, I would then burn that capacity on spells that exchanged space for energy, making it so I would have anywhere from 7-9 ember to spend on any given turn. I then used that energy to keep the morsel machine churning for my gorgers on the lower floors.

The Umbra are the lowest on the list for a reason, though. They’ve got terrible synergy with other clans – most Umbra units don’t function well if they aren’t gorging and the lack of gorge abilities means that most units from other clans don’t function as well with morsels. The need to increase capacity means you’re not spending your upgrades on more valuable improvements like draw power, which makes it easier to get caught with a weak hand. Because the Umbra are so dependent on building up over time, late-game battles where powerful enemies are coming in with high damage attacks and multiattack make it difficult for your units to survive long enough to hit the buildup they desperately need. And as far as card variety goes, the Umbra more than any other clan has a bunch of cards that feel unhelpful, subpar, or have such obvious drawbacks that I never wanted to touch them. Many Umbra buffs also give emberdrain, which reduces your energy for a number of turns equal to the stacks of emberdrain. Cards like Retch may seem useful because they give you morsels back, but if you don’t use all those morsels at once then your draw pile gets muddied and the lack of draw power prevents you from getting to your useful cards. And most of the offensive abilities attached to Umbra cards hit random enemies, meaning you have to hope the right stuff gets targeted or you’ll feel as if your energy got wasted. I still enjoyed learning to master the Umbra as a sort of challenge, like “hey, can I make this obviously subpar clan functional?” but it says a lot that the majority of my wins with the Umbra involved quickly removing their own cards and then focusing on a strategy better suited to the other clan.

#4: The Hellhorned

The Hellhorned are the first primary clan you play with in the game, the heroes who greet you for your very first run. They are a clan built around teamwork; fragile imps give useful buffs to their allies as they enter the battlefield, demons grant armor or rage to one another, and expensive but powerful beasts deal heavy blows to foes. Their spells deal damage to specified enemy units or grant armor or rage to friendly ones. This opens the way to a few different strategies: do you armor up and use that protection as the basis for a powerful Battering Ram spell? Do you summon and sacrifice weak imps to support a few key units, with multiple spells in hand that become cheaper or more powerful thanks to your imp hordes? Or do you pour everything into offense, pumping rage into warriors with multiattack to do big damage and clear whole lines of enemies at once? Depending on your champion and the spells you draw during a run, your Hellhorned tactics may look very different.

Personally I’ve gotten the most mileage out of the imps, small creatures that have an effect when summoned but then are weak wastes of space afterward. Because keeping them around doesn’t necessarily help you, many imps are also useful as cannon fodder, planted in front of units you want to protect so that your core team doesn’t take damage. These imps then also serve as sacrifices you can use to deal damage with Imp-losion or as a source of new cards and energy with Imp-olate. Make them endless and they’ll pop into your hand every single turn to use their summon abilities again and again. I’ve used this strategy in combination with the Shardqueen’s rally ability to build the queen up to ridiculous amounts of hitting power. The Hellhorned also have some pretty powerful artifacts to bring to bear; Grrrg’s Goad for example gives multiattack to every demon, making a run using demon units all about taking advantage of rage to make all those additional attacks as potent as possible.

The choice between the Hellhorned and the clan I’m placing at number 3 was a difficult one. I like them both significantly more than the Umbra and in a lot of ways I see them as equivalent, two different approaches to relatively similar outcomes. I practically had to flip a coin to choose between them, but I think what ultimately sealed the Hellhorned in fourth place for me is how their buffs synergize – or don’t – with other clans. Rage and armor both go away; rage decreases every turn unless you specifically have an artifact that prevents that, and armor dissipates once damaged and has to be re-upped to continue protecting your unit. When units die and come back through whatever means (being endless or because of cards available to another clan), the bonuses from rage and armor dissipate and you essentially get that unit back in their most basic form. The clan I’m ranking above the Hellhorned gives more permanent benefits with their buffs and generally has a couple other small advantages in terms of their spell cards, even if I broadly prefer the units of the Hellhorned over them.

#3: The Awoken

What if trees went to Hell? This is the premise of the Awoken, a clan that is all about plants and the powers they bring to the table. Like the Hellhorned, they have a good balance of tanks and aggressive units and useful spells for increasing attack power and health. Unlike the Hellhorned, the Awoken also have spells that increase draw power and spells that grant healing to damaged units. Some key Awoken mechanics are spikes, which deal damage to enemy units when they attack you, and regen, which heals your unit by the amount of regen they currently have and counts down each turn. A few Awoken units also have regenerate buffs that proc when they receive healing, including the ability to cultivate other units and give them stat bonuses. They may sound a little all over the place, but the Awoken have excellent versatility that helps them to blend well with a lot of different strategies.

Of all the unique mechanics the Awoken bring to the table, spikes are my favorite. One Awoken champion has a build that is totally focused on massive amounts of spikes, and there are other units, artifacts, or spell cards that can play off of that. Spikes can be made stronger or be used to grant attack buffs to the unit, and the powerful Bramblelash spell deals 10x as much damage to a single enemy as you have spikes on a particular floor. And of course the basic function of spikes still applies – whether or not your units are doing a lot of damage, enemies take damage as they attack you. As long as you keep your crew healed up, this can be a great way to keep foes at bay. Healing can be potent among the Awoken and one of my favorite cards for them is Restoration Detonation, which deals damage equal to 5x the amount of health restored when you play the card. It starts at a basic 10 health, but you can use card upgrades or the benefits of various unit abilities or artifacts in order to multiply that healing – and by extension, multiply the damage you deal. Stick a powerful tank unit in front of an Animus of Will with two ranks of multiattack and watch the damage build.

My issue with the Awoken is that some of their strategies can screw you over in longer battles and if you get the wrong set of upgrades during a run, their offensive potential can be lacking. If your units survive but they can’t kill the enemy, your Pyre will fall at some point. Some artifacts or units for the Awoken populate your deck with damaging Sting cards that also increase your draw power, but these Stings then stay in your deck until the end of the match and over time half the cards you’ll be drawing are Stings instead of your better cards. The Awoken have other cards that make copies too, and while they can cycle through those cards relatively quickly thanks to their high draw power, good play in Monster Train depends on a tight deck with only the most powerful, necessary cards you can collect. Finally, if you’re running Awoken units but don’t run healing spells, they tend to underperform. Their tanks in particular – large units called Hollows – start out with a low current HP but high max HP. This means they can get cleared out quickly unless you heal them, making them fail to serve their purpose as tanks when dealing with high-level foes or running a deck that doesn’t have good healing output.

#2: The Stygian Guard

We’ve seen a lot of clans so far that focus heavily on units, using large tanks or aggressive attackers who are supported by spells that primarily grant buffs or healing. The Stygian Guard is the spell-focused clan of Monster Train, containing a large variety of powerful spells as well as units that interact with spells in interesting ways. The most common Stygian Guard mechanic is incant, which procs whenever a spell is played on the same floor as the unit. This means that in addition to the benefits of the spell itself, your units also get more powerful or pull off other useful effects. Stygian spells or units can inflict spell weakness and make future spells even more effective, and for those who like a good poison mechanic, frostbite deals damage to foes at the end of their turn and decreases steadily as turns go by. If you’re an Izzet Guild player in Magic: The Gathering, you should feel right at home with the Stygian Guard.

My favorite thing about the incant mechanic is that it adds value to casting spells even if they don’t perform their function, allowing you to maximize every turn. Say there are no enemies to attack but you still have energy left – playing that attack spell triggers Incant to make your unit stronger for next time. Say you have zero ember but you have a spell you can play that costs X ember to function – the spell won’t do anything because X is zero, but the spell still counts as cast so Incant still works. This could mean giving armor to your tank, rage to your primary attacker, drawing cards if you have a channeling stone in the back, or adding shards to a particular champion so they can activate their beneficial effects. A few different Stygian spells have the attuned feature, which makes it so they gain additional benefits from boosts to magic power compared to other spell cards. Spending your upgrades on those boosts or playing units like the Molluscmage that increase magic power when they are on the same row as the spell makes these spells exponentially powerful. And of course you don’t have to be playing Stygian spells to get these benefits – using a healing spell on your tank or summoning a morsel to feed to your attacker proc incant just as well as any ice blast or magical hammer, giving the Stygians great synergy with other clans.

So what holds the Stygian Guard back for me? There’s a few factors. Incant is a great mechanic but similar to the Umbra and their morsels, Stygian units start weaker because of it. If you don’t have time to build them up, they can get wiped out before having the chance to truly shine. This is offset by the spells themselves having functional use outside of building units which is why the Stygians are so much higher, but it is still worth noting for the more difficult battles. Stygian spells tend to be very expensive, and while some of these expensive spells have offering, which plays them for free if they are discarded, a lot of the discard spells discard something at random so you have limited control over activating these expensive attacks. Finally, frostbite is somewhat middling as a mechanic, one of the least useful versions of “big poison damage” I have seen in games like this. This is because it activates after the enemy’s attack, not before, meaning you’re still going to suffer whatever a frostbitten enemy was planning to do to you. Outside of very specific units, there’s also a relatively limited number of frostbite abilities and the stacks they lay down are small, meaning you really need the benefit of upgrades, artifacts, and a build exclusively dedicated to frostbite in order to truly benefit from it. In a game like Slay the Spire where poison is attached to a character type who lacks other forms of dealing large damage, it makes sense, but the Stygians have reliable large damage output without having to rely on stacking frostbite. It’s primarily useful against bosses, and even then not particularly effective in my experience for most runs.

#1: The Melting Remnant

The Melting Remnant are my favorite squad for a lot of reasons. From a design perspective, they’re very unique. Look at the other deck themes: demons, plants, underwater magicians, shadowy miners. These are themes you can find other places and there’s not much to distinguish a Hellhorned from a demon in any other deckbuilder. The Melting Remnant are candle people, but more specifically candle mafia. Their clothes and designs invoke a specific historical era and give them a unique identity that really sets them apart from any other deck themes I have seen in other TCGs or roguelike deckbuilders I have played. Mechanically, the Melting Remnant are built around the burnout mechanic, which causes them to die on their own after a set number of turns even if they are not killed by enemies. Some units have extinguish abilities that activate when they die while others have harvest abilities that benefit them when other units die. Crucially, the Melting have the ability to bring their fallen units back, often using a reform mechanic that extends their burnout timer and gives them buffs to damage and health. This fundamentally changes how you approach your units; I’ve compared it previously to the difference between treating your units like an RPG party versus treating them like chess pieces. One is meant to be preserved and built up, the other meant to be deployed and sacrificed strategically for the biggest payoff.

The Melting function so effectively because their strategy is built around turning what your enemy wants to do against them. The bad guys are going to try to kill your units – and killing your units is exactly what you want to happen, because that activates your abilities and then sets you up to bring your units back even more powerful on future turns. The second Melting champion, Little Fade, is a powerful example of this. One of their three builds gives Little Fade both endless and quick, as well as an extinguish ability that grants increasingly large amounts of attack power whenever Little Fade gets killed. So you put them down, scrub the first enemy off the board, and then die. Next turn, you do the same thing, but Little Fade can hit even harder the second time. This cycle continues until you’ve got attack power in the hundreds. You can perform similar cycles with other units with your other cards, such as placing powerful Draffs with multiattack and making them more powerful by reforming them each time they burnout or get killed. I like to put these expendable units in front of harvesters that get stronger as their weaker allies are killed, making all of the cards in my deck stronger over time. Of course, if you really want a unit to stick around instead of burning out, the Melting also have cards that increase the burnout timer, some of which involve healing or buffs along with it. One unit I like has a revenge effect that increases her burnout as well as the burnout of every other card on the floor whenever she takes damage.

This isn’t all to say that there aren’t any disadvantages to the Melting Remnant, but I find any of their problems to be infinitely more solvable than the issues other clans deal with. For example, the Melting only have a couple of cards that can deal damage beyond the front line, which means an annoying enemy in the back can resolve their effect like dealing big damage or putting frustrating cards in your hand. But if the consequence of sparing these units is killing one of your units…well, that’s what the Melting thrive on! Synergizing with other decks can be a little complicated because putting burnout on a unit that doesn’t have any yet causes them to burn out after one turn, but if their burnout is increasing each time the unit comes back then that penalty gets more bearable as the battle goes on. Often, it has felt like a worthwhile tradeoff for reliable access to the ability to revive units, because losing a unit in a run without the Melting feels significantly more devastating. I’d say bosses are perhaps the biggest threat to the Melting Remnant – if all your units are at risk of burning out and a boss has full health, you could get caught in a situation where you can’t kill the boss because all your units are dying before they can inflict their big damage. This is particularly true for the version of Seraph that consumes cards – if you run out of revival spells, the Remnant strategy falls apart. But compared to other clans, I’ve found the Melting most effective at keeping enemies cleared out so I can do damage to the boss before their final rush starts, and by using your spells sparingly and prioritizing well you can prevent the consumption of your most essential spells until you no longer need them. The Melting Remnant have such an efficient strategy that it dulls the edge of any tool that could be used against them, and I’ve found their addition to my team to be the biggest boon in guaranteeing successful runs for my other clans.

One thought on “Ranking the Clans of Monster Train

Add yours

  1. I’d rank them all the same for largely the same reasons. Will say though, the awoken are my favorite support class to use. The ways they tie up the loose ends of the other classes is just too perfect.

    Liked by 1 person

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