When Slay the Spire launched, back in January 2019, it represented the pinnacle in what became a well recognised genre - Deck Builders. Let’s delve into that genre and see lies beneath the surface.
IYL (If You Like) will be a short series of articles delving into various genres and looking at the best examples in each. I’ll follow a standard layout. I’ll start with a bit of history about the most famous game representing the genre. Next, I’ll cover a game that’s very similar to the original, then (hopefully!) any games that have surpassed it since, and finally any games that do things in a unique way, but still tipping their hat to the original. Then it’s over to you to tell me how wrong I am, in the comments!
Note: I did a very similar article last year, so there will be serious overlap! Future IYL articles will of course cover different genres!
Before we start, let me be clear that while Megacrits’ game “represented the pinnacle” on its launch, it didn’t define the genre exactly. There were many predecessors that led to its creation and it would do several fine games a disservice to suggest that StS was first.
If you fancy a dip into what must surely be the inspiration for StS, you could look at Deep Sky Derelicts, The Guild of Dungeoneering, Ironclad Tactics or even the excellent Hand of Fate games. But it was Megacrits’ game that rolled all the elements into a compelling package. It sold 1.5M copies at a recent count, half a million in early access alone.
I’m not going to pick bones about “Deck Builders” vs “Engine Builders” vs “Card Battlers” here. Let’s just dive in.
A direct clone - Neoverse [Steam]
What happens when you take Slay the Spire’s three wonderfully constructed character choices and replace them with scantily clad female alternatives? Well, if the developer is Tinogames, you get an original take on StS with well thought out unique decks and mechanics, but with gorgeous, fully animated graphics thrown in. Playing Neoverse is very similar to playing StS, but sometimes feels more like a Final Fantasy game due to the gorgeous wind-ups and cinematic take downs.
Whether you play as Naya with her radioactivity, Clare with her shield and blocks, or Helena with her summons, each fight feels fair and crucially, just like StS, some enemies are easy as one character, but brutally difficult as another.
It might be unfair to call this a StS clone, since Neoverse launched only around three months later, so presumably started development pretty much alongside its famous rival, but I can’t find any developer retros and later is later, so here we are.
Should you buy it? Mostly yes - it has a lot of nuance that grows on you over time, like the parry, combo and precision systems that reward careful gameplay. Just be aware that it’ll look like you’re playing a dodgy porn game while you’re taking down those demons.
Oh boy, this’ll get me into trouble, I’m sure. But what it boils down to, for me, is that I’d rather play either of these games, than even one more run of StS.
Roguebook is set in the world of Faeria (Steam, GOG), by Abrakam Entertainment, a game I couldn’t get into. But other than tapping into the Faeria lore, the two games are very different. Roguebook takes the StS formula, then gives you two characters to play with. Block is shared, only the first character takes damage (usually), and cards have a simple mechanic to swap your characters around - if you block, or play a charge card, you go to the front. And it works amazingly well, opening up a huge series of tactics around positioning, blocking and healing.
But that’s not all - each of the four characters have their own decks and own unique capability which means that the synergies between these decks can be amongst the most game-breakingly satisfying that I’ve ever come across. Like in StS when you get your Ironclad to 999 block and draw a Body Slam. Seriously. Endorphin city.
The overworld map is beautiful, the sound design is endearing, enemies are diverse and (for the most part) fun to battle, and the attention to detail is just wonderful. It’s a masterpiece.
As for Breach Wanderers, the recommendation is just as heartfelt, but… murkier. Launching at Steam Next Fest back in Q3 2020, and still in Early Access today, the developers are two friends in Montreal with a vision. That vision is that their unique take on the Deck Builder puts the emphasis on the building. In Breach Wanderers, you can choose (with a few well considered restrictions) what your opening deck will consist of AND what will be in the pool of available cards throughout your run.
Having grown up on first edition Magic the Gathering, the ability to customise your opening deck is simply wonderful. After 110 hours of Slay the Spire’s opening four or five fights being absolutely identical in nearly every way, here was a game that gave me a choice of four opening fights with a custom deck tailored to exactly how I wanted to play the game. Throw in around 8 characters, interesting new game mechanics and a very grindy (in a good way) meta game and it’s plain that this one has some serious longevity beyond simply throwing Ascensions at you until you fall over.
It’s early days for me with the game, but so far the combination of the familiarity of StS, but with the freshness of actual deck building is an absolute winner. Highly recommended.
Remember Dota Underlords (Steam)? God I loved that game. Until I didn’t anymore, but that was after 150 hours, so not bad for a freebie! Anyway, so did the developers of Hadean Tactics, a husband and wife team from Brazil. So much so, that the base game involves choosing your core hero, recruiting two to four followers, then throwing them into a grid-based auto-battler which could be easily mistaken for Valve’s PvP timesink.
The differences wrack up pretty quickly though. To start with, this is PvE. Also, every 7 seconds, the game pauses and you have the familiar three mana to spend playing a choice of five cards. These can be straight up damage dealers, but the most interesting cards reposition the board, or can buff or debuff a few seconds of the fight. There’s a StS-style progress map, and of course, relics and upgrades for each of your units along the way.
It’s slick, it’s different and it’s definitely worth checking out.
Next up, Monster Train - often cited as one of the best deck builders out there, I was excited to finally give it a try a few months ago. And yep, it’s excellent. The basic format is almost like a tower defence, as enemies enter your four-level train at the bottom and work their way upwards toward the train’s core on the top level. That gives you three levels to place your “heroes” and buff them with your deck options.
The graphics are absolutely stunning, the overworld map is simple but fun and the fights are usually very fair. Variety is bolstered by having around 5 or 6 factions that you can play, each with their own deck, and each run is a combination of two of these factions to further mix up possible synergies.
But while it is a truly excellent game, I have a similar problem with Monster Train as I do with Slay the Spire - after a certain point, the only replayability is in Ascensions, which simply rank up, introducing harder bosses and more punishing runs. That’s fine to a point, but it feels a little bit lazy, especially compared to Roguebook’s excellent mix-and-match challenge system which affects not just difficulty, but even how the core game is played.
I have no regrets though, as my nearly 60 hours in the game will attest.
And the rest
And wow, this is a big list. I’m too lazy to link all of these to their various stores, but if you’re serious about your deck builders, you don’t want to miss out on…
Griftlands - two decks, one for fighting, one for diplomacy, all wrapped up in a story-driven series of missions. It’s out of Early Access now, and highly rated on Steam, but something didn’t quite click for me on this, particularly odd since it’s made by the awesome Klei team.
Nowhere Prophet - guide your fledging army across the wasteland to find them a new home. Hints of base building in this one, with a Darkest Dungeon vibe at times.
Across the Obelisk - Four heroes, four times the fun, with a story-driven overworld map. Some complicated mechanics on show here, but it’s highly-rated on Steam. I only played a handful of hours during Early Access and it’s one I’ll be going back to, for sure.
Trials of Fire - One of my favourites due to the lovely table-top feel the fights have. A really interesting open-world over-world map and a loose set of mission objectives to drive you forward. More tactical than the others, since the fights factor in position, range and line of sight.
Deep Sky Derelicts - one the daddies I mentioned earlier, this is a sloooow starter, but worth sticking with as you build your team to take on the sci-fi themed enemies. Your deck is defined by a combination of your equipment and your character, giving some nice customisation.
Card Hunter - a freebie, and like Trials of Fire, this introduces tactical positioning and elements like area of effect. Gets a bit naggy about buying a subscription eventually, but there’s tens of hours of enjoyment to be had first and the Dungeons & Dragons vibe is hard to resist.
Inscryption - part deck builder, part escape room, this dark, creepy adventure will keep you guessing throughout its three story-driven acts. I can genuinely say that it’s the first game in which pulling out your own tooth with a pair of pliers is a good thing!
Tainted Grail - some unique takes on familiar mechanics and a 3D third-person overworld based around the idea of a torch slowly burning down gives this one great tension. I need to play more, as there are heaps of characters to unlock.
Hellcard - only a couple of months old this one, but already showing promise as you put three adventures up against the army of darkness. It’s co-operative, apparently, but I don’t know how effectively that works. In single player, each character takes a slice of “pie” on the battlefield as the enemies surge towards you, each character playing their own decks, with their own special capability. One to keep an eye on.
Room for one more? Check out Liam's recent article on Takara Cards, a new Early Access, space-themed deck builder.
And that’s it for deck builders. Did I miss any? Is Slay the Spire still the king for you? I haven’t mentioned its various excellent mods, such as Downfall, so perhaps you’re all still enjoying the champion of deck builders through its total conversions, or fan-made characters & decks! Let me know in the comments!