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Games of the Year 2019: Slay the Spire and the joy of spontaneity

Over the festive break we’ll be running through our top 20 picks of the year’s best games, leading up to the reveal of Eurogamer’s game of the year on New Year’s Eve. You can find all the pieces published to date here – and thanks for joining us throughout the year!

Most card games are about building decks, permanent decks, to use in every battle, and for a while, I’m totally on board with it. I enthusiastically dream up themes and strategies bigger than ‘use the most powerful card’ and wonder how anyone will possibly beat me. But it never lasts. A mixture of earning cards too slowly and increasing complexity puts me off, and I check out.

I could go and copy builds online, like everyone else, the cheats, but it bugs me. I like thinking of the strategies myself, it makes me feel fuzzy inside. But I can’t keep up with the internet hive mind, so, before long, I fall behind. Then I see everyone trot out the same strategies against me time and time again, and I get cheesed off. What happened to spontaneity?

Thank god for the draft modes, like Hearthstone’s Arena, where people get a random bunch of cards and have to think on their feet. No rehearsals, only improvisation. And thank god for Slay the Spire.

In Slay the Spire, you never build a permanent deck. (You also never fight another person but don’t worry about that, it’s not the point.) Each time you climb the spire, you start a deck again, starting from a base of around a dozen cards, but every monster you kill gives you a choice of a new card, as do merchants, as do some special events, and before long, you’ll have something resembling a healthy deck.

2
To come so close only to stare at certain death is excruciating.

It might be a mess, mind you, but herein lies the thrill: you never quite know where you’ll end up. Obviously the more you play, the better you get at knowing which cards work together, so you pick more wisely, but you can still find yourself with a hopeless collection because it’s just not your day. Similarly, the stars might align and you find yourself with an incredible deck, even if you’ve only played a few times, coupled with an incredible array of relics, power-ups you collect along the way.

This is when the sun shines in Slay the Spire. Case in point: I’d been banging my head against the game trying to climb the spire as the Ironclad for weeks. But I just couldn’t seem to do it. But then the sun came out and I was bathed in golden fortitude. I found relics and cards which built my strength enormously, and traded defence for enormous attack and somehow it worked. My life-drain which usually healed for a piddly handful of points was now healing for dozens, and even the boss which regenerates to full health after dying, then hits you with a mega attack, couldn’t scratch me. I was unstoppable. I revelled in it.

But then it was all over and I had to start again. Will I ever find a combination like that again? I don’t know – perhaps I will find better. I’ve seen a lot of cards with the Exhaust property, and cards which riff on it, but I’ve never tried to build around them before. Maybe that’s the next tier of on-the-fly deck building to aim for – the next layer of understanding. Or maybe I’ll move onto the Silent, the character I haven’t climbed the spire with, and see what I can do there. Possibilities, endless possibilities, and always the crooked finger of Slay the Spire coaxing me back for one more try.

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But to return one day and reek vengeance – that Anger will win me the battle – is so sweet.

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