The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Too Many Words about Slay the Spire, Pt II — The Characters

This article, yada yada yada. See Part I for disclaimer. This covers the basic thoughts for each character, it is not intended to be “card by card complete” or cover all possibilities. Also, while I discuss strategies and archetypes, these are intended as a “Discussion” or suggestions, not as a crutch or exhaustive list. They are just archetypes. For the most part I am not going to get into too many relics in this discussion.

One more definition — A naked pick is picking a card that doesn’t do anything for you yet. (Like taking a Limit Break which doubles your strength bonus, when you as of yet have no way to get a strength bonus). Since this violates the “focus on the near term,” taking a card that is a dead load for the near future and potentially the game indicates that the card has tremendous upside.

And I realize I didn’t really talk about density as clearly as I could. It hurts that there are interrelated concepts, but one idea that a “dense” deck also has is the ability to dump all of its mana into Attack or Defend (as desired). As I mentioned, if you only have strikes or defends (and a five card hand) you will be able to spend three mana on either, but not both. (You may want to split it up, but if you want to go all the way with either, you can’t). If you have only two cost cards, you can (with three mana) only spend two mana. If you have one “attack two” and one “defend two” then its fine that you can’t necessarily play both, because you’ll play the one that matters (and then a one cost card to round it up). Iron Wave gives you attack and defense, but poor ones. Still, with an Iron Wave and two strikes and defends, you have some flexibility. “X cost” cards also let you dump as much as desired into them (with the caveat that it has to be the last card played, mostly).

Also — Something I didn’t mention in the prior article. Sometimes you pick a card knowing that is often dead-weight, but that really helps out in specific fights. Cards may solve a problem. I’ll try to note problems and the counters.


The basic deck is 5x Strikes and 5x Defends. Barely serviceable cards that you should (in general) despise. Ironclad’s bonus card is Bash, which provides two vulnerable and his artifact (Burning Blood) is your healing (at 6 HP/combat). Combined with a nice maximum health, this makes Ironclad a forgiving character. In the early game you block only insofar as you didn’t get any damage, effectively trading HP for murder. Ironclad’s card pool is loaded with big hits — grabbing a quick two-energy front-loaded damage (ideally Carnage) will get you through early Act I. Vulnerable means your attack this turn (and next turn) do 50% more damage, so even with just the starting deck Ironclad can deal out 44 damage in two turns (Bash+Strike/3x strikes) if you draw Bash in your opening hand.

One of Ironclads early problems is the embarrassment of front-loaded damage riches. There are so many decent 2-energy damage cards, you’ll be tempted to load up. But (with only three energy) they’ll simply block each other. (One reason why Ironclad was such a popular “Swap Boss Relic” option for Neow’s gift … Ironclad can exploit the fourth energy, although now with so many damage interactions the original healing relic is also more valuable).

Back before I started tracking, I would often die in late Act I because I’d rely on the healing, get a bit low, hit a bit of bad variance or a rough hallway fight (Gremlin Gang, Slime Gang), and then either die outright or be poorly placed for the boss fight, missing an upgrade or two, and then poof. The classic death spiral. Ironclad can’t totally ignore defense. The healing is a boon, not a crutch.

Once you get past the early game, Ironclad tropes that often work include:

Strength Scaling — Other classes can do this, but Ironclad has numerous ways. New players are enamored of Demon Form (indeed, at low ascensions its an auto-win for me), but the high cost make that suitable for slow fights only. A simple Spot Weakness or semi-scaling like an Inflame or two) is often good enough to handle scaling in Act II. Card coordination (via Headbutt) to re-use a Spot Weakness (or start this and re-use Limit Breaks) can lead to obscene strength. Any “doubling” card can lead to geometric scaling which is why if I lack any strength, I’m still tempted to take a naked Limit Break at the end of Act I, since a single later pick can turn into tremendous upside. With the recent patch, Rupture could be close to Demon Form, because Ironclad has a number of cards that cause damage (such as Combust), and then you also get strength . (Toss in Self-forming Clay and you have the damage synergy archetype). If you have a strength scaling deck, the typical problem is that is is slow (if you are hunting for a specific card, or draw your Limit Break before you have strength) and — particularly in Act III you can be hit very quickly for 40+ damage. You’ll need defense.

The “Infinite” combo — When the opponent is vulnerable, Drop Kick does damage, recovers the mana played and draws a card. It totally replaces itself (a “cantrip”). With a small enough deck, you can draw your entire deck into your hand, then cycle two drop kicks back and forth forever. Especially for slow fights like Champ that give you time to build up, you can take the time to shrink your deck by exhausting cards with Burning Pact or True Grit over a few turns, and then go infinite. (A Flash of Steel doesn’t hurt here, either). “Infinites” have problems with Time Eater and the Heart (who blocks all damage past a certain point on a turn, and has the Beat of Death for each card play) but often you can fall into a real (or semi-) infinite when using exhaust synergies. Infinite Combos are very vulnerable to status being added to the deck, so Evolve/Firebreathing as a counter is reasonable (especially since they don’t take up any space once played).

Exhaust Synergies — Exhausting bad cards is its own reward. You’d like to totally remove them in the shop, but getting rid of a relatively weak card in combat for a long fight is fine. Even better when exhausting a card provides a tangible reward. Compare uncommon power Feel No Pain to Metalicize. If you exhaust one card a turn, they both provide 3 (4 if upgraded) block. But with Corruption the Ironclad can exhaust all his skills the turn he draws them, for free, and provide bonus block. Even without the ability to retain block (see below), a few FNPs may provide 30+ block a turn (particularly against the heart if you can Sever Soul to exhaust the trash the heart gives you). MVP Relic for this is Dead Branch, exhaust, get replacement cards with some of them free! Corruption + Dead Branch is a meme for a reason.

(Sidebar — For a while I had a fear of Dead Branch giving me random bad cards that would clog my deck. I suggest you ignore it, as I learned to. Because the second time through the deck isn’t nearly as important as the first and even without corruption the weight of the misses is more than compensated by the great cards you’ll get. Paul Graham called the Stock Market “Mr. Market” because it would just say “Would you like to Buy X?” and you can always say no. Often Mr. Market offers you trash. “Would you like to buy” but sometimes he offers gold. “Would you like to buy this grossly underpriced commodity?”

The number of times that Dead Branch has a run into a cakewalk — even lacking Corruption — is high, and I don’t recall many fights where it trashed my deck. Obviously with a Runic Pyramid you have to be careful. I’ve bought Dead Branch as a nearly naked artifact, having only my Ascender’s Bane, and then built around it to good effect with all the characters. (That may be overdoing it, but it shows that its possible, even without corruption. With Corruption its gross).

Exhaust strategies are fairly robust, once they get going. But they are slow. Also, since you exhaust cards their is a psychological temptation to take “so-so” cards (because you can exhaust them) and your variance grows…

Status Synergy Evolve draws extra cards for Status, Fire Breathing does damage per status. and then you load up on Wild Strikes, take Mark of Pain, Reckless Charge, use Second Wind to get rid of them all to block. (Everyone like Immolate already, so that’s just a good pick, but this makes it better). This isn’t great and has the typical variance kills, because your deck might clog before you setup.

Block ScalingBlockade (or the Calipers) let you save block between turns. Feel No Pain can easily net you a metric ton of block. Entrench lets you double it. Headbutt lets you then put Entrench back on the top of the deck. Slay the Spire limits you to 999 block, but that’s good enough. (Body Slam does damage equal to your block, but is often not necessary if you can get to hundreds of block. Normally you need it when you have decent blocking that doesn’t carry over, then you use Body Slam/Juggernaut as extra, necessary, damage). You can also toss in Juggernaut to do damage each time you gained block, but again that is not necessary.

Take it then Dish It — Eat some damage setting up your strength scaling, then Reaper later end to recover your lost health. A Feed early in the run to meta-scale your Max HP helps, because you can’t recover from lethal damage. Duel Wield or Exhaust to play multiple Reapers (or just having multiples). This is the only type of deck you can really buy brimstone with, in my experience. Brimstone gives you and your enemies strength each turn. It took me many tries to beat the heart using Brimstone and this strategy, but it usually makes it fairly easy to get to the heart….

Of course, for any given archetype you may mix and match. If you have great block scaling, you don’t need anything. If you have great strength scaling you won’t need to block for long, etc.

The Silent

Silent adds Survivor and Neutralize to her basic deck and draws two extra cards on the first turn. She is much more into counter-punching than Ironclad. Weak isn’t great at the start, but gets better as the run goes on (as it knocks of 25% of the damage and that will grow. The Neutralize saves you ~30 damage against the heart if you’ve upgraded it and hit on T2, assuming you weren’t intangible). Silent has a number of reasonable zero cost cards (like Backstab for front-loaded damage), but still likely wants at least one early big hit card, like Predator, Riddle with Holes or Skewer, or Dash (which also does significant defense). Jorbs had a discussion where he points out that Dash is much better than two Iron Waves, because its density makes it more efficient). You also will need a heavy hitter card against Lagavulin, because many Silent 0 and 1 cost cards lose significant value with even a single strength loss.

The card that is now a near auto-grab is Blade Dance. 12 damage for 1 mana is already excellent (better than Ironclad common attacks!), but the list of relics that Shiv gets bonuses (or greatly improves) by itself is amazing — Kunai, Shuriken, Pen Nib, Nunchaku, Ink Bottle, Ornamental Fan, Dead Branch. (There are others, any strength bonus is great). There are a fights where the 4 tempo to play it are a penalty (Time Eater, the Heart) but by then you may have gotten an Accuracy (or some of those relics) and /or you may have a backup scaling and simply not play the Blade Dance during those fights. An additional use of Shivs is to draw them and then Calculated Gamble them away, trading a mediocre later draw to speed through your deck the first time.

Silent — having less damage than Ironclad — has to take more damage to beat the first boss and must also worry more about the Goblin Nob fight. Many of Silent’s better cards are skills, which trigger Nob’s rage. Poison scaling and defense will usually make the Guardian the easiest first boss (Silent is well placed to simply defend and not attack on any given turn), although doing enough damage to avoid the eating the first Fierce Bash may be a problem.

Silent also has decent card control with Well-Laid Plans to hold a card for the right moment. While Ironclad does have some touchy scaling (Limit Break wants to be last), the Nightmare card can scale whatever card you want, assuming you get them into the same hand.

Silent has the following Archetypes, and typically mixes one of the offensive types with one of the defensive types.

The Shiv Deck — As mentioned above. Finisher and Accuracy (and Phantasmal Killer to double damage) add punch. Ironically, Infinite Blades (a shiv a turn) isn’t a must add. I used to auto-grab it, but there are enough opponents who have thorns or punish tempo that now I consider it more carefully.

The Poison Deck — An early Poison Stab, Deadly Poison or Bouncing Flask can help against the first boss, because they are decent damage even if you only hit them every four turns or so. If you can hit them every three turns (or get out a Noxious Fume) you are scaling hopefully fast enough for Act I. Two decent poison cards are good scaling for Act II, and once you add in a Catalyst or two you can suddenly kill almost anything (if you draw them in the right order and survive). Typically the easiest wins for Silent are those with solid poison and defense to survive. Double Catalyst+ ends fights. (Catalyst is an acceptable naked draw, given the amount of poison commons and uncommons).

The Dex Deck –Stack a few Footworks (Feetwork?), and even plain old defends are large. Dodge and Roll provides block for multiple turns, Blur to carry over block. Cloak and Dagger for block + some small attack (and Shiv synergy). Escape Plan will hit more often than not (particularly if you remove strikes for Poison or Blade Dance) and is free. Even very slow scaling

The Intangible Deck –Any character can get Apparitions from the Council of Ghosts event in Act II, but with Wraith Form (and Nightmare) Silent can load up on Intangible Turns. Which is not to say that you need more. But a dozen+ turns of intangible are usually enough with even the most limited damage production. But Silent can (more so than other characters) use even the three turns that are more routine. Silent has discard for tossing unimproved Apparitions (which are Ethereal) to save them for a later turn. Silent has Burst to double the value of each Apparition, and Well Laid Plans to get the cards in the same hand. Nightmare copies cards (effectively quadrupling them!). Six intangible is usually enough defense against the Heart, although you’ll need block for the multi-attack turns and if you can’t avoid the Dexterity loss from Wraith Form that will be a problem (along with the beat of death).

The Shuffler — The deck uses Acrobatics, Prepared, Backflips, Tools of the Trade and Calculated Gambles to race the deck (discarding curses and trashes, but sometimes also Reflex and Tactician for extra cards/mana). The Shuffler shrinks the deck by skipping over the parts that don’t matter. After Image can provide solid block and free cards (Slice or Deflect) show great value. Sneaky Strike is free-ish once you get a Tools of the Trade in play. (And is a decent early pick before hand, to provide a decent punch to Nob or Lagavulin).

The Defect

Disclaimer — My win rate with defect is something like 30% of the other two classes. And its not that I’m dying late game. I just don’t have a handle on him.

Other classes have scaling. The Defect is scaling … sometimes. Defect wins fights by pressing the “End Turn” button after getting setup. Adding orb slots and focus (even just a bit of each, say one Capacitor+ and one Defragment+) then splitting slots between Lightning and Frost is 15 damage and 12 block a turn. More focus and slots provides full block every turn.

Defect suffers the problem of scaling — spending time setting up. Taking ~10 a fight getting setup wears you down over the act. I win much less with Defect than Ironclad or Silent, and looking up my notes, I see — “no healing,” “not enough fast defense,” “too aggressive in pathing,” and then there’s the “never saw enough scaling.”

Capacitor deserves mention as the only card that adds orb slots (Inserter — a homage to my beloved Factorio — and Runic Cylinder relics also provide them). If you see a Capacitor, its a near automatic take (even on floor 1). The runs you skip it and then never see it again will haunt you. Orb slots do have a downside if you want to play and evoke orbs quickly, but its fairly limited in application.

As with orb slots, “Too much focus” is a phrase rarely uttered. Consume is a reasonable early card (early Act I is the time when ‘less slots’ is usually a plus). Biased Cognition (with no way to remove the “lose one focus a turn”) is still a great card, and its existence makes Core Surge (one artifact charge, to hopefully counter the downside of Biased Cog) and Orange Pellets strong selections, even if you have no immediate use for the artifact. (Typically you skip the Biased Cog until you are setup and then the fight is over before the downside really kicks in. And if you you eventually get driven to zero focus, you probably were losing the fight earlier without it).

You don’t need orb slots, you can pump focus and that works (but that also takes card draws). Similarly, you don’t need focus if you have plenty of (full slots). But getting both has a multiplicative effect (there’s that “doubling” again!). But there are also some oddball plays, although rare. Hyperbeam is a powerful card that costs focus, and Plasma Orbs provide mana and aren’t affected by focus loss. (Even worried about Focus Loss, Hyperbeam and Biased Cog are still worth taking, as they end fights).

Apart from focus/slot scaling, Defect has still more. Loop triggers your first orb multiple times. A great pick because for one card and one mana you get double or triple value out of one orb for the rest of the fight. Echo Form doubles your first card play (the second one doubles your first two card plays). Creative AI is long fight scaling in a can, because the “one power a turn” you get will (eventually) give you other forms of scaling. Amplify doubles powers. Scaling, Scaling, Scaling.

Which can overwhelm the deck and then you die because of a lack of front loaded block. My last run was an early Runic Pyramid, Consume+, sustain with a Self-Repair (heal 7 at the end of combat), and access to Frost and Darkness orbs. Easy boss at Act I, grab a mana relic, and then boom, dead after the first 4 hallway fights when I drew no block against a 24 point attack on Turn 1. Boot Sequence blocks when you are most likely to need it, even though it slows the time to get to your good cards by a draw. As always, there’s a balance.

In reading the above, I suspect that my problem may be the following — I am too focused on the future and not on the next five floors, so I should focus on that and not scaling. And literally after I wrote that sentence, I won by getting — massive scaling. (I also got healing in an early Bird-Faced Urn (heal 2 HP per power) and a Creative AI (one power a turn), so once I set up my frost orbs and focus, I could fully heal). Even then it was touchy, because I decided (rightly or not) to lose half my maximum HP to take the apparitions, which made fights easy when they appeared early and near lethal when they didn’t. (I actually would have lost to Shield and Spear, but I had gotten the Lizard’s Tail, which saves you from dying once). So the lesson is — I don’t know. Sometimes you just get lucky.

The Defect Archetypes

The Thunderer — Lots of lightning orbs. Electrodynamics to handle multiple enemies. Static Discharge to add or cycle the orbs. A lot of my early (pre-ascension) victories used this, but as I increased the difficulty this was too fragile. (Thunder Strike as scaling isn’t really necessary, either, unless you have no focus). But I’ve found it more reliable to …

Mr. Freeze — … load up on Frost Orbs. Any archetype can suffer a bad hit on the first (few) turns, but frost orbs at least limit the damage to that time. You’ll need a way to damage your opponents, but with enough block, cycling through your front loaded damage may be fine (albeit slow), or you can have a single lightning (or darkness) orb.

The Cheapskate — Lots of free cards, some card draw and an All For One to grab the free cards back. Often you back into this with OK cards that help with the relics you’ve got (FTL with Shuriken, a Recycle to thin out a deck) and then get the offer. Hologram — already a reasonable pick to get back a Boot Sequence you don’t need on T1 or a Go for the Eyes for weakness — can be used to redo the All for One.

All The Powers — As mentioned above, Creative AI gets one power a turn. With Heatsinks, those get you cards. With Storm they get you lightning orbs (with Mummified Hand you get discounts). And the powers will get you more stuff. The obvious downside is Awakened One (who gets stronger with each power you play) but with some careful restraint you can setup and scale faster than she can, then wait for her to die before resuming. (And sometimes your combo just goes off, you play 20+ powers, don’t care that she scales, and wins).

The Multi-Darkness — Usually mixed with Frost orbs, you simply sit and wait for a darkness orb to get big, then dual- or multi-cast it (or even single cast).

I’m sure I’m forgetting stuff, but this is already nearly four-thousand words long.

Advice for Watcher — Take some overly powerful cards, do math, make sure you don’t get stuck in Wrath form on a turn you’ll die, win!

Next Time in Part III — The Many Deaths the Spire has to offer!

Written by taogaming

March 13, 2021 at 10:14 am

5 Responses

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  1. So, what looking at the Spirelogs data has taught me is that a lot of cards that are “setup” (powers, naked card draw/cycling) are not very strong, and some of the archetypes you’ve listed here may be difficult to pull off. I’m not sold on “All the Powers” Defect, for instance. Heatsinks, which is a key part of the build, takes time to pay off, and Creative AI is only OK; they don’t give you an immediate punch.. Ditto for some of the card draw in Silent — acrobatics and preparation are marginal cards that don’t accomplish anything by themselves, and Tools of the Trade is also merely OK. Status synergy and block synergy builds in Ironclad also rely on setup cards that don’t do anything on their own.

    That said, I could be wrong. I’m not actually performing any better than you are — I don’t tend to shoot for the heart, and I can’t reliably beat the Act III bosses at Ascension 15; I win ~1/3 of the time.

    Fred Bush

    March 15, 2021 at 1:36 pm

    • The single weakest Watcher card is literally “Setup”.

      Fred Bush

      March 15, 2021 at 1:43 pm

      • Well, Silent card.

        Fred Bush

        March 15, 2021 at 1:44 pm

  2. As an A20 Defect winner, I feel you’re dying on Defect too much because you are playing more for the future than the present. I can tell because you put Creative AI and Echo Form in the same paragraph on scaling but didn’t mention that one is far superior to the other. While both scale, Echo Form is a top-tier card in general, Creative AI is usually a skip. I also don’t hold Capacitor in high regard. It’s okay, but it’s not a top-tier card (snap-pick on almost in situation). Top-tier cards by rarity are (Rare) Biased Cog, Echo Form, Seek, Electrodynamics (Uncommon) Defrag, Glacier, Loop, (A1-early A2) Gen Alg, some form of Dark Orb generation (Common) Coolheaded, Compile Driver, Sweeping Beam. Dark Orbs are strong, not as strong as Frost but a little dark goes a long way. Most winning A20 Defect runs have access to some form of dark because it scales very well with proper orb manipulation.

    Eugene Hung

    April 5, 2021 at 11:22 am

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