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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

Too Many Words About Slay the Spire — Part I Introduction

This article covers my (evolving) thoughts about the Slay the Spire videogame. There are (much) better players than me (many can be found on r/slaythespire or on twitch). I’ve watched hundreds of hours of Jorbs (Youtube, Twitch) who is currently tied for the world championship at A20 heart kills. You could get better advice by watching him for a long time and osmosis. But that requires, you know, hundreds of hours. (While there are other good streamers playing, Jorbs’ entire vibe reminds me of my graduate school boardgaming club, so he’s my personal favorite).

I normally play at Ascension 15, because while I can win at Ascension 20 it’s an admittedly rare event and I like having a win rate in the double digits. (With my recent improvement I may up the level a bit). Also, I don’t normally play Watcher that much, which means that there may be some watcher-specific exceptions I don’t mention (and my watcher advice is less trustworthy). I play with the goal of “Killing the Heart.”

As always, I assume you are familiar with the basic mechanisms, rules, etc. Many of these examples will use numbers appropriate for Ascension 15 (enemies values vary based on Ascension Level).

Definitions and concepts

Deck — Often when I say deck, I mean “All your cards plus all your relics and the current potions.” Just assume the latter part.

Position — Deck plus current state (hit points, number on relics that count, etc). “Positioning” means trying to win the fight and also get all of your relics “set up” for the next fight.

Front-loaded damage — “How much damage can I do without setting up a particular combination?” There’s no exact measure of this, but a decent proxy is “How much damage could I do if I played all of my attack cards once?”. Also called “Fast” damage. Front-Loaded block is similar, but just for blocking. Improving your front loaded damage is generally first thing you want to do at the game. There is also front-loaded block.

Scaling damage — “How much damage can I do once I get my combos set up?” If you only have front loaded damage, when you go through your deck a second time, you can only double how much damage you’ve done. After Act I, this isn’t fast enough (typically) to kill the elites and bosses unless you have great scaling block, which lets you chip away slowly. Front loaded damage grows linearly. You do roughly X damage per unit time (turn or deck cycles). Scaling damage grows faster (sometimes only a little faster, sometimes much). The most obvious form of scaling for each character is Strength (Ironclad), Poison (Silent), Orb Slots/Focus (Defect). Typically to improve your scaling damage you are not playing some fast damage in order to setup your scaling.

Meta-scaling — Something that doesn’t scale in this fight, but makes your position better across multiple fights. Things like Feed (which improves Max HP if it strikes the killing blow).

Semi-scaling — A small one-time bump. Inflame (with +2 strength) is semi-scaling. It makes all of your attacks going forward bigger (which is nice) but it will never scale again. (Again, this is my own coinage, but I wanted to be able to differentiate between cards like Inflame and cards like Spot Weakness, which boosts strength and may do so multiple times.

All Out Attack (AOA) — An attack card that damages all enemies (useful for hallway fights that have multiple enemies, or elites that have minions). For some reason this appears to be called “AOE” often, but my blog, my acronym.

Variance — You could have a “good” draw (all the cards in the right order) or a “bad” one. You will hit some good and bad events, relics, etc. Consider the very first fight you might have versus a cultist as Ironclad. Basically, you need to do 50 damage and he attacks for 0,6,11,16, etc. If you get a good draw, you’ll bash+strike (17 damage on T1), 2x strike and defend (18 damage, take 1) on Turn 2, and then on T3, you can either hit for 18 (and kill) or defend x2, strike (6 damage, take 1) and then kill the next turn. You have ended the fight losing 1-2 damage. The worst possible opening is to draw all of your defends on T1, when they are useless. If you draw only strikes (not even your Bash! Its your bottom card) on T2 you do 18 damage and take 6. You will likely take 15+ damage for this fight.

“High-rolling” — “Getting lucky.” Jorb’s speak (and maybe twitch speak). When someone says “Maybe I just have to high-roll this next encounter” they mean “I need something good to happen, therefore I assume it will happen.” Usually this means hitting a good event, getting a good reward, having a great draw for a combat, etc. Bridge players should be familiar with this. Once your deck gets solid you worry about low-rolling (what if the one key card I need is the bottom card of my deck? what is the worst possible elite fight I can face)) Similar to a bridge “safety play.”

Density — If front loaded damage is “how much damage can I do once through the deck” density is that damage divided by number of cards. A “dense” deck is better because you are reducing variance, and on any given turn you will be more likely to be able to have the right cards for what you want to do.

Efficiency — How much damage can you do per mana spent on damage? (OR how much block do you get per mana spent blocking). Scaling damage is often very mana efficient, but slower than a comparable front-loaded card. If you drop a Noxious Fumes, your opponent will take triangular damage (1+2+3+4+…) with no further expenditure.

Conversion — On some turns you don’t get attacked, so you want to sink as much mana as possible into damage dealing (or setting up scaling, etc). Other turns you’ll want to block for as much as possible. If you have the wrong cards (due to variance) you may not be able to convert any mana to attack or defense. A basic deck (with only strikes and defends) will not be able to convert all three of its mana to attack every turn. If you had a card “2 Mana for 12 Damage” that is two strikes, but its denser and also means that (when you draw it) you are much more likely to be able to convert all your mana to damage that turn (and other turns).

Coordination — Some cards require being in your hand at the right time (or in the right order). I’ll call this “coordination.” (There appears to be no standard phrase for this). Watcher (who holds some cards) starts with a bit of coordination, but most decks don’t start with any.

(Density, Efficiency and Conversion are all related, but slightly different. I’m not sure my thoughts on these are clear, but I wanted to define them in case I use them).

Sustain –Another word for Healing. I’ll try to use Healing, but “sustain” appears to be a common phrase in the community.

Why Slay the Spire is addicting. Its not something you notice at first, but the enemies you face in the Spire challenge your deck in multiple ways. There aren’t nearly as many enemies as in (say) Nethack, but each Elite and Boss comes at you in a different way. (Even the later hallways fights). To take a concrete example from Act III — the Giant Head gives you a few turns of relative peace, then starts hitting hard every turn, starting at over 50% of your base health and ramping up from there. He (?) takes 520 points of damage to kill. You simply can’t defeat him without scaling (counting intangible as scaling block). AOA is no better than regular attack.

Compare to The Reptomancer. Her ~200 HP doesn’t need nearly as much scaling, but her minions are going to hit for significant, life ending damage on Turn 2. ~25 points of AOA by the end of Turn 2 are a god send. If not, you’ll need ~60 points of very fast damage or lots of block. The Nemesis is a coordination problem. Some turns damage is nigh-useless. (You can often beat it with scaling block but if your deck is well coordinated, the Nemesis is easy).

Some deck builds plow through one and die to the other. A good deck can reasonably handle either (and some bad luck, as well). Jorbs (in one of his videos I can’t remember) called these various ways the game challenges the deck “orthogonal.” You don’t just need “more” of one strategy to beat both of them. You need different combinations.

General Guidelines

A good deal of getting better at Slay the Spire is just knowing the game. If you know all the possible enemies (and their attack patterns), rewards, events, then you will do much better. Most of really high level play is thinking “well, what is coming up that I am weak against?” and “what events might I see, and do I want them or hallway fights?”

Take as many elite fights as you think you can. They provide relics (and improved card rewards). Also, hallway fights get harder as you go further in the act, but Elites don’t. They are also more predictable (fewer options you can face and they are generally more scripted than hallway fights).

Hit Points are insurance against bad variance. But like any insurance there are good and bad deals. If you have a rest then a boss, being able to model the fight in your head tells you whether you need to rest. What you have (etc) tells roughly how the fight will go. If you are 99% likely to win the fight, then resting is a waste if you could have upgraded (or grabbed the key). If you are only 10% likely to win the fight (but 60% with more HP), resting is great.

Floors are a finite resource. Don’t waste them. Ideally, every floor makes you stronger:

  • Hallway fights offer card rewards. Don’t automatically take them, but you’ll need to see a good number of cards to get offered those that improve your deck. Hallway fights also offer potions (sometimes). Especially in the first three floors of an Act, the hallway fights are “easier.” (But each Act ramps up the difficulty).
  • Elites provide a relic as well as the same rewards a hallway fight can. (And the card rewards are more likely rare cards). But they are difficult. Particularly in Act I an Elite will average 30+ damage against a deck with just a starting relic and a card or two.
  • Campfires let you heal or upgrade a card. In a perfect world, you’ll not need to heal and will upgrade a great card. But often you need to heal either to survive or to take an extra elite fight.
  • Shops let you buy better stuff and/or remove a card from your deck. If you’ve played Dominion (or any deckbuilder) you’ll know that removing a starting card is incredibly powerful, improving density and reducing variance.
  • Treasures (chests) provide relics.
  • The end of act boss will give you a rare card and a boss relic (although not at Act III).
  • Note that to get to the heart you must sacrifice one chest, one campfire and take a ‘super’ elite (who will get either metalicize, strength or regeneration).

Focus on the near term. Can you handle all the potential next elite fights (or most dangerous next elite?) Make your deck ‘good enough’ to deal with it, then turn your gaze to the next problem (the boss, etc).

Good Enough is good enough. Sometimes a weakness can be fixed with a single card, maybe two. Turning a “Good enough” into a strength often weakens other aspects. Adding a scaling card means you’ll draw one less card of some other category that turn. There are lots of areas you’ll need to improve –front loaded damage, front loaded block, all out attack, scaling damage, scaling block, healing, card draw, and mana to pay for all your new cards (Few decks need all, almost no deck needs all equally). Sometimes what’s “good enough” in one Act needs to be buffed again in further acts.

If you have a weakness, the right potion gives you more time to find a card/relic that fixes it. Before I would use potions whenever they seemed to apply, but now … if a potion fixes a key weakness, I hold it until I’m desperate fight or the end of act boss. If the potion is a strength I already have, I’m willing to let it go depending on how much health it saves me and how likely I am to get another potion soon, especially if I am already full.

Skipping cards is not a bad option! Adding a card necessarily increases variance. Take a deck with a nice balance of front-loaded damage, block, scaling damage & block, healing, card draw, etc, and then double it. Still the same balance, but the variance goes way up. (Any Race for the Galaxy Fans will remember the number of explore powers grows in each expansion in the first arc, to help compensate for the increased variance). Card removal is also very good.

Be flexible! I mention archetypes below but when a reward happens, examine what you have and see if there are good/bad interactions. You can’t force the game to give you what you want, so you’ll have to make do. (This is also the “good enough” mantra).

If you are losing, take risks! Hope to high roll, etc. If you are winning, then solidify your position, consider defending against low-rolling, etc.

Of course much of the above advice depends on being able to evaluate your position. Slay the Spire strategy is an evaluation problem. Being able to model (in an intuitive way) the likely outcomes of a deck versus a specific elite fight (average HP loss, variance, etc) is hard. Better players do this much better, and that is hard to teach. You’ll learn by being wildly over- and under-optimistic. This guide can’t really help with that. Only experience can.

The (Basic) Plan

No Plan survives contact with The Spire. Good cards can be bad in the right situation. Vice versa. There are no hard and fast 100% rules. But there are guidelines. Here’s the basic flowchart, focusing on the early game.

  1. You need more front loaded damage. That’s your first weakness to fix. Even early hallway opponents take 50 damage or so to kill. Act I Elite fights take 90+ damage to kill and will deal real damage. Your starting deck does ~18/turn (if you don’t defend and draw smooth). Not enough. In particular, you need a plan to deal with Gremlin Nob who scales his damage for every skill you play (punishing defensive cards). A potion can be a big part of this, particularly if you need to hit an elite on floor 6.
  2. You’ll want some all out attack, particularly before Act II (where two of the elites and many of the hall way fights have multiple targets). But good AOA should be grabbed as early as it shows up, because its also front-loaded damage and the Sentinels elite fight is possible on Act I.
  3. Don’t just grab every single damage card you see. You want efficient cards. If you take five “slightly better strikes” then your deck will bloat and you’ll need to take more cards to block and scale just to be equal. Your variance will shoot through the roof during Act II, and you will die, and your parents will mourn you.
  4. Campfires — Upgrade key cards as possible. Rest if you are likely to die before the next campfire.
  5. Once you have a steady enough source of damage, start improving defense. Ideally this is after Nob. You can start in the middle of Act I, because the early hallway fights in Act II can hit for 20 points on the first turn. Its common to have enough damage to take out the first Boss, get a mediocre card and relic, and then get slammed right away in the first few floors of Act II and be on the ropes heading into your elite fight — a downward spiral that requires a high-roll or you die.
  6. As soon as you can, start removing cards (unless there are better options of course). As I mentioned in a comment on an earlier thread, when I win it seems like I have (on average) removed at least half of the starting strikes and defends from my deck. This reduces variance and improves density (etc).
  7. You need to be able to deal with the first Boss. Obviously which boss you face will determine how much front loaded damage versus block and scaling.
  8. By the end of Act I you should have a vague idea of what your decks strengths and weakness are, and an idea as to which relics/cards/etc “fill in the gaps.” (Your Boss Relic and Rare Card will further define your deck). By the end of Act II you’ll need almost certainly need scaling (either scaling damage or block) to deal with the Boss (and later enemies). Your deck may have an archetype … you shouldn’t force it into those, but as in Chess (or any game), if you recognize a position you will probably play it better. There are plenty of “weird” wins, but — at least for me personally — being able to say “My deck is an X type” lets me easily make the jump to “And when I’ve played X types before, I need to do A/B/C to win”.
  9. In Act II you must pick up scaling (if you don’t already have it, or have some insane front-loaded damage) and generally improve for the Act II Boss. But other weaknesses will become apparent and must be address. (Defect often needs healing by Act II).
  10. By this point you have probably added enough cards that you’ll need some card draw and/or searching to get to key power(s) or any lynch-pin cards you have. Again, you don’t want to overdo it, like the Dominion Village Idiot (the deck that adds a bunch of cantrip card draws, but has nothing really important to do with any of the cards drawn). In Act I you often play your deck a few times (especially in Elite fights) but now in Act II the second time through your deck isn’t nearly as important as the first time. You might get lucky and get all your setup cards on Turn 1, but if you low roll then being able to cycle through the deck the first time is very important.
  11. Act III is more of the same — now hallway fights can hit for 40 and the Elites are tougher, but you should have powered up to compensate. Scaling block (and being able to draw and play more cards than you could in earlier acts) really come into play.
  12. As you have more combos and items, specific circumstances likely dominate general advice. But you fix weaknesses, try to push strengths. Even by the beginning of Act II you’ll (hopefully) have relic combos, so now you are trying to find things that really work well with multiple cards (or across multiple aspects of your deck). The Elites/Boss can still kill you, but now is also the time to figure out how you are going to deal with Act IV (The Shield and Spear and the Heart). If you are doing well you may have “locked in” your potions for the heart fight. If not, you’ll have to use them to survive.
  13. Also in Act III you’ll need to pick up any keys you’ve missed.
  14. Finally, beat the Act III boss, then go onto Act IV. Last chance store for that key missing item or potion.


Here’s an great act one path. Three easy hallway fights (to get damage and a potion), an event or two, a campfire to upgrade (or rest), an elite fight, an event, the chest, a rest, an elite fight, a rest, an elite fight, a store (to spend all that money) a rest and then a boss. I’m always looking for campfires and elites, and sometimes stores.

Upgrades are your friend. Need front loaded damage? Upgrade a damage card. Need block? Upgrade a block card. Your variance is never hurt. And by the late part of the act, Elites are often better than hallway fights. Late Act hallway fights may hit for more than elites. They get tougher as the act goes on (and you see more of them). A floor 6 Nob and a Floor 14 Nob hit for the same. A floor 14 hallway fight is more dangerous than a floor 6 hallway fight (and before you hit it, you are less likely to guess what will be there). And of course you want the Elite rewards.

So I simply look for the most campfires and elites. The hard questions are: should I take the super-elite now? Is your deck ready for it? I try to take the super elite as soon as my deck feels like ahead of average, because leaving the super elite for Act III forces you on pathing that may be terrible. Question marks are more random and could still be fights, but could also be a chest or event or store. Events are generally slightly better for you than not (“Spin the Wheel” is 66% good, 33% bad, strictly by outcomes. That’s typical), but can be bad. Hallway fights are more consistent. A lot of whether you want a late hallway fight is “Is your deck ready for the boss?” If not, a hallway fight is a necessary risk to get a good card reward and/or potion. The “Fight vs Question Mark” is definitely an area where knowing all the possible outcomes (and technical details like which events can show up where) and a good evaluation function help.

Coming In Part II, discussion of the main characters, typical deck strategies, and another few thousand words!

Written by taogaming

March 6, 2021 at 3:01 pm

Too Many Words about Res Arcana

This article covers my evolving thoughts about Res Arcana. (Admin note — I’ve decided to go ahead and make “Too Many Words” a category as well as a tag, I’ll go back and add the category to the older posts soon). Right now the vast majority of my games have been two player, with all that implies. After our opening burst we converted to Tom’s two player “tightening” variant (where three monuments and a place of power are removed at random at the start of the game). Also, this article was peer reviewed by the TaoLing (and sometimes I have noted when a comment is his versus mine). It may be a slight exaggeration to say the the TaoLing is the world’s second best player in the two player, random deal game in the world (behind Tom Lehmann) because I think there are probably play-testers who have more experience and games.

But he usually beats me.

How to Lose Res Arcana in one easy step

Res Arcana (like many of Tom Lehmann’s games) contains depth that I’m still exploring. But the trap so easy to fall into? You look at your opening hand and see “Ah, if I discard X then I can play Y, pass and take some magic item, then play Z and I’ve got a production engine going.” It’s a strategy as old as gaming: “Early on value money & resources, late game focus on victory points.”

The trap? Res Arcana’s (open) secret is that production doesn’t automatically convert to VPs. Compare with Race for the Galaxy. Earning a hand of cards a turn will see you draw a decent or even great scoring card every turn. (Some will be better than others), or a few worlds and trading can (with the right world) morph into a consume x2 engine. In Res, if you built an engine generating a monstrous twenty mana a turn (four in each color) you could — buy the Coral Castle. That’s three points. Next turn, you could buy … nothing. Now this assumes all the other places of power had been bought, but they will be by the time your nitro-burning-funny-car of mana generation gets going. You can buy whatever artifact you drew from your deck, but those are rarely points.

Most Places of Power (PoP) provide a path to convert mana into points (as well as some points). But spend too long setting up a perfect engine and your converter will be snapped up by an opponent’s “good enough” engine. It’s a short game. You can lose by racing for a PoP without adequate support to produce the mana you’ll need for VP, but most players err far too much in the other direction. I’ve been losing to the TaoLing more often than not, but a few recent games against new players showed that even making multiple lapse-of-attention mistakes while I’m explaining options to others, it was nowhere close, and always for that reason.

Res is about converting whatever you have into ten points, and while you might say “Ooh, I spend these three mana to get two a turn!” that also means “you are down three mana this turn from where you started” and “you could have tossed that card to get two mana or a gold.”

The Time value of mana is huge. If the game ends on turn four, then spending three resources on a “two per turn” card only nets you three resources in the entire game! Games probably average five+ turns, although I haven’t kept notes. And strong play will likely lower that by a bit.

So — to summarize — you lose Res Arcana by just focusing on your cards, building an engine, and ignoring the point conversion for a turn or two longer than your rivals.

As Tom notes, Gold is an easily grasped strategy for new players. Gold has — kind of — a pre-built conversion path in the monument deck (with bonus powers). Particularly in a two player (non-variant) game, a Gold engine almost can’t run out of opportunities before the game ends. (In a recent variant game, the TaoLing and I witnessed a massive gold engine lose when the other player scrounged up enough gold to buy two monuments leaving the gold engine only 8 VPs worth of monuments, four gold, and nothing better to do with it than convert it back to regular mana). If that can happen with gold, imagine how easy it is to wind up with a bunch of extra red, or blue.


Timing — Winning the Race

When you first play, you’ll stare at your artifacts. You should stare are the places of power. And watch your opponents. If you focus only on your tableau, you’ll be surprised when you converter gets bought and think “Now what.” Determine what each rival is aiming at. If your opponent has any cards in hand and is only two resources or one gold short of your convertor, take an action that puts you in a position to buy what you need on your next action — even if it may not be optimal. You might decide to risk it (if your plans are flexible enough, or you think your opponent isn’t actually trying for the same goal as you are, or you can read that they aren’t discarding their cards but playing them), but that’s a decision.

Ideally you’d buy an artifact, tap it for mana, then buy a PoP with the resources (so you get the mana next turn as well), but that may be one action too slow.  At times like this, Res Arcana is a short sprint, but overall its 1500m race. There’s a pace. (I guess a better analogy would be a bike race with intermediate sprint bonuses…) If you are close to the (intermediate) finish line — being first to pass or buying X first — you go fast. But if you shoot out when everyone is going slow, you’ll run out of resources and get overtaken by better engines.

Time is a resource, just like any other. I’ve focused on Places of Power, but you sometimes race for a specific magic item. Squeezing every single mana you possible can may not be as important as passing first for the right magic artifact to implement your plan (or victory point!). Especially in a two player game, both players may be trying to get Transmutation, Alchemy or Reanimate on the same turn to (respectively) fix a mana-color problem, get gold for a monument, use an important card twice. (In a three or four player game its much more likely that these will be locked up and you’ll have to dance around to wait at the right time).

Flexibility, Drawing things out and timing

Res Arcana also has zugzwang. (In Chess that means you can’t pass. Here it means, if you pass you are done for the round). Sometimes you’ll have an item your rival wants. That means they will try to wait until you pass. Many games revolve around jockeying for the Reanimate item as it lets you use a single “tap and convert X to VPs” power (or mana generation) twice. If you can take more actions (without destroying your position) and force them to pass before you relinquish it, you deny them that artifact again for another turn. And next turn you may be able to pass fast and grab it! (Again, this is often Transmutation, Alchemy or Reanimate, in my experience).

Many moves can’t be undone (the most drastic being discarding a card, which risks never seeing the card again). This has a number of practical (sometimes contradictory) effects:

  • You want to move towards your goal efficiently,
  • You don’t want to commit to one path/PoP unless you are likely to win (or its flexible).
  • You’d like to not make it blindingly obvious what you are doing, particularly if your opponent(s) can thwart you. If your opponent is convinced you are racing for their goal (when you aren’t) they may forgo some long-term growth to win the race. Particularly if you had no interest in their goal, that’s great.

Cards in hand are amazingly powerful

A thought experiment. You have a starting mage who collects a resource of your choice (but no other power) and three cards, all blank. But you can also can select a magic item. What can you do?

  1. You can discard all three cards for a gold a buy a monument. If you take Alchemy you can also turn four of your resources into two gold. If you bought Solomon’s Mines as the monument, you can then gain a gold this turn and next turn and buy a second monument (and you’ll also have drawn another card!).
  2. Dragon’s Lair costs twelve resources and provides two gold a turn. You can buy it on first turn by chucking cards — assuming your mage generates a mana and you got a mana via a magic item — then buy a monument on second turn (having used it on T1 and T2). If that gives you a few resources you may be able to play a cheap dragon (assuming you drew one) and now start banking two points a turn.
  3. Catacombs of the Dead costs nine black, which is a bit of a stretch …. you’ll need Transmutation to convert some of your other resources (or get the last black from a magic item). But its one point a turn (plus you can buy a few more, but lacking an engine that may be tough).
  4. Alchemist’s tower only costs three gold and provides three resources a turn. Now, it’s not worth any points, but if you can get a fourth resource you can buy them. You start turn two with four resources a blank card, and your next card.

You get the idea. Even with nothing but a single magic item and three blank cards you can get an admittedly ugly engine going on turn one. Cards are powerful. Flexible.

Why are all of those engines ugly? Because they are a single card engine. Imagine that you could pick the card you drew on the second turn (which, with Divination as your magic item, is highly likely). Imagine getting the Alchemist’s Tower and putting down the Elemental Stream on T2. Now you practically generate two points a turn, unless you have something better. Many two-card combos are ridiculously good, and getting them out can mean a fast route to ten points.

(Opening with a first turn Dragon’s Lair has a reasonable amount of success, especially with a Dragon or two waiting to be drawn and the right monument, because the engine isn’t really mana based.  Opening with the Catacombs can work, particularly with the Witch, but takes a bit more. The others need more oomph to accelerate, and are probably better suited to a turn or two later.)

The point is with an opening hand that doesn’t work together, you don’t want to just play random cards. Two (or three) cards that mesh well (one being a place of power) can generate points, while eight random cards often can’t. That’s the first reason you shouldn’t necessarily play many cards.

The other reason slapping down your opening hand isn’t necessarily a great idea? You’ve lost time and your starting supply of resources. Suddenly your opponent can see “Oh, it takes him X moves to be in a position to buy what I want. I’m in no rush, I can do it optimally.” Your opening hand and mana represents about three turns of reserves. (3 cards and 2 mana/turn). You only get to blow them once.

So, using this idea to continue on our list above:

  • Recognize when you are in a race and when you aren’t.
  • When you look at your eight cards, look for a combo. When you draw your opening hand, if you got a card that combines with many other cards (even ones you don’t have yet), its likely the one you want to play (particularly if it provides income while you are digging for the other card). Sometimes you are better off having only one card you want to play early. If you drew all three, what would you chuck to pay for the others.
  • Early gold is reasonable, but not for its own sake. If the monument you buy provides some income (either cards, gold, or resources), that’s at least starting an engine. If its just points, you’ll stall out.
  • If you have an artifact that gives you two or three mana while giving one to each of your rivals, hold off on it as long as you can. Perhaps they will run out of actions and decide to chuck a card for that mana. (“As long as you can” depends on other considerations, of course).
  • The Research magic item (spend a mana for a card draw) can be used to hunt for a card, or to turn one item into two mana or a gold.

Putting it all together — Pressure and Release

So, you want to build an engine fast enough to let you get a place of power (or gold to buy monuments). As Tom L. notes in a question on “changing strategy” experienced players buy places of power on rounds two or three, instead of rounds three through five. He attributes this to “pressuring,” which is a better term than I had. Let me provide an example from last night. I had decided to grab an early monument and leverage its ability into my engine (and gain a point). The TaoLing saw what I was doing and then waited until I’d used alchemy to convert all but one of my resources to three gold (I was planning on tossing a card for the final gold).

He then played an attack card.  (Elvish Bow — which can attack for a single life but has no built in reaction power to defend). I now had a problem. If I discarded a card for one gold, he’d attack and I’d lose my (non-green) resource and a gold. If I discarded the card for a life  plus another, he could make me lose my life or just tap the Bow to draw a card (its other power). The attack wasn’t really that damaging … but the threat was devastating. (“The threat is mightier than the execution” — Grand Master A. Nimzovich).

If the TaoLing had revealed the bow earlier or later, it would be no problem. Earlier, I’d have responded. Later, I’d have spent the gold and simply eaten the other resource loss.  But the pressure of having something big to lose at that time hurt. (As a comment on my play, I was trying to be flexible by not pitching a card until the last minute, since I hadn’t decided what card to keep. Now I know that my flexibility should have been on the side of “which single resource do I want to keep in case I’m attacked” in that situation).

At some point you may have the bright idea of putting down a very early Dragon via the Dragon’s Egg …  and if you do it at a random time you’ll discover its not nearly as good as you’d hoped. You hurt your opponent maybe as much as the time you lose by putting down an attack card. (And if you are really unlucky, they drop something with an ‘ignore’ power). If you could somehow magically start with it (paying all resources) it would only minorly inconvenience your opponent. Drop it at the critical time, when resources are tight? That’s good. An attack for a resource or two isn’t much compared to a threatened attack that delays your opponent by a turn.

A few miscellaneous thoughts before discussing specific cards

  • Collect powers are slightly weaker (in terms of mana) than cards that tap to generate them. You can use the tap cards the turn you drop them, and can re-animate them to use them twice.
  • Against that collect powers don’t take actions and are therefore faster. Faster can be better or worse (on the last turn, usually better….) (The tap cards sometimes give your rivals mana. If you give it to them at the wrong time, that’s not a huge deal).
  • “Check Victory” powers do several things. The biggest is when you can eke out ten points but — were you to wait until the end of the turn — they could get more. Of more interest you can also get a decent victory by passing early the prior turn to grab a point, earn your ninth (permanent) point and then win. (If your opponent recognizes this and passes to grab that, you can probably use the rest of the turn better to out-earn them next turn). Finally, sometimes you just want to wait without passing and that’s a valid “non-move-move.”
  • One gold a turn (starting at turn two or earlier) may not sound like much but its a monument unless someone gold rushes (and by chucking a card at the right time, may be a great monument). Repeatable two gold a turn is good and if your opponent starts doing more than that, grab monuments while you can to deny them. But if you have four gold and no way of generating more wait for the ‘right’ monument (or buy blind) instead of taking the first thing you can.
  • Because you can discard a card for gold, a “Draw a card” power should be considered slower, but otherwise superior, to getting a gold.
  • Cards that give you ‘wild’ (non-gold) mana or let you convert a large quantity of mana can surprise the unwary as to what you are actually doing (or flexibility to shift goals). And lest you say your opponents are always wary — sometimes that flexibility makes them nervous and under-optimize.
  • Having extra card draw (even at the cost of a mana) gives you an advantage at gold rushing, but repeated card draw also lets you be a bit cavalier in your discards and chuck a card you’ll definitely want to play, because the Divination magic item isn’t often contested mid-game in my experience.
  • I’m not sure how to value “ignoring attacks” as the player count increases. My theory is that the value of attacking goes down (as its harder to time a threat against both opponents), but you have more rivals and they may just attack on general principles or they may just attack you because you are a threat or attack your opponent when they are winning and so you get splashed. So my suspicion is that attacking is more often, and therefore the value of ignoring attacks goes up.

Finally, Res Arcana is a card game. You can get bad hands (non-drafting), and there are cards that are much more flexible. If that bothers you, play the drafting variant. Right now I suspect that 10-20% of our games have pretty lopsided battles (good hand versus bad hand). That doesn’t really bother me much, although I’ll likely try drafting at some point.

The Places of Power

Although I do have a mental ranking of these, the fact that they are setup means you have to deal with you see. Often your mage and hand will point to where you’d like to go….

Dragon’s Lair — Two points a turn with a Dragon, which is also a point. And it doesn’t require spending a mana. The big downside is that if you don’t have a Dragon you can never get one. Before you score you get gold, which means this can go pretty fast. Not worth buying if you lack dragons (or Mermaid), excepting perhaps a two player game where you strongly suspect your opponent has no backup plan and hasn’t started anything else. (The TaoLing points out that if you have Witch the lair is a monument a turn for two mana, and better with Reanimate). The lair being makes defense a bit less necessary …. someone with Dragons will likely be using them to power this at least part of the time. (A hit to you would have to be pretty big to be worth more than two points, and even someone with two dragons may be able to untap the lair to use both dragons).

Sorcerer’s Bestiary — The flip side of the Lair gives you one point per creature and two per dragon, which doesn’t require any tapping. Against that, this means that a single Dragon is two points, not two per turn. The ability to take cards out of other people’s discard? I’ve played nearly seventy five games and I’ve never seen it used. That may be due to the (mainly two player nature of my games). The four cost penalty for theft is large.

Alchemist’s Tower — Three gold for three resources a turn is an interesting choice. There’s a monument that does that (but costs four gold). Of course it provides VP without further cost. I’ve seen this bought first turn and I think that is usually a mistake, but an intriguing one. The power (convert one of each non-gold mana to a VP without tapping) gives you a final turn dump but requires more production (4 per point) than most of the PoPs except for Catacombs (which also gets a point per turn by tapping).

Sacred Groove –A point per turn (for turning an animal), but with a kicker of two base points no matter what. The cost at twelve is steeper than the Lair because it’s eight life. I underrated the ability to turn a blue into five green. It has some powerful combos with Ring of Midas, Alchemy, Philospher’s Stone, Athanor, etc. or buying the Coral Castle…)

Coral Castle — Fifteen mana for three VP, period (with a check victory power) makes this a late purchase, but anyone can use it for the final oomph if their engine is running. The ignore power can be worth a little income.

Sunken Reef — Relatively cheap at nine mana, collect a gold a turn, and buy VPs (repeatedly) for two blue and a green makes this an attractive buy. However, I always think I’m going to get one or two VP more than I actually get. Also, this (and the Tower) takes more actions to load the points onto it.

Cursed Forge — This costs a black or turns itself (“Cursed” you say?) but lets you spend two red plus a gold for a point. This isn’t a bargain at nine mana (six red / three black) and you are paying a chunk of what you need. It is worth a base point, though.

Dwarven Mines — A cheap place (four red, two green and a gold) and a gold provider. This lets you convert five red into three gold (and taps) and converts at six mana for two points (but taps). This makes for an intriguing (and likely wrong) rush buy.. With the right mage + starting magic item this could be a “single discard” purchase, but usually you’ll want a red production card or two and buy this on the second or third turn.

Catacombs of the Dead — Nine death/black for one point per turn (via tapping), the ability to buy points at five black per, and one black a turn. There are several “gain death” artifacts including two that give rivals (so that your opponents may get it). Buying this too early means you earn at a steady rate but likely have no growth, but its a solid earner. But we’ve seen multiple games where the turn one Catacombs won.

Sacrificial Pit — You need a big stack of eight red and four black to get this, and then gain points at a three (green) to one, but you have to tap it. To counter that, you get two base points.  One nice thing about this (as compared to the Sunken Reef) is that the mana you use to buy it isn’t the same as the mana you use to power it. So you don’t need a constant red/black engine. The ability to sacrifice a Dragon or Creature gives you a burst of 1-8 gold. (The TaoLing considers this the primary ability, particularly if you have a dragon discount card like the Bridle or Tooth). You buy the dragon cheap, sacrifice it for gold, and try to race an do it again. (This also works with the Crypt to recycle the dead). Eight gold means two monuments (even if you have to scrounge one or two) and that’s points and monument denial (albeit often at the cost of a VP for the poor dragon).

The Monuments

The monuments average 1.6 VP, with three bonus VP available the owner has three spare gold on the relevant turn. (This fact may be useful on a blind draw). Also — unlike the places of power — you don’t know which ones are in the game (if you remove some) or when they’ll be available. Often the two that are visible on setup may determine which mage you select and if you are going to try for a T1 or T2 monument.

Golden Statue (1VP) — Three extra VP for three gold makes this a dense chunk of VPs and a great midgame purchase. Early game you may get as much bang for you buck by getting an ability that you can use right away (‘time value of mana’), late game it depends entirely on if you’ll have the gold available.

Obelisk (1VP) — Six wild mana now can put you back into the race for a place of power or be worth 1-2 VPs by itself.

Hanging Gardens (1VP) — Three mana a turn is great on T2, and on the final turn this is likely the most useless monument. But you knew that.

Library (1VP) — A card is worth at least a gold, and maybe more (albeit slower than the mines)

Solomon’s Mines (1VP) — A gold a turn. Either this or the Library in the opening will start to entice me to a gold rush strategy. With Alchemy you can buy a “tap for mana” card (to also start an engine), tap it, alchemy (to get to three gold) and then discard to four gold and then use this/Library to get a gold on T1 and T2.  Without the mana engine its riskier, but still possible.

Colossus (2VP) — For the extra VP your gold is slower, but still an enticing early monument.

Oracle (2VP) — The ability to look and reorder the monument deck is reasonable. If everyone else is threatening to buy, you can put dreck on top until you have four gold and either time your buy or rearrange again. Looking at your own deck is also fine. (The TaoLing thinks that its only useful if you are gold rushing).

Temple (2VP) — One green a turn and a free “ignore attack” makes this situational.

The Mausoleum (2VP) — Obviously a player gunning for the Catacombs will love the free “convert everything to black” (at a delay). But this is also useful for other players. First, you could be missing black. Second, if you run out of actions and just want to wait to pass, you can slowly convert things to black (and there’s nothing stopping you from converting your existing black first).

The Great Pyramids (3VP) — Points! Is this worth buying as an early monument? As I mentioned in the thesis, there’s not always a path to convert to points, and the calculation for how much your forgone resources (for the other monument) are likely worth. That’s a hard calculation in the best of times

The Mages

You make your decision on mage after you see the Places of Power and two starting monuments (and after you know if you are going first, selecting magic items first, or somewhere in the middle). Of general note the mages that collect an income (most of them) need on less tempo than those that tap to generate it (the Alchemist, Transmuter and Scholar, assuming he just tosses the card). I am roughly ranking these from worst to best, but this order depends so greatly on the other starting conditions that it doesn’t matter much.

Druid — OK, untapping an animal isn’t great, so unless I have the Mermaid in my deck I’m probably starting my other card unless the Sacred Grove is in play (and an animal or two). She may eke out an extra point or two (the turns you can untap the grove) or give you a big mana boost (the turns you can’t). But even then I’d give a hard look at my other mage. Now, with drafting this doesn’t apply, but I’m prefer the “make soup out of lemons” deal and go. Also, you always collect green so no flexibility. (TaoLing sez –the Treant can get you huge amounts of mana and is a creature)

Healer — Ignoring an attack and collect a blue or green. Ignoring an attack has very diminishing returns (because if there are multiple attacks out there you can likely eat most of them or just pass, as long as you can ignore the wrong item/wrong time one). But some flexibility in mana collection and no ability makes him fast, so you can often pass early in the penultimate or final turn.

Seer — Collect blue and reorder a deck. The Seer means that if you are didn’t get it on your opening hand you have a sixty percent shot to get it on turn two (or plan accordingly). Manipulating the monument deck is nice (as discussed under the Library) but if you got the library you likely had a gold engine….

Necromancer — Nekki can net you two mana a turn, but very specifically. (Gain a black and convert two green to a black, delayed a turn). Obviously with the Catacombs, that’s a big deal. With an excess green production that’s also nice. Lacking that, you are better placed for Alchemy, mainly.

Transmuter — Tap to turn two mana into three is flexible, but the price you play is slowness. Still, she’s rarely a bad selection.

Artificer — “Speed is life.” With the right opening hand, this guy is brutal. With the wrong opening hand, he’s pointless. The ability to drop three generators early easily overcomes his lack of income. (I mean, mages that naturally collect one income a turn are likely earning only six over the course of the game, so giving up three income to frontload it is fine). Ideally you’d like to go last on the first turn to pick up a magic item you are short may need two of. But even if you can’t drop your full opening hand, the ability to get two (say) and save your third card for next turn (or just until you need it) may still be worthwhile.

Duelist — Turning a black into a (delayed) gold while still earning a (red) mana is solid. One gold a turn is a monument, and he’s got enough that  you should likely get two (with a few discards) during an average game and the Dwarven Axe in your opening hand gets you to T2 monument without breaking a sweat (since you already have the spare red).

Scholar — At worst, his ability is “Turn a mana into a gold or gain a mana,” because of the value of cards in hand. Since you shouldn’t be playing all your cards anyway, digging through your deck quickly for the cards you want and spending the rest is great. A built in research means you’ll see your entire deck by T3 (and you can still take research). Scholar can turn anything into a slow gold engine (and you can take research as well to speed it up).

Witch — If the Artificer is an early game mage, the Witch is the ultimate end-game specialist. I’ve mentioned that many games are fights for Reanimate, she has it built at (at one greater cost). She likely makes any tapping place of power worth an extra point or two, and spending two to untap an artifact may let you move mana around in the right colors, or build up an artifact that “explodes” (like the Athanor) a turn early. Honestly, if you wanted to rank her highest you might be right, but just for some reason I never seem to get dealt her and I’ve played her much less than the ones I rank higher.

Alchemist — Insanely flexible at tapping for a mana of your choice (when you are short) or converting mana to gold (when you are flush). As mentioned above, he can easily go for a first turn monument (or Alchemist’s Tower) without slowing down, and gold has a path to points (until the monuments run out).

The Magic Items

Reanimate —The king of magic items. Usually this provides a point (at least) in late game each turn you have it, and early game it can often net you two additional mana (with the right artifact) or one mana but moving colors around similar to Transumutation. It may convert a mana into a gold with other artifacts (Vault, etc), or ‘load’ an artifact that takes two or three taps before it becomes effective a turn earlier (Windup Man or Athanor). Sometimes its worth it just to deny your opponent (especially in two player). Early game you are less likely to be able to use it.

Alchemy — Gold usually has a path.

Transmutation — Converting three for three is often enough to get a place of power. Taking this the turn you plan on having enough for one, but may not get it first lets you survive if you miss.

Life/Death and Calm/Elan — extra mana (at no tempo cost) is fine, but these are mainly used early to make sure you can play what you need (particularly if you don’t want to discard a needed card). But often Research provides the same benefit (spend one to gain a card that you chuck for two, or vice versa) and lets you run through your deck a bit faster, or turn that spare card into a gold.  The decision depends on how you want your tempo.

Divination — Dig for a card you need or with a bad opening you take this and mulligan for something better. (A three creature opening, or similar late game cards). I’ve also seen this used to force a reshuffle after the Sorcerer’s Bestiary gets bought, or just recover an early discarded Dragon.

Protection — There’s diminishing returns, but sometimes you just have to take this. Particularly if your rival dropped his attack, hit you and passed. Part of the “pressure”/Nimzovichian element of dropping an attack is to force your opponent to grab protection and effectively denying them the mana gain (etc) from some other magic item. In a three-four player game, this is probably a much better “insurance” play. You have your mana in the right color, aren’t going for gold, Reanimate is gone and just want to make sure you can’t be disrupted. (But I’d still glance at the board again). Also, grabbing a Dragon’s own “ignore” mana via Life/Death or Calm/Elan (instead of protection) has the same effect and the bonus that you get to keep the mana if the attack doesn’t happen.

The Artifacts

Rather than go into each artifact, I’m going to categorize them (with a few exceptions). Some cards fall into two categories because of multiple powers. I don’t think there’s much point in doing a cost/benefit for each one, since the benefit will depend on your conversion plan.

“The Dragons” — Ranging from five to nine mana, the Dragons are mostly late game cards, especially with the Lair. But all of that changes if you have the Dragon Teeth (or Egg, to a lesser extent). Now all of them are potential early cards. Even so you’ll probably need to time it to really cause any pain, excepting if you have a sacrificial card that lets you then get rid of the dragon for mana. The tooth lets you hopefully convert two red to three, then buy a dragon on turn two, attack, then into seven to eleven wild mana. Granted, that’s a three card combo (but one that shows up fairly often, given the number of dragons) and you’ll likely be executing it over two turns, but it overcomes the weakness of the early dragon. As mid- to late- game cards they are worth a point. Their attack will likely be blunted, but an untapped dragon can force your opponent to always keep an extra resource or two, which is pressure.

Dragon support cards have some value even by themselves. The Dragon Egg converts a gold to a point, the Dragon Bridle converts four mana to a point and lets you ignore one attack. The Dragon Teeth let you turn two red into three (next turn). So even without a Dragon all are worth playing (the Teeth likely less so unless you are aiming for the Dwarven Mines or some other card that will consume lots of red.

The Elvish Bow is the other attack card, so it gets lumped in with the Dragons. It’s not worth a point and “only” attacks for one life instead of two, but its power of drawing a card makes it the premier attack card in the deck, and a great turn one buy. Since the threat of attack is often more valuable, dropping the bow may force a change of plans (see above) and then if your opponent defends, you have a great use for the bow …. drawing a card. This effectively puts the Bow as “Threaten an attack, then gain a gold or two resources or flexibility.” Quite the bargain at three mana.

“Tap for Mana. but share the wealth” — Interestingly, there are four of these but two for black (the Hand of Glory and Maltese Falcon Jeweled Statuette) one for green and red (the Tree of Life and Fiery Whip, respectively) and none for blue. I should probably look more into the asymmetries between mana colors, perhaps another time. All but the Hand of Glory gain three mana and give your rivals one (each), and all but the Hand have a secondary power. As mentioned elsewhere, much like attacking the timing of giving out free mana is important. If  you give it out and allow your rival to keep a card or grab a place of power first, that’s no good. But giving it to them after they’ve done it isn’t horrible. The Hand is really an odd card. You break even on your first turn and your rivals gain a black. On the second turn you are now even with them (up two black) and only really start to gain after that. However, with the existence of the the Catacombs and other cards that require a hefty supply of death, there’s always a time for it.

“Tap for Mana, based on a rival’s stash” — The Treant and Hypnotic Basin both collect two mana and can tap to gain mana equal to a rival’s color. (The Treant is also a creature). Sort of an anti-hoarding measure. If you drop this early enough, your rival may decide to change their plan to eliminate/minimize that color. (How quickly they can do that depends on the mage. The Alchemist or Transmuter can shift on a dime). However, in the mid-late game it will often be impossible to switch. The Treant, in particular, keys off black and if the Catacombs are being targetted it will be worth it. In those cases you want to get it out ASAP for the bit of extra mana it will pay back. The Basin keys off of red, which shows up in smaller quantities for the Dwarven Mines or Cursed Forge and a number of high-value artifacts that generate or really want you to have some elan in your pool. And it provides blue (both in collection and copying), which is a somewhat shorter supply than red. In a multiplayer game, these are probably going to be worth dropping quickly. Someone will give you a few mana.

“Convert some mana and gain, possibly delaying a turn” –These are true engine cards, particularly if they don’t tap and you can gain multiple times. The Chalice of Life turns two blue into a blue and a green (and lets you collect a green). Very nice for whoever owns the Sacred Grove (although since you don’t get any blue out of it doesn’t provide compound interest). Often there’s a bit of work involved in managing the colors (such as the Cursed Skull’s green to three non-green or the Fountain of Youth’s two death into two blue and a green), but often they are minimal. The Transmuter, in particular, won’t have much issue with that. A put the Magical Shard in this category, but it really just gives you a wild mana.

“Just collect some mana” — These get a bit less over the course of the game, but they are stable. The often have another power as well (or insane flexibility in the case of the Celestial Horse)

“The Creatures” — these will more matter for the Grove / Bestiary / Druid as they can trigger the effects. If you don’t have those, they are a mixed lot. The Guard Dog has an ignore power, so you’d like to hold it (and some red in reserve) just in case. The Hawk provides a blue and lets you arrange your deck (or the monument) and buys a card at the not-discount price of two blue.  The Nightingale is the cheapest point in the game.

“Slow Gold” — Card like the Vault or Dwarven Axe or Midas Ring get a gold per turn (roughly). (The Ring can speed up). Slow gold heads you down the monument path, but these are all cheap enough that you’ll likely earn two monuments (maybe with a bit of scrounging) over the game. The Vault also generates resources if you don’t take the gold from it every turn (which you likely wont collect until you need it). The Horn of Plenty is sort of an odd card out as it costs you two gold to get, so its one gold a turn isn’t great, but the ability to switch to three resources makes it a great card (and Reanimate target).

“Burst Gold” — The Philosopher’s Stone or Athanor (much like the Sacrificial Pit) can get you a burst of gold. With either one I’ve seen ten+ gold several times (depending on how early you get them set up). The Athanor needs to be played reasonably early, along with a card like Tree of Life to build a stack of Mana. Philosopher’s Stone is a late game pivot (I think it’s produced sixteen gold on turn five or six in one of our games). Burst gold is particularly good when your opponent’s slow gold is at three and you run through the good monuments (or exhaust the deck) the turn before he earns his fourth gold.

“Mana switching” — The Prism lets you move as many items as you want from one color to another. Usually this is done to prepare an Athanor or to buy/load a place of power or to change some or all of the mana you got from a Treant or Hypnotic Basin’s or Sacred Grove’s bounty as a super-transmute.

“Sacrificial Cards” — The Sacrificial Dagger, Corrupt Alter and Fiery Whip all let you destroy/discard a card to gain its cost in wild mana (plus two for all but the Dagger). These are big pressure card (pointed out by the TaoLing, but I knew it) in that you can suddenly burst the last five or more mana for a place of power. (You can sacrifice tapped cards).  As mentioned before with the Sacrificial Altar (which provides gold) you may be able to perform the sacrifices multiple times if you have the Crypt. The Dagger (which gets rid of a card from hand and itself) is a powerful opener if you have a Dragon or Philosopher’s Stone, although you are spending a gold and a black for eight(items) and you could just discard the two cards for four mana and keep the gold. But breakpoints matter.

Great opening cards

Some cards are just better than others. Here are cards the TaoLing and I like to play early. I won’t go and say these are always right (particularly the Athanor), but they often are.

  • Elvish Bow (pressure and then slow gold)
  • Vault or Dwarven Axe (slow gold)
  • Chalice of Fire (two mana and a built in Reanimate!)
  • Celestial Horse
  • Tree of Life (tap mana and repeatable protection)
  • Sacrifical Dagger (assuming you have an expensive card to throw, but it has to be something like Fire Dragon or Philosopher’s Stone).
  • Athanor (burst gold)
  • Horn of Plenty (slow gold or resources. Expensive but flexible)


You win Res Arcana by building a tight, fast combo. Good cards are certainly better than bad cards, but you need a plan as well as good execution!


Update (5/5) — After proofing and publishing this the TaoLing and I have played another dozen or so games, and we’ve been much more specifically discussing the strategy behind monument rush. And our thoughts are that the first turn Dragon’s Lair is completely viable on T1 even without a Dragon!  Look at it this way, Alchemy converts four mana to two gold. Dragon’s Lair converts twelve mana to four gold by the turn after you buy it — already a better ratio —  which buys a monument that provides gold or cards or resources, and then you will get at least four more gold from the Lair. Plus you deny points (and a discount to Dragon owners).  Frankly we’re beginning to feel that the Lair is under-costed compared to most of the other Places of Power (or rather, the tap for two gold is too good).

T1 Catacombs is viable with a Witch.

Written by taogaming

May 4, 2019 at 1:01 pm