Critical Play: Balance in Slay the Spire

For this critical play, I went back and revisited a game I was addicted to 4 years ago. It is Slay the Spire, a roguelike deck-building adventure game. It was developed by MegaCrit and published as early access on Steam by Humble Bundle in 2017. It was officially released in 2019 and currently is on all major mobile, console, and PC platforms.

Formal Elements

Objective and Narrative

In this game, the player chooses one out of four characters to play as, climb up the spire, and venture through combats and random events. The objective is to survive through the floors, climb to the top, and destroy the heart of the spire. The screenshot above shows the path-choosing part of the game, where the player chooses the next node to explore. Each node can be combat, shop, random encounter, or camp. Combats and shops provide cards, which the player uses the build their deck. Random encounter nodes consist of random events such as elite monsters and random NPCs that provide aids. These random events add to the embedding narrative of the game, providing contexts for the adventure. Despite these snippets of narratives, the emphasis of the game stays on deck-building, surviving, and beating monsters.

Mechanics and Balance

The core mechanic of the game is deck-building from random drops from monsters from combats and purchases from shops. Each character has its unique set of cards, and since the drops and available items at the shops are completely random, each run of the game is usually drastically different from one another. There are more than one ways to clear the game due to the enormous size of combinations of the cards the player can get in one run, but sometimes the drops are not satisfying and the player can’t really assemble an effective deck to clear the game. In order to make the game balanced in satisfying and frustrating the player, the developer makes a few design decisions that help so that the player can, for most of the time, enjoy the game.

  1. Multiple difficulty levels are available to the player. The lowest difficulty (the default one) can be beaten with a certain level of familiarity with the game. The player is free to choose when to challenge higher difficulty levels without any pressure from the game.
  2. Initially, not all cards are unlocked for each character. Some cards have more complex effects and synergies, and they cannot be obtained unless the player has played using the character a certain number of times. This design keeps the scope of the game relatively small when the player is learning the game, thus making it easier to adjust the balance.
  3. The balance between strategies is well-achieved. For each strategy, as long as the player gets the right deck for it, it is as good as others. Also, the high randomness makes it hard to exploit one strategy because the drops are usually quite different each run.


The main source of fun in this game is challenge. Initially, when the player is not familiar with the game, it is undoubtedly hard to clear the whole game. After the player learns more about the game, it is still quite challenging because of the existence of higher difficulties, more and more randomness with the introduction of new cards, and other characters to play as that have almost completely different strategies. The game is challenging from the very start and remains this way even if you spend a lot of time playing it.

What can be improved

Overall, I love this game and have played it for over 100 hours. However, there are two things about this game I feel can be changed to improve the experience. First, the randomness at the end of the game is too big for me. A lot of the time, I feel I’m being played by RNG rather than trying to beat the game using my intelligence. I hope there is an option for me to adjust the randomness to some extent. Last but not least, the combat system can be a little stale after playing for a while, but I feel there isn’t a way to improve this a lot because it is the fundamentals of the game.

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