Monster Train or Deckbuilder: the ‘good parts’ version

Considering I’m choking up the deckbuilder thread with posts about this, I figured I ought to make a dedicated thread.

Monster Train is a roguelight deckbuilder releasing next week on May 21st for 24.99. I’m going to try to explain why this game stands out dramatically from other games in the genre and why you should take a look at it, but first things first:

TLDR; You can download a free demo on that page and I urge anyone remotely interested in the genre to give it a try, especially if:

  • You like the idea of the genre but think runs take way too long
  • You feel like there aren’t enough viable strategies in other games
  • You like trying to exploit game systems to make “broken” combos

What follows are my impressions after spending about 5 hours with the demo and watching some gameplay.

For a basic gameplay video:

There’s so much about this game that’s unique. Hell hath frozen over and you play the forces of Hell trying to relight the flames. To do that you carry a burning pyre on a train towards its final destination. The train car has four levels. The pyre sits on the top level with three lanes below, where you can summon your various units. The forces of Heaven enter the train car on the bottom level and move up a level each turn. You have to weaken or destroy them before they reach the pyre to limit the damage. This setup lends a distinctly tower defense-like flavor to this turn-based game, as you try to limit the hordes advancing on the pyre.

The next thing that really stands out is that an entire run consists of only eight combats. Each of these is effectively vs a mid-boss or boss of some kind. I think it would be quite easy to finish an entire run in under an hour once you know what you’re doing, and I’m slow. Somebody that’s faster might approach 30 minutes.

Don’t go thinking this means the game lacks depth, that your options are limited, or that it’s easy. In between each fight, the train can take one of two paths. Each will present 2-3 opportunities to improve your deck, with some combination of a spell improvement shop, a unit improvement shop, a relic shop, a vortex to remove unwanted cards from your deck, the ability to dupe a card, a random relic, a gold stash, a faction banner (which will give you a choice of units to add to your deck), or a champion upgrade.

That’s right. There are 5 different factions (only two in the demo). You will choose two for each run, with a total of 20 combinations. The reason it is 20, not 10, is that your primary choice determines which champion will be in your deck, which drastically changes how your run will play out.

Back to improving your deck, rather than having fixed upgrades like Slay the Spire, non-champion cards have two runestone upgrade slots (there is at least one way, a relic, that adds another). For spells, runestones can do things like increase raw power, decrease mana cost, or return the spell to the top of your draw deck if use it. Unit upgrades can add quick (attack before enemies), multiple attacks, or return a unit to the top of your deck when killed (otherwise, most units are gone for the remainder of the fight). There are also upgrades called incants that apply an effect when a spell is used In that lane, I don’t think these are available in the demo.

There’s all kinds of ways you can create combos. For instance, take a zero cost imp that gives you 5 mana when you play it. Add the Endless upgrade that returns it to the top of your deck when killed. Then you have a 1-cost spell that detonates an imp to do 50 damage to the enemy in front of the lane. Upgrade that to return to the top of your draw deck when used. Now you have a mana engine that also gives you a nuke to use each round. Combine this with an artifact that preserves your mana between turns and you have a monstrously strong combo.

At this point you might be thinking “that sounds insanely OP”. It is, but that’s a necessity. It’s critical you focus your deck in a hurry, because the fights rapidly get more challenging. A strategy that isn’t working (especially if you take on one of the optional challenges some fights offer) could easily derail your run early. I think the entire point of this game is to create combos that would be nauseatingly OP in other games. You will need them to survive. if you take a look at the Steam forums, you will see people saying the game is overly difficult or that the demo can’t be beaten. They simply don’t understand the need to combo this way. The game is challenging, but will only seem punishingly so if you don’t get what they’ve accomplished and exploit the mechanics available to you.

Another example: I’ve mentioned that each faction has a champion, but those champions each have various subtypes. So, one version might focus on giving itself armor, where another might be about stacking rage (bonus damage). The champion I was using earlier had no attack power, but dealt damage whenever it was healed (10 at the start, 30 by the end). Along the way, I found a spell called Spreading Spores that was consumed (removed from deck) on use but applies 2 regen and 2 spikes (thorns) to a unit, then places 2 copies of the card in your discard pile. I used a runestone to double the effect to 4 regen and 4 spikes. Then, I was fortunate enough to find a relic that dealt 20 damage whenever a spell was consumed. Then I duplicated the upgraded spore card and thinned the rest of my deck as much as possible, which led to my first successful run. I’d dump cheap heals on my champion to soften up enemies, then spikes and regen (triggering damage after each hit) would finish them off.

There’s also the question of how to effectively use the different lanes, which I’ve barely mentioned. In that last example, I was using the top lane almost exclusively. That deck started slow and I needed time to be able to get the spore cards going (I also happened across an artifact that kept enemies from leaving the top floor for one turn, but didn’t need it). On a different run, you might have your champion applying spell weakness (which multiplies spell damage) on the bottom floor to take advantage of as enemies climb. Your champion might need a tank, or it might BE the tank.

At the end of a run, you earn experience for the faction used, unlocking new units, spells, and relics (and possibly shop upgrades?). When you complete your first run, you unlock the cataclysm system, which is a series of progressive modifiers to increase the challenge, much like Ascension in Slay the Spire. Cataclysm 1 introduces random cards for your starting deck, replacing some basic cards. This helps make the early part of runs more interesting, and along with your starting relic and champion, might suggest a strategy to use for that run.

In addition to the standard game, there are daily challenges (complete with leaderboards) with various mutators that change how the game works and a real-time multiplayer boss rush mode. you can also make custom games with mutators.

I’ve been enamored with deckbuilders for years now and equally enamored with the idea of roguelight deckbuilders. Despite that, none of them has really dug it’s claws into me and compelled me to play over and over. This may finally be the one to do so. It’s the essence of what makes deckbuilders fun, distilled down into a small number of boss fights with greater card customization and accelerated deck construction.

Yep, this looks right up my alley. It hit my radar when I watched it be played by NorthernLion. Wishlisted and waiting for release.

Heh, I actually linked the next video he made above (#1 in the let’s play vs NL tries) because he has a little better idea what he’s doing. This is the kind of game where, if you go in cold, it takes a bit of time to figure out what the heck is going on.

Same here. Im curious what the demo is like? I don’t plan on playing it because I feel like I get enough information on what it’s all about by watching a run be played, and I’m almost certainly going to be buying it anyway. When I hear demo I hear “limitations” but if it allows a full run I might be tempted to get a bit of early access. The Steam page is no help in explaining what the demo offers.

It’s full runs. Think of Slay the Spire with just one character.

There’s progression through unlocks between runs. The unlocks won’t carry over from the demo to the final release, so if you’re buying it anyway, skip the demo.

The impressions above are primarily from the demo. The primary constraint is that you only have access to the two starting factions. In the full game, there are three more you can unlock. The release version also adds some new bosses and such, I think.

As @jsnell said, the reason to try the demo is to make a purchase decision. If you are already in, just wait for release.

Thanks for creating this thread @Misguided.

After a fun binge, I’m setting it aside for now. I managed to win once with a Slayer hero and a fortunate combination of relics and cards. The “ascension” mode is much harder though and I had not had a success yet.

As I understand it, Cataclysm has changed some for release. There are 25 levels now. And I believe at cataclysm 1, they remove some extra basic cards to make the addition of the random ones less cumbersome.

A random drop of 5+ cards seriously messes up the start.

Yeah, but I do like that it adds variety to the early part of runs. If there are fewer torches/restores (or whatever faction you are playing) it shouldn’t be so bad.

In response to a question about demo progress carrying over to release (it doesn’t), a dev said:

The game is months ahead of the demo in development and evolution. It is better and (differently) better balanced.

Sorry if I missed this in the thread but it’s not going to EA on May 21st is it?

No, this is the full release.

I’ve played the demo now a few times and I like it.
You’ve described it very well above, all I have to add is that the combat and strategy is indeed very different than StS, and I am terrible at it. It’s great fun though! Looking forward to the release.

You know, when I first saw it on a stream, I didn’t like the whole train thing with the multiple levels and all. Took a while to really wrap my head around it, but after I tried the demo, I was hooked. now the wait feels brutal 🤣

You will get the hang of it.

I have been enjoying the demo a lot myself. Though I think I am also not that great at the game.

@Misguided: The… Two day wait… Feels brutal? Hang in there buddy, you can do it!

Lol. I’ve been excited about it for a little longer than that, and it’s been a long time since I was this excited about a game, but I assure you, I will carry on.

As far as improving, its all about exploiting combos/stacking buffs/stats.

Remember that units can only be summoned once (unless upgraded with endless). This lets you create a deck that’s lean once your units are summoned. Don’t bloat your deck with units you can’t summon. Likewise, don’t be afraid to throw out something like a train steward to get killed (thus getting it out of your hand) unless you need it to protect another unit.

I played a couple more times and got a win with a massive Rage deck and the hell champion who can get multiple attacks. I duplicated the card that doubles all unit’s rage a couple times, gave him “attack first”, put a blocker in front, and that was basically it. (Rage gives more attack, and usually decays every turn, but I got an artifact early on that stopped the decay)

I like how knowing what the end boss’s special ability is going to be helps define the run. In this case I knew it was “exhaust all spells” so I focused on improving a couple units and made sure the spells were high impact.

Chomping at the bit for Friday for sure!

Yeah, it is cool. Btw that boss has changed in final release to consume the first pell you use each turn. One way to get around that is to have some consume cards in your deck.

You don’t build up a ton of relics/artifacts like in StS, but some of them like that rage one can make a huge difference.

Game is live at 10% off, with an extra 10% if you own Slay the Spire, bringing it to 19.99. Devs will be streaming followed by YouTube folks, and at 5pm pacific:

Special Guest: One of the beautiful things about Indie game development is the close-knit community. In the spirit of supporting each other, we’re pleased that Anthony Giovannetti - Megacrit Games Co-Founder (maker of Slay The Spire), will be hanging out with the devs at 5PM PT/ 8PM EDT/ 2AM CEST for a roundtable discussion of the genre and some great tales of the gaming scene. Come join Mark, Andrew and Anthony as we celebrate the launch of Monster Train and our passion for deck-building card games.

Streams here:

Wow, the art really looks like Hearthstone.