by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 30th October, 2019
Deckbuilding games were a part of the board game culture for more than a decade but with the rise of Slay the Spire the genre slowly started to spread into video game territory. Here are the best deck-building video games to play right now.
If you talked to someone about deck building video games just a few years ago the person you're talking to would probably mention classic TCG and CCG games such as Magic; The Gathering or Hearthstone. But deck building games are something else.
Instead of building decks before dueling against people or computer opponents, deck-building games are based on players building their card decks through the course of the game. And instead of battling other people and AI opponents in 1 vs 1 matches deck builders play as a series of encounters, often backed up by a story or at least a finite scenario with a clear goal.
These games start slow, usually with players being given a simple deck with just a few (usually around ten or a dozen) cards and as the game progresses, they build and evolve their deck by defeating monsters or doing quests.
They can add new cards to their deck (usually new cards are given as rewards for slaying monsters), are free to remove limited number of cards from their decks in most games, and have to build their strategy on the go.
The cards in a deck represent attacks, spells, and other actions. Instead of drawing just one card per turn, in most deckbuilding games players draw their whole hand during each of their turns and discard all cards they didn't play once the turn ends. Once the deck reaches its end discarded cards are reshuffled and you draw them again. The cycle repeats until you finish an encounter.
The goal in most games is reaching the end of the game and beating the final boss, finishing a story campaign or, in some titles, surviving as long as possible in a never-ending stream of combat encounters.
The joy of deck builders is creating an efficient and powerful deck of cards from limited card choices you get as rewards. Sometimes you have to include a bad card because you have no other choice; at other times your deck can grow in power by pure chance, with you always receiving just the cards you need.
At times the game can hit you in the face by throwing at you enemies who abuse your deck limitations. At other times your deck can destroy everyone in early and mid-game but prove inefficient during endgame. Or vice versa.
In other words, deck builders are strategy games but with cards where smart choices and right deck building tactics can often lead to unique decks with insane combos even when the RNG gods aren't at your side.
These games were part of the board game culture for years. But we had next to zero deck building video games, and then came Slay the Spire and shook video games community with its brilliant game design and insanely addictive gameplay.
After this indie blockbuster landed many developers tried to build their own games based on deck-building gameplay and today, we have dozens of cool deckbuilding video games.
Some are like Slay the Spire, others have their own unique mechanics, and there are also a couple of excellent digital recreations of popular deck-building board games. Here are the best ones to play on the PC, consoles, and phones.
The progenitor of the whole deck building genre, this is a one-man studio game that introduced deck building to gamers even before the genre became popular (or even before the genre became known to the public). Yes, visuals look like they are drawn by a 5-year old but don't let the amateur art style put you away from this excellent game.
Dream Quest is in its core a complex dungeon crawler/deck building fusion with intricate gameplay and robust deck building system.
The game features roguelike gameplay where, like in Slay the Spire, one death means starting from scratch but its short length - when you don't die in pains the game can be completed in a little over half an hour - combined with infinite possibilities (there are 13 classes and hundreds of cards) is a perfect combination for entertaining gameplay that, instead of begging for just one turn, makes people play just one dungeon crawl, over and over again.
And since the game is available for the iOS aside from PC, its short length makes it perfect for mobile gaming sessions. Dungeons are randomly generated and each run is a completely different foray. You cannot know what will await you until you start a new run, which is another great ingredient of Dream Quest that makes the game infinitely replayable, which is something all deck building games strive for but a small number achieves.
Even when you beat the game a dozen times you will want to play more if only to see whether you can make a deck that will feel new and unique, despite the fact you've already created dozens of cool, unique, and powerful decks.
The one that started the whole deckbuilding craze. Slay the Spire launched as a small indie title on Steam Early Access and after picking some heat from Twitch streamers the game simply exploded.
And for all the right reasons. The addictive gameplay combined with a huge number of deck strategies, two playable characters, fair but challenging gameplay, and unforgiving permadeath mechanic (you die and have to start from scratch) made Slay the Spire a proper indie blockbuster.
Developers used the fame and the money to shower players with constant updates that added new cards, enemies, levels, and new playable characters. Today Slay the Spire features three playable characters, each with their own unique playstyle, hundreds of cards and artifacts (unique items that come with unique boons and curses), lots of game modes, and near-infinite replayability.
The main mode is the classic challenge run with the goal of reaching the top of the Spire, which is pretty tough to beat. At least until you get the hang of the game.
The unique, hand-drawn art style that plays more on its charm than technical prowess is another main selling points of the game. If you want to dive into the world of deck building video games this is the best choice at the moment.
Ascension was one of the first deck-building board games and its digital version is pretty good. The major selling points are the art style and visuals, which are better than in most similar games. Everything looks sharp and is rich in detail with professional looking card illustrations and great UI. There are also more than 300 cards in the base game along with four additional deck expansions available as DLC.
When it comes to gameplay Ascension is closer to Magic and Hearthstone than Slay the Spire in the way that gameplay revolves around dueling against real people (locally or online) or AI opponents. There's no story mode, infinite mode, or even the basic finite run like in Slay the Spire. This makes Ascension a bit bland for people who like to play games with clear goals and endgame but the marvelous gameplay is pretty enjoyable.
Here players duel but instead everyone going in with prebuilt decks they have to build their card decks as the game progresses, creating rich strategic gameplay combined intricate economy and lots of card-buying decisions. A great choice for people with lots of friends who play deck builders.
Monster Slayers is a full-fledged version of a once-famous browser-based deckbuilder that was pretty popular on Kongregate years ago. Sadly, the game never reached Slay the Spire fame even though it predates it by almost half a decade but this one's still a solid choice for players who've gotten bored of infinitely slaying the spire.
Mechanics are similar but Monster Slayers features six playable characters along with a larger map. On the other side, we have fewer cards to build your decks with and not as much variety when it comes to playing strategies. Nevertheless, Monster Slayers is a capable deck-building game with intricate combat and lots of replayability.
Dicey Dungeons is a deck-building roguelike with an infinite amount of humor and deep strategic gameplay. The game's charming and will definitely keep you playing for dozens of hours since in its core Dicey Dungeons is very similar to Slay the Spire. You play a finite run with a clear goal (beating lady luck instead slaying the spire) and each run is different and unique.
There are lots of interesting mechanics. Battles are complex and require lots of thinking and strategic planning but they also somewhat depend on RNG, which is present in every deck builder game to a degree.
But since Dicey Dungeons introduces dice into the classic deck-building formula RNG is more prominent than in Slay the Spire so if you're not RNG fan maybe it's better to skip this one since there's a high chance you won't like it. But if you don't mind a bit more RNG than average the game's a blast to play.
As we said, there's tons of humor and the game also has tons of charm. After all, you play as a living dice who's feeling extremely lucky. In fact, they felt so lucky they've decided to participate in a reality show with next to zero chances of winning it.
There are six playable characters, each with their own unique playing strategy and unique gear pool. Music is amazing, the gameplay is addictive as hell, and laugh out loud moments are aplenty (especially when meeting new enemies).
The only problem other than prominent RNG at times is the fact that gear pool (read: card pool) is smaller than in Slay the Spire reducing the replayability of the game.
Image and Form Games is one of the best indie developer studios in the world. Each of their SteamWorld games tackled a different genre and each ended up being a huge indie hit. SteamWorld Dig 1 and 2 proven to be superb Metroidvania titles, Steam World Heist is an excellent take on turn-based strategy genre and their latest, SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech, is one of the best deck building games on the market.
This is a game with a proper story which is rare in the genre. So, if you're looking for a deck building title with an excellent single-player campaign this one, along with Thronebreaker, is your best bet. Just know that Throbebreaker's story is much, much better than the one found in this game.
As is the case with other games from the genre you start with just a few cards and have to create a unique deck by tackling enemies and beating quests. The game features a team-based combat system where each member of your team has different cards and combining team members is the key for landing powerful combos and complex combinations of card effects.
The combat itself is easier than in Slay the Spire with less strategic depth but tuning the difficulty level to Legend will provide a proper challenge if you want one. Aside from the relatively weak story the game also has fewer cards (about 100) than most other similar games but the fun combat and enjoyable team-based card battles are good enough to recommend this game for all fans of the deck building genre.
Book of Demons is Diablo of deck builders and while the combination may not look really fun in theory in practice this game rocks! Developers managed to create real-time action RPG based on building a unique deck of cards and they deserve praise just for taking this crazy idea and making it work. But Book of Demons doesn't just work, the game is fun as hell!
First of all, you have the minimal visual style that relies on a lack of animations combined with simplistic visuals and gorgeous lighting effects to make one of the most original looking games you can find on Steam right now. Next, you have a deck of cards containing all of your attacks, spells, and potions and you have to think which ones to use and when to use them in order to survive waves of demons.
The gameplay is super enjoyable and you cannot realize just how fun this game is until you actually start playing Book of Demons. The game is suited both for long and short playing sessions by allowing players to tweak the length of each run by setting the number of dungeons, quests, and bosses to tackle.
Your cards can be upgraded and your deck evolves during each playthrough allowing players to tweak their strategy on-the-go. If you love both action RPGs and deck building card games you simply have to try this one out, you won't regret it.
Thronebreaker is a single-player take on Gwent that is a fantastic deckbuilding RPG with by far the best story in the genre. The story follows Queen Meve, known from The Witcher novels, on her journey of revenge and rebuilding of an empire and is filled with well-written dialogue, fleshed-out characters, emotional story moments, and quality plot twists.
The campaign lasts for about 30 hours and it takes place across the lands of Northern Realms. The player can freely explore world maps, take on quests, gather cards and resources, discover secrets, and upgrade their base of operations.
This exciting mix of a deck builder, RPG, visual novel, and an adventure game features hundreds of cards and lots of different strategies for building your unique deck.
While not a hardcore deck builder (the game's basically Gwent with a story and deck building gameplay) Thronebreaker is an excellent choice because it combines lite deck building gameplay (the game's pretty easy with its combat encounters) with amazing story and plenty of moments where you have make meaningful choices that stay in your memory (and sometimes bite you in the ass) until the end of the game.
All this is coated in pretty cell-shaded visuals that make this one of the prettiest card games around.
Dungeon Tales is a free mobile deck-building game that borrows a lot from Slay the Spire. You have a suspiciously similar art style along with procedurally created dungeons and similar cards.
On the other hand, we have to say that Dungeon Tales looks a bit more attractive than Slay the Spire. We also like the game's different depiction of combat, with the action focusing on enemies. Luckily, the gameplay is as fun as in Slay the Spire, with deeply strategic combat, lots of combos, and plenty of different tactics you can use.
There are plenty of monsters to kill, tough bosses that will make you sweat just like in Slay the Spire, and 10 epic bosses that require everything you got and then some in order to be defeated.
The downside is that, at the moment, the game offers less than 70 cards. On the other hand, Dungeon Tales doesn't require any in-app purchase, you can unlock every single card just by playing. This is why we simply have to recommend it.
What it lacks in originality Dungeon Tales makes up with excellent combat, great artwork, and true free-to-play experience that doesn't ask for a single cent from players. This is, along War of Omens, the best deck-building card game available for mobile devices.
War of Omens is a solid free-to-play combination of CCG and deck builder game and at the moment the best deck building game for phones. It's rich in game modes and offers an excellent single-player campaign that allows players to learn about each of the four factions and each of more than 20 playable heroes.
Storytelling is surprisingly good and the length of the campaign is enough to keep you busy for dozens of hours. The frantic pace of battles is a refreshing change from deeply strategic combat of Slay the Spire and Dicey Dungeons.
Once you finish the campaign and learn about each faction you can take onto the game's many PvP modes that include classic duels with prebuilt decks, draft tournaments, and more.
Best of all, the game offers players to unlock almost every card by playing and you can be highly competitive without shelling out a dime. In fact, the campaign can be beaten with zero money investment and in case you really want to dive into PvP content the whole card pool can be unlocked for about $10. If your phone is your main gaming platform War of Omens is, along with Dungeon Tales, the best deck building game you can play at the moment.