Monster Train – Starter Guide (for Slay the Spire Players)

Are you a new player coming from Slay the Spire? Start here! I’ll describe the major strategic differences between the two games to get you started.

How to Start

About This Guide

Welcome to Monster Train, Slay the Spire (STS) players! Monster Train (MT) is a fantastic game, and I think you’ll have a blast.

While the two games share many mechanics, they feel very different to play and require different approaches. As a result, experienced STS players may find the adjustment difficult. In this guide, I compare and contrast the mechanics of the two games, and explain how best to approach the mechanics in STS.

Note: This game’s DLC, The Last Divinity, changes the game significantly, and in my opinion for the better. While this is not what everyone will recommend, if you want to spend significant time in this game, I personally would encourage new players to dive in to the DLC from the start. This guide assumes you have DLC. That said, most of the general strategies still apply to the base game.

The Big Picture: Ten Differences

Compared to Slay the Spire, in Monster Train…

  • The overall difficulty is lower, but it’s easier for a single tactical or strategic mistake to lose a run.
  • Ember (energy) is easier to manage, whereas card draw is at a premium.
  • Winning runs usually rely on a small number of very strong cards, rather than a large well-balanced deck.
  • Scaling damage comes not from power cards, but from units played on your train.
  • Each combat lasts a set amount of turns, meaning you almost always need rapid sources of attack scaling to defeat the boss.
  • The entire map is visible from the start, allowing better preparation.
  • There are far opportunities to duplicate and remove cards, allowing you to better tailor your deck.
  • The variety of clan combinations leads to an enormous amount of run diversity compared to set-in-stone STS character pools.
  • The best MT players can achieve close to a 100% winrate against The Last Divinity at Covenant 25 (the highest difficulty).
  • The overall game balance is slightly worse, but unique mechanics and crazy combos will keep you coming back!

Units 101: An Important Mechanic!

The biggest difference between STS and MT is the presence of units. In a way, these fulfill the function of STS power cards: they provide a way to scale over time so that you can ramp up to kill the boss in relentless. They are also often instrumental in killing waves.

The Priority Draw Mechanic

Before going further, we need to understand a critically important (and unexplained) mechanic of Monster Train decks. You may have noticed that your draws are not completely random!

Each clan has a pool of 9 units with “draw priority.” 6 are common and 3 are rare. These are often called Banner Units because of how they are obtained. They can be obtained in three ways:

  • Unit banners on the map.
  • Unit Draft trials in rings 1 and 2.
  • A guaranteed unit draft reward after ring 3.

In general, banner units form the backbone of your floors. For example, Horned Warrior and Alpha Fiend are Hellhorned banner units, while imps are not. Units that are not banner units are drafted from standard combat rewards alongside spells.

Note that Unit Banners only spawn on rings 2-4. Once you begin the ring 4 combat, you’re generally stuck with the banner units you have.

Now, the priority draw mechanic: If you have a banner unit in your draw pile, you are guaranteed to draw at least one. This means that you will always draw a banner unit on turn 1, in addition to your champion.

Implications of Priority Draw

Without the priority draw mechanic, combat would be very inconsistent. If your critical unit were at the bottom of your deck, you would eat wave after wave of damage to the pyre. The priority draw mechanic allows you to deploy a floor of units on turn 1, and potentially begin scaling or otherwise buffing them.

Note, however, that you won’t usually draw all of your banner units at once. If you have 4 banner units, you might not see your most important unit until turn 4. Alternatively, you might draw all 4 of these units on turn 1, and not have enough ember to play them!

As a result, you generally want to refine your deck to 1-2 banner units. The most common winning strategies often rely on a single core unit, potentially played alongside a secondary unit or your champion. Having more than two banner units is sometimes correct, and is frequently necessary in early combats, but it’s not ideal.

Another reason to have fewer banner units: They’re mostly quite weak at baseline. They need upgrades and spell support; otherwise they will get run over by enemy waves. As a result, it’s more efficient to pump resources into 1-2 strong units than to spread them thin.

Using hellvents to duplicate strong banner units is generally more effective than trying to upgrade multiple separate units.

Don’t rely on drawing non-banner units quickly. 
Oftentimes, non-banner units will be integral to a winning strategy. Melting Remnant is particularly notable for having many strong units such as tombs, Draff, and Votivary. Hellhorned imps are another example. While they’re powerful cards, you still usually want at least 1 banner unit. Otherwise, you’re gambling on how quickly you’ll be able to find your units in your deck.

Boss Rewards: Do I Need a 4th Ember?

STS and MT both have a mechanic where you gain a powerful relic or artifact after the first two major bosses. In STS, these are pulled from a random pool, but many of the most sought-after relics grant additional energy per turn. In MT, you are always given the three same options: +1 ember (energy) per turn, +1 card draw per turn, and +1 capacity on each floor. See below for a discussion of the benefits of each artifact.

Ember (energy)

In general, take this artifact only when you identify a reason why you’ll need extra ember.
Coming from STS, you might think that +1 ember is the default pick, but this is not the case. It is very common to win runs with only 3 ember per turn. There are other solutions to managing ember in MT, including:

  • -1 ember upgrades at the Merchant of Magic.
  • Several artifacts that ease ember management.
  • A general bias within card pools towards 0 and 1-cost cards.

That said, there are several reasons taking ember may be important. Some are listed below:

  • You have one or more expensive units that you want to make sure you can play comfortably when drawn, especially on turn 1.
  • You have a unit with Endless or a spell with Holdover that costs ember, making it difficult to consistently play.
  • You generally have a deck with lots of important, expensive cards (e.g. Ritual of Battle), and you can’t buy enough -1 ember upgrades for all of them.
  • You want extra value out of powerful X-cost cards.
  • You are fighting against Fel with Scouring Crest, Archus with Sin of Shadow, and/or Seraph the Diligent. These boss combats feature enemies that add scourges (status cards) to the top of your deck that cost ember and deal pyre damage if not played.

Draw

In general, take this artifact by default unless you identify a need for a different one. Here are a few reasons:

  • In STS, characters have multiple common cards that say “Draw 1 card,” and card draw is generally not difficult to come by. Not so in MT. There are only a handful of cards that draw more cards immediately. There is one clan (Awoken) that specializes in extra card draw, but almost all of the relevant cards give you more draw on your next turn, not this turn.
  • Compared to STS, MT allows you to make individual cards extremely powerful to the point of being run-defining. Often, your biggest danger is not drawing through your deck quickly enough to find that one critical card. Draw makes your run more consistent.
  • Holdover (for spells) and Endless (for units) are powerful upgrades that you’ll often want to purchase. But they come with a downside: Returning cards to the top of the draw pile reduces the speed you draw through the rest of your cards in your deck. Draw upgrades mitigate this downside.

Capacity

In general, take this artifact if it will greatly improve the strength of your main floor. It’s not generally a good idea to take capacity if you don’t have use for the extra space in mind. But if you can capitalize on the extra space, and can afford losing out on draw or ember, this is often a strong upgrade. The strength of this artifact will vary greatly from run to run.

To decide whether to take capacity, try to envision what your final main floor might look like. One common scenario is a 2-space champion paired with a 2-space banner unit. If you don’t have other units to play on the floor (e.g. imps), a single extra capacity lets you duplicate your banner unit at a Hellvent and have 3 units on the floor. This is especially helpful if you can’t find a Multistrike upgrade.

Another consideration is the mid-floor capacity reduction at Covenant 20. In the DLC especially, it may be worthwhile to take capacity solely to enable a mid-floor setup for the Divinity fight.

Lastly, some clans benefit more from capacity than others. Stygian Guard, Melting Remnant, and Umbra are clans that often benefit from fitting several units on the floor.

Note: It’s also possible to “overstack” floors, most often using ascend and descend cards on your own units. This is a great way to shove more units onto a floor, and does not require taking a capacity upgrade.

Card Upgrades: What to Prioritize?

Card upgrades in MT work very differently from those in STS. Instead of each card having its own custom upgrade, MT has generic, purchasable upgrades that can be applied to most cards. One set of upgrades applies to Spells, and one set up upgrades applies to Units. In general, you can purchase up to 2 upgrades for each card, though extra upgrades can be gained through certain relics and Concealed Caverns events. Upgrades are very powerful in MT, and are central to any winning strategy.

Spells

Compared to STS, MT spells are fairly weak baseline. Torch, for example, deals 2 damage, and while it’s generally a good card that performs well in the first few combats, it’s barely worth playing on a boss with hundreds or thousands of HP. But MT spell upgrades are extremely strong. Giving a Torch +10 magic power gives it value far later into the run. And that’s only the beginning.

The Merchant of Magic will always sell these three upgrades:

  • -1 ember.
  • Either +10 magic power, or +20 magic power and Consume.
  • One of four rare, expensive upgrades: Doublestack, Holdover, Permafrost, or Remove Consume. This always rerolls into a different option.

-1 ember upgrades are reason enough to visit a Merchant of Magic, as they rarely go to waste and make it easier to forgo taking +1 ember boss artifacts. Magic power upgrades are also solid if you have cash to spare, particularly in the early rings. All 4 rare upgrades are at least situationally powerful, but Holdover is particularly notable. A powerful buffing card on Holdover is one of the most accessible methods of scaling your units. Alternatively, a powerful AOE spell on Holdover can make short work of weaker enemies in any wave.

Units

The Merchant of Steel will always sell these three upgrades:

  • Two random cheap upgrades. These are +10 ATK, +5 ATK/+10 HP, +25 HP, and two clan-specific upgrades.
  • One of four rare, expensive upgrades: Endless, Largestone, Multistrike, or Quick. This always rerolls into a different option.

In general, the most powerful upgrade for your primary units is Multistrike. It is such a valuable upgrade that it can be worth examining and rerolling Merchants of Steel to search for it alone. Endless and Quick are also both excellent in many situations, while Largestone is more situational.

Among cheap upgrades, +25 HP is surprisingly powerful. It is a significant survivability boost in the early game especially, and also helps counteract damage from enemies with Sweep and Spikes. It can be invaluable in The Last Divinity fight. You’ll often want some other way of keeping your units alive, but the initial HP serves as a powerful buffer until you can draw your solution. In contrast, +10 ATKand +5 ATK/+10 HP are not usually what you want taking up an upgrade slot. Certain clan-specific upgrades are notable as well. Stygian’s Incant: Armor 2 is an extremely powerful source of scaling survivability into a boss fight. Melting Remnant’s +5 ATK/+5 HP/Burnout 1 is also excellent for units that you want to die every turn such as tombs or imps.

Threats: What to Prepare for

Whether it’s Gremlin Nob, Reptomancer, or the Heart, experienced STS players will be familiar certain “run-killer” fights that are worth preparing for specifically. These also exist in MT!

Enemies Spawning with Minor Bosses

Depending on the combat, minor bosses will be accompanied by supporting units, often spawning behind the boss. These can be quite problematic. Targeted damage spells (sometimes called “pings” by the community) may be important as a result. Some starter cards like Torch are effective in this role, but others like Frozen Lance will do very little.

Ring 2 Bosses

Two bosses in ring 2 can creep up on new players: Highpriest to the Light (with sweep) and Steel Slate (with spikes). Both of these bosses are effective at punishing squishy backline units like Animus of Will and Horned Warrior. The most common way to mitigate this risk is to purchase a +25 HP upgrade at the Ring 2 Merchant of Steel. Even such an upgrade on a Train Steward can be sufficient. Certain champions or spells may also trivialize the fight.

Rings 4 and 5

Similar to STS’s Act II, Rings 4 and 5 are often some of the most challenging parts of the run. Enemy health is much higher, so your units usually need help to get enough attack damage. Enemies also get a damage boost, so don’t neglect survivability.

Pyrelight Master (DLC)

In the DLC, Pyrelight Master is usually the most threatening ring 4 boss. If you have 50 shards, he will gain Multistrike, ampifying his already high damage. Consider staying under 50 shards going into ring 4 if you’ve got a shaky deck.

Ring 5 Bosses

Ring 5’s minor bosses are generally considered the most difficult in the game. All three can be incredibly difficult, and are worth preparing for.

  • Crystalcloak (with large amounts of stealth) is particularly notorious for killing runs that are otherwise strong, and is probably the minor boss that requires the most preparation. You can tank her hits with beefy units, but this isn’t always feasible. The most effective strategy is to “chump block” with throwaway units like Train Stewards and morsels on lower floors. Each unit played wastes one stack of her stealth. It may be worth leaving Train Stewards in your deck until ring 5 for dealing with Crystalcloak alone.
  • Sower of Sorrow, a stronger version of Highpriest to the Light, is also quite threatening. His sweep attack will quickly wipe out a squishy backline.
  • The Self-Made Harpy, while often the least threatening of the three, is no pushover. She will quickly melt through your frontline, and cannot effectively be “chump blocked” by throwaway units.

Fel with Scouring Crest

The most difficult combat of Ring 6 (the second major boss) is generally considered to be Fel with Scouring Crest. This combat features 4 Absolvers in the first three turns, all of which are protected by the Alabaster Guardians. On top of this, Fel adds an Ultimate Penance to your deck every other turn. Do not underestimate her onslaught of scourges. If you cannot kill the absolvers, you’ll have a lot of trouble drawing through your deck. On top of this, you will not have enough ember to avoid pyre damage if you don’t take an Ember upgrade after the first boss (though a Draw upgrade is arguably equally helpful). This is one of the few combats where setting up on bottom floor may be adviseable, as long as you can chunk through the Alabaster Guardian fast enough. Killing the absolvers is a top priority.

Seraph

There are four variants of Seraph, all of which have different abilities. Since you know which Seraph you’ll be facing in advance, be sure to prepare!

  • Temperant: Generally the easiest variant, and should not be too difficult as long as you can kill his Shadewings.
  • Chaste: Varies from mildly annoying to downright brutal if you rely on buffs or debuffs. Note that Pyrewings are also present on this combat, so you can often expect to be emberdrained. In the DLC, this variant gets Purify at 140 shards.
  • Diligent: Often requires the most preparation. With a spell being consumed every turn, it’s important to have enough spells in the deck to burn. Spells with Holdover are also slightly riskier. Finally, Purifiers are present in most waves, so much of what goes for Scouring Crest Fel goes for Diligent.
  • Patient: Very threatening to new players, Patient will wipe out your units with ease if you’re not prepared. Damage Shield, Daze, “chump blockers” are some ways to mitigate the threat. When Seraph leaves the floor, allow enemy waves to hit you to clear the Melee Weakness. The combat is otherwise relatively simple, as most waves have only two units. Note that in the DLC, this variant gets Trample at 130 shards.

The Last Divinity (DLC)

The final boss of the DLC is usually the most challenging combat. If you can make it to the Relentless phase, you’ve probably won – it’s getting there that’s hard. There are four main threats unique to the combat:

  • Tanky, high-damage waves of 4-5 enemies, often with spell shield and spikes. To avoid leaking enemies to the pyre, you’ll want multiple high-damage Multistrike units or piercing spells to help with waveclear.
  • Minor bosses with extremely high HP, which do not have Relentless. Scale your units as quickly as possible to take them out before they go to your pyre.
  • The boss itself, which constantly deals at least 9 sweep damage to the top floor each turn. This forces you to either have a source of scaling survivability or daze. This significant threat is extremely problematic for Umbra in particular – divinity will kill any morsels played on top floor before they can be eaten. Alternatively, you can play on middle floor, but this leaves less time to prepare for waves and less space available at high covenants. Bottom floor is almost never possible.
  • The boss has Purify, which clears all frostbite and reap at the end of each turn. This does not make these strategies useless, but don’t expect to kill the boss by stacking status effects alone.

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