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Sanctum | Strategy, Sorcery, SubterfugeSanctum | Strategy, Sorcery, Subterfuge



Ngozi's Way

A periodic column on Sanctum strategy, theory, and fun, by Ian Schreiber, Sanctum player name Gannon. You can reach Ian at

Back to the Basics
April, 1999

The first time they encounter Sanctum, most people ask one of two questions:

  1. “What is a CCG?”
  2. “Is this like Magic?”

I'll go ahead and answer these, probably in much more detail than you'd ever want.

To answer the first: “CCG” stands for Collectible (or Customizable) Card Game. It is a relatively new genre of game, where every player has his or her own personal collection of “cards”, builds a “deck” using cards from that collection, and plays a game using that deck.

Cards can be traded with other players, like baseball cards; you might, for example, trade away a card you don't use for one that would enhance a deck you're working on. Decks are completely customizable, so if you play against three different players you'll probably have three completely different games against three completely different decks. The customizability and variety are much of what makes the CCG genre so popular.

CCGs are customizable in the sense that you can build a deck. You generally don't use every single card in your collection; you pick a set of cards which you think will go well together. In this sense, you can build many different decks, and you can alter an existing deck by taking something out or putting something else in.

A typical game in a CCG will have both players shuffle their decks, draw a hand of cards from their own deck, and put those cards into play. Each card has some effect on it which alters game play in some way or other.

One of the first CCGs to enter the world, and certainly the one that made this type of game popular in the first place, is Magic: the Gathering™. Because of this, most people who encounter a new CCG will be quick to compare it with Magic.

So, to answer the second question (Is this like Magic?): in a word, no. There are quite a few CCGs out there which are popular, so it is a natural instinct to try and compare Sanctum with other games of the same genre. However, Sanctum is not a “traditional” CCG; many of the concepts and game mechanics that are widely used in CCGs are not used at all in Sanctum, and most of Sanctum's gameplay is unique, so comparisons with other CCGs are tricky. First, let's look at some of the more widely-used game mechanics of a typical CCG and discuss how Sanctum differs.

Basic resource cards. Most CCGs have costs associated with the cards that have game effects (Sanctum does too; every spell has a mana cost). However, most CCGs have you generate those costs using additional cards in your deck, so much of your deck will be taken up by cards that produce the basic resources (call them mana, bits, gold or what have you) used to pay for the rest of the cards in your deck. Sanctum, on the other hand, has no such thing; while there are some spells that give you extra mana, they cost mana to cast themselves. Your primary source of mana is from your Sanctum recruits, and from towns, neither of which are things that go in your deck.

Tapping. Most cards in play in a typical CCG have two states: “tapped” and “untapped”. That is, usable and unusable. You normally tap a card to use it in some way, and it untaps once per turn. There's no such thing in Sanctum; anything in play is in play.

Discard pile. Most CCGs have some place where the cards that leave play, or that you discard from your hand, go to. There are also cards which then access this pile of used cards. In Sanctum, once you play or discard a card, it's gone.

Win by “decking”. In many CCGs, you lose if you run out of cards in your deck, and occasionally someone will even build a deck that tries to win by running its opponent out of cards on purpose. In Sanctum, you can play on after you run out of cards in your deck, although you don't draw any more.

Combat is not area-based. Most CCGs do not have a gameboard with squares on it like Sanctum does; cards in play are in play, and can do whatever it is that they do once there. Sanctum actually has a concept of “board position” and maneuvering/coordination of separate units, much like Chess ... a concept that is absent in almost all other CCGs.

Function-based decks. In most CCGs, a good deck is a deck that's focused on performing a single task and performing it well; you have one main way that you attempt to win the game, and your entire deck will be geared towards getting that win in the way you want. Tossing in a few spells “just in case” will usually water down a deck and make it less reliable. In Sanctum, however, the decks are theme-based rather than function-based: because of the ability to cycle through your deck quickly by casting cheap spells and discarding what you don't use, a deck in Sanctum can be consistently good without being ultra-focused. In fact, most Sanctum decks are made stronger by the occasional “just in case” card: it can prepare for nasty scenarios, and can just be discarded or cast randomly if the situation it is needed for doesn't happen. Decks that don't use such cards, in Sanctum, are at the mercy of good luck and good terrain, which are hardly reliable.

Best deck size equals minimum deck size. In part because the decks in most CCGs are function-based, and in part because you usually only draw 1 card per turn, the decks need to be as small as possible; the smaller the deck, the better the chance of drawing what you need early on. In Sanctum this is not always the case; a deck that is designed to discard every turn, or that expects to drag the game on until the opponent runs out of steam, may very well benefit from being much larger than the minimum. Although the minimum deck size in Sanctum is 30 cards, many competitive decks are 40-45 cards, and some are even upwards of 60!

Game strategy. Most of all, Sanctum has a strategy all its own. Because you must take into consideration both the spells in your hand, the spells that your opponent might cast, and the position of groups, towns and terrain on the board, there is very little comparison between the strategy you use during a game of Sanctum and most other CCGs.

So, while certain elements may carry over from your favorite other CCG to Sanctum, the majority will not. So let go of what you already know from other games, and think of Sanctum as its own unique entity; it will make it far easier to learn the best Sanctum strategies.

Good luck!

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