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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

Basic Strategy Three: Powerhouse
May 27, 1999

Probably the most devastating strategy to lose to is Powerhouse. Its appeal, for some, is that it doesn't just win … it wins BIG. Powerhouse relies on spells that turn the tide of an entire game, usually by eliminating entire enemy groups from the board at once.

How It Works

By the time you're ready to fight for the center town, assuming neither of you have interfered too much with each other, you and your opponent will both probably have one large group, one or two small groups, and one or two towns. Small monsters or cheap spells are often used to kill off smaller groups, but what about the big one? If you can manage to kill it off, and still have enough spells to kill off another couple of big groups later on in the game, then you can have a huge board advantage (assuming your own groups don't die as well).

That's what Powerhouse is all about: eliminating big groups with one or two spells. Once you manage to gain dominance over the board by killing off your opponent's biggest threats, it's usually a simple matter to press your advantage and walk in to victory. Powerhouse is like a steamroller: its groups run over everything in their path.

Required Cards

To start with, you'll need some spells that you can rely on to seriously hurt, hinder or kill your opponent's groups. If you have to get into combat with them for these spells to go off, then you'll also need some way to make sure your own groups survive to engage the enemy in combat.

Powerhouse cards come in two basic flavors: cheap and expensive. The cheap ones tend to have severe drawbacks or limitations on their use, forcing you to make additional accommodations if you want the spells to work right. The main drawback of the expensive ones is, obviously, their high cost.

If you use mostly cheap Powerhouse spells, then you'll need to add support cards to deal with any drawbacks. There is no hard-and-fast rule here, other than that the support cards should be cheap themselves; it defeats the purpose of having a spell you can cast early on if you need to wait for the mana to cast something else first.

If you use mainly expensive spells, you'll need to add support cards to get around the drawback of the expense. That means one of two things: either find a way to slow down your opponent's progress (i.e. slow down the game) so that you have more turns to build up mana, or else include spells that give you extra mana when you cast them. Of course, you can use a combination of the two as well.

Key Concepts

You need some measure of consistency: if you don't have at least one of your key powerhouse spells and all the support you need for it by the time you're reaching the center town, then you'll be in trouble. The powerhouse strategy leaves very little room in your deck for increased power in combat, so you're likely to lose any combat that's close to an even match. Your spells are meant to not just give you a slight edge, but a HUGE one; you need your best spells if you plan to win the game.

Because of this, your deck should be fairly small, usually no more than 40 or 45 cards. While you won't be going for an ultra-fast win that would require 30 cards flat, you also don't want the game to drag on forever (or else the opponent will create more big groups than you have spells to deal with). Ideally, you'll want to either speed up your own mana production or else cause the game to stall around turns 4-7, then start marching to the opponent's Sanctum and leveling everything that gets in your way.

You'll probably want to add the occasional ultra-cheap filler spell, which will help you gain a slight advantage in the long run and will let you cycle through your deck a little faster early on. Be judicious with the use of the filler spells, however, or else will be all you'll draw and you'll be very sorry when you need that powerhouse spell and have only +1 hand damage for 1 mana spells.


Hope is the best example of a Powerhouse strategy specializing in the expensive. Hope can destroy entire groups with Sword of Zana or Settlement, and can swing close battles in their favor with Ascension and Zana's Blessing.

Hope has ways to slow down the opponent's progress to give itself time to build up enough mana to cast its most expensive spells (notably Citizen's Militia and Sanctuary). Hope also has ways to speed up its own mana generation (Prophet and Change of Heart).

Abomination, by contrast, is the best example of a Powerhouse strategy specializing in the cheap spells with heavy drawbacks. Rain of Blood can kill an entire enemy group, for example, but any member of that group with spells on it is immune. To get around this, you can either try to use Burst spells to cast it early, or else combine it with a spell that clears all Alterations off of the group (Yfreet or The Unmagicking, for example). Accursed Minion can kill an enemy group in battle (like Sword of Zana) but it will kill some of your own troops as well; using Larval Imp can counteract this, or you can just remember to keep all of your groups at the size of two minions exactly so you suffer minimal losses.

Abomination does best by building in ways around its spells' drawbacks. It also has access to a little movement control (Mirage, Swamp Land), and some passable Monsters (Stalking Blyk, Maloch Horror) to clear away small groups, giving it some added versatility (which is useful in a Powerhouse deck, in the case that your opponent is able to prevent you from using your best spells effectively).

Unmaking is also good for a cheap-spell Powerhouse deck; in fact, its spells tend to be cheaper than Abom's, but with nastier drawbacks. Bolt of Somersaults, for example, could remove an enemy group from effective play… or it could put them next to your Sanctum and cost you the game. That forces you to either take a big risk for a small gain, or else it forces you to wait until you have two Somersaults in your hand so you can undo an unlucky result!

In fact, just about every trademark spell that Unmaking has can backfire in some way or other (as one would guess with a house like Unmaking), which means you must pay careful attention to the board and the cards in your hand while playing.

War, while normally known for combat, has a few spells on the expensive end that could be considered Powerhouse. Volcanoes can both slow down the game and provide a nest for later Brimstone Dragons; Fireballs can destroy or at least seriously injure a group; and Renegades can turn an enemy group against them.

Nature has some excellent medium-cost spells that can do double-duty as both game slowdown (buying time) and in combination can kill off a group. For example, Inundate just gets in an enemy group's way...but when followed with Deluge, it can drown and kill the group. Will o' the Wisp stops a group's movement for a couple turns, but if you plunk down an Inundate on the square where the group will return, they'll drown. Or you could keep casting Monsters in the square (or put your own group there and protect it with Stone Circle) to prevent the enemy group from returning at all! The drawback, of course, is that many of these tactics fail against Visions and Djinns, which have automatic waterwalking ability; Nature can't do much to remove that drawback, yet.

Fighting Against Powerhouse

The most important thing is to know your enemy. Know what the major powerhouse spells are for each House, and assume that your opponent can do the worst possible thing to you each turn. Keep an eye on the mana-generating spells your opponent casts, and keep count of the number of turns that have passed in the game; that way you'll know if she might have enough mana to cast that 9-cost powerhouse spell or not.

Many of the ways to fight against powerhouse decks are done during the game, not during deck construction. If you see a small group heading for your large one and you think she can cast that Sword of Zana, try veering off to the side to see if she does... then follow up by moving your own small group to absorb the spell. Powerhouse decks rely on having their spells get rid of your groups, so if you create a lot of medium-sized groups then your opponent may run out of spells before you run out of recruits, and you can overwhelm her. But if your large group gets nailed by a powerhouse spell and your opponent start marching for your Sanctum, it'll be more difficult to come back.

Three strategies can be tailored to work really well against powerhouses: combat-speed, denial, and attrition. With combat-speed, you can use extra-movement spells and combat enhancers to engage the enemy in combat before she has the mana to cast her most expensive spells; this can work well against expensive-powerhouse decks but not so well against cheap-powerhouse decks. With denial, you must be able to predict when she will cast her powerhouse spells, and then take action accordingly (by moving your group away and then dispelling her Accursed Minion, for example). With attrition, you do what you always do: slow the game down, then overwhelm her with numbers (in this case, she will run out of spells before you run out of groups). For all but speed decks, you can afford to wait a few turns to be on the safe side, if you think she'll be casting something you'd rather avoid.

Check back every two weeks. Our next strategies are Attrition and Denial.

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