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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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