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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

Deck Strategy: Compensating for Weakness: When is it Worth the Effort?
September 2, 1999

Because of good game design, there is no single optimal deck or play style that will guarantee you a win over all other decks or strategies. For any given deck, you will likely have a few strengths that will let you really be at an advantage over some strategies, and you'll likely have some weaknesses that put you at a disadvantage over others.

The more focused your deck, the stronger your strengths will be; however, you will also likely have a greater number of gaping holes that a wary or lucky opponent could exploit. Make your deck too focused and an opponent playing one single card could destroy you; but if your deck isn't focused enough, you'll lack direction and have no real way to go for a win.

When your prized deck loses and loses badly, the first temptation for many is to figure out why you lost, and re-tune your deck so that you won't ever lose that way again. The problem is, sometimes, you make your overall deck concept weaker in this way. But then, sometimes you make it stronger. How do you know when you need to correct your deck's weakness, and when not to?

Rule 1: Making your deck strong against a specific card, combo, deck style or strategy will make it weaker against all others.

As an extreme example of this, suppose you have a card that will let you laugh at all Lockdown decks and bring them down easily and effortlessly, but that this card is useless against any other deck type. Well, against a Lockdown deck, this of course makes your deck nearly unbeatable; but against any other type of deck, it's dead weight in your hand which must be discarded, and discarding will cost you time...time that might end up costing you the game.

As a corollary, if you take your deck's biggest weakness and try to compensate for it, all decks you play against that don't exploit that weakness of yours will perform better against you, so your deck gets a little weaker overall in exchange for being a bit stronger against one form of attack.

Rule 2: Compensating for a weakness is a tradeoff.

Okay, so that's really just a restatement of what I just said. As with any tradeoff, then, you only want to choose it if you know that what you get in exchange for the tradeoff is worth more than you gave up for it. Adding a few extra cards to most decks isn't giving up a lot, but if you only get to use those cards effectively once in twenty games, then you're not gaining much either. Consider not just how well the extra cards will help you in the best situation, but also consider how often you expect to find yourself in that situation.

The Golden Rule of Weakness: Only correct a weakness that you expect your opponents to exploit frequently.

Suppose that you already have a killer deck, and you seem to win every game with it unless the opponent is playing an Attrition deck. Suppose further that you only play against Attrition-style decks one game in six. Then, with that deck, you win five games out of six, which is certainly enough for you to allow your ranking to go sky-high. If you made it a little stronger against Attrition, you might win half of your games against Attrition decks – but in the process, you might also lose a quarter of the games you play against non-Attrition. If you do the math, you'll find that you're better off in this case with a gaping weakness against an entire strategy, than you would be if you corrected it.

Case Study: The Search For Justicars in Death Shroud Combat

Let's take our standard Death Combat deck based on Raven Shroud. It has four Raven Shrouds (of course) and plenty of Combat Alterations to drop on its big uber-group. It works by pumping up that group's combat power to huge levels, protecting it from most disasters with Raven Shroud, and keeping its recruits alive with Reanimate and Necromancer.

However, your large group can still get taken down with a few spells. Let's list them:

  • Void (Unmaking)
  • Changing Lands (Unmaking)
  • Inundate + Deluge (Nature)
  • Bleak Isle (Despair)
  • Accursed Minion (Abomination)
  • Sword of Zana (Hope)
  • Pyrrhic Victory (Justice)
  • Apocalypse (Death)

And, to a lesser extent, your group can also encounter difficulty against:

  • Salamander (War)
  • Bedlam (Unmaking)
  • Leechwood (Unmaking)
  • Yfreet (Mind)
  • Wasteland (Death)

So, it could be said that the above spells are your weaknesses. Some of these, you already have possible ways of dealing with; Inundate/Deluge, for example, can be neutralized by Freeze (you have Freeze in your deck already, right?) if you have the Initiative. Accursed Minion can be dealt with, if you move your main group to the side at the last minute to avoid the enemy group that it's cast on, then nail the target with Venom'd Arrow. Likewise, Sword of Zana and Pyrrhic Victory are often cast on a single recruit, so having your main group veer off to the side and then using Venom'd Arrow can remove the threat. And even if your group gets “killed” in this way once, your Necromancer will salvage the group.

However, some of these are not so easy to avoid, and can devastate your main group. Particularly, Void and Changing Lands can end up killing your group if your opponent predicts your walking path. Now, you can fight against this by altering your movement or setting yourself up so that your opponent must guess where you'll go next, but if you guess wrong it will be a huge blow to you. So, you might naturally start to think of ways to deal with these spells in your deck, so that you can protect your main group from more threats. The best answer, then, is a spell that allows your group to survive Void. It might occur to you that Justicars (Justice, 3 Order + 1 Mystery) does exactly that, and would thus protect your main group from arguably its biggest threat: terrain-based attacks. With one town's mana dedicated to Order and a Citadel (5 Mystery, generates 2 Order) you'd easily have enough to cast Justicars by the time you reach the center town.

However, in doing so, your deck is made weaker against opponents who do not try to kill your main group using hostile terrain. Against such opponents, both your Necropolis and your Justicars are worthless; they get you no extra protection, and take up valuable space in your hand. If you draw them, you'll be forced to cast or discard them without getting any benefit, which will slow you down.

So, is it worth the tradeoff? In this case, realize that nearly all of the terrain threats you'd face (that Justicars would help you with, at least) are in the House Unmaking, and you usually don't see any of those spells in decks that are of any other House. On the other hand, this would give you a huge advantage against Unmaking; its two main ways of handling your groups are group-target spells (nullified by Raven Shroud) and terrain-target spells (stopped by Justicars), so including both Raven Shroud and Justicars in your deck would allow you to trounce Unmaking quite nicely.

The answer, then: if you find that you play against Unmaking a lot, go ahead and try the Justicars. If you don't play against it very often, or if you find that adding Justicars slows down your deck too much against other decks, scrap the idea.

This is not to say that adding Justicars would be the only way to minimize a weakness of this deck. That is merely an example of showing when to help your deck compensate for its weaknesses, and when not to.

Good luck!

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