A periodic column on Sanctum strategy, theory, and fun,
by Ian Schreiber, Sanctum player name Gannon. You can reach Ian at
Deck Concept: Death Without Taxes
October 7, 1999
A while ago, a friend of mine asked me if it was possible to build a competitive
deck in Sanctum that didn't have any Rare cards. This was just a subtle way
of asking whether it was possible for someone who hadn't spent much money or
time getting cards would be able to build more than one good deck.
So, I got to thinking, and it's been an interesting project. If you simply
restrict a deck to a very small number of Rares (say, no more than four in a
deck) you have a ton of options in nearly every house, decks that are built
entirely around one or two Rare cards supported by a few powerful Uncommons
and a bunch of Commons to flesh it out.
Eliminate Rares from the equation and you might end up with an Uncommon-heavy
deck that compensates for a lack of highly-focused Rares by giving itself a
lot of extra power; many Mind and Abomination decks do this already. This is
fine, although it doesn't fit the underlying concept of a deck that just about
anyone could build.
Is there a deck that actually uses a large number of Commons, a small or medium
amount of Uncommons and absolutely no Rares at all? After much searching and
testing, I've found at least one example of such a deck, and I'll share it with
The House is Death. This isn't your tired old Shroud/Necromancer/Gifts Combat
deck, nor your Necromancer/Reanimate/Apocalypse deck. But when you look at the
Uncommon and Common spells, you see some recurring themes: single-minion kill,
Desert terrain, and anti-Archer spells. A good mix of the three will allow you
to deal with both your opponent's Horde and secondary groups, possibly before
they reach the center town on a good draw! And you can work in some nasty combinations
which can seriously harm the enemy if you get the right cards at the right time.
Basic Strategies Used
You want to kill and weaken entire enemy groups, but you'll generally be doing
it one minion at a time. When you consider that a Horde plus second group is
usually not more than five or six minions, this actually doesn't seem so bad:
you can maybe kill three with spells and take out the rest in combat with your
own unaltered Horde. This deck, then, actually takes a lot of minor Combat spells
and uses their combined effect to get a strategy closely resembling Powerhouse.
You can have up to twelve spells in your deck which can be used to kill individual
enemy recruits: four copies each of Venom'd
of Khobai, and Dire
Venom'd Arrow is the most straightforward; the other two warrant some discussion.
Curse has the added benefit that, if you kill the minion in combat, your recruits
will gain a level for it; but it has the drawback that it doesn't kill the target
immediately (so a single enemy minion with Curse on it could still take a town,
for example) and if it somehow manages to start killing you in combat you might
actually have an enemy that keeps gaining HP! Thus, it is best to use Curses
on enemy monsters or large groups, rather than individual recruits who you want
to kill off immediately.
Dire Portent has a ton of uses; put it on the second archer in your own Horde
and your opponent will have a hard time killing off the group with a big monster
(or, if your Horde clashes with your opponent's, your Archer will probably take
out an enemy that is more useful than it is, thus equalizing the battle). If
the opponent has a seriously pumped recruit, Portent on it will cause it to
die in the next battle. Or, if you have a roaming monster with low HP, you might
Portent it so that it takes out one final enemy recruit before it dies (or,
Portent an enemy recruit just before slapping down a monster next to it and
it works as effectively as Venom'd Arrow for killing the recruit). Learning
to use these spells effectively will make a huge difference, especially since
they take up a huge portion of your deck. This pretty much covers the single-minion
Next is the Desert terrain theme, and the choices here are obvious: Wasteland,
Sand Sphinx and Shifting Sands. Note that Desert terrain will kill a recruit
with Curse of Khobai on it. Also note that Sand Sphinx can kill an individual
recruit, so it works for effectively taking out single minions as good as one
of your spells, and afterward you can give it a final blaze of glory by slapping
Dire Portent on it if you want. However, a particularly nasty trick is to drop
Sand Sphinx in the walking path of your opponent's main group so that the movement
will bounce and then next turn, cast Shifting Sands on the square the
Sphinx created, killing off half of the group! This can be an effective way
to seriously harm the enemy Horde before it reaches the center town, for example.
Otherwise, Shifting Sands makes for an excellent late-game spell after you've
covered your opponent's half of the board with Wasteland spells; any time they
have a large group, you have a three-mana spell that acts like half a Void,
and your own groups can move in and mop up the survivors.
Finally, you have anti-Archer spells. Mark of Ulanoth and Skeletal Horror are
great against an enemy Horde, since they're immune to half of that group's damage!
For these purposes, though, Skeleton is probably your best monster available;
it's cheap, and if you can take care of a mere two Swordsman in the enemy Horde
(either by killing them as above, or neutralizing them with Body Rot and Pantogar's
Curse) then a single Skeleton on the fourth or fifth turn can kill their entire
group before they even reach the center town!
This deck demands that you make the most of your spells. Nothing is particularly
expensive to cast, and almost everything can be used to kill the opponent's
Horde before it reaches the center (or secondary group before it reaches any
town at all). Pile it on early; if you can eliminate all of your opponent's
recruits on the board by turn 6 to 8, it will be extremely demoralizing to the
enemy and you'll have the option to press forward for a quick and clean victory.
However, the possibility is very real that your opponent will cast a few spells
to create extra minions, dispel your spells, kill your monsters, take the Initiative
to make your minions less effective in combats, or any number of things to disrupt
you (or, perhaps you'll draw all four Shifting Sands in your opening hand and
no way to create Desert. Or you'll draw a Sand Sphinx and Shifting Sands, but
the enemy will move her groups so that you can't predict anyone's walking path
enough to cast the two in succession. This deck is not immune to a bad draw).
In this case, you can be prepared to hold back, wait for your Wastelands and
Sphinxes, then get a recruit advantage in the mid-game (even if your opponent
has more towns than you; remember, almost every spell in your deck can cause
your opponent to lose one recruit, so if your deck has forty spells then you
can come back from a 40-minion disadvantage)!
In either case, you can afford to train two or maybe three Sanctum recruits
for battle; at worst you'll need 4 Mystery + 3 Will to be able to cast anything,
which leaves room for a nice opening battle force.
There's a ton of deck-building choices to make here, and plenty that can be
added on to the base.
Dark Minion can add to the theme of minion-kill by giving yourself extra recruits
in addition to reducing your opponent's numbers on the board. Cenotaph of Will
can be used to speed up your mana supply early on, or leave it out and just
rely on your Sanctum for mana to make your deck more streamlined.
Take it up to 4 Mystery + 4 Will and you can cast Mirage, which can be used
to devastating effect by forcing an enemy group to walk into a square with Shifting
If you really like to be Desert-happy, consider adding a few Caravan spells,
and just use your first town to produce a point of Clarity mana (remember that
Caravan won't protect you -- or your opponent -- from Shifting Sands). Use Skeletal
Horror as your big gun for those mid-sized groups that you don't want to use
a bunch of kill spells on, or ignore it and stick to Skeletons only. Or, if
you really like to cast Dire Portents and Curses of Khobai on enemy recruits
as the main way of killing them, using Revenants can be a more efficient way
to kill off an enemy group that's so close to death otherwise.
Plague is a decent spell for this deck, although you really have to cast it
before the group is injured for maximum effectiveness; if an enemy group has
been sweating in Desert for a few turns already, Plague won't do as much damage.
So, you might just leave it out completely, or include it with the intent to
nail the enemy Horde with it first thing (and drop a Skeletal Horror to finish
it off on turn 6).
Using Augur of Strife to splash in a little Strife is a possibility too; Gorgon
is a great way to take out enemy groups of two with a single spell, and afterwards
you can slap a Dire Portent on her so that the opponent will never get to use
her head against you. And of course, Forsaken can slow down an enemy group trying
to enter a town, or at the very least draw out some enemy dispels that might
otherwise have gotten rid of your Curse of Khobai or Dire Portent or double
This deck concentrates entirely on doing one thing, so it has precious little
room for defense of its own minions, and aside from Dark Minion it doesn't have
all that many ways to increase its own presence on the board.
An enemy who uses monsters or Powerhouse spells to kill off your own groups
is something that you can't really prepare for, and your own groups may very
well die just as you kill off the enemy groups, which could lead to a very long
and tense game for both of you. In games that drag on, much of the outcome will
depend on who runs out of spells first; if your opponent is playing Attrition
or has some other reason to pack a large deck then you will be forced to either
win early or lose late, and being forced into that position really places an
emphasis on just how good your opening hand is.
Finally, anyone who brings a lot of Concealment or other ways to protect their
individual minions from your spells will be at a huge advantage, and spells
like Redeemer's Sword and Prismatic Serpent, which are immune to your spells,
can bring you a world of hurt as you scramble to use your spells creatively
to get around them (say, by casting Dire Portent on your own Skeleton so it
can strike the Prismatic Serpent dead).