A periodic column on Sanctum strategy, theory, and fun,
by Ian Schreiber, Sanctum player name Gannon. You can reach Ian at
Dominant Deck Types, or How to Build Decks that Win
January 20, 2000
For some reason, many people seem to want to build decks that win. Of course,
the world of Sanctum is always changing, so even if I gave you a recipe for
a deck that would win every single game it wouldn't work for long.
No, I want to talk in a more general sense about how to go about designing
ground-breaking new decks that will get you the most wins (and the most fame
and personal satisfaction) for your time and effort.
What is a Dominant Deck Type?
I use this term to refer to a deck that is powerful enough to work relatively
well against most existing types of decks. It is a deck that is easy enough
for most people to play with and win, and therefore it is often copied extensively
and used as an easy ticket to victory.
In the past, there have been dominant decks for Despair Lockdown, Body Lockdown,
Hope Powerhouse, Unmaking Powerhouse, War Combat and Making Attrition (among
others). Dominant decks are often characterized by two thoughts in the minds
of players, depending on how you view the game in general:
Wow, that's a great deck. I think I'll trade for its components, make
one of my own and win with it.
That deck is unbeatable and too powerful. I don't think I could ever
beat it. I'll put 'No ___' in my description and hope no one plays it against
The Life Cycle of a Dominant Deck
In general, dominant decks go though a cycle. The pattern is true not just
for Sanctum, but for most collectible card games.
An idea is born. One imaginative player, usually for fun or out of curiosity,
starts to go through a list of cards. He (or she) finds a card, combo or theme,
often one which was not heavily used before, and builds a deck in an attempt
to make it useful in some way that hadn't been thought of before.
Sometimes this is done by looking at the card list for underused cards (Hmm,
how can I use Karkara to my advantage?), other times it involves looking at
odd combinations of mana and thinking of ways to build a deck to a specific
mana structure (What cool combos can I use if I build a Nature deck and splash
The deck has been assembled and tested in unranked games. In testing it's a
deck-design equivalent of a child prodigy; the deck out-performs all expectations
and starts to really get good.
The deck now starts to head out into the vicious ranked game environment. It
continues to crush opponent after opponent, despite its humble beginnings. It
may start to mature as its originator, now realizing its true power, puts more
effort into fine-tuning.
This is where the deck is in its prime, and it tends to start multiplying.
News spreads of this deck type, and more and more players start to build similar
decks in an effort to boost their wins.
At this point the deck gains fame (and sometimes infamy), and at this point
can truly be called a dominant deck type (I use the word type because
by this point several variations on the theme are no doubt in circulation).
In other CCGs, a deck at this stage will also gain a name that sticks with
it (usually based on some of the key cards in the deck); in Sanctum, though,
most decks are based on a theme and not a single card, so decks do not always
pick up a name.
Sadly, many players will generalize to the deck's House, under the assumption
that everyone playing that House is just using a copy of the latest dominant
deck; just because Despair Lockdown is dominant today doesn't mean that it isn't
possible to build other kinds of Despair decks, but the social stigma involved
in playing a House of a dominant deck will often prevent any sort of innovation
within that House until the dominant deck dies.
As popularity spreads, the race to find a way to beat the dominant deck is
well under way. The limitations of the deck start to show more clearly now,
as more players study it in an attempt to find weaknesses.
Often, a new deck type is created around this point whose main function is
to take out the dominant deck. This new deck type, which I call a Nemesis Deck,
does fairly well on its own but really shines when placed against the dominant
deck. The existence of this new deck causes an initial decline in the dominant
deck, and it's a sure sign that the old deck is on its way out.
As word of the nemesis decks spread, they begin to multiply as well, thus reducing
the power of the once-dominant deck even further.
In addition, by this time some cards and/or rules may have changed (in order
to preserve game balance) which may have weakened the dominant deck. A few die-hards
will hang on to the old deck type, but they will be in the minority and the
deck will no longer be dominating in the competitive environment.
Since the limitations of the dominant deck are well-known by this point and
it's been weakened to the point where it's not particularly powerful any more,
it falls out of use and effectively dies. Since the nemesis deck was mainly
created to stop this deck, it too tends to fall out of circulation.
The decks' legacies still live on, however, and many players keep either the
dominant or nemesis decks around for sentimental value (and perhaps to play
them against a newer player who's never seen one before). By this time, a new
dominant deck is usually in its early stages, as players rush to fill the void
left behind when the old dominant deck goes away.
Who's the Big Winner with a Dominant Deck and Nemesis Deck?
In the life cycle, there are two people whose ratings benefit greatly: the
original developer (parent?) of the dominant deck, and also the creator of the
nemesis deck. Both of these players have a longer time span with which to play
their deck than anyone else, so they can manage to rack up more wins than any
other players do.
People who copycat the dominant or nemesis decks will do so only when they
hear about them, and by that time the decks will be getting close to their declining
years; these people will not be able to use the deck effectively, or for very
Even worse, if you decide to copy an existing dominant deck and you end up
playing against another deck of the same type, your odds of winning are really
about 50/50 (since it'll all come down to who gets the better draw if you're
playing nearly identical decks). Of course, that assumes equal player skill
as well, but the point is that you won't get nearly as high a win/loss ratio
with your deck as its creator will.
How Do You Create a Dominant Deck?
Almost all dominant decks are designed by a player who's looking at his/her
collection of cards that never get used, or mana types that never get used together
in the same deck. You should do the same.
Ask yourself why certain cards you own aren't in any of your decks; do you
feel they're not powerful enough? See if you can find any other cards in your
collection that would form a combo with this left-out card; can you build a
deck around that? Can you find a way to build an entire deck concept around
using that one card?
Use the mana filters in the Deck Builder and try some odd combinations that
you don't normally see. Do you see any cards that go really well together using
these mana combinations? Can you find an easy way to generate a third (or fourth)
mana type using in-House mana only? With a combination of three mana colors
there will be two or three potential Houses to choose from; will one of these
Houses make it easier to get the mana you'll need than the others? Most of all,
is there something you can try that will work well and that no one will expect?
Some dominant decks were built around a single card or concept that was once
thought useless. At one point a long time ago, many players felt that Found
City was too weak; how could they have failed to see how powerful it was? There
are several reasons why a card may be overlooked, most of which are accompanied
by player complaints:
This card is too confusing. Take
the time to fully read all of your cards, and figure out exactly what they do.
For all of the digging you have to do, you may just strike gold.
This card is useful only in very specific
situations. Probably the easiest card to build a deck around, then.
See if you can force the setup of those situations, thus allowing the card to
have its full effect on the game, in your favor, of course.
This card has negative drawbacks.
Usually, if a card has limitations, then it is more powerful in other respects
than it would be otherwise. Accursed Minion kills some of your own recruits,
but it can be cast before the battle for the center town; a spell that doesn't
kill your recruits in this way, Sword of Zana, is expensive enough that it will
usually not be castable early on. If a card has serious limitations, think of
how you can neutralize those limitations; Accursed Minion can kill your recruits,
but you can minimize your losses with Larval Imp.
This process takes a lot of research. You have to be familiar enough with the
existing cards to be able to think of how you can use one of these cards effectively.
You need to be familiar with the basic strategies of the game, and you must
be able to find combinations of cards that no one has thought of before (perhaps
because they require an odd mana combination to use). But if you can be the
first to come up with a new idea, as we've said before, you'll be well rewarded
How Do You Create a Nemesis Deck?
The first step, of course, is to identify a dominant deck that you want to
attack. Others may say that the dominant deck type is too powerful or unbeatable;
don't listen to them. Instead, prove them wrong!
Every deck has its limits; your mission should be to find the weaknesses of
the dominant deck. Does it rely on a specific card? See if there's any cards
you own that can destroy that one card (if it relies on an entire class of cards,
there are a few cards that work against various card groups as well). Are there
any conditions which must be true in order for the deck to function well? See
what you can do to make sure those conditions are never properly set up. Does
the deck play slowly? Then you've got time to set up a nice defense against
it ... or to mount a powerful offense to stop it before it can start. What if
the deck strikes quickly? Do what you can to prolong the game and you'll most
likely win the war of attrition. Very often, throwing only one or two cards
into a single deck will be enough to bring a dominant deck down. And there's
no single card in the game that doesn't have at least one other card or strategy
that will work against it somehow.
Of course, your deck also has to work against other kinds of decks, or else
you'll lose a game whenever you play a deck that isn't of the dominant deck
type you're building against. Your deck must be able to hold its own against
any deck, even if it does work particularly well against a single popular strategy.
At this point you should have a set of cards, as small in number as possible,
that together can bring down a specific dominant deck type. It's now time to
expand that into a deck.
You have to decide what your deck will do against decks that aren't of the
dominant type. Ask yourself the same question you'd ask for any new deck: how
do you plan to win? What will be the focus (combination of basic strategies)
of the deck? It's generally a good idea, for a nemesis deck, if you choose a
way to win that's different from the winning strategy of the dominant deck you're
attacking. Otherwise you end up being just another variation on the dominant
theme, and you'll fall with the other dominant-deck players when someone else
makes a true nemesis deck.
A better idea is to pick a strategy that enhances the cards you currently have.
If you have cards in your deck that are worthless except against a dominant
deck, then those cards will slow you down when playing any other type of deck.
Instead, choose a strategy that makes use of as many of your chosen anti-dominant
cards as possible. Consider those first few cards you've chosen as the core
of your deck, and build a strategy around them. This will not only make your
position even stronger against a dominant deck, but it will also make your deck
more effective overall by not allowing cards to go to waste.
The Moral of the Story
Be a leader, not a follower. There are two ways to do that: either come up
with a dominant design or a nemesis deck. Both of these are certainly more difficult
and take more time than just copying an idea you've seen or heard about, but
your effort is greatly rewarded.
Many people, when faced with a deck that seems to dominate the playing environment,
give up in disgust and say the deck is simply too powerful; they refuse to play
games against that deck (or worse, the entire House that the deck is in) on
the grounds that it's overpowered.
Yet other people, faced with the same deck, decide to turn it into an advantage:
if everyone is playing the same deck, then a deck that works well against one
player will work well against all of them, and a single deck design will rack
up a lot of wins. In this way, even if a deck is too powerful for its own good,
there will be a few innovative players that will take advantage of those who
blindly follow the latest trend.
As a final note, I'd like to talk about a friend of mine who plays in a lot
of collectible-card game tournaments, and wins a good deal of the time. How
does he do it? Being current in the games he plays, he knows what the dominant
deck types are and builds nemesis decks to defeat them. Then, he tosses in a
few more cards that will give him the edge against other nemesis decks that
would otherwise be similar to his own. Being able to defeat both the dominant
and nemesis decks allows him to defeat a high enough percentage of the tournament
entrants that the odds are good he'll have a perfect win/loss record through
the entire event!