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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

Object Lessons in Play: Large Deck Strategy
January 27, 2000

This week we're going to try something a little different: a situation taken from an actual game. Some of the details have been changed to make things more educational, and the names of the players have been concealed to protect the guilty.

The First Mistake

A decent player challenges you in the Badlands, ranked, and you accept. But when you go to select your deck, instead of picking your killer undefeated Despair Badlands deck, you accidentally double-click on your silly 101-card War deck featuring both Pages to Dust and Settlement. Oops.

So, you've got your work cut out for you. Think 7+8 required mana is a bit optimistic? Consider that both of your key spells (not to mention your deck size) suggest an overall theme of Attrition, and if a fistful of mana-generation spells and four Settlements can't get you to fifteen mana, I don't know what will.

The Opening Game

The first thing you see on the board is that you're playing opposite Body. The next thing you note is that there's really no important terrain to speak of; none of the obvious walking paths have Lava or Void on them, or are anywhere near a Volcano or Mountain. Then you look at your opening hand: Brimstone Dragon, Settlement, Legionnaires, Spirit Sword, Veteran. Think about how you would plan your overall game strategy before reading on.

Your first reaction to that might have been “Huh? How am I supposed to come up with a long-term strategy just based on my opening hand? The game hasn't even started yet!”

But consider this: you have a large deck, which means you can afford to discard heavily, so you need to decide what to keep and what to toss. Also, while your overall strategy might be Attrition, there are plenty of spells that would allow for Combat or Powerhouse in addition (keep in mind how big your deck is, and what House you're playing). Finally, consider what House your opponent is playing while you're determining what the best course of action might be.

In this case, you would seem to have three possible things to base your strategy on: building up to Brimstone Dragon (Powerhouse), building up to Settlement (Attrition), or going for combat by building to Veteran, then Legionnaires, then Spirit Sword.

Hopefully, you realized that the Dragon should be the first spell down the whirlpool; there are no useful places for it to land on, so you would need to draw a Volcano spell early on from your huge deck, and in the mean time it's dead weight in your hand – not a good way to start a game where you need to survive for awhile.

Going for a Combat strategy is always a possibility (War is quite good at it), but you're facing Body, so you can expect Lycanthropy. One good Lycanthropy on your main group and all of your Combat spells are worthless; you didn't draw any Forced March spells to speed up your progress either, so the odds of you being able to force a combat before the Lycanthropy hits are slim.

The best option then (and the one that the original player found) was to go for a reverse-mana strategy and build up to Settlement, discarding the Brimstone first, followed by Legionnaires. The Spirit Sword is something of a bonus; it probably won't help much for combat, but it'll allow you to cycle through your cards faster when you cast it and discard Legionnaires on turn 2 (and draw two new cards on turn 3).

Anticipating the Opponent

Five turns later, you've taken both of your nearest towns and your opponent has used two Fleetness spells to take her nearest town and the center. Amazingly, no Minotaur came forth to beat up your second group ... perhaps your opponent was afraid of a massive last-minute combat boost that would let your group kill it (sometimes, the ability to do something within your House is more powerful than actually doing it).

Your opponent's Horde, now at the center town, has got to have no less than five or six combat spells on it; it's clear to you that your opponent is primarily playing a Combat Speed strategy against you (your Horde, on the other hand, has no combat capability to speak of).

Your Horde is in a town which is diagonally adjacent to the center town where the enemy Horde is; each of you is therefore two steps from the other's town. You have the Initiative.

You still have the Settlement spell in your hand, six Clarity mana (your Sanctum has one Novice, and there's another on the way next turn). Likewise, there's a Novice due in both of your towns next turn. Other spells in your hand include another Spirit Sword, Faerie Fire, Sanctuary and Skirmish. Again, think how you would play this next turn before reading on.

The Body group will eat yours for lunch in combat, whether you pile on a Spirit Sword and Faerie Fire or not, so you can safely ignore those. Skirmish is tempting, but at this point Settlement is the only thing that will save you, and if you generate a Strife in your Sanctum you'll need to wait another 4 turns before getting that precious eighth point of Clarity (or at best in two turns if you're lucky enough to draw a Burst of Clarity – not likely in a large deck), so that's out too.

That leaves generating a seventh Clarity mana from your Sanctum this turn and casting Sanctuary on one of the squares between your central town and your opponent's center town. But where do you cast it, and where do you move your group? If you move your group one way and cast Sanctuary the other, and the enemy tries to move in the same direction as you, then the Sanctuary will be wasted and your group will die quickly in combat. Thus, you want to cast Sanctuary in the same direction that you move your group.

The Big Turnaround

Your persistence is well rewarded when the opponent marches her Horde in the other direction, so you are now both one turn away from the enemy town. At first glance, an observer might expect you to be losing badly: your Horde is exposed to an enemy Lycanthropy, and the enemy Horde is one or two turns away from taking your town (putting her in the lead 4 towns to your 1, since she's about to take the town second nearest her Sanctum this turn).

But this turn you get another Clarity mana; you walk your Horde into her town, cast Settlement on her Horde, generate a recruit in your town and walk it into her Settlement. The Fates smile on you and there's no Lycanthropy again, so you're now in the lead 4 towns to her 2! Meanwhile, your opponent's second group walks up to your Horde and gets splattered   and next turn you draw Pages to Dust.

You're still not home yet; do you march your Horde forward for a fast victory, or do you stay back and try to play defensively?

While the temptation may be to press your advantage, this would be playing right into a combat speed deck's hands; you can expect a Fertility or two to keep you locked out of your opponent's remaining towns, and/or the anticipated Lycanthropy to squash your Horde.

A prepared opponent could potentially come back with a few quick combat spells and a well-placed Fleetness to regain the center town, and you don't want to give her that opportunity. You have board advantage and you'll have massive card advantage soon enough, so your best choice (and the choice the actual War player made at this point) is to start building some Strife mana (you chose Strife for both of the towns you captured last turn, right?) and go for an impressive late-game win using that Pages you just drew.

The Final Payoff

Sure enough, next turn you draw Call to Arms, and the turn after that you draw another. Then you get some more Warlords and Dragon's Teeth – now it's time to start drawing your opponent's Lycanthropies and Fertilities by creating a lot of medium-sized groups and pressing forward.

Sure enough, the plan works; your opponent starts burning Fertilities just to keep you out of her towns, and meanwhile you start sending your spare groups around them for a direct shot at her Sanctum, looking to pull the Lycanthropies.

Meanwhile, you're casting odd combat spells at random just to get additional card flow. You'd like to draw another Settlement or two just to really lock in your victory, and at this point your best move is probably to cast that Pages to Dust to speed up your card flow (and force the game into the Attrition phase quickly).

Meanwhile, your 5/3 Spirit Sworded recruit knocks hard on her Sanctum door, barely killing two pumped Cyclops swordsmen in the process. After that, your opponent concedes defeat and you see the Victory screen.

Lessons Learned

So, what did we learn here?

  1. When playing a large deck, you can't guarantee what you'll draw, so put what you draw to good use. You probably have several workable themes and strategies in your deck, so don't ignore a perfectly good one just because it isn't the original deck theme.
  2. Work out a plan on turn 1. Choices to make are what you ultimately want to cast and what you can safely discard. Base your decision on what's in your opening hand, how close the nearest towns are, if there's any helpful or hazardous terrain for either of you, and what House your opponent is playing (and thus what spells you're likely to see).
  3. Don't be afraid to discard good spells early, especially if you can't use them right away. It's painful to toss a Brimstone Dragon on the first turn, but early on you need options more than anything else, and keeping a Brimstone in your hand just reduces your hand size to 4 until you cast or discard it (turn 9 at best). Even if you only have one Brimstone in your deck, better to discard it early than to keep it and clog up your hand for the first half of the game.
  4. Know how to use the spells in your deck. Many spells have multiple uses, and considering all possible uses of a spell will give you better options in play.
  5. Sometimes, it's better to have a large deck with more options than a focused deck that can only do one thing well. In this case, a more conventional 30-card War combat speed deck might not have done so well against Body; a larger deck succeeded (simply because it had the flexibility to answer Body's threats) while a smaller deck would not have had this option at all.

Good luck!

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