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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 Building 201
February 10, 2000

One of the most frequently asked questions by new players is: “I just built this deck but I can't seem to win with it. What's wrong with it?”

My first response is, “How do you expect to win with it?” That is, every deck should have some method that it uses to win. That method will be some combination of the five Basic Strategies.

You can't just toss a bunch of cool spells together and call it a deck (if you expect to win, at least!) – your deck must have at least one method of winning that you can reasonably expect to apply in your games. Smaller decks typically have one strong theme, while larger decks often have several that they can choose from depending on their current hand and board position.

We've been over this before, in great detail. Today, I'd like to elaborate on the methods of winning a bit: what your best deck should be capable of dishing out to the opponent, and what you can reasonably expect to have to deal with yourself.

RULE 1: Prevent the opponent from taking center town.

Most of the truly vicious battles in Sanctum are fought over the center town. This isn't surprising; its position provides a perfect location for launching an offensive attack, and (like any town) it provides you extra mana and novices that you can use to power that attack.

With very few exceptions, then, it will be to your advantage to take the center town. At the very least, you should be able to stop your opponent from reaching it.

Different strategies have different ways of achieving this aim. Monsters are a common method, for they both block movement and can kill the group over time. There are also directly targeted spells which do one or the other; spells like Complacency, Mirage and Faerie Circle can deny movement, while spells like Pyrrhic Victory, Rain of Blood and Bolt of Somersaults can remove the group entirely.

More specifically, Lockdown will use spells to prevent enemy groups from moving into towns; Powerhouse will use spells to kill the enemy groups outright; Combat will beat the enemy groups directly in battle, often with spells to reach the town earlier; all strategies tend to use at least a few Monsters in addition to this.

Only Attrition and Denial have no intrinsic ways to deal with enemy groups in this fashion, although do note that the Houses strong in Attrition and Denial do tend to have at least one or two good Powerhouse or Lockdown spells that they can use to this end.

Needless to say, your opponent will likely be preparing to do the same to you. You can expect, in most games, that both you and your opponent will send your Hordes to the center town, and that your opponent will have ways to kill yours off. Make sure you have ways to get rid of her group as well.

RULE 2: Prevent the opponent from taking his/her second nearby town, too.

The methods for this are similar to the above, except that you're working on a shorter schedule. The enemy Horde will likely not reach center town until turn 6, but her second group may very well be in range of a second town on turn 4 or 5.

Since you will probably be using all of turns 5 or 6 (at least) to block her Horde, you cannot spend that time dealing with her second group. So, you will need to kill off the enemy's second group with a spell on turn 3 or 4, or 5 at the latest.

As such, nearly all Powerhouse spells are worthless for this goal; they are too expensive for you to cast so early. Combat is right out too; there's no way you can get a recruit group that far across the board so quickly.

You're thus limited to Lockdown and Monsters of about 4 mana or less. Ways of killing individual recruits provide a second way to go about this; if the enemy's second group has only one recruit in it, Venom'd Arrow becomes a group-killing spell. At any rate, secondary groups almost never hold more than two recruits, so a pair of individual recruit-killing spells or one such spell and a Monster can work.

Why do you need to worry about the enemy's second group at all? Because odds are, it will destroy your own second group and prevent you from taking a town. If your opponent stops your second group and you don't stop hers, then by the time you're battling for center town your opponent will already have two towns to your one (and likely have Initiative). And if you both annihilate each other in the center of the board with neither of you taking the town, you'll be at a major recruit disadvantage in mid-game when her towns out-produce yours in recruits.

RULE 3: Hold the opponent to one town, not zero. Usually.

We haven't talked about stopping the enemy Horde from reaching its first town.

Optimally, of course, you'd like to prevent the opponent from taking any towns at all, right? But you cannot rely on this, no matter how good your deck is; there are too many town layouts where you will be unable to stop your opponent from taking at least one town. If you use some spells by tossing them at the enemy Horde you will likely be forced to ignore her second group, thus giving her one town, and her Horde will likely get to that other nearby town eventually (giving the enemy two towns total).

Of course, there are some town layouts where the towns are so far away that you really can prevent the opponent from reaching even a single one. If you can do so, by all means go ahead. But when building your deck, do not try to plan for this – the opportunity will simply not come along often enough for you to build your deck around it.

RULE 4: Have something to do when you've mutually annihilated each other.

Assuming both you and your opponent kill the other's Horde and secondary group and hold each other to one town, you will both need to find some way to advance.

Include some way in your deck to give yourself a boost of some kind in mid-game; this can either be some additional ways to slow the opponent once you've held her to one town, or some way to generate new recruits for yourself so you can finally reach the center.

Exceptions: When you attempt a very fast or very slow win.

Remember how I said there are a few instances where you wouldn't be following this general guideline? Here they are ...

  • First, if you are playing a Combat Speed deck, you stand a reasonable chance of having your Horde reach the center town before the opponent has enough mana to stop you. While you may find there is an advantage to stalling one or both of the enemy groups, this is not as important in a situation where you can nearly guarantee yourself two towns (the closest one to your Sanctum and the center town, both captured with your Horde). In this case, even if the enemy does take both nearby towns, you'll be tied in towns (two to two) with you having a board position advantage for owning center town.
  • Second, certain decks (most notably slow Attrition styles) have spells that can reasonably assure that their second group will reach their nearby town, in spite of enemy interference. Spells like Ogi's Armor, Lienna's Sigil and Immersion can protect a single recruit from nearly all early-game Monsters, while spells like Xia's Walk and Ogi's Gauntlet can protect the recruit from individual-kill spells and some Lockdown spells. Clearly, if you can still prevent the opponent from reaching the center town and take both of your nearest towns, at worst you will be tied in towns (two to two, again) and the game will be slowed down a bit. Since your goal with an Attrition deck is to slow the game down, such a game will be well in your favor.

Contents of Your Deck

To review, let's apply all of the above to deck design.

A Combat Speed deck should have ways of reaching the center town before the enemy can stop its Horde, and must have sufficient combat power by then to win a direct combat. Having some cheap Monsters to kill the enemy's second group is often a plus, in case the enemy manages to dispatch your Horde anyway. Adding ways to press a quick advantage in mid-game will be crucial, as you will likely lose your Horde shortly after it captures the center town; this generally means extra recruit production so you can make a new army at center town.

An Attrition/Metropolis deck should have ways to protect its second group to make sure it reaches its nearest town. As above, adding some cheap Monsters to delay the enemy's secondary group can help too. It is vital that you have some way to stall the enemy Horde from reaching the center town, if you can't just destroy the enemy Horde outright.

Nearly any other deck should have ways to kill the enemy's secondary group before it reaches a town, and ways to kill the enemy's Horde before it captures the center town. As you can reasonably expect the opponent will do the same to you, you will then need some spells for mid-game to either bring yourself back into the game and take center town, or put additional pressure on enemy's one town to slow her further.

If your deck does not have these things and your opponent's does, you must accept that you will be at a disadvantage in towns from the beginning. While it is possible to recover from an early hit and come from behind to win, it isn't all that common or that easy.

I know of some decks that actually count on having a disadvantage in towns and board position early and use it to set up a win later, but for the vast majority of your decks it can be a good rule of thumb to hold the enemy to one town. If you're wondering why you just can't get your deck to win, this might be the reason.

Good luck!

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