A periodic column on Sanctum strategy, theory, and fun,
by Ian Schreiber, Sanctum player name Gannon. You can reach Ian at
The House Shell Game
May 11, 2000
A Guide to House Ownership
As you're no doubt aware, the very last thing you do when saving your latest
creation in the deckbuilder is to choose its House. Usually this is such a no-brainer
decision that even the computer can figure it out: you're probably used to just
accepting the default by now. But there are some cases where you actually have
several Houses to choose from, and this week we'll identify exactly when you
have a choice in the matter, and how to choose the best House for your deck
(which isn't as much of a no-brainer as you might think!) ...
When is There a Choice?
Your choice of House is primarily dependent on your mana
structure. If you must go outside of your House for a large portion of your
mana (especially when you could have gotten that mana in-House had you chosen
a different House), you should think twice before changing the default House
selection in the deckbuilder. I would say, then, that there are two situations
where you actually need to consider the question of House more carefully:
- When your mana structure has a large amount of Primary mana and only a very
small amount (certainly 2 mana or less) of Secondary mana (and no third mana
type at all). For example: 6 Will (in a single-mana tournament, perhaps),
4 Order + 2 Will (Making combat protection), or 4 Mystery + 1 Will (cheap
- When your mana structure has three or more mana types, with an equal number
of required mana in each of the non-Primary types. For example: 6 Order +
3 Mystery + 3 Will (the typical Found City + Intercession), or 6 Will + 2
Clarity + 2 Strife (Mind's Lockdown with Abomination's Powerhouse).
In the second type of scenario, you are pretty much limited to two Houses:
the ones with your main mana type as their Primary (for 6 Order + 3 Mystery
+ 3 Will, you can do either Making or Justice but those are really your only
choices). In the first type of scenario, though, you can go with any House that
has your main mana type as its Primary or Secondary mana (that 6 Will deck could
be pulled off in Mind, Abomination, Making or Death).
Once you determine that you do in fact have a choice, and you've identified
what your different choices are, how do you choose one? There are many factors
that can affect your optimal choice, as we shall see.
In practice, some racial abilities are clearly superior to others. Houses whose
recruits start at 9 HP have a definite combat advantage over those that get
+1 hand (or missile) damage on their first strike, which in turn have a combat
advantage over the terrain-walking Houses. Of the four terrain-walking nations,
only one race (Dwarves) can create the terrain that they cross within the corresponding
House, although the others do have access to very cheap spells to handle the
type of commonly-seen terrain (Mountains or Water) that they can't cross. Still,
you may have a deck that could really be helped by a specific racial ability;
9 HP recruits are generally regarded as the most powerful on their own, for
example, so other things being equal you might prefer to choose one of those
Houses that will give it to you.
Are there some spells in your deck that absolutely must be cast early on, particularly
those that are relatively heavy in secondary mana? For the Making/Justice 6+3+3
deck above, for example, you could have much earlier access to Found City if
you choose Making, but you have earlier access to Intercession with Justice.
Furthermore, Making can get Mountain, Belvario's Trap and Beobogh's Helm, and
other potentially important spells much earlier than Justice, while Justice
can give you a faster Sentinel or Pyrrhic Victory. Ultimately it's a deck design
choice: you must look at the spells in the deck and decide which ones are more
important in the early game and which can wait. If everything can wait then
you can make the decision of House on other criteria; if everything must be
cast early, perhaps the deck concept is unworkable.
Speed of generating the third mana type is also an issue. Again looking at
Making/Justice, Making can generate permanent Mystery mana with its Found Cities,
Rite of Mystery, and (once it gets a single Mystery mana) Star Chamber. Justice
can generate Will with Oculus of Will, Astronomic Clock, and Dracha (if he dies).
You may consider one set of spells superior to the other (Astronomic Clock is
the cheapest permanent mana source of the lot, so Justice might look that much
nicer for its ability to generate Will fast; on the other hand, Making has ways
to generate a larger quantity of Mystery mana, so you might find the long-term
greater mana output to swing things in Making's direction).
Particularly in cases where you have a choice of a large number of Houses,
the surprise factor might be the final decision-maker for you. In many card
games (and this one is no exception), it is often counterproductive to deceive
the opponent because you ultimately hurt yourself more in the attempt than you
stand to gain, even if the opponent is taken in by your ruse. But there are
rare cases where an element of deception can win you the game, so it is important
to consider if this is the case for your deck. Generally speaking, choosing
an unexpected House will work best if the strategy that House normally employs
is very different from your deck's strategy, and especially if the standard
way of defeating that House's best-known strategy will lead an opponent to absolute
ruin against your deck.
Tying it All Together
As an example, let's consider that 4 Mystery + 1 Will deck from before, which
concentrates mainly on recruit-kill (Dire Portent, Curse of Khobai, Venom'd
Arrow) and recruit generation (Dark Minion). Since it has only a single point
of secondary mana, we could realistically fit this to Body, Justice, Despair
or Death. But which one?
As this is very much a Combat deck,
combat power is an issue; this makes both Body and Justice immediate favorites
over Death and Despair, as the 9 HP recruits are superior in battle to Death's
+1 hand damage on first round or Despair's mountainwalking. On the other hand,
with very little in the way of terrain-crossing spells (Freeze only, if anything),
Despair also becomes a possibility to guard against those games where a Mountain
would block you from your nearest town. On the other hand, Death is still a
possibility because nearly all of the deck's key spells (above) require that
one precious point of Will, and unless you capture a town on turn 3 you might
lose a turn (since Venom'd Arrow and Curse of Khobai both cost 3+1, both are
begging for a guaranteed 1 Will on turn 4).
In this case, deception could be a major issue. You would love your opponent
to walk forward fearlessly, only to lose half of his Horde before the center
town; if he holds back and digs in on defense you might be in trouble since
your spells are sharply limited. Thus, you want to choose a House that practically
demands that the opponent attack you quickly. That disqualifies Body, which
has Combat Speed potential and might incite your opponent to play defensively.
It also gets rid of Death, which demands that you eliminate its Horde before
it draws a Raven Shroud and a pile of Combat spells. Justice has some potential,
as it is typically a defensive House and a good player will often try to eliminate
it early on with a speed rush, which would play right into your hands. Despair
also demands that the opponent win early, but it also encourages the enemy to
save dispels (normally to counter Fear and Forsaken, but they work all too well
against your Dire Portent and Curse of Khobai as well).
Ultimately, then, you might choose Justice as the House for this deck. Its
combination of 9 HP recruits and a regular strategy that might trick the enemy
into playing your kind of game is a potentially deadly combination. Your only
weakness is getting stuck behind a Mountain, but you don't expect to use this
deck more than once against a given opponent anyway (surprise is everything),
so it's no use trying to plan for everything. Besides, the opponent expects
Justice to be weak against Mountains anyway, so you won't immediately give away
your strategy simply by taking the long way around a mountain. (Your opponent
will probably suspect something when you cast your first Venom'd Arrow at least,
but hopefully by then he has already made a fatal early-game discard while planning
his play, and your deception will have done its job.)