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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

Tuning the Instruments of Destruction
May 18, 2000

Great decks aren't created on the spot, they're built over a long period of time. The process of building a great deck involves a lot of trial and error, plenty of ranked losses, and practice, practice, practice.

You might occasionally hear someone talk about “tuning their deck” and wonder what that's all about. That is our topic this week. If you're already comfortable with the idea of deck tuning then you can probably ignore this article, but if you're relatively new to Sanctum (and especially if you're new to CCGs) then it's time to learn the real key to long-term success in this game. In short, “tuning” means customizing an existing deck by removing or adding cards to it (or both) in order to make it work better.

Where to Start?

Before you start changing a deck, of course, you need a deck to change. Let's assume that you've already thrown together a deck, and you want to make it better (for reference, see past columns on deck building). How do you know what to put in and what to take out?

The Sanity Check

The first thing to do is to look for obvious flaws, and correct them; even a mediocre untuned deck is still playable, provided you haven't completely sabotaged your own effort.

Do you require some out-of-House mana? Make sure you have spells that can generate it, or spells that can assist you in taking towns.

What's your overall strategy for winning (Lockdown, Powerhouse, etc.)? Count up the number of cards in your deck that directly support that strategy, and make sure you have enough of them to go around.

What is your mana structure? Make sure you can realistically expect to generate your maximum required mana; if you'll ultimately need more than 11 or 12 mana, you may be pushing it unless your deck has plenty of mana-gaining spells.

Are there any spells that get in the way of each other, so that playing one makes the other one useless? Decide which to keep and which to toss.

How many cards are in your deck, and how quickly (or slowly) do you expect to win? If you have a 30-card Attrition deck, or (more commonly) a 90-card Combat Speed or Powerhouse Speed deck, it's time to take drastic action to make the deck size more reasonable.

This may all seem like basic common sense, but you'd be amazed at how many new players just throw spells into a deck randomly without thinking about the cards' purposes.

The Test Game

Now that you've made sure you won't embarrass yourself too much in actual play, take it to Hero's Gate and ask for a game! “Deck testing” is sort of a code word for this type of game, the implication being that you're not exactly playing just for fun but that your deck isn't yet good enough for you to play ranked. Of course, if your ego heals quickly, there's no rule against taking it ranked immediately and seeing just how quickly it drops ...

For this phase of deck design, a piece of paper and something to write with are your greatest allies. Did you draw a spell that was useless? Were you wishing or praying for a card that would have helped you, but it either wasn't in your deck or you didn't draw it in time? Did a particular enemy spell give you serious problems? Write it down (dividing the paper into a few columns before the game begins can save you time, and make it easier to decipher your own notes when you look at it later). If you really want to get fancy, make tally-marks to keep count of the number of spells you see in the game, so that you'll get some idea of what your optimal deck size should be. The important thing to keep in mind is that whether you win or lose, the game will contain clues as to how to improve your existing deck design. Don't stop tuning just because you won a game, and don't assume you have no chance just because you lost!

After the game is over, write down some additional notes: what House your opponent was playing, what strategy he/she seemed to be using, and any important features of the gameboard (general town layout and any helpful or hazardous terrain). Just to give you some idea of what you were up against.

The Post-Mortem

This is where the real tuning begins. After the game, look at where you had problems. Some of the changes you should make are obvious: if you played a spell that didn't help you at all then you can remove it, if you needed a spell that you didn't draw then add more copies of it, and so on. Some changes are not so obvious; what if you didn't draw a spell that you already had four of? Was it just insanely bad luck, or do you need to reduce your deck size for better odds?

Look at what you played against, and consider everything in that context. Just because your monsters all turned against you when the opponent cast Zana doesn't mean you have to throw away all of your summon spells; how often do you expect to see Zana in competitive play? Are there any other cards that would have hurt you in the same way (and if so, how often do you expect to see them)? You may have identified a weakness in your deck, but you must decide whether it's worthwhile to cover that weakness (see another article on this very topic).

Most deck changes can be handled in the same way: look at the change you want to make, decide how often it's actually likely to help you, and then decide whether it's worth it to make the change or not. The changes you consider will be suggested to you by your own notes; if your opponent cast a certain spell you just couldn't handle, look around in the Deckbuilder to see what spells (or combinations of spells) might be able to deal with it. If you drew a card that wasn't useful, maybe you need to remove it; if you didn't draw a card that you really needed, maybe you should add more of it. For each individual change, decide whether or not to make it. Then, make any changes you need to, go back and test it again.

Time Is On Your Side

The longer you play with a single deck, the better at playing that deck you'll become. Also, if you continue to take notes over time, some patterns may become apparent. Perhaps you notice that you always seem to lose to a certain House, or that you always beat a certain basic strategy. Knowing your deck's strengths and weaknesses will make it that much easier for you to metagame later.

Also, some modifications you need to make to your deck might not become apparent until you play several games. Finding out that you used 40 cards in one game doesn't help you much, but knowing that you use an average of 40 cards, never using less than 35 or more than 50, helps you a great deal in deciding whether to add or remove cards.

The Acid Test

Eventually, you're going to want to start playing this deck ranked. How do you know when you're ready? You should certainly feel comfortable with the idea; if you've been barely scraping by in unranked games then you probably want to do some more testing. On the other hand, you don't want to wait for too long, either – the game environment changes over time, and if you're using a real killer deck in unranked games you might find some other people copying it, so it won't even be anything new! If you have a friend who can keep your secret then great, but if you have to test your decks against total strangers you'll probably not want the secret of your future success to get out too soon.

Does that mean that you should stop tuning once you start playing ranked? Absolutely not! Use the same methods as above, taking notes on your games and dissecting your deck afterwards; consider ranked games to be a better test of your deck's full ability, since your opponent is more likely to be playing for blood than for fun. This will also let you test the waters of the game environment, allowing you to metagame more properly; do you seem to run into a lot of decks of a single type? How does your deck do against them? If a lot of opponents exploit your weaknesses by default and you simply have no way of covering that weakness within your deck, perhaps it's time to shift to a different strategy and come back to this one later, when the environment has changed.

When Cards Change

Finally, I like to make a habit of going through all of my decks whenever something significant happens to the game environment. Did a certain spell get a casting cost increase? Then some decks relying on it before might no longer be valid, or might require additional mana-gaining spells. Did a new expansion get released? Many decks might be improved by swapping out some old spells for newer ones that fit the theme better. Did the effect of a key spell in one of your decks change? Maybe it's time to scrap the deck entirely, or rebuild it from scratch. Sometimes, there's nothing worse than having 300 decks to scroll through when you only actually play five of them.

Good luck!

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