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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 Strategy: Four Copies?
September 7, 2000

In Favor of Using Less Than 4 of Everything

There's a tendency, when players build a deck, to include four copies of every spell. After all, people say, if a card is good enough to include then it's good enough to include four of!

In some cases this reasoning holds, but in many cases players actually include more of a spell than they need to. Even worse, many of the cards people include too many of are Rare, which depletes their trade stock in exchange for making their decks weaker!

This week we'll look at those situations where you should not include four copies of a spell in your deck. I'll get back to this in a moment. But first

There's this old joke: an amateur golfer challenges a professional to a round of golf, but says that since the pro is so much better than him, he'd get two 'gotchas'. The pro doesn't know what a 'gotcha' is, but accepts anyway. When the pro is just about ready to swing at the beginning of the first hole, the amateur sneaks up behind him, gives him a swift kick between the legs, and yells “Gotcha!” Later on, the pro is explaining to his friends why he lost the match: “Do you have any idea how hard it is to play 18 holes of golf while waiting for the second 'gotcha'?”

Ha ha, you say, but why bring it up here? (If you're afraid that I'm quitting my day job to become a stand-up comedian, you can rest easy.) As it turns out, this joke holds a key to one of the more subtle points of Sanctum strategy, as we'll soon see.


Why might some people find the joke funny? Like many jokes, the punchline points to a universal truth – in this case, the truth being that the anticipation of an undesirable event is often worse than the event itself. Since much of the strategy within a Sanctum game involves anticipating your opponent's threats before they happen, there's more of a relation between the amateur golfer and the expert Sanctum player than first meets the eye!

When you face another player, from turn 1, you have certain expectations about what he or she might or might not be able to cast. You know that your opponent will not cast a nine-mana spell on turn 3, so you do not have to deal with such a threat. On the other hand, it is possible to see a nine-mana spell before you reach the center town; you should therefore be prepared for such an event. Likewise, your opponent should be preparing for certain similar events from you.

What if the things your opponent is expecting from you never actually happen? If your opponent has taken some precautions, either by not moving certain groups or casting some preemptive spells, then you've tricked your opponent into exhausting resources that he did not need to, and you've therefore gained an advantage within the game, without actually taking any direct action!

One obvious example of messing with your opponent's anticipations is a simple bluff; you act as if you're going to cast a certain spell that might take some setup time, then hope your opponent wastes resources or time preventing something that won't actually happen. But sometimes your enemy won't cooperate; if your opponent is unusually brave or inexperienced or has his own tricks to spring on you, your bluff may not work at all (never try to get a new player to back off of your center town by making it look like you're going to cast Sword of Zana when you can't follow through – the response will probably be “sword of who?”).

The First Gotcha

Opponents are much more willing to anticipate a threat when you've already demonstrated that you're capable of making good on it. Even a new player will eventually start running from your groups of two Imps after having a sufficient number of groups destroyed by Accursed Minion! In fact, once a player is known to have enough mana to cast one of the key spells of his House, most experienced players will anticipate it and take steps to minimize the impact when the spell hits.

Your opponent will also know, of course, that you are under a deck design constraint: you cannot have more than four copies of a single spell in your deck. Thus, if there is a single spell in your deck that your opponent is likely to really fear, casting all four of them is a sure way to convince your opponent that your main threat is gone and he should attack you now that you're out of gas.

Of course, this may be for the best; if your deck is designed to win early and you've run yourself out of spells, you've probably lost anyway. But what about situations where you want to just buy yourself some time? The answer: don't cast that fourth copy of your spell! Hold on to it, or even discard it; your opponent will be forced to play as if the card is still a threat for the rest of the game (or at least, until he gets an indication that you're out of cards entirely). Like the amateur golfer, you lose the advantage of forcing your opponent to anticipate you as soon as you exhaust your resources.

What If the Second Gotcha Doesn't Even Exist?

Keeping in mind that casting the fourth copy of a spell will often do more harm to you than good, one might ask, why bother including a fourth copy in your deck at all? Why not just use three copies of your key cards, so that the fourth doesn't clutter up your hand in the late game, and your deck would be trimmer and more streamlined as a result?

In some cases, this is indeed the correct course of action; it will be particularly true for decks that really don't get much extra power out of the fourth copy of a spell (i.e. the first three are sufficient) and you don't need or want to draw the card in your opening hand.

Settlement might be an excellent example of a spell that you might not want a full four copies of; if you can run the game to the Attrition phase, having three more towns than the enemy should be enough to win (you don't need a fourth Colony if you already have three, most of the time) and drawing Settlement early on will slow your early game so you want to avoid doing so.

Likewise, Intercession is a spell that you won't be able to cast until mid-game, and the threat of Intercession is often worse than the spell itself, so including only three copies in a somewhat small Justice deck could do better than having four.

If only three copies, you might ask, why not just include two or even one copy of the relevant spell? That's a possibility, and again it depends on exactly how many copies you'll actually need to cast in order to win the game, and how soon you need to draw it. If you have a very expensive spell that you really only need to cast once (and then your opponent will be cringing in fear of a second casting of it for the rest of the game), and your deck is small enough that you can reasonably expect to pull any spell fairly quickly, then by all means only include one or two copies! However, if you figure you'll want to cast it two or three times throughout the course of the game, or if your deck is large enough that you can't expect to draw your spell without including more copies, you might do well to include three or even a full four copies; it depends on the deck.

To serve as a final example, I'll relate a game I played recently with my 30-card Justice Combat/Denial deck. My opponent stalled my Horde on its way to center town, and it took me a good two Intercessions and a pile of Combat spells to take the center town back. My opponent had a large, powerful group roaming towards my backfield though, and in my effort to keep the deck small and cheap I hadn't included any Pyrrhic Victory cards to deal with this threat. I had to outrace my opponent to reach the Sanctum first; when I burned my third Intercession to buy some time, my opponent responded “that's three :-)”.

True enough, it was, and my Horde still had four moves to go to reach the enemy Sanctum. A single Intercession wouldn't give me enough time, but I noticed that my opponent also wasn't casting more than one big spell (or two cheap ones) per turn, out of fear of getting them squandered. Even with the fourth Intercession in hand, I refused to cast it; had my opponent known that I wouldn't cast it, I'm sure I would have been defeated by a large quantity of spells taking down my main group I ended up winning because of the three spells I cast, and the one spell that I didn't.

Good luck!

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