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
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
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
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.