Before I tell you my thoughts on Sanctuary: The Keepers Era, I feel like I should provide some background.
During sixth form, there was a pretty lively Magic: The Gathering community of players until the teachers shut it down as they thought we were gambling. Old people just don’t understand, am I right?
Well, now I am an old person! And sure, we may not have been gambling in the literal sense but there is definitely a bit of it going on the booster pack way that M: TG is predominantly sold. As I’ve become an old person, I’ve become less of a fan of this format but luckily that doesn’t mean I’ve had to give up my card battling games. There is a fantastic variety of games out there that forgo the random card drops of boosters in favour of known decks of cards that can be purchased as and when you want them.
Playing Cards of War
My first foray into this brave new world was with Android: Netrunner and more recently I’ve been playing a lot of Ashes: Reborn. Both of these games are huge with vast numbers of prebuilt decks available as well as support for deckbuilding. Sometimes you just want something a little smaller in scope to play and hopefully, this is where Sanctuary: The Keepers era steps into the limelight.
There are hundreds of card battlers out there, what makes Sanctuary different? Well, the thing that caught my eye when I first saw it is that it has a positional placement mechanic. A card can be an offensive or defensive card depending on where it is played. Also, rather than trying to whittle away at some arbitrary life counter, you are instead tasked with trying to destroy your opponent’s 4 sanctuary buildings. These sanctuaries are doubly important as they also get you access to your factions biggest and best powers. Let’s step it back a bit and talk a bit more about what we have here.
A Bountiful Box
In the box that I have been sent to take a look at, there are 6 factions, some nice tokens and crystals, 4 beautiful playmats, cards for solo and campaign play as well as a magnetically sealed box to keep it all in. First impressions count, and these are some good first impressions!
Each of the faction decks has a unique theme with a matching mechanic. This leads to them playing very differently when you get them to the table. Within your deck, you’ll find various beasties and warriors to fight for you. You’ll also have some ritual cards which can be played as instant actions to swing battles in your favour. Lastly, you’ve got a powerful champion and the sanctuary’s they’ll be defending.
The Sanctuary: The Keepers Era cards can also have attributes. There are 7 different attributes to be had and these give the warriors different, well, attributes. Some will let you play your cards into battle-ready to attack straight away, some can’t be targeted by spells. My personal favourite attribute is reaper. This attribute means that if you manage to deal one damage with your warrior, it instantly kills its opponent. Very spicy!
Each round of the game will have you gathering up some essence crystals. These can be used to play your cards out onto the battlefield or you can save them up to buy something a bit more powerful later on. Any readied cards you’ve got played out into the attacking row will go and attack the enemy sanctuary in their lane. That is unless your opponents have played out cards to the defence position on that lane. In that case, your warriors' trade blows and the sanctuary is safe, for now.
Watch Your Flanks
As I kind of eluded to earlier, I really like this positional placement element of the game. Once you play a card down it is generally there until the end of the game, or until it meets an untimely end. A few of the factions break these rules though. Some allow cards to move, some allow you to take your cards back into your hand to redeploy later. This is the other part of Sanctuary I really like. I like it when a game has some strict rules but there are ways to break them. But these asymmetric powers are a bit of a blessing and a curse when it comes to Sanctuary.
As I said, the different factions lean into these abilities hard. The prebuilt decks are really well built to the point where they really only have one way to be played. I can’t understate how laser-focused these decks are. They feel like the kind of thing that you would walk into a tournament to play with. Because of this, you’ve only really got 6 so games to play before you’ve played every deck and seen what this game has to offer out of the box.
Don’t get me wrong, those will be 6 great games but after that, you’ve played each deck and you can’t really play them well in an alternate way. Luckily, that is not the only way to experience Sanctuary. There is a campaign mode, and crucially, a deck-building mode. While I was playing these initial games for this review, I played all but one game against the same person. This meant we both had a pretty good understanding of what was in each of the prebuilt decks. We gave the deckbuilding a try and it made the game fresh again.
Building a Better Army
With the deckbuilding mode, you get to build up a new deck from 3 of the faction decks with your opponent taking the remaining 3. Each of the cards has a point value and you’ve got a 2800 point limit to build your deck. You can only have one copy of each card in your deck though. This means you’re not able to specialise in quite the way I’d like. It’s still a welcome addition though.
Once you’re done, you get to choose 4 sanctuaries from the 12 in your 3 factions. This really opens the play space back up. It has to be said that I’ve never been the best deck builder but I feel like I’ve been able to put together some good combos in Sanctuary and that has been very satisfying.
I think going forward I’ll mostly be playing the deckbuilding mode but that isn’t all that is left in the box. There is a campaign mode that allows you to play a series of games and evolve your deck as you go. You also get hold of an even more powerful champion called the Avatar. You get the chance to upgrade this as you play matches, but, if it is ever destroyed you instantly lose. So it’s important to protect it. You also get an aura card which allows you to give out temporary buffs to your other cards in battle.
Maybe you will boost their attack or defence or you can even give them a new attribute. This kind of thing can really swing the battle if you play it at the right time. I’ve really enjoyed these Aura cards and it’s sort of a shame that you can only use them in the campaign.
Lastly, there are some artefact cards that start off in your sanctuaries. If an enemy warrior manages to deal damage to your sanctuary then is steals and equips the artefact stored there. These are fun and sort of give your warriors a little more variety to them.
There is also a solo mode as well as a 2 vs 2 modes. I’ve tried the solo mode once and it was ok but I’ve not played it enough to really judge it. The campaign mode can be played solo so I’ll probably come back to that at some point in the near future. 2 vs. 2 isn’t really my thing for a card battler, so I’ve not taken a look at that.
Returning to Your Sanctuary
That’s Sanctuary: The Keepers Era. For what amounts to 6 small decks of cards and some tokens there is a lot of game here. The card play is quick and allows you to feel clever when deploying your army. The deckbuilding is good if a bit limited. I like the attribute system on the cards. Rather than having to read lots of ability text, you can just look for the colourful symbol and you know exactly what you’re dealing with. It’s very clean and, it should be noted, colour-blind friendly.
I’ve had a lot of fun playing the various modes Sanctuary has to offer. It’s an easy teach and the artwork is stunning. The campaign mode is probably my favourite way to play but you’ll get the most out of that playing against somebody who is about the same skill level.
As much as I’ve enjoyed Sanctuary: The Keepers Era, I don’t see it replacing Ashes as my regular card battler. The card pool in Ashes is larger and as much as I like the positional elements of Sanctuary, I think I prefer the dice in Ashes. That said, I think I’m far more likely to use Sanctuary as a sort of gateway card battler. There is enough to get your teeth into and really get an appreciation for what the genre can offer. My big worry is that even with the deckbuilding, I’m going to run out of ways to play everything in this box. I’m sure I’ll have a great time doing that, but it is a worry nonetheless. That said, if they ever release some more decks for Sanctuary I will be grabbing them with both hands!