Refreshing the Dominion Paradigms
Dominion has changed a lot. The cards have changed, the players have changed, and, well, perhaps what Iím getting at, is that the strategies have changed. Not completely or totally, of course. Many of us remember the terminology established by Wandering Winder on deck types
: Engines, Big Money, Slogs, Rushes, and Combos. I would argue, however, that thinking about decks in these terms has become increasingly irrelevant, and therefore that re-thinking and generalizing our lexicon will help players adapt to the game more quickly.
There are a couple of reasons for this. The first, most glaring note is probably on the victory of the engine deck in Dominion. It has become excessively common for Engine to be the best strategy in Dominion, although of course a player like myself would argue that they are played too often, but nonetheless Engine tends to be obviously correct on a good number of boards, so much so that calling a board an ďEngineĒ board is almost meaningless. We should establish more meaningful distinctions around different types of engines, since currently our only real distinctions in the lexicon refer to how the engines are drawn, i.e. draw-to-x, village/smithy, and non-terminal.
Other reasons, which I will not dive into with as much detail in order to hopefully retain some readers for pieces of this article in which I actually say something, include the growing confusion about the difference between Big Money and ďGood StuffĒ decks (a proliferation added later by Wandering Winder), the awkward melding of Rushes and Slogs, what even constitutes the difference between a Slog deck and a Big Money deck with junk (I actually think WW answers this question well. More on that later), and the overwhelming rarity of the relevance of rush and combo decks.
Defining the Engine Deck
An engine deck, in the general sense, is quite simply a deck that seeks to reliably play a bunch of action cards each turn. While thatís a useful distinction from other types of strategies, it doesnít really give much insight into how to build the darn things. I am going to attempt to classify these decks into meaningful patterns, and then later (in different articles) circle back to distinctions to be made within even different subgenres of these classes of decks.
The Control Engine
Some engines donít care so much about what you do with them so much as they care that you can do stuff with them. Notably, these decks refer to the importance of being able to reliably draw your deck every turn, for the whole game, and to get there as fast as possible. And, generally, this is important because if you are able to do so and your opponent isnít, there is some way to just completely bury your opponent. These tend to be games where Silver and Gold become very bad cards quite quickly.
Some examples of these games include:
- The very obvious Ambassador war, in which you can junk your opponent to Oblivion by playing multiple Ambassadors of various junk ever turn.
- Games featuring cards that can slow your opponent like Ghost Ship, where if you slow down your opponentís pace, it can be very difficult or impossible for them to recover. Militia-based games can be this way too, though control is slightly less fiercely important in those games.
- Games where there are other ways to junk your opponent into oblivion while maintaining control of your deck. Think Kingís Court/Mountebank. Or just Familiar.
Some important features of control decks:
- Thinning tends to be very important in these decks. The thinning, however, should have a purpose, and that purpose should be to play as many cards as possible to slow down your opponent, as often as possible. If youíre the first one to slow your opponent down, and you keep the pressure on every turn, it can often snowball and be impossible for them to recover even if they have a card like Chapel in their decks.
- Payload and greening should be delayed as long as possible in these decks. Draw and reliability should take absolutely priority. Points tend to really not matter, unless the game is ending incredibly soon, which, in these types of games, isnít going to be for a long time.
- On some boards, thinning can be slightly less important than splits, though be careful about making this assumption. Imagine, for example, a board where Alchemist is the only draw. If you have 6 and they have 4, you are going to be able to support 2 extra stop cards that your opponent can not, and if those 2 extra cards are something like Ambassador you may be able to recover from being slightly thicker as long as you arenít completely overwhelmed in the thinning department. So focus on thinning, but donít ignore key cards, either.
Control decks can draw from basically any engine draw paradigm. Draw-to-x, nonterminal, and village/smithy decks all apply. Note that non-terminal draw tends to be quite strong in these decks, since nonterminal draw becomes reliable much more quickly than village/smithy draw, and offers better guarantees of success. In games where you have choices, however, you should probably be using every source of draw available to you in order to maximize efficiency and reliability. Note that draw-to-x doesnít apply here, since draw-to-x doesnít mesh with other draw types, as drawing to 7 if you already have 10 cards in hand from your Lab stack is obviously quite poor.
The Mega-Turn Engine
This is an engine where there is the ability to do something really awesome, and you donít need to green over multiple turns, but only one. I donít have much thesis-level stuff to say about these decks, actually, so Iíll just hop straight into details.
Some examples of these games include:
- Horn of Plenty megaturns, where you get a bunch of Horn in Plentyís in play along with at least 8 unique cards, and you take all the green cards.
- Bridge(Highway/Troll) megaturns, where you get a bunch of cost reducers in play, and with +Buy, you take all the green cards.
- Humongous Engine megaturns. Think Council Room/Wharf/Champion, where thereís not any really great cards payload out there for a megaturn, but the deck supports so much draw that itís simply not necessary to green over multiple turns unless the game state dictates that you do.
Some important features of control decks:
- These decks are typically a race to mega-turn first, although sometimes in mirrors there can be enough denial to limit the effectiveness of a mega-turn. Nonetheless, you should be playing for the mega-turn all game, and then reacting to something else only if the game state (i.e. piles are too low) forces you to bail out early and start taking points.
- Just because thereís amazing power on the board, you still shouldnít neglect thinning. At the same time, however, it can be important to slightly favor economy. In a control deck, for example, you might open Amulet/Amulet to get thin, but in a mega-turn deck maybe you open Amulet/Silver to add that Wharf in early to get big turns kicking off sooner rather than later.
- These games often end in pile-outs, not mega-turns, so be careful about that. While a Throne Room/Bridge deck certainly can take 8 Provinces, and if your opponent allows you, it should, Throne/Room Bridge decks are also very capable of buying a lot of cards from the supply and a single Estate in one turn, and ending the game with 1-0 lead. You need to track your opponentís gains very carefully, and make sure that youíre never letting your opponent win on their next turn unless youíre far behind and need to take calculated risks that your opponent might dud on their turn.
The As-Good-As-it-Gets Engine
Sometimes, the engine is just not very good. Itís never going to draw deck, itís never going to be reliable, and itís certainly never going to mega-turn. But hereís the rub: Dominion is a game about turns. Namely, Dominion is a game about average turns. Sometimes the attempt to play a lot of actions cards every turn will be very finicky, but if youíre still going to have a better average turn than your opponent playing a money-centered deck (where their best case scenario is hitting $8 unreliably, for example), then you should build the engine deck.
Some examples of these games include (these are little more complicated to outline):
- Cartographer/Wishing Well/Conspirator/Nomad Camp/Inn, with no thinning. This board features weak thinning, weak draw, and weak +Buy. Your turns are going to be very finicky, because essentially unless you have two nonterminals in hand to start your turn, you arenít going to kick off, and thatís going to happen fairly often. But still, your average turn is going to be better than your opponent who is doing, what, playing Nomad Camp big money?
- Fishing Village/Ghost Ship, limited to no thinning. Thatís weak draw, and certainly going to be very unreliable. However, just the fact that youíre going to be playing Ghost Ships more often than your opponent puts you in a good spot. Note that this differs from a control deck, because youíre not actually going to be reliably playing Ghost Ships every turn.
- Highway/Chapel/no Draw. Sure, youíll have one or two pretty good turns with your 5-6 highways. But as soon as you green, you arenít drawing deck any more. So temper your expectations, but of course youíre still going to be doing better than the deck that doesnít play the weak Highway thing.
Some important features about these decks:
- Youíre going to lose with these decks, sometimes, even against a simpler strategy. Unlike a mega-turn or control deck, they arenít going to have a 100% win-rate against even poorly played or weak money strategies. You need good draws throughout the game, and Dominion makes no guarantee of that. Nonetheless, they should be played as long as youíre giving yourself a >50% chance of winning with them.
- These are also decks where Silver and Gold can be a very bad card, because every stop card that you add to your deck decreases your chance of kicking off, which is already pretty bad to start with. Donít completely neglect payload, but add it in slowly, as you should be focusing on cards that help you kick off, even if that kicking off remains unreliable.
- You green in these decks earlier than in Control and Mega-turn decks, since, well, you have to score points sometimes, and youíre never going to be too reliable anyways. Still, if youíre asking the question about if you should green or keep building, the answer is almost always to keep building.
The Standard Good Engine
I saved this one for last since, although it is probably most common (but not overwhelmingly so), it is also the least prescriptive. These decks tend to be decks where the payload is good but not awesome (think Wine Merchant/Courtier/Monument, heck, even Gold), but there are reliable sources of draw/actions/thinning/gains, and so the engine is the obvious choice.
Some examples of these games include:
- Village/Smithy/Laboratory/Wine Merchant/Remake. Obviously this is a strong engine, but itís okay if you dud a turn or two as long as youíre giving yourself a good shot at having nice big turns.
- Alchemist/Workerís Village/Amulet/Advisor. This engine is going to be a little slow to set up, but youíre going to be building for a while and then probably greening over 2/3+ turns. Your payload here is probably Silver, just because you can use your Amulets to keep gaining it while you can focus your buys on adding draw.
- Storyteller/Treasure Trove/Chapel. Again, this is going to be a quite good deck, but youíre going to have to green before you have $30 of buying power in your deck. Itís not a mega-turn, and control is not terribly important, but itís pretty reliable and can still pull off some fairly excellent turns (which is what differentiates this from a ďAs-Good-As-it-GetsĒ engine).
Some features of these decks include:
- You still typically want to do everything you can to make these decks reliable. Dudding remains really bad, even if itís not game over in these decks. This means you want to thin/trash persistently, add in sifting (such as Dungeon) if you can, and have some ability to overdraw your deck for (A) reliability, and (B) the ability to keep your deck running once you start greening, since youíre going to be greening usually over at least 2 turns in these decks.
- Pay attention to the availability of +Buy. While +Buy is available on roughly 88% of boards, itís actually usable on a decent number less than that, and if thereís not usable +Buy itís usually in your best interest to build to a deck that reliably hits $8, and no more. Cards like Haggler can be really nice for helping you continue to hit $8 while staying reliable.
- You can afford to take some chances on payload in these decks. Adding in extra payload that youíll probably but not definitely be able to play on these boards can be okay, and you can take some chances to try and get ahead since typically these games are going to be pretty close. Donít be stupid though, if youíre probably going to dud, you should be adding in reliability. But at the same time, feel free to make your deck less than 100% in the mid-game in order to get ahead.
- Even if junk is eventually going to get cleaned up in these decks, you still want to do it. Donít ignore Witch in these decks ever, please. This is less about control than pace. If youíre adding payload while your opponent is still cleaning up, thatís another way to get ahead. And getting ahead is how you win, of course.
Okay, so thatís it for the engine types that I think deserve distinctions. Of course there are meaningful distinctions to be made even within those paradigms, and many games tend to flirt between the lines. Keeping those deck types in mind, however, can help keep your expectations and buys aligned with a focused plan that will see you winning more games than you otherwise would with less focus.
Money, Big Money, Money-ish, Whatever
When it comes to money games, I take an opposite stance to that of Engines. Notably, itís that I think distinctions tend to be harmful here rather than beneficial. Iím not going to focus on specific examples here so much as describe the kinds of things to look out for and exploit in these types of games, and also to a lesser extend when to play these sort of decks over the above ďAs-Good-As-it-GetsĒ engine choice.
Features of these decks:
- Silver and Gold, are, of course good cards. Many kingdom cards tend to help out, however. A good rule of thumb is that two kingdom terminals is usually correct, and, if those terminals are durations, then three is usually correct. If the terminals are not draw cards (and, really, you should relatively rarely play terminal draw BM mostly because it prohibits this), you can add in other useful cantrips with impunity.
- Kingdom Treasures are really good. Treasure Trove is tremendous for these decks (and also because it baloons your deck, allows you to play with extra terminals). But watch out for cards like Relic. If the engine is playing Relic most/every turn, youíre going to have a lot of trouble hitting $8 with 4 card hands.
- Points are the name of the game. This generally means two things
- Green early. You want to be ahead in these games, not have a better deck. Standard ďBig MoneyĒ means you donít Province until you have $18 in your deck total, but most Kingdom Card strategies allow you to buy Provinces earlier than that, which basically means typically you buy one Gold and then itís all Provinces on $8.
- Cards that give points are really great. This means Monument. But it also means Witch/Swamp Hag/Ill-Gotten-Gains, and doing things that would normally be dumb like buying Temple mostly just for the VP Chips, or taking the Defiled Shrine relatively early (but please, donít over-do this. You still need to hit $8). If you need any proof that points are important, hereís some: 1. Swamp Hag BM beats Cultist BM 2. Buying a single Ill-Gotten-Gains and otherwise playing straight big money beats straight Big Money 70% of the time!
- Any way you can add in reliability is great
- Baker is a big help, because smoothing out your hands that are quite honestly completely random is great.
- Cards like Gear are also really great to this, and to a lesser extent even Haven can be very useful. But be careful about opportunity cost, because Silver is great here!
- Gaining extra cards is great, and trashing is good as long as it doesnít take you too far out of your way. Donít over-do it, as a single trasher is usually plenty.
- An early Raze or Hermit can still be quite good to get some crap out, and, in the latter case, add some good stuff in.
- In Colony/Platinum gains, put more emphasis on trashing since the game will go longer and itís more important to clean out Copper.
When to play these decks, non-forced:
Iíve garnered somewhat of a reputation for being a player who plays a lot of non-forced money, i.e. I play money-based strategies on boards where a ďAs-Good-As-it-GetsĒ engine is available. Although not really, after all, because the as-good-as-it-gets deck isnít always an engine, believe it or not. Here are some of the things I look for:
- How well is the engine going to green? If the only engine draw is Menagerie and thereís no discarding, then the engine is going to start choking as soon as it gets itís second province.
- How fast is the engine going to grow? If thereís no +Buy and the other gaining is weak or irrelevant, then the engine is going to take forever buying parts while youíre adding green consistently.
- How is the engine going to score? If the money player has to take (at least almost) all the Provinces to win, then he/she is probably not going to have a lot of success. But if you just need 5, youíre going to have a lot better chance at success.
- How fast is the engine going to be reliable? Maybe the engine doesnít have great payload, but if it can start having good turns relatively quickly, youíre not going to be able to out-run it with your relatively random money deck.
- If the engine canít compete on Junk without adding in cards they donít really want into their deck, maybe the engine isnít best. Think Jack as the only trashing or Soothsayer as the only cursing.
Donít be afraid to play with a lot of kingdom cards in this deck, but be careful, and donít try to over-complicate things by adding in cards that are only marginally useful. A village that might only sometimes be useful is probably worse than just sticking extra Silver in decks like these.
The Points Slog
Okay, this is really just a slog. The problem is, lots of people call games ďsloggyĒ just because there is junk involved even if the game is more of a money game. Hereís the key thing with slogs, and this is something Wandering Winder pointed out long ago: Itís not about if thereís junk involved or not; itís about playing a long game where youíre trying to amass an insurmountable number of points in a very unreliable, thick deck.
Some examples of these games:
- Masterpiece/Trader | Feodum. Oh, did I mention that Iím in favor of killing the ďComboĒ deck? Because I am. These are slog decks.
- Silk Road/Herbalist/Inheritance/Treasure Trove. I mention this because it occurred in a recent game, but the point here is that youíre inheriting Herbalist and playing a thick deck very quickly, in which youíre buying a lot of Herbalist Estates and Silk Roads very early, after probably 2 Treasure Troves before any of that. Your deck is going to be ugly, but itís going to have a ton of points. And while hitting $8 remains nice, itís not the point of the deck (which is why this is a slog and not a money deck).
- Ironworks / Garden | Silk Road. I think itís worth killing the ďrushĒ distinction too. Because the reality is that you play rush and slog decks exactly the same way, only slog decks donít attempt a pile-out while rush decks do. But every turn looks the same, as youíre doing something relatively weak but itís scoring points every turn, and itís starting early. Rushes just end faster because they have a natural third pile.
- On the rush note, Ball/Death Cart/Gardens. This tends to end the game quickly with a decent number of points, but youíre still doing the same (relatively weak) thing every turn.
- Horse Traders | Duchy/Duke. Yeah, I donít need to explain this one.
Some Features of these games:
- These decks tend to be very weak. If there is a good or even decent engine on the board, youíre probably going to get out-raced. However, strong enablers of these strategies tend to be able to far outpace money-based strategies and weaker engines.
- These strategies tend to be focused around (A) getting to the part of the game where they score points very quickly, and (B) continuing to be able to score points throughout the duration of the game. This means you typically need extra gains, and to continue to be able to stick extra treasure and action cards in your deck while greening. Even if itís just Copper.
- Of course, some of these decks arenít weak and will dominate almost every board. The above mentioned Masterpiece/Feodum, for example is one of those.
Okay, that will wrap up at least part one of my work on trying to define and describe decks in a meaningful and helpful fashion. Iíve purposely omitted some deck paradigms or sub-paradigms, such as golden decks, etc. Iím sure I missed some things, and Iím absolutely sure I said some things that merit disagreement. Iím also completely sure that many will find the entirety of these distinctions nearly completely useless. But I also know this: thereís still a lot of room for us (and I mean all of us, all the way from poor to good players) to get a lot better at this game.