Disclaimer: Dominion does a really great job of balancing its Kingdom cards. Pretty much every card has some situations where it shines, and some situations where it doesn’t. Nevertheless, some cards just end up being flat-out better than others, either because they are more useful more often, or just ridiculously good when they are useful. Don’t expect this list to be very scientific.
Since there’s only 10 Potion-costing cards, and since Top Five really means Top Six factoring in the Honorable Mention, two cards will overlap between the Worst and Best list. So again: don’t expect this list to be very scientific.
Honorable Mention: Familiar
No other card highlights Turn 3-5 unfairness quite like Familiar. It’s basically the strongest Curse-giver in the game, and it all comes down to whether or not you drew your Potion with $3 on turns 3 or 4. If you didn’t, and your opponent did, you might as well GG. Of course, this happens to Witch / Mountebank too, but the odds of not making your $5 after Silver/Silver are only 6.6%. The odds of not making $3P on a Silver/Potion opening is 34.6%. That’s a
34.6% 23.3% chance you’re just dead on arrival, because you didn’t get $3P and your opponent did, and there’s nothing you can do about it. (You can actually see a dip in the win rate on Turn 5 Familiar purchases, since most of those are by people whose Potion missed their reshuffle.)
And no, this has nothing to do with the fact that my lowest win rate given availability is with Familiar.
Apothecary combines two traditionally weak categories of cards — Copper-oriented and deck-inspection — into a surprisingly decent card. Of course, it’s set back by the fact that you never really want Coppers, but the fact that you usually have so many Coppers lurking somewhere in your deck means it’s not really that awful. It doesn’t have the same versatility as the better Potion cards, but it’s definitely better than the ones below, and it can be especially powerful with Warehouse. Let’s just move on before I move it onto the Best list.
It gives you free $5 Actions, and then the +Actions to play them! What’s not to like?
Well, for starters, the cost. To get a University, you need a Potion. Problem is, most of the cards that you want in the University engine don’t call for a Potion. So bam, right there, University has the same problem that all Alchemy cards have. Your opponent, who went for just pure money, can use his money to buy $5′s OR a Border Village, which basically does the same thing except is a lot easier to buy and gain.
Moreover, University doesn’t give you any cards. It doesn’t even fake give you cards like Native Village does. It just flat out dies in your hand, with no replacement, and so you need some major Action density to make any kind of University engine viable even after greening.
Like Apothecary, University is still quite an effective card. But since it’s so slow, you need either some major $5 attacks out there (Torturer, for one), Throne Room, some powerful accelerants (Wharf, City), Vineyard, or ideally, some combination thereof to make it worthwhile. Otherwise you’re better off with some kind of Village.
3. Philosopher’s Stone
Philosopher’s Stone is the odd card that rewards you for building stereotypically bad decks and punishes for building stereotypically good decks. As such, it’s hard to integrate into most decks. It’s a nice alternative game strategy if you find yourself far overloaded with Curses and Coppers and such, and if you can get your deck fat enough each Philosopher’s Stone is a guaranteed Province. But how do you rank such a card, which can help you only if you’re doing poorly?
The fact that it slows down in-person games with its counting doesn’t help it either.
Possession gets low marks primarily because it’s such a trap card. Even most beginners understand not to open with Potion when the only Alchemy card is Philosopher’s Stone, but something about Possession’s presence drives even experienced players into the madness of opening Silver/Potion.
Moreover, Possession is much more bark than bite. Most experienced players know how to beat Possession: simply don’t play like you would normally play. Rush Duchies, junk your deck, and you’ll reward your Possessor with fistfuls of crap every time.
Worst of all, the opportunity cost of Possession is about as bad as it gets. Every time you buy Possession, you could have bought a Province instead if you had bought a Silver instead of Potion. Against an experienced player who knows how to counter Possession, you simply can’t recover from that slow of a start.
It’s the annual Dominion Christmas party, and all the trash-for-benefit cards are invited. They brought you presents: the Salvager is great, since he just gave you cash, and you can use it on whatever you want. The Apprentice’s present is stuff that he knows you’ll like, since you’ve bought it for yourself already. Remodel’s gift is OK — it’s a gift card, but you still have a nice selection, usually, and only rarely do you get stuck with something you don’t want. (Expand is the jerk that went over the Secret Santa limit.)
Transmute, on the other hand, is the awkward guy that gives you the unwanted gift that you had no say in and would probably rather regift. Yeah, sure, if you can draw Transmute with your Estates, some early Gold is great, but it’s just way too slow for an early-game trasher. And one of the top things you look for in an early game trasher is how it handles all your Copper; all Transmute gives you for trashing Copper is … more Transmutes. You can Transmute them into each other, but then they just turn into … Duchies? As in, the card that you Swindle your opponent’s early $5′s into? Yuck. Not to mention how badly it drops the ball when you have Curses you need trashed.
In the odd scenario that you need a sudden rush of late game Duchies, Transmute is still terrible. Its awkward cost makes it all but impossible to buy unless you have +Buy. In Duke games, your opponent who invested into Horse Traders can just buy Dukes, whereas you’re crippled once the Duchies run out.
The one scenario when you really want Transmute is when you can make full use of its Copper->Transmute ability. For instance, with Vineyards, the fact that Transmutes spread like a plague through your deck can actually be helpful. Theoretically, Venture could also skip all your Transmutes, but in practice, going Potion->Transmute->Transmute rush really isn’t the optimal way to set up a Venture chain.
The worst thing to be said about Transmute, I suppose, is that it’s so often ignored. You never see it in a discussion of trash-for-benefit cards, you never hear about it as a card to watch out for. It’s not really awful in the same way that Thief can be awful, but it’s just irrelevant. Its presence on most boards just means that you’re playing with a 9-card Kingdom.