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.
There were a ton of candidates for this slot. There’s the sadistic pleasure of Masquerade; the infuriating attack of Swindler; the rage-inducing chanciness of Smugglers; I even briefly considered the criminally underrated Loan.
In the end, I went with Watchtower simply because it’s the most versatile card (and the best Reaction) in the game. Against Curse-givers, it depletes their ammo. As a Goons player, it massively increases your VP earning potential while indirectly defending against opposing Goons. With Talisman and Treasure Map, it’s an absurdly powerful combo. And it even works as a Royal Seal if you draw it dead.
I hinted at the utility of this card when discussing Cellar in the Worst $2 Cards: this card so out-classes Cellar it’s not even funny. Not only are you rarely going to be Cellaring more than 3 cards at a time, the ability to view what you draw before you discard makes Cellar a better card only when you’re going to be discarding 5+ cards at a time. (This is why Treasure Map/Cellar doesn’t work nearly as well as Treasure Map/Warehouse.)
Warehouse is best in the endgame, when you have a lot of Victory cards to discard, but it’s also a solid opening paired with another Action: I’ve already mentioned Treasure Map/Warehouse, but Baron/Warehouse, Salvager/Warehouse, Feast/Warehouse, and even Chapel/Warehouse all work nicely as ways to cut your variance. It’s a good way to guarantee you draw your Action with a given other card, or to accelerate the reshuffle to get a critical $5 card into your hand faster.
After Chapel and Moneylender, the most effective early trasher. The trash-for-benefit cards don’t work very well on Coppers, and tend to be too slow anyway; Lookout is too chancy; Trading Post and Forge are ordinarily too late. More importantly, Steward is the one of the few early trashers that has any use in the late game. It’s not the best card for any of its roles, but its flexibility often makes it more prized than all its superior alternatives. And it works especially well with Throne Room and King’s Court.
Of course, it’s completely useless when Chapel is around, but that’s true for quite a few cards, and Steward takes up the mantle admirably in Chapel’s absence.
2. Fishing Village
Heavy Action chainers must have thought they died and went to heaven when they saw this card. +2 Actions this turn and the next? And money to boot? With good terminals, this is one of the few cards you’ll see people double up on on the first two turns, just to make sure they grab their share before it runs out.
If there aren’t good terminals, this card becomes quite useless; it’s essentially a Copper this turn and an extra Copper the next. But its sheer power in the presence of +Cards, Goons, Bridge, or any other good terminal makes it far and away the best +Actions card in the game. You feel almost guilty using it: it lets you indulge in massively over-investing in terminal Actions like we did when we first got the game and Big Money was a Wheel of Fortune catchphrase rather than a fun-destroying heuristic. Action chains are the most fun part about Dominion, and Fishing Village is all about accepting that fact. It is so wrong, and yet at the same time it is so very, very right.
How good is this card? So good that with 5/2, I’d often rather open Ambassador/nothing than fall behind in Estate tennis. It “trashes” like a Steward, it attacks like a Mountebank Jr., and for the low low cost of $3! About the only time you won’t want to buy this is if your opponent is going Gardens, or if he’s cheating and somehow started with a Possession in his deck. Otherwise, the fact of the matter is: if you don’t buy it, your opponent will, and getting your own Ambassador is pretty much the only effective response. Plus, if you trim your deck enough, you can turn Ambassador into a Witch by buying a Curse (the “I win if I lose just a little less” strategy). It’s one of the most brutal attacks in the game; the fact that it’s available on the very first turn dramatically alters the strategy space of any game it’s in.