Beyond Silver

SilverAbout two years ago, Stormparkiet wrote an influential review of base Dominion outlining the “Silver test”: is the card you’re about to purchase really better than a Silver?  If it isn’t, you should just stick to buying a Silver.  At its core, the review suggested that all you really had to do to succeed in Dominion was to blindly purchase Silvers and Golds.

Regrettably, this now-outdated heuristic continues to exert an undue influence on modern Dominion.  While Gold remains a cornerstone of most successful Dominion decks, Silver has silently turned into a liability rather than an asset in most modern decks.  Much of Silver’s original appeal stemmed from the fact that base Dominion strongly favored Big Money engines or slight variations thereof, and Big Money engines always benefit from more Silvers.  But subsequent expansions have radically upended traditional strategical thinking; Big Money engines (and Silver) are no longer nearly as relevant as they were before, for two reasons:

  1. With the advent of Colonies, a deck that can churn $8 per turn for 4-5 turns is no longer sufficient.  It’s considerably harder for Big Money to maintain a consistent $11 per turn than $8 per turn; the whole premise of Big Money was that the constant Silvers can keep resupplying your Golds so you can keep getting to $8.  But getting to a constant stream of Golds to resupply your Platinums is just too slow, primarily because:
  2. Action combinations are much stronger than before (partially due to widespread early trashing cards), and certain combos are so game-warpingly powerful that their benefits dwarf the tempo cost of setting up the combo.  (See, e.g., City/Goons/Quarry.)  Even in the absence of Colonies, they are simply too fast and too strong for Big Money to stand a chance.

What this means is that the ideal deck is no longer made up of just Golds and Silvers with one Smithy thrown in.  Instead, it is often a mix of Actions that are good on their own but much more than the sum of their parts when played together.  They churn out the Golds and Provinces; they’re what win you the game.  As a result, the worth of drawing these cards together now far outweigh the marginal deck benefit of a Silver.  A Big Money deck needed Silvers because it had no other way to get to $8; in an Action-driven deck, after you’ve got your combo set up, all Silver does is interfere.  What good is its $2 if it stops you from executing a Caravan/Vault combo that would net you $10+?

Silver still serves a purpose: to get you to $5 and $6.  Silver-based decks can consistently hit that number, but unless you’re shooting for a Duchy/Duke strategy, that’s just not enough to get into the big leagues.  A long-term strategy really lives and dies by its Golds; Silvers are just a way of getting to them.  Ideally, in fact, you’d jump to Gold without ever needing to buy a Silver (e.g., drawing Moneylender-Copper-Copper-Copper-Copper on your third turn); otherwise, you use an opening Silver or two (or three) to get you to Golds, and then buy no more.

Of course, if you’re being brutalized by Curses and attacks, then Silvers play a critical role in your deck even deep into the midgame, since you aren’t yet capable of reaching $5 and $6 without them.  And Silvers remain important in the increasingly rare sets where Big Money is the dominant strategy.  But in a typical game, after you have your first Gold and a $5 or two, buying Silver will often just weigh you down.  This is the time when those “useless” $2 and $3 non-terminals really shine.  It’s too slow in the early game to buy Great Halls and Wishing Wells when you need to get to $5’s and Golds, but once you get those $5’s and Golds, additional Silvers don’t help you on your next objective, which is to get to $8.  Better instead to get the non-terminals, netting a token benefit while simultaneously aiding you in setting up your real rainmakers: your Action combos, $5’s, and Golds.  (Yes, I would probably take even Pearl Diver over a Silver given appropriate circumstances.)  If no non-terminals are available, then even buying nothing is often better than buying the Silver.

You could interpret this evolution as a sign of power creep, but I think that’s an unfair characterization.  Base Dominion took relatively little skill to play optimally, since you really couldn’t hope to do that much better than the Silver baseline.  Since then, however, Dominion has become a much deeper and more complex game.  Merely meeting the baseline is no longer good enough; with skillful play, you can now reach much greater heights.  Like a set of training wheels, Silver provides you with what you need to get going, but to really succeed, you have to learn when to move on.

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11 Responses to Beyond Silver

  1. Jahz says:

    Nice article!
    Even with only base Dominion I was trying to put combos on, and I was loosing a lot 🙂
    Now it’s working better as you explained, the drawback being that the “offline” play takes longer, and for less experienced players, it’s really painful to suffer 10/15 cards combo every time from the opponent.

    Btw, this also implies Bureaucrat is one of the worst cards most of the time…

  2. fellowmartian says:

    Very interesting.

    I hadn’t really considered this too deeply. I was aware that Silvers can dilute a deck, but I’d never considered them in quite that light. I’m going to be keeping an eye on this in coming games.


  3. Axxle says:

    I’ve noticed Silvers cluttering a deck sometimes, but mostly in Colony games or games that use some kind of super engine. But like FellowMartian, I haven’t thought of it that much. After reading this, I’d like to know theory’s thoughts on Trading Post.

  4. Bob dole says:

    This is the reason why I’m happy that I never played with just base dominion, big money bores me to tears whenever I find myself doing it. As the game as grown though, I think this article( sums up big money’s place in that it should serve as how good your strategy is.

    • timchen1017 says:

      I found the article linked above rather dull and inaccurate. In fact, it does not even serve a useful practical purpose. For the sake of the argument, how do you know whether you are going to get to 4 provinces or not with a single mine in 20 turns (17 turns actually, to be more precise)? I found it is general hard to compare the efficiency of an action-heavy deck to a treasure-heavy one on the fly, and one only gets such knowledge via experience, or more often, via some simulations and measured numbers.

      • Reyk says:

        agreed. And what does this mean:
        “The pure money strategy simply means all you buy is money. This means that in your first turns you are going to buy two silvers if possible or a silver and a duchy if it is not. In general this is going to be the decision every turn in this strategy.”

        ? A silver and a dutchy?

  5. Shedletsky says:

    On the topic of Trading Post, you should team up with the guys over at Simulated Dominion and do an in-depth analysis of when to go Trading Post. Only when other trashing is not allowed? Or always?

    Love this blog – I added you in the Cards & Board games link section of my own blog.

    • theory says:

      Thanks! I like Trading Post; in the early game it’s really, really nice to trash while not having a dead turn. But it’s a huge liability in the late game, and so if I have Steward/Chapel I won’t bother. If I started with Salvager or Remodel, then I’ll pick it up, then Salvage it later on.

  6. skrotkanon says:

    Necroing a bit here but just wanted to say I really like the blog and especially this article. The more I play Dominion the less I like silver and in extension Trading Post, I guess I’ve come to conclusions similar to yours. 🙂

    Anyway, last night I found a fun combo in a multiplayer game.
    You play University, show Watchtower and put the gained card on top, play Watchtower to draw it and play it with the second action from University. We happened to have Mountebank and Apprentice on table which made for some fun turns.

  7. Dyl says:

    I’ve read this article a dozen times, intellectually acknowledging it, but not really understanding the fullness of it, and gone back to playing Dominion dozens of times. Today, when I watched a set of Spys (Spies?), NOT a set of Silvers, break through a key part of a tough Goko adventure, the truth of the “non-terminal” section of this article clicked. It was a wow moment. Thank you for writing this. I have a new appreciate for its concepts now.

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