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.
The biggest problem I had with this list was that any honest list of the best $5’s would basically just be attacks. As great as Laboratory is, it’s simply not a viable defense against Mountebank or Torturer or Minion. So I’ve decided to split this list into two parts: the best $5 attacks and the best $5 non-attacks. If you want, consider this list to be the “real” best $5 cards, since any of the top five are going to be more important than any other option at $5.
Honorable Mention: Rabble
It’s kind of silly to have an Honorable Mention, since there’s only seven $5 attacks, and one was already the worst $5 card, and in any case (by process of elimination), it’s obvious what belongs here. But since I’ve gone to the effort of writing up all the other cards, I might as well give Rabble its moment in the sun. It’s only really effective when your opponent has Victory cards, but it can be unbelievably devastating once chained together in the late game. Games with competing Rabble engines are a lot of fun, since you’re both locked into a game of chicken, daring the other into buying the Victory cards. It can shut down a draw chain without Cellar or Warehouse, or it can absolutely ruin your opponent’s next turn.
That having been said, the other $5 attacks are in a class by themselves. Rabble isn’t quite as bad as Saboteur, but it’s got a long way to go before it can join the elite pantheon of attacks. No other attack is as weak early on: in fact, this is one I’d almost certainly pass over for a peaceful $5 early on.
It’s amazing to me that Minion can be #5 on this list, since passing it up in most 2-player games is suicide. But it’s less flexible than the other attacks: it’s not that effective for Colony, and it’s not great in multiplayer since it’s harder to get that critical mass of Minions. Plus, they’re quite vulnerable to getting bogged down with Curses, such that most of the Minions are used for drawing instead of the money.
But if you can do better than a 5-5 split in 2-player, you are usually well on your way to victory. Its non-attack function is very strong: quite a few cards combo well with a Minion deck, and because it self-synergizes, it’s usually easy (even without trashing) to get Minions going. But its attack really becomes killer once you get into Province-buying territory, since you are forcing your opponent to cycle faster, meaning his green cards are being mixed faster into his deck and he has fewer turns to run his fully-optimized engine.
This is probably the best-named card in the game. I’ve seen people quit Dominion over Torturer. And not in the completely unnecessary sense like with Saboteur, I mean in the completely justified sense of “because you got your Torturer chain off first, I am now doomed to be Torturer-pinned into oblivion for the rest of the game”. There’s an art to building an effective Torturer train as quickly as possible, but the first person to land the multiple-Torturer blow is usually the one that ends up prevailing. As much as I hate reactions in 2-player games, Torturer is one of those few situations where I give in and grab Lighthouses or Watchtowers to defend.
Unfortunately, Torturer is a total whiff if there aren’t any +Actions, since a single Torturer by itself is not very scary at all. And naturally, it works absolutely terribly with Curse-givers, since it only has bite if there are still Curses left to take. This also means the attack has a built-in expiration date: make it past the 10 (or however many) Curses and the attack becomes a total non-factor. Plus, gaining Curses into hand is usually not nearly as big a deal as gaining them into deck if you can just trash it immediately.
3. Ghost Ship
Ghost Ship draws only 2 cards, compared to Torturer and Rabble. Plus it has the unfortunate distinction of being the only $5 attack that doesn’t really work well Throned or Kinged. So you won’t be building a good engine with Ghost Ship any time soon. The good news is you won’t have to, because Ghost Ship is about the meanest single attack there is in the game.
Oh, yes, Mountebank and Witch (you know they’re coming up) are stronger, and there’s nothing meaner than a Torturer or Minion chain, but as single attacks go, it’s hard to fathom one crueler than Ghost Ship. With relatively few exceptions, you’re basically ruining either your current hand or your next. Worse, Ghost Ship is one of the two attacks in the game that does not anti-synergize with most other attacks; if anything, it gets even better.
Once in a while, Ghost Ship attacks are helpful as mini-Havens. If you’re lucky enough to draw 5 Platinums in one hand, you’d be pretty thankful to Ghost Ship for letting you save two for next turn. But most of the time you have no better option than to put off your good cards until next turn, hoping he doesn’t draw another Ghost Ship. Getting pinned by Torturer chains is painful and frustrating, but getting trapped in Ghost Ship lockdown is as depressing as Dominion can get.
Witch is a defining card in Dominion: along with Chapel, Thief, and Gardens, Donald X. called it one of the four pillars of the base game. Even beginners quickly realize why: Curses are the strongest attack in the game, and Witch is as straightforward a Cursing attack as it gets. There’s no condition for gaining, like Mountebank; no option for the player to choose, like Torturer; no top-decking to let them trash it immediately, like Sea Hag: just “gain a Curse”. This unconditional Cursing makes it hands-down superior to Mountebank in games when both are present, since the Witch’s Curses will never be stopped without a Reaction. Indeed, if all five of these attacks were on the same board, Witch would be my first choice: it is the only one that will actually shut down all of the other attacks. (Except maybe Ghost Ship.)
So why does Mountebank get the nod over Witch? Three reasons, in ascending order:
- It continues attacking even after the Curses are exhausted. Realistically, this is not a huge deal, since after the Curses run out there are not that many turns left before the game ends. But it’s nice to be able to do some damage to your opponent’s deck.
- It gives +$2 instead of +2 Cards. Although there are certain benefits to Witch’s +2 Cards (for instance, faster deck cycling), it is much easier to draw two Witches dead than two Mountebanks. And as you will often want at least two of these Cursing attacks, drawing one of them dead can spell the difference between splitting the Curses 5-5 and 6-4.
- It’s just flat-out meaner. Mountebank is the most devastating Turn 1 opening; it has the highest “win rate with” and the fourth-lowest “win rate without” out of any card in the game; it; an early Throned or Kinged Mountebank is basically game over. And although it’s theoretically counterable by Moneylender/Counting House/other Copper-dependent cards, the extra Coppers slow your opponents down from getting back around to their own Mountebank.