Guest Article: Planning and Playing a New Strategy

This is a guest article by WanderingWinder.

Duke, Ghost Ship, Horn of Plenty, Horse Traders, King’s Court,
Moneylender, Royal Seal, Smithy, Walled Village, and Wishing Well

Cards on Dominion Deck (except Village should be Walled Village)

Think about what you’d do with this set for a while. While you’re thinking I’m going to discuss a little bit about the game in general. One thing you always want to have in playing a dominion game is a game plan. Sometimes your plan will be good, other times it won’t, but in general, the player with a plan will almost always beat the player without a plan who’s just buying cards, even if they’re good cards. This is because one of the defining, great things about dominion is how the relative values of cards really change in value depending on the board or even the game situation. Sea Hag is great as an opener, but by the time there’s only one curse left, it’s really not worth it. Gardens is great with ironworks, weak against bishop or on a board with no gainers. Even colonies are bad on a board with a great Goons engine.

So with the importance of game-planning, one of the big questions becomes how to find the best gameplan for the board (the other big questions deal with watching how your deck and opponents are progressing relative to the board). There are basically two types of gameplans here. You can play one you’ve played before – Envoy/money, Workshop/Gardens, Minion/conspirator/Grand Market/Warehouse ball, etc. You can play one you come up with for the first time on that board. Really you should always do the second option, but your knowledge of more and more decks of the first kind, your experience, will help to inform this process.

With this in mind, let’s look at how I looked at this board. It looked like a pretty weak board to me. King’s Court doesn’t have any great targets. Moneylender can speed the deck up some. Smithy/money looks pretty decent. Horn of Plenty, Horse Traders, Walled Village, and Wishing Well are all pretty slow. Ghost Ship IS a strong attack, but Horse Traders is a quite good counter to it. So option one is Smithy/Money. Option two is GS/Money. But that would lead to option three – HT/Money. Moneylender would fit well with either of these last two options, but not so well in the Smithy deck. However, Smithy is going to be much faster than the Horse Traders deck. Does this lead to some kind of Rock/Paper/Scissors? Then I saw another possibility, probably because I’d just done some analysis of the Horse Traders opening, showing how it leads to $5 with very high frequency. My idea was to use Horse Traders to fuel a duchy/duke strategy.

As it turns out, Horse Traders is one of the very few best enablers of Duchy/Duke, but this game really was what brought the idea to the forefront in my mind, and I think to many of the people on the forums itself. I know theory is planning on writing an article onDuke, so I won’t spoil this too much, but let’s just say it’s more viable than a lot of people think, and with a good enabler, it’s extremely viable.

So let’s see how it turned out. The game log is (spoiler alert!) here. My opponent was a consistently top 10 player, Blooki (aka Triceratops). I knew that I would need to play well to keep up with him, though I was happy that on this board, his first turn advantage would be pretty minimal. Annotations appear in my version of theory’s reduced game notation.

Blooki WanderingWinder
1 3 -> Silver 4 -> Horse Traders (hereafter referred to
as HT)
2 4 -> Moneylender (reshuffle) 3 -> Silver (reshuffle)

Okay, at this point, we can already see that we’re going for different strategies. I read Blooki as going for a more conventional Money to province strategy here, and I had little to no idea as to how the two would match up. Game on!

3 4 -> Walled Village 6-> Duchy (!)

I have to stop here and say that this was a day or two after Walled Village (hereafter WV) was out on Isotropic. I’d already labelled it in my mind as the second or third worst $4 and knew it was going to be pretty darn terrible here. But Blooki likely had “Oooh, shiny” syndrome/wanted to try it out. On my end, I’m really not sure if this was the best thing, or whether it would have been better to buy a gold or second Horse Traders. However, I think this was eminently reasonable and probably best.

4 Moneylender,6-> Gold, (reshuffle) HT, 5 -> Duchy (reshuffle)
5 Moneylender,6-> Duchy HT, 5 -> Duchy
6 WV,4 -> HT (return WV) (reshuffle) 4 -> HT (reshuffle)
7 WV, Monelyender, 8-> Duchy (return WV) 4 -> Silver

Okay, a couple more interesting notes. One is that Blooki slowed down to buy Duchies. I think this was probably not the right decision here, though it’s a tough call. Blocking your opponents’ duchies is a big part of a lot of strategies against duke, but you also have to watch out – they can probably deal with the extra green better than you can, and that’s certainly the case here with Horse Traders. For my part, I probably should have picked up coppers with my extra buys and gotten a third horse traders instead of that last silver. On the other side, Walled Village’s drain can really be seen. Blooki plays it every turn for the rest of the game, always returning it to the top of the deck (I will cease to mention it in my report)- it never does anything for him. So basically, silver would probably have been a good bit better, though it would have lessened moneylender’s effectiveness a little bit.

8 3-> Silver (reshuffle) HT,4 -> HT
9 HT, 6-> Duchy 4 -> Silver (reshuffle)
10 6-> Duchy HT, 5 -> Duchy

This is the last Duchy. Somewhat surprisingly, an even duchy split. However, if you look at the rest of our decks, you’ll see that I’ve got three Horse Traders. He has one. He has a gold, but I have one more silver than him. And also I have three more copper (and he has a moneylender). This is good for me. What? This is good for me. Our decks are full of green, and my target is $5, so coppers are actually good cards, and Horse traders are great – I have a massive advantage already, though the game isn’t over. Also note that the HT help me grab extra coppers and estates, and those estates will be crucial for getting me a few extra VP and, more importantly, ending the game quickly.

11 (reshuffle) Moneylender, 3-> Silver 3-> Silver
12 HT, 5 -> Duke HT, 7-> Duke, Estate (reshuffle)
13 8-> Province</span (reshuffle)

5 -> Duke
14 3-> Silver HT, 7-> Duke, Estate
15 3-> Silver 0-> Copper
16 Moneylender, 5 -> Duke (reshuffle) HT, 6-> Duke, Copper (reshuffle)
17 Moneylender,8-> Province</span HT, 6-> Duke, Copper
18 3-> Silver HT, 5 -> Duke, Copper
19 4 -> Smithy 3-> Estate
20 HT, 5 -> Ghost Ship (reshuffle) HT, 5 -> Estate x 2
21 4 -> HT 3-> Estate (reshuffle)
22 HT, 6-> Gold 4 -> Estate
23 Moneylender
(no copper), 2 -> Estate

And I win, 46-36. Blooki has a 2-0 Province advantage, but I have a 6-2 Duke advantage (with 4 duchies each) and a 10-4 estate advantage. Probably if he would have detoured less for duchies, he would have had a better chance, though if I would have optimized my strategy, it would have sped up commensurately. It turns out that my strategy was a pretty good one, though obviously not a totally dominant one. We can also see that I refined my own strategy a bit as the game went on – buying more horse traders and especially coppers are important for my strategy. One of the great things about the HT/Duchy strategy is that it’s difficult to disrupt – Horse Traders’ reaction-ness really helps out against many attacks. Cursers are often still strong enough, though, and you have to watch out for really quick acceleration. Furthermore, like most duke strategies, its much weaker against colonies, though Horse Traders at least give the option, with the possibility of a quick three pile.

This game added HT/Duke to my bag of tricks, mostly 2-3 card combos I watch out for on every board. As I said at the top, this helps me check the board out when I’m planning at the beginning. Learning this pattern will help you too, but IMO some of the most important (and certainly fun) skills of strong dominion play is to be able to find and evaluate these kinds of things for the first time. This comes up most often when new cards come into being, but it can come any time, especially with more complicated combos, as there are just so many different combinations which exist.

As always, post comments on the comment section of the blog and discuss in the forums. I will try to get back to you as quickly and thoughtfully as I can.

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45 Responses to Guest Article: Planning and Playing a New Strategy

  1. kn1tt3r says:

    Nice one. Though I feel this strategy could have been countered quite well with Ghost Ship. Decreased hand sizes really hurts Horse Traders in getting to $5, even though you effectively just decrease to 4 cards (with one HT in hand).

    • No, that wouldn’t work — Horse Traders is a hard counter to Ghost Ship. Play the Horse Traders for its reaction, and you wind up with exactly the same hand; it’s like the Ghost Ship was never played.

  2. Reyk says:

    “even though you effectively just decrease to 4 cards (with one HT in hand).”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that’s not true. You will put aside HT first, therefore you have to put back only one card to your draw pile. You will restore HT + 1 card and have 5 cards.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Since the original forum post, I’ve used this strategy a few times now and it has been successful every single time.

    I think my favorite part about these kind of alternate VP strategies is that they force the opponent to make a decision… do I fight him on them or do I just stick with my original plan – and this decision is hard to assess. Anytime you give the opponent a (difficult) choice, you open up an opportunity for them to misplay.

    I think a big part of this game is his turns 7, 13, and 17. On turn 7 he gets $8 and buys a duchy – essentially committing to fighting you on duke/duchy. However, on turns 13 and 17 he gets $8 and passes on Dukes for a province. At this point, your deck cannot hope to buy provinces, so I think the correct decision should have been to continue fighting you on Duke/Duchy and purchase dukes here instead of the province.

    Maybe it would not have changed the outcome, but I don’t see why it would be a good idea to essentially commit to fighting duke/duchy on turn 7 with $8 buying a duchy, then switch plans on turn 13, 17.

    Thoughts?

    • WanderingWinder says:

      Well, I agree that it’s inconsistent, and you’re right in the end, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. One big strategy of fighting duke in general is to try to grab 3-4 duchies but not any dukes (particularly if you have 3 duchies), at least not until much later, and then break for provinces. The straight-up duke player won’t be able to make provinces probably ever, being too flooded with green. So if we check out the math on this, 8 provinces + 3 duchies = 57 points; 5 duchies + 8 dukes = 55 points, so the duke player needs 2 extra estates. Probably 2 estates is doable, so eventually the province player probably needs to nab a couple dukes. So if he has one duke, this is a 60-50 advantage, if it’s two, it’s a 63-45. Of course, this is going to take forever, so you have to factor in cutting some provinces. 3 duchies, 2 dukes, 5 provinces is equal in points to 5 duchies, 6 dukes. And this is quite often the best way of busting a more straightforward duchy/duke strategy.
      However, this is all contingent on it being very difficult for the duchy/duke player to empty a third pile, as he’s usually a touch faster than the province player, if there’s no good acceleration to get to those provinces fast. Horse traders busts that, as it’s really easy for a HT player to grab lots of estates quickly.

      So, all-in-all, Blooki played what would have been pretty well against a standard duchy/duke strategy, not so good against the HT version, which I expect he’d never seen before. Note that fighting me for dukes was never really going to work for him, as he was going to stall out much sooner with that much green – the HT are just really good for that, and moneylender is not at all. I still probably would have gotten the province on turn 7, which was definitely going to give him better chances here. The pure province player has speed on the duchy player, which is his biggest trump there.

      • yariv says:

        3 duchies, 2 dukes, 5 provinces is only one less green card than 5 duchies, 6 dukes, so It probably favors the duke player (the extra green card is easier to handle than the 5 provinces you have to buy). What I mean is, it seems unlikely that you will manage to buy 5 provinces after adding 3 duchies, 2 dukes to your hand and the other player struggle so much to empty a third pile, even without HT (If he managed 11 5$ cards…)

        • WanderingWinder says:

          But being faster to go green means he’s going to be quite a bit weaker in the long run (more green slightly plus somewhat significantly less build-up in money). Probably 2 is a bit much to ask if the duchy/duke player knows what they’re doing, but it’s something you really need to watch the board and especially your opponent’s progress for. If they dive for the green too early, you’ll be fine. If they go too late, you can mix it up either by straight rushing the provinces or straight-up going for duchies from out from under them.
          In either case, the provincing player doesn’t want to grab dukes until late.

  4. Dominion_geek says:

    I’m unclear on why Copper is a good buy with this strategy. If the goal is to get to 5, then you need either HT/Copper x 2/Anything to discard x 2 or HT/Silver/Anything x 3. Yes Copper will help push you to 5, but it requires that you draw it with additional coin (unlike Silver), and it slows down the frequency with which you see your HT. I would guess that you would do better by having the HT show up more often. Why is that not the case?

    • kn1tt3r says:

      This might be an issue for simulation. Given you have X Silvers in your deck (x = 0, 1, 2m …), how many Copper do you want relative to the numbers of HTs in your deck …
      I can’t do this, but maybe this is almost trivial for some of you.

      • kn1tt3r says:

        … and of your relative to the number of green cards in your deck. So, another variable…

        • Reyk says:

          Yes, the green cards should be the more significant. I think the idea is clear: Avoid turns with HT, Duchy, Duchy, Duke, Copper. But I’m not sure on this either. Maybe it was just right in the game. Avoid additional coppers early and buy some later. On the other hand Wandering Winder once started copper/HT against me with 2-5 – quite surprising at this time.

    • WanderingWinder says:

      Yes, you always prefer the silver. And yes, you want those HT to show up as often as possible. But at a certain point you just need the cash. I’m not 100% what that point is – if it’s before the game, or if it’s pretty late.

  5. DStu says:

    I would guess this is to much “relative to” for Geronimoo’s simulator, but I was tackeling the original question with it anyway.
    So as a simple rule of thumb buy Duchy>Duke>HT>Silver(until Duchies run out)>Estate(if Duchies run out)>Copper seems to perform quite well. Haven’t optimized the conditions, but don’t think it will matter much if you switch one Duchy earlier or one Duke later.
    I would guess the reason why you want copper is that it is free. It is quite unlikely that you can buy Silver. With 5 you want Duchy/Duke, so with 4 you want HT, so only exactly 3 let’s you buy Silver. While you can get the Copper with your second buy.

    • WanderingWinder says:

      Yes, something like this. Not sure when you should start buying estates, or when you should start preferring them to silvers. I’m also not sure when you should start buying coppers. It’s probably somewhat dependent on what your opponent is doing.
      I still don’t have this strategy totally fine-tuned, as these finer points lead to some pretty delicate intricacies (also the reshuffle should be taken into account). The simulator will probably be decent at giving rules of thumb, but not 100% accuracy

  6. DG says:

    One alternative play versus a duchy race is build up a drawing deck using a horn of plenty to supply the component cards. Start with a moneylender/silver to condense the deck. Perhaps buy a royal seal ahead of a horn of plenty (on turn 3 or 4) but get the horn of plenty soonish. Start collecting the smithy, walled villages, ghost ships to make the draw chain, hopefully buying one and gaining one from the horn each turn. Eventually the horn will provide king’s courts and they will unlock the multiple province turns.

    • chwhite says:

      Yeah, my first thought was to try and aim for a mega-Province turn using KC and Horn of Plenty. The risk, of course, is that you need to slow down to poach a couple Duchies otherwise eight Provinces isn’t going to be enough points.

    • Atto says:

      That’s exactly what my first idea was like. On the second thought I’m not sure if it is fast enough. May depend on how successful the Horn of Plenty will be, because this strategy will need many cards, especially KCs.
      I don’t think i would have really played this way. It’s too unreliable for me.

      • DG says:

        It might look unreliable but it probably isn’t so bad. The moneylender will remove a lot of inertia by trashing copper. As soon as you start filling your turns with actions the horn is likely to provide at a walled village at worst. If you play a royal seal with the horn of plenty you’ll be able to put multiple cards on top of the deck to set up the next turn. The randomness will come from the king’s courts and how well they draw.

  7. Diane says:

    I think the picture of the kingdom cards shows village instead of walled village

    • Diane says:

      Ah sorry, I see that it says that. I’m just confused cause I forget what walled village does.

      • chris says:

        Me too — I though “it must be from one of the sets I don’t own”, but then I looked up the card sets of those and it wasn’t in them either. What the heck is it, a leaked card from a future expansion?

  8. chwhite says:

    Also, re: Walled Village, calling it the “second or third worst $4” strikes me as crazy talk. While it is probably the weakest Village for its cost, it doesn’t belong anywhere near the Worst list. Heck, if vanilla Village cost $4 it wouldn’t make the list either, and a hypothetical $4 Village would be strictly worse.

    • chwhite says:

      To wit:

      I’d consider the following cards generally worse than a hypothetical $4 plain Village: Thief, Bureaucrat, Talisman, Scout, Pirate Ship, Coppersmith, Treasure Map. I might also rank Baron below Walled Village.

      • WanderingWinder says:

        I would definitely take all of those over WV except Coppersmith and possibly Talisman.

        • chwhite says:

          To use a mixed baseball analogy:

          Walled Village isn’t great. If you need to chain terminals, it’ll chain terminals for you or your action back, but yeah it’s kinda expensive. It’s the Mendoza Line of Dominion cards. But at least it doesn’t do any harm. The other cards I listed are occasionally more powerful, but unless you have a very specific plan for them can actively harm your deck, and for all those cards, setups that make them useful are much less common then setups that find a Village useful. They’re below replacement value.

          • WanderingWinder says:

            Sure, I’d more often want to have a walled village in my deck than most of those other cards. If you made me buy one of them, I’d probably buy walled village a lot more than the others. And it almost never hurts to have, since it’s at least a cantrip (only time it can really hurt is if you draw it dead). That doesn’t make it a better card. I want to buy Walled Village less often than the other cards (which is one of the key factors of rating how good a card it is) and it’ generally less effective for me (especially given its cost) than the other cards (which is the other key factor). Basically, I can always buy silver rather than any of these $4 cards, and in walled village’s case, I really don’t prefer it to silver that often. Of course, I don’t prefer the others to silver that often either, but I think probably at least almost as often, and they tend to really shine when I do pick them up, while Walled Village doesn’t.
            That isn’t to say that your position is at all crazy or even wrong – this is just how I see it. And I do think it is a pretty bad card.

            • chwhite says:

              Yeah, it seems like we have similar opinions of WV- it’s just that a) my rankings put heavier weight on “how often is this a useful card” rather than “how often does this card truly shine”, and b) I tend to prefer action chains, while you like BM-esque decks.

  9. Anonymous says:

    And that being said, coppersmith and talisman can be devastating in the right setups (say tactician for coppersmith and caravan for talisman) – whereas walled village is (almost) always sub-par.

    That being said, if you NEED a village-effect (say a chapel/goons board), it starts looking pretty good.

    • chwhite says:

      Walled Village is almost never the best Village for the situation- maybe it is when trying to efficiently set up a Torturer chain, that’s the only example I can think of right now. And certainly Coppersmith and Talisman have setups where they dominate (I certainly agree with your examples).

      But village effects are just so basic to Dominion, and useful so often, that even a crappy Village like Walled Village is going to deserve much more play than those other cards.

  10. timchen1017 says:

    Good article! But I agree with chwhite. Walled Village is probably not as good as a worker’s village or mining village, but it is certainly more desired than lots of other $4 cards in lots of setups.

    A slightly philosophical comment: I think judging a two-card combo is doable, 3 card or more it becomes very hard. (Unless the 3 cards are all net positive of course…) Here HT+Duchy is probably not so surprising (the most surprising part for me is that it can actually work starting so early; but it is nevertheless not perfectly clear to me that it is most effective to start on a Duchy at the first time you see $5.), but for example, I still don’t know how and when to play for a coppersmith deck unless other player showed me. I think this is due to that you need more than one card to support it.

    • WanderingWinder says:

      Yes, most of the two-card combos are not so tough to work out, but there are a good number that require some thought or creativity. Even these get found out pretty quick after a set’s release though, and it’s the first little while after that release where the two-card-combo skills come most into play. But the three card combos are significantly rarer and more complicated, and though they’re not THAT hard to work out, it’s a big skill to be able to have. And more cards, more complications.
      On the other hand, it seems to me that on maybe 40% of boards there’s a 1 or 2 card BM set-up which performs about as good as the optimal strategy, add a third card and it probably goes to about 80%.

  11. Willvon says:

    Thank you for this very interesting game analysis. I have been checking this site every so often to see if anything new was going to be posted before Theory returned. I hadn’t checked for a couple of days. So what a nice surprise to find this here today.
    I have tried to use Duke a few times, but it is very hard to get right. I hadn’t thought about HT working with it, but that is a great idea. Would Secret Chamber work with Duke also? Or is it too variable to trust it? Obviously, Vault would work also, but if you’re going Vault, then you would probably be going for a Gold/Province strategy. And HT or SC are a lot easier to purchase since Vault costs $5, which would conflict with your Duke/Duchy purchases.

    • WanderingWinder says:

      The problem with secret chamber is that in a 5 card hand, you need to draw it with a silver, whereas with horse traders, you need a silver OR two copper, and it’s a LOT easier to arrange having two copper than a silver. The +buy is also nice. So Secret Chamber helps somewhat, but usually you’d be getting silver instead until you hit a $2 hand.

  12. Geronimoo says:

    I managed to create a bot that beats Horse Traders/Duchie/Duke 60-40 using a Horn of Plenty strategy. It’s quite messy but it works:

    And here’s the Horse Traders/Duchie strategy:

  13. Blooki says:

    One of these days I’m going to be on the winning side of a featured game.🙂

    Although I must say, this game and WanderingWinder’s Native Village/Stash game are the reason I consider WanderingWinder one of the best and most innovative players in the community regardless of where he is on the leaderboard.

    • DStu says:

      “One of these days I’m going to be on the winning side of a featured game.🙂 ”

      Interesting question what will happen if there’s a featured game between you and Yaron…

      • rrenaud says:

        It’s like trying to drop a cat with a piece of bread and peanut butter stuck to its back. Just as the cat/peanut butter bread will never land, the Yaron/Blooki game must never end.

    • WanderingWinder says:

      Submit one! It’s very hard to submit a game you lost because, well, if you lost, it seems sort of strange to be trying to teach others on that basis, because if you really understood it, you would have won. Obviously there are holes in that argument, but it does make it more likely that people will post games they at least didn’t lose. That and that people like winning and like being seen winning.
      As for your comments about me, they’re very nice, and while I might be more innovative, I actually think that’s somewhat ironic in that I play less action chains than most other top players. As for how good I am, well… look at my records and I think that’s a fairly good measure. I do tend to do a bit more off-beat stuff, especially against lower players, and I think that hurts me a bit there, but if you look at how I am against the top players, such as yourself, I think it looks like I belong in the conversation, but not at the top.

  14. bigbeluga says:

    Great article! Love the way you break down your thinking about this board in a way that can be applied to the game in general.

    Shortly after reading this, I played HT/Gardens, despite the typical Gardens support cards being available. It actually seemed to work better than the usual support because after cleaning out the Gardens stack, I still consistently hit $5 and took most of the Duchy stack.

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