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.
Honorable Mention: Pawn
This is one of the most all-around useful cards in the game. It’s great early when you can afford to blind draw (e.g., +1 Card / +$1), it’s an easy way to get a non-terminal Buy, it’s ridiculously cheap, it’s a great disappearing source of money (good for Library, Minion, Grand Market), and yes, if all else fails, it’s +1 Action / +1 Card…
It’s lost a bit of its luster now that there are more cheap ways of getting +Buy, but rarely is a deck actually hurt by including a Pawn or two. Unless, of course, you’re playing on Isotropic, in which case your opponent will probably die of old age before you finish playing every single one of your King’s Courted Pawns.
I considered placing this above Haven, but ended up ranking it just below. It’s decent (but not great) in a +Actions/+Cards chain (as befitting a $2 card), but it’s really nice even when you don’t have any +Actions. In many ways it’s actually superior to Smithy, since placing a card back on top is like a mini-Haven, and it saves you from drawing dead Actions.
But it ranks below Haven simply because it doesn’t feed on itself well: you can’t play multiple Courtyards since it’s terminal, and even if you have +Actions, playing multiple Courtyards on top of each other is not that great, since it misses out on the true point of Courtyard. And not every deck is improved by a Courtyard.
I really, really like this card. Probably more than it deserves. But it’s saved my bacon many times: literally every engine combo benefits from a Haven, making those lovely massive Action chains that much easier to put together. In particular, it gets rid of those situations when you draw your King’s Court all by itself, even though you have like a million other Actions in the deck, but your stupid opponent lucked into his stupid King’s Court with his stupid Mountebank and now you’re pretty much dead on arrival because of a random number generator.
In other words, Haven is great. It’s like a poor man’s Scheme, except it increases your hand next turn and works on Treasures too, helping you smooth out your late game $7’s and $9’s.
We like to casually use “Reaction” to mean “Reaction to attack”, but it’s worth remembering that the best defense against attacks doesn’t even say “Reaction” on the card. Lighthouse is the only “Reaction” worthwhile in a 2-player game, since you’re basically unattackable once you’re able to keep a Lighthouse in front of you consistently every turn.
The key is really that it’s non-terminal, so when you draw your Lighthouses with your Mountebank you aren’t just forced to play one and not the other. Its benefit is not too shabby either; obviously it’s not as good as a Silver, but it’s good enough for a spammable Reaction, and heck, I’ll take +1 Action / +$1 with $1 next turn over +2 Cards any day.
A strong contender with Fishing Village and Border Village for the best “Village” in the game. It doesn’t have Fishing Village’s crazy Actions, or Border Village’s free $5 card, or even the word “Village” in its name, but it does offer +Buy, a critically underrated component of an +Action/+Cards engine.
The fact that you have to discard means that Worker’s Village is technically usually better, but since you’re mostly building an engine around Actions, the forced discard is rarely an issue: the whole point of Action combo engines is that you don’t need all the cards in your hand — just a few key ones. Sometimes it even works to your benefit (e.g., Tunnel, Library). The key, though, is the price: Hamlet’s price makes it easy to grab two with $4 and two buys. And where do you get those buys from? Oh, right, the Hamlets. Self-synergy is generally a surefire recipe to the top of these rankings.
Six expansions later, Chapel is still the best card in the game. In fact, it is likely the most powerful Dominion card that will ever be printed relative to its cost.
That’s not the same as it being bad for the game, though. On the contrary: Chapel enables players to explore an entirely different kind of Dominion: a Dominion where card combos are free to run wild, without getting gummed up by Coppers and Estates. A game where engines thrive and Big Money stumbles, where you get to immediately reshuffle in your new purchases instead of waiting many agonizing turns to see your cards again.
As more and more trashing options are introduced with each expansion, Chapel’s uniqueness has faded. In some games, it’s arguably no longer even worth purchasing. But Chapel remains the defining card of small-deck Dominion, a card whose legacy speaks for itself.