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 objective.
Honorable Mention: Tunnel
Even if it had no Reaction ability, the fact that it’s $3 for 2VP is enough to make it a common late-game buy. The Reaction doesn’t seem like much at first, until you realize just how many cards it comboes with. Much like Menagerie, Tunnel’s strength is going to depend on what expansions you have; with all the expansions in play, you’ll almost never find a board without at least some kind of Tunnel synergy.
It’s still normally a dead card while in your hand, and usually not a good opener, but it is not hard to build a strategy around Tunnel that ends up emptying the Gold pile.
The ability to draw before you discard is why this card is on the Best list and Cellar was on the Worst list. It makes combos like Treasure Map/Warehouse possible, and makes it a meaningful play even when your hand is already good (to clear out the top of your deck and cycle a bit faster).
About the only time you won’t want Warehouse is if you literally have no bad cards in your deck to discard. It’s strong throughout the whole game: early on, it lets you keep playing your key Actions or combos by cycling and sifting your deck; in the late game, it bypasses your Victory cards and keeps your deck alive. Warehouse thrives with high-variance decks and Action combos, when you want two good cards rather than four mediocre cards.
Menagerie takes a little work to set up. The most obvious way of making it work is to buy tons of unique cards, but if you try that approach you’ll spend most of the game raging at your “bad luck”. (Not to mention how a deck full of hodgepodge cards won’t get anywhere.)
A better option is to trash your duplicates, which in the early game, basically means Copper. On the other hand, if your deck is that small, the Menagerie is not as meaningful.
The best option, and the reason it’s on this list, is to discard your duplicates as they come up. There are many cards that now allow you to discard cards for some benefit: Warehouse, Hamlet, Vault, etc. Even better, your opponent might discard your cards for you: Menagerie is a vicious counter to Militia and Goons. With this many options, you’ll almost always be able to find some kind of Menagerie synergy on the board, and then it’s basically a double-Lab that costs $3.
3. 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.
Time to eat crow. The first Best $3 Cards list left this off entirely, and boy was that a mistake. Masquerade is an elite opener, and a hard counter to all sorts of junking attacks.
What makes it so powerful is its ability to avoid the midgame slump so common to deck-thinners. Cards like Chapel and Ambassador, though powerful, suffer from the fact that they don’t improve your buying power when you draw them. By drawing 2 cards, Masquerade combines solid buying power with its deck-thinning, thus allowing you to improve your deck along two axes at once.
But unlike other elite openers, it keeps its power into the midgame. The +2 Cards means that you’re almost always going to be passing a card equal to or worse than your opponent, and Masquerade is absolutely brutal when combined with discard attacks like Militia.
The fact that it’s the key component in the most powerful combo in Dominion doesn’t hurt either.
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 Jester that always hurts, and for the low low cost of $3! If you trim your deck enough, you can turn Ambassador into a Witch by buying a Curse. 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.
But Ambassador suffers from one critical weakness: it’s too slow. Bizarre, considering that its primary function is to slow your opponent, but if you can’t transition out of Ambassador into an engine, you’re often left flailing with very little time left. Against cards like Jack of All Trades, or Vault, the Ambassador player will end up with a very thin deck and not enough green cards to buy. In other words, it’s the Chapel effect, only exacerbated: you trade early and mid-game power for a late-game surge, but an opponent that pushes Provinces quickly can survive the junk and get enough. This isn’t to say that Ambassador can be ignored on most boards, only that you need to have a plan afterwards that is better than just Big Money with a small deck.