For most of Intrigue’s existence, the Duke has led a quiet life. Recently, however, his true power has been thrust into the spotlight, as people realize how game-warping his VP can be. Playing the Duke deck requires a very different approach than playing a standard Province deck, and is often counterintuitive (you mean I want to BUY Copper?!). But played correctly, a properly-designed Duke deck will outlast and eventually beat most Province decks.
Part of the problem with evaluating Duke, as is the case with basically all your alternate VP strategies, is that your clocks get all messed up. Lots of top players have a good feel for how long the game is going to be, given the kind of deck they’re building. Oh, it takes BM/Smithy about 15 turns to complete the game. Well, that’s based on rushing to half of the Provinces, then slowing down a little for Duchies toward the end.
But in a game which your opponent isn’t helping you end the game by buying Provinces himself, you tend to choke a bit harder on green cards, and it can go significantly longer.
So that’s the first lesson of Duke: in non-mirrors, you’re in for a very long game. Prepare accordingly.
How many Dukes?
Okay, next thing to notice is the math on Dukes specifically. How many of them are you going to need? When do you want to buy Duchies, and when do you go for Dukes? Well, after a little thought, you’ll see that the first three should definitely be Duchies, and then with 3 Duchies and 0 Dukes, a Duchy is worth as much as a Duke, and thereafter, if you want to maximize your immediate points, you should alternate the purchases. (For the mathematically-inclined, a derivation of this principle.)
However, if you’re playing to have Duchies/Dukes as your main victory points, you’re eventually going to want at least 6 Duchies, right? Because in order to beat 8 Provinces, you need at least 11 Duchy/Dukes, and that’s optimal if you’ve got 7 Duchies and 4 Dukes, but 6 and 5 will get you a tie.
In other words, if you’re going for Duchy/Duke, the real principle is just to buy Duchies non-stop until the Duchies are gone. You should only start on the Dukes after grabbing 7 Duchies, You might want to consider going Duke before grabbing the last Duchy, but if your opponent isn’t going for Dukes as well, getting the Duchies denies them a lot more points than getting the Dukes does. And even if they are mirroring you, the Duchies are what give the Dukes their potency anyway, so they’re what you need to focus on.
Let’s stop briefly to discuss Duke in a multiplayer game. The math is different, because with 12 Provinces and 12 Duchies/Dukes, and assuming Province opponents, in a 3p game you’re up against 6 Provinces and in a 4p game you’re up against 4 Provinces. That’s a lot fewer points, only 6 Duchies and 3 Dukes, but since most pretty bland, standard decks can get to 6 Provinces without that much trouble, you’re not going to have much time. Also, it’s very likely you’ll get a 7/5 split on the provinces, and you need to overcome that 7 to win. So you end up often needing almost just as many Duchy/Dukes as in 2-player, but you’ve got less time. Anyway, still possible with support (you need support now though), but green a touch sooner and Duke>Duchy a little sooner.
If you have 2 players going for the Duke deck, then the Province player getting even a single Duchy is a pretty big deal. He also has access to a lot more Provinces overall. And because there are only 12 Duchies for the 2 players, they’re going to be stunted a bit more. So this looks really good for Province player on most boards.
There are a couple of boons with 3-player to the Duchy/Duke player, though they generally aren’t enough to make up the deficit. Namely, other piles are going to run out faster. So paradoxically, you might want the game to actually end faster, because if Duchy/Duke can get a lead, Province doesn’t have as much time to catch up if you 3-pile him. Also if the two Province players get slowed down dancing with each other, you get time to catch up. And finally, lots of those single-card engines where you need a lot, your opponent can’t get so many. So you’re less likely to get pummeled by a player with a huge Minion or Hunting Party or Conspirator engine, ’cause they can’t get as many.
4-player makes things even crazier. So, everything from above gets even further compounded. Your opponents have 4 Provinces each, which isn’t that much at all. You should flip to buying Dukes after like 5 Duchies probably. Certainly not more than 6. The game’s going to be so short, you might actually hold up OK, if you can get a quick 3-pile; it’s not so rare for racing to Duchies to be good in 4-player anyway. But likely, in 4-player, the game is so short that you really really need to listen to your shuffle luck. By that I mean, if you’re getting 6s early, go for Gold and Provinces. But if you get 5s, then roll with the Duchies and Dukes. Okay, more complicated than that, but the idea is to have a strategy flexible to whatever you draw.
The general idea is that the Duke deck is a lot weaker in 3p and 4p. The big reason for this is goes back to one of the first things I say in the article, that the game is a lot longer in non-mirrors, because you’ve got one person going for Provinces, the other going for Colonies, and so neither end condition gets met very soon. This gives you the time to get the 12-13 $5’s that you need. That’s sorta true in multiplayer too, but not nearly as much, since multiple Province players will drain the pile much faster. Your best bet then is to hope to end the game faster, via three-piling with Dukes/Duchies.
Duke strategy on the macro level
So, you want to get all this stuff – how do you do it? There are actually a lot of ways to do it. Because there’s a higher ceiling on points from Duchy/Duke than from Provinces (technically higher even than Colonies, but you need like ALL of them), I’ve actually seen some engine or combo kind of decks that go for Duchy and Duke. It’s pretty interesting, and it’s something you need to keep aware of. But if you’re going that route, you need to make sure that your deck is capable of getting lots and lots of $5 buys without the engine gumming up too much with the green and the big deck. Most engines do gum up like that, and so aren’t so good at dealing with the mass green that Duchy/Duke presents. Tactician is one way around it, as is something like Highway/Ironworks. But in general your usual +Actions/+Cards-esque engine is going to choke badly on all that green.
Money goes very nicely with Dukes, on the other hand – even Copper. Because all your key cards cost $5, Copper brings your $ average closer to being there. And because you can actually get above that $1 per card you want, the extra Coppers smoothing out your money distribution is important. Moreover, the Coppers stop each successive green card from hurting as much. Okay, Copper isn’t something you should really be buying that often anyway – you should be getting something better most of the time. But if you have an extra buy, and you’re playing a money-based deck focusing on Dukes, grab those Coppers, even from Turn 1. This suggests you actually want those buys. And you do; +Buy cards help BM for Duke a lot more than traditional BM precisely because those Coppers are very nice to have. Of course, cards that can get you lots of Silvers or Golds are magnificent as well.
Sifters (e.g., Warehouse) are also going to be pretty nice for a Duke deck. No matter what, you’re going to have pretty high variation in money production from card to card, as such a high proportion of your cards produce $0. I want to pay special attention to Oasis here. It produces a little money for you as well as sifting, and in these kinds of decks will most often be better than Silver, as it tends to drive you to that magical $5 that you want. Ultimately you’ll probably want a mix between Oases and silver, but lots of Oases are going to be your friend here.
In addition to sifters, you’ve got similar cards which help you manipulate your shuffles. I’m looking squarely at Mandarin and Courtyard here: Mandarin is pretty weak at going Provinces (though, I’m convinced, quite underrated), while Courtyard is really strong with Provinces, but both are even stronger for Duke strategies. The idea’s simple – you need exactly $5, and you save the rest of your money (as much as possible) to hit $5 again next turn.
And of course, all the cards that help with green cards are nice here: Hoard, Crossroads, and Scout. Okay, I’m only half-joking on Scout. No, seriously, it can help.
Tactics: Countering Duchy/Duke with Provinces
First, playing against a Duchy/Duke opponent. You want to know that Duchy/Duke is a little better than going for Provinces on a straight-up Big Money board. So if you’re not going for the Dukes yourself, you must have a reason (this is very often the case).
Usually that reason is because you think there’s a deck to be built that will get you ALL the Provinces before your opponent gets to 11 Duchy/Dukes. If that’s the case, you should NOT, I repeat NOT try to contest Duchies until very late (assuming that you’ve identified that your opponent is going Duchy/Duke, hold off on Duchies yourself until later than you normally would), when you’ve got the vast majority of your points, as they’ll only clog you up, probably much more so than your opponent.
Editor’s note: As DG says, “This section hints at how many games are lost on Duchy/Duke boards. If you buy a Duchy you’re going to score at least 3 for yourself but deny your opponent the same Duchy to score 3 + the number of Dukes they own. This is a big swing. So if you’re on a province strategy it’s very tempting to buy some Duchies as a spoiler, but one isn’t going to make much difference so you buy two or three, and then you’re inevitably sucked into a Duchy and Duke race that you haven’t prepared for and then can’t escape. The solutions are clearly to trust your initial judgement and just buy provinces or (more often) to prepare for Duchy/Duke from the start. On the other hand if you’re on a Duchy/Duke strategy then buying a province is is nearly always worse than buying a Duchy.”
Sometimes, though, you think you can get to a large number of Provinces pretty quickly in some kind of deck that can handle a couple Duchies that you steal from your opponent. Here, you want to contest early, sniping 2-3 Duchies, and then leaving the rest alone. (Of course, if you can get 4+ Duchies, then why not go Duke yourself.) The thing here is, if you can get that 3rd Duchy, your opponent needs ALL of the other Duchies AND ALL the Dukes to have more points than you do, if you can get all the Provinces. And then she’ll have 1 more point than you. With 2 Duchies, she’ll need the rest of the Duchies plus 6 of the Dukes to equal you. But if she can sneak a Province, you can be in trouble, not to mention that 2-3 extra early green cards will probably seriously hinder your chances of getting all 8 Provinces fast enough. There just aren’t many I’m-going-Provinces-and-have-time-to-contest-Duchies decks out there. And if you can’t get 2 Duchies, it’s really not worth it (until the game is on the verge of ending).
Tactics: Playing Duchy/Duke against Provinces
On the flip side, if you are playing your Duchy/Duke strategy against a Province-seeking opponent, it is critically important to stick to your strategy. You’re in it for the long haul. You’re in it for a long game. You need the game to go long, so assume it will (and make it happen, if you can). Don’t buy your first Duchies as soon as you can, and find yourself having to rebuild your economy halfway through the game. It’s better to build a bit of an economy first. Simulations show that around $15 total money in your deck is where you want to be, which is only a few coin less than when you’re playing straight Big Money for Provinces. Support cards will change that a bit, of course. But stay your course, gobble up all those Duchies, resist the temptation for the quick points of going Dukes early – don’t switch until the Duchies are out, or at least until you’ve got your 7.
Do you go for a Province on a lucky $8? Well, generally, you don’t want to. Your Dukes will end up being worth as much by the end of the game, and, more importantly, you’re speeding up the end of the game for your Provincing opponent, which gives them real chances. After a certain point, though, once you’re into your Duke run, and you have a lead, particularly if your opponent is going for a big mega-turn, but basically any time you’re in the Duke stretch with a lead, you can go for it. Just do the math to make sure that it’s more Province denial on your opponent than it is speeding up the end of a game they have a good chance to win.
Tactics: Playing Duchy/Duke against Duchy/Duke
Finally, the mirror matchup. The mirror is probably going to be determined by who gets more Duchies. Obviously, there are a lot of different ways to go for Duke, so you could both be going for Dukes while playing totally different decks, and ultimately, you want to follow your strategy for that particular board. But in general, the only reason a player who wins a Duchy split in the mirror will lose is if they are totally out of economic gas, and being crippled, have to spend a lot of time rebuilding before they can get very many Duke at all. Because if you win the Duchy split 5-3, even if you lose the Duke split 5-3, you have a 6 point lead (heck, if you lose it 6-2 you’re only at a 2 point deficit). The upshot of this is that the mirror matchup often turns into a game of chicken. You’re both sitting there, building up your deck, and one of you makes the move to dive for the Duchies first. The other one probably has to follow pretty soon.
Take stock of how the Duchies split. In a 4-4 split, you keep the pedal to the metal on those Dukes. Same thing, more or less, if you win the split. But if you’ve lost the split, you may well want to give serious consideration to spending several turns re-tooling your economy to go for some Provinces, only contesting Dukes later on. This mixed strategy will often hold a better chance of success for you in the long run, as you can still pick up a couple Dukes later on. 3 Duchies and 2 Dukes with 5 Provinces matches up against the rest of the Dukes, and it’s probably easier than trying to stick with the full mirror, because once those Dukes run, the Duchy/Duke player needs to find a 3rd pile.
Finally, there are two specific combos that I’ve got to mention here. The first is pretty well known, Horse Traders/Duke. There have been a few articles about this combo already, I suggest reading them if you aren’t familiar.
The second is even stronger – Feast/Duke. This is actually a rush strategy, as you can start basically right away pounding out those greens. Silver on 3, Feast on 4, Duchy (later Duke) on 5 is pretty fast, and because getting to 4 is actually a heckuvalot easier than getting to 5, especially in these decks, you can do it much sooner. Is it still gonna be a long game? Yup. But not much longer, actually, than your average Province vs Province affair.
- Duchy, of course!
- Money-based decks
- +buy cards – your Woodcutters, Bridges, and especially Horse Traders
- Cost reducers: these tend to work better when you’re buying cheap cards instead of expensive cards. Highway drops Province from $8 to $7, but two Duchies from $10 to $8.
- Filterers or sifters, especially Warehouse/Oasis
- Gainers, particularly of Silver – even Workshop!
- Duchess (which can be the third pile you run out)
- Cache (which is preferable to Gold)
- Colonies (usually)
- Particularly fast engines
- A Province engine resilient to greening that can handle a long game (e.g., Chancellor/Stash, a nightmare matchup for this deck)
- Opponents’ Bishops (you actually want those coppers!)
- Trash-for-benefit cards (most normal trashers, too)
- Embargo – sort of: getting your Duchies/Dukes Embargoed hurts more, since you need to buy more of them, but Embargoing the Provinces in reply can be very strong as well, and it totally changes the complexion of the game.
- Swindler: unlike Provinces, which are unique at $8, your Dukes/Duchies can actually be trashed into a no-VP $5
- Saboteur: Provinces can degrade into Duchies, but Duchies degrade into Estates and no longer score for Dukes!