Disclaimer: Dominion does a really great job of balancing its Kingdom cards. 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.
Qvist has started a community card ranking project. The community’s $4 card ranking can be found here.
The common theme uniting the bad $4 cards is tempo. In an infinitely long game, each of these cards would serve some useful purpose. In practice, you only have five cards in your hand, and usually less than twenty turns to accomplish something useful.
Honorable Mention: Spy
Spy is the one card on this list that isn’t situational. Unlike the terminal $4’s, Spy’s presence almost never hurts your deck. Your Jester flips over an opponent’s Spy? Sure, why not take it! Your opponent Swindles your Caravans into Spies? Not a huge deal.
The flip side of this, of course, is that there is never a situation that you need Spies. Its own attack is pathetically weak, and its sifting power is too limited and too uncertain. It certainly combos well with deck-inspection attacks like Jester and Thief, but it costs too much tempo and resources to build up elaborate Spy-Spy-Spy-Jester chains.
So in that sense, Spy had to be the Honorable Mention. It doesn’t overtly hurt your deck, but the opportunity cost is too much.
5. Pirate Ship
Every Dominion player tends to pass through four distinct and recognizable phases with respect to Pirate Ship, otherwise known as the What, Wow, Why, and Hey … phases.
- What is the point of this card?
- Wow, this card is unstoppably strong!
- Why do I keep losing with Pirate Ship?
- Hey, Pirate Ship is actually pretty bad …
The final analysis is that Pirate Ship tends to help your opponent(s) more than it helps you. In certain rare Kingdoms, where you can’t generate money from Actions and Villages proliferate, Pirate Ship remains the best answer. More commonly, you get your Pirate Ships up to about $3 or $4 before your opponent’s engine kicks into gear, thanks to you trashing their Coppers. Many engines that are otherwise too slow to set up get a big boost thanks to opposing Pirate Ships.
Coppersmith is the archetype for all situational $4 cards. When it shines, it really shines; when it is bad, it’s really bad.
Unfortunately, the latter is more common than the former. What Coppersmith needs is big draw coupled with lots of Coppers. In practice, you can’t get that much reliable draw with many Coppers in your deck. Aside from edge cases like Tactician/Coppersmith/Warehouse, most of the time, Coppersmith either lacks the handsize for its Coppers, or lacks the Coppers for its handsize. And so it’s situational, but its situation happens to be inherently contradictory.
Add to the fact that it’s terminal, and you find yourself with a big liability if it doesn’t work out. Sure, on Turns 3 and 4 you might get away with a +$3, but as the game goes on you never match the same level of Copper density, and Coppersmith becomes “Spend an Action for +$1”.
Talisman is a fine card in theory, but stumbles simply because it can’t keep up tempo-wise in modern Dominion. There’s a limit to how many $4’s you want or need before you move onto the $5’s and $6’s. Losing a buy cycle to get a Copper that helps you with getting more $4’s means you need some kind of special game plan built around a deck of non-Victory cards that cost $4’s or lower. Good luck with that.
It does combo with Quarry and other cost-reducers, but then only works when you have enough +Buy to make up for the lost tempo. Even Workshop, its close cousin, is better because at the cost of an Action, Workshop allows you more flexibility in what you buy. The dilemma of drawing $5 with your Talisman is one that Talisman has never been able to solve satisfactorily. It takes too long to set it up for cards that you usually only want in the early game anyway.
Like Menagerie, Scout is one of those cards that is best when played with the set it was released with. Unlike Menagerie, Scout has significantly worse otherwise. In Kingdoms full of mixed Victory cards (like Nobles, Harem, and Great Hall), Scout serves a nice useful role by reliably and consistently drawing multiple useful cards at once, like a mini-Scrying Pool. But this isn’t true of most Kingdoms, where Scout is crippled by the fact that it doesn’t always draw a card to replace itself, and that it won’t be drawing anything that helpful.
Its deck-reordering is even worse. Scout/Wishing Well/Wishing Well is one of those combos that seems like it would work well the first time you try it, before you realize that you’ve spent way too much time setting up what is essentially a single Menagerie.
Perhaps the real reason Scout suffers is that right when cards like Scrying Pool shine (the engine buildup phase) is when you have the lowest proportion of green cards in your deck. Scout is never part of an engine, only as part of cleanup.
By popular demand, Thief is in its rightful spot at #1. How bad is Thief? It is the only card to have been directly upgraded in a later expansion by another card at the same cost. And while the jury’s still out on whether Noble Brigand is actually effective (preliminary thoughts are no), you’d really have to be grasping at straws to justify purchasing a Thief but not a Noble Brigand.
Not that this is bad for the game. You needed some kind of Thief in the base game, and Noble Brigand did not belong in base Dominion. And it’s probably better to address balance issues than to just ignore the problem and hope it all goes away.
But still. Thief is at best a situational card in multiplayer games, and a severe liability in just about every 2-player game. Originally considered or intended as a counter to Chapel, it’s simply too slow to catch up with thin decks. Stealing Treasures is too much of a delayed benefit for your own deck, so in practice Thief’s main benefit is killing your opponents’ buying power by wiping out their Treasure. But this is only really effective if you have an abundance of Actions and Throne Room/King’s Court, and these are exactly the kind of Kingdoms where you probably don’t want Treasure in your deck anyway.