A ship by the side of the sea
reduces hand sizes to three.
And when played every turn
will quite often earn
a rage-quit without a “gg”.
The strongest aspect of the Ghost Ship attack may be its psychological component. It’s difficult to appreciate just how nasty a Ghost Ship game can be until you’ve experienced what it’s like to live under a never-ending barrage of Ghost Ships. Like Torturer, Ghost Ship is well-suited to ragequits; but while Torturer eventually runs out of Curses to threaten you with, Ghost Ship is a merciless and unrelenting foe. There are plenty of stronger attacks, but not even Cursers slow a game down like a fleet of Ghost Ships.
Understanding the Attack
When you first look at the Ghost Ship attack, you probably think it looks a lot like the attack of Militia. But then when you think about it or play with it a little more, you see some difference:
- It seems weaker because your opponent can use the attack to organize their cards to give them one really good turn.
- It seems stronger because you can’t just discard weak cards and forget about it, since getting rid of them means you have to see them next turn. It also slows progress through the deck so it takes longer to shuffle in your new better cards.
So which is it? Is it weaker or stronger?
Well, if you have only one Ghost Ship, it’s probably a bit of a wash. Situationally, one of these effects may appear more prominent. But the real strength of Ghost Ship comes from getting consecutive plays of the attack.
As a thought experiment, consider what happens when you get attacked. With Miltia, your average 5-card turn is reduced into a “good” 3-card turn (a turn consisting of the 3 best of 5 cards). With Ghost Ship, you have to think about next turn as well, so you either reduce 2 average 5-card turns into a good 3 and a bad 5 or a bad 3 and a good 5. Well, usually you’ll want the latter, as a bad 3 and a good 5 can actually at times be even better than 2 average 5s due to general convexity of card values (a Gold is better than two Silvers).
But now imagine you opted to take a bad 3 and a good 5, and now, right before your good 5, you get attacked again. Now you’re looking at turning a good 5/average 5 into an average 3/good 5 or good 3/bad 5, both of which are now a major downgrade, even without considering the decreased cycle speed. This is where the real power of the attack shows.
This is the key to Ghost Ship, and the reason why its impact is much greater than it seems. A single Ghost Ship is not a huge deal; the point of the attack only becomes apparent if you are able to play many in a row. You choke your opponent’s deck, making it impossible for them to progress through it and reach their newly-bought cards.
Of course, in reality, you’re not just playing against BM, and so there are some counters to the attack (which we’ll get to later), but the point is the same: Ghost Ship is an attack that has a hidden self-synergy, because its one weakness (allowing the construction of one above-average turn) does not surface until you stop attacking with it.
How to use Ghost Ship
Now that you we understand that the strength of the attack comes from consecutive plays, the strategy question becomes how to set up a deck that can play multiple consecutive Ghost Ships — preferably one every turn. There are a few ways this can be accomplished:
- Get a lot of Ghost Ships
- Build an action-chain that allows you to play one of your 1-2 Ghost Ships every turn.
- (In multiplayer) Build off the Ghost Ships of other players.
The simplest answer is (1). If you just buy as many Ghost Ships as possible and as few other actions as possible, you have a pretty good Ghost Ship Big Money deck. The general plan with Ghost Ship BM is to try to get a bunch of Ghost Ships ASAP. You want to take an early Gold to help buy them, but a second Ghost Ship should probably take priority over a second Gold since the second Ghost Ship is where the real magic starts to happen. You may also want to get a third Ghost Ship before second or third Gold, but it’s hard to say. (The simulator can’t really answer this because it does not play against Ghost Ship properly.) Once you have have your Ghost Ships up, just buy Provinces, Gold, Ghost Ships, Silver, and eventually Duchies. You don’t really need to worry about over-buying Ghost Ships, because usually it’s better to have too many rather than too few. This is because a collision is just a waste of one card, but having a turn where you can’t play Ghost Ship gives your opponent an extra “good” turn, or at least 2 extra cards.
For openings, you can go with early-game Estate-trashers that you only want to play 1-2 times like Chapel, Remake, Steward, or Island, but not cards that get their value from being played in the mid-game like Monument or Militia, as ideally you want to quickly get to the point where you just play Ghost Ship every turn. Fishing Village can be a help, since it alleviates collisions while still providing money, but Walled Village or any of the other villages are probably not worth the loss in economy vs Silver since you’re not really trying to chain actions. Ghost Ship’s +2 Cards isn’t enough to fuel a real +Cards/+Actions chain.
That leads us to (2). If you want to play Ghost Ship in an action chain, you need a better source of draw, like Smithy, Council Room, or a Lab-type. Council Room has a nice interaction because the extra card given to your opponent by Council Room gets put back by Ghost Ship. If you’re going to compete with Ghost Ship BM, you probably also need some source of +Buy, since you’re bound to start buying Provinces later than the BM player. Generally, you want to play the action chain as you otherwise would, using the Ghost Ships, which are preferably acquired early, as extra terminals. While the draw isn’t enough to fuel the chain, it can be enough to offset the fact that you have to buy more villages instead of draw cards.
Another consideration is Scheme. If you have a Scheme, you don’t have to draw a huge portion of your deck to keep your Ghost Ships coming every turn. Similar tricks can also be pulled with other cards that can save away an extra Ghost Ship like Haven, Courtyard, or Mandarin.
Option (3) is not really something you can control. The only thing to really take from it is that Ghost Ship gets strong more quickly as the number of players increases. If multiple other players are already committed to Ghost Ships, keeping everyone at 3 cards, then there is no need to also go Ghost Ship. You can instead focus on …
Playing against Ghost Ship
The easy case: if your opponent is not playing Ghost Ship next turn, and you have no ability to draw back the top of your deck, then you should probably save your good cards for next turn unless you have some good purchase possible this turn.
If you’re under perpetual Ghost Ships, the decision is a bit tougher and depends on what you’re going to be able to buy. Ideally, however, by this point in the game, you will typically have some way of drawing back the cards you put back. If you are actually forced to play primarily 3-card hands with no drawing, you basically have no hope. So even if you have no real hard counter to Ghost Ship, you at least need some source of +Cards (Ghost Ships of your own if nothing else). If you’re under perpetual Ghost Ships, you will also find that you play smaller hands than usual, and move through the deck slower, so you can afford to have a slightly higher density of terminal actions than you might have had otherwise. But don’t overdo it, because you do want to be able to reach the point where you regularly draw back the cards you returned from the attack.
There are some “hard” counters to the attack, including reactions which defend hand-size attacks (Moat, Horse Traders), cards that “draw up to X” (Jack of All Trades, Watchtower, Library, Minion), and the generic defense of Lighthouse. But there are also other “soft” counters that don’t directly ignore the effect of the attack, but take advantage of the fact that you return cards to the top of your deck. With Menagerie or Shanty Town, it’s easy to set up your hand so that you can draw the two cards back. They’re not “hard” counters because you just draw the cards back and miss out on further benefit from the cards. If you would have drawn 3 from Menagerie or 2 from Shanty Town anyway, the attack still hurts.
Cards that deal with the top of your deck (Secret Chamber, Spy, Scrying Pool, Jack, Oracle, Apothecary, Cartographer, Wishing Well, Venture, Loan, Farming Village, Golem, Native Village, etc.) can also take advantage of being able to know/arrange the cards on top of your deck. (Note that Jack is both on this list and the list of “draw up to X” cards. It counters Ghost Ship pretty hard.) Minion is another case: you can put your good stuff onto the deck, and then save a Minion to discard your hand and draw the good stuff.
Another option is to go for “combo” cards like Tournament and Treasure Map. Tournament missed the Province? Just put it back and save it for later. And even even any card that just draws a lot of cards like Wharf or Tactician can help simply because the effect of returning 2 cards is less meaningful when you draw an extra 4-5.
Cards that benefit from long games are also better than usual in Ghost Ship games. The best example is Monument. In a multiplayer game, where the other players are busy keeping everyone under Ghost Ship, you will do much better going for Monuments and just slowly racking up VP chips over the course of the game. You can even afford more Monuments than usual, because if they collide you’ll probably put one back on your deck anyway.
Wharf Big Money should beat Ghost Ship Big Money, since the extra draw completely offsets the Ghost Ship attack, allowing both players to essentially play off of 6 cards every turn. However, Wharf has the added benefit of the +Buy and higher variance in hand-size (3-8 instead of 5-6). Oracle Big Money may also counter Ghost Ship Big Money. Even though the Oracle player will be playing with 4-card hands vs 6-card hands of the Ghost Ship player, the 4-card hands will be filtered into strong 4 card hands, while the 6-card hands will be filtered into weak ones.
As mentioned before, Jack of All Trades is the sickest counter, and Ghost Ship BM with a Jack opening loses to plain old Jack+Money. Venture is a nice card to add in to your Ghost Ship play once you have 3-4 Ghost Ships, since it semi-counters the attack and is a treasure. You should open Loan pretty often on Ghost Ship boards, since it helps counter the attack by skipping Estates while at the same time trimming away Coppers. This leads well into engines, and is still useful in the Ghost Ship BM scenario. Many of the other counters can be quite nice, but need to appropriately be incorporated into an engine. It’s generally not worth adding in something like a Moat purely for the reaction.
- Single-use Estate-trashers
- Fishing Village
- Council Room
- Jack of All Trades
- Menagerie / Shanty Town
- Horse Traders
- deck-top inspection