Combo of the Day #29: Philosopher’s Stone/Herbalist

The following is a guest post by Geronimoo, one of the top-ranked players on the Isotropic leaderboard, and author of the first Dominion simulator.

What happens when you combine one of the worst Potion cards with one of the worst $2 cards? Most of the time not so much, but if you find yourself in a slow and ugly game with lots of junk flying your deck’s way, this little combo could be a life saver.

Slow games happen when there are no engines to be built and there’s an attack card in the Kingdom like Mountebank or Militia. The Curses will clog up your hand, reducing your ability to buy Golds and later Provinces and the discard attack will have a similar effect.

Philosopher’s Stone alone will not help much in this case because there’s the opportunity cost of buying a Potion (which could have been a Silver or another Militia) and you might not draw the Potion/Philosopher’s Stone often enough to make up for it because of the bloated deck size. On top of that, the Potion will hurt your buying power just as much in the greening stage as a Curse would. This is where Herbalist comes in. In the early game it will put the Potion back on your deck so you can buy multiple Phil Stones in a single deck cycle and it will put the Stones back on your deck in the greening stage when they will be massive (+$5 or more).

In other words, Philosopher’s Stone is usually only for really big decks, and in those decks, Philosopher’s Stones are hard to buy (because of the Potion), hard to find, and hard to play often. Herbalist addresses all three of those issues, and then some, by adding a +Buy to both fatten your deck and also get value out of multiple Philosopher’s Stones in one hand.

So we’ve established where you might want to try this combo. It’s somewhat easy to spot because the two cards are paired together in Alchemy for a reason. The real point of the article is how to play this strategy, because optimal use of this combo is quite counter-intuitive. Let’s break it down:

Use Herbalist to put back Potion early, and Stones later

When you play the Herbalist in the early game, you can put the Potion back on top to buy another Philosopher’s Stone next turn. If you tracked your deck and know the Potion won’t allow you to buy a Stone next turn, don’t put the Potion back. In the late game the Herbalist will put the Stone back on top.

Buy only one Potion and buy it on the first turn

If you want to give this combo a go, you’ll need to buy those Phil Stones early and often. They won’t be worth much in the early game, but getting them later means you’ll get less of them. And yes, you only need 1 Potion! Most people will get a second if they hit an early $4, but this is a big mistake. The extra Potion will hurt you a lot in the greening stage and a Herbalist putting the Potion back on top will work just as well.

Buy all the Herbalists you can get

Another trap players fall into is buying a few Silvers or Golds or other stuff because Herbalist is awful and “I’ll get them when I hit $2”. WRONG!!! The turns you’re not buying Philosopher’s Stones should be spent buying Herbalists, more Herbalists and then some. It’s invaluable in the greening stage to put back the Stone each turn and the +buy  will bloat your deck to make those Stones truly massive.

Buy Coppers with extra buys

The Herbalist will always give you an extra buy so if you can’t buy an extra Herbalist, buy a Copper! Yes, they will bloat your deck, yes that’s exactly what you want.

Start greening very early

Another quirk of this strategy is that greening early doesn’t really hurt it. Most decks will grind to a halt when they start buying Duchies too early and never reach $8 again. This deck doesn’t mind a few Duchies or Estates clogging up a hand, as long as it contains a Herbalist and a Philosopher’s Stone which will provide all the buying power you need. I’d suggest buying Duchies as soon as one of the Provinces is gone and Estates when half are gone (and you have most of the Herbalists already)

So how good is this strategy really? According to simulations it should beat most attacking strategies in a 2-player game by a small margin (Ill-Gotten Gains rush, Sea Hag, Militia, Mountebank, but not Witch). But it’s the multi-player games where this strategy really shines. Anytime your opponents are choosing an attacking strategy slowing everybody down you’re going to crush them because you have the added advantage over 2-player games that the attacker is being attacked himself.

Here‘s a textbook example where I use this combo to its full effect to beat a Sea Hag player.

And here’s a video of WanderingWinder who despite some early game terrible luck pulls it out in the end.

Just don’t try this in a Fishing Village/Wharf game…

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35 Responses to Combo of the Day #29: Philosopher’s Stone/Herbalist

  1. GigaKnight says:

    Geronimoo, any reason you didn’t throw in some Ironworks in that sample game? At first glance, it seems like maybe it would have accelerated the PhilStone worth without negatively impacting your deck.

    • Geronimoo says:

      I don’t think there’s ever a right time to pick up the Ironworks. If you buy it first turn it means you won’t be buying Phil Stones for a long time, if you buy the Ironworks later, you won’t be able to play it often enough because of the bloated deck. I’d suggest you keep this as simple as possible and concentrate on Herbalists.

  2. Saucery says:

    these two with gardens i enjoy much

    • meshuggah42 says:

      I was wondering how this combo performs in a Gardens game against Ironworks/Workshop or other fast pile-emptying strategy. Any insight on this?

  3. Varsinor says:

    I am very sceptical if buying a Herbalist with an early $6 (and a single buy) as you suggest is really the best idea. After all, if you buy one every time for $2-5 (including $5+Potion with two buys) and two with $4-7 and two buys you will amass quite a few quickly (and there is always the risk that more will collide). So I think that buying Gold for $6 with one buy is superior (until you want to start buying Duchies, which is probably early as you say). Or did your simulations show otherwise regarding the early Gold?

    • Geronimoo says:

      I was also surprised by this result, but buying Gold over Herbalist has no significant effect on the win rate. Yes, an early Gold when the player has one buy will increase the win rate by 1-2%, but I felt it more important that people buy as many Herbalists as possible instead of focusing on other things which “might” help their deck.
      On the topic of collision, yes the Herbalists will collide often, but that’s more than offset by their power in the greening stage where too few Herbalists is disastrous.

  4. Varsinor says:

    You wrote: “According to simulations it should beat most attacking strategies in a 2-player game by a small margin (Ill-Gotten Gains rush, Sea Hag, Militia, Mountebank, but not Witch).”

    Have you tried simulating to adjust your strategy by buying one of the cursing attacks yourself? Or as many Ill-Gotten-Gains as you can as an addition to the Stone+Herbalist strategy? My guess would be that both increase the percantage of wins against the strategies without Stone+Herbalist.

    • Geronimoo says:

      That’s a whole new discussion and out of scope for these kind of articles. The point is mainly to indicate the power of the combo in these situations.
      I did a few simulations and the win rates fluctuate depending on which cards you add to the deck. IGG and Sea Hag will improve it, but Militia and Witch will make it worse.

    • WheresMyElephant says:

      IGG might synergize nicely, and Familiar could conceivably be playable, but I’d guess that most other attacks have serious problems colliding with the Herbalist. Remember that if you top-deck your Potion (or Philosopher’s Stone) this turn it might mean you can top-deck it again next turn; perhaps even the turn after that. But if you forego the Herbalist (or if you simply don’t have an Herbalist in hand because you bought the Attack instead), you probably won’t see that Potion for several turns, especially in such a slow deck. The difference is pretty huge for you: likely even worse than getting a Curse. So you might be attacking him, but you’re attacking yourself too.

    • Anonymous says:

      I just did one of these with Scheme, IGG and bank in a colony game. Played it straight, with the exception that I bought banks on 7s and IGG on 5s. I ALWAYS took a copper on the IGG, and always returned herbalist. I gobbled like 5 phil stones in the first 8 turns or so, thanks to lucky draw.

      Absolutely obliterated the opponent. Between all the curses flying his way and the DRAMATICALLY accelerating stone (thanks to IGG and +buy) we split colonies 7/1. He was quite upset.

      I’m tempted to believe that the combination of kingdom cards was somewhat perfect for this strategy. The scheme acted as virtual herbalists, without the collisions!, the IGG acted as an attack and a bloater. But maybe it’s that colony games do well with this strategy because they last longer anyway.

      Either way, it was fun to win with cards that are usually ignored.

  5. Davio says:

    I applaud you for finding a combo that uses one (maybe two) of the least bought and understood cards. I love how we can keep reinventing Dominion this way.

    • blueblimp says:

      I love this combo but it has been known for ages, and almost certainly was planned when designing Alchemy (since it’s a 2-card combo inside a single small expansion). The value of this article is discussing how to best play the combo.

  6. Yuma says:

    Just tried this strat against by brother who used a Double Ambassador engine and smoked him. Gaining all of the cards he ambassadored to me made the PStones much stronger much faster. The game wasn’t too long, only 20 turns.

  7. dondon151 says:

    Yes, this combo performs extremely well against Ambassador, although I’m not sure if it holds up well when there’s potential for a good engine.

  8. dondon151 says:

    By the way, Geronimoo, I was playing around with this combo earlier, and I was wondering at what point you should forgo extra Philosopher’s Stones for Duchies when you have $5P or forgo Philosopher’s Stone + Duchy for Province when you have $8P and 2 buys.

    • Geronimoo says:

      I haven’t done extensive testing, but if the game is far from over and you’re near a reshuffle it’s probably best to get another Stone rather than go all green.

  9. olneyce says:

    Just played a game this morning where this showed up. Would never have thought about it otherwise. It wasn’t even particularly well suited to the board (Vault makes for reasonably quick BM games), but I had to give it a go just to test it out.

    It almost certainly wasn’t the optimal strategy for that game, but it was definitely fun to play.

    • Geronimoo says:

      Yeah, it’s fun, but I wouldn’t try this against a Big Money expert player like WW 🙂
      You could have prolonged the game buying Duchies instead of Provinces. Pretty soon you should be double-Duking while the other guy tries to empty the Provinces. The combo might even be the dominant strategy on this board if you go for Duchy/Duke.

  10. joel88s says:

    Great article and really fun strategy. I infer from it though that you must be on (or from) the other side of the pond, as no American would write ‘a Herbalist’. 😀

    • Geronimoo says:

      I speak Dutch and I didn’t even know the English and American version was different. Do the Americans not pronounce the “h” here?

      • joel88s says:

        Indeed we do not. (Thus the councilroom logs read ‘Geronimoo plays an Herbalist’.)

        Like so many Dutchmen your English is so uncannily good would never guess you weren’t a native speaker. But I guess that’s a difference you’d probably have to watch American cooking shows to notice. (Or play Alchemy FTF with Yanks of course.)

        • WanderingWinder says:

          Uh, I’m American and interchangeably will either pronounce the ‘h’ here… or not. Furthermore, there’s some weirdness going on with the ‘an’ usage – AP style book must have it down to say ‘an historical’ – they say that all the time on the news. But it drives my bonkers when they do.

          • Anonymous says:

            I think that if you pronounce the h in herbalist you are quite an unusual American. The same is true if you don’t pronounce the h in historical. I believe the ‘an historical’ bit to relic of the past. It just sounds awful if you pronounce the h, and most instances of the phrase on the web use “a historic(al)”.

          • Richard says:

            Clearly you should be using the Chicago Manual of Style, which explicitly states that proper usage is “a historical.” Or at least in the 16th Edition.


      • Anonymous says:

        And it depends which bit of Britain you’re talking about for whether we pronounce the ‘h’.

        It’s definitely a regional accent if you don’t though.

  11. ianthecool says:

    Wow, a whole blog on Dominion!
    I finally started to play Dominion. So far, no expansions, though I have bought intrigue. Yet I’ve heard that Alchemy isn’t really worth it, and the fact that it comes in a different box than the others makes me less likely to buy it,
    But anyways, I’m glad I found your blog, even with WordPress’ awful Search function.

    • Anonymous says:

      Alchemy is fun for me. Try playing on Isotropic with the bias set to alchemy for a while and see what you think of Potions before you buy it if you aren’t convinced though. That’s what convinced me on Prosperity and Cornocopia.

      Seriously, Isotropic is the single best bit of advertising for a meatland game I have *ever* seen!

    • Chris says:

      It comes in the same size box as Cornucopia and allegedly the upcoming Guilds.

  12. Anonymous says:

    What about a fools gold king court combo

  13. Wolphmaniac says:

    Textbook example right here, including opponent Militia as explained in the article. (The Militia actually helps me since it just adds 2 cards to the discard pile, possibly raising the value of P-stone.)

  14. PK9 says:

    Did this before finding this article. I actually did two things against your suggestions- didn’t buy first turn Potion (Remodel instead) and ended up with two Potions. But they still ended up working beautifully. No action-adders in this game, the only draw card was the Ghost Ship, which I didn’t buy at all. My opponent bought 2, which actually helps the PS if it’s in my hand. Also Duchesses helped bloat my deck. By the end of the game, I had $9 PS’s. It probably would have been slightly better if I had more Herbalists – I had a couple turns where I hit multiple PS but no +Buy to use the $20+ I raked in.

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