Alchemy: Transmute

This is a revised version of a guest article by chwhite, originally posted in the forum.


Dominion: Alchemy

Is there any card more unloved than Mr. Transmute, with his sad eyes and mountain man beard, futilely trying to turn lead (Estates) into gold?  For most people, Transmute is a card whose main ability is showing up dead last in any ranking it’s a part of:

  • It was the worst potion card in theory’s front-page ranking.
  • It won a plurality of votes in this forum topic asking for the “worst card in Dominion”, garnering almost twice as many nods as the next most-hated cards, Duchess and Thief.
  • In Qvist’s card rankings, Transmute was not only dead last, but by a nearly unanimous vote. Only one person dared to dissent.
  • And of course, Council Room stats bear out this general theme.  Only two cards- Thief and Counting House- have a worse “Win Rate With”, and Transmute is near the bottom of most other metrics as well.

So, what gives?  Why is Transmute thought of so poorly?  Does it deserve all the scorn it gets?  And when can it be useful?  The fact of the matter is that Transmute is indeed a weak card, since it is so awkward and slow to buy and use.  Most of the time, it’s best avoided.  However, there are in fact a number of situations where it can be useful: it may not be good, but it’s better than you think.

Why do you usually not want Transmute?

Described by Donald X. as an “exotic Remodel” in the Alchemy Secret History, Transmute is a trash-for-benefit card that (like most TFB cards) works on only one card at a time.  The main thematic conceit of Transmute is that it changes the nature of the card from one type to another: Victory cards become Treasure (always Gold, which is thematically fitting and also the best Treasure always in the game); Treasure becomes Actions (always Transmute, since it’s the only Action always in the game with Transmute), and Actions becomes Victory (Duchy, which again is always out).  It’s a cycle!

Like its closest relatives Remodel, Expand, and Develop, the benefit is “more/better cards”.  It does not give cash and/or +Buy (Trade Route, Salvager, Moneylender, Spice Merchant), nor +Card (Apprentice, Spice Merchant), nor is it VP chips and cash (Bishop).  All other things being equal, this is the weakest category of trasher there is.  If you are trashing early, to thin your deck for an engine, then you really want a card which can get rid of multiple Coppers and Estates at a time, like Chapel/Remake/Steward.  Failing that, you’d prefer for the card to give you cash to make good purchases now, as Moneylender/Salvager does, or at least be non-terminal like Upgrade and Apprentice.

So, cards in the Remodel family are generally not for early-game use, but are better in the mid-to-late game, where they can turn mediocre cards into great ones (say Developing a Sea Hag into Cartographer/Silver after the Curses are gone), or Gold into Province, or burn through the Colony stack to prematurely the end the game with a lead. But, if you take a closer look at Transmute, you’ll see that it doesn’t have the same flexibility as Remodel and Expand, and seems to want to be used more in the early game.  You can’t just get anything, you have to take what the ‘Mute gives you, and if you don’t want those things, then you don’t want the ‘Mute.

The most immediately appealing use, of course, it to turn your starting Estates into Gold, making the most useless card in most decks into the most useful; it’s also an improvement of $4 worth of value, better than any other trash-for-benefit Action.  This needs to be done early, though, because otherwise you could just buy Gold.  If you could pick up Transmute on Turn 1, then you’d have a good chance of turning Estate into Gold on Turns 3/4.  That hypothetical card would be a strong but swingy opening in the vein of Baron, which also relies on Estate collision to work.

But you can’t pick it up on Turn 1, because Transmute has that most awkward cost: Potion.  You need to open Potion, and then you need to throw away all the rest of the money that came with your Potion on Turns 3/4 to get the Transmute.  And by then, your deck has diluted to the point that you’re very likely to draw Transmute with four coppers and wish you had just bought Silver and Gold instead, like your opponent who is pulling down $5s and $6s.  Pursuing Transmute early as a source of deck-thinning and Gold gain is, like opening Treasure Maps without strong support, almost guaranteed to fail.  The simulators have shown, in fact, that there is no way to add Transmute to an optimized BM strategy and gain advantage.

The other options are even less appealing.  Turning Treasure into more Transmutes is obviously horrible on most boards: your terminal density will skyrocket, you’d have better luck just buying stuff with Copper!  Turning Actions into Duchies is a better proposition, and actually slots well into late-game use, but even that has its problems.  Duchy is fine and all, but it’s no Province, and if you have the Actions to burn, chances are you’d prefer to build up to Province or Colony anyway- in general it’s money decks that want the Duchies more.  In addition, you’re still left with the problem that Transmute’s potion cost is really awkward unless you have other desirable Potion cards and/or +Buy: even if you do have an Action chain that needs to grab a bunch of Duchies late, when are you going to go out of your way to get the Transmute?  And using Transmute to power a Duke strategy is not usually going to be the best plan: an opponent who has a deck full of Silvers will steal the Duchies underneath you, and have the money left to buy Duke afterwards.

So, to review:  You don’t really ever want Transmute when there’s faster trashing (which is most everything that’s not Remodel, Expand, Trade Route, and Develop). You don’t want it when there’s a fast Big Money strategy that doesn’t need trashing.  You don’t want it if there’s a slow Big Money strategy- you’d rather buy no Kingdom card than Transmutes.  You don’t even want it with Dukes most of the time.  When would you ever want one?

When do you want Transmute?

Well… the first line of Transmute is “Trash a card from your hand.”  Not every card is an Action, a Victory, or a Treasure.  The above analysis has so far failed to mention the fourth type of card: Curse.  Curses are bad.  Real bad.  They slow you down, kill your buying power, and your score.  You want them out of your deck come hell or high water (well, maybe you can handle them if you have something like Vault, or a zillion Golds, but generally this is true.)  They are worse than Estate- and they are so bad that the vast majority of trash-for-benefit cards give you no benefit for them, since getting rid of that Curse is benefit enough.  Apprentice gives you zero cards.  Salvager gives you zero dollars.  Bishop may as well be trashing the empty air.  Remodel… very often will force you take an Estate or Copper.

In this company, Transmute does just as well as the rest of ’em.

If you have lots of Curses being flown about, than Transmute will have more targets: not only will it turn Estate to Gold, but if it’s the only way to turn Curse into nothing, that’s worth it too.  And with Curses around, the game will slow down: you’re more likely to have $P or $1P hands where you can’t buy anything else, and you’ll also have enough turns such that the slow Estate-to-Gold action is actually worth it.  Now if only there was another Potion card that gave out Curses, such that by opening Potion you are gaining access to not only a way to give out Curses, but a way to fix up your own deck too.

Yep.  Familiar.  Familiar is by far Transmute’s best friend.  What’s even better is that, since Familiar is non-terminal, you don’t need to worry about collisions.  And once the Curses run out, Familiar -> Duchy ain’t so bad either.  I would go so far as to say that whenever you want to buy Familiar, you also want to buy Transmute, since the main contraindication for Transmute that is still relevant in Curse games – strong, multi-card trashing – is also a contraindication for Familiar, which is often too slow against the likes of Chapel anyway.

Of course, what makes Familiar such a good partner to Transmute is that it provides the two strongest triggers for a useful Transmute – Curses and other Potion cards which you also want – in one package.  There are a handful of such triggers, which either minimize the ‘Mute’s weaknesses, or make its less-useful features more useful.  On sufficiently weak boards it might be worth it to go Transmute with only one of those triggers, but normally Transmute needs two or more to really shine.  Here they are, with some sample games to show how the Transmute can add value to a surprisingly wide variety of decks:

Trigger 1: Other Potion Cards (Trigger 1a: Familiar)

The big thing about having other Potion-cost cards in the setup is that it drastically reduces the opportunity cost for Transmute, since you want that Potion anyway.  If you’re building an engine with +Buy, so much the better, since than you can pick up Transmute with your other cash as well, and +Actions are also useful, to ensure that the ‘Mute can actually be played.

Here is a good example of Transmute fitting into an Alchemy-heavy deck: not just Familiars, but Golem, Apothecary, Alchemist, and Vineyard are all on tap here- and Herbalist for +Buy!  Add in Tournament and Fairgrounds, and you have a long, messy, high-scoring game where Transmute is used to good effect on all four types of cards (Action, Treasure, Victory, Curse).

Trigger 1b: Vineyard

After Familiar, Vineyard is the second-best Potion card to pair with Transmute.  The reason for this is that Vineyard decks actually want you to go Copper -> Transmute, because then you’re increasing your Action count and pumping your Vineyards; therefore, Transmute will basically always have a useful target.  Get one early, and they will be fruitful and multiply.

This match against JimmerFan features both Alchemist and Vineyard, and Pawn for +Buy.  The Transmutes are happy to hit Estate early and Copper late, and thus facilitate both Provinces and Vineyards.  With Alchemist and Vineyard, the second potion becomes a good idea, further lowering the opportunity cost of buying the ‘Mute.

In this one, ehunt shows how Vineyard-Transmute can even best a strong double-Tac Conspirator deck- his six Vineyards are worth 7 VP each at the end.

Trigger 2: Curse-givers

Familiar isn’t the only Curse-giver which slows the game down enough to make Transmute worth it.  Sometimes it can be worth it to get the Potion, to get the Transmute, primarily to clear Curses (but Gold and Duchy is also welcome), on slowish boards.  If there are top-notch BM sifters and +Card effects like Embassy, you don’t necessarily want to bother.

Here’s one against WanderingWinder with IGG and Hag, where frankly I erred in not buying the Transmute earlier.  This one also had Golem as another reason to buy Potion, and it clears me of all my Estates and Curses.  Playing Transmute on Coppers also marginally increases the chance of Menagerie hitting, making it less obviously bad than usual.

Other cards which dramatically slow down the game can sometimes substitute for Curse as a trigger: in situations such as this 3p Ambassador game, everything is slow and junky enough that Transmuting Estates into Gold, believe it or not, was the fastest way to actually get spending power.

Trigger 3: Copper-specific trashing

Once in a rare while, Transmute can actually be half of a dedicated early-game deck-tuning strategy, turning Estates into Gold while another card takes care of the Coppers.  This strategy is probably too slow against a strong BM + X that can handle the Estates and Coppers, and is smoked by real top-level trashers.  But if, for instance, Colonies are out, the slow start can actually be worth it.  Then, in the late-game, the ‘Mute can sneak out a Duchy or two, which is more than you can say for Chapel in most endgames.

This one required opportunistic shuffling, but when you can take the first-turn Mint AND still buy Potion on Turn 3, you are going to have a deck stuffed to the brim with Gold very quickly.  A better example is this Potion/Loan opening, which might have been slow for Provinces but was absolutely worth it in the presence of Colony.

Trigger 4: Alternate VPs, especially Duke

In addition to Vineyard and Colony, a couple other alternate VP cards can be a reason to consider Transmute.  One possibility which is generally more interesting in theory than practice is dual-type cards: Action-Victory cards give you a Gold and a Duchy, while Treasure-Victory cards give you Gold and Transmute.  That “bargain” is basically never worth it for Harem and hardly any better for Nobles, so we can set them aside; but Gold and Duchy for a Great Hall is a better deal, and might be something to be aware of, if you have other reasons to pick up those cards in the first place.

Duke, on the other hand, can sometimes be facilitated by Transmuting Actions into Duchy if the conditions are right.  In this game the presence of Curse and an Inn-fueled engine is a boost to this approach, while in this game, Stef builds a massive Action-happy Scrying Pool-Transmute engine which gets the money necessary to buy multiple Dukes on the last couple of turns from… Transmuted Gold.

Generally, if at least (preferably more than) one of these triggers are out, and none of the strong contraindications for Transmute are out (basically, superior trashing or a faster-than-usual BM strategy), it’s a card worth considering.  Transmute is tricky to play, it’s among the most slow and situational cards in the Dominion universe.  But good situations do exist, so cheer up mountain man!

Works with:

  • Familiar, Familiar, Familiar
  • Other game-slowing curse-givers
  • Alchemy-heavy setups, especially those with +Action and +Buy
  • Copper-specific trashing
  • Vineyard
  • Great Hall, Duke, Colony (sometimes)

Doesn’t work with:

  • Most normal Province games
  • Uncomplicated BM strategies
  • Alternate VP cards that aren’t Vineyard or Duke
  • Superior trashing
  • Fast games in general
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26 Responses to Alchemy: Transmute

  1. Anonymous says:

    I believe–and am proud to be–the lone dissenter in Qvist’s rankings. Wonderful article.

    • WanderingWinder says:

      chwhite, don’t brag about yourself!😉
      I only say this because I seem to recall chwhite saying HE believed that HE was the lone dissenter.

      • chwhite says:

        I thought I was, but it turns out I wasn’t. I remember going back and forth between Transmute and PStone as the worst Potion card, and apparently settled on ‘Mute but misremembered later on.

        For what it’s worth, I think the two are pretty closely matched. Both are highly situational, and most consistently good in Familiar games, for one. I think Transmute is viable on a slightly higher percentage of boards, but the power of the Herbalist/PStone two-card combo (something which Transmute has no equivalent to, probably not even Vineyard) is probably enough to have it edge out the ‘Mute.

  2. You mentioned it briefly, but I’d like to restate and point out that Transmute has worked for me in Ambassador mirror matches. I feel I have the advantage when I open on Potion because Transmute creates a serious economy all by itself. Meanwhile, you can treat the Potion (and sometimes the Transmute) as pseudo-curse fuel for your Ambassadors in the mid or late-game.

    • chwhite says:

      Yeah, Ambassador acts as both a pseudo-Curser (slowing the game down), and as a way to get rid of Coppers, so it’s definitely a card that synergizes with Transmute.

  3. Illy says:

    First paragraph after: “Why do you usually not want Transmute?”
    “and Actions beam Victory” beam->become

  4. The Archon says:

    Good to see an article about a card that has a less-than-obvious utility (i.e., a crappy card). Furthers the proof that all cards in Dominion have a use in the right circumstances.

    • WanderingWinder says:

      Please write an article on scout.
      Okay, that has usefulness too, but… bleh.

      • chwhite says:

        I still can’t believe I’ve bought Scout as often as I have (24% and going down). It’s alright support for Scrying Pool/Vineyard, has marginal utility as card draw in a Harem/Nobles heavy deck, and makes seductive nombos with Great Hall/Wishing Well/Crossroads. Beyond that, it’s a “why the hell not, even though I know it won’t provide any value” gimped Cartographer buy for greening engine decks that have *exactly* $4 to spare.

        That’s pretty much it. If there’s another thread asking for the worst card in Dominion, I bet Scout will win that prize going away. I don’t think I’d actually vote for it, but I can’t really disagree with anyone who does, and it is definitely the worst non-terminal Action by an *incredibly* wide margin.

  5. WheresMyElephant says:

    Fun article! I was just writing elsewhere the other day about how I’d love to find some ways to make Transmute work.

    When it comes to countering Cursers with Transmute, I think it’s worth noting that Transmute requires you to put almost as much junk INTO your deck as it takes out. If the Potion has no further use then it’s only 1VP better than a Curse itself. And the Transmute, if used solely on Curses, is largely a dead card as well. (As with Chapel you are adding a junk card at first in order to get rid of junk cards later, but of course Chapel is much more efficient so you rarely worry about the tradeoff.)

    You will not successfully improve your deck quality until you’ve trashed THREE Curses to make up for these two junk cards. That means you’ll have to go through your deck FIVE TIMES, from the time you first buy a Potion to the time you shuffle together your newly improved deck, before you detect a genuine improvement. Compare this to just one reshuffle for a good sifter like Cartographer; two for a simple efficient trasher like Chapel and three for Island with good luck.

    Now this isn’t entirely fair. Occasionally the Transmute is going to toss you a Gold; and maybe you have a separate use for Potion so that it isn’t junk at all. But to me this viewpoint sheds some light on chwhite’s statement that a Curser alone isn’t reason enough to go with Transmute. Either you need other Potion cards (trigger 1) to make the Potion stronger, or you need something to make Transmute itself stronger (triggers 3 and 4).

    • chwhite says:

      Thinking about this more, and I wish I had put something like this in the article, the non-potion cursers which are most likely to work well with Transmute are definitely Hag and Young Witch. The copper spam of Mountebank and terminal draw of Witch both make the Mute less useful, whereas the extent to which Hag sits on the game is a boon. Young Witch is in the middle.

      One thing I’ve noticed that probably doesn’t rise to the level of a full-on trigger for Transmute, but is a *definite* boost in Curse games, is Menagerie. I’ve had many of my greatest successes using Transmute primarily as a curse-clearer in Menagerie engine games, where it provides diversity by dint of being in the deck, and also sometimes
      clearing duplicates as well. I alluded to this in one of my examples, but it’s happened several other times as well, and is worth keeping in mind.

      And of course, not only is the Transmute going to toss you a Gold or two, but it’ll probably add Duchies to your deck eventually as well, and Duchies are very good things to have in junky Curse games.

  6. rrenaud says:

    Maybe relevant:

    The cards that help transmute the most are other potion cards by far. It mostly serves a consolation prize when you miss the good 3+P cards.

    • chwhite says:

      Off-topic but I have to mention just because it is so hilarious and obvious: of the top 19 cards in delta-Qual for Torturer… 17 of them give extra +Actions if you count King’s Court. Unexpected: University is the one Village not in that group.

      • WanderingWinder says:

        Univ-torturer tends to be a bit slow to set up, at least compared with the others.

        • WheresMyElephant says:

          University also seems like sort of a soft counter to Torturer (and other discard attacks). A single Torturer doesn’t hurt at all when all you want is to buy a University, which requires at most three cards. And even a two-Torturer chain is pretty toothless when your opponent can turn a one-card hand into a $5 turn.

          Of course, eventually you’ll get around to chaining 3 or more Torturers and you’re more or less guaranteed to do some damage. And even if your opponent doesn’t need Gold he’ll eventually need Provinces, which means he’ll have to have a full hand at some point. So it’s not a hard counter but I can see where it’d support some otherwise-weak anti-Torturer plans, especially ideas that rely on $5 cards like Library and Trading Post.

          • chwhite says:

            I think the real lesson of those numbers is that University is a card that does a really good job of losing games on Isotropic in general, even when there’s a $5 out that really likes Villages. It is really slow to set up (buy Potion, to buy University, to gain Torturers, and the fact that University doesn’t give +Card slows you down even further). In expert hands University can do great things, but most of the time it is just such a trap, even for good players.

  7. This is my first time posting here and I’m still fairly new to the game, but can’t any card be powerful in the hand of a skilled player?

  8. nemryn says:

    Transmuting a Duchess into a Duchy and gaining a Duchess back is pretty slick. Maybe not actually good, but it’s a neat interaction.

  9. Fuu says:

    I particularly like these articles about how to best utilise cards perceived as being among the weakest. More of these please!

  10. Anonymous says:

    I found that Transmute worked well with Stables – you don’t want to trash your Copper with Transmute, so feed them (and eventually the Potion) to your horses, and increase your chance of drawing your Estates with Transmute.

  11. Wittyhowlard says:

    I too, just had a quite successful game here with Transmute, where one of the “triggers” (cursers) was present. The presence of border village plus torturer made it a pretty frustrating game, and despite being behind on the torturer/border village race, I managed to win through a combination of native village and transmuting curses (and also two estates into gold!) :

  12. manthos88 says:

    Is it possible to rush a 3-pile ending with transmute???

    I mean by ending the transmutes, the duchies and 1 more convenient pile…

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